Hooked on Phonics
There's a reason the black leather jacket and the pompadour continue to stand as calling cards among lovers of '50s rock 'n' roll. After all, they were two of the more disturbing fashion statements to parents whose kids were forsaking Pat Boone for Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. More than four decades later, these symbols of vintage revolt remain a hallmark for those embracing the wilder side of days gone by. But while they play the same sort of rebel-without-a-cause music as the aforementioned artists, Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics adopt more of a schoolboy aesthetic as they nod to the era of Elvis and Eisenhower. The result is the kind of well-mannered stuff even a hipster mother could love, music that reels and rocks without scaring off the neighbors.
According to Dickerson, however, his act's squeaky-clean, lighthearted approach is presenting a few problems. "I like to do stuff that has a sense of humor to it," says Dickerson, who is now touring in support of his new Hightone Records release, More Million Sellers. "And it kind of ticks me off, because a lot of the people that do music write-ups on roots music have declined interviews on this latest record. They think it's too much of a novelty type thing. But I think the one thing everybody's lacking here in the dawn of the new millennium is a sense of humor. So I'm here to bring it back.
"I don't know," he continues. "It seems like everybody nowadays is just screaming and not making very much music or singing any songs. With us, it's not really a conscious effort to be Happy Days wholesome. But at the same time, we can be plenty tough and not have to be like everybody else. It's still rock 'n' roll -- we still get crazy."
A listen to More Million Sellers confirms that claim. A glorious 15-song platter that encapsulates an almost encyclopedic array of pre-British Invasion sound, it's a dream date for lovers of Sun-burned rockabilly, hillbilly bop and juiced-up Western swing. Following an intro from age-old TV actor Billy Barty, Dickerson and his pals leap onto a house-rocking cover of Earl King's "Let the Good Times Roll" that does just that. It's the kind of raving-mad stuff that made Jerry Lee the Killer before he entered rehab, with a let's-bring-it-down-boys greeting from Dickerson in which he earnestly promises to try to bring down the roof for the loving public.
From there the men slip into a shuffling Leiber and Stoller cut ("The Hatchet Man"), a Joe Maphis instrumental ("Rockin' Gypsy," in which Dickerson slices and dices across the octave neck of his trademark double-neck guitar) and various forms of early rock. The album's many highlights include covers of songs by the Rebel Rousers, Sam Phillips, Nervous Norvous and like-minded gems from Dickerson's own pen. The tunes call to mind Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, the Collins Kids, Big Joe Turner and other bygone greats. The recording is especially impressive thanks to the band's overwhelming chops; Dickerson and his peers re-create a gymnasium full of retro styles with astounding command and marksmanship. Adding to the disc's payoffs is its authentic vintage sound and a stream of special guests that stretches from X's Billy Zoom and little-known boogie pioneer Hadda Brooks to Joey D'Ambrosio (of Bill Haley's original Comets) and piano ace Sonny Leyland of Big Sandy's Fly-Rite Boys. But while all of this retro excitement could certify it gold for the Father Knows Best set, the disc packs a wicked sucker punch. It's more Eddie Haskell than Wally Cleaver, a brand of music that appears polite and proper on the surface but hides a dagger and a leer behind its "Gee, your hair looks lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver" exterior.
"It's definitely not a nostalgia trip for me," Dickerson says. "I was born in 1968, and in my head, it's the '90s. But certain people have influenced me, and I'm happy to be able to get some of these people that I've long admired to be alongside me on a record. That's the beauty about living out here in L.A., because so many of these people still live out here, and a lot of them are forgotten. I mean, Jerry Scoggins, the guy who sang the Beverly Hillbillies theme [and who also appears on Million Sellers], lives out in the San Fernando Valley and sings in a few senior-citizen homes. He was really surprised when I dug him up. And the amount of musicians that have done something out here is staggering. It's hard to throw a rock without hitting somebody that wasn't involved with a hit record in the last four decades. I was in a bar about a week ago and started talking to this older guy sitting at the bar. Turns out he's the guy who played drums on 'Alley-Oop,' by the Hollywood Argyles."
Long before Dickerson was a Californian, he was entering the musical world in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri. He started a few pompadoured acts but became frustrated with the difficulty of finding players skilled in the rockabilly genre. "I was playing with older blues guys and felt like they were really butchering the music. So I figured at the time that rockabilly was something that should be left alone for a while. I was in high school at the time and decided, 'Let's be real here. What's the one type of music that's played by suburban white teenagers? Surf and garage music.'"
Dickerson's revelation prompted him to recruit a few neighbors into a garage band in the late '80s, and Untamed Youth was born. The band became a cult favorite among fans of loose three-chord rock and frat-boy mayhem, releasing a handful of highly touted records for the Estrus and Norton Records labels, while touring extensively across the U.S. and parts of Europe. In 1991, two of the original members left, and the remaining Youth relocated to California in search of new personnel. But after a few months, the group ran out of gas. (Untamed Youth continues to sell records and reunite for occasional festivals.)
The band's demise gave Dickerson time to delve into the verdant roots-rock scene in Southern California. He formed the Dave and Deke Combo with fellow hepcat Dave Stuckey, and the group recorded a pair of well-received CDs before folding a couple of years ago. Dickerson then launched the Ecco-fonics, which he named after a '50s tape-echo guitar effect. The group originally featured second guitarist Johnny Noble and a changing lineup of drummers. Noble recently left the outfit, which now includes rhythm guitarist Bobby Horton (from the Horton Brothers), bassist Brent Harding and new drummer Joe V.
"We sort of got lumped into the swing thing because a lot of our music has swing-beat drumming to it," Dickerson says, "but we're definitely not a swing band. And that whole thing seems to have waned in the last six months, so it's kind of good that we didn't latch ourselves to the bandwagon. And I'm happy to say that with the Internet and the vast amount of media and fanzines and everything, we seem to be getting in a lot of people's homes that we couldn't have reached 10 years ago."
Dickerson credits the Web with at least some of the band's current success, especially in the more remote corners of the States, where he hears from fans who keep tabs on the band via their computers. But when it comes to recording methods, the band ignores modern technology for more outdated ones that make their recordings warm and fuzzy without sounding like antique reproductions.
"We don't get super-obsessive about trying to make it exactly like the '50s," Dickerson says, "but we try to do all the things that made those records great. They're predominantly live records; we all play live in one room and use the best microphones, mostly old tube microphones. And a lot of older equipment, it's all done on analog tape and no digital equipment. But it's more the result of us trying to do things naturally. When you go in the studio with a bunch of musicians in the room playing live, you can feel the energy of a live band, and it comes out sounding like that."
Dickerson plays through a pair of vintage amps as well -- a Standell and an Echosonic -- complete with built-in tape echo in the bottom of the amp. It's the same rig, he says, used by Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore on his Sun Sessions cut of "Mystery Train" and later on "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel." "It's scary when you play through this amp," he says, "because it's like, there it is, the whole Scotty Moore thing."
Granted, to some of today's more forward-thinking musicians, the idea of replicating the tones and tunes of 45 years ago may seem foolish, but Dickerson doesn't see it that way. "There's a lot of music from the past that doesn't really hold up," he says, "but this is music that has endured. The kind of stuff that we do seems to be kind of universal, and people can't help but like it." Despite its polite first impression, that is. "We just finished a three-month tour with Mike Ness," Dickerson says, referring to the former Social Distortion leader gone solo with a retro-sounding album of his own. "Every night it was the same -- a giant crowd of hostile young punk-rockers -- but by the end of the set, we always had 'em won over. It's just a matter of people seeing us play. Like I said, it's universal music."
Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics are scheduled to perform on Saturday, January 8, at Balboa Café in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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