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The Black Keys

The 1950s were a time of both very tame and very dangerous music. The tame side had names like Pat Boone, Patti Page, Perry Como, 101 Strings.

The dangerous side had raw music from Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti), the gender-defying Esquerita, Chuck Berry, the sexual innuendo of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and who can forget Bull Moose Jackson’s “My Big Ten Inch Record”? Not to mention the revenge songs sweetly crooned by Bobby Bland. These were called race records, and weren’t played on white stations except by deejays like Alan Freed, who championed the new rock and roll, playing both race records and white rock and roll–until he got busted for payola, that is.

Race records challenged white artists to step into new territory and try their hand. Some ridiculous failures included Pat Boone’s cover version of the sexually suggestive “tutti frutti”. Even Peggy Lee’s cover of “Fever”, although it sold millions of records, paled compared to the scarier original version—now forgotten—by Little Willie John (he died of tuberculosis in prison after a knife fight over a woman).

These sides were just too too much for white America of the 50’s, though for young people like myself it was a treasure trove of forbidden fruit.  Label executives like Jerry Wexler & Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records) Art Rupe (Specialty) Sam Phillips (Sun) and Leonard Chess (Chess) championed and made fortunes on the new music, which inspired and launched UK bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles a decade later. Even artists like Van Morrison owed it all to race music.

But perhaps the strangest and most dangerous song of all was by a guy named Pat Hare. He recorded a single for Sun Records in 1954 called “I’m Gonna Murder my Baby”, which (creepily) became a minor hit. A few weeks later he did just that, and spent the rest of his life in prison.  His voice is nasty, his sound is mean.  Sun Records aimed for a dirty sound, recording on simple tube gear, recording hot and into the red—overmodulating–to give it that extra urgency.

The 60s came and multi-tracking diffused some of the energy of the 50s r&b recordings. And of course the Summer of Love and Motown provided much safer musical turf.  More wholesome. But I was reminded of this older, darker, more dangerous sound with the release of The Black Keys album, Brothers. When I heard their song, “10 Cent Pistol” I heard that old danger. The Black Keys brought back this earlier sound, and the its rawness made their talent all the more convincing. Thank you Black Keys, thank you Tchad Blake. Thank you Nonesuch. You knew what you were doing. The Black Keys’ Brothers became the #1 album for KCRW in 2010.

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