On the brink of becoming an artistic phenomenon: The incendiary deejay who broke Elvis Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line

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Sporting unusual curly hair, Elvis Presley innocently looks at the camera as he gets a first taste of autograph mania in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 20, 1955. Presley was in town to film several songs for lost documentary “The Pied Piper of Cleveland,” financed by deejay Bill Randle. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

On July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley, chock full of nerves and not exactly sure of what would transpire, ventured inside Sun Studio for his first official recording session with producer Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.

After trying various songs with middling results, Phillips was ready to end the session, but Presley serendipitously began playing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” on his acoustic guitar, fusing the bluesy number into a heretofore unexplored musical genre that ultimately became rock ’n’ roll.

One of radio jockey Tommy Edwards’ singular achievements was recognizing Presley’s talent after “That’s All Right” was dropped in mid-summer 1954 on Sun Records. Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Presley, and his efforts paid considerable dividends for the brash singer, breaking him north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the ’50s. Since Presley vocally resembled a black R&B singer, multiple radio markets refused to play his music.

Edwards was so beloved by his Midwest audience that if he believed a single was worthwhile, it virtually guaranteed the artist would become a star. He also moonlighted as a photographer, documenting hundreds of artists at the pinnacle of their fame with a remarkable passion.

Edwards once admitted, “It’s too bad that a man has to die before he gets recognition that’s long been due him.” That quote could easily be applied to the innovative deejay-television personality himself, who passed away over 35 years ago of a brain aneurysm.

Chris Kennedy, author of the much lauded 1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards, explores the trailblazing deejay’s relationship with Presley’s formative career and 1950s pop culture in a fascinating interview debuting exclusively today. Stick around as Kennedy argues why Edwards’ incendiary career deserves reappraisal in the 21st century.

Elvis Presley, then age 20, signs autographs for some female admirers in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 19, 1955, while in town for the filming of the still-lost “Pied Piper of Cleveland” documentary. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

​The Complete Chris Kennedy / 1950s Radio in Color Interview

Name a few ’50s artists that you especially admire.

I discovered the music of Elvis Presley when I was about seven years old, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I draw inspiration from the music of Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. I admire what Sam Phillips accomplished at Sun Records. In writing the book, I discovered, researched and became a fan of Malcolm Dodds, Jimmy Crain, Nellie Lutcher, etc.

Is it hyperbole to suggest that Elvis invented rock ’n’ roll with “That’s All Right”? How do you think pop culture would have changed if Sam, Elvis, Scotty, and Bill had simply given up and went home?

I think it is a bit over reaching to suggest Elvis “invented” rock and roll with his recording of “That’s Alright Mama,” but it is the first, or at least one of the first, examples of mostly all the key ingredients being present in the mix. Ike’s Turner’s “Rocket 88” from 1951 and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” released in May of 1954, both predate and certainly “rock” harder than “Mama,” but they’re still not quite seasoned right.

The rebellious fusion of country, R&B, gospel, pop, fashion and sex is what Elvis brought to the table. Starting with “Mama,” and later hitting dead square center with tracks such as “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “One Night,” Elvis obliterated everyone’s preconceived notions about popular music, made irrelevant music’s man-made racial barriers and sexed up the world with a whole lot of swagger, tease and fun.

I think if the boys went home that night and didn’t find “Mama,” they would have found something similar the next night or the next. It was inevitable. I think Elvis would’ve rather died than become an electrician. He was going to make music.

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The renowned photo of Elvis Presley and Bill “Rock Around the Clock” Haley, snapped by deejay Tommy Edwards on October 20, 1955, during the filming of the inexplicably lost documentary, “The Pied Piper of Cleveland.” Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

Why did Tommy Edwards prefer the B-side, a revved-up cover of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass ballad, “Blue Moon of Kentucky?”

My research shows that Tommy played “Blue Moon of Kentucky” more than “Mama” on his Saturday radio show, “Hillbilly Jamboree,” because his white, country music audience would be more familiar with bluegrass king Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky” than R&B Arthur Crudup’s “Mama.” I believe it was as simple as that.

What was it about Elvis that knocked Tommy’s socks off?

Tommy closely followed the music trades and had his ear to the ground. He was aware of the rumbling Elvis was making below the surface, particularly in the South. So in late 1954 he began spinning “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and the northern audience reacted.

Consequently in February 1955, Tommy booked Elvis on his Hillbilly Jamboree show at the Circle Theater in Cleveland. It was Elvis’s first appearance north of the Mason Dixon line. Again, audience reaction was good, especially among the teenagers.

So Tommy continued to play Elvis’s Sun singles and booked him at the Circle for an encore performance in October 1955 during the filming of The Pied Piper of Cleveland. The favorable reaction of the Cleveland audience helped prove to the big record companies courting Elvis that his appeal was not restricted to the southern states.

Also during that October 1955 performance, Tommy captured Elvis signing autographs. When I view those photos, I see an exuberant kid with a perm, on the brink of becoming an artistic phenomenon, basking in the adulation of females. In other words, I see dreams coming true.

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Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and virtually obscured doghouse bassist Bill Black perform on October 19, 1955, at the Circle Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, during filming of the lost Holy Grail of rock ’n’ roll, “The Pied Piper of Cleveland.” Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

How did you learn about The Pied Piper of Cleveland and what prompted your investigation?

Well, The Pied Piper of Cleveland is music’s first rockumentary, a movie short personally financed by WERE deejay Bill Randle. This was the first film Elvis appeared in, also featuring Bill Haley and the Comets, the Four Lads, Priscilla Wright, and Pat Boone.

This yet unreleased film is the lost Holy Grail of rock ’n’ roll. Being an Elvis fan for most of my life, I’ve always heard rumblings about The Pied Piper. It was Randle’s death in 2004 and simple curiosity that prompted the search.

Discovering Tommy Edwards’s slides taken on the day The Pied Piper was filmed is, short of finding the film, the next, best thing. A couple of other times I feel I’ve gotten d — n close to finding the film. It’s definitely lost, but hopefully not forever.

Once Elvis became a national phenomenon, Tommy opined that Elvis wasn’t recording hillbilly music anymore. Did Tommy come to accept Elvis’s new direction with rock music?

I think Tommy was a bit possessive about Elvis, and very proud of the early role he played in supporting him. He wasn’t too happy about Elvis moving away from country music in 1956. It was as if he and his country audience considered Elvis their own little secret, and the boy was slipping away from them.

Elvis returned to do a show on November 23, 1956, at the Cleveland Arena. Did Tommy and Elvis reunite?

After the October 1955 shows in Cleveland, they never met again. Elvis never spoke about Tommy’s influence on his career, but had he lived to be properly interviewed, I could imagine he might have.

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Presenting the original sheet music for Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” released February 1957 exclusively in the United Kingdom on the His Master’s Voice record label. Image Credit: 45Cat user Gshiel

In the book, you called “Mystery Train” Elvis’s last honest recording until his return from the army in March 1960. Why do you feel this way?

The beautifully effortless recording of “Mystery Train,” from Scotty’s first riffs to Elvis’s laugh in the fade, encapsulates Elvis’s time at Sun Records.

Sam Phillips’ style of producing was to create an environment where the true essence of the artist was encouraged to expose itself, then thrive. The material that Elvis recorded at Sun was culled from his own record collection, from the artists who inspired him.

When he moved to RCA, this changed. The material was brought in by music publishers who didn’t know anything about Elvis as an artist. RCA’s Steve Sholes let Elvis do his thing, but this change in song style to a more pop sound, to my ears, sometimes sounded forced.

When Elvis was drafted in 1958 and ended up in Germany, cut off from his career, he reconnected with his record collection to keep him sane. He survived, much as he did before recording for Sun, with his heroes on record, alone in his bedroom.

So when he returns from the army in 1960, the sessions include the standard RCA pop fare such as “Make Me Know It.”

However, Elvis also dips back into his private stash, cutting such amazing performances such as “I Will Be Home Again” and “Reconsider Baby,” as well as the operatic “It’s Now or Never,” a risky move for him, but his skill and unique, honest enthusiasm make it all work somehow.

A forward-thinking guy artistically, Elvis tended to lose contact — perhaps intentionally — with the musicians and guiding figures who shaped his early, groundbreaking career. If Elvis had lived, would he have reunited with Sam Phillips in the recording studio?

Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison all eventually went back to Sun, but not back to Sam. Elvis might have gone back to Sun, but not to Sam. I can picture Sam telling him, “F — k you, let’s go make a record in that sh — ty shotgun shack you were born in. That’s where I want to hear you howl at the moon, you son-of-a-b — ch!”

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The rear 45 single sleeve of Elvis Presley’s “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” b/w “Take Good Care of Her,” a No. 39 Pop, No. 4 C&W mini hit dropped in January 1974 via RCA Victor Records. Photography by Ed Bonja / Elvis Presley USA Vinyl / Sony Music Entertainment

How did you first become aware of Elvis?

I have to pay props to my mom. It’s a humid, cloudless afternoon at a mall in New Jersey, early summer 1974. I’m an introverted six-year-old, staying put in Mom’s shadow. My sister walks the aisles of Sam Goody’s record store, in search of the latest LP by John Denver, her favorite.

Maybe it’s her enthusiasm as she triumphantly pulls Denver’s Back Home Again out of the rack, or maybe I find standing in the middle of a loud, bustling record store cool and exciting, but something in me clicks.

So I take the shot and ask my mom if I, too, can get a record. Exactly which record would have to be up to her, since I don’t have a clue. Elvis Presley was 39 years old in summer 1974, and in three years he’ll be dead. My mom was 36 years old, and remembers dancing to Presley’s 1957 hit, “Teddy Bear,” in her bedroom.

The 45 RPM record she chooses for me is “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” b/w “Take Good Care of Her,” one of Elvis’s latest. It’s a safe bet for a six-year-old, something not too loud or offensive.

Later, on the back stoop, as the trusty Fischer Price portable record player spins the disc, I sit with my mom, watching the stars. It was simple, unhindered and beautiful, as most magic moments are. My mom, Elvis and me. Something clicks.

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“Coming Soon! Special Elvis Anniversary LP Album:” Presenting the alluring cover of Elvis Presley’s “Tickle Me” EP, unleashed in June 1965 via RCA Victor Records. The collection of previously released tunes stalled at a lowly No. 70 Pop on Billboard. Image Credit: Nostalgi Palatset / Sony Music Entertainment

What was the experience that triggered your real interest in Elvis?

I was about 10 or 11 and Elvis had just died. One afternoon, my father asked if I wanted to hear something good. He proceeded to play Elvis’s “In the Ghetto” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” I guess it was the scary cellos in both songs that got me because it seems from that moment on I knew I was going to be a musician.

As far as Elvis goes, the deal was sealed a few months later when I caught his 1965 film, Tickle Me, on late night TV. He was the epitome of cool, confidence and talent, and his image and style had a huge impact on me.

It’s interesting to note that Tickle Me was made at the considered low point in Elvis’s career. The film was very low budget and featured no new soundtrack songs. All the material was culled from earlier releases, such as the amazing Elvis Is Back! studio album from 1960.

In a way, it’s a good introduction to Elvis because all the songs in the film are great, and at that time in 1965, he looked very healthy and fit.

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The Everly Brothers meet deejay Tommy Edwards on his fledgling Cleveland television show, Farm Bureau Jamboree, on October 1, 1957. The gifted harmony singers were in town to promote the soon to be classic “Wake Up Little Susie.” Image courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

When you discovered Tommy’s lost photo collection in 2006, did you immediately recognize that it was an extraordinary find?

I located Tommy’s nephew, who had five 35mm slides in his possession. About a month later, he called to say he found nearly 1,800 more, stashed under a workbench in cardboard boxes. He simply forgot he had inherited the whole collection.

As you can imagine, when I heard this, my imagination ran wild regarding what the collection might contain. I wasn’t disappointed. With his camera and newsletters, Tommy Edwards captured the rock ’n’ roll explosion, as well as 1950s pop culture, as never before seen or documented.

When I saw how beautiful and historically important his photographs were, I knew they should be shared. I knew what type of book the photographs should be presented in, having many photography, art and music books in my own library.

So I just approached the project as passionately as I did my recording career, writing songs and getting record deals. In my mind there was never a question whether I could do it, I just had to work out the details. Call it a false sense of confidence coupled with blind ambition. For me, that’s a potent combination.

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Johnny Cash playfully poses inside Cleveland’s WERE studios for promotion of his latest single, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” incidentally written by Sun Records engineer Cowboy Jack Clement. The Man in Black was only 25 years old when this candid was snapped in January 1958. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

I am amazed at how well Tommy dated his photos. He must have been a details-oriented guy.

I believe Tommy had the need to make order out of chaos, after his traumatic experiences serving in World War II. In my research and interviews, I learned that Tommy was attached to an anti-tank unit in North Africa and saw heavy action.

He hardly ever spoke about his time in the military, but many agreed he seemed scarred from the experience, changed. His nephew theorized that his fastidiousness was a type of coping mechanism for him. He was a very meticulous guy, and we’re lucky for that. The slides were in excellent condition.

He also self-produced an amazingly detailed, two-page newsletter for radio industry insiders from 1953 through 1960, called the T.E. Newsletter. The wealth of information in the newsletters is the photo collection’s indispensable companion piece.

What are some of your favorite photos featured in the book?

Tommy was a documentary photographer. His photos capture icons and unknowns alike, in such a candid and revelatory way. My favorite photos in the book are the ones where I can see my own dreams, disappointments and accomplishments reflected back at me. Dale Hawkins, Michael Landon, El Boy, Maureen Cannon, etc. etc.

Were there any photos you chose not to publish?

Out of the nearly 1,800 photographs, I handpicked 200 for the book, based on various factors. Naturally, Elvis, Chuck Berry and other influential artists were included. If the subject was still alive and I interviewed them, that would play a part in the selection. Sometimes a photo would just be beautiful, regardless of who was in it, so it would end up in the book.

I would absolutely consider publishing more of Tommy’s photos. However, the right situation would have to present itself.

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Cabaret singer, actress, dancer, and recording artist Arlene Fontana is photographed inside deejay Tommy Edwards’ WERE Studio in Cleveland, Ohio, May 1958. The alluring artist certainly had the looks for a major career but fate was not on her side. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

What comes to mind upon viewing the following images featured in the book?

  • The Everly Brothers with Tommy Edwards — I see a deejay at the top of his game, leading the charge in breaking a new rock ’n’ roll duo’s record wide open in Cleveland. I chose it for the cover of the book because, number one, it’s an awesome photograph, and two, because it’s Tommy pictured with one of the best rock ’n’ roll duos of all time.
  • Chuck Berry — I see an incredible artist with none of the confidence or swagger he’ll have in a few short months. I see an amazing photograph that captures one of rock’s architects in his ascension to fame.
  • Sam Cooke (caught off-guard eating a pastry) — I’m reminded I prefer his gospel recordings to his pop material.
  • Elvis Presley (signing autographs) — I see an exuberant kid with a perm, on the brink of becoming an artistic phenomenon, basking in the adulation of females. In other words, I see dreams coming true.
  • Roy Orbison — I see myself. I see dreams dashed. I see determination. I see a kid who buys his clothes at Lansky Brothers in Memphis, emulating his friend who’s “made it,” Elvis Presley.
  • Gene Vincent — I see a guy who’s recorded one of the most badass songs ever heard (“Be Bop a Lula”), and he knows it.
  • The Big Bopper — I think of reading a letter that Elvis wrote while in Germany, when he heard about the plane crash, and how genuinely sad, scared and lonely the tragedy made him feel.
  • Dion — I tried very hard to contact him for an interview, but never could. So it’s very frustrating, I love his music and I believe he would’ve had some cool insights about Cleveland.
  • Johnny Horton (country and rockabilly singer) — I remember hearing a story about Johnny Cash and Horton, on tour in Canada, writing “The Girl from Saskatoon,” at night, in the car. Awesome song.
  • Johnny Cash — I remember meeting him backstage at a show on October 28, 1989, at The Ritz in New York City, right before he went onstage, and how he was shaking and trembling. I think of my father playing his records. I think of how no one will ever be that cool again.
  • Anita Carter (Carter Family member and sister of June Carter Cash) — I think of the chills I feel every time I hear her.
  • Conway Twitty — I hear “Bom, Bom Bom…You’ve Never Been This Far Before.”
  • Grandpa Jones (Grand Ole Opry member and banjo picker) — I think, “Awesome photo…creepy mug-shot.”
  • Gloria Mann (pop singer) — To quote a line from Young Frankenstein, “What knockers!”
  • Michael Landon — I think of my grandmother watching Little House on the Prairie, and I miss her. Landon looks so laid back and cool in the photograph.
  • Actor Jeff Chandler — I remind myself to seek out some Jeff Chandler films.
  • Frankie Avalon — I’m disappointed I couldn’t interview him. His manager wanted $50,000 for an interview. I was a bit short on cash at the time.
  • Connie Stevens (actress and singer) — I think, “What’s with that dress that looks like it’s from 1849?”
  • Actress Rhonda Fleming — I bet she smells like strawberries.
  • Actress Tina Louise — I interviewed Tina, but she refused permission to print the interview. She said something to the effect of, “Why should I let you print an interview with me in your book when I’m writing my own book? I’ll keep my stories for my book.” It’s a shame too, because we had some good conversations. She seems to be a very guarded and suspicious person, and probably has her reasons. It was quite a hard job to just make contact with her as well. I don’t hold out much hope that she will allow me to use our interview anytime soon.
  • Entertainer Arlene Fontana — Such a great photo, such awesome energy captured in the frame, something special is going on with this woman.
  • Melvin Smith (obscure pop singer) — Where are you?
  • Connie Russell (jazz singer and actress) — A passionate person who probably would have been cool to know. Also, a beautiful photograph.
  • Elaine Dunn (singer and dancer) — Elaine’s photo is a great example of Tommy’s eye, his unobtrusive skill for capturing his subjects in candid moments.
  • Tommy Edwards (posing in Record Heaven with the Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison record) — I see a content person, someone I would have loved to have met and interviewed, someone who played a pivotal role in launching rock ’n’ roll’s first wave.
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Red haired vixen Rhonda Fleming, perhaps the most beautiful movie star to ever step in front of a camera, is captured by deejay Tommy Edwards at WERE Studios in Cleveland while promoting her “Rhonda” album for Columbia Records in January 1958. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Christopher Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

Tommy briefly flirted as a recording artist, recording five singles. Did he take this facet of his career seriously?

Tommy took his recording career very seriously. His first record of “What Is a Teen Age Girl?” was poised to be a hit when it was released in January 1957, but Coral Records didn’t have enough records in the stores. So it was a missed opportunity, although it did go on to sell about 100,000 copies [it charted at a respectable №60 on Billboard’s pop chart].

His proposed second single was “The Story of Elvis Presley,” which was never released. It was to be a mock interview record with actual Elvis songs inserted as responses. Coral was apparently unable to get the rights from RCA to do it. I’d love to hear it today… I wonder if tapes exist.

His other records didn’t fare very well. All the records were narration over orchestral backgrounds, and when you hear them today, they offer great snapshots of 1950s teenage life.

Who were some of your memorable interviews?

In my interview with Charlie Louvin, he spoke very candidly about his brother, Ira, which added to the intimacy of their photograph. George Darro, the rockabilly artist from Pennsylvania, has had a tough life but maintains this amazingly positive attitude, it’s contagious. Also, Jackie Jocko was inspiring and fun.

It was insightful to interview a few of Tommy’s girlfriends, who were able to add a very human side to his story. Many of women I interviewed, such as Wanda Jackson, Dolores Hart, and Beverly Ross, remembered the clothes and jewelry they were wearing; again, adding to the intimacy.

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Chris Kennedy ponders the future inside the Magoya Japanase Restaurant in Chester, New York, circa February 15, 2014. Kennedy is best known as the bassist for power pop band Ruth Ruth as well as the author of “1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards.” Image courtesy of Chris Kennedy

What is the story behind you tracking down rockabilly/country singer Sanford Clark of “The Fool” fame, which Elvis later covered on his acclaimed Elvis Country album in 1970?

I knew he was alive and living in Epps, Louisiana, but I couldn’t find an exact address or phone number. So I called the local police and explained my purpose and mission.

It was Sheriff Porter’s own suggestion that he take a ride out to the area where I believed Sanford was, and knock on a few doors. If he found Sanford, he would give him my contact info, and if he wanted to call, he would.

Within a few days Sanford called me, and in a low, gruff voice, asked if I was the fella who had the police come knockin’ on his door. I told him I was, we had a good laugh, and he came through with a great interview. I called Sheriff Porter and thanked him.

My impression was Sanford is a guy who doesn’t put up with any bullshit. He loved the music but had no use for the music business.

The late Sonny James rarely granted interviews. Was it easy locating the “Southern Gentleman” responsible for an incredible 16 straight number one country singles between 1967 and 1971?

Sonny was very difficult to find. But most of the people I interviewed took work to locate. I enjoy that part of the process very much. It’s exciting. Anyway, after exhausting all other avenues, I wrote a letter to an address I hoped belonged to him, requesting an interview. He soon got back to me. Sonny was amazingly candid and very friendly.

He remembered that Tommy was responsible for breaking “Young Love” — his first crossover hit in 1957 — in Cleveland. A photo inscribed by Sonny to Tommy reads: “My best to a real good friend, T.E. — Thanks for everything.”

I was shocked at the sudden fate of singer Vince Wayne.

Vince Wayne was from Cleveland, Ohio, and was an up and coming singer on Roulette Records. He collapsed onstage in April 1959 and died shortly after from a brain aneurism.

Tommy was a supporter of Vince [a photo of Vince at a February record hop appears in the book] and attended the funeral, with his camera. He shot pictures of Vince in the casket, as was custom at that time, and gave the photos to Vince’s mother as keepsakes. A bit macabre, but in 1959 it was an acceptable practice.

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The tragically beautiful Anita Carter — Johnny Cash’s sister-in-law — is captured at Cleveland’s WERE Studios by deejay Tommy Edwards in November 1957. The lilting soprano of the Carter Family, Anita was by far the prettiest and best singer in the group. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

Why did Tommy stop taking photos?

As a result of the payola scandal of the late 1950s, radio went through a quick and radical upheaval. The scandal was the wind of change that signaled the end of the autonomous deejays, including Tommy and Randle. The deejay no longer held the power to choose what records would be played, and as a result, no longer shaped tastes and trends.

Tommy no longer fit that job description and was forced out in July 1959. He flatly denied ever taking part in any payola schemes and was never accused. Tommy swore his reputation was clean, refusing even offers to go out for a cup of coffee with promotion men.

In reality, both Randle and Tommy escaped the payola scandal, and neither one of them had their reputations tarnished. Their relationship was one of intense competitive rivalry, with Tommy’s undemonstrative efficiency often clashing with Randle’s perceived intellectual snobbery.

More succinctly, they hated each other with a passion, according to WERE overnight jock Carl Reese. There was mutual respect, at a distance.

Because of the changing times in the business, Randle also left radio in the early sixties. He became a lawyer and had a private practice for many years. Only much later did he return to radio.

Tommy stopped taking pictures because he no longer had access to the celebrities his job had afforded him. In addition, when he was fired from WERE, he lost a part of himself.

An embittered Tommy kept a careful list of the rats who deserted him, including label executives and national record pluggers. Not much is known about it, as he never named names. Tommy felt betrayed by what were apparently superficial friendships within the business.

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No longer a prominent disc jockey or television personality, a still contented Tommy Edwards holds the best-selling “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” album while posing inside his Record Heaven music store on October 20, 1969. Image courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

How would you characterize Tommy’s marriage?

The impression I got from the research was that it was a strong and supportive marriage, at least for the majority of their time together. Ann assisted at record hops and traveled to deejay conventions with him. Tommy always spoke highly of her in his newsletters.

Ann’s brother was able to give me a perspective on Tommy and Ann’s relationship that no one else could, so I’m grateful for that. I got the impression from him that Ann was a drinker, and when she drank, she was a nightmare. But basically overall, she was a nice person with some deep rooted problems, like us all I guess.

When Tommy’s radio career ended, the marriage was not able to sustain itself any longer. Perhaps without radio and the life it implied, the spark in their relationship was gone.

What did Tommy do for the remainder of his life?

After his radio career came to an end, Tommy opened a record store called Hillbilly Heaven in Cleveland, Ohio, which specialized in country music. Over time, he broadened his inventory to include all genres and changed the shop’s name to Record Heaven.

I don’t believe Tommy would have returned to radio on his own accord. But if someone came offering him a job, in Cleveland, he might have considered it. That was more his personality.

Tommy died in 1981 of a brain aneurysm. He was 60 years old. Upon his death, the photo collection and newsletters vanished. I discovered them in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

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The coffee-table book cover of “1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards,” written by Christopher Kennedy and released on May 6, 2011. Image Credit: Kent State University Press

Tommy was very much a trailblazer in adopting technology. How would he feel about satellite radio today?

Tommy embraced new technology, and it was this trait that made his archives a reality. He built a lab in his home and began shooting color film in 1955. He had a record player installed in his car so he could audition discs on his way to work.

He perfected the record hop, bringing all of his own gear, as well as back-up gear in case a tube blew. He respected technology, and he used it to express his artistic ambitions.

Satellite radio has facilitated a return of the autonomous deejay and I think Tommy would’ve have loved it. It’s a return to what made radio an amazing experience. Deejay, music, and audience coalesce into one powerful, repeating wave.

Is there a reason why Tommy is not widely known today?

Tommy was never one to boast about his accomplishments. Reflecting back in a 1981 interview, he said he would have preferred to have a manager or agent to handle the promotional side of things. Professionally, he was a trailblazer and entrepreneur. Personally, he was a loner, and not in the negative sense of the word.

It’s my hope that the discovery of Tommy’s photographs and newsletters will gain him the recognition as not only one of rock ’n’ roll’s early champions but also as the deejay responsible for perhaps the most important photographic and written documentation of twentieth-century popular music ever produced.

What are some of the doors that 1950s Radio in Color has opened for you?

I think the book’s publication has helped solidify my reputation as a researcher. When contacting new people, I usually link to the book, which I hope lends an air of legitimacy to my often prying questions.

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Writer-musician Chris Kennedy is interviewed by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart on March 21, 2012, during a special exhibit kick-off honoring pioneering rock ’n’ roll deejay Tommy Edwards. Image courtesy of Chris Kennedy

What did you take away from attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s exclusive 2012 exhibit?

The four-month-long Tommy Edwards photo exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — in the Baker Gallery of the museum’s Main Exhibit Hall — was amazing. Then CEO Terry Stewart, Assistant Curator Meredith Rutledge-Borger…everyone involved did such a caring and respectful job celebrating Tommy’s legacy.

The 30 or so photographs we chose looked beautiful framed and hung. My wife and I attended the opening, and I participated in a Q&A about the collection with Terry in the Rock Hall’s Foster Theater. The event was even streamed on the web, so my kids back home in New York got to see it live!

Performers featured in the book such as Priscilla Wright and Beverly Ross were in the audience and shared their remembrances about Tommy. Also, families of some of the deceased performers came and expressed their thanks to me for including their parent or grandparent in the book. It was an incredible night for me, a real nice cap to the adventure of finding the collection.

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The Big Bopper, aka J. P. Richardson, Jr., hams it up for Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards’ camera in August 1958. Richardson’s then-latest Mercy single, “Chantilly Lace,” was destined for Top Ten status on the pop charts. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

Have you had any conversations with Elvis Presley Enterprises about a special photo exhibit?

I approached Graceland about the possibility of doing something with the Elvis/Bill Haley photo…maybe a framed art print or something with integrity. They didn’t express much interest. One reason they gave was they don’t feature other performers with Elvis in their gift shops. It’s all Elvis. I should revisit this idea with the other EP photos, though.

Before you became an author, you composed songs, played bass, and sang in Ruth Ruth. What is the official status of the acclaimed power pop/rock band from New York City?

In April of 2016, Ruth Ruth reunited for a one-off benefit show. The band is myself, guitarist Mike Lustig and our long-time friend, drummer Johnny Powers. We had a blast, so we’ve kept going. We’ve played some good shows, opening for Eve 6 at the Gramercy Theater in New York City and the Hollywood Vampires at the Coney Island Amphitheater. Hopefully there will be more to come in 2017.

The reunion has inspired some Ruth Ruth-type songwriting, but I’ve never really stopped writing over the years. I am working on solo material, recording, writing, etc. The songs are different than anything I’ve written before — acoustic based, intimate, and the lyrics go off in some new directions for me. I’m trying to keep the production to a minimum yet still have something powerful. I’m learning to stay out of my way, keep it uncomplicated. I suppose I’m pushing myself a bit, or at least I’d like to think so. I’m enjoying the process.

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Sam Cooke is momentarily caught off guard eating a pastry in October 1957 at WERE Studios in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time Cooke was enjoying velvety love ballad “You Send Me,” his debut No. 1 single. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”

Do you have a new book project(s) in mind?

As a continuation of the seven years of hunting, discovery and research I’ve done on The Pied Piper of Cleveland missing film project, I’m hoping to write a biography on Bill Randle. He deserves it, and I’ve been working closely with his family as well as with my friend, writer David Barnett, on this idea.

Some other projects have come up, one in particular I’ve been collaborating on with Country Music Hall of Famer Ralph Emery. He has a very sharp memory — I like him very much. Ralph and his wife Joy are both very nice.

I found a cache of reel to reel tapes — audio of Ralph’s WSM Nashville broadcasts from the 1960s. I believe this audio is pretty rare, and I think it could make a beautiful box set. It has sadly not panned out, due to lack of interest from WSM and their refusal to grant permission to have their broadcasts packaged. They told me that the collection is not important to them because it celebrates their history, while their main focus right now is on the future.

After my success in bringing the Tommy Edwards collection out, I was very confident and excited I could make things happen with the tapes. I guess I was a bit naive, not taking into account all the complicated rights issues. I don’t think Ralph was too surprised when we hit difficulties shopping the project. It is pretty amazing though. The Country Music Hall of Fame wasn’t interested either. I began to think I was crazy. But deep down, I know how important and special the recordings are. I’m going to have to try another avenue.

Lately I’ve been working on several exciting Elvis Presley projects that relate to his early career. I hope they’ll work out.

******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!*******************

Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Elvis swore off watching The Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words nearly 40 years ago? A recent viewing of the original clip and accompanying Tonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis…” for the complete lowdown.

Exclusive Interview: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a 60-year career — notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: Louisiana Guitar Slinger James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Jordanaire Ray Walker counted Elvis Presley as a close friend for two decades. In fact, the genial bassist’s debut recording session with the King of Rock and Roll yielded a million selling record — “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I.” He recently relived the experience of sitting front row center during a Presley recording session. Later when the “Alabama Wild Man” himself, Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers, the session got especially rambunctious. Visit the following article, “Bass Maestro Ray Walker Evokes Sizzling Nashville Nights with Elvis and Jerry Reed,” for the whole enchilada.

Exclusive Interview No. 3: Easy listening song interpreter B.J. Thomas won a well-deserved Grammy for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” after it appeared on the soundtrack of the legendary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In “Just a Regular Guy With a Burning Desire to Sing…”, the effortless “Hooked on a Feeling” singer exclusively recalls amazing stories about arriving in Memphis in the late ’60s and singing for Elvis Presley, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and having buckets of rain inexplicably thrown on his head, opening for the notoriously temperamental James Brown, his conflict with the Contemporary Christian industry, and his most popular album in 30 years, the duets-laden Living Room Sessions, recorded in Nashville.

Further Reading No. 2: Based on a true story about Anita Pointer’s illicit affair with a married KSAN radio deejay in San Francisco, the jilted country vibe of “Fairytale” vaulted it all the way into the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100, notably becoming the Pointer Sisters’ second hit. To acquire further insight on how it opened doors for the harmonically gifted quartet, consider investigating a newly written article exploring the matter entitled “Inside ‘Fairytale,’ the Pointer Sisters’ Defiant Country Kiss-Off Covered by Elvis Presley.

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Twenty-five-year-old singer-dancer Elaine Dunn, while never achieving great fame, is nevertheless drop dead gorgeous applying make-up in this June 1959 candid. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”
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Handsome 20-year-old struggling actor Michael Landon is captured during a promotional appearance for his first major starring role in the cult classic “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” in July 1957. Photography by Tommy Edwards / Courtesy of Chris Kennedy / appears in “1950s Radio in Color”
Click to hear Elvis Presley revolutionize pop culture with his incendiary debut single on Sun Records, “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” recorded on July 5, 1954, at Memphis Recording Service with producer Sam Phillips at the helm. Music Credit: Sony Music Entertainment; Video Credit: YouTube user Glen Page / Sony Music Entertainment

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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