Rock ‘n’ roll is a beast that feeds upon itself, starving and growing.
Old themes are rediscovered and reworked by new voices, but the songs never quite sound like they once did. Rock always rolls, often over itself, crushing the hands that hold it most dear.
Every few decades, the music and culture catches fire and boils over or breaks down. Local historians say this is when Oklahoma rock ‘n’ roll burns the hottest. Sometimes, Okies storm the stage and snare the spotlight, but the state’s rock music influence often goes unnoticed.
On Saturday, the curtain will raise on “Another Hot Oklahoma Night,” a museum exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center that traces the state’s rock ‘n’ roll history through a collection of artifacts and testimonies culled from around the country.
The exhibit’s Saturday debut is free and will open in true rock style with an 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. concert featuring more than a dozen Oklahoma bands and performers, including rockers The City Lives and Crocodile, folk singers Ali Harter and Camille Harp, and rockabilly outfit The Oh Johnny! Girls.
Scores of instruments and music equipment are among the artifacts displayed ” many for the first time ” in the “Another Hot Oklahoma Night” exhibit. Legendary Oklahoma singer-songwriter and musician Leon Russell’s faded and tattered Fender Twin amplifier is shown alongside antiquated recording equipment once used at Gene Sullivan’s Hi-Fi Studio, Oklahoma City’s first “real” recording studio.
An entire section of the exhibit centers around Oklahoma broadcast personalities like DJ Ronnie Kaye and radio stations like WKY-AM and KOMA-AM, which History Center spokesman Michael Dean said pioneered formats that set the pace for program directors across the country.
In the fashion portion of the exhibit, signature rock ‘n’ roll outfits, like Russell’s orange suit and beaded top hat, are displayed along with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s alien costume from the “Christmas on Mars” movie, as well as the red-and-blue-aproned uniform the pre-Grammy Coyne donned during his coleslaw-mixing tenure at an Oklahoma City Long John Silver’s.
The History Center also re-created a series of teenagers’ rooms that show rock ‘n’ roll’s evolution through posters, flyers and pictures.
Rock ‘n’ roll repeatedly revealed itself in late 2006, as Oklahoma History Center researchers gathered information for the state’s centennial celebration. Collectively, collections specialist Larry O’Dell said the stories they found led to the largest temporary exhibit ever displayed at the museum.
Historians scoured the state and traveled as far as California in pursuit of items and accounts, conducting more than 150 interviews for “Another Hot Oklahoma Night.”
O’Dell said the interviews are woven throughout the exhibit as recorded video loops or included in visitor-activated, interactive museum elements.
The interviews underscore each section of the exhibit, which focuses on the artists, venues and fans that shaped the state’s rock music scene.
Although they don’t always get the glory, Oklahoma musicians were often the first to audition a style, sound or stage move, and The Collins Kids might have been the first to stumble upon rockabilly, said Jeff Moore, the History Center’s director of exhibits.
As innocent, preteen performers in the early to mid-1950s, the Tulsa duo ” comprised of Lawrencine “Lorrie” Collins and her brother, Lawrence “Larry” Collins ” were able to get away with stage antics that just a few years later would elicit gasps when performed by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.
Broadcast to wide audience acclaim through television shows like California’s “Town Hall Party,” the wild, gyrating movements of the duo matched the sound of Larry Collins’ guitar, which Moore said was borne from adolescent impatience.
“Larry had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder),” he said. “He grew up listening to country and taught himself to play guitar, but playing country bored him to tears, so he started playing everything really fast.”
Larry’s inaugural concert was for his family, which found the boy’s fast-paced playing infinitely amusing and “adorable,” Moore said. Larry, however, was so embarrassed by the attention and laughter that he took his department store guitar to the back yard and shot it to pieces with a .22-caliber rifle.
His parents bought him another guitar and took the boy and his sister to California, where they made a name for themselves on radio and TV. Larry’s ubiquitous double-neck Mosrite guitar is among the instruments on display.
Moore said the rapid-fire strumming was an early example of rockabilly music, a style simultaneously being developed by musicians marrying country music with R&B.
“The Collins Kids aren’t given enough credit,” he said. “They had the whole rockabilly sound and look and image. … Larry had the stage presence of a 1950s lead guitar player, and at age 9 or 10, he had nothing to base it on.”
Moore said rock music and technology have an inseparable timeline, especially here in Oklahoma.
Technology has forced changes that have left the music industry scrambling. When formal institutions like large media networks and record labels start to fail, Oklahoma musicians are quick to improvise and innovate new ideas, Moore said.
When TV and The Beatles altered the course of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s, Moore said the established industry wasn’t prepared for the transition. Unlike most performers before them, The Beatles wrote their own songs and were time-synced perfectly to TV’s growing popularity, which Moore said allowed the band to be among the first to market “a look.” The Beatles’ emergence encouraged a new industry paradigm, threatening many institutions that had long been making and marketing music.
The DIY spirit brought on by The Beatles continued into the ’70s, a period Moore and O’Dell dubbed the “Golden Era” of Oklahoma rock ‘n’ roll.
“For a year or two, Tulsa was the center of the music world,” O’Dell said. “Leon Russell was pulling all these great musicians into Tulsa ” Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison. Everyone was up there at some point.”
Moore and O’Dell both recognize a parallel with this ’70s high point and the state’s rock music scene today, which they said is bolstered by the chaos caused by a new technology: the Internet.
“It’s one of those moments where bands and musicians are saying, ‘I can do anything,'” Moore said. “The Internet has made that happen. It’s the same sort of energy and vibe we pick up on when we talk to the older guys about those early days. It’s a kind of democratization, really, and Oklahoma really seems to thrive on that.”
‘HOT’ TROTS ON
Although much of “Another Hot Oklahoma Night” is directed toward explaining and exploring lesser-known bits of state rock history, researchers interviewed dozens of current Okie rockers like The All-American Rejects, renowned local studio owner and Chainsaw Kittens member Trent Bell, The Flaming Lips confetti king Wayne Coyne, local bar and club staple Mike Hosty and platinum-album, party-rock purveyors Hinder.
Dean said “Another Hot Oklahoma Night” will be on display “well into 2010.”
Museum historians are still interviewing artists and collecting artifacts, and plan to rotate new elements into the exhibit throughout its run. Additional concerts are also scheduled every few months at the History Center starting June 13.
“We want this one to be more dynamic than anything we’ve ever done,” O’Dell said. “We’re going to be changing it up all the time, so it’ll be different every time someone comes in.”
MEET THE MUTINEERS
The Mutineers met at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 1960s Durant.
In June 1964, bandmates John Durrill, Mike Rabon, Norm Ezell, Jimmy Wright and Jim Grant moved to Dallas to find bigger gigs, quickly attracting the attention of Abnak Records owner Jon Abnor, Moore said.
Drawing on The Beatles’ British-centric marketing methodology, Abnor convinced The Mutineers to abandon their moniker and fashion a Western response. Moore said the newly minted Five Americans charted regionally and nationally with hits like “I See the Light,” and a series of well-liked Postal Service-themed songs, “Western Union” and “Zip Code.”
Moore said Durrill, who later toured with The Ventures and penned songs for Merle Haggard, was among the first keyboard players to test out the Hammond organ sound that would go on to dominate many 1960s radio hits.
“He really was the first to have that psychedelic organ sound, which you later see being adopted in 1965 and 1966,” Moore said. “They were an inspiration for the Hollywood folks that made The Monkees.” “Joe Wertz