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Pink Champagne 

Dewey Terry's rock & roll party

Wednesday, May 26 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo
DEWEY TERRY HELPED INVENT ROCK & ROLL, BUT ALL it's given him is a case of the blues. As the songwriting force that drove late-'50s Specialty Records duo Don & Dewey, he and partner Don "Sugarcane" Harris took command of the fledgling rock & roll idiom with high frantic style. Melding the gospel passion of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the soul grit of James Brown, the tortured blues of Guitar Slim and the lusty carnival rock & roll of Little Richard, they jammed it all into a reckless beat grinder, twisted the crank and delivered the final product with a howling force that could only have come from the streets of Los Angeles.

The Don & Dewey mix of heat, jive and unadulterated talent was a shock in its day. Not yet 21 when they started on Specialty, these cats were upstarts, hardcore; they not only wrote, played and produced all their songs, they both flat-out Screamed Into The Microphone. When they weren't hollering, they spoke in wildly poetic, almost indecipherable tongues (langga langga oli-oki changa-chang). They did the jungle hop with the beeb-a-lee bop, mammer-jammered at the hootenanner and got clean for their mama's papa's sister's brother's uncle's crazy child -- the one with the champagne eyes. They did it all, leaping from slam to simmer on perfectly vocalized close-harmony ballads that anticipated the glories of mid-'60s soul with blueprint accuracy. Hell, when Dewey went into a recitation, Don even urged him to "Go on, rap!"

Terry, a big, genial man with a clean-shaven howitzer shell of a dome, was born in Los Angeles on July 17, 1937, the son of a railroad man who gave the family a comfortable upbringing in nearby Pasadena. Terry always had a piano at home. "It was just a natural thing for me to do, play piano and sing," he says. "I started out playin' boogie-woogie. My mother had an old Victrola and lots of 78 records. I could always hear Count Basie, Duke Ellington, but what was so nice was that I could go out in my back yard where my mother raised chickens, stand up on a box and look over the chicken coops, and there was always a church caravan that came through on Sundays. You'd see a couple hundred people there, and I had the pleasure of seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. At the time I didn't know who they were, but I knew they got down!"

From his mid-'50s teenage launch with local doo-wop sextet the Squires (whose "Cindy" on the indie
Mambo label remains a prized dusty), Terry was clearly a force on the rise. He and boyhood chum Don Harris soon departed the staid vocal group: "We became Don & Dewey because there were too many people in the other band to make any money," he says. "Don and I did a record called 'Miss Sue' and 'My Heart Is Achin'' on a label called Spot, and we had some managers out of Chicago who'd been shaping us for a couple of years, and that evolved into this record. And it got a lot of radio play: Hunter Hancock -- Hunting With Hunter -- he used to play my record all the time. Peter Potter's Platter Parade, and [fabled record shop] Dolphins of Hollywood was playing it, too."

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That kind of exposure was invaluable, and with such instant local notoriety, Don & Dewey's supercharged sound only blossomed wilder. "The real stomp-down, knockdown blues things, we'd been doin' that the whole time," he says. "Rhythm & blues were changin'. That's when we learned to rock it. R&B was too slow, too methodical -- felt like, 'C'mon, baby, we don't want to hear that!' The thing is, at that time, most people found what we did quite harsh. They said the music was too loud, always told us to cut our amplifiers down -- they did not want you to wiggle and jiggle. But I think that contributed to our success, because -- well, the kids were doin' it anyway: rock & roll."

DON & DEWEY SWIFTLY ASCENDED FROM HIGH school auditorium dates to steady work at Billy Berg's, the Hollywood boîte that had for years featured the biggest names in jazz, and at the Royal Room at Las Palmas and Hollywood, where Specialty head Art Rupe wooed them in 1957, not long before Little Richard, after seeing Sputnik arc over the Australian stadium where he was performing, took it as a sign from God and quit rock & roll.

"We immediately signed with Specialty," says Terry. "They already had Little Richard, and we were billed as 'The Two Little Richards,' but at that time Richard was so hot that he was overbearing everything. And that label had Guitar Slim -- 'The Things I Used To Do.' He came out of Louisiana to do some recording, and he was playin' at the 5/4 Ballroom. I had met him at Specialty Records one day -- he came in a green car, with a green suit, about 30 crazed women, and the party was on! He was really the Charlie Parker of the time, with that Fender guitar, which at that time was very new. So I learned to play the Fender just like Guitar Slim. He didn't play with a pick -- I don't play with a pick. We were taught to play the guitar with our hands, because there is nothing like the human touch. That's the way we learned."

The exposure to Slim's cataclysmic brand of guitar blues was warped further by Terry into a mystic brand of volcanic rock & roll. Don & Dewey's cover of Los Angeles R&B stalwart Joe Liggins' "Pink Champagne" pushed it into such radical spheres that Specialty didn't release it for decades. Their career reached fever pitch as quickly as their music: "We started touring for the Gill Agency, who were located on Western Avenue, and they sent us to the Apollo Theater with Redd Foxx, the Dells, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Moms Mabley and Big Maybelle.

"We did the first concert over in Honolulu, with Chuck Berry and Pat Boone! Pat came in with his little white shoes and his sweaters, very nice man -- very young at the time. But we did those shows, and then my audiences changed -- they were no longer black audiences, they were totally white. Right after the Apollo show, the records started and things changed."

They rocked through the early '60s on bandstands all over the nation, participating in the 1964 second coming of a secular Little Richard, both on the road and on his comeback single, "Bama Lama Bama Loo." It peaked at No. 83 on the Billboard chart, then Don & Dewey, like the Treniers, another gloriously raw, rocking R&B band, began annual lounge engagements in Las Vegas, appearing at the Dunes for five straight years.

After Harris went tripping off with John Mayall and Frank Zappa, Terry saw several of his compositions revived with significant impact: "Farmer John," covered by Chicano rockers the Premiers, became an East Los anthem; the Olympics scored with "Big Boy Pete," and the Righteous Brothers began life as stone Don & Dewey clones, copping the pair's repertoire and stage moves and even charting with two Don & Dewey songs. In 1974, Terry's ballad "Leaving It Up to You" became the BMI-certified most-played song of the year, thanks to covers by R&B's Dale & Grace, pop's Donny & Marie Osmond and country's Freddy Fender. But much of that money went into wily Art Rupe's exploitative coffers; Dewey has fared quite badly, at times, in business -- as did everyone else on Specialty (in the mid-'80s, he joined Little Richard's picket line outside Specialty's Sunset Boulevard offices).

TODAY, DON BATTLES INCREASINGLY POOR HEALTH and Dewey divides his time among European tours, annual romps through the Tahitian Islands, and slaying 'em in the blues clubs and on the retro-rockabilly scene. His stage show is powerful, compelling, those big hands slicing through a thick mass of rhythm and riffs that seem to reach down into the guts, voice wailing as potently as ever. His sound is unbeatable, ringing with soul-deep rock & roll truth.

"See, I met the real people," he says, "the original people. And when I hear people play guitar now, they play a lot of copy stuff -- they've got to understand that the things they're playin' might be faster, they might be a whole lot more melodic, but the old blues things, you could really feel them. That's how I learned. It was just about gettin' the music across. I'm for the art -- and if you can see the art in it, that's my payment."

Reach the writer at jwhiteside@laweekly.com

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