A Perfect Wake Up

Rock and roll music did not just appear on Tuesday, when there had only been country, classical and jazz music on Monday.

Rock and roll was not invented. It did not pop into existence out of thin air. It was not curated. It was not created in a flash of inspiration and creativity.

Rock and roll evolved. In places like Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas during the 1940’s and 1950’s, something was happening. The ancient Appalachian fiddle music soared from rustic front porches to the smokey juke joints where acoustic and electric southern blues was laying groundwork for a music yet to be created. Gospel music spilled into the streets from store-front churches and found it’s way to jug bands featuring homemade guitars, washboard percussion and reedy harmonicas. The music of black people was connecting to the music of white people. Rich people were discovering the music of poor people. Over days and weeks, over months and years.

When these different kinds of music connected and intertwined, something new was created. Something exciting was happening. Don and Phil Everly were standing by.

Born two years apart, Don and Phil lived in Chicago, IL, Shenandoah, IA, Knoxville, TN, and finally Nashville. Their father Ike worked manual jobs during the day, and become a well regarded guitarist in his free time, playing on the radio and selling songs he had written to Nashville recording labels.

Sitting at his feet, Don and Phil learned how to play guitar themselves. Not quite country, and not quite the blues. The rhythms they fell into were something in between. And then they sang, and in a way that only family can, their voices naturally slipping together in perfect harmony.

After busking in the street outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in the mid-1950’s, and knocking on studio doors all around town, they finally got a chance to record for Cadence Records at the famed RCA Studio B. “Bye Bye Love,” written by legendary songwriting husband and wife team Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, had been turned down by almost every act in Nashville, so naturally…with nothing else to lose, The Everly Brothers gave it a try.

The Everly Brothers were a country act, recording their very first song in the national capitol of country music, but they grew up on rhythm and blues, and wanted to bring a bit of that syncopation, style and urgency to their music.

Don had created a rhythm guitar intro lick for another song that he wanted to bring to “Wake up Little Susie.” The intro was evocative of the famous Bo Diddley beat, but had nothing to do with the rest of the song. Though such an approach is pretty common place now, it had never really been done before. Something new was created.

Only two bars long, the intro is unexpected and a bit arresting, but it draws us in, it demands our attention. We hear that rhythm repeated between verses throughout the rest of the song.

“Wake up, little Susie, wake up
Wake up, little Susie, wake up

We’ve both been sound asleep
Wake up, little Susie and weep
The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock
And we’re in trouble deep”

As soon as the brief intro is over, we hear the harmony that Don and Phil became so famous for. There is no lead vocal to be heard, just the two voices singing together as they play acoustic rhythm guitar together.

And this must have been salacious material back in 1957. No wonder nobody had recorded this song yet! These teenage (we assume) kids are out until all hours of the night…you know, at the movies.

Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa’?
What are we gonna tell our friends when they say
“Ooh, la, la”?

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

“Ooh, la, la” is right. This was unprecedented stuff. Suggestive though it may have been, there is really not much lyrically to this cautionary tale of teenagers falling asleep in the car, when they should have been falling asleep at home.

The movie wasn’t so hot
It didn’t have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked
Our reputation is shot

On it’s face, almost 70 years later, the song sounds catchy, but maybe not all that special. But in 1957, this was blues music crashing straight into country western music. This was lush harmony, making the song sound strangely ethereal and sophisticated. Listening to the Everly Brothers, next to the first music of Elvis Presley (which first came out in 1956), next to the music of Chuck Berry (which first came out in 1955), next to the music of Bill Haley and His Comets (which first came out in 1956), this was something new. This was all something new.

The Everly Brothers would go on to record many more hit records together. They would split up, and they would reunite. They would inspire The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys and many other acts featuring lush harmonies and great songwriting. They released an album produced by Paul McCartney in the 1980’s, and were featured singing backup vocals on the sublime title track from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. They toured. They recorded more. Phil died in 2014, and Don died in 2021.

“Wake Up Little Susie” tells the tale of two kids afraid of what people will think of them, sung by two kids who were doing something daring and exciting that had not been done before. They took what they had heard before, and forced its evolution into something different. Something new.

“Wake Up Little Susie”
Written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Performed by the Everly Brothers
Released September 2, 1957

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: