American Music from L.A. band the Blasters and much more in Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rockabilly”

By on October 8, 2016

“Rockabilly is a strange brew,” Pat Prescott says in her intro to our “Take Off to Rockabilly,” “… part Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, Gospel, even Pop. It’s a style that takes us back…to the 1950s.”

Continuing with our recent theme of looking at the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, this episode — which originally aired on April 20, 1984 — featured videos by Jerry Lee Lewis, the Stray Cats, Robert Gordon, X and the Blasters, among others. Take a trip back with us over on Night Flight Plus!

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The Blasters, one of L.A.’s most beloved bands, weren’t strictly a rockabilly band — in fact, none of the bands or artists featured in our “Take Off” episode were pure rockabilly, not really — because they always allowed themselves to expand into other genres that interested them (Dave Alvin was mostly interested in black blues and country music, in fact).

The authentic realism of their original songs, especially those penned by Phil and Dave Alvin, was likely due to both brothers owning impressive record collections, and growing up in culturally-rich Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s, where they were exposed to different types of music.

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The Alvin brothers grew up in Downey, a suburb twelve miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, which just happened to be a pretty centralized location, about which Dave Alvin once said the following:

“Within a ten-minute drive from our home in Downey we could see a blues show in Compton or a norteño band in Pico Rivera or a country singer at the Tumbleweed Club in Bell Gardens. The east-south-east side of Los Angeles County was, at one time, a great musical melting pot — all of it going on in small neighborhood bars.”

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The brothers continued a long time tradition in roots music by learning their music directly from legendary sources, traveling up to venerable L.A. venues like the Shrine Auditorium to see the Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Albert King, or the Ash Grove where they saw Lightnin’ Hopkins, Johnny Shines, Gary Davis, Johnny Guitar Watson, and T-Bone Walker.

Some of the band had already been jamming together since the 1970s, long before they began calling themselves the Blasters, playing in an assortment of styles that the band simply called “American Music” (their repertoire of mostly covers included R&B, rockabilly, blues, hillbilly, rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun and country), and in March of 1979, singer/guitarist Phil Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman and original bassist Mike Kennedy brought along Phil’s younger brother Dave as a last minute addition on lead guitar. It was Dave’s first gig.

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The Blasters continued to play whatever gigs they could line up, whether it was at a backyard party, or a biker bar or a “hoot night” at a rowdy cowboy joints that favored country.

Eventually they had to make a lineup change, bringing in a new bassist, longtime friend John Bazz, after Kennedy was found dead his throat slit (he’d apparently died trying to get a hooker he’d fallen in love with away from her pimp).

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They rehearsed in an empty space above an office where Bazz’s father worked, and recorded their first demo on portable recording equipment here with the help of another friend and former bandmate James Harman.

In 1980, they read that local rockabilly entrepreneur Ronnie Weiser was recording bands who played what he termed “authentic rockabilly” in his living room, on a 16-track portable recording unit. He was pressing the recordings up as limited vinyl releases which he was distributing via mail order.

His record label, Rollin’ Rock, had already released albums by Ray Campi, Charlie Feathers and Mac Curtis, all reputable artists, and so Phil Alvin met with Weiser and played him a cassette tape of one of the band’s rehearsals.

Weiser was reportedly blown away by what he’d heard — here was band of young musicians who actually knew what “American music” was all about.

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Weiser agreed to record them and release an album, if they had original material, so each band member penned two songs apiece. Dave Alvis came to their rehearsal space with four songs only to find that the others had arrived empty-handed, so Dave became the band’s defacto songwriter.

Together they wrote twenty-two songs in two days time, and Weiser recorded a batch of them (on a budget of about $2,000) and released it as the band’s debut LP, American Music, pressing up about 4,000 copies.

If you’ve got a copy of this rare album you’ve got yourself a collector’s item that will fetch a pretty good price should you decide to part with it.

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American Music drew lots of attention and British rockabilly hitmaker Shakin’ Stevens even recorded Dave Alvin’s orignal tune, “Marie Marie,” which climbed into the Top Twenty on the U.K. charts.

The band were also selected by the rock group Queen to open for them on the western swing of their U.S. arena tour, although the band were pelted by angry Queen fans who didn’t know there’d be an opening band and they began to heave beer bottles, banana skins and other trash towards the stage.

Bill Bateman was even cut by flying glass after a beer bottle broke against his tom tom. Brian May of Queen actually came onstage during their set to scold the crowd, and made sure the band’s name was listed on the marqee afterwards (they hadn’t been listed before).

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When the band returned back to L.A., they were headlining clubs, each gig moving to a larger and larger venue as word of mouth spread around town.

They also got themselves a manager, who shopped the band around to major labels, but they ended up signing with the independent label Slash Records, who had a distribution deal with Warner Bros.

They also added three new members: pianist Gene Taylor, and saxophonists Lee Allen and Steve Berlin.

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Phil and Dave Alvin had originally met Allen — a legendary New Orleans sax man who plays on all of Little Richard’s and Fats Domino’s records — when they went to see him play with another legend, Big Joe Turner, at the York Club, where Phil was invited to come up onstage and sing Turner’s “Wee Baby Blues” with Allen accompanying him on sax. From then on, both brothers made pilgrimages to see Lee Allen and Big Joe Turner twice a week thereafter.

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The next few years were pretty much a blur, with the band’s self-titled debut coming out in 1981, followed by a concert tour and even appearances in early 1982 on nationally-syndicated television shows, like “The Mike Douglas Show,” Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” and a late-night weekly music and sketch comedy show called “Fridays,” which for a time was booking great music acts and looking like it was really going to give “Saturday Night Live” pretty good weekend competition (ABC’s “Fridays”was great while it lasted, cancelled after three seasons, with the last episode airing on April 23, 1982).

One of the highlights of this era was the Blasters appearance on the 1982 PBS “Soundstage” program along with their special guests Willie Dixon and Carl Perkins.

Dave Alvin has said that the two nights the band spent filming this special were two of the happiest nights of his life.

The Blasters toured Europe in the spring of ’82, and one of their last dates in England was originally planned as a BBC broadcast, featuring the band on a feisty live set of cover tunes, but they liked the recording so much that they decided to release it as an EP, Over There: Live at the Venue.

In 1983, Dave Alvin penned two original tracks for the soundtrack to the 1984 movie Streets of Fire, and the Blasters released their second studio effort, Non-Fiction, which saw them taking a more serious tone on some songs which addressed the problems of the working class.

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The album leads off with “Red Rose,” which would be the second single released from the album.

The track is a variant on the bittersweet ol’ boy/girl love story we’ve all heard before, but with each verse Dave Alvin’s lyrics offer up something new to consider, and as we all know, love doesn’t always work out the way you hope it might.

Night Flight contributor Mark Deming, writing about “Red Rose” for All Music, said this about it:

Blasters songwriter Dave Alvin staved off any mawkishness that might arise from this bittersweet tale with a tune that was a full-force rockabilly groove, propelled by Gene Taylor ‘s Jerry Lee Lewis-gone-boogie piano and the sharp, stabbing counterpoints of Dave’s guitar; Phil Alvin’s vocal managed to capture the song’s drama and hint at the heartbreak while nodding to the humor of the situation. If “Marie, Marie” was prototypical rockabilly right down to its neo-teenage views on romance, “Red Rose” was rockabilly all grown up, with handholding replaced by sex and meddling parents left by the wayside in favor of the sort of all too human and all too adult mistakes that mark the love lives of the over-21 crowd.

Check out the video to the Blasters’ “Red Rose” and all of the other videos included in our “Take Off to Rockabilly” on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.