Did you know that MTV was invented in 1956? In Cleveland? As far-fetched as either of those suggestions may sound, they’re borne out – in a way – by “1950s Radio in Color," Christopher Kennedy’s collection of “The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards.”
Did you know that MTV was invented in 1956? In Cleveland? As far-fetched as either of those suggestions may sound, they’re borne out – in a way – by “1950s Radio in Color” (Kent State University Press), Christopher Kennedy’s collection of “The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards.”
Edwards, a pioneering D.J. at WERE-AM in Cleveland, was present during the birth of rock ’n’ roll, and made it a point of snapping color slides of every singer and celebrity who came through his studio. He’d then project them on the wall when he’d host a record hop – to the delight of teenagers who not only had never seen their idols in color, but in many cases had no idea what they looked like at all.
Kennedy collects more than 200 of those photos in this volume, many of them notable for their candid intimacy. There’s a callow Roy Orbison, a smiling Johnny Cash (wearing brown, not black), and Elvis Presley, of course, resplendent with his pink jacket and tousled hair. There’s also what many consider to be an iconic shot of Elvis and Bill Haley, sometimes credited previously to “photographer unknown.”
The visceral sense you get through Edwards’ amateur lens of these legends in their prime, or just prior to entering it – from Chuck Berry to Dion to Conway Twitty – is nothing short of remarkable. And just as fascinating, maybe more so, are the photos of the one-hit wonders and other now-unknowns, captured at a moment when their careers seemed about to take off – and didn’t.
Kennedy, a musician himself, deserves credit for his detective work in digging up the collection, along with the long-lost copies of Edwards’ “T.E. Newsletter,” which was sort of like the first-ever music blog. Unfortunately, Kennedy’s own writing tends to be hyperbolic and overblown, almost like he’s channeling a melodramatic late-night D.J. It’s also distractingly present-tense, which makes it easy to lose track of the career arcs being chronicled along with the photos.
Still, his narration is almost beside the point. The most compelling companion to the photographs is the first-person recollections of their subjects, and Kennedy does an amazing job of tracking many of them down. Some offer a few simple lines, and others give incredible details about rock’s nascent era – for one thing, you won’t believe what Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers recalls his brother Ira saying to Elvis.
And in most cases, their subjects’ delight at seeing these photos from their youth, photos they never knew existed, is palpable. You’re likely to have a similar reaction.
Peter Chianca writes about Bruce Springsteen and other rock music topics for Gatehouse Media's Blogness on the Edge of Town. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.