It has been a little over thirty-five years since I first heard "Heartbreak Hotel," a strange and eerie recording sung by someone with an even stranger name. Late at night, while the folks were out, this record was played over and over again by my older, teenage brother. Though "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" was more my speed at the time, the effect of those repeated playings of that little black forty-five was that, at age eleven, I was inducted into the ever-growing army of fans of Rock and Roll music. After absorbing my brother's whole record collection (which read like a who's who of Rock and Roll), I started my own, spending my lunch money and my allowance at the record shops (first purchase: "Heartbreak Hotel" EP). My model airplane building had come to a complete stop. My life now revolved around Rock and Roll.
There were a few big events that first year of my "awakening:"
Sands had seven singles on RCA Victor, and as a DJ and performer, was an intimate part of the Shreveport scene when Elvis was just getting started. These connections, and the fact that he was also an accomplished stage actor, played a major part in his getting the initial TV part that blasted him to national stardom. Tommy Sands has never been given credit for being the first to bring Rock and Roll to television in a drama. If that was not a pioneering role in Rock music, and TV for that matter, I don't know what is. ("The Singin' Idol" was well before "Ricky the Drummer" on "Ozzie and Harriet," to which this first has often been erroneously credited.) Beyond this landmark, it must be noted that Tommy Sands could act, a talent that was not shared by most of his contemporaries in Rock and Roll, save Elvis and Bobby Darin.
Darin, whom Rock history critics hold in fairly high esteem, was a very versatile performer. Besides being a fine actor, he could sing convincingly in a number of styles: Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Country and Western, Folk, and Popular music. He wrote many fine songs, instrumentals included. Bobby Darin, as a nightclub performer complete with instrument solos and impressions, couldn't be beat. With similar versatility, Sands started as a genuine Country and Western performer, played Rock and Roll with a true Rockabilly feel, and put out four albums of Popular music with as fine an interpretation of Tin Pan Alley as can be found anywhere. He also wrote some of his own songs. His singles, though consistently good, were not great until he put together his own backup group, first The Raiders and then The Sharks, the latter being one of the best Rock and Roll bands ever assembled. The high point was his eleventh Capitol record, "I Ain't Gettin' Rid of You," the single finest Rock and Roll performance ever recorded. (Art is in the eye of the beholder and listening to this recording, my senses tell me this is art.) Had he maintained that standard through a half dozen more releases, the Rock revisionist crowd could not possibly ignore him. Much fuss has been made over many who accomplished a lot less than Tommy Sands did.
Every Rock and Roller's career has its own curious set of twists and turns, and with the release of "I'll Be Seeing You," Sands, for all intents and purposes, said good-bye to Rock and Roll. He put out two superb albums with the legendary Nelson Riddle, and a smattering of directionless singles with various labels. He did a little TV and a couple of movies, the most notable being a full-blown Disney musical, "Babes in Toyland." He then went into semi-retirement in Hawaii. The rewrite of Rock history had already begun, and the further we got away from the fifties, the more the distortions were applied, until that history more resembled the Ideal.
Today, the most popular artists of the fifties are dismissed as an embarrassment to Rock and Roll. Their mere presence in the scene is an offense to Rock historians and their "purist" sensibilities; hence the distortion of what Rock and Roll actually was and what it is. Now, since greed and politics have entered into the discussion via various foundations and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this distortion has become acute. Having myself lived through "The Golden Years of Rock and Roll," I have a first-hand knowledge, as a fan and consumer of the music, of the way it was.
This brings me back to Tommy Sands, who holds the number two slot, after Elvis, on my personal list of Rock and Roll's founding favorites, the same position popularly accorded him in 1957. The historical rewrite that has transpired thirty-five years after the fact dismisses "what was" in favor of "what should have been." This distortion has victimized Tommy Sands to the point that he is entirely written out of "the history of Rock and Roll." The Rock analyst's favorite whipping boy is Pat Boone, despite the fact that his early recordings were generally "white" America's introduction to what was called "race music," and a signpost of what was to come. I am less concerned with this injustice because at least he is being written about. Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and the rest of the "Teen Idols" of the early sixties are in a similar boat, but for different reasons. Their rise in popularity marked the demise of fundamental Rock and Roll. Considered lightweight and overly commercial, their misdeeds are slow to be forgiven. Almost any version of Rock history, however, will include this group, although disapprovingly. The point here is that while these artists are scorned and berated, and have little or no chance of regaining a positive appreciation in the "annals of Rock," they are acknowledged as having been a part of Rock and Roll, however regrettably. Tommy Sands is not even afforded this much appreciation, negative or otherwise. Capitol records has not seen fit to issue a "Greatest Hits" or "Best Of" album of his work in this country, so his music is never played on oldies stations. Since people never hear his music, there is certainly no demand. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy which has the end effect of erasing Tommy Sands' name from "The History of Rock and Roll," unfairly and unjustly. He is the only artist I can think of whose music doesn't appear in some form on CD. Even though Capitol Records is currently marketing its second extensive "Collectors Series" on compact disc, their masters on Tommy Sands lie in storage, untouched and neglected.
The revisionist version of Rock history serves a purpose designed to right certain injustices, and I am glad to see long overdue acknowledgment of some of Rock and Roll's true pioneers. Along the way, however, there have been casualties. The facts have often been set aside in favor of a politically correct fiction. "So what if Tommy Sands' popularity truly rivaled Elvis's in 1957? He was just another undeserving teenage idol." Or, "He was simply an Elvis impersonator," "His voice was too high," "He was not prolific enough." Any one of these arguments could be used by the archivist to dismiss any number of Rock and Rollers, and often are. However, Tommy Sands' sins against Rock and Roll, whatever they may be deemed to be, are not so great as to warrant being excommunicated and banned from the pages of Rock history, whether by design or simple neglect.
Goldmine magazine had an article about Tommy Sands (04/25/86), complete with a photo of Sands on the cover, and they are to be saluted for this. Hal Blaine's recently published book, Hal Blaine and The Wrecking Crew, covers this days as The Sharks' drummer and his touring with Sands. These two credits, however, are the only Tommy Sands references as of late, and as such are easily overlooked or shrugged off by Rock's self-anointed chroniclers.
I am not seeking to get Tommy Sands installed in the so-called "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." After all, any outfit that would select Simon and Garfunkle before Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers has got to be somewhat suspect. I do, however, seek an analysis of the favoritism played by Rock historians who selectively revere one artist for some reason and then ignore another artist who was more popular. This process has worked wonders for the memory of many artists who deserved the recognition, but over a period of time it has not done much for Tommy Sands' standing as a participant in "The History of Rock and Roll."
Bill Fergusson III