Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was at the top of his game and one of the most respected disc jockeys of the 1950s. He jumpstarted many country and rock ‘n’ roll careers north of the Mason-Dixon Line, including Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley.
Edwards was definitely an innovator, but more importantly, he documented hundreds of artists during their rise to fame. Sadly, the deejay passed away in 1981 before he could be adequately recognized for his crucial contributions to early rock ‘n’ roll. Nearly 30 years would then roll by before his images were discovered in a box under his nephew’s workbench.
The “City Slicker Turned Country Boy,” as Edwards often called himself, has been largely forgotten, but that is now changing. Author, songwriter, and bassist Christopher (Chris) Kennedy recently collected Edwards’ photos in the massive hardcover coffeetable book entitled 1950s Radio In Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards, available via Kent State University Press.
Featuring accompanying text, analysis of each year the pictures were taken (1955-1960), brief bios, and each photo placed within historical context, the book is an essential purchase. The prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame went so far as to curate an Edwards photo exhibit.
In a long-form conversation conducted over the past month, Kennedy discusses the unbelievable story of how he discovered the legendary deejay’s pristine photo collection, Edwards’ apparently horrific days in World War II, his favorite photos, Edwards’ brief excursion as a recording artist on Coral Records, his first impression of 25 prominent photos featured in the book (such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and The Everly Brothers), and admits whether he would publish a second volume…
The Chris Kennedy Interview, Part One
In 2006 you discovered the lost photo collection of popular 1950s Cleveland radio deejay Tommy Edwards. Did you immediately know it was an extraordinary find?
I located Tommy’s nephew, who had five 35mm slides in his possession. About a month later, he called to say he found nearly 1,800 more, stashed under a workbench in cardboard boxes. He simply forgot he had inherited the whole collection.
As you can imagine, when I heard this, my imagination ran wild regarding what the collection might contain. I wasn’t disappointed. With his camera and newsletters, Tommy Edwards captured the rock ‘n’ roll explosion, as well as 1950s pop culture, as never before seen or documented.
When I saw how beautiful and historically important his photographs were, I knew they should be shared. I knew what type of book the photographs should be presented in, having many photography, art and music books in my own library.
So I just approached the project as passionately as I did my recording career, writing songs and getting record deals. In my mind there was never a question whether I could do it, I just had to work out the details. Call it a false sense of confidence coupled with blind ambition. For me, that’s a potent combination.
I am amazed at how well Tommy dated his photos. He must have been a detail-oriented guy…
I believe Tommy had the need to make order out of chaos, after his traumatic experiences serving in World War II. In my research and interviews, I learned that Tommy was attached to an anti-tank unit in North Africa and saw heavy action.
He hardly ever spoke about his time in the military, but many agreed he seemed scarred from the experience, changed. His nephew theorized that his fastidiousness was a type of coping mechanism for him. He was a very meticulous guy, and we’re lucky for that. The slides were in excellent condition.
He also self-producedan amazingly detailed,two-page newsletter for radio industry insiders from 1953 through 1960, called the T.E. Newsletter. The wealth of information in the newsletters is the photo collection’s indispensible companion piece.
What are some of your favorite photos featured in the book?
Tommy was a documentary photographer. His photos capture icons and unknowns alike, in such a candid and revelatory way. My favorite photos in the book are the ones where I can see my own dreams, disappointments and accomplishments reflected back at me. Dale Hawkins, Michael Landon, El Boy, Maureen Cannon, etc. etc.
Were there any photos you chose not to publish?
Out of the nearly 1,800 photographs, I handpicked 200 for the book, based on various factors. Naturally, Elvis, Chuck Berry and other influential artists were included. If the subject was still alive and I interviewed them, that would play a part in the selection. Sometimes a photo would just be beautiful, regardless of who was in it, so it would end up in the book.
I would absolutely consider publishing more of Tommy’s photos. However, the right situation would have to present itself.
What do you see or think of the following images featured in the book?
- The Everly Brothers with Tommy Edwards – I see a deejay at the top of his game, leading the charge in breaking a new rock ‘n’ roll duo’s record wide open in Cleveland. I chose it for the cover of the book because, number one, it’s an awesome photograph, and two, because it’s Tommy pictured with one of the best rock ‘n’ roll duos of all time.
- Chuck Berry – I see an incredible artist with none of the confidence or swagger he’ll have in a few short months. I see an amazing photograph that captures one of rock’s architects in his ascension to fame.
- Sam Cooke (caught off-guard eating a pastry) – I’m reminded I prefer his gospel recordings to his pop material.
- Elvis Presley (signing autographs) – I see an exuberant kid with a perm, on the brink of becoming an artistic phenomenon, basking in the adulation of females. In other words, I see dreams coming true.
- Roy Orbison – I see myself. I see dreams dashed. I see determination. I see a kid who buys his clothes at Lansky Brothers in Memphis, emulating his friend who’s “made it,” Elvis Presley.
- Gene Vincent – I see a guy who’s recorded one of the most badass songs ever heard (“Be Bop a Lula”), and he knows it.
- The Big Bopper – I think of reading a letter that Elvis wrote while in Germany, when he heard about the plane crash, and how genuinely sad, scared and lonely the tragedy made him feel.
- Dion – I tried very hard to contact him for an interview, but never could. So it’s very frustrating, I love his music and I believe he would’ve had some cool insights about Cleveland.
- Johnny Horton (country and rockabilly singer) – I remember hearing a story about Johnny Cash and Horton, on tour in Canada, writing “The Girl from Saskatoon,” at night, in the car. Awesome song.
- Johnny Cash – I remember meeting him backstage at a show on October 28, 1989, at The Ritz in New York City, right before he went onstage, and how he was shaking and trembling. I think of my father playing his records. I think of how no one will ever be that cool again.
- Anita Carter (Carter Family member and sister of June Carter Cash) – I think of the chills I feel every time I hear her.
- Conway Twitty – I hear “Bom, Bom Bom…You’ve Never Been This Far Before.”
- Grandpa Jones (Grand Ole Opry member and banjo picker) – I think, “Awesome photo…creepy mug-shot.”
- Gloria Mann (pop singer) – To quote a line from Young Frankenstein, “What knockers!”
- Michael Landon – I think of my grandmother watching Little House on the Prairie, and I miss her. Landon looks so laid back and cool in the photograph.
- Actor Jeff Chandler – I remind myself to seek out some Jeff Chandler films.
- Frankie Avalon – I’m disappointed I couldn’t interview him. His manager wanted $50,000 for an interview. I was a bit short on cash at the time.
- Connie Stevens (actress and singer) – I think, “What’s with that dress that looks like it’s from 1849?”
- Actress Rhonda Fleming – I bet she smells like strawberries.
- Actress Tina Louise – I interviewed Tina, but she refused permission to print the interview. It’s a shame too, because we had some good conversations. She seems to be a very guarded and suspicious person, and probably has her reasons.
- Entertainer Arlene Fontana – Such a great photo, such awesome energy captured in the frame, something special is going on with this woman.
- Melvin Smith (obscure pop singer) – Where are you?
- Connie Russell (jazz singer and actress) – A passionate person who probably would have been cool to know. Also, a beautiful photograph.
- Elaine Dunn (singer and dancer) – Elaine’s photo is a great example of Tommy’s eye, his unobtrusive skill for capturing his subjects in candid moments.
- Tommy Edwards (posing in Record Heaven with the Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison record) – I see a content person, someone I would have loved to have met and interviewed, someone who played a pivotal role in launching rock ‘n’ roll’s first wave.
Tommy briefly flirted as a recording artist, recording five singles. Did he take this facet of his career seriously?
Tommy took his recording career very seriously. His first record of “What Is a Teen Age Girl?”was poised to be a hit when it was released in January 1957, but Coral Records didn’t have enough records in the stores. So it was a missed opportunity, although it did go on to sell about 100,000 copies [it charted at a respectable No. 60 on Billboard’s pop chart].
His proposed second single was “The Story of Elvis Presley,” which was never released. It was to be a mock interview record with actual Elvis songs inserted as responses. Coral was apparently unable to get the rights from RCA to do it. I’d love to hear it today… I wonder if tapes exist?
His other records didn’t fare very well. All the records were narration over orchestral backgrounds, and when you hear them today, they offer great snapshots of 1950s teenage life.
- PART TWO, entitled “On The Brink of Becoming An Artistic Phenomenon: Elvis Meets Tommy Edwards,” is also available. In it, Kennedy details Tommy’s early, crucial association with Elvis Presley, as well as how “In The Ghetto,” “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby,” and Tickle Me made him a true Elvis fan…
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, 2011. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without first contacting the author.