Chapter Premiere: Billy Vera’s “Rip It Up: the Specialty Records Story”


Americana Highways brings you this chapter premiere of Billy Vera’s book Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story (BMG Books). Specialty Records was the label of Little Richard, Percy Mayfield, Guitar Slim, Lloyd Price, Sam Cooke, Larry Williams; Vera’s book is a riveting story of the success of an independent record label in the 1950s.

Here is an excerpt from the book, which will be available here :


Specialty Records was deep into the business of rock and roll now, almost exclusively. In early 1957, Rupe had opened a New Orleans o ce at 1461 North Claiborne Street, manned by Harold Battiste. The majority of what he recorded there was a contemporary mix of R&B and rock and roll. Soon, Earl Palmer would relocate to Los Angeles to briefly take an A&R job at Aladdin Records. Before long, his metronomic, tempo-perfect drumming would make him the number one drummer in town, with a long career playing on as many as four or even ve sessions a day, ranging from rock and roll, like Bobby Day’s “Rock-In Robin” and Thurston Harris’s “Little Bitty Pretty One” to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound sides to pop recordings by Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin and Soul records by Sam Cooke or Lou Rawls. To replace Earl in New Orleans, Battiste brought in great second-line drummers like Charles “Hungry” Williams, John Boudroux, and Ed Blackwell.

The success of Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and other white rockers, not to mention the huge numbers they sold, made it hard for Art Rupe to resist the temptation to seek out his own white boys who could approximate a black style of singing, which appealed to Art’s sensibility more than the rockabilly style of the above mentioned. As more and more white teenagers became obsessed with black music, it was only natural that some would want to try their hand at performing in the style themselves.

The first of those discovered by Harold Battiste was Gerard Donald “Jerry” Byrne, born in the Irish Quarter of New Orleans on February 2, 1941, to Charles and Mayme Byrne. Jerry and his cousin, Mac Rebennack, born in November of that year, were infatuated by the R&B that they heard all over the city. He joined Mac’s band, the Loafers, appearing everywhere from barrooms to Catholic school dances.

Battiste heard Jerry on a show with Little Richard and, hoping to compete with Johnny Vincent’s success with Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Ford, asked him to join Specialty Records’ roster as an artist. As Jerry was barely seventeen, his contract had to be signed by his parents.

One week to the day after his seventeenth birthday, he recorded a song written by his cousin Mac with Seth David called “Lights Out” with Battiste’s second generation studio band of Art Neville, piano; Justin Adams and Edgar Blanchard, guitars; Frank Fields, bass; and Hungry Williams, drums. The boy was a high school athlete, and because of after-school practices and games on Saturdays, he had to make his record on a Sunday, causing union headaches for Battiste and a $150.00 ne for Specialty.

“Lights Out” made some local noise, but Specialty had di culty spreading the record much beyond the city limits. They released a weak “You Know I Love You So” with some rancid female background singers, but a third and final record, “Carry On,” was much better. Battiste’s correspondence with Rupe shows that he is enthusiastic about Byrne’s chances at overcoming Clanton as “the number one white artist in the area,” but trouble was brewing. Jerry had eyes for a different kind of career and was convinced by some sketchy character to head to Los Angeles to star in the movies, causing Harold even more headaches.

In December 1958, he writes to Rupe, “I’ve had to be guidance counselor, psychiatrist and minister for Jerry’s mother who calls daily.” Three days later, he again contacts Art, “This is his first time away from home and I’m not too fond of this boy who is bringing him out there, so when he reports to you, ask Sonny [Bono] to look out for him. He has been taken in completely by this cat who
is supposed to get him into pictures. By the way, his parents want his royalty statement sent here . . . do not give it to Jerry!”

In October 1959, Byrne, back home again, asked for and received a release from his Specialty contract. With Rebennack, Frankie Ford, and Huey “Piano” Smith, he recorded a song named after a local TV horror show personality, Morgan the Magnificent, under the moniker Morgus and the Three Ghouls for Johnny Vincent’s Vin label.

Jerry gave up music in the mid-1960s and went back home to Morgan City and opened his own business, Byrne Rentals & Sales, in the field of marine supplies.

From a Specialty press release, 1958:

HERE’S RODDY JACKSON….16 years old, blonde, crew-cut, freckles…. plays piano and sings….a talented teen-ager the kids will like!

Roddy has the clean-cut appeal of Pat Boone, the looks of Ricky Nelson, the punch of Elvis Presley and a unique style of his own.

We feel that Roddy Jackson is a “natural” and he merits your immediate attention!

George Rodrick Jackson was born on April 9, 1942, in Fresno, California, and raised in the central California burg of Merced, the “Gateway to Yosemite.” Like Jerry Byrne, he was so young that his contract had to be rati ed by his parents, George and Lucille. His handler, who worked for the city as re chief, was one George Coolures.

In high school, Roddy formed a mixed-race band, the Merced Blue Notes. Coolures got them an audition with Specialty A&R man Sonny Bono, but only Roddy was signed to a contract. This is not unusual. The record company gures, “Why put up with a bunch of egos when all we need is the guy who sings and writes the songs?” Sidemen, especially ones lacking studio experience, are considered expendable and interchangeable.

His rst session, at which he recorded Sonny’s song “I’ve Got My Sights on Someone New,” was produced by Bono on December 3, 1957. It made enough noise so that Decca Records attempted to purchase the master, but Art said no, feeling he had a potential teen idol on his hands.

This note from Art Rupe to his Philadelphia distributor reads: This will con rm the appearance of Roddy Jackson on American

Bandstand on Friday, February 14, 1958.

Only Roddy never appeared on American Bandstand.

Art hit the roof and pulled his act from the show when the Bandstand’s producers told him Roddy was expected to sign over his meager scale payment to them. Roddy was disappointed but, even years later, had nothing but kind words to say about both Art and Sonny.

A second record, “Hiccups,” sold little, and a third, “Any Old Town,” sold even less, and Art let the boy’s contract expire. Roddy and Sonny wrote “She Said Yeah,” recorded by Larry Williams, the Rolling Stones on their album December’s Children, and the Animals, amortizing the cost of his recording sessions many times over. Paul McCartney did the tune on his 1999 album Run Devil Run.

Roddy’s third date was a split session with a kid called Sonny Lowery, whose born name was Tommy O’Dell Lowery. All we know of him is that he lived in Hermosa Beach, California, and that his “Goodbye Baby Goodbye” is the most rockabilly sounding record in the Specialty catalog, albeit with a tenor sax solo by Plas Johnson, an unusual instrument for a record in that idiom.

Roddy Jackson went back home and performed only locally and occasionally until the 1990s, when he was rediscovered by British fans. After that, he made numerous appearances there and in mainland Europe. Ace Records in the United Kingdom released an entire CD devoted to his complete Specialty recordings in 2007.

By way of a master purchase from Oakland, California, record producer and label owner Bob Geddins, Specialty came to be the owner of a cool and crazy little record by Johnny Fuller, who was neither white nor young but whose cool little record is a good t for this part of our story.

Singer and guitarist Fuller was born on April 20, 1929, in Edwards, Mississippi, and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area, where he lived most of his life.

He is most closely associated with his mentor, Geddins, who produced most of his records, licensing them to labels like Aladdin, Imperial, Checker and Hollywood. Before his association with Specialty, Fuller’s best-known sides were R&B gems like “Johnny Ace’s Last Letter” and “Fool’s Paradise,” both for Aladdin Records. The latter song was quickly covered by Charles Brown, also on Aladdin, whose owners, Eddie and Leo Mesner, smelling a hit, gured the song had more of a chance with a better-known singer.

“Haunted House,” written and produced by Geddins, came into being at a time when there was a vogue for monster movies and every city, it seemed, had a late-night television program devoted to the genre, hosted by some guy in creepy makeup. The song was covered by Jivin’ Gene Simmons for the pop market and in the 1980s was performed onstage each Halloween by Bruce Springsteen, who opened his show rising from a co n a la Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Being best known for what was basically a novelty tune like “Haunted House” made it hard for Fuller to be taken seriously by the audience for the blues revival of the 1960s and 1970s, and his career su ered as a result, although he did manage to get booked at the San Francisco Blues Festivals of 1973 and 1977. Like far too many lower-rung bluesmen, he earned his living working as an auto mechanic in a local garage.

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