He was a Rock 'n' Roller before the music was known as Rock 'n' Roll. He's a genuine Rock 'n' Roll legend. His group was the first all-White Rock 'n' Roll band to play The Apollo Theatre. He appeared in Alan Freed's 1956 movie Rock Rock Rock with Richie Valens, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry and Johnny Burnette to name just a few. He would go on to appear in Alan Freed's 1959 film Go Johnny Go.
It is with great pride and honor that we present an interview with Jimmy Cavallo, the very first Rock 'n' Roll star, a true pioneer and innovator, from the real birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll, Syracuse, New York.
Q - I saw you in person for the very first time in the Fall (2010). And I'm just wondering where'd you learn to play sax like that?
A - Syracuse.
Q - Yeah, but they don't teach anything like that in school.
A - No. No. No. You gotta listen to all the sax players, the greats. At first I started listening to Big Bands in the early '40s, just before World War II. I was in my teens then. In fact, I was about to turn 18 and be drafted into the Army. So I joined the Navy in 1944. War broke out in '41. So I still wasn't quite 18 at the time. But in '44 I turned 18 and then I joined up with the Navy. I was listening to Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Basie and Duke. I got interested in the players. There were some great players back in those bands. We had Lester Young in Basie's band. You had Johnny Hodges in Duke's band plus Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster. These were the early, early tenor players and alto players. That's how I got started. I read a little music in high school, in junior high school, Prescott in Syracuse, Prescott Junior High. They organized a band. I picked out alto from a book. I started out on alto sax. I was in the section, just reading parts. We were trying to keep up with those Big Bands of the day. I felt a little restricted in that 'cause I was playing a third alto part, which was basically harmony all night long. Most section men in the Big Bands thrive on that kind of stuff. I wanted to be up-front and play the solos. They had me in the section playing harmony parts. So I started listening to smaller groups. I listened to Louie Jordan. He played alto and sang. So, I said that might be my direction. He's up front singing in a five piece band, playing, just having a ball with it. I thought that's what I had to do, rather than be restricted in the sax section for a whole musical career. So that's how I branched out. From that point on, I started listening to everything. Be Bop was coming in, in the early '50s. Jazz Philharmonic was a very popular thing. You used to get all the top stars of the day. Norman Granz had all these concerts all over the country. He'd use all the top players from the different bands. The small groups I started listening to then were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey. I listened to all the tenor men. Illinois, Jack Kemp was one of my favorite stompers. For Be Bop and Hip playing, I listened to Gene Ammons and Dutch De Gordon. That's how I got all my saxophone, more by ear than by notes. Just listening and absorbing. I gave that same information to Sal Nestico and he went on to play for Woody Herman. Those were the beginnings.
Q - What high school did you graduate from?
A - Well, I dropped out of North High, but when I got into the Navy I finished up my high school training. I got my diploma then. I think I was in my third year when I dropped out. I wasn't into high school. I was into music. That was my whole thing. I was living, breathing music at that time. By the time I got through my third year at North High, I was doing Study Hall, Music, Art and lunch. I hardly had any subjects at all. I wasn't interested in anything at all. So, I dropped out and joined the Navy. I finished the schooling in the Navy. They had special courses so I could get my high school diploma. So that's what I did then. That's when I really started getting into the music. I think about 1940, just before the war. I was in high school and I started playing around town, just some wedding functions and stuff like that.
Q - Did you have your own band at that time?
A - Yeah.
Q - What was the name of the band?
A - Jimmy Cavallo Quintet. We had Danny De Barr. He was the drummer. Joe Zuk was trumpet player. Sammy Caiello was alternate sax. Those are a couple of people I remember from it. After I came back from serving in the Navy, I got out in '46 and settled down in North Carolina on a previous marriage. She lived down in Fayetteville, outside of Fort Bragg. I organized my first real good band down there. That was the beginning of Jimmy Cavallo And The House Rockers. I formed it in 1948 in the Carolinas. That's when I started getting into the playing and getting more professional, playing better, singing, knowing what direction I wanted to go in. I got into R&B basically in 1948. Rhythm And Blues, which became known as Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - Back up for just a minute. Did you see action in the war?
A - No. I wound up in Washington, D.C. I was in an outgoing unit. Basically they sent the unit I was in to Okinawa and Iwo Jima at that time. I just kind of lucked out. They drew my I.D. out of a box and there were just two of us out of that unit that stayed behind and they just put us in permanent duty in a receiving station. The fresh troops would go out and the other troops would be coming back. They all had to come through there. They had to be rehabilitated. So I had permanent shore duty. I did the Mess Hall. I kept up the grounds.
Q - According to one bio, you were jamming with some of the early starts of Rock 'n' Roll while you were in the service. What names are we talking about?
A - It wasn't Rock 'n' Roll. It was R&B. There was no such thing as Rock 'n' Roll in 1948. We gotta set that right. Especially kids today, all they can remember is from Elvis, The Beatles and on. But before Elvis and The Beatles, even Chuck Berry came out of the old Blues school. Fats Domino. Little Richard was not a Rock 'n' Roller. He was a Rhythm And Blues artist. So, it came out of the 1940s. After the Big Bands, I hung out at a lot of clubs in the South. That was R&B. That was a bunch of Black guys getting into a smoking club with a little slide thing on the door; "Hello. Who are you?" I used to sit in with all the Black groups down there. A lot of 'em went on to become Be-Bop players, I guess. I couldn't name those people. I hooked up later with a lot of people. That's when I got to Three Rivers Inn. I think they're confusing my early playing with that later emcee work I did. I hooked up with every big name in the business. But they were performers. They weren't like sax player and trumpet players. They were singers and artists. Basically 1948, 1949, 1950, that was my key years. I came into the Black clubs in Carolina. I wound up organizing the first all-White group down there that played Rhythm And Blues. I started barnstorming all these tobacco warehouse and convention halls throughout North Carolina, South Carolina. I created a little following and I might have had about 60 to 70 regulars. Then when we would get to these towns, that would swell to 100 or 200. We're playing basically for dances. But I wasn't playing the Big Band. I was playing Rhythm And Blues. I was doing a lot of Louie Jordan, Count Basie. Wynonie Harris was one of my biggest influences in Blues singing. They called us "Blues Shouters." Shout the Blues. Kim Rushing with Basie was another one. Big Joe Turner was one of the more famous. And then there was Ruth Brown. Big Jay McNeely. He was a rocker. That was the late '40s. I wound up at Carolina Beach in North Carolina and because of that experience I created what is known as "Beach Music" in the Carolinas. They have a super big movement in the clubs now called The Shag. It's a dance. My little group was following me all over because they couldn't get into the Black clubs. Remember, we're in the South. So I was playing the Black music. I was playing R&B. "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Fannie Brown", "Outskirts Of Town", "Stormy Monday". They followed me because they couldn't get into hear that music in the Black clubs 'cause of the South. They created what was called The Shag. Punch that up on your computer, punch up Carolina Shag or Jimmy Cavallo and you'll see everything I'm talking about, now it's documented.
Q - I've heard of The Shag.
A - Well, I started it. Me and my band actually started it. It's now called The Carolina Shag. It takes in both states and I think they have like 400,000 members. I get literature every year: "Are you gonna come down this year and join in the festivities?" I am the first inductee into the Carolina Shag Awards. They got it in Myrtle Beach, the Shag Hall Of Fame. They also have a magazine out. I'm in that.
Q - Your big break came when you returned to Syracuse to play in your uncle's restaurant, Sorrentos.
A - That's it. 1949.
Q - You were playing Sorrentos on weekends?
A - Friday and Saturday. It was a small neighborhood Italian restaurant. I brought that music I learned in the South to upstate New York. They never heard of Rhythm And Blues up there unless you went into a Black club in Syracuse. And they weren't playing Rhythm And Blues per se, they were just playing Black Blues music, all the stuff you heard in the beginning that I was a part of. So, I brought that music into the White area of Syracuse and upstate New York. They were accustomed to hotel bands like Lester Larin and Freddy Martin. They had a kind of sophisticated approach to the music. They were trying to play Goodman and Duke and Glenn Miller, which was Swingin' bands. When they got hold of it in the hotel, they kind of sugarized it, made it more sophisticated. I didn't get into that at all. I changed that. I brought the Blues and R&B up to Syracuse. Pretty soon we had a big movement going on. All that big Blues thing you got now in Syracuse, like the Annuals and the Dinosaur (Dinosaur Bar-B-Que), I started all that. In 1949, there was no such thing as a Blues band in Syracuse.
Q - How long were you performing at Sorrentos?
A - About two to three years. I went to Sylvan Beach after that every Sunday.
Q - Where was Sorrentos located?
A - Lodi and McBride or Lodi and Ash. It's still there. They just boarded it up. It was still active as a lunch and dinner place up to about two years ago (2008), but it caught on fire. My uncle passed away since, but he sold it to some other people and they kept the name. That's what started it all in Syracuse. You couldn't get any of that if you went down to where the Blacks were playing. Same situation. It wasn't segregation. But they stayed there. We stayed up in the White area. Bands in my time were trying to play the Swing music, the Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and trying to play it with small groups. I didn't go in that direction. I wasn't comfortable with the Big Band sound. I went into the Rhythm and Blues era. I didn't start singing the legitimate songs of Sinatra or ballads until the '60s.
Q - When you were playing this club Di Castro's in Sylvan Beach, you would draw a thousand to twelve hundred people. That's amazing.
A - Every Sunday.
Q - I hope you were getting a guarantee against a percentage of the door, whichever was higher, and a piece of the bar action.
A - Well, you know I wasn't. (laughs) There was no such thing in those days. You'd get a flat rate. Every week the owner, who was a grand old man, Mr. Di Castro himself, they had five brothers who ran it, who since have all passed away except for one. J.J. is still alive. He became a doctor. I answered to the old man. He would always give me $25, $30 extra at the end of the day and say "I want you to keep this. Just pay the band what you pay them. This is for you." That's pretty much the extent of it. Even Coral Records, I didn't make much on. I never got the hit record. Rock Rock Rock should've gone sky high, but we were on the tail end of Bill Haley with "Rock Around The Clock" and nobody could get next to that. So, I just kept applying my craft and I kept working and didn't worry about getting hit records. That's why to this day I'm not in the Cleveland Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I should've been there years ago. I talked to all the head people. I talked to all the main money people in New York, the committee for the Cleveland Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, one on one. I said "you've got one hit wonders in there and I've done a lot more than they have with their one hit, turning R&B into Rock 'n' Roll." "Oh yeah, we know Jimmy. We know about you." I said "it's just because I never got the hit record." Anyway, there are a lot of movements going on in the United States, in Canada, to put Jimmy Cavallo in. So that's where I'm at as far as that. I shook it off. Bobby Darin and I were out at the same time. Bobby was doing "Splish Splash". I was doing my thing. I worked with him three times. We became very good friends. The difference between Bobby and me, and Bobby said it himself, "I got the hit record and I had personal management." I never had personal management. I just had an agent. They wanted to make sure I was working every week. Through the agency I got that break with Alan Freed.
Q - Who was your agent?
A - Gale Agency. They were brothers and they had the big agency in New York. They weren't completely into Rock 'n' Roll yet at that time. Galo was more Big Bands and nightclub personalities. But they got me the shot with Alan Freed. So I got a little something happening at that time as far as fame.
Q - If you'd had a personal manager like Dr. Bill Randle, who handled
The Diamonds, that would've made all the difference in the world.
A - Yeah. Same as Bobby Darin. He had
Steve Blauner. He had money. He got Bobby on the Dorsey show, which became The Colgate Comedy Hour back in early television. He got Bobby in Vegas. He hooked him up with George Burns. All this took money to do. He got him into the public limelight. Bobby got a beautiful hit with "Splish Splash". He not only got a hit, but he wrote it as well. So, he was on his way, but that was personal management. I didn't have a manager per se, I had an agent who went to New York to try and hook up with bigger agents. Basically what happened there is, I worked every week. I never, ever in all these years, been out of a weekend or musical job. I've taken some day gigs just to get off the road for awhile, but never have I been out of musical work. But like I said, I never got that one hit. I thought I had it with "Rock Rock Rock". When you get exposed with a movie like Rock Rock Rock, which is the second Rock movie ever made, I had the title song and comes on the heels of Bill Haley, who had "Rock Around The Clock", if you don't have a personal manager to take that song that I did, "Rock Rock Rock" and get it out there and get it to those disc jockeys and get it played, you're never gonna get the hit record. Alan played that stuff three, four, five times a day. I didn't have to pay him nothing because he was sponsoring me. Alan got me into the movie, got me the record contract with Coral (Records) and then he took a bad rap on that payola. You can quote me, that's a lot of crap back then because Dick Clark escaped with his life. He became a billionaire for God's sake. They got a few bucks a week to get the record spinned, but Alan's participation in that payola crap was anything he played on his radio show. He had a big one, WINS. The Alan Freed Rock 'n' Roll Show. Anything he played that he was pushing as an artist, he had a piece of that group. He either got them the contract with Coral or he got them the first record deal. So what if he got a percentage from Coral of the groups he would send in? They tried to call that payola because a couple of promoters would say, and you see this all the time, "Here's a hundred bucks, play that five times a day, we'll give you that every week." That's the payola end of it. But it wasn't payola. His (Alan's) was a percentage deal. Most of the groups he backed, The Penguins, the Doo Wop groups basically. Those records became hits because of his involvement with the groups per se. He got me the movie and he got me my record deal. The only reason I got into that second movie is, Bill Haley was a big star by then and he wanted too much money. Alan wanted him. So he said "I got Jimmy Cavallo And The House Rockers. I'm gonna put him in the movie." And that was the second Rock 'n' Roll movie ever made.
Q - And he could never pronounce your name, right? He said "Cavello", with an "e".
A - I think 'cause he was Jewish and Jewish people, not to offend 'em, don't know how to pronounce the Italian vowel a, e, i, o, u. So my name is Cavallo. Alan couldn't say that. He spoke so fast. "Alright kids, hang on to your hats. Here's a group that's gonna blow it off," in the Rock Rock Rock movie, Jimmy Cavello And The House Rockers. And he said that he came out with the "e". So, consequently my records and my publishing you see Cavallo and Cavello. OK, you punch up Cavello, you get all that Alan Freed stuff. You punch up Cavallo, you're gonna get all the Beach music and early stuff. I had a friend of mine, Nick Catalano, who writes book about Jazz players and teaches at Columbia in New York. He wrote a book about Clifford Brown and I was in that 'cause I worked with Clifford Brown. He went to this big Lincoln Center grand opening a few years back and he ran into Tony Bennett. Tony said "Well, after I get done with this Lincoln Center, I'm going down to Florida to see my friend Jimmy." He said "Jimmy who?" He said "Jimmy Cavallo." Tony said "Cavallo. That name sounds familiar to me." I'd met Tony two or three times. Tony says "I know that guy. That's the guy they spelled his name wrong on the records." He remembered they spelled my name Cavello on Coral Records. That was the connection of Tony Bennett remembering me.
Q - Tony Bennett used to perform at Three Rivers Inn.
A - Yeah, but he didn't play it while I was emceeing. He did play the (New York) State Fair a couple of times and Stan Colella and I were great friends. We grew up together. I gave Stanley his first job way before Big Bands. We were almost like brothers. That's how I met Tony, through Stanley. I didn't hang out with him, just "How you doing? Nice to meet you." But I first met Tony in 1949, during that Sorrentos year, or 1950, 1951, just before Rock 'n' Roll. I played Andre's Tic Tac (Club) downtown. That was a strip joint. I went in as a duo with George Horton, who was a pretty hot trumpet player at the time. Georgie and I were good friends. So we thought we'd go in as a duo. He brought in a rhythm section. They brought Tony Bennett in for a week or a weekend as a headliner to go on after the strippers. It was way before "I Left My Heart In San Francisco". It was way before "Rags To Riches". In fact, Tony had not had a hit at that point. He was just doing a nightclub act, breaking into the business. That's the first time I met Tony and I reminded him of that and he didn't remember it. Tony is a very, very nice guy. He's one of the last of the Mohicans right now, including myself.
Q - There aren't too many guys who can trace their start to the beginning days of Rock 'n' Roll.
A - I'm the Syracuse pioneer.
Q - I know you are.
A - But Rock 'n' Roll actually, I was out there in the beginning. I'm the local hometown hero so-to-speak. That's why when I do those festivals and come up once a year, we always jam the place, because they know they don't see me for a whole year. There are a lot of people who have been following me their whole life.
Q - You can't see anybody like you today.
A - No. Most of 'em are dying. Me and Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats (Domino) are the last guys standing that were there in the beginning. Ray (Charles) is gone. Bill Haley is gone. Buddy Holly is gone. I think me, Fats and Jerry Lee are the last three of the original pioneers of this whole movement.
Q - You played those Alan Freed shows, didn't you?
A - I played the Brooklyn Paramount. I did Alan Freed's TV show downtown. I was in his second movie. He wanted to produce that one himself because he saw a very lucrative field there. With Rock Around The Clock he was just featured.
Q - Back up for a minute. You were on the road in 1953 and 1954. Did you have a record deal then?
A - I got the record deal in '55, '56. Actually I think it was '56.
Q - When you were on the road in '53...
A - We were just grinding it out.
Q - I don't know how you made enough money to survive.
A - Well, we got paid pretty good. I was hooked up with the Gale Agency by that time. If you were working a local gig for say $700 for a quartet, which would be Sorrentos or that kind of thing, when you hit the road and get backed up by Gale, my contracts were like $1,500, $1,800 for five people. So I was picking up about $500 a week back then. That wasn't bad money. The hit record would've made the difference and being a specialty act like The Treniers, who were twins and a great band, they made something like $1,000 a piece, plus whatever the band made. So, the money wasn't bad even without a hit record. My guys were making a couple hundred a piece and I was making five without a problem. And I was still paying the agent 15%. And that's grinding it out. Going from town to town. We used to get booked into these clubs that featured Rhythm And Blues band and Rock bands for two weeks at a time. So, in '53, '54, '55, I was on the road. In '56 is when it all changed. I got the Coral Records deal and Rock Rock Rock.
Q - When you were at the Paramount, did you by chance meet Buddy Holly and Richie Valens?
A - No. I think they died soon after that. When I did the Rock shows, I met Chuck Berry, La Vern Baker, Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers, Big Joe Turner, The Big Band with Sam "The Man" Taylor. Then there was a bunch of Doo Wop bands like The Cleftones, The Penguins. I worked with all those guys. That was the Alan Freed Rock 'n' Roll Show, which a lot of us appeared in the movie. Then Gale put me on a Black circuit. They put me down in Sparrows Beach, Maryland and it was strictly a Black beach. No Whites could go in there. They had like Buddy Johnson Big Band, Arthur Prysock, who was a great singer, Rick Prysock's brother. They put me on that circuit. I was the only White band there. Everything else was all those Black Doo Wop groups with the exception of The Temptations. I met everybody else. Then I met all the big people when I got back, after the road. I got back and settled in Syracuse in the early '60s. That's when I went to Three Rivers.
Q - In all your travels, did you ever meet Elvis and Sinatra?
A - Elvis I didn't meet. Sammy (Davis) I met. I went to Graceland though 'cause my record was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award, The House Rockers, the one I made in Syracuse. I was in Memphis at The Orpheum. I was in the company of B.B. King,
Solomon Burke, who just passed away, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Coco Taylor. These were all the giants in Rhythm And Blues. The W.C. Handy Award is equivalent to a Grammy. I was part of that movement. I got nominated for The Best Comeback Album. I didn't win it. The guy in front of me won it, who was nominated four or five times before that. So, that was great for me, being there. I bumped up (against) a lot of people. After Syracuse, '61, '62, '63, at Three Rivers, I played Atlantic City. Skinny D'Amato (owner of The 500 Club) was almost like Frank's brother. They were that close. I worked for Skinny two seasons. One night Frank was there. He was in the back just hanging out, playing cards. I don't know what. His bodyguard, Ed Poochie, came out and said "Frank's back there." Ed was a good friend of mine. He used to look after me 'cause I did the whole twelve weeks in Atlantic City. I was the house band. I said "Bring me back there." Ed said "No. He don't want to be bothered. And he don't go out into the crowd." Frank Sinatra never wanted to interrupt anybody's act. He knows that no sooner than he hit the room, all the focus would be on him, as far as Atlantic City goes. I don't know about Vegas. I know he went to see Louis (Armstrong) and those people at the end of the night. They wanted not only to see but be seen. In Atlantic City it was a different ball game. So he sent me out a picture, "Good Luck Jimmy. Frank Sinatra." I was set up to meet him four or five months later. We were gonna have a drink at the Fontainebleau in Florida. I got booked at the Fontainebleau downstairs in the lounge. He was comin' in about two or three weeks later to do the big show. I was gonna sit with him and have a drink. It was all arranged. And he got sick. It was the year he got sick and everybody was coming in and out. They thought he was on his last leg. By that time I'd completed my engagement and had to go to the Bahamas, so I missed out. Sammy, I worked with. Bobby Darin, three times. Rosie Clooney. Nat Cole I worked with three weeks. Nat was beautiful. I loved Nat. That was my best experience in my musical career was working with Nat King Cole. I did a couple of medleys with him which he never, ever called up anybody to do that. I got a couple of nice pictures. I did a couple of imitations he let me do onstage. Bobby came down to Wildwood (New Jersey) in '58. He was just getting started with "Splish Splash". He got big with "Mack The Knife" the following year. He came to Three Rivers with a Big Band and that's when we worked together. Then he came back again with Sandra Dee and that was the last time I worked with Bobby. We became very good friends. We'd have pizzas together and rap about the business. But my two great experiences were Nat Cole and being associated with Bobby and watching his rise to stardom, being a little jealous of the situation as you would be in those days 'cause we were out at the same time, but that goes back to management again.
Q - And I don't suppose Bobby Darin would have brought you to his manager.
A - Once they got a person they're representing, they just concentrate on that one career.
Q - Besides Bobby Darrin and Nat King Cole, who else did you enjoy working with?
A - The best person in show business with no attitude and no airs was Nat. Sammy (Davis) had a little attitude. For the most part you'll find the established, big stars were great. The ones coming up were the pains, like a
Chubby Checker, and all that attitude and put on airs, ego, all that kind of thing. I worked with Jayne Mansfield. She was beautiful. I worked with Vince Edwards.
Q - Jimmy Durante was at Three Rivers Inn.
A - Jimmy was great.
Q - Paul Anka was there.
A - Yeah, and I worked with Frankie Avalon when he broke out of the small band and wanted to get into the big band.
Q - Al Martino?
A - Yeah. I worked with Al Martino in Albany, New York at a place called The Godfather.
A - I was just with her about six months ago. She lives in Florida. We were discussing the movie. Connie was the voice, the singing voice for Tuesday Weld. If you watch the movie Rock Rock Rock, they give Connie credit. When we were doing the publicity in New York City for the movie, Connie was with the group.
Q - The bass player you use in Syracuse, Chuck Syroi, used to watch Jimi Hendrix when he was in town with Joey Dee's band and Hendrix would come watch Chuck's band.
A - I knew Joey way before "Peppermint Twist". We worked a place in New Jersey called Summer's Point. That's where Bruce Springsteen got his start. This is way before him. Joey was with his "Peppermint Twist" guys and he was pushing that record. We would hang out. That year, it was me, Joey, Conway Twitty and Freddie Bell. Summer Point is where the college kids would gather every year and just rock out for the Summer. Joey later came to Syracuse and played Lorenzo's downtown. That's the time I was doing Three Rivers. He came in with a left-handed guitar player and he had a bandana. I went to see Joey just to say hello. I said "Joey, you usually got a B-3 organ, now you got guitar." He said "This guy is something else. You're gonna hear a lot from him." And he said "this is Jimi Hendrix", and that's way before he made it big. I remember meeting him then. This business is quirky, man. You never know who you're gonna see. That's why when you perform, you always have to be at the top of your game. You never know who's out there.
Q - I heard The Supremes worked in Andre's.
A - Yeah, and I worked with them in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. They were big. They were in the main room. I was in the lounge. The Supremes were really at the top of their game at that time. I've had a good career. I just missed out on the hit. But on the other hand, I'm still here. And that's the big plus.
Q - I was surprised to learn that you were the first White act to play the Apollo Theatre, not Buddy Holly.
A - I was in there seven months before Buddy. But I got to clarify that. I was the first White Rock 'n' Roll group, because way back in the day at the Apollo Theatre, Louie Prima had a Big Band and he played there. Charlie Barnett had a Duke Ellington type band and he was White and he played there. So, there was a lot of White artists that played there before me, but not the first White rocker. I was known as a rock 'n' roller. Rhythm And Blues or not, I was still out in the Rock 'n' Roll scene. So, there's always that controversy about Buddy and me and I was the first White Rock 'n' Roll act to play the Apollo. I was with Sam "The Man" Taylor, Big Band, and Sugar And Spice and Pigme Markim... "Here Come Da Judge". He was a comic. I remember that show. So that was my Apollo experience. There's also a question about who first recorded "Rock The Joint", Bill Haley or me. I recorded it before Bill. Bill heard me in Wildwood and the next time he put out an album, the song was on it. I knew Bill. He was a nice guy. He'd check out the acts and anything he could get from us, and we did the same thing. We checked out all the other acts and just add to our repertoire, especially if you want to get a hit, but Bill was in a better position. The first "Rock The Joint" was Jimmy Preston. He was a sax player and he had an organ and bass. He had "Rock The Joint", I think it was 1949. I recorded it in 1951. Bill recorded it in 1953.
Q - When you played the Paramount, what were the other Rock acts doing backstage to pass the time? Were they drinking? Playing cards?
A - Well, the Rock 'n' Roll Paramount was Brooklyn. The New York Paramount, downstairs in Manhattan, that was Sinatra and the Big Bands. So, there is a difference there. Our show at the Brooklyn Paramount was the second anniversary show. In between, everybody would just hang in the rooms. Everything in New York looks like tenements. They're all looking out the windows, up in the balconies. Frankie Lymon would be up three or four stories, mugging to the people back there. All the fans would be behind the theatre waiting to get an glimpse of us. He'd be throwing pictures out the window and mugging. We pretty much stayed in the room or stayed outside in the back. We used to do eight shows a day. It wasn't that taxing because we were allowed to do one song plus an encore, unless you were Fats Domino, who was the headliner on my show. Fats did a full twenty-five or thirty minutes. Joe Turner did two (songs). He had a big name. La Vern Baker did one. We did one. If you got a rousing applause, you'd do an encore. Then we'd hang in the back and inter-mix with each other. There was never any Black or White thing going on. Everybody got along with everybody.
Q - Were you impressed with The Beatles when you saw them that first night on Ed Sullivan?
A - Not at first. It just sounded like an English group to me, trying to play American music. That's the first impression you get. Then I realized after they did a couple of their own tunes, they were coming off of records that they listened to by way of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. The Beatles were learning how to play from our records. My records were very big in England. They were bigger in England that they were here. That's why I ended up doing two or three shows over there as a headliner.
Q - You must've killed the audience over there.
A - Oh, yeah. They knew every line and every solo. If you didn't sing it like the record, they'd let you know it. These English people have really adopted Rock 'n' Roll as their own because the United States abandoned it. It wasn't as big in the day. If you go over to England right now, they always got four or five Rock 'n' Roll shows going on. They love the American acts because we're the main ones. We were there in the beginning.
Q - Why do you base yourself out of Florida?
A - Well, it's a matter of living in a retirement situation. I don't need work. I work now because I love what I do. I get to Syracuse once a year. If I was in need of working, I'd have to do Syracuse at least three times a year and I'd have to go to England. I've done England three times. I did Italy twice. Big Rock 'n' Roll shows. You're talking ten thousand people, thirty thousand, forty thousand over the weekend. I did a big one in Green Bay with Jerry Lee Lewis. But the lucrative and fun ones were the European ones. I never had a hit, but they lined up for autographs. They lined up for pictures. I sold a ton of CDs in England. They just adopted the music as their own. Up to this day, if you go over there, there's gonna be a Rock 'n' Roll concert going on somewhere, and they're gonna have somebody from the States. Frankie Ford and I and The New Teenagers, Louis Lyman instead of Frankie, that was the first show I did. We were all the American acts, but we all had our night. I had Friday, The Teenagers had Saturday and Frankie Ford had Sunday. So they always wanted to have an American act on the weekend to close the festivities that are happening all day and all night. So they have a lot of local Rock 'n' Roll in England. When they have these concerts, they come from all over, Germany, Italy, Sweden. I got stopped by more people who wanted to know, just like you, who I knew, who I didn't know, how it was back then. They all recognize me as one of the firsts.
Q - We've covered a lot of bases in this interview. Is there anything you'd like to say that we haven't touched on?
A - I'm dreaming and all of a sudden I get this phone call. I'm ninety years old and it's one of the board members from the Cleveland Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. He says "Jimmy, we're finally gonna recognize you because you're the last man standing." (laughs)