Diversions on My Fan’s Journey

SIDETRAX: ROCKDOCS EP#1: SETTING THE STAGE

Britain’s First Real Rock n Roll Song

The two and a half minute song that is known as Britain’s first real Rock n Roll song was written on the upper deck of a Green Line bus as guitarist Ian Samwell travelled to a rehearsal at Cliff Richard’s house.

It was 1958 and Ian Samwell was one of many British youngsters fanning his Rock n Roll dreams. He’d met a group of musicians a few months earlier at the 2i’s Coffee Bar in Soho and had recently joined them to become Cliff Richard and the Drifters. Samwell’s catchy composition “Move It” caught the ear of producer Jack Good who insisted the band play it on his TV show Oh Boy!. Samwell hadn’t finished writing the second verse of the song but no one seemed to notice when Cliff simply resang the first verse.

“Move It” quickly became the band’s first single, and a cover of US singer Bobby Helms’ Schoolboy Crush was relegated to the B side.

It was a savvy switch because when Cliff Richard and the Drifters released “Move It” as their first single in August 1958, it climbed up the UK charts to hit #2, claiming its place as Britain’s first real Rock n Roll song. “Move It” proved that UK musicians could write and perform great rock n roll and it bolstered enthusiasm for others to give it a try.

Ian Samwell was edged out of the band shortly after but he continued to write songs for them and others. While the Drifters evolved into the Shadows, Samwell established himself as a DJ, playing his records for lunchtime dances at the Lyceum Ballroom in London and parlayed that into regular Sunday and Tuesday sessions that attracted a large mod audience. Some say he actually created the first discotheque. Later Samwell became a staff producer for Warner in London and in that capacity he discovered the folk rock trio “America” and produced their debut album in 1972.

Something prompted Samwell to finally finish the second verse of “Move It” in 1995. He sent the lyrics to Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin who, along with Cliff Richard on vocals, recorded the completed version for his album Hank Plays Cliff. The song received a distinguished live debut that same year for Queen Elizabeth II during the Royal Variety Performance.

The Cliff Richard Show, 19.03.1960

The Royal Variety Performance, 25.11.1995

Cliff Richard released the song again in 2006 on a record with Brian May of Queen and Brian Bennett of the Shadows. It was a double A side single with “21st Century Christmas” and it debuted at #2 on the charts.

“Move It” launched the career of Cliff Richard in 1958, a career that has spanned more than 6 decades. He now sings the complete version of the song when he tours, which he still does. He has dates scheduled for late 2021.

Listen to RockDocs Episode #1 Setting the Stage to see how it all came together.


SIDETRAX: ROCKDOCS EP#1: SETTING THE STAGE

Rock Music Started Here

How does a song that was written in 1929 by a railway freight yard worker in Little Rock, Arkansas get credited with launching rock music as we now know it?

The story starts with Clarence Wilson. He worked for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and they encouraged their employees to promote the rail line to the public. So Clarence Wilson wrote about buying tickets on the Rock Island Line for his “Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet” and his catchy song spread. Singers adapted the lyrics to suit their situation and the song eventually it found its way to England to launch an entire music movement.

The man who would take “Rock Island Line” across the Atlantic first heard it on September 29, 1934 when it was sung by inmates at the Tucker Arkansas prison farm.

A former prison inmate himself, Lead Belly was working as a driver and assistant to musicologist Alan Lomax, who was traveling the country recording traditional folk music songs for the Library of Congress. On a state-of-the-art 315 pound phonograph uncoated-aluminum disc recorder, that was installed in the trunk of a Ford sedan, they recorded the prisoners at Tucker performing Rock Island Line. When they heard the same song a few days later at the Cummins prison farm they recorded it again, sung by 9 prisoners.

Lead Belly “King of the 12 String” finally recorded the song himself in June 1937 but it’s his January 1942 recording, with the introductory train driver monologue, that was actually released as a record. It’s that version that made its way across the Atlantic with America troops during World War II and it changed everything. Because recorded music was in limited supply, American Service radio transmitted Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line regularly to Allied troops and the song took root.

English jazz and blues singer George Melly was the first in the UK to record the song in 1951 but it was Lonnie Donegan’s version that kick started the UK Skiffle scene and launched the musical adventures of the Beatles, the Who and the Stones and any other would be guitar picker in postwar England. Without that song, as recorded by Lead Belly and then filtered through Lonnie Donegan, rock music as we now know it, as Van Morrison says in this interview, “probably wouldn’t have happened at all.” 

(BBC 2 Newsnight with Lonnie Donegan, Van Morrison, Ron Wood, Chris Barber – Van Morrison comment at 8:10 mark)

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road that rock music lovers are still riding! Listen to RockDocs Episode #1 Setting the Stage to see how it all came together.


SIDETRAX: ROCKDOCS EP#1: SETTING THE STAGE

Britain’s First Rock n Roller

Tommy Steele has been called Britain’s first rock n roller. He started his entertainment career in his mid-teens while working in the merchant navy. During his time at sea he learned to sing and play guitar, entertaining his shipmates with country songs. While on shore leave he saw Buddy Holly at the Grand Ol’ Opry and from then on he turned his talents to rock n roll.

Tommy Steele’s first success was in 1956. The UK charts were dominated by American acts but Rock With The Caveman went to #13. It was a significant achievement. He wrote the song with his band mates Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt. (Mike Pratt would later go on to star in the TV show Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), playing the original Randall. As a kid I loved this show and it’s so cool to watch it online now!)

That same year Tommy Steele’s entertainment career expanded to film with The Tommy Steele Story. The band wrote the accompanying album for the movie and when it was released in 1957 it made them the first UK based band to reach the coveted #1 spot on the UK charts.

With his big smile and good looks Tommy Steele was a natural for stage and screen. In 1963 his New York performance in the musical Half a Sixpence was seen by Walt Disney who signed him on to star in The Happiest Millionaire with Fred MacMurray. Tommy Steele’s career has spanned the decades with other films and stage performances, as well as writing, directing, art and graphic design and in the fall of 2020 his contribution was recognized when he was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

It’s not hard to see why Tommy Steele was a success. Along with his multi-talents he had a big infectious smile, good looks and was generally likeable and down to earth. That, along with his breadth and depth of talent, reminds me of Dave Grohl, the nicest guy in rock n roll.

Photo credit: Godfrey Argent – National Portrait Gallery
Photo credit: The Herald Scotland

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