Ed Ward

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

A co-author of Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Ward has also contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and countless music magazines. The first part of his two-volume history of rock and roll, covering the years 1920-1963, will be published by Flatiron Books in the fall of 2016.

Ward lives in Austin, Texas. He blogs at City on a Hill.

Blues is so much a part of the fabric of American music and American culture — not only as a defined musical form, but also as a springboard for all kinds of creativity — that it seems crazy to try to encapsulate it in any way. Bear Family Records, though, has just released a 12-disc survey of electric blues called Plug It In! Turn It Up! that does a great job of illuminating one particular aspect of the blues.

Big Joe Turner's hardest-hitting singles have been collected on a new compilation, titled Big Joe Turner Rocks.

Roxy Music's eight studio albums have just been collected in one box set, titled The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982.

In 1978, it seemed that every kid in Britain wanted to be in a punk band. But in Birmingham, that blighted industrial scar in the middle of the island, there wasn't much punk to be seen. The oasis was a club called Barbarella's, and that's where Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox hung out.

Memphis has been a music town since anyone can remember, and it's had places to record that music since there have been records. Some of its studios — Sun, Stax and Hi — are well-known, but American Studios produced its share of hits, and yet it remains obscure. But that's all likely to change with Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, both a book and a CD out now.

A little over 10 years ago, a friend with a small record company in England called me and asked if I wanted to do liner notes for an album he was re-releasing. When he told me it was the Autosalvage album, I flipped. Of course I did!

When he was around 13, Robert Charles Guidry began singing with a band around his hometown of Abbeville, La., deep in the Cajun swamps. The group played Cajun and country music and, after he passed through town and played a show, Fats Domino's music. It was a life-changing experience for the young man, and he found himself with a new ambition: to write a song for Fats.

What were you doing when you were 16?

When he was 16, James Burton was inventing the American guitar. He'd been born in Dubberly, La., in 1939, and was apparently self-taught on his instrument. At 15, he cut a single backing local singer Carol Williams, and then one day he came up with a guitar riff that he liked. He took it to a singer from Shreveport he was touring with, and they worked out a song to use in his act. One thing led to another, and it wound up on a record called "Suzie Q," credited to Dale Hawkins, the singer.

Howlin' Wolf's masters from the Chess label have just been released on a four-disc set titled Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1931-1960.

Some years back, I was driving across the South with a German friend, leaving early Sunday morning from Athens, Ga., and heading to Louisiana. I turned on the radio and found a black church service in progress, and a woman with a remarkable voice singing. "Who's that?" my friend asked. I told him I had no idea. "But with a voice like that, she must be famous," he said. Some miles down the road, when the station had faded out, he still didn't believe me.

Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill were a couple of Alabama boys in their teens when they started writing songs. At first, the only place they had to record was in a room in the back of the Trailways bus station in Florence, Ala. But one of the songs they recorded there, "Sweet and Innocent," became a small local hit, and a guy named Tom Stafford read about it in the local paper. He built a recording studio above City Drugs in Florence and went into business with the two young men. It didn't last long: Sherrill was hugely ambitious and was soon off to Nashville.

When Steven Patrick Morrissey was 13, he was watching The Old Grey Whistle Test, a BBC rock television show, when the New York Dolls came on. Later, he called it "my first real emotional experience." It was hardly his last: Growing up awkward, tall and shy in suburban Manchester, he was the archetypal kid who didn't fit in, writing poetry and letters to members of the British rock press, disagreeing articulately with their critics.

Someday, some genius is going to do a Mad Men-type show about the little record labels of the late 1950s. Yes, I'll happily serve as a consultant.

During the years before the Civil Rights movement got underway, segregated American cities helped give birth to a touring circuit that provided employment for hundreds of black musicians and eventually brought about the birth of rock 'n' roll. Today, rock historian Ed Ward looks at two books, Preston Lauterbach's The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll and Fever, Susan Whitall's biography of Little Willie John, one of the Chitlin' Circuit's last stars.

If you were a New York teenager who played an instrument and wanted to be in a band, and all of a sudden British groups were coming to town and attracting rioting mobs of teenage girls, you might feel a certain urgency to get something together. Tom Finn had already had a band, The Magic Plants, when he ran into a guy named Steve Martin-Caro, a Spanish high-school student who recently arrived in the city, as they attempted to navigate the scene outside the hotel where The Rolling Stones' members were staying in 1965. The two became friends and decided to form another band.

Boogie-woogie was a piano style that began sometime in the early 20th century — and, by the 1930s, became a huge pop-music fad. Here, rock historian Ed Ward explains how the genre re-emerged in country music after WWII, when it was an important precursor to rock 'n' roll. Most of the tracks in this piece are from Hillbilly Boogie (Proper UK) and Frettin' Fingers: The Lightning Guitar of Jimmy Bryant.

In the early days of high fidelity, which I remember from childhood, the idea was that it was "almost like being there" when you listened to a record, something the old recordings never really delivered. The five CDs and six-plus hours of The SMiLE Sessions are certainly almost like being there, in the studio with the studio musicians — and, occasionally, The Beach Boys themselves — and Brian Wilson, as he tried to realize something he heard in his head.

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