By JOHN WOOLEY
MTV wasn’t even a gleam in an executive’s eye when Tulsa’s first wave of rock ‘n’ rollers hit. In fact, “Where the Action Is,” that fondly remembered Dick Clark-produced daily TV show, didn’t come along for almost a decade. Even the granddaddy of them all, Clark’s “American Bandstand,” didn’t go national until ’57.
So it’s hard to conceive how huge a force radio was in spreading early rock ‘n’ roll across our country, our state and our city. In the case of Tulsa, it wasn’t just local radio that got our teens pumped on this strange new music.
“The first rock ‘n’ roller I heard was Big Joe Turner,” remembers guitarist-vocalist John D. Levan, who was known as Danny Levan when he wielded a six-string in the ’50s for the likes of Gene Crose and Clyde Stacy. “And I heard him on the radio, over KXRG, just across the border into Mexico – a hundred-thousand-watt station. There was no telling what you’d get when you were listening to those border stations.”
Here at home, the hipper kids had discovered R&B disc jockey Frank Berry, who spun his discs on, variously, KOME, KTUL and KAKC before the latter became Tulsa’s first full-time rock ‘n’ roll radio station. But even before there was a full-time rock ‘n’ roll station, there was a full-time rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey.
“Joe Knight was the king of the hill at that time,” recalls Don Wallace, Tulsa’s first rock ‘n’ roll deejay. “He was on from about 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon until 6, with a show called ‘The Tulsa Ballroom.’ He played Rosemary Clooney, he played Frank Sinatra, the current pop artists, and he was doing real well. So I went over to KTUL in late ’54, early ’55, and tried to compete with him. It didn’t work.
“Bill’s ‘T’ Record Shop was the record shop of the day, and there was a type of music springing up at the time they called rockabilly – things like ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ Bill, at the shop, told me about all this happening, and I changed my format and started playing it. Alan Freed, the disc jockey in New York, had coined the term rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what I played.
“And I had immediate success with it.”
Originally published by Tulsa World on December 31, 2003
Rock of Ages: Part Tree
It was 1959 and things would never be the same for Tulsa Night Life. Writer John Wooley does it again in this intimate portrait of Drinking, Guns and Rock n Roll.
What is Rock of Ages?
A five-part series on the early history of rock ‘n’ roll in Tulsa written by John Wooley, originally published in the Tulsa World.
Used with permission from the Tulsa World.
JOHN WOOLEY is a writer, lecturer, filmmaker, and radio host who specializes in the movies, literature, and music of the 1930s and ‘40s as well as other pop-culture history. He has written, co-written, or edited more than 40 books, scripted a number of documentaries, with his scripting extending to comic books and graphic novels. An entertainment writer for the Tulsa World newspaper for 23 years (1983-2006), Wooley has seen his articles and interviews appear in a wide range of other publications, fromTV Guide to the horror-movie magazine Fangoria, for which he wrote more than 100 pieces. He is also the producer and host of the highly rated Swing on This, Tulsa’s only western-swing radio program.
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