Butler County Times Gazette
  • Rock on!

  • Have a question about the history of rock and roll?
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  • Have a question about the history of rock and roll?
    Fred Downs probably has your answer.
    The lifelong Leavenworth resident has just updated and re-published his book on the history of rock and roll, "Shakeouts of Rock & Roll."
    Downs started writing poetry, but never found much traction.
    "When the poetry didn't work," Downs says, "I said, 'What else can you do?'"
    He'd become a music fan at 11 years old, in 1963, tuning into the Beatles, The Ronettes, the Beach Boys, and the Supremes. His favorite song, "Louie, Louie," by The Kingsmen, was a hit that year and influenced rock and roll for decades.
    Notably, '63 was also the year of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
    "When we went to school on Nov. 22," Downs remembers, "everything was normal, then you come home and WHB was playing elevator music. Because President Kennedy was killed."
    Looking back, Downs says: "We were all bummed out about the assassination, then along came the Beatles and made us believe again. That was kind of a nice time to be getting into (music)."
    He hopes this book will be different from the multitudes on the topic that have come before.
    "They all seem to be written from the wrong perspective," Downs says, "of the guy who's 61 years old and telling the young kid, "You don't know music. WE had music."
    "That isn't this book. This book goes from '48 to now, and we give everybody credit for their contributions. So I'm not trying to take up sides here."
    "But maybe this book will create a dialogue," Downs continues, "and maybe people like the 61-year-old grandfather will ask his grandson, 'I don't understand rap – can you explain it to me?'"
    "And then the kid will say, 'Who is Wynonie Harris?' Because that is 1948, that is the beginning."
    Downs started his book in 1976, and released a version in 2003 – but has been updating it yearly since.
    This new version includes the history from 1948 to 2012.
    "Shakeouts of Rock & Roll" opens with Wynonie Harris and "Wild Bill" Moore, whose "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll," is largely considered the first rock and roll record. Downs traces the history from the time record stores bought blocks of radio time that no one wanted — the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. slots — to play this new music.
    Downs goes on to cover everything from Elvis, to Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues," Vanessa Williams, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
    "Every era seems to have something going on," Downs says. "It starts as an underground movement, all the time, then it gets into the commercial ring."
    Page 2 of 3 - "Then, the world moves on and says, 'No, THIS is my stuff.' We were like that when I was a kid, I didn't care about the stuff from the 50s. I do now. We couldn't have done the 60s without the 50s."
    According to Downs, except for a lull during the disco era in the late 70s, the worst time for rock and roll was 1958 to 1960.
    "Elvis goes into the Army – he's the invisible man for two years," says Downs. "Jerry Lee Lewis gets felled by the scandal where he married his 13-year old second cousin."
    "Little Richard goes into the ministry. The plane wreck – Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Richie Valens – all way too young. Then Chuck Berry gets in trouble and ends up in prison."
    "And payola killed the disc jockeys off. All that awful stuff happened in two years. But it survived somehow. But it came back differently, with the twist and with Elvis getting out of the Army."
    In many ways, Downs's musical history follows his own life.
    "When I'm getting out of high school, we've got all these wonderful songs on the radio," Downs says. "Like "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." We're like, 'I'm going to change the world, just like that music,' and then the world changed us."
    Downs glosses over the disco era, and turns to the return of rock and roll with the release of "My Sharona," by the Knack, in 1979. He describes the music of the 80s as having an "in your face attitude," until John Lennon was shot.
    "That was too in your face," says Downs.
    Then, "you get to Kurt Cobain," notes Downs, "and one sound changes everything."
    As music changed from vinyl to CDs, and moved from the radio to MTV and VH1, Downs followed.
    Now, Downs finds himself watching a lot of MTV and VH1, and reading Billboard magazine faithfully while watching the old rock and roll movies of the 1950s and 1960s.
    Turning points punctuate Downs' story, whether they come from Joan Jett or the evolution of music videos.
    Referring to the emergence of Cobain and the overnight disappearance of "hair bands" like Def Leppard and Poison, Downs says: "It was an exciting time to see everything turn around."
    "The Beatles did that. MTV did that. There were a lot of times it all turned around. That's the fun moments, but unfortunately someone always ends up losing out."
    "One of my idols growing up was Rick Nelson, but I'll tell you something, when the Beatles came, he was gone."
    What were the big stories of 2012, according to Downs? The fact that three songs by new acts made it to the top of the charts – one from Kansas City's own Janelle Monáe – was notable. As was the death of Whitney Houston.
    Page 3 of 3 - "Some years seem more momentous than others," says Downs.
    For 2013, "we'll have to talk about Miley Cyrus, even though she seems to have lost her mind," he says with a chuckle.
    Now, Downs is working on a new book on television. "TV and rock and roll have been the great influences on my culture," he says.
    But this book is less a comprehensive history than it is an exploration of the early years of television, the pioneers and the hurdles they faced. Downs also delves into what he considers influential episodes of select shows.
    As he completed the book, however, he found that he was writing more about censorship in television than just history.
    "It became an unintentional story about censorship, because they wouldn't let Lucy say the word 'pregnant' when she was pregnant," Downs says. "They told "Leave it to Beaver" 'you can't show the top of the toilet.' In 1957 there were no toilets in bathrooms (on TV)."
    "You get to the 1960s, and we start talking too much about women's belly buttons – we can't have Barbara Eden's on the air; Ginger and Mary Anne have to keep it under wraps."
    This book on television has a special urgency for Downs.
    He has been battling Leukemia and after one particularly difficult round of chemo, Downs realized that his book wasn't finished.
    "I just put everything aside," he remembers, "and I said, 'Look, kill me later when its more convenient – I'm busy.' And that was my attitude."
    Now his health has recovered and he is considering a return to poetry.
    "That poor guy that started it all out, the poet, he's been so ignored."
    You can purchase Fred "Freddie" Downs's book, "Shakeouts of Rock & Roll" through Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Shakeouts-Rock-Roll-Freddie-Downs/dp/1490594205/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384368552.

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