Chris Kennedy: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: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. (see above front cover of the book)
- Chuck Berry – (Photo right) 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.
- 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.
- 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. (below left)
- 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. (below right)
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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.
|JR: 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.
JR: 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.
JR: 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. (go here for more Hall Of Fame exhibit info)
JR: 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.
JR: 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.