Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Shake The Shack: 30 Years of Rockabilly with Leon Berman

Music is an art form whose medium is sound. Sound is a mechanical wave and as humans, we hear certain frequencies of those waves. The sequences of particular sounds; the phrasing, timing and the inclusion of silence in those sequences can be assembled into a composition. A collection of like sounding compositions could be classified into genres. There are many different genres, I have my favorites.

One of my current faves, the one that has given me so much audio pleasure for the last quarter century is Rockabilly.

Billy Flagg first used the term to describe his music in 1953. Rockabilly is coined from the mixture of rock and country music. Sun Records was a small record company that began to record this new music. Elvis popped in to make a record for his mother. The rest is history. He was mixing genres with his music and performances.

Important influences on Rockabilly include western swing, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues. While there are notable exceptions, its origins lie primarily in the Southern United States.

The earliest hints of the music really goes back to the 20's and the first true Country music star: Jimmy Rodgers.  The seeds of rockabilly were planted in his blues-based chord progressions. Here is a portrait of Jimmy illustrated by R. Crumb.

Here is early Rockabilly Royalty: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

Bill Haley and his Comets were bringing Rockabilly into the popular culture with Rock Around the Clock. They recorded the song in 1954 and sold 25 million copies.

Rockabilly has had major influences on bands from The Beatles to The White Stripes. Exile on Main Street, the seminal Rolling Stone album had Rockabilly influences.

Bands like the Everly Brothers and films like American Graffiti awakened a curiosity in England. Musicians like Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe led the Rockabilly revival in the 70's. They spawned the formation of groups like The Stray Cats. The Cats became immensely popular and were major influences on a generation of artists.

Robert Gordon and Link Wray came on the scene in the the late 70's and found borderline mainstream success.

Since then Robert has become a Rockabilly legend. Robert was one of the first rockabilly musicians that I connected with. After 30 years, his performances still sends shivers down my spine.

Here is a video of one of his best, he performs with another Rockabilly hero, Chris Spedding on his beautiful Gibson guitar.

Rockabilly has morphed and changed over the 60 plus years it was first played, spawning many spinoffs like Surfabilly, Psychobilly and Punkabilly. The Cramps were one of the early pioneers of Psychobilly. Photo by Yves Lorson.

I found an amazing article on the History of Rockabilly. Aces and Eighths is a awesome site that has the history of many genres including Blues, Country, Folk, Heavy Metal and more. These guys have been busy! There is so much information here, I am humbled at their phenomenal expertise. Check this article out if you want to learn so much more:

Today there is a whole industry based in the Rockabilly culture. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of bands that have roots in Rockabilly all over the world. Sweden, Germany, the U.K. and Seattle, have some of the most vibrant Rockabilly scenes today. There are Rockabilly festivals and celebrations on every part of the planet.

There is even a Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame was established in 1997 to honor the pioneers of the genre. You can see them here:

Among the inductees are Elvis, Gene Vincent, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash among many other influential players in Rockabilly. The Who's Who of the genre.

Here is Gene, a man with style. He recorded Be-Bop-A-Lula in 1956. Within twenty-one days it sold over two hundred thousand records, stayed at the top of national pop and country charts for twenty weeks, and sold more than a million copies.

One of my all-time favorites was Ricky Nelson. I grew up with him on the TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (showing my age here). As I grew up, so did Ricky. He morphed into a huge rock star. He place 53 songs on the Billboard Top 100 list between 1957 and 1973. Few people realize he was so prolific and successful.

In 2009, the Hall had the great insight to induct Leon Berman. Leon has been instrumental in the growth and love of Rockabilly in the Pacific Northwest, and now the world. Here is Leon (right) with his award, along with co-host Mike Fuller and Steve Smith, (in back) the Rusty Trusty Scribe.

Leon has been the main preacher of the Rockabilly Word on the planet. Since the inception of his long-lived radio show Shake The Shack in 1986, he has been a major influence for this wonderful music. He has been hosting the show for almost 30 years.
Every Friday evening for 30 years he has lugged hundreds of CD's to the station in preparation for his show. Every week he plays 60-70, 2-3 minute tunes (many times, chosen at the spur of the moment) adding commentary and expertise to the mix. Every Friday night, when you and I are winding down after a long week, Leon is gearing up. He has produced close to 1,500 shows. This is a truly amazing record of dedication and passion to this marvelous music.

Look into these eyes, he is as sweet as he appears.

As of July 15th, 2016 he will retire. He has a growing family, a thriving business and is done. This is my way of showing love for this man and the legacy he has left us.

Leon grew up in central Seattle and spent his youth listening to greats like Pat O'Day (a northwest icon on the radio), see Pat here: Leon's family had a business in steel so his future was set. But just like many great things in our lives, he stumbled into radio.

In 1986 a friend, knowing his love for this new music asked if he would like to host a Rockabilly Show on the local public radio station. Before he could say no, he was a DJ. In the early days he was on Tuesday nights. It was in those days that I discovered him.

This music had a huge influence on my life. I had been a Jazz fan early in the 70's and had discovered Nu-Wave later in that decade. In the late 70's I went to the grad party at the the college that I was about to attend, a band called The Blasters was on stage. I was loving this new but classic sound.  Little did I realize that I was seeing one the first gigs of what would become legends of Rockabilly.

The pump was primed, by the mid eighties I was ready for a new musical experience. One day my friend Kurt (aka Dr. Leon Gonski) told me to tune into KCMU 90.3 (public radio, ultimately changing the call letters to KEXP) at 6pm that evening. He was going to be co-host. At this time Leon was allowing a donor who pledged $90.30 dollars or more to sit in with him. I dialed in Shake The Shack, I loved it immediately. I have been listening ever since.

His non de plume is The Doctor of Proctology. He has been brought happiness to many a colon.

Leon is retiring at the top of his game. He has played Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues, Surf, Primitive Rock, Boogie Woogie, Country Western and "anything else he feels like slapping on the turntable" every Friday night (almost), 6-9pm PST on KEXP 90.3 FM for 30 years! What an amazing accomplishment. Photo credit Backbeatseattle.

I have pleasure of being friends with Leon and his co-host Mike, his real cousin. I have also befriended the cast of characters that are essential to the success of Shake The Shack. I have been invited on the show many times and have played key characters on the special shows that Leon and Mike produce for their devoted fans. I am fortunate to be part of the Shake The Shack family.

Here is Leon and me recently at lunch...mmm, Dim Sum.

Here is one of the crew, Johnny Lignite and his wife Cass.

Besides producing a weekly 3 hour show, he also put on a 3-day festival of music, called The Rockabilly Ball for 25 years. The 24th annual bash and featured some of the best bands in Rockabilly from all over the country. He typically booked 4-5 bands a night. One night might be Surf night and the next would be Twang. The list of bands spaned 3 decades and taakes up 4 pages in a notebook.

The Rockabilly Ball was one of the high points of the year for music fans. Here are some of the girls that dress for the event. He has since handed off the reigns of the operation to the capable hands of Marshall Scott Warner and SweetPea Rockabilly. The Ball continues to this day presenting killer live music at Highway 99 Blues Club. See them here:

 Here is Angelatini, Roy Kay and others rocking the ball.

Here is Leon and Mike at The 24th Rockabilly Ball. I blogged all about it here: and here Photo credit: Jay Dotson.

Leon has had many a sidekick. I remember Mitch, Steve, One I'd Marry, Britt and several more. They all added their own personality to the show; there has rarely been a dull moment.

Here is a pic of Charlene (?), Leon, Mike and Steve, the Rusty Trusty Scribe at a Food Collection event.

Mike Fuller joined Leon 6 and a half years ago. Oddly enough they met at a party and Leon didn't realize they were kin. Mike had a lot of on air radio experience. He had worked at KJET as a DJ in the 80's He had done a lot of production work and had a wide knowledge of many genres of music. He was a natural for a partner.

Here is a picture of Mike mugging with a sculpture I made for him. I had run out of gas and found that I had left my wallet at home. I was in the middle of nowhere (Vantage, WA) with no money.  Mike just happened to be within 50 miles. He and his little dog came and saved me.

Mike brought new ideas and skills to the show. One of the fun things he did was reinvent Radio Theater for Shake The Shack. He always wrote and produced a funny skit for each Halloween. Here is the cast of characters in the Radio Theater skit on Halloween 2012. Starting from the left, that's Nate, me in back, Mike, Mel and Leon. We had some big fun. Special shows like this add so much to the richness of the listener's experience.

I have written many a flattering review of the show, here is a blow by blow review of the Halloween Special:

Leon and his crew also host many a live show having bands like The Blasters, Aloha Screwdriver and Lucky Tubb and his Modern Day Troubadours. There is nothing like a live performance, you never know what will happen. Lucky (Ernest Tubbs great nephew) played a tune he wrote in the KEXP parking lot on the air. Aloha Screwdriver brought in their "Rock Box", a stage prop that lights up when it is mounted. It is strictly for the stage, you can't see it on the radio. But the boys from AS wanted to give Leon the full treatment.

Here is a maniacal Leon on the RockBox® with Donald Bell of Aloha Screwdriver enjoying the show.

The KEXP studios were located in the shadow of the Space Needle in north downtown Seattle. They just moved to the other side of the needle, right in The Seattle Center. KEXP is one of the rare alternative radio stations on the planet. I am going to quote their PR department in this description: KEXP is more than a radio station. KEXP is a dynamic arts organization that provides rich music experiences on the air, online, and on the streets. KEXP’s unique services benefit three distinct groups: Music Lovers, Artists, and the Arts Community. 

Here are the new digs, they have come a long way since the dingy studios at the University.

KEXP’s curatorial staff of 40 DJs, who are widely recognized as experts in their field, present the newest emerging popular artists alongside established bands. KEXP’s programming features both variety and specialty shows that brings you the emerging sounds and long-time favorites from the Pacific Northwest, the country, and throughout the world.

Artists championed by KEXP are not typically supported by traditional non-profit arts organizations or commercial media outlets. They are inventive, contemporary musicians creating new work in popular genres that include rock, hip hop, reggae, country, Latin, modern global and more.
They didn't mention Rockabilly. It doesn't always get a lot of respect. But with a record of 30 straight years and at one of the top spots on the schedule, Leon did something right.

That is why Shake The Shack will continue. Leon has built a church that has stood the test of time...and the station managers to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. Mike will be the main host, Red and Johnny will still be the on-air co-hosts. There was some question whether it would continue or not. Losing the Founder and main operative usually is the death knell for any organization. It is especially true for entertainment programs like radio and television shows. Thanks to KEXP, Shake the Shack will live on.

Mike and Leon have been trading off weeks for the last couple months getting ready for this moment. Mike is taking the show to some cool new places, I look forward to many years of enjoyable music coming from Shake the Shack.

I cannot say enough about Leon and the way he has shaped my musical tastes. Rockabilly was just one of the musical genres has Leon introduced me to, Surf was another. Leon has one of the largest surf collections around. He started sharing it and I got hooked. I now see a ton of live Surf music and even present at least one all Surf show in Seattle every year.

Here is JonPaul Balak of The Insect Surfers, a band that I fell in love with when Leon had them up for a Rockabilly Ball. JP is also a DJ, of fabulous Surf music! See Fiberglass Jungle Podcasts here:

Mike introduced a section of the show he calls Surf The that man!

I love Leon and will miss him greatly. But I know I will see him for the occasional cocktail and hear his legacy every Friday night.

Thank you Leon. Thank you for the music, the fun and the smiles. You will be missed, but your ghost will always haunt the halls of KEXP and Shake The Shack.

We Gone.

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