By Jonny Whiteside
Freddy Cannon’s kicking, blues-fueled music — a deliberately good-timing, urban sound — defined post-rockabilly American big beat. His smashing 1959 debut “Tallahassee Lassie” introduced not just Cannon’s formidable, gleeful bite, it signaled an audacious stylistic upshift — bombast au go-go, a proto-maximum R&B wallop that demanded instant hip-shaking response. Inspired not by Southern ravers Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent, Cannon’s bandstand fealty lay with Mid-Western innovators like Chuck Berry, Joe Turner and Bo Diddley, and Cannon himself was a key player during that brief 1960’s pre-British Invasion period when rock & roll was equal parts wild dance party and bi-racial socio-cultural explosion that roiled the world with its rich mixture of threat and exult.
At 76, Cannon is still ready to rumble. He’s making records — the latest, “Hail, Hail Rock & Roll” is a tribute to fallen idol Berry — and still gigs around the country about twice a month. He remains a consummate, always reaching rocker, as a recent collaboration with 70’s-era LA punk band the Gears makes slammingly evident. Strolling into a seaside Oxnard coffee shop on a recent sunny afternoon, arm in arm with sole lifelong spouse Jeanette, Cannon today is a lean, vibrant and bluntly forthright cat.
Born Frederick Anthony Picariello Jr. on Dec. 4, 1939 in Revere, Massachusetts, Cannon’s romance with music started early. “I started playing guitar when I was 12,” Cannon said. “My father was a musician, he had his own local band. I heard a lot of Hank Williams and to me, if you listen to Hank’s “Move it on Over,” it’s rock & roll. I mean they stole “Rock Around the Clock” from that. Then I heard “Shake, Rattle & Roll” one day in Revere Beach MA, My brother and I and his girlfriend we picked up Jeanette at the bowling alley there, got in the car turned on the radio and Big Joe Turner comes on and I went crazy. The drums were so heavy, that backbeat, I was beating my hands on the car seat along with it.”
The 15 year old went blues crazy. “All that black music, to me, was it,” Cannon said. “In Boston, they played all that stuff on the radio. We went to see Chuck Berry, it was right at the beginning, “Maybelline” had just hit. It was a big show, with a mixed crowd, Boston was like New York or Philly — we weren’t out of place but there were more blacks than whites there. And we saw Buddy & Ella Johnson — they had a 17 piece band, everyone in it was dancing, throwing their trumpets up in the air, I mean it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen, LaVern Baker was on it, Nappy Brown, Shirley Gunter & the Queens, a lot of other people, but Chuck Berry was it. To see him in his prime, this guy was unreal, he stole the show, had 15,000 people up and dancing in the aisles. Chuck destroyed the place. And I was hooked.”
“My dad used the stage name Karmon, so when I started my band I called it Freddy Karmon and the Hurricanes. We did the record hops all over New England for WMEX, which was the rock & roll station in Boston, they liked us, the kids liked us, and little by little I got a following. Then my mom wrote this poem about Jeanette “She’s my rock & roll baby, drives me crazy,” we turned it into “Tallahassee Lassie” and the rest is history.”
Released on the small Swan imprint, the song crashed the Top Ten and quickly became a million seller. With Cannon’s declarative libidinous sneer, relentlessly walloping kick drum and frantic handclaps, it was a modern rock & roll standard with an irresistible throb. Elvis made sure his jukebox at Graceland included the disk and it was subsequently covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones (a 1978 “Some Girls” outtake) to the Flamin’ Groovies.
“That song was real rock & roll, it was a garage record,” Cannon said. “We wanted to be black but of course we couldn’t,” Cannon said. “Johnny Maestro of the Crests, he could almost do it, and Elvis had a little blackness in his voice. When Bernie Binnick at Swan asked me in the studio to slur my words. I said ‘What? I’m white, I can’t do that.’”
Cannon suddenly found himself a national sensation. His series of stunning signature hits — “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans,” “Palisades Park,” and “Action!” — all featured a tremendous emphasis on rhythm, earning him the nickname “Boom Boom,” and simplistic lyrics that Cannon inhabited with high-voltage vibrancy, supercharging the almost nonsensical repetition with volcanic power.
While Cannon was touring with his musical heroes and becoming American Bandstand’s most frequently featured guest star, behind the scenes conditions were routinely abysmal: “Of course the record company guys put their names on “Tallahassee Lassie” when it should have been me and my mom’s credit.”
“The drums are what made all those records so great,” Cannon said. “The driving sound, that dance beat, that inspired me, it was infectious. I wanted to make records that people would dance to. But we’d always have disputes over production. After “Lassie” the mix on the records was never what I wanted — those dominant drums, right up front, that was the sound I wanted, and I’d say something but they wouldn’t listen, just do it anyway. So I gave up on it. And they were successful, they’d had hits before they had me. And they’d steal from everybody. Back then you just had to go through it.”
“All through that era people got stolen from,” Cannon said. “Chuck Berry was bitter, that’s when Chuck started to get crazy, and become what he was. I was fortunate. After my deal with Warner’s was up in ’67, I got my masters, from Swan, Warner’s, all of them. Cost me zero. They didn’t know what they had. So I learned to make deals overseas, leasing records in Germany, all over. And I’ve made out pretty well.”
Cannon’s ride through the rock & roll jungle was wild.“I always worked with the black acts. Bill Haley was like Mickey Mouse to me,” Cannon said. “Bo Diddley was a great friend, we did a lot of shows together, we were like family. He was a great cook. And he’d always have these barbeque parties, he’d dig a big hole in the ground throw in chicken, ribs, everything, It’d be Bo, us, the Coasters, we’d all hang out.”
When 1960’s “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” sold a million in Britain, Cannon toured there— with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.
“We did that ten day tour, I’d open and Gene and Eddie would trade off,” Cannon said. “But Eddie was so incredible that it was decided he’d close all the shows. Gene didn’t like that.”
“Eddie and my dad became friends, they’d drink beer together after the show. That last night, Eddie called up to our room, asking if we wanted to share the cab. My dad said ‘Nah, see you at the airport.’ And then we heard about the accident, and that Eddie was dead. It was devastating, it was so heartbreaking. I never saw Gene again after the accident, I never saw any of those people again. Next thing I knew he died.”
Cannon roared on, scoring his fourth million seller with the velocitious, Chuck Barris-penned romp “Palisades Park,” but suddenly found himself lumped in with a new, decidedly distasteful set of peers.
“That whole era of teenage idols, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, when they came out I was classified along with them,” Cannon said. “I hated it. The pretty boys, doing that bubblegum, it’s so cute, That’s not rock & roll. I never wanted to be a teen idol — I don’t want to be put in that category, my records were rockin’.”
And they still are — his new Berry tribute disks kicks and stomps with all his exhilarating Boom-Boom flare fully intact, and Cannon, who has dedicated his entire life and ideological worldview to this music, is as restless and driven as ever.
“My voice is strong.” Cannon said. “I watch what I eat, I keep myself decent — at least I try, and it seems to be working. It’s so hard these days to get a song out there, you got YouTube and all the digital stuff but there’s so much, how in the hell is somebody supposed to find it? I want to get a buzz going, but which way do you go to do it?
“I just want to make rock & roll records, then get out on stage and rock. That’s all I ever wanted.”