Hank Davis grew up in New York but now lives in rural Ontario Canada, where he is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Guelph. He has written books on animal cognition and evolutionary psychology, including his most recent, the controversial Caveman Logic. Although he was an award-winning Psychology teacher, Hank’s interest in music has never been far from the surface. 

Over the past 40 years he has compiled, annotated and produced over 100 LPs, CDs, and box sets, as well as writing numerous magazine articles about 50s music. Like many American boys who grew up in the 1950s, Hank was bitten by the Elvis bug and did his share of early performing and recording. A collection of Hank’s original 45s and unissued demos from the 1950s is available on Bear Family Records (BCD 17319). Ducktails, Drive-Ins & Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at 50s Music (2023) is Hank’s seventh book.

Ducktails, Drive-ins, and Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at ’50s Music
Published by SUNY Press

Hank Davis

People have stories and they love telling them. Imagine a singer who made some records back in the 1950s, and 60 plus years later along comes someone who’s writing a book and wants to talk to them! There’s a lot of flattery in that. Not many people put up barriers. I did hear quite a few, “Oh my god, I haven’t thought about that in years.” Good, I thought. No canned answers.  

What inspired you to go on a musical journey to a past era and write Ducktails, Drive-ins, and Broken Hearts?

Music has always been my passion. I went from playing and recording it when I was a kid, to writing about it later on. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to write a book about ’50s music. I’ve been writing magazine articles and album liner notes for a long time. Writing about ’50s music isn’t time travel to me. My musical taste, both as a performer and a journalist, is largely based in ’50s music. My record collection is strongly rooted in the ’50s. It isn’t so much about going back in time as it is digging into what I care most about and wanting to share it.

How did you approach doing the research for Ducktails, Drive-ins, and Broken Hearts? How do you determine what information to include in the book and what is ultimately better left out?

When you spend time talking to an artist and getting to know them, it’s pretty clear what can go in the book and what will end up on the cutting room floor. The last thing I wanted was canned answers to questions that have been asked to death. I tried to break new ground with everyone I talked to. I’m a psychologist by training but also a musician and recording artist. Some of those interviews got pretty deep. I never wanted to violate the trust I established with my subjects, so if I had any doubts, I asked whether we were on or off the record. There were very few occasions when someone told me not to include something. People have stories and they love telling them. Imagine a singer who made some records back in the 1950s, and 60 plus years later along comes someone who’s writing a book and wants to talk to them! There’s a lot of flattery in that. Not many people put up barriers. I did hear quite a few, “Oh my god, I haven’t thought about that in years.” Good, I thought. No canned answers.

Sometimes it can be difficult to strike a balance between telling a narrative and incorporating facts and research in a book. How did you manage to find this balance in Ducktails, Drive-ins, and Broken Hearts and present the information in a way that’s accessible to readers?

Good question. The emphasis in my book was always on storytelling. It’s true that record collectors and music historians can get caught up in details (how many weeks was Hound Dog on the charts? Exactly when was Blue Suede Shoes released?).  I tried to provide enough basic information to satisfy knowledgeable readers, but the emphasis here was always on the stories. The behind-the-scenes stuff. The tales that don’t make it to the liner notes or the press releases. If I can quote one reviewer of my book, “No matter what your perception of ’50s music, be prepared to have it challenged. If you are just discovering it, you will find a complex history here going way deeper than Happy Days imagery. If you are a grizzled veteran, you will learn something in these pages and maybe unlearn some previous assumptions.” I really love those words because they told me that I had succeeded in what I set out to do when I wrote the book.

Of all the ’50s musicians and singers you researched (it might be hard to choose) is there one whose story you found the most interesting to explore?

I wrote these chapters over a 40-year period so it’s hard to pick a favorite. They all represent adventures I had, rabbit holes I’ve been down. The people I wrote about are very real to me, both personally and musically. They’re very different individuals. Some were wildly successful; others were barely household names in their own households. There are 38 chapters in the book. Asking which one is my favorite is like asking a parent which of their 38 children they like best. They could tell you what is wonderful about each of them, and how different they are from each other in so many ways. But favorite? Some of these chapters make me laugh out loud, even today. Others, one in particular, still make me cry. An R&B singer named Ella Johnson – I read that chapter 30 years after I wrote it (it began life as an LP liner note) and I still tear up. As for picking my favorite, ouch!  I could tell you what I love about every single one of the chapters in my book. It’s there for a reason. There was enough material for at least 10 more chapters but at some point, I chose these. My editor at SUNY Press kept reminding me, you’re not writing an encyclopedia. You’re already pressing 100,000 words. Save it for the next volume. So every chapter in this book is a winner.

If you ask me for highlights, I can do that more easily. I loved learning about the early recordings of Charlie Rich before he became “The Silver Fox” and recorded all those cream puff country hits (a phrase Rolling Stone coined). I loved knowing Rosco Gordon and Ella Mae Morse. I was fascinated by the backstory of the most reviled Sun record ever released. Sun is probably the most collectible ’50s label – a hotbed of testosterone. They discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf, to name just a few. Yet Sun completists are tormented by the prospect of having to own Little Sherry Crane’s ode to her pet parakeet, which was also part of the catalogue. Who was she? How did that outlier record happen? After much digging, I found out. What is it like to search for unknown girl singers who cut one or two records half a century ago and disappeared without a trace? They don’t all end up the same way. One walked away from her career cold turkey; another ended up singing backup for Elvis.

Not all the chapters are about people. I did a deep dive into the well-known folk ballad Delia’s Gone and discovered that the real Delia (yes, there was one) was nothing like what we saw in that music video, played by heroin chic model Kate Moss. Another song-based chapter is the one about Unchained Melody – among the most frequently recorded songs in the history of popular music. Yet almost nobody knows about the origins of the song or its life before the Righteous Brothers cut it 60 years ago. Ducktails, Drive-Ins & Broken Hearts also takes on some widely held mythology about ’50s music and calls its bluff.

You’ve had a long career in music journalism— 45 years! Do you have a favourite story of your own from your experiences chasing down stories behind-the-scenes, perhaps from on the road or backstage?

This is similar to your previous question about favorites, except the focus here is on the adventures I had finding the artist and getting to know them. Let me start with a generalization and then give you a couple of exceptions. You asked about chasing down stories. I have the impression that the experiences I had writing this book were weirder, the people were stranger, the further south I got. It was like south of the Mason-Dixon line, it became ’50s Rock & Roll meets Southern Gothic. But there were memorable exceptions. A couple of experiences I had with fellow researcher Colin Escott come to mind.  In one case we drove to Niagara Falls in search of a singer named Ben Hewitt. Ben made some great rockabilly records for Mercury in the late 1950s. He had grown up in a dirt floor, one room log cabin on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation. Ben was a delight to work with and a natural storyteller.  He’s probably the easiest interview I’ve ever done. We turned on the recorder and asked him to tell us about himself and three or four hours later we turned it off, weak with laughter and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of fascinating material we had collected. 

On another occasion, we went in search of an elusive rock and roll singer from the late ’50s named Eddie Bell. Eddie’s picture – an iconic shot of a ’50s rocker – actually appears on the cover of the book. We found Eddie in the late ’80s and sat with him in his ScenicCruiser bus for several hours before a show in Toronto.  We thought we were breaking new ground by discovering him, but it turned out that Eddie was quite well known and already had over 40 albums out – a truly astonishing total. How could we have missed all that? The ’50s music community is pretty small and news of discoveries and reissue albums spreads pretty quickly. How could all of this have escaped us?  The answer was quite simple, if a bit surprising. Eddie had ceased to be Eddie Bell back in the sixties when he abandoned rock & roll. He had gone back to his Polish roots and became a best-selling polka artist. For the past 30 years he had recorded under his real name – Eddie Blazonczyk. He had added about 200 lb. to his svelte ’50s rock & roll frame. His weight wasn’t the only thing that had burgeoned. Eddie’s audience was huge and appreciative. They were entirely different from the typical ’50s rock & roll revival crowd. These people came to dance, drink beer, and have a wonderful family-oriented time. And Eddie gave it to them, sometimes dropping as much as 30 pounds in a single night’s performance.  Colin and I were privately horrified at the thought. If either of us had lost 30 lb. in a single day we would have found ourselves in the ICU. We also realized that despite our deep involvement in music, there were parts of it – niche markets – that we knew absolutely nothing about. They were thriving without us. We only knew because one of our ’50s rockers had decided to shift gears so his alter-ego might enjoy a successful career below the radar. Eddie’s whole story – and his eye-opening success –  is told (and illustrated) in the book

Is there anything you hope readers or fans of ’50s music will learn and take away from your book?

Take away messages?  There was some wonderful music recorded during the ’50s decade and a lot of it has been lost to a mass audience. Back in the days when everyone owned a CD player, I would have asked the publisher to include a CD with the book package. That way you could read a chapter and listen to its featured music at the same time. Now I have to hope that the book has intrigued you enough to stop what you’re doing and get on to YouTube or iTunes or Apple music and listen to the record you’ve just been reading about. I also have to hope you’ve selected the original recording and not some soulless remake, recorded 20 or 30 years later. I hope the reader will hear the music in a new way. Or maybe hear it for the first time and have an “Oh my God!” moment. I hope your eyes and ears will be opened to treasures you barely remember or have never heard before. Whatever your favorite music is today, the roots of it probably lie in the ’50s. Learn to make those connections. Learn about artists you never heard about. The ’50s were an explosive era. For the first 5 years, the charts were dominated by sappy over-orchestrated pop music (our parents’ music). And then something happened. Rock & roll was born. Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis. Read this book and experience the Revolution for yourself.

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