Interview: Freddy Cannon on His New Autobiography, His Career and His Place in Rock History

Freddy Cannon lit up the charts in the 50's and 60's with hits like Tallahassee Lassie, Palisades Park and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. Recently, he released his autobiography, Where the Action Is!, a fascinating look into his long career, the people he knew and the ins and outs of the recording industry.

Cannon is candid about the people he encountered throughout his life and his place in the music business but, at the same time, very humble about the individuals who were great influences and who guided him through the many pitfalls in the industry.

Beyond music, the book is also the story of a man who stayed true to his integrity and to a family who has been with him through the good times and the bad.

We had the pleasure of talking with Freddy at length about the book, his career and some of his current projects.

VVN Music: Congratulations on the new book. Hopefully you're having a lot of success with it.

Freddy Cannon: Thank you very much. It's very exciting. It just started. It's so new now. It's only about four weeks old but everyone seems to be loving it and talking about it, which is good.

VVN: What made you decide that now is the time to tell your story?

FC: I think I was pushed by my wife and my kids and just about everybody cause I have a lot of stories to tell. There's a lot of stories in there that people didn't know I worked with certain people, met certain people and, the main thing was, I wasn't a teenage idol. I was a rock-and-roll singer, not a teenage idol. Not a teenybopper. Not any of that cutesie....I was a rocker. That's what I want to be and that's what I wanted to be. I was always categorized as a teen idol which I don't ever think I ever was and I never wanted to be.

VVN: Did you ever feel that you didn't get the credit that you wanted as far as being a rock-and-roller?

FC: Yes, that's exactly right. I never did get the credit but I think it's going to surface now because I've got the book and I told it like it was because there are so many people out there that still think “well, he was the days of Frankie Avalon and Fabian and the Bobby Rydells and the Bobby Vees and none of those people rocked like I rocked. None of those people made records like I made records. My records are danceable, hard rockin', big loud drums...come on. It's crazy to put in the same category as those people.

VVN: I would have to agree. I was listening to one of your compilations recently and there was very little as far as ballads. It was all real big and loud.

FC: I don't know how I got in that...maybe because I started at the same time as all of those other people so they just put me right in there with all of them. They just stuck me in the middle of all of that stuff. Over the years I've played with different people and I don't fit in the show with Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Vee...I don't fit in a show like that because those people are soft. The music is soft. Even Bobby Rydell. Even though he had a couple of good up-tempo records, the music is soft. He wants to be Frank Sinatra. They all want to be somebody else. They're not themselves. The style that I do...it's energy and there's is laid back.

VVN: The impression I have is that you would have fit better in a show with an Eddie Cochran or a Gene Vincent.

FC: That's right. I worked with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino. I belonged in those kind of shows. Not to be a headliner but to be a supporting act because I think my kind of music fits that kind of show. That's where I belonged. Not the other stuff.

VVN: I know you are close friends with Dick Clark and that you did a lot of the Dick Clark tours in the 60's. Do you think that those were a little bit softer in the types of artists that he took with him.

FC: He had some shows that were softer and then he had some shows that were more rocking. When you had the black groups on the show, you had to put them in the category of rock and rhythm-and-blues. I fit in that music. That music is accepted by everybody because they are the ones that laid the groundwork for everyone else like us.

He had shows like that but then he did other shows with Paul Anka and Avalon and those people. I went on the shows and I did the shows but I felt I was different from everybody else. I'd say to myself “Why am I singing rock-and-roll and these guys would come out and sing...don't get me wrong. Everybody loved them. All the girls go crazy but their music was like...I don't even know how to describe it. The music is the same today. It's soft and it's cute. That's the word for it. It's cute and slick and I don't want to make records that are cute and slick. That's the way I felt.

VVN: One of the themes that struck me throughout your book was that of family. You credit your mom and dad for a lot of the talent and the support that they gave you and that your mom actually wrote the lyrics to your first hit.

FC: Right, Tallahassee Lassie. She wrote this poem which was originally called She's My Rock-and-Roll Baby the became Tallahassee. I put the music to that poem. God love her, she upstairs watching down on me and my family all the time. I miss her.

My dad played trumpet so music came from within the family. It was always around me in some form or some way. Even though she didn't play and instrument, my mom was always writing poems and doodling and doing all these things that she loved to do and it inspired me. I miss both of them.

VVN: The other things that struck me, considering the business that you are in, is that you've been married to your wife for 52 or 53 years now.

FC: It's going on 54 years. She's a very, very supportive woman. She's been behind me all these years. You know, you have your ups and downs like everybody else but we stuck it out and its really good. I've got a good woman. She's always right behind me and always encouraging me and giving me advice. I ask her things and she's right there. She's the best.

VVN: I'm sure it was hard at times, especially when your kids were younger, and you were out on the road. I did notice that she went out on the road with you quite a bit.

FC: She went out with me later when the kids were grown up. When they were younger, she would stay home and I would go out. That was kind of hard for her but that's what kind of a woman she is. She's strong. She put up with a lot of stuff. I mean, I'm out on the road and the girl's are chasing you and want autographs and the temptations but we survived it all and I'm happy that I still have her.

VVN: The other thing that you kept coming back to in the book was that you have to have the talent but you also have to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

FC: I've always talked about that with different people. If you come across a band singing at a club or high school and you go “Look how good they are. Why haven't they made it.” I've got the answer for that and if anybody doesn't agree they can e-mail me or call you and you can call me. The answer is you better have a good song because it doesn't matter how great you sing, you need the song. If you don't have an original song that you can sing and become a hit, then you have nothing because it isn't ever going to happen. That's the whole key to this whole business. The song is first and the artist and everything else is second and third.

VVN: I know you had your lucky spots, for example knowing Dick Clark when he put Where the Action Is together and you had the opportunity to do the theme, but also your timing wasn't there when The Twist came along.

FC: Well, my timing was there. I didn't get the OK from Bernie Binnick who owned Swan Records. Hank Ballard should have been credited with The Twist many, many years ago. He never got the credit that was due to him. I love Chubby Checker and Chubby is a nice guy, but he takes the bows for The Twist like he discovered it and he wrote it but it's not true. The truth of the matter is that Hank Ballard, and I know him and worked with him a lot out here in California, he's the guy who wrote the song and sang it originally. Chubby just copies his song word-for-word, note-for-note.

I had a chance to cut it. When he went to Dick Clark with the record with the Hank Ballard record, Dick didn't like it. Dick didn't want to play it because he thought it was “too black.”

So, I had a chance and he said to Bernie Binnick at the office of Dance Spins “Why don't you let Freddy cut The Twist. He could do it. It's a song anyone could sing.” Bernie Binnick said to him “No, I've got Way Down Yonder in New Orleans out and I can't put it out now.” What he should have done was say “Let's go cut The Twist, hold it and, after Way Down Yonder dies out, put The Twist out. That could have happened that way, too, but he didn't do that. He went over to Bernie Lowe at Cameo-Parkway and Chubby got it. The rest is history.

VVN: The strange thing about the whole story is that Dick said it was “too black” yet Chubby pretty much did the exact record.

FC: Right and I don't understand that at all. Chubby is black, but he is lighter than Hank Ballard.

VVN: ...but the performance and arrangement is almost identical.

FC: The only reason it upsets me is that he [Checker] had taken the full credit of writing it, discovering it...all these things. That's not right. That's not fair. Talk about Hank Ballard. Hank Ballard is dead now. Why can't you just say “If it wasn't for Hank Ballard, I wouldn't have this.” Like I say about my Mom, I wouldn't have anything if she didn't write the poem for Tallahassee Lassie. I'd rather be honest about things than fool people. I love Chubby but I don't respect him for that.

Hank Ballard was the best. He wrote some great songs. So many of the songs he wrote, Chubby Checker covered them. There are about three or four of them Chubby did. This guy was a brilliant writer and he got no credit. Never made any money out of it. The last time I worked with him before he died out in California, he was going to sue the Oreo cookie company because they were playing The Twist for the new Oreo with the twist of chocolate. He was going to go to a lawyer and I said “Hank, if you want me to come to court to testify and be a witness, I'd be glad to do it.” He just smiled at me and said “Thank you, Freddy.” That was it. I never saw him again before he died.

It just saddens me. I don't like to lie to anybody and make up stories. I'd rather be honest. That why that book is the way it is. It's telling it like it is. There's no phoniness in that book. Everything is coming right from me.

VVN: If you look back, so many of the R&B artists were victims. Maybe not as far as what Chubby Checker has done, but you thinks of songs like the Clover's Devil or Angel and, of course, Bobby Vee had the hit with it. There are so many examples of that.

FC: You're right. They should have gotten credit and they still should get credit but they don't. The people just forget. Most of the time they don't recognize that the people who wrote these songs or originally recorded them...you don't even hear about them. That's ridiculous. It really is.

VVN: You had a really good run of hits back in the early-60's in a day when one-hit wonder and people who were popular for a year or two. You had a good six years where you were in and out of the top ten a lot.

FC: I got really lucky. I call it luck and timing like you said. Everything else worked right. The songs were right. I remember one thing that Bernie Binnick at Swan Records said to me “Freddy, the reason you're going to be around for awhile, the reason why you're making records that people are buying them and you're getting hit records on the charts is because you're different from everybody else.” He was right. I was different from all those teen idol people, different then all those other people making records at that time. My stuff was hard and loud and noisy and danceable, everything.

That was the best thing that ever happened to me because I always wanted to make that and do that.

VVN: Was it Bernie that came up with the idea to cut songs from the 30's and 40's in a rock style?

FC: Yeah, he did. Way Down Yonder in New Orleans was Bernie Binnick's idea. I thought he was crazy when he said it to me. One day I was in the Philadelphia Swan Records office and he said we were going to go cut Way Down Yonder in New Orleans and I said “Bernie, my dad plays that in a band. The kids won't buy that” and he said “No, no. We're going to cut it but the way we're going to cut it, they're going to buy it.” He was right. I was against it because it was an old song. Who would buy the song? He did it as a big band rock sound. That record was like a giant in England. It was number 1 for about 12 weeks in England.

VVN: ...and I know you went back to the those older songs a number of times throughout the rest of your career.

FC: Yes, I did.

VVN: It's hard to even try and talk about all of the people you knew through the years. It was obvious from the book that, between touring and friendships, the amazing people that you were friends with from Jerry Lee Lewis and the people you toured with, but I was most struck by your “kidding” relationship with Elvis.

FC: This guy was really a wonderful person. Nobody knew until you got in the same room with him and in his company. He was a fun guy. If he could be open and be out on the street, he probably would have loved that. He was so secluded and being hidden all the time.

Being in his company, Elvis Presley was a jokester. He loved to have fun. He just couldn't do it out in the open. He had to do it secluded. When I met Elvis Presley the first time in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel, it was a thrill. He demonstrated Karate on me and he flipped me over on my back. He almost broke my back. He ripped his pants.

The thing was, when he turned around and said to me “Freddy, I bought Tallahassee Lassie and put it in my jukebox at my mansion.” All these singers were in the room. There was Fabian, Avalon, Rydell, Chubby Checker...you could go down the line...this was a big tour and everybody on the tour had hits on the Billboard and Cashbox charts. When he turned around and said that in front of all of them, he made me feel like a hundred feet tall because he didn't do that with any of the other people. Only my record. He liked my record because it was rock-and-roll. That was the biggest compliment of my life.

VVN: One of the really amazing things that I found in the book was the fact that you own all of your masters. I know it was because, when you left Warner Brothers, that it was part of the deal but that was so unheard of at that time.

FC: Oh, definitely. I don't know if there was more than between five and seven people in all of this business, new acts, old acts, that own their own masters. I lucked out like crazy. I've talked to so many people...nobody has their masters. Big labels have bought them up and own them. Universal, Capitol, Warner Brothers...they own everything and here I am, a little record company, owning 160 masters of my own records. Album cuts and everything. God has been good to me and my mom upstairs has been watching over me and doing well for my family. I've been pretty lucky that way.

VVN: The great thing about that is that a number of artists who have gone back now and rerecorded all their music so that they own a master of that music even though it's not the original. You don't have to do that.

FC: No, I don't have to and I don't think people who collect those kind of records want to hear a rerecording. They want the original one. I don't think you want to hear a remake of Tallahassee Lassie unless it was good enough so that the young people, who don't know me, liked the song and they buy it but the people our age who know the music and are the collectors...they don't want to hear somebody who goes and cuts an album of songs they did before. You're never going to get it to be the same. It's never going to sound right. It's not going to be the same feeling that it was before. I don't care how they do it or what they try.

VVN: ...and a song that someone loves, they know all of the individual little inflections of the voice and it just stands out.

FC: You're absolutely right. That's true.

VVN: I know that, right now, art is occupying a lot of your time.

FC: I love drawing and I do pencil drawings of famous faces and I have some of those in the book. I like doing that.

I don't know if you knew, but the Rolling Stones cut Tallahassee Lassie in 1978 and just released it a month ago on their album Some Girls [the deluxe edition of the album]. They cut the song and they put it in there. It sounds really good. For them to cut that, it's a compliment. I mean, I inspired them and other acts and, being a rock-and-roll act, that's the kind of people I want to inspire.

The minute I heard that the song had come out, this was about four weeks ago, I turned around and went in my computer room and wrote a song called Covered by the Rolling Stones. It's all done now and will be on iTunes maybe on Monday or Tuesday. Now we're shopping around for a label to see if they want to pick it up. It sounds awfully good.

It's a real rock-and-roll record. It's me and my two sons as the band. One's a guitarist and one's a drummer. We went into the studio with their band and cut this thing. It's nothing like the old Freddy Cannon. The music is like now. It's a real rockin' record.

I'm excited. I had to do this. It's a compliment to the Stones. It's the whole story is about thanking them for cutting Tallahassee and all that stuff.

VVN: You mentioned in the book that you went to a Bruce Springsteen concert and he opened the show with one of your songs but I couldn't find which one it was.

FC: Well, he didn't play it. He played the record. It was the Tunnel of Love tour so when he came through the turnstiles, like he was coming through a park, he would play over the speakers before the show started Palisades Park. It was so loud and so big and everyone in this place, there must have been 15,000 people here in Los Angeles in a big Colosseum, they're all singing Palisades Park. I'm sitting in the audience, I didn't even know if they knew the song and there were kids there singing it. What a compliment that was.

This is crazy. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin [there is a story in the book about Plant seeking out Cannon after a show as he was a fan] loved Tallahassee Lassie and they cut it in a blues version before they became Led Zeppelin. It goes down the line. Why is it these English acts love this song if it wasn't really a rock record. This is what these guys play. They're rockers and that's what they like and, so, I want to be categorized where I should be. The influence is there and they make me feel 1,000 feet up in the air.

VVN: I'll tell you, doing VVN Music for almost six years, I've realized that Europe and England seems to have an appreciation for the past that is not really in the United States. They've have taken in rock artists and, especially, blues artists and have a real affinity for the music. A few blues artists have even moved over there because that's where their fans were.

FC: Right and they work all the time because people want to see them. They're the best fans. They're really into it. I've toured there so many times and they have fun. They love to talk to you. They want to find out all this information, how did you start, how did you write this, how did you do that...they're knowledgeable and they'll pack an auditorium over there of 2,000 or 2,500 seats. They're sold out. They can go fifty dates and sell out every date. That's how much the people love it.

VVN: What's your impression and opinion of where the record industry is now with the digital and so forth. I know, for example, you're able to get out your new song very quickly.

FC: Right. That's a good thing. The only thing I think is against that is that there are many great artists that are not on record labels. They can't get a record deal. I'm talking about people from the 80's and 90's...they have no labels now. They had hits.

The only problem with this is, and it includes me, is how does a kid find the song Covered by the Rolling Stones by Freddy Cannon? How is he going to find it if he doesn't hear it on the radio? I can tell you about it and you can tell all your readers, that will help me a lot but how the heck, if they don't hear it on the radio. A few stations around the country playing it so the kids say “Wow, I've got to go to iTunes to listen to it and but it for 99 cents.

Other than that, I'm honored that I've been accepted to iTunes. You have to be accepted on iTunes. They won't just take you, you know. You have to prove to them that you are an artist. They accepted me right away so, evidently, the song is good enough that they want to put it up. We'll see what happens.

VVN: It's unfortunate that most acts today, unless they are one of the ten signed to a major label, the only way they are really making money is through touring and merchandising.

FC: It's been like that for a lot of years, anyway. It started way back in the 60's and 70's. A lot of acts never got paid and I'm one of them. When I was with Swan Records, I never got paid. I was always in the red. I always owed the label money and the producers money but, when I got to Warner Brothers records everything changed for the better. They treated me right. I got paid for records. I didn't have a lot of hits on Warner Brothers. Only two or three but there was no question that, if the records did well, I got the checks and they were great. At Swan Records, I got nothing.

VVN: I think that, if you look at the roster of acts that were on Warner Brothers right through to the mid-70's, they had to be a quality label because the very best were on there.

FC: Yes, they were and, as I said, they were good to me and I will always complement them for treating me right and, in the end, when the deal was over, that's when I got all the masters back from them. I don't know if they knew what they were giving me but that was a blessing.

Freddy's new single, Covered by the Rolling Stones, will be available at iTunes next week.

His autobiography, Where the Action Is!, is now available at Amazon.

3 comments

Anonymous said...

Cannon's book is a work of fiction.
He alleges in his book to have been on the same tour in England with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent when Cochran got killed in a car accident. Supposedly Freddy just missed being in the fateful vehicle. History shows that Cannon toured England several months later and was not on that tour.
He also alleges that he has made the most appearances on American Bandstand with over 100. Do the math. It doesn't add up. Even in this interview he throws Chubby Checker under the bus by falsely stating that Checker takes full credit for "The Twist" when, in fact, it should go to Hank Ballard. On the contrary, Chubby has referenced numerous times in interviews that Ballard was the first with "The Twist".
It looks like the older Cannon gets the more important he tries to become.

Anonymous said...

Freddie is right. He doesn't belong in a tour show with Rydell, Avalon,
Anka or Fabian but not for the reasons
he thinks.
What a self-serving, self rightous egotist.

Anonymous said...

A co worker that worked with me had his own group and opened a show in Rhode Island for Freddy Cannon and told me that Freddy wanted to rent a car for his stay and he volunteered to take Cannon around to rent a car agencies and he waited in the car while Freddy Cannon had him go from place to place for hours and he finally aske Cannon."I can nor believe that all hese rent a car agencies are out of cars" and Cannon replied "no ..they have cars but they want too much money to rent them".
Needless to say,what a cheap,inconsiderate person he was and is.

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