Rock and roll sliced through racial barriers for generation of young fans

Tony Violanti
Tony Violanti

Rock and roll not only changed American music, it brought down racial barriers for a generation of teenage fans.

It all happened at the dawn of a new musical era during the 1950s and a couple of acts exemplifying those changing times soon will be coming to The Villages.

Little Anthony and The Imperials play Savannah Center on Sept. 21-22. And “One Night In Memphis, a Tribute to Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash” comes to Savannah Center on Aug. 30.

Little Anthony and the Imperials made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they joined another legendary pioneer – Buddy Holly, who was inspired by Elvis Presley.

Little Anthony and the Imperials, founded by Clarence Collins, toured with Buddy Holly in the 1950s.

Elvis once said: “Rock and roll is nothing but rhythm and blues.” Elvis’ early hits include “That’s All Right” by blues singer Arthur Crudup; “Hound Dog,” originally done by Big Mama Thornton; “Shake Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner and “I Got A Woman” by Ray Charles.

Andy Matchett as Buddy Holly while performing with Johnny Wild and the Delights.

“Elvis gave voice to African American music for a lot of people in rock and roll with his great, authentic singing style,” said Andy Matchett, who often pays tribute to Holly with the band Johnny Wild and the Delights.

“I think Buddy Holly took it to another, creative level,” Matchett added. “Buddy took his experience with black music and used his creativity to make something totally new. Buddy made it personal.”

A new movie about Holly involves Little Anthony and the Imperials. It is called “Clear Lake” and features the two acts touring the U.S. during the segregated racial days of 1958. Production is set to begin in February 2019 – the 60th anniversary of Holly’s death in a plane crash after a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.

The film details what it was like for Holly and the Imperials traveling on a bus across America during the 1958 “Biggest Show of Stars Tour.”

Matchett is an expert on Holly. He is an actor and playwright and was once cast as Buddy in a national tour of “The Buddy Holly Story.”

“African-American music was a big influence on Buddy Holly,” said Matchett, who will appear with the Johnny Wild group Aug. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at Katie Belle’s. “Buddy was a big fan of Little Richard, and Richard was a big influence for him.”

Buddy Holly, shown with his guitar, was a huge fan of Little Richard.

Early on, Buddy Holly and The Crickets had their own racial identity issues.

“When they first came out, a lot of people thought they were black,” Matchett said.

Jerry “J.I.” Allison, drummer with The Crickets, took it as a compliment.

“People thought we were black and we thought that was great,” Allison told the BBC. “We were trying to sound like our black idols. Buddy and Little Richard were good buddies. Richard always respected what Buddy was doing.”

Holly recorded Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and even played “Bo Diddley” when Holly and The Crickets were one of the first white acts at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Other Holly songs like “Rave On,” “Well All Right” and “Not Fade Away” show his own passion for R&B and molding it into rock and roll.

“That’s the genius of Buddy Holly,” Matchett said

Elvis Presley, shown with the legendary B.B. King, loved African American music.

On tour, Holly and The Crickets rode the same bus as such African American stars as Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke and LaVern Baker. The same could be said for Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, who, like Elvis, came of age at Sun Records in Memphis.

Little Anthony and the Imperials also rode the buses and discovered a new world down South. They came out of Brooklyn with such early hits as “Tears On My Pillow,” “Two People in the World” and “Shimmy Ko Ko Bop.”

“Little Anthony” Gourdine, Ernest Wright, Robert Deblanc and Johnny Britt still tour with the group that was founded by Clarence Collins. Later in the ’60s, they would score such hits as “Going Out of My Head” and “Take Me Back.”

Gourdine remembers riding the bus on the Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” tour back in the early days.

“Dick Clark was like my father,” Little Anthony once told me. “When we would go on tour, Dick let me sit with him in the front of the bus. Fabian and I were very young, and we were like the street kids on the tour. Dick watched over us.”

Collins, of the Imperials, plays a big part in the upcoming Holly film and has talked about what it was like touring in the south during the ’50s.

“We were scared,” he told rock historian Tom Meros. “We were always being harassed. I don’t blame anybody. It was just the way people were conditioned.”

Little Anthony and the Imperials are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The popular group is coming to The Villages in September to perform at the Savannah Center.

Collins believes rock and roll helped change that attitude for many.

“I think rock and roll, itself, brought young people together – and it still does,” he said. “Kids would go to concerts and you had (white and black) kids sitting next to each other. All they cared about was the music.”

“Everybody appreciates music for its own sake,” said Denny Iwago, who sings with the popular Villages’ doo-wop group Back In Time. “Music isn’t about color; music is about music.”

Iwago has front-row seats for the upcoming Little Anthony concert.

“He’s got such a great voice, I had to see him,” Iwago said. “Anthony’s voice is so rich and smooth. He can hit the high notes. And the group’s harmony is incredible.”

Denny Iwago, center, performs with The Villages doo-wop group Back In Time. Iwago is a big fan of Little Anthony and the Imperials and has front-row seats for one of the group’s upcoming shows at the Savannah Center.

Little Anthony and the Imperials, like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis, not only changed America with their music, they changed the world. And R&B music – along with country and gospel – inspired them.

“If you listen to rock and roll, you understand that it stemmed from African American influences,” Matchett said. “Everything we play today – whether it’s rock or rap – is embedded with the passion, courage and sacrifice of black artists.”

Tony Violanti covers entertainment for