Early rockers put Baltimore on the charts

September 01, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

What's the Baltimore connection at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Here's a quick look at the local heroes who will be commemorated in Cleveland:

L Jerry Leiber: Inducted in the Nonperformer category in 1987.

Born in Baltimore on April 25, 1933, Leiber met Mike Stoller in 1950, when the two were high school students in Los Angeles. Amazed to find another white teen who shared his interest in R&B, Leiber teamed up with Stoller and began writing songs.

Their early successes included the Charles Brown hit "Hard Times," written while the two were still teens, and "Hound Dog," which they wrote for Big Mama Thornton -- it was later covered by Elvis Presley. As their writing style evolved, the duo turned to humorous, story-like songs -- Leiber called them "playlets" -- like "Shoppin' for Clothes," "Little Egypt" and "Yakety Yak," all of which were recorded by the Coasters.

In addition, the duo also wrote the Elvis Presley hits "Jailhouse Rock" and "King Creole" and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," and "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Up on the Roof" and "On Broadway," which were hits for the Drifters. Their later work included Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is," and "Pearl's a Singer," which was a hit for Elke Brooks. "Smokey Joe's Cafe," a revue built around their songs, is currently playing Broadway.

The Orioles: Inducted as an Early Influence in 1995.

Credited by some with recording the first "rock and roll" record, the Orioles set America on its ear in 1948 with the hit "It's Too Soon to Know." Written by Deborah Chessler and featuring the plaintive voice of Sonny Til (born Earlington Tilghman on Aug. 18, 1925), the single boasted a sense of emotional immediacy and vocal abandon unlike anything on the radio at the time.

Originally called the Vibranaires, the group changed its name at Chessler's suggestion to capitalize on its Baltimore connection. It also did well with another Chessler composition, "Tell Me So," which topped the R&B charts in 1949, but the group's greatest success came in 1953 with "Crying in the Chapel." Bass Johnny Reed is the only one of the original five Orioles still alive; he currently lives in North Hollywood, Calif. Sonny Til died in 1981, baritone George Nelson in '68, tenor Alexander Sharp in '59, and guitarist Tommy Gaither in '50. A new version of the Orioles, based in Washington, continues with Reed's blessing.

Frank Zappa: Inducted in 1995.

Born Dec. 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Zappa grew up in Lancaster, Calif., where he developed a taste for raw rock and R&B singles as well as the adventurous techniques of modern composers like Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varese.

After working as a songwriter and scoring a few B-movies (including"The World's Greatest Sinner" and "Run Home Slow"), Zappa formed the Mothers of Invention in 1964. Celebrated as much for their outrageous stage antics and acrid social commentary as for Zappa's iconoclastic compositions, the group became one of rock and roll's first underground sensations. He wrote everything from straight-ahead rock to jazz-inflected instrumental music, to full-fledged orchestral scores, and released much of it through his own label, Barking Pumpkin.

An outspoken advocate for free speech, he derided the Parents Music Resource Center as bored housewives, and was hailed as an inspiration by Czech leader Vaclav Havel. He died of prostate cancer in 1993.

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