The Black Keys: That Old Dangerous Sound

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

The dangerous were the raw sounds of 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 hands. 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 in comparison 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 ’50s, though for young people like myself it was a treasure trove of forbidden fruit. Label executives like Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records), Art Rupe (Specialty Records), Sam Phillips (Sun Records), and Leonard Chess (Chess Records) championed and made fortunes on this 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 menacing 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. Hare’s voice is as nasty as his sound is mean. Sun Records aimed for a dirty sound, recording hot and into the red—over-modulating—on simple tube gear 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 also provided much safer, more wholesome musical turf. I was recently reminded of this older, darker, more dangerous sound with The Black Keys’ new album release, Brothers. Their song, “10 Cent Pistol,” evokes that old sense of danger. The Black Keys have recalled this earlier sound, and its rawness makes their talent all the more convincing. Thank you, Black Keys. Thank you, Tchad Blake and thank you, Nonesuch. You knew exactly what you were doing. It’s no wonder the Black Keys’ Brothers was named KCRW’s #1 album for 2010.