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John P. Inloes
Prof. Wald
Music History 65
October 29, 2007
Joe Finkle & The 7/10 Splits

“You’re a little late,” says Joe Finkle, leader of Joe Finkle and the Seven/10 Splits, as the trio enters Cozy’s. The three, dressed in black, pay him little notice as they head toward the bar. “Yeah, at the bar, I’m talking to you.” They glance back. “I’ll let you see what you missed.” With that, he leans into the 1940s style microphone, drives his voice into a screech and lets it out with “Weeeeelllllllll…..” The band goes into a few bars of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” the song they started the show with. It’s the middle of their first set, and they’re just getting warmed up.

It’s a quiet Thursday night in Sherman Oaks. Cozy’s Bar and Grill is tucked away in one of those commercial strips that line Ventura Boulevard. In front is a bus stop, across is a Ralph’s. The audience is slim, but they’re enthused. Next to me is Jennifer, who is the most enthused of all. Cozy’s is really the kind of place that would benefit from a thin haze of cigarette smoke. I’ve been in bars like that before, and long ago provided that smoke. However, we all grow older, and blues bars are no exception. A single waitress, Connie, takes care of scattered people at various tables. Even though the grill is advertised as “always open,” few take advantage of the option.

What is rockabilly? In purely subjective and aesthetic terms, rockabilly is what rock ‘n’ roll would be like if it had attitude. In objective terms, rockabilly is one of the offshoots of blues. “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Joe Finkle’s opener, was a hit for Wynonie Harris in 1948 before Elvis appropriated the song. It topped both the Jukebox Race Records charts and the Best Selling Retail Race Records chart in June of that year. Wynonie Harris had come from Kansas City, where he met Big Joe Turner in a club called the Sunset at Twelfth and Woodlawn. Turner was Harris’ mentor, and the two recorded together for a time in the 1940s.
Five years later, Marion Keisker was working at the Memphis Recording Service, when a truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi walked in the door. That summer 1953 day would change both the history of popular music and rhythm and blues. Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Records in Memphis, had been recording many black artists, including Delta blues artists, but was looking specifically for white hillbilly acts. “I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars…so I taped [him]. I wanted Sam to know.” (Miller 72) When Presley went into Sun Studios the following year, Phillips attempted to have Presley sing gospel. Presley was nervous and kept blowing takes. To relax, he started playing Mississippian Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” Scotty Moore added a blues guitar riff and Phillips struck gold. “Good Rockin’ Tonight” was recorded at Sun a month later. Rockabilly had been born.

Before I came here tonight, I was browsing through the Cozy’s calendar online, partially because it seemed interesting, partially because it was the closest club to me. I thought about going to see Smokin’ Joe Kubek, and even bought his greatest hits album to prepare me. Then I realized that I didn’t want to see someone who performs because it’s his profession, and he’s on tour, and he’s out to sell albums, but because it’s his love, and he wants to be there. So I continued through the calendar, found Joe Finkle’s entry and the link to his website. The site had blurry amateur video that made the Rodney King video look like digital. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but see guys who wanted to perform, and as a former stagehand, I can always spot phonies. These were the real deal.
I decided to e-mail Finkle about the show, and what his influences were. I thought that my instincts were on target, but I really wanted to be sure, and, quite frankly, I was curious. “I guess what hooked me was the whole ‘devil’s music’ thing.” He wrote. “It’s all in our musical blood-but my knowledge of it is not what it should be.” This is the guy, I thought. Finkle’s basically reiterating the credo of the early bluesmen everywhere: they learned by doing, and by being themselves. The Mississippi Delta bluesmen didn’t extensively study the Piedmont bluesmen. They did it their way first, and took from the table as needed. The clincher: “We do some blues – but mostly swing and have a good time.”

The acknowledged pioneer of rockabilly, Carl Perkins, was familiar with the blues songs. Perkins’ “Matchbox,” (the version I first heard was The Beatles’) is a clean lift from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues.” Perkins would recall his youth in Jackson, Tennessee, visiting a black sharecropper named Uncle John Westbrook, and they would sit on the porch, picking the guitar and singing blues. “It was his inspiration that let me know what I wanted to do with my life.” Perkins recalled. (Miller 124) Perkins first heard Elvis on the radio in 1954 while he was playing in honky-tonk joints (James Miller defines honky-tonk as owing “its emotive change to the use of stylistic devices borrowed from jazz and the main currents of the African-American blues tradition (Miller 122)) and knew he could do exactly what Elvis did. So he drove the seventy-five miles to Memphis and eventually got Sam Phillips to give him a job. Ironically, it was Elvis’ success that kept Perkins recording country music, until the fall of 1955. Phillips had just lost Elvis and allowed Perkins to record the new sound. Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” Sun’s first million seller. The blues was being integrated.

This would be my first time at Cozy’s. I pay my cover, and walk to the bar. I have a firm resolve not to drink this evening; I’m driving and I need to get home easily. I order a Coca-Cola, not bothering to question if they have diet. I sit to the side of the stage on a bar stool. I try to remain out of sight while I take notes. I sip my Coke as the band members go back and forth off the stage. The band checks the mikes, discusses among themselves the next set. The drummer’s mike isn’t working, and the sound man can’t figure the channel. All is worked out in minimal time.

The band leads off with an exuberant “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” followed in close succession by “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” In a quick aside, Finkle wonders if he has any songs longer than one minute, fifty-eight seconds. After “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” I note that they’re heavily leaning towards Elvis’ Sun period. Finkle introduces the band. Bernie is on drums, Spazz is on standup bass. Both wear horn-rimmed glasses, and both are veterans of the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Spazz has a pompadour hairdo that impresses me (Finkle tells me later that “Bernie and Spazz make us play better”). Alex plays acoustic guitar, and John plays electric guitar. Finkle sings vocals and plays electric guitar. They lead into a song I don’t recognize, followed by “Mess of Blues.” “Our blues song of the evening,” Finkle comments. The band begins to warm up, very much keeping in rave-up style. “Paralyzed,” and “Hey Elvis” follow shortly. Before “Hey, Elvis,” Finkle mentions Bernie hasn’t played this song since 1996, and needs a little refresher. “We don’t rehearse,” he notes sardonically. To showcase Spazz and his stellar bass playing, they launch into a rendition of “Sixteen Tons/Fever” which makes Jennifer next to me excited. Alex goes into the audience and sits down while playing. “What, I’m supposed to sing to you?” Finkle cracks. John has a small solo, but nothing compared to his later playing.

The band plays “My Baby Left Me.” I order a Miller Lite, and there’s a small break for a second. The bar phone rings loudly; “Cozy’s, can I help you?” Finkle offers helpfully. Since they are stopped, Finkle takes the opportunity to place the band’s drink order with the bar. They play “I Got A Woman,” and Connie brings their drinks. “Rock Therapy,” “Ubangi Stomp,” and the crowd rouser, “18 Miles to Memphis” follow after the alcoholic jolt. Carl Perkins’ “Gone Gone Gone” leads off a straight rockabilly set that includes “C’mon Everybody,” “Wine Spo-Dee-Oh-Dee,” and “Let’s Play House.” Finally, as the first set comes to a close, Finkle indicates that “We’ve got the blues for Cozy’s….this is the quota,” and leads into “Give Me The Right,” with an extended solo for John. Sound problems are quickly fixed. “All Shook Up” and “Real Wild Child” end the set.

After Carl Perkins paved the way, Elvis Presley took a back seat in rockabilly and took himself mainstream. A long string of insipid, yet still relatively entertaining movies would follow. Others picked up the gauntlet, though. Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran would all have major rockabilly hits in the late 1950s. Even Johnny Cash was very rockabilly in song and attitude. The attitude, a sneer pioneered by Elvis, was honed to perfection by his fellow Sun artists Lewis and Cash. Cochran would die in a car crash in 1960 that also involved Vincent. Vincent survived, but never recovered his massive recording career. 1960 was also the year Presley went into the army. The year before, Buddy Holly had died in the Clear Lake, Iowa crash that killed Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson. Rockabilly had died in popularity almost as fast as it came.

The band takes a short break. They mill around, talking with people. Finkle changes into a more relaxed costume and talks with various audience members. The audience is small enough that he can do that. He comes up to me, and I introduce myself. He immediately remembers my e-mail and we talk for a few minutes. He elaborated on his group philosophy to me: “We don’t like doing things the same old way. I was in a band where we butted heads, but this is my band, so I can do what I want.” This comes almost directly after a completely revolutionary double-speed version of “All Shook Up.” “This isn’t 1959,” he continues. “But you’d be surprised how many bands keep trying to make it like that.” We talk a little more about Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and songs like “Twenty Flight Rock.” A woman comes up to us as we talk, asking Finkle what the blues music is on the speaker. “Ummm…I’m pretty sure it’s a black man from Mississippi singing about the loss of a woman.” I snicker because it’s a good line, and also because he might be right.

The second set begins with an announcement from Finkle. “Jennifer has to leave,” he says, “because she has to get up for work tomorrow.” The band members voice their disapproval. She’s gotten to know them well the past few minutes. “So we’re gonna have to skip ahead to song six in our set list.” Jennifer jumps up and down, clapping. “So we’re gonna do a little Beatles in Hamburg for you.” So they rip into “Besame Mucho” and “Leave My Kitten Alone.” Finkles patter in-between songs loosens up. His catchphrase before assorted songs is “And it goes exactly like this.” It looks as though Finkle and the band have had a shot of adrenaline (or maybe a couple Jack and Cokes). They go through a few originals, then back to Carl Perkins with “Cat Clothes.” Finkle drops off the stage and plays bass back and forth along the length of the bar. He gets Jennifer in the front row of tables, sings “Peroxide Blonde,” “Love Charms,” and ends it with “Loving You.” “You can leave now,” he says. “I’m done with you.”

The major figures in rockabilly didn’t stay in the genre for long. Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were the pioneers, with roots in the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis in particular. The third member of the triumvirate, Sam Phillips, had the same background. Presley, under the tutelage of Leiber and Stoller, would break out of rockabilly and move into “white soul.” Phillips worked with Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker at Sun, and Presley followed Phillips’ model. Leiber and Stoller, however, gave Presley “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You,” and “King Creole.” Big Mama Thornton may have recorded “Hound Dog” first, but only Presley could have done “Treat Me Nice.” Doc Pomus further diluted Presley’s blues sound with “Viva Las Vegas” and “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame.” The true nail in Presley’s rockabilly/blues coffin was Leiber and Stoller’s “Bossa Nova Baby.” Perkins had a car accident in March 1956, and was recovering for a year. After coming back to Sun, he found Phillips had put all his bets on Jerry Lee Lewis, and his career momentum dissipated. Lewis didn’t need insipid songs or a car accident to destroy his career, because he could do it himself. By the end of 1960, rockabilly/R&B/rock ‘n’ roll would die a humiliating death at the hands of Frankie Avalon and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, these blues/rockabilly records would be discovered by artists strumming a guitar a hemisphere away. But that’s another story.

The second half of the second set continues with a couple of originals, then a reprise of “18 Miles To Memphis.” They go into “Christmas,” a very bluesy number despite Finkle’s claim that he has very little knowledge in the area. John has an extended guitar solo. Finkle prefaces the next song by saying “I remember reading that no one ever covered this Elvis song because they were afraid. I’m not.” They do the Doc Pomus song, “Surrender.” Everyone sounds like they’ve been waiting to let go, and they do. Their next song is “Fishnet Stockings,” marked with a Spazz solo, playing now on the floor bass. The band winds up their set with a medley of “Mystery Train” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Their final song is Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac.” They wind up their set at 12:25. The band begins packing and I wait for a minute, after he says goodbye to two young women very taken with the band (Finkle told me earlier, “Of course we do this for the women.”). We shake hands, he wishes me well, and I go off into the chilly, misty California night.

Works Cited
Miller, James “Flowers In The Dustbin” Simon and Schuster: New York 1989.

 
 
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