Chris Kennedy, the former lead singer, songwriter, and vocalist for pop punk band Ruth Ruth, is now a successful author, penning the well-received 1950s Radio In Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards. A new Facebook page featuring regular updates about the book is also available.
Tommy was one of the most successful and innovative deejays in Cleveland history, alongside his professional rival, Bill Randle. He also hosted local TV shows like Farm Bureau Jamboree, which showcased country and rockabilly artists.
The deejay was so loved by his audience that if he believed a single was worthwhile, it virtually guaranteed the artist would become a star. Plus, he photographed hundreds of recording artists, movie stars, and other personalities with a remarkable passion.
But one of Tommy’s greatest, lasting achievements was recognizing Elvis Presley’s talent after “That’s All Right” was released in the summer of 1954 on Sun Records.
Tommy was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis, and his efforts ultimately broke Elvis north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the ’50s. Younger generations today might find it unfathomable to realize that since Elvis initially sounded like a black R&B singer, many radio stations and markets would not play his music.
After interviewing Kennedy, it is clear he is a huge admirer of ’50s pop culture. Indeed, it was his investigation into the whereabouts of the highly sought after but still lost concert film, The Pied Piper of Cleveland, that kicked off 1950s Radio In Color. Incidentally, The Pied Piper documented the first time Elvis was filmed by a professional camera [October 1955].
Yesterday the first installment of a wide-ranging interview with the author appeared in this column. Entitled “Deejay Tommy Edwards Captured The Rock ‘n’ Roll Explosion: Chris Kennedy Speaks,” visit it in case you need to catch up.
In part two of the interview below, Kennedy reveals whether Elvis returned to Cleveland and got to meet Tommy again. He also justifies why he wrote that “Mystery Train” was Elvis’ last honest recording until he returned from the Army in March 1960.
Kennedy is an engaging storyteller, particular when he recounts the time his mother bought Elvis’ “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby” for him when he was a six-year-old introverted boy growing up in New Jersey.
Later, Kennedy’s father played him “In The Ghetto” when he was about 11 years old, triggering his interest in Elvis. And you won’t believe the Elvis film that sealed his fate as a true Elvis fan. Hint…it was produced during the midst of Elvis’ creative Hollywood drought.
The Chris Kennedy Interview, Part Two
Name a few artists from the ‘50s you especially admire.
I discovered the music of Elvis Presley when I was about seven years old, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I draw inspiration from the music of Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. I admire what Sam Phillips accomplished at Sun Records. In writing the book, I discovered, researched and became a fan of Malcolm Dodds, Jimmy Crain, Nellie Lutcher, etc.
How did you learn about The Pied Piper of Cleveland and what prompted your investigation?
Well, The Pied Piper of Cleveland is music’s first rockumentary, an October 1955 movie short personally financed by WERE deejay Bill Randle. This was the first film Elvis appeared in, also featuring Bill Haley and the Comets, the Four Lads, Priscilla Wright, and Pat Boone.
This yet unreleased film is the lost Holy Grail of rock ‘n’ roll. Being an Elvis fan for most of my life, I’ve always heard rumblings about The Pied Piper. It was Randle’s death in 2004 and simple curiosity that prompted the search.
Discovering Tommy Edwards’s slides taken on the day The Pied Piper was filmed is, short of finding the film, the next, best thing. A couple of other times I feel I’ve gotten damn close to finding the film. It’s definitely lost, but hopefully not forever.
Tommy was the first deejay in Cleveland to recognize Elvis’ talent. What was it about Elvis that knocked Tommy’s socks off?
I think it’s as simple as Tommy catering to the country music fans he was trying to attract to his Saturday radio show, “Hillbilly Jamboree.” He knew the fans liked Bill Monroe, and here was a kid doing a Bill Monroe tune, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Tommy had his ear to the ground and knew that the record was making some waves in the South. So in late 1954 he began spinning it, and the northern audience reacted.
Consequently in February 1955, he booked Elvis on his Hillbilly Jamboree show at the Circle Theater in Cleveland. It was Elvis’s first appearance north of the Mason Dixon line. Again, audience reaction was good, especially among the teenagers.
So Tommy continued to play Elvis’s Sun singles and booked him at the Circle for an encore performance in October 1955 (during the filming of The Pied Piper). The favorable reaction of the Cleveland audience helped prove to the big record companies courting Elvis that his appeal was not restricted to the southern states.
Also during that October 1955 performance, Tommy captured Elvis signing autographs. When I view those photos, 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.
Once Elvis became a national phenomenon, Tommy opined that Elvis wasn’t recording country (aka hillbilly music) anymore. So, did Tommy come to accept Elvis’ new direction with rock music?
I think Tommy was a bit possessive about Elvis, and very proud of the early role he played in supporting him. He wasn’t too happy about Elvis moving away from country music in 1956. It was as if he and his country audience considered Elvis their own little secret, and the boy was slipping away from them.
Elvis returned to do a show on November 23, 1956, at the Cleveland Arena. Did Tommy and Elvis reunite?
After the October 1955 shows in Cleveland, they never met again. Elvis never spoke about Tommy’s influence on his career, but had he lived to be properly interviewed, I could imagine he might have.
In the book, you called “Mystery Train” Elvis’ last honest recording until his return from the army in March 1960. Why do you feel this way?
The beautifully effortless recording of “Mystery Train,” from Scotty’s first riffs to Elvis’s laugh in the fade, encapsulates Elvis’s time at Sun Records.
Sam Phillips’ style of producing was to create an environment where the true essence of the artist was encouraged to expose itself, then thrive. The material that Elvis recorded at Sun was culled from his own record collection, from the artists who inspired him.
When he moved to RCA, this changed. The material was brought in by music publishers who didn’t know anything about Elvis as an artist. RCA’s Steve Sholes let Elvis do his thing, but this change in song style to a more pop sound, to my ears, sometimes sounded forced.
When Elvis was drafted in 1958 and ended up in Germany, cut off from his career, he reconnected with his record collection to keep him sane. He survived, much as he did before recording for Sun, with his heroes on record, alone in his bedroom.
So when he returns from the army in 1960, the sessions include the standard RCA pop fare such as “Make Me Know It.”
However, Elvis also dips back into his private stash, cutting such amazing performances such as “I Will Be Home Again” and “Reconsider Baby,” as well as the operatic “It’s Now or Never,” a risky move for him, but his skill and unique, honest enthusiasm make it all work somehow.
How did you become aware of Elvis?
I have to pay props to my mom. It’s a humid, cloudless afternoon at a mall in New Jersey, early summer, 1974. I’m an introverted six-year-old, staying put in Mom’s shadow. My sister walks the aisles of Sam Goody’s record store, in search of the latest LP by John Denver, her favorite.
Maybe it’s her enthusiasm as she triumphantly pulls Denver’s Back Home Again out of the rack, or maybe I find standing in the middle of a loud, bustling record store cool and exciting, but something in me clicks.
So I take the shot and ask my mom if I, too, can get a record. Exactly which record would have to be up to her, since I don’t have a clue. Elvis Presley was 39 years old in summer 1974, and in three years he’ll be dead. My mom was 36 years old, and remembers dancing to Presley’s 1957 hit, “Teddy Bear,” in her bedroom.
The 45 rpm record she chooses for me is “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” b/w “Take Good Care of Her,” one of Elvis’s latest. It’s a safe bet for a six-year-old, something not too loud or offensive.
Later, on the back stoop, as the trusty Fischer Price portable record player spins the disc, I sit with my mom, watching the stars. It was simple, unhindered and beautiful, as most magic moments are. My mom, Elvis and me. Something clicks.
What was the experience that triggered your real interest in Elvis?
I was about 10 or 11 and Elvis had just died. One afternoon, my father asked if I wanted to hear something good. He proceeded to play Elvis’s “In The Ghetto” and The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” I guess it was the scary cellos in both songs that got me because it seems from that moment on I knew I was going to be a musician.
As far as Elvis goes, the deal was sealed a few months later when I caught his 1965 film, Tickle Me, on late night TV. He was the epitome of cool, confidence and talent, and his image and style had a huge impact on me.
It’s interesting to note that Tickle Me was made at the considered low point in Elvis’s career. The film was very low budget and featured no new soundtrack songs. All the material was culled from earlier releases, such as the amazing Elvis Is Back! studio album from 1960.
In a way, it’s a good introduction to Elvis because all the songs in the film are great, and at that time in 1965, he looked very healthy and fit.
- Part Three, the conclusion, is available here. In it, Kennedy details some of his most memorable interviews, why Tommy quit taking photos, the payola scandal, Tommy’s relationship with his wife, Tommy the technological innovator, and why Tommy isn’t nearly as well known as he should be…
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.