Starting Thursday, hoop skirts, hepcats and hot rods will take over the Continental Club compound for the 12th annual Rock Baby Rock It festival, a three-day celebration of rockabilly music and culture. This year's soiree features two historic rockabilly giants, Michigan legend and Sun Records recording artist Johnny Powers and original Bill Haley & the Comets bassist Marshall Lytle.
Organized by longtime Houston DJ and bartender Edgar "Big E" Salazar, who also owns Big Kat's Tattoo and Barbershop across from the Continental, the festival has grown from a one-day party to a three-day extravaganza featuring not only music but a hot-rod show on Saturday, vendor booths, and dueling male and female beauty contests.
Salazar has cobbled together an excellent lineup representing both rockabilly's old guard and new blood, including Jesse Dayton, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Sean Reefer, the Luxurious Panthers, Electric Cheetah, the Octanes and many others. But 77-year-old Lytle is certainly one of the main attractions — a recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was literally there at the birth of rock and roll.
"The first time I remember hearing the words 'rock and roll' were at a radio station in Cleveland in 1952," he recalls. "We made a personal appearance at the station with Alan Freed [the celebrated Cleveland DJ often called "The Father of Rock and Roll"], and after the interview, he played our record 'Rock This Joint.'
"He kept flipping the live microphone switch while the record was playing and yelling, 'Rock and roll, everybody,' Lytle says."He did that five or six times while the song played. That was the first time any of us heard the term rock and roll. Before that, we just called it rhythm and blues or race music.
"So many people were calling in to ask what it was and to request it, he played that song 12 times on his show that night," he adds.
"Rock This Joint" established the Comets as a recording act, but fame came gradually rather than overnight. Lytle notes Haley was very curious about what kind of music affected teens, who were buying the earliest rock and roll records.
"There were times where Bill would book us to play an assembly or a dance at a high school that didn't pay much, but he could see firsthand what [music] had an effect on a bunch of kids and what didn't," he says. "Bill really studied the audience."
It was a serendipitous moment after one of these assemblies that led to the composition of Haley's first big hit, "Crazy Man, Crazy."
"We were packing our gear and this kid went walking by," says Lytle. "Bill asked him what he thought of the show and this kid says, 'Crazy, man, crazy.'"
The next day, while his wife fixed sandwiches for lunch, Haley sat in the kitchen with his guitar and kept repeating, "Crazy, man, crazy."
"So he would start out with a line and I'd say something and in about 30 minutes we had the song," recalls Lytle. "We went to New York to record it, and that was the first time we recorded with drums. It really rocked."
"Crazy Man, Crazy" was the first rock and roll song to enter the Billboard pop charts, going all the way to No. 12. It was also the first rock and roll song ever played on national television and secured Haley a deal with Decca Records.
Lytle was young and inexperienced, so he thought nothing about it when Haley told him he wanted sole credit for the song. He told Lytle, "I'll take care of you later."
"I never saw a penny from that or anything else except my regular pay," the bassist says today.
Shortly after "Crazy Man, Crazy," Haley surprised the world with his first monster hit, "Rock Around the Clock," which sold a million records in the U.S. and in the UK. Haley and the Comets had hit the big time.
But Lytle's career with the Comets hit a wall when Haley refused to give band members a $50 raise.
"One day Bill left a $35,000 royalty check laying on his desk. We were making $175 a week, and another $50 would've really helped us out," says Lytle. "But we soon learned that we were not going to be sharing any of the wealth."
Peggy King, a singer with '50s TV host George Gobel, told Lytle, "You guys are crazy if you don't quit. You're too good to make that little money."
And quit they did, forming the Jodimars, who were immediately signed to Capitol Records and scored a few minor hits before breaking up in 1958. During that period, they also became the first rock and roll band to take residency at a Las Vegas hotel, and the Beatles later recorded the Jodimars tune "Clarabella" for a television show.
These days Lytle is on top of the world. Not only is he gigging frequently, he has a biography out that has been optioned for a film set for production in 2013.
Another Rock Baby Rock It headliner, Robert "Big Sandy" Williams, and his band recently backed up Lytle at the annual Buddy Holly remembrance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was the last place Holly played before the fatal February 1959 plane crash.
"Marshall is such an inspiration, to be 77 and still have it," says Williams. "He's like a walking piece of history, but he's just the nicest guy and he still wants to rock, to do it right."
Noting that 2012 represents Rock Baby Rock It's twelfth year — the first two were at the now-defunct Satellite Lounge on Washington Avenue — Salazar says he puts the festival on to support what is a healthy local rockabilly scene.
"Rockabilly is Americana, let's face it," he says. "The music, it's not going anywhere, but it's something most people are familiar with. You have to try hard not to like rockabilly music.
"If you are into the whole rockabilly phenomenon, it becomes a lifestyle," adds Big E. "First you like the music, then it's the hair, then the clothes. And the next thing you know, it's your furniture, then it's hot rods.
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"And the whole thing is just completely American," he concludes. "Somebody explain to me what's wrong with that."
Saturday's midday musical program — coinciding with the hot-rod show — will feature Dayton, who has just returned from recording a rockabilly album in Helsinki and will be doing most of the new album for the first time in the States.
For his part, Lytle is "thrilled to be on this show," and says he has no plans to slow down or quit touring.
"We're gonna rock till we drop," he vows.