1950s Radio in Color: A Look Inside and a Giveaway / by Leslie

Full disclosure: I know the author of this book and I have invested my own time in it. Despite the fact that I might be Chris Kennedy's biggest fan, I don't feel like I am blowing fluff when I say this is an incredibly interesting book. You don't have to take just my word for it, Collector's Weekly just published Found Photos: When Rock Lost Its Innocence, an interview and review of the book.

~1950s Radio in Color is now available on Amazon.com and at Kent State University Press~

"1950s Radio in Color gives Tommy Edwards his due recognition as the deejay responsible for perhaps the most important photographic and written documentation of twentieth-century music ever produced. Featuring over 200 color photographs, this book will transport readers back in time, allowing them to step into Edwards’s shoes for a moment and to feel the wonder and excitement he must have felt every day while witnessing a cultural revolution."

Elvis Presley, October 20, 1955 "Tommy Edwards surprises Elvis Presley as he signs autographs backstage at St. Michael's Hall, 10004 Union Avenue in Broadview Heights."

In October 2006, while searching for the elusive film The Pied Piper of Cleveland, Chris was focusing on Cleveland radio deejay Tommy Edwards, who had been at the St. Michael's Hall concert (see photo of Elvis above) featured in the film. Chris had located Tommy's nephew Keith and discovered that he had five color slides of Elvis that had been shot by Tommy on October 19-20, 1955. Copies of these images had been floating around the internet but in much poorer quality and uncredited. Chris was proud of his little find, but was stunned when a month later, Keith called to tell Chris that he had uncovered over 1700 more slides in his basement while looking for Christmas decorations. In February of 2007 Chris was on a plane to see the slides for himself. To say that Chris was thrilled when he saw them for the first time is a massive understatement. It was immediately clear that the slides were unique and special and should be documented and shared. 

Chris also knew of a newsletter that Tommy Edwards had written every week for the duration of his stint as a deejay at WERE radio station in Cleveland, but was unable to locate it. In April 2009, after signing the book publishing deal and having already written some of the book, an old friend of Bill Randle's told Chris that he had found in his closet a duplicate copy of all the newsletters that Tommy had written. Years ago, Tommy had given a copy to Bill who in turn had given it to his friend. Once again, through luck, tenacity and simply getting in touch with the right people, Chris was able to find an important document of rock music's roots.

Together, these two archives that Tommy created would be the basis for all the untold stories that were waiting to be uncovered. The beauty in this book is not just the unreal color photographs showing the fabulous fashions and sparkling stars of the day, or the historical facts describing the most creative and exciting time in rock 'n' roll, it is in the fascinating human stories of the musicians, actors and personalities trying to make it big. 

Left: Arlene Fontana, May 1958 "Twenty-three-year-old Arlene Fontana's natural talents and striking good looks all but guarantee her success. But sometimes the stars refuse to align, even for the most enviable among us." Right: Link Wray, April 1958 "Absolute rock 'n' roll gangster."

Each person in this book has a story to tell. There are many tragedies, some that we might be familiar with. Just five months after the below photo of the Big Bopper was taken, he died in a tragic plane crash with Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. Many people didn't make it past alcohol or drug addictions and there are numerous salacious tales (one involving Elvis himself!) There are also many triumphs. It's easy to recognise them because they are usually the people who we still know and love. Michael Landon, Connie Francis, Rock Hudson, Conway Twitty, Tina Louise, Clark Gable, Johnny Cash, Frankie Avalon, Roy Orbison, Anita Carter, the Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, Wanda Jackson, Charlton Heston, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Chuck Berry and of course Elvis Presley. Chris manages to bring a fresh perspective to all of them with his knowledge of music history and the music business. He's got an intuitive way of drawing out what might have been in their heads while the photos were taken. Of course, then there is the one where he wasn't able to uncover anything at all. If Melvin Smith is out there, could you give Chris a call?

Left: The Big Bopper, August 1958 "Bigger than life and in your face, multitalented deejay, singer-songwriter the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry "J.P." Richardson Jr.) hams it up for the camera." Right: Nellie Lutcher, May 1956 "What resplendent creature honors us with her regal presence? None other than forty-year-old rhythm and blues vocalist and pianist Nellie Lutcher, dressed to kill in her grey fox-fur stole and best Sunday crown."

There were many adventures along the way while Chris was researching the book. My favorite story is how he tracked down rockabilly legend Sanford Clark by calling the Epps, Louisiana sheriff and asking him to knock on Mr. Clark's door to give him a message. He wasn't too impressed that Chris sent the sheriff to him, but he gave a great quote about eating bologna sandwiches with Carl Perkins and getting drunk onstage with a tube running up his leg from his boot. 

Reading the trajectory of Tommy Edward's career in the chapter introductions offers a glimpse of radio when the deejay was still king and it maps out how everything was primed for rock 'n' roll and Elvis to emerge as an electric sensation in 1955. It seems the world was not quite ready though. I was surprised to learn that this was just rock's first wave and the establishment was able to beat back the flood of rockers and their vile ways for a few more years, at least on the radio. After Elvis was drafted into the army in 1958, things became a little more generic and eventually radio pushed out the deejays like Edwards and relied on standardized programming. It wasn't until the Beatles arrived in 1964 that people really began to rock again.

Left: Miyoshi Umeki, April 1956 "Twenty-seven-year-old singer and actress Miyoshi Umeki delicately delivers Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean," the A-side of her debut Mercury single." Right: Malcolm Dodds, January 1959 "Best described as the missing link between Sam Cooke's gospel pop fusion of the late 1950s and the soulful sixties sophistication of Marvin Gaye, the music of Malcolm Dodds (Williams) amazes those fortunate enough to hear it."

There are many layers to this book and many ways in which to enjoy it. The fashions are outstanding, and besides the torpedo bras (see the photo of Gloria Mann below), I would love to see these gorgeous suits and dresses make a come back. The photography is candid and in the moment, showing an environment rarely seen unless you were there. Chris's research is outstanding and it's wonderful to have all these bits sewn together into a complete picture of American culture and music in the late 50s.

Chris was able to contact many of the people featured in the book and their quotes and remembrances of the era make it all come alive. Hearing these people reflect back upon these pictures is probably the most touching, they add details that we might have missed and most seem genuinely thrilled to revisit this time in their lives.

Fay Morley remembers that she only ever wore one glove because she kept losing them. Charlie Gracie noticed his monogrammed handkerchief from his future wife. Bob Labnon of the Short Twins remembered a car accident days before the picture was taken that explains the bandage on his head. Ethel Ennis thinks she looks like her daughter. Pat Boone remembered that during his on-air interview with Tommy, a fan had climbed up the fire escape and knocked on the door of the studio. Buzz Cason of the Casuals (photo below, on the right) said it was the best shot he's ever seen of him and Richard Williams.

The Casuals, December 1957 "Two boys, just seventeen, dizzy with the realization that all their fantasies are coming true."

I hope that you will pick up a copy for yourself! I'm also very happy to announce that I am giving away ONE SIGNED COPY to a lucky reader. Leave a comment below, telling me why you would like to win a book. Are you a fan of Elvis, did you grow up in the 1950s, will you create a fashion line from the outfits? Each person can only be entered once. I will use a random number generator to choose a winner. Comments will be open until 11:59pm on Sunday July 17th. Good luck to everyone!