Jimmy Cavallo was born March 14 1927 in Syracuse, New York. He is best known for his filmed performances in the Alan Freed movie Rock, Rock, Rock ! from 1956.
The interview took place April 11, 2005 after his terrific set at the Rockin’ 50’s Fest II at the Oneida Casino in Green Bay, Wisconsin. There are lots of YouTube clips showing him performing with his band, including one from 2016 when Jimmy was 89. Jimmy’s website is here. To order his CDs, I recommend Blue Wave Records.
Craig Morrison : I want to ask you about your inspirations. We heard you play Wynonie Harris just now.
Jimmy Cavallo : The absolute first was Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five. My first inspiration in music was listening to the big bands. It goes back to that. My time would be the Glen Miller era, the Tommy Dorsey era, Harry James. I bought all the big band records of the day, the old 78s. As I was digging the big-band sound, I was playing alto [saxophone], and I was playing along, learning the songs.
Later as I grew older and I got into the high school big band, I learned how to read and play some parts. In my teens I hooked up with a local big band. We played for dances. But I kept listening to Louis Jordan, ’cause what really really got to me with Louis with the small five piece [band] was the fact that he could sing when he wanted ; he could play freely as he wanted. Things were arranged but there was a lot of room to do the solos and stuff. Whereas in a big band, if you don’t play the jazz chair which would be a first or second tenor, or the first alto chair, you wind up with third alto and you’re playing harmony all night long. Listening to Louis and playing in a big band and only playing harmony and not being able to get to [solo], it got a little frustrating. I stayed with my collecting of the big bands, I loved the big bands, but I just couldn’t get into being a big band player. So I went with a small group. In the beginning it was “Caldonia,” “Outskirts of Town,” “Stormy Monday.” I didn’t do much of the novelty, I stayed with the blues. When I got steeped into the blues then I got Wynonie Harris. I met Louis Jordan a couple of times in Wildwood in his later years. Wynonie Harris I never met but I really liked him for the blues show. So when I did those “Good Rockin’,” “Bloodshot Eyes” you can hear that Wynonie influence.
Then the blowing, the horn, after I got out of the Louis Jordan stage, I went to tenor because I played alto. That was another ball game again and then I got into semi jazz playing and hard honking so I got into Illinois Jacquet, Red Prysock, and Big Jay McNeely and so that’s where that comes out during these performances. But in between you can feel the bebop influence, because in the early ’60s I started really getting into the horn seriously so I started listening to [Charlie] Parker, I started listening to [Gene] Ammons and Dexter [Gordon].
They were out during the ’50s, but in the ’60s I started really saying, “Well I can play more horn than I’m playing.” I started listening more to Dexter and Gene Ammons. [John] Coltrane kind of left me in left field, I mean, genius as he was, he was going a little too far out for my taste. I like melodic playing. I like to play where you know what the song is even if I’m adlibbing. I love John on the early Miles [Davis albums]. John was more melodic and he swung. Then when he got to do his own thing he was getting explorative. Which is alright, things got to go forward. I just didn’t go forward with him because the way I play is the way I play. That was my swinging influences.
I lived in Syracuse, New York and we had very very commercial type music going on at that time. I’m talking about just before World War II. I was in my teens. You had your hotel music and your ballroom dance music but there was no black R&B or any kind of black blues going on except when you went down to the black section of any city. Upstate New York was no different than the Deep South ; you had to go into that area. I got my little alto and I started going down and I was knocking on the club door ; they were letting me in. I was sitting there with all the black performers and I was learning how to really play the blues. I had the feel for it.
The only name that came out of Syracuse that made a little bit of a splash was Chris Powell and the Blue Flames. He had an R&B band but his claim to fame was [that] Clifford Brown had his first job with him. Clifford Brown, the great jazz trumpet player he was, started in R&B. Now, some years later, I’m on the road with a quartet and I’m now doing the Fats [Domino], I’m doing Wynonie [Harris], I’m doing [Jimmy Forrest’s] “Night Train,” [Bill Doggett’s] “Honky Tonk,” whatever. And I get booked in Toronto at the Colonial. I’m doing downstairs on the revolving stage, strictly R&B rock and roll type of thing, honkin’, and in comes, upstairs for a week, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, and that whole group. I just about could die because I was so into the jazz thing but I was still doing my thing. So we staggered our sets so I could be off when they were starting and consequently they were off when I was starting, so one night, about three nights in, Clifford started coming downstairs. Got at the bar, was ordering a drink, and was digging me, see ? I got off and I says, “Clifford,” – we got to know each other after a while because we worked the same hotel, we had breakfast together. In fact I’m in Nick Catalano’s book – the life story of Clifford Brown [Clifford Brown : The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter]. There’s a whole paragraph on me telling this same story. So I said to Clifford, “Look, you know, I come up, you cats are so awesome, you’re so great jazz players.” Everybody was a Charlie Parker in that band. I said, “You come down and you’re listening to me and I’m just honking away on ‘Night Train’ and ‘Honky Tonk.” “Man, don’t put that down,” he says, “you’re playing good. I started the same way. I started with Chris Powell.” When he said that, I almost fell off the chair. I said, “Well, God, Chris and I are from Syracuse, we’re good friends.” So we became good friends. It was tragic when he got killed [in 1956]. It was soon after we met, ’cause I was in Toronto in ’55 then I went down to Pennsylvania to Sommerset and they got killed on that damn turnpike. I just made a friend with him.
CM : Can you tell me how you came to get “Rock the Joint” from Johnny Preston before Bill Haley put out his version ?
JC : I was in Syracuse still doing my thing with Louis Jordan [songs] and all that. I started moving into these rock [songs]. I used to go to this one record store in Syracuse and they had one very small section with black performers. I always would go through there looking for the Wynonie Harris stuff or the Roy Brown. I spotted Jimmy Preston’s “Rock the Joint.” I didn’t know who he was. I liked the tune ; it fit in with what I was doing. In those days you could play it [in the store, before buying it]. [On a] 78. I said, this is going to be a good one, because we’re into the rock. So I started using the tune. In 1951 I think my first record was on the BSD label. It was up in upstate New York and I did “Rock the Joint” and I did another one called “Leave Married Women Alone.” There were a couple of others. I did about four cuts.
Those first BSDs didn’t do anything. They were just local. But now they found their way into the computer and now they’ve become classics and all that. Then Bill Haley, who I got to know very well—it’s too bad he had to leave so soon—he came into Wildwood one year and I was working with the Treniers. My first professional gig was with the Treniers. I did 12 weeks there. Bill came in and heard about me. I was doing “Rock the Joint.” I was doing “I Got a Woman” like Ray [Charles] ; nobody knew Ray then. I was doing “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” A year later out comes Bill Haley with another album and on there he’s got “Rock the Joint.” He heard it from me. I know he did because he also had “I Got a Woman.” When I copied Ray’s “I Got a Woman,” see I never copy exactly, I don’t try to imitate, I try to get the overall feel of what Ray was doing. There’s only one Ray Charles : he is my main guy. So I did “I Got a Woman.” When it got at the end Ray was going “I got a woman, way across town, good to me, oh yeah, it’s alright now, talk about my woman now” (singing) he kept laying on those two chords then he got into that falsetto—“whoo oh now” and I couldn’t make a falsetto. So I bent a couple of notes and changed it up a little bit. When I played Bill’s record he bent those same two notes and changed it up, and I said, “He got that from me, see.” It’s always been a thing like that with me and Bill for years. And the only reason why he won the horserace, is the way I put it, is he got lucky with “Rock Around the Clock,” and [the movie] The Blackboard Jungle. And I was struggling like crazy to get something happening with “Rock, Rock, Rock.” Alan Freed and I wanted to do that. We wanted to get the same reaction that Bill got. Bill was the first one to break through. After all was said and done I got to meet everybody. Got to know them and we all became good friends. They all knew of me ; I knew of them. Whoever became successful I was happy for them after a while.
CM : Bill Haley’s producer was Milt Gabler, the same guy who produced Louis Jordan. I always thought that there was a connection between Louis Jordan’s band and Bill Haley’s. You can hear it in their sound, in their approach. They recorded for the same record company.
JC : Cavallo : But the difference was Bill’s rhythm as more a rockabilly sound : click-a click-a click-a click-a, instead of chunga-a, dung-a, dung, that deep shuffle backbeat. The reason he got the black thing was Rudy [Pompilli], the sax player. He injected that because he was listening to the same cats that saxophone players were listening to : Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, all those Jazz at the Philharmonic records. That’s all influences for our playing. So when I play my horn, what I play tonight I will not play tomorrow night. You play spontaneously and the jazz roots come out in some of it, the honking, so at this point in my life, and I’ve been out there a long time, I’m flabbergasted at this fame that’s coming my way now. I really am because I just missed it in the ’50s when I should have had it. The only reason I missed it is like Alan and me we just couldn’t get that big hit. Everything became cult after a while. But it all went good. Then Bobby Darin came along and I got very friendly with Bobby. We were very tight. Bobby made it real real big, he got into that adult thing. I could name a dozen people that went on to make it big. I just kept missing it.
It was hard at the time because you like people and you like your fellow performer but if you know that you’re as good, and you’re not getting it and they make it out of a one-record thing then you get a little resentment in you, and a little jealousy. But it doesn’t last long, because after you meet the person and you’re one on one personally, you say, ‘I’m an idiot, why should I be jealous of this guy ? This guy is achieving what I want to do and he’s a nice guy to boot.’ That’s how I felt about Bobby. We did become very good friends. We worked together about three times.
CM : He burned out, though, he had a heart problem.
JC : Very bad. In fact I learned of it the second year in Wildwood. After the Treniers, I worked with Bobby. We brought Bobby down to the club for a 10-day run. We had pizza every night next door and we would talk. His two favorite R&B people were mine : Ray Charles and Fats Domino. Bobby was a piano player. His influence was Fats and Ray, like me. In his show he did “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Blueberry Hill” and I’m doing the same thing. I love Fats and I wanted to please this crowd with my Coral records because that’s what we’re selling tonight, and they know that from the movie. The other stuff is just whipped cream on the cake, but the two biggies are “The Big Beat” and “Rock, Rock, Rock.” But all those years I’m doing Fats and Ray I can’t help but inject a couple of those tunes in my show, because I think it works.
CM : I’ve seen you in the movies but I wasn’t that familiar with your material. When you came out there and started I thought, ‘Wow this guy is a white rhythm and blues guy from the beginning.’
JC : From the beginning, right, because of the influences. But I also had a natural feel for it. I don’t know if it’s being Italian. I had a natural thing in my blood. I had a musical gift given to me and I just took saxophone up like any kid would, in the school band. I had an Italian professor who gave me reading lessons twice a week so I could read the music.
One guy that gave me good advice and I looked to him as a mentor and a personal friend was Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams who had the original “Hucklebuck.” He played bari [baritone sax]. I was doing a gig in North Carolina and I was into the blues big time then. I was doing all the Wynonie there, some Amos Milburn, and Ruth Brown, I did “5-10-15 Hours.” I was into all the R&B and all the Illinois Jacquet. Paul “Hucklebuck” come with his band, and one night I was playing alto and I was trying to play some bebop, in between the R&B. He come up to me and he said, “Jim, I heard you trying to play that Charlie Parker stuff and it’s good, but you’ve got to get down in the alley and play the funky down-in-the-alley blues and then you’ll make some money. You got to get gut bucket. If you go in that direction you’re going to starve.” From that point on Paul and I were great friends. He was out of Chicago and every time he came to town I’d jump in with him. By that time I was playing tenor, and I’d do “Flying Home” with him. So he kind of became my mentor, but we didn’t cross paths too often. I did that thing in Carolina with him and then he also showed up in Syracuse a few times. I’d always go down and bring the horn. It was great.
CM : Did you know that “Bloodshot Eyes” was a cover ?
JC : It was a country thing. Who was that ?
CM : It’s Hank Penny. They were both recording for King. The guy that ran King his name was Sid Nathan and his thing was – “We’ll just sell it in this market then we’ll sell it in that market.” He probably owned the publishing. I don’t know if he wrote it but Hank Penny did it first. And it made some noise.
JC : A : Well it had to be a –
CM : Western swing.
JC : It had to be a western thing.
CM : Accordion.
JC : Well I remember Stick McGee picked it up. And then Wynonie got it from him.
CM : I think he got it from being in the same record company, King. I’m sure Sid Nathan said something like, “We just sold a thousand records on this song last month - why don’t you do it ?” In my Rock and Roll and Its Roots course I make the students listen to both sides. ‘Cause a lot of the kids I teach have heard this concept that rock and roll is white guys that ripped off black guys. I tell them : everybody did everybody else’s tunes. Here’s Wynonie Harris doing a Hank Penny tune. Now you’re going to tell me that it’s white guys that ripped off black guys ? It went both ways. Everybody did everything.
JC : And here’s Ray Charles doing country and western albums. Doing them great. Ray loved Hank Williams.
CM : A lot of those guys grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry.
JC : Well Ray is a southern boy, he grew up with it. They downed him for it but it went extremely big for him.
CM : Did you see that movie Ray ?
JC : Yes, it was wonderful. I do a whole Ray Charles medley. I didn’t want to do it here. I do “Georgia,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Sticks and Stones,” and I close with “What’d I Say” and “America”. That’s my closing medley on the show. I think it would work here if I tried it, but these kids want to hear “Rock, Rock, Rock.”
CM : How would you like to be remembered ?
JC : I’d like to be remembered - I think being 78 at this point and doing what I’m doing at this point in my life, I want to be remembered as being one of the pioneers who was overlooked and I feel strongly about the fact that they don’t have me in that Cleveland Hall of Fame ’cause I was out there with all of them. The only reason that I was overlooked is I never got the hit record. Freddie Bell was the same way : never got the hit record. Being remembered as the one that was overlooked and then a renaissance came over me in my later years and now people are just laying love on me. I’ve had more compliments, more hugs, and more people giving to me for what I’m doing because I’m sincere. I’m a sincere performer. I don’t tailor everything so it’s going to be slick. I get into my bag, I enjoy it, and I want those people to feel they’re all in my house and we’re having a party. That’s what I want to be remembered for : that I pleased so many people although it took so long to do.
CM : Thank God it happened, eh ?
JC : Thank God forever. This is my fourth one [festival]. Back in Bill Haley’s day I never got to do any of this. Bill and I became good friends. I never said anything about “Rock the Joint” and “I Got a Woman” thing. I figure hey I’ve been doing it all my life.
CM : Did you feel that your music and his music were kind of in the same field ?
JC : Yes. Back when Alan Freed put me in the movie, he wanted me to be the Bill Haley alternate because after the first movie Bill had made it so big his agent demanded a whole lot of money. Alan didn’t want to pay it. He was on a shoestring budget. I heard Jimmy Cavello, he said Cavello, he would be good as the Bill Haley group. He gave me the opening credits. My voice comes out immediately. It goes to the kids at the jukebox, and that’s us playing. Then I do two songs : one in the middle, one at the end to kick off the prom. So I had a lot of space there. Just like I say, we fell a little short but he couldn’t afford Bill anymore, so that was my shot.
CM : Did you know Charley Gracie ?
JC : Yes. Our approach to it is the same. Freddie Bell, Charley, myself. We’re rockers but we have a Sinatra/ Dean Martin/ Tony Bennett persona when we’re on stage. It’s a natural thing.
CM : You’re not all Italian, are you ? Is Freddie Bell Italian ?
JC : Freddie is, yeah, and Charley Gracie is. And Bobby Rydell, his name is Rickadelli. And Frankie Avalon : Avaloni. Bobby Darin was Italian : [his real name was] Cassotto.
CM : I always thought it was because Bill Haley was a little more north but he had a western swing influence. In fact one of his early bands was called Bill Haley and the Four Aces of Western Swing, then it was the Saddleman.
JC : I knew him as the Saddleman out of Chester, Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania and upstate New York they had a lot of barn dances, country dances. So there’s a lot of country and western type performers that were born up north but I guess they were listening to the southern [country music], like we were listening to the southern R&B.
CM : Your influence is more from the records whereas the people down south it was more like in the neighborhood.
JC : Definitely from the records for us. Being a white performer back then our access to this stuff was limited. Right now you can get anything you want anywhere. But if you had the record store [you could buy] Guy Lombardo, Glen Miller, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, not even small groups ; the [Jazz at the] Philharmonic and the bebop didn’t come until later. Sepia they called it, it means beige or brown. I’d find the Wynonie, the Roy Brown, I got all the versions of “Fannie Brown.” I got Roy’s version ; Wynonie did it three times. I did it exactly like Wynonie when I first did it (sings :) “anybody here seen Miss Fannie Brown, diddle le de de.” But then in the ’60s the dance craze was coming in. I did a hully gully version.
CM : You said you love two tenors and a bari.
JC : Right. I heard that from Paul “Hucklebuck,” although he did have a trumpet in his group.
CM : That’s the same as Fats, you say.
JC : Yeah, Fats and Little Richard. Little Richard really had two screaming tenors and a baritone. I think Little Richard had a trombone. I was the first group of white/ black or whatever, to utilize two tenors. I was the first rock group to utilize two tenors. Richard came after me, and Fats came out about the same time as me, but he used two tenors and a trumpet. My influence on using two tenors basically came from the Jazz at the Philharmonic, and the Sonny Stitt and the Gene Ammons things but that was two tenors locking horns. That’s where I got the idea. I said, let me do two tenors, then we can do “Flying Home” and we can do hand clapping and still do the R&B.
Jimmy Cavallo in Green Bay, Wisconsin, 2005. Photo by Craig Morrison.
CM : One last question : did you walk the bar ?
JC : Yes. Walk the bar, stood on chairs.
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is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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