December 3, 2021

Where Were These Rock & Roll Pioneers during the Height of the ’50s Nostalgia Craze?

All through the 1970s, Americans rode a wave of nostalgia for a better, simpler time: a largely mythical version of the 1950s. Whether because the social upheaval of the sixties had put paid to the Postwar Era and its bedrock, conservative values or because Vietnam and Watergate had finally overwhelmed any hope for a new Age of Aquarius,  people across the nation escaped to and found solace in the representations of the fifties that were cropping up everywhere in popular culture.

American Graffiti. The original stage production of Grease. Happy Days. Sha Na Na. The early to mid-seventies offered seemingly endless opportunities to travel back in time to the Postwar Era. But the nostalgia wave really crested in 1978, especially with the release of the movie adaptation of Grease, starring John Travolta as the leader of a greaser gang in fictional Rydell High School and Olivia Newton-John as the wholesome Australian emigre who falls for him. Grease struck a deep, resonant chord with audiences and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of the year and the highest-grossing musical of all time.

The movie included a cameo by fifties teen idol and beach movie mainstay Frankie Avalon and sock-hop performances by Sha Na Na, scratching the public’s itch for music reminiscent of that era. But another 1978 picture, released just a month before, played an even more important part in rekindling interest in fifties rock & roll. The Buddy Holly Story was, well, the story of Buddy Holly, the bespectacled Texan singer and songwriter and rock & roll pioneer who perished in a 1959 plane crash. Arriving in theaters less than year after the death of Elvis Presley, the movie brought to the fore again the originators of the rock & roll sound.

All of which helps explain why, not long after, a handful of these musicians were ushered back into the spotlight.

Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers had all stayed active in the seventies but mostly on the outer edges of rock & roll stardom: recording for smaller labels, touring overseas, etc. In 1979, each of them signed a deal with a new, major label and released an album that received more press and occasionally even acclaim than the artist had seen in some time.

Chuck Berry

Despite a return to Chess Records in 1970 and a No. 1 single on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” the seventies were overall a period of decline for Berry as a recording artist. He spent much of the decade on the road, traveling with only his guitar and an expectation that he would find a backing band that knew his songs wherever he went. But with the proliferation of fifties nostalgia, his star began to rise again.

In 1977, for example, he appeared in more and higher-profile TV shows than he had in years: Donny and Marie, Saturday Night Live, Don Kirshner’s Rock ConcertAmerican Bandstand’s 25th Anniversary and Sha Na Na, among others. In March 1978, just a few months before the releases of The Buddy Holly Story and Grease, he and Jerry Lee Lewis both appeared in American Hot Wax a movie about rock & roll DJ Alan Freed — playing the fifties versions of themselves. American Hot Wax was a box office bomb but its soundtrack, which included new performances by both Berry and Lewis, was a modest success, somehow climbing to No. 31 on the Billboard album chart without a hit movie behind it.

In August 1979, Berry released Rockit, his first album in four years and his first on ATCO Records, an imprint of Atlantic. Reuniting the guitarist with piano player Johnnie Johnson, his collaborator on many of his earliest and biggest hits, Rockit was a lively collection of fun if minor tunes. “The inventor of rock and roll hasn’t made an album this listenable in fifteen years,” Robert Christgau wrote in his review for the Village Voice. “No great new songs, but he’s never written better throwaways.”

And unlike other rock & roll pioneers recording in the late seventies, Berry resisted the temptation to bow to the latest musical fads. In other words: no disco. The only nods to the times on Rockit are the crisp production and the album cover artwork, which suggests a scene from Star Wars but with Berry’s guitar standing in for the Millennium Falcon.

Unfortunately, the record-buying public generally didn’t adopt Christgau’s point of view. Neither Rockit nor its accompanying single — “Oh What a Thrill” — charted on either side of the Atlantic. Surely not helping matters, much of the press surrounding its release focused on Berry’s recent conviction for income tax evasion and his four-month sentence in a prison camp, which began just weeks before the LP appeared on stores’ shelves. Whether for these reasons or for others, Rockit would be Berry’s last album of new material until 2017’s Chuck — and the last to be released in his lifetime.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Lewis spent much of the seventies recording for Mercury and racking up hits on the country chart: “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” “Touching Home,” “Middle Age Crazy.” But by 1978, he was ready for a change.

Bored with the country scene and in need of an infusion of cash — the IRS had been after him for unpaid taxes, garnishing both his advances and his royalties — Lewis signed with Elektra/Asylum Records, his first new label since he left Sun for Mercury subsidiary Smash Records in 1963. Elektra had an idea. In keeping with the 1950s nostalgia wave and taking advantage of his higher profile following appearances on Elvis tribute specials and in American Hot Wax, it would reposition and relaunch him as a rock & roll icon.

Released in August 1979 and produced by Bones Howe, whose resume included work on Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special and some of the Mamas & the Papas’ biggest hits, Jerry Lee Lewis sounded like a breath of fresh air blowing out of the Tennessee Valley toward the sun and sands of the California coast. Recorded live in the studio, the album was an eclectic set with rock & roll covers of songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to Allen Toussaint; a whole lot of pumping piano, recalling his Sun Records sides from the fifties; and even a country tune or two.

Critics generally welcomed the LP as a return to form. Unfortunately, the rock & roll record-buying public didn’t catch on. Jerry Lee Lewis climbed to No. 23 on the country chart but stalled at No. 186 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Likely as a result, the Killer wouldn’t make another major attempt at a rock & roll comeback for some years. He would mostly revert to country for his next two, Elektra-released albums, then toil in obscurity for much of the rest of the eighties.

And what of the IRS? As it happened, the taxman caught up with Lewis even before the album was released. In February 1979, IRS special agents accompanied by US Treasury Department agents and DeSoto County, Miss., sheriff’s deputies arrived at Lewis’ Nesbit, Miss., home and seized a Rolls Royce, two tractors, a Corvette, a Cadillac, two antique cars, a motorcycle, a jeep, farm equipment, furniture, stereo equipment, television sets and an organ. In interviews in the weeks that followed, the singer railed against the agency’s “Gestapo” tactics. His wife at the time said it was all just a mixup.

Roy Orbison

Despite being a creatively fallow time for the singer, the 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in Roy Orbison and his music. Bruce Springsteen name-checked the singer on his 1975 breakthrough Born to Run; Linda Ronstadt scored a No. 3 hit in 1977 with a cover of his song “Blue Bayou”; the same year, an appearance alongside Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in a tribute to Elvis on the Johnny Cash Christmas Special introduced or re-reintroduced him to legions of television viewers. Eventually, this renewed attention, likely helped along by the wave of fifties nostalgia still in full force, led to a deal with Elektra/Asylum Records — the same label that signed Jerry Lee Lewis at about the same time (and that had released Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou” not long before).

The deal spawned an album: Laminar Flow ( the title was a nod to Orbison’s love of model airplanes). Released in May 1979, the record covered considerable stylistic terrain: from easy listening ballads (“Love Is a Cold Wind,” “I Care”) to something sort of approaching funk (“Lay It Down”), from barrelhouse rockers (“Movin’,” “Friday Night”) to the tender “Hound Dog Man,” a tribute to Orbison’s old friend Elvis.

Many reviewers couldn’t get past the album opener, though: the full-on disco track “Easy Way Out.” In a typical if especially discourteous review in the Philadelphia Daily News, for example, Rich Aregood wrote, “Laminar Flow makes you wonder if somebody’s trying to make Roy Orbison look like a jackass.” He pointed to “Easy Way Out” as a particular low point. The song, he said, “takes away from Dolly Parton the award for Worst Disco Performance by a Country Performer Who Doesn’t Know What He or She Is Doing.”

Released as a single, “Easy Way Out” managed to claw its way to No. 109 on the Billboard singles chart. The album itself failed to place, though, reflecting its poor sales. Elektra/Asylum dropped Orbison; Laminar Flow would be the singer’s last album of new material released in his lifetime.

And yet, both his reputation and his career remained on the ascendant. In 1980, Don McLean scored a hit with a cover of the Orbison song “Crying,” which climbed to No. 5 in the US and No. 1 in the UK. Two years later, Van Halen topped the US Mainstream Rock chart with a cover of his “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The early 1980s also saw the beginnings of a revival for Orbison — a revival that Laminar Flow had failed to bring about. A duet with Emmylou Harris for the soundtrack to the movie Roadie earned him a Grammy in 1981 and set him on a path that culminated with the Traveling Wilburys’ debut in 1988 and the Top 5 Orbison album Mystery Girl, completed only weeks before the singer’s death in December 1988.

Phil Everly

Elektra/Asylum was all in for early rock & roll at the tail end of the seventies. In addition to label debuts by Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, 1979 saw the maiden Elektra release for Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers.

Everly’s solo career had gotten off to a long, slow start. He released his debut LP on RCA — the Everly Brothers’ label at the time — in 1973, not long after the brothers famously broke up onstage during a show at Knott’s Berry Farm. But his post-Everlys association with RCA would prove short lived. In 1974, he moved to the British label Pye Records. He released two albums on Pye, neither of which charted or produced a hit single. By 1976, he had pretty much fallen off the radar.

Then a career boost came in the form of a Clint Eastwood film with an orangutan. Everly appeared in a cameo in the 1978 comedy Every Which Way But Loose, performing a song he had written — “Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me No More” — alongside actress Sondra Locke, who portrayed Eastwood’s love interest. In contributing to the movie, he reconnected with Snuff Garrett, who was producing its soundtrack. Collaborating on the soundtrack together  eventually led to Garrett producing an LP for Everly, the singer’s maiden release for Elektra. “Since he’s an old friend, working with him is like slicing butter, so the album resulted,” Everly later told Nancy Anderson of Copley News Service.

Living Alone garnered little attention when it was released in the summer of 1979. And those who did give it a spin either damned it with faint praise or simply dismissed it. One reviewer, writing for the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., said Everly “is to be admired for his perseverance. He can even be forgiven for putting two disco throwaways on the album.” Another, writing for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, observed that Everly doesn’t even come close to rocking on the album. “Filled with nauseous violins and a faint disco beat, Living Alone is a minor disappointment and a major failure.”

While the album quickly faded from view, Everly wasn’t quite ready to call it a day. He released a pair of one-off singles in 1980 and 1981 on Epic and Curb Records, respectively. The first of these — “Dare to Dream Again” — spent 16 weeks on Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart, peaking at No. 9. Next, a self-titled 1983 album on Capitol spawned a No. 9 hit in the UK. But instead of jump-starting his solo career, this proved to be his solo swan song. Phil and Don Everly reunited the same year, releasing several more albums together and achieving modest success during the rock & roll revival of the eighties.

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