Classic Soul – IN MEMORY OF JESSE STONE
IN MEMORY OF JESSE STONE:
November 16, 1901 – April 1, 1999
November 16, 2001 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jesse Stone, writer of such classic songs as Idaho, Money Honey, and the immortal Shake, Rattle and Roll, who died just over two and a half years ago near Orlando, Florida, where he had lived since the 1980s with his wife, jazz-singer Evelyn McGee Stone. Although his obituaries appeared in all the major newspapers and wire services, the public at large knew only Jesse Stone’s songs, and did not know the fascinating story of Jesse Stone’s life; so his death did not cause public stir and comment. The public did not know that Jesse Stone had a wider influence on more of the various forms of popular music developed in the 20th Century than any other person, bar none. It is, therefore, fitting that recent articles on Stone in Billboard and the Orlando Sentinel, both published within a week of Stone’s centennial birthday, have continued the exposure necessary to correct this glaring historical omission. To further that end, this profile appears pro bono publico.
Many a musicologist can point to a number of more celebrated personages in any particular musical genre of the 20th Century, and convincingly contend that they all had a deeper influence than did Jesse Stone on the respective style of music in which they worked. But none can argue that any had an influence on so many styles of music as Jesse Stone had in the full course of his comprehensive career, which spanned practically the entire 20th century. For instance, it is beyond argument that Duke Ellington’s influence on the development of jazz was vastly greater than that of Jesse Stone. Not that Stone was a slacker in this area. He put a songwriting tutorial by Cole Porter to good use by writing Idaho, which became a jazz standard after Benny Goodman’s cover hit the top of the charts, and has since been recorded by everyone from Count Basie to Jimmy Dorsey and Guy Lombardo, whose version sold three million copies. The point is that Ellington was the preeminent jazz genius. And he knew another jazz genius when he saw one. This is undoubtedly why he got Stone’s orchestra booked at the Cotton Club in 1936, and put Stone up free of charge in his apartment at 2040 Seventh Avenue for four months. However, Ellington’s genius was deeply rooted in jazz, and Stone was just passing through.
Even while he was exploring the jazz landscape, Jesse Stone’s musical palate included various shades of blues. The renowned composer, conductor, and musical scholar, Gunther Schuller, in his masterful book, Early Jazz, discusses Stone’s 1927 recording of his originals, Boot to Boot and Starvation Blues, and illustrates the influential blues coloration in Stone’s jazz: "They are extraordinary sides, and they dramatically highlight the difference between Southwestern and Eastern orchestras. … The difference is clearly the blues. The utter freedom and relaxation of the phrasing (one is tempted to characterize it as controlled abandon), the melodic lines richly spliced with blue notes, the earthy, almost rough rhythmic feeling – all exemplify a vocally oriented instrumental style that could only emanate from the blues." This intimate knowledge of blues enabled Stone, in turn, to recognize the talent in others, as demonstrated by his discovery of country blues singer J.D. Short in St. Louis in the 1920s.
And Stone’s influence on the blues is becoming more evident with the perspective provided by the passage of time. His impression on the genre is so artful yet indelible that it is appearing of late in prominent places: Adam Gussow’s highly praised blues memoir, Mister Satan’s Apprentice, published in 1998, quotes lines from the song Ain’t She Pretty, co-written by Stone and Sterling Magee, as the heading for chapter 16. And, tellingly, although the Blues Foundation could have chosen any number of songs by more famous blues musicians, the vibrations of Stone’s seismic Shake, Rattle and Roll are so lasting and pervasive that at the 22nd Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards on May 24, 2001 in Memphis, Tennessee, it won the prize in the category "Classics of Blues Recordings: Single", for which Big Joe Turner as performer and Jesse Stone as writer (under his pen name, Charles Calhoun) were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. The Blues Foundation’s web site stakes its categorical claim to Stone’s style-shattering song: "Shake, Rattle and Roll boldly illustrates classic blues in form, but was billed as R&B and charted to audiences as Rock N Roll. The song transmuted the sound of Kansas City Blues into something to which a wide audience could dance."
Characteristically, Stone, himself, always resisted attempts to categorize his style. It was all just music to his ears. So, in due course, he naturally segued from blues to what came to be known as soul and rhythm and blues, and, in turn, to rock ‘n’ roll; continuously developing the rudimentary forms during his tenure as chief songwriter and arranger in the early heyday at Atlantic Records, where he and his hit songs launched or advanced the careers of numerous stars, including: Ruth Brown (As Long As I’m Moving); LaVern Baker (Soul on Fire – co-written by Stone); Clyde McPhatter and the (original) Drifters (Money Honey – covered by Elvis Presley); Ray Charles (It Should Have Been Me); the Clovers (Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ but Trash); and Big Joe Turner (the classically unclassifiable, Shake, Rattle and Roll – covered in rock ‘n’ roll versions by Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Huey Lewis and the News). As Hugh Gregory put it in Soul Music A – Z: "He (Stone) brought R&B out of the closet and into the late twentieth century, banging the door behind it." Nelson George, in The Death of Rhythm & Blues, states flatly: "At Atlantic, the man to remember during the 1950s was Jesse Stone …". It was Ellington who famously declared that "it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing", and music historian Donald Clarke, in his magisterial The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, astutely observed: "It was at Atlantic that Stone had an unsung influence on the music of ensuing decades. Atlantic’s recordings were more polished than those of other R&B labels … yet they also swung, because people like Stone brought the skills and values of decades of black music with them." Similar sentiments are stated by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul, wherein he deemed Stone "unforgivably uncelebrated". And Nick Tosches devoted the entire first chapter of his book, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll to Stone. Moreover, Stone’s influence at Atlantic was not limited to artists. In a letter written to Stone in 1996 and published in the 11/10/01 issue of Billboard, Atlantic Record’s premier producer, Jerry Wexler, (who coined the term, "rhythm and blues" when he was an editor at Billboard) declares: "It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that you taught me everything I know about our craft; yes, everything I know, and a small fraction of what you have always known."
But all this good ink was wasted on the highly political nominating committees of such august institutions as the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which have routinely inducted those with not a tithe of Stone’s God-given talent or actual musical influence, while passing over Stone year after year. The unkindest cut came in 2001 – Stone’s centennial year. Yet, after all, Jesse Stone’s cultural legacy does not depend on whether these venerable entities ever live up to their names and admit their omission. As the saying says: "A lie can run a hundred years, but truth can overtake it in a day". And words written about Stone for Black History Month just before his death in 1999 still have the ring of truth in this century: "Of all his remarkable accomplishments, the thing that assures Jesse Stone a singular place in the history of popular music is that his genius has been in full flower for practically the entire 20th century. Jesse cut his musical milk-teeth in the Ragtime era, fought the original battles of big-band Jazz, swung with the best during Swing’s first thing, left an indelible mark on Blues, R&B, and Soul, and then was cheated out of the patent for his part in the invention of Rock & Roll." The truth will out, with or without recognition by the delinquent halls of fame. And Jesse Stone will have his day – someday.
Still, even belated induction into said halls of fame would undeniably help to hasten the day that Stone will be fully and publicly appreciated. However, as there is a long, lamentable tradition of tardiness in recognizing the contributions of black performers in the creation of Rock ‘n’ Roll, perhaps it was to be expected that it will take even longer for a black songwriter and arranger, even one so immensely gifted as Jesse Stone, to be recognized by the Rock ‘n’ Roll establishment which runs its Hall of Fame. But there are signs that Stone’s time may be coming closer. It was recently announced that Isaac Hayes will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Hayes, himself a formidable songwriter, at a reception at the Magic Johnson Theatre in Harlem on 11/8/01, stated that from the time he was "just a kid" he had greatly admired Stone’s songwriting, and manifested his admiration by recording Stone’s Don’t Let Go, which was a hit for Hayes in 1979. Perhaps Isaac Hayes can be counted on to put Stone’s name on the list of nominees next year. As for the Songwriters Hall of Fame – which is not limited to rock ‘n’ roll – there is no rhyme nor reason in the derelict song and dance routine it has done every year at its awards show, because there is no plausible explanation for its shameful exclusion of so great a songwriter as Jesse Stone. One would think that the famed songwriting team, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who have already been inducted, and who had the good fortune to learn from the vastly more experienced Stone when the two, as young men, began working at Atlantic Records, would themselves nominate Stone for the long-overdue award. Maybe next year?
Not surprisingly, the predominantly black Rhythm and Blues Foundation was the first of all such institutions to recognize the great contributions of Stone, honoring him with its prestigious Pioneer Award in 1992. Further, his widow and some friends were guests of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) at the 2001 R&B Foundation Dinner and Awards at the Apollo Theatre, where Stone’s protege’, Louis Jordan, was posthumously given a Legacy Award, and was hailed in the event program as the "Father of Rhythm & Blues and the Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll". Indeed, it was way back in the 1930’s when Jordan saw Stone’s band at Club Renaissance in Harlem and told Stone how much he admired Stone’s style. Stone encouraged Jordan, who was at the time playing third alto sax in Chick Webb’s band, to begin singing, and Stone made Jordan’s first arrangements. Stone’s own band became the Elk’s Rendezvous Band, which played on Jordan’s first recordings. And years later, in 1949, Jordan had a hit with Stone’s Cole Slaw. Ironically, Jordan, the "Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll" was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the second year of it existence. Given Stone’s early and profound influence on Louis Jordan, Stone can aptly be dubbed the "Great-Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll", who, in a just world, would have been inducted into the very first class, 1986, in the Early Influence category. .
But justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. As one of the central aims of Black History Month is to publicly redress the injustice done to blacks who have been denied recognition for their achievements, this Black History Month is a perfect time to begin the process which should not end until justice is done by the induction of Jesse Stone into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. All concerned should do the public service of sending an e-mail the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at: www. and urge the induction of Jesse Stone in the Early Influence category, and sending an e-mail the Songwriters Hall of Fame and urge the induction of Jesse Stone in the Lifetime Achievement category. The accomplishment of such things would be first steps towards giving Jesse Stone in the 21st century the public recognition he incontestably deserves but has not fully received for his enduring influence on so many styles of popular music – from Jazz, through Blues, Swing, and Soul, to R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
–Daniel R. Fallon, Esquire is an entertainment lawyer based near Philadelphia, PA, who deems it an honor to have been of service to his friend, Jesse Stone.