Music Legends

September 6, 2018

Revisiting R&B’s “Boom Boom” Cannon

Freddie Cannon_1965

FREDDY “BOOM BOOM” Cannon, the volatile force responsible for eruptive 1959 hit “Tallahassee Lassie,” is one of America’s greatest-ever rockers. He may be pushing 80 today, but Cannon is as resolutely devoted to the big beat as ever. With a penchant for primitivo R&B-tinged ravers put over with a frantic declarative shout and stomping dance rhythms, Cannon carved a lurid swath through the teen idol detritus of the early 1960s and held his own during the British Invasion thanks to a slew of memorable singles like “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Buzz Buzz A-Diddle It” and “Palisades Park.”

Contending with the era’s drastically changing popular tastes and some frequently over-sweetened musical production, Cannon’s raucous appeal allowed him to pepper the Billboard charts 22 times between 1959-’66 and he managed all of it with a characteristically zealous aplomb. Born Frederick Anthony Picariello Jr. on December 4, 1939 in Revere, Massachusetts, he began his mid-1950s musical life not as an Elvis acolyte but a stone teenage R&B freak, playing local record hops with a small combo.

“I was billed as Freddy Karmon & the Hurricanes,” Cannon said. “Black music was really big on the radio in Boston and all over and we played Big Joe Turner and Chuck Berry covers—they were both huge influences on me. Black artists always set the tone for all of us. It was obvious, for bands here and the artists from England who were so into the blues, and whether they deny it or not, they all had to take something from the black acts, me included. And I think that’s wonderful, if we hadn’t heard all those great R&B artists, we really wouldn’t have anything.”

By the time Cannon had “Tallahassee Lassie” in the hopper, his rhythm and blues inspired stomp was already an immediately recognizable approach. “I just always thought ‘everybody’s got their own style that you recognize when you hear it on records,’ and mine just happened,” Cannon said. “ I didn’t know what I did to make it sound like that. My mom had written that poem about my girlfriend, I changed some of the words, put it to music and that’s what came out.”

Recorded with his Hurricanes and released, thanks to Dick Clark’s endorsement, by Philadelphia indie Swan in 1959, “Lassie” represented a glorious mix of funky R&B wallop and good-timing white urban bite that shot into Billboard’s top ten. With Elvis stationed overseas and the yet stinging loss of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, rock & roll was ready for a progressive upshift that Cannon’s arrival seemed to anticipate, if not announce.

Naturally, things began to rapidly deteriorate. In January 1960, Cannon toured Great Britain with rockabilly royals Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. They got along fine until promoter Jack Good abruptly handed the closing slot to Cochran. “That’s how good Eddie was,” Cannon said. “Just phenomenal and a such great guitar player.” The deposed Vincent, whose gait-hobbling steel leg brace (the result of a motorcycle wipe-out) prompted Good to bestow a Richard III-inspired black leather wardrobe upon him, suffered his own personal Winter of discontent and the tour concluded disastrously with a taxi crash that killed Eddie and injured Gene.”

Back home things just got uglier, with Swan’s Bob Crewe and Frank Slay calling all the shots on Freddie’s output. First, they had removed he and his mother’s writer credits rom “Tallahassee Lassie” with the explanation “You got jilted.” Next, they imposed a disastrous pop feel that deemphasized Cannon’s signature, kicking bottom end. “If I could have continued to make records like “Tallahassee Lassie” I’d have been the happiest guy in the world,” Cannon said. “That was a garage record, real rock & roll, you just don’t get any more rocking than that. But I just didn’t have any say about the production. They did change it and I didn’t like it. I had to sing their songs, do their sound — I couldn’t do what I wanted. It was always a struggle so I just let it go. The only other record I really loved was “Buzz Buzz A Diddle-It.”

Worse, Cannon had to compete with the bleating Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon herd. “All the white acts were doing cute pop records,” Cannon said. “I don’t like that and I didn’t care about those ‘teen idols.’ My records were not cute or pretty or ballads — just being stuck in that era took away from what I do. Working with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis made me really happy — I fit in with them because I was
a rocker.”

On the plus side, Dick Clark really dug Freddy and began to made him a fixture on his television shows “American Bandstand certainly helped me a lot,” Cannon said. “The more you are on TV, the more your songs are playing and you have a better chance. I was very lucky, Dick took a liking to me and I did 110 appearances on his shows, Bandstand, his Saturday Night Beechnut Show and, in 65, Where the Action Is.

Cannon stuck with his tribe, the bad ass, big beat originators. “I was really good friends with Bo Diddley,” Cannon said. “He was such a nice man, we did so many shows together, all the Dick Clark shows, and a lot of work in Reno and Vegas. He was a kind, wonderful guy — a great cook — and he knew what he was doing. A true legend.”

“I had a couple more good records but it was tough with the British invasion,” Cannon said. “Just one band after another, there were so many of them. They all did well, their sound was great and you can’t take that away from them. I tried and made a little noise. I was lucky in ’64, I had “Abigail Beecher” go to #12 when the Beatles were dominating the Billboard chart.”

Business was still bad for Cannon but he finally got away from the crooked Philly crew. “There were a lot of crooks,” he said. “They just kept stealing and stealing. When I went from Swan to Warner Brothers, things got really good for me. Warners was honest and straight.”

A combination of good fortune and a complex multi-company production deal allowed him to ultimately walk away with all his masters, Swan, Warner and Cannon have made out just fine.

“I’m lucky the way things happened,” he said. “There was a lot of negative stuff but I could go back to ‘59, I’d do it all over again. Things are going good, we got a new record Boppin’ the Blues not the Carl tune, I wrote this song, it’s getting a little airplay on Sirius radio I’m still doing lots of shows, fooling around, keepin’ busy, I like I’m still here still rockin’ out and having a good time.”


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