“It’s too bad that a man has to die before he gets recognition that’s long been due him.” So remarked Tommy Edwards upon the passing of Big Band trombonist and bandleader Tommy Dorsey in November 1956 [Elvis made his national TV debut on The Dorsey Brothers’s Stage Show].
That quote could easily be applied to the influential deejay himself, who passed away 30 years ago of a brain aneurysm. While you may not recognize his name immediately, you more than likely recall the iconic image of Elvis and Bill Haley posing together in 1955. It was taken by none other than Tommy Edwards.
In more ways than one, the Cleveland deejay was ahead of his time, whether building a lab in his home so he could shoot color film in 1955, installing a record player in his car so he could audition discs while going to work, or bringing color slideshows featuring hundreds of his classic pop culture images to record hops. Remember, for fans in the ’50s who couldn’t attend concerts and only had a black and white TV set, Tommy’s slideshows were revolutionary.
Author Chris Kennedy published a book spotlighting Tommy earlier this year called 1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards.
The images, accompanying text, and historical data found in the book are a treasure trove, and Kennedy even mentions notable personalities that Tommy couldn’t photograph for whatever reason, including Billie Holiday, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Dennis Weaver, The Platters, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Kennedy is also a full-time musician who led the pop punk band Ruth Ruth for years. On hiatus since 2009, their latest record is Live In Toronto. However, he has plans to record some solo material in 2012.
In the meantime, Kennedy will help design a photo exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoring Tommy which will open on January 12th.
He also takes the opportunity to present a major announcement regarding his upcoming book project exclusively to this column in the conclusion of an ongoing interview appearing below. The previous installment, centering completely on Tommy’s memorable relationship with Elvis Presley, can be accessed by clicking on the link.
Consequently, Kennedy discusses his favorite interviews, asking a local sheriff to help track down rockabilly singer Sanford Clark in Louisiana, locating Sonny James (one of the most popular country singers of the late ’60s and early ’70s), and the sudden tragedy that ended singer Vince Wayne’s brief life.
The conversation later shifts to Tommy’s final, often bitter days as a deejay, how the payola scandal affected him, his decision to quit taking images, Tommy’s occasionally rocky marriage, the saving grace of the Hillbilly Heaven record store, Tommy the trailblazer, and reasons why he isn’t widely known in popular culture.
The Chris Kennedy Interview, Part Three (Concluded)
Who were some of your memorable interviews?
In my interview with Charlie Louvin, he spoke very candidly about his brother, Ira, which added to the intimacy of their photograph. George Darro, the rockabilly artist from Pennsylvania, has had a tough life but maintains this amazingly positive attitude, it’s contagious. Also, Jackie Jocko was inspiring and fun.
It was insightful to interview a few of Tommy’s girlfriends, who were able to add a very human side to his story. Many of women I interviewed, such as Wanda Jackson, Dolores Hart, and Beverly Ross, remembered the clothes and jewelry they were wearing; again, adding to the intimacy.
What is the story behind you tracking down rockabilly/country singer Sanford Clark of “The Fool” fame, which Elvis later recorded on his acclaimed Elvis Country LP in 1970?
I knew he was alive and living in Epps, Louisiana, but I couldn’t find an exact address or phone number. So I called the local police and explained my purpose and mission.
It was Sheriff Porter’s own suggestion that he take a ride out to the area where I believed Sanford was, and knock on a few doors. If he found Sanford, he would give him my contact info, and if he wanted to call, he would.
Within a few days Sanford called me, and in a low, gruff voice, asked if I was the fella who had the police come knockin’ on his door. I told him I was, we had a good laugh, and he came through with a great interview. I called Sheriff Porter and thanked him.
My impression was Sanford is a guy who doesn’t put up with any bullshit. He loved the music but had no use for the music business.
The Southern Gentleman, country singer Sonny James, rarely gives interviews. Was it easy finding him?
Sonny was very difficult to find. But most of the people I interviewed took work to locate. I enjoy that part of the process very much. It’s exciting. Anyway, after exhausting all other avenues, I wrote a letter to an address I hoped belonged to him, requesting an interview. He soon got back to me. Sonny was amazingly candid and very friendly.
He remembered that Tommy was responsible for breaking “Young Love” his first crossover hit in 1957) in Cleveland. A photo inscribed by Sonny to Tommy reads: “My best to a real good friend, T.E. – Thanks for everything.”
I was shocked at the sudden fate of singer Vince Wayne…
Vince Wayne was from Cleveland, Ohio, and was an up and coming singer on Roulette Records. He collapsed onstage in April 1959 and died shortly after from a brain aneurism.
Tommy was a supporter of Vince [a photo of Vince at a February record hop appears in the book] and attended the funeral, with his camera. He shot pictures of Vince in the casket, as was custom at that time, and gave the photos to Vince’s mother as keepsakes. A bit macabre, but in 1959 it was an acceptable practice.
Why did Tommy stop taking photos?
As a result of the payola scandal of the late 1950s, radio went through a quick and radical upheaval. The scandal was the wind of change that signaled the end of the autonomous deejays, including Tommy and Randle. The deejay no longer held the power to choose what records would be played, and as a result, no longer shaped tastes and trends.
Tommy no longer fit that job description and was forced out in July 1959. He flatly denied ever taking part in any payola schemes and was never accused. Tommy swore his reputation was clean, refusing even offers to go out for a cup of coffee with promotion men.
In reality, both Randle and Tommy escaped the payola scandal, and neither one of them had their reputations tarnished. Their relationship was one of intense competitive rivalry, with Tommy’s undemonstrative efficiency often clashing with Randle’s perceived intellectual snobbery.
More succinctly, they hated each other with a passion, according to WERE overnight jock Carl Reese. There was mutual respect, at a distance.
Because of the changing times in the business, Randle also left radio in the early sixties. He became a lawyer and had a private practice for many years. Only much later did he return to radio.
Tommy stopped taking pictures because he no longer had access to the celebrities his job had afforded him. In addition, when he was fired from WERE, he lost a part of himself.
An embittered Tommy kept a careful list of the rats who deserted him, including label executives and national record pluggers. Not much is known about it, as he never named names. Tommy felt betrayed by what were apparently superficial friendships within the business.
How would you characterize Tommy’s relationship with his wife?
The impression I got from the research was that it was a strong and supportive marriage, at least for the majority of their time together. Ann assisted at record hops and traveled to deejay conventions with him. Tommy always spoke highly of her in his newsletters.
Ann’s brother was able to give me a perspective on Tommy and Ann’s relationship that no one else could, so I’m grateful for that. I got the impression from him that Ann was a drinker, and when she drank, she was a nightmare. But basically overall, she was a nice person with some deep rooted problems, like us all I guess.
When Tommy’s radio career ended, the marriage was not able to sustain itself any longer. Perhaps without radio and the life it implied, the spark in their relationship was gone.
What did Tommy do for the remainder of his life?
After his radio career came to an end, Tommy opened a record store called Hillbilly Heaven in Cleveland, Ohio, which specialized in country music. Over time, he broadened his inventory to include all genres and changed the shop’s name to Record Heaven.
I don’t believe Tommy would have returned to radio on his own accord. But if someone came offering him a job, in Cleveland, he might have considered it. That was more his personality.
Tommy died in 1981 of a brain aneurysm. He was sixty-years-old. Upon his death, the photo collection and newsletters vanished. I discovered them in 2006 and 2009, respectively.
Tommy was very much a trailblazer in adopting technology. How would he feel about satellite radio today?
Tommy embraced new technology, and it was this trait that made his archives a reality. He built a lab in his home and began shooting color film in 1955. He had a record player installed in his car so he could audition discs on his way to work.
He perfected the record hop, bringing all of his own gear, as well as back-up gear in case a tube blew. He respected technology, and he used it to express his artistic ambitions.
Satellite radio has facilitated a return of the autonomous deejay and I think Tommy would’ve have loved it. It’s a return to what made radio an amazing experience. Deejay, music and audience coalesce into one powerful, repeating wave.
Do you have any upcoming appearances tied in with the book that you wish to share?
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will curate a Tommy Edwards photo exhibit beginning January 12 through April 2012. It should be a beautiful show, featuring 32 photographs from the collection.
Do you have a new book project in mind?
As a continuation of the seven years of hunting, discovery and research I’ve done on The Pied Piper of Cleveland missing film project, I’m hoping to write a biography on Bill Randle. He deserves it, and I’ve been working with his family as well as with my friend, writer David Barnett, on this idea.
Is there a reason why Tommy is not widely known today?
Tommy was never one to boast about his accomplishments. Reflecting back in a 1981 interview, he said he would have preferred to have a manager or agent to handle the promotional side of things. Professionally, he was a trailblazer and entrepreneur. Personally, he was a loner, and not in the negative sense of the word.
It’s my hope that the discovery of Tommy’s photographs and newsletters will gain him the recognition as not only one of rock ‘n’ roll’s early champions but also as the deejay responsible for perhaps the most important photographic and written documentation of twentieth-century popular music ever produced.
The Complete Chris Kennedy Interview
- Part One: “Deejay Tommy Edwards Captured the Rock and Roll Explosion…”
- Two: “On the Brink of Becoming an Artistic Phenomenon: Elvis Meets Tommy”
- Three: “1950s Radio in Color: Christopher Kennedy Places the Spotlight on…”
The Marshall Terrill Interview (author of multiple Elvis books)
- Part One: “Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen: When Two Galaxies Collide…”
- Two: “Elvis Presley Blazed the Path For Everyone…”
- Three: “Elvis, Colonel Parker, and Vegas: An In-Depth Discussion…”
- Four: “Fame & Fortune and Elvis’ Legacy: In Step with Author…”
The Complete James Burton Interview (Elvis and Rick Nelson’s guitarist)
- Part One: “Remembering Rick Nelson: An Interview with His Friend, Guitarist…”
- Two: “On the Road with Rick: The Master of Telecaster Remembers…”
- Three: “Never Be Anyone Else But You: The Guitarist on the Studio Years”
- Four: “25 Years Ago This Week – James Burton’s Tribute to a Legend”
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2012. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without first contacting the author.