Obituary: Jesse Stone

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The Independent Culture
JESSE STONE heard the phrase "shake, rattle and roll" while shooting craps and decide to write a lascivious song around it. Sung by Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" topped the country's rhythm and blues charts in 1954, a version by Bill Haley and His Comets made the Top Ten in both the US and the UK, and it was later covered by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Swinging Blue Jeans, Billy Swan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Canned Heat.

Stone, said the record-label owner Ahmet Ertegun, "did more to develop the rock 'n' roll sound than anybody else". That may be exaggeration as Stone worked for Ertegun's label, Atlantic, but he played a crucial role in the creation of the new music in the 1950s. His contribution is overlooked, largely because he wrote under a pseudonym (Charles Calhoun) in order to belong to both American publishing organisations, Ascap and BMI.

Jesse Stone was born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1901 and began singing in his parents' minstrel show when only five years old. During the 1920s he worked in Kansas City as a pianist and vocalist and made his first record, "Starvation Blues", in 1927. He had his own band, which included Coleman Hawkins, and then worked with Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford's orchestras.

In the early 1940s, Jimmy Dorsey recorded his composition "Sorgham Switch", and Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo "Idaho". In the wake of Louis Jordan, Stone recorded novelty blues records for RCA and wrote the standard "Smack Dab in the Middle". His own recordings were collected in 1996 for the 30-track compilation Alias Charles Calhoun.

Ahmet Ertegun formed Atlantic in 1947 to record the best in black music and signed Jesse Stone as an arranger and songwriter who, ironically, became the only black person on the payroll. The R&B saxophonist Frank "Floorshow" Culley brought Stone a tune which he recognised as his own "Sorgham Switch", and he renamed it "Cole Slaw" in honour of the New York disc-jockey Max Cole, and it became the label's first hit. He befriended Ray Charles and wrote his desolate "Losing Hand" (1953) and he coached the Clovers into developing their hit songs "Sh-Boom" and "One Mint Julep", both in 1953. He wrote their 1954 vignette "Your Cash Ain't Nothing But Trash", which was the template for the Coasters' style.

Lack of money is a frequent theme in blues and rock 'n' roll songs and Stone covered the subject humorously in "Money Honey", arranged for Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters in 1953. McPhatter's lead vocal owed much to his gospel training and added intensity to the playful lyric. The record topped the nation's rhythm and blues chart and has become a rock 'n' roll standard with versions from Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Gary Glitter and Ry Cooder.

Stone wrote further songs for the Drifters but "Bip Bam" (1953) coincided with McPhatter's being drafted and "I Gotta Get Myself a Woman" (1956) was released amidst personnel changes. He worked with Ruth Brown, writing her chart hit "As Long As I'm Moving" (1955), and he arranged Chuck Willis's R&B hit "C.C. Rider" (1956). He also discovered the saxophonist King Curtis, who became a mainstay of Atlantic's record sessions.

Big Joe Turner was a fine blues singer, and Stone, who knew him from Kansas City, emphasised the rhythm rather than the blues in his work. As he put it, "I designed a bass pattern and it became identified with rock 'n' roll." Joe Turner was the first to sing "Shake, Rattle and Roll", and it was then covered for the upcoming white teenage market by Bill Haley and His Comets. Haley, deciding that the song was too erotic, changed several lines and omitted the phrase "I'm going over the hill and way down underneath". Further versions from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly combine the lyrics to make the song even more disjointed. Strangely, the most sexual image of the song, "I'm like a one-eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store", bypassed the censorship.

Several of Stone's songs were recorded in the rock 'n' roll era: "Flip Flop and Fly" (recorded by Turner, Haley and Elvis Presley), "Razzle Dazzle" (an international hit for Bill Haley in 1955), "Down in the Alley" (the Clovers, Ronnie Hawkins, Elvis Presley), "Don't Let Go" (Roy Hamilton), "You Better Stop" LaVern Baker), "Smack Dab in the Middle (Ray Charles, Wee Willie Harris) and "Like a Baby", an emotional, slow blues recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960.

In 1956 Jesse Stone left Atlantic Records and formed his own publishing company in the Brill Building, Roosevelt Music. He had little success with new material, although he did encourage young writers, notably Don Covay. He worked as an arranger, including a spell at Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, but a traumatic time with a label connected with gangsters in Chicago made him want to quit the business. In 1966 he married Evelyn McGee of the vocal group Sweethearts of Rhythm, and he returned to New York.

In 1978 he and his wife studied for degrees in music at Kingsboro Community College and they retired to Florida in 1983.

Spencer Leigh

Jesse Stone, songwriter: born Atchison, Kansas 16 November 1901; married 1966 Evelyn McGee; died Altamonte Springs, Florida 2 April 1999.