Released on 17 February 1975, John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album was very definitely a ‘roots album’. The songs that he covered are his musical roots, dating from his pre-Beatles days through to the band’s residencies at Hamburg’s notorious clubs and the gigs that the Beatles played in and around Liverpool before they were famous.
Released in 1975, the main recording sessions were a year apart, with the Phil Spector produced sessions from October 1973 at A&M Studios in Los Angeles, and the sessions from October 1974 at Record Plant Studios (East) in New York City that John himself produced.
The genesis of the record goes back to 1969 when John Lennon composed ‘Come Together’ for the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. Lennon used the line "Here come old flat-top" that came from Chuck Berry's 1956 song ‘You Can't Catch Me’, and it encouraged music publisher Morris Levy to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Before the case could be heard in front of a judge it was settled out of court, with an agreement, according to an announcement by Levy, that John had to "record three songs by Big Seven publishers on his next album.” As a result John decided to do his album of covers.
Phil Spector was brought in to produce the album and he chose some of the songs. Sessions were booked at A&M Studios, but they descended into chaos with Spector disappearing with the tapes; after the mercurial producer had a car accident everything was put on hold until mid-1974. Following John’s return to New York where he recorded the Walls and Bridges album, the lost tapes were recovered and John set to work on Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As John recalled in 1980 his working arrangement with Spector were simple, “I said I just want to be the singer, just treat me like Ronnie. We'll pick the material, I just want to sing, I don't want anything to do with production or writing or creation, I just want to sing.” And sing he did on some of the greatest songs from the rock and roll era.
The first time John met Paul was at a garden fete at Woolton Parish Church, Liverpool, on 6 July 1957. John’s band, The Quarrymen were playing skiffle and nascent rock and roll. That same week, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’ was in the British charts; it was the seventh record that the singer from Macon, Georgia had placed on the UK charts in just six months. The first of Richard’s hits were, ‘Rip it Up’ in December 1956 and on the b-side was ‘Ready Teddy’; both are included on the Rock ‘n’ Roll album, along with ‘Slipin’ and Slidin’ another of Richard’s classic hits.
Other tracks that John covered included Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ – the New Orleans’s pianist’s third British hit in early 1957. Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, a song that went in and out of the UK chart three times in the summer of 1956; at the time John was approaching his sixteenth birthday and loving the music coming across the North Atlantic. Fellow New Orleans performer Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ya Ya’ was one of the more unusual choices of tracks that Lennon covered.
The R&B sound of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’ was not released until early 1961, while Sam Cooke was a favourite of just about every musician that heard his mellifluous tones – John was no exception.
The album was completed with tracks from Buddy Holly, Larry Williams, Lloyd Price, Bobby Freeman and of course two tracks by Chuck Berry – ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’.
The album seemed to involve a cast of thousands and among those that played on it are, guitarists: Jesse Ed Davis, Steve Cropper, Louis Shelton, Larry Carlton, and Jose Feliciano. keyboard players included, Jeff Barry, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John), Michael Omartian, Leon Russell. Among the saxophonists were Nino Tempo, who also played keyboards, Bobby Keys, Jim Horn, and Plas Johnson. Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, Frank Capp, and Jim Gordon played drums.
Rock ‘n’ Roll reached No.6 on both the UK and the US album charts. The single, ‘Stand by Me’, peaked at No.20 in the US, and #30 in the UK. The cover shot of the album was taken by Jürgen Vollmer during the Beatles' stay in Hamburg that perfectly complements the nostalgic feel to this album.
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