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Top 10 Oldies Myths

Urban legends and other misperceptions about early rock and roll

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The following is a chronological guide to myths, hoaxes, and urban legends concerning the legendary artists and songs of rock and roll, pop and R&B from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Got a suggestion on a myth that should be here but isn't? Feel free to e-mail me!

1. Sam Phillips goofed by signing away Elvis for $35,000.

Considering that Elvis Presley went on to sell an estimated one billion records worldwide, or approximately one record for every sixth person on earth, this sounds like one of music history's biggest blunders.

It's not so, however. For one thing, the music business in 1955 was a quick-cash game; no label owner, certainly not a small, regional one like Phillips, could have possibly asked for a percentage of an artists' future royalties once he was signed away. Secondly, that 35 grand was by far the largest amount ever paid for any artist by a major label, one which was taking a huge chance by signing a "rock and roll" singer. (No one in the business really considered rock more than a passing fad; if anything, RCA was thought to have wildly overpaid for Elvis.) Thirdly, Sam proved he was indeed a shrewd businessman by investing that $35,000 -- he sunk some of it into a small upstart hotel chain in Memphis. The name of that chain was the Holiday Hotel; you may know it better as the Holiday Inn.

2. Roy Orbison was blind.

The singer's odd, pasty look and huge dark glasses led many to speculate, then and now, that Roy Orbison was blind. His trademark shades never left him, but they were no stranger (or stronger) than Grandma's reading glasses.

Roy did have eyeglasses to correct his vision, but they were quite normal; en route to an Alabama concert, however, he accidentally left them on the plane. The only other pair he had were prescription sunglasses, so he wore those instead. The very next day Roy was scheduled to open up a European Beatles tour, and there was no time to go find his old pair, so the dark shades stayed on him throughout the tour. The resultant frenzy of Beatlemania ensured that the singer would be seen throughout the world in that pair; by the time he returned home, it was a trademark. Proof that Roy wasn't blind can be found in the early television performance footage that shows him wearing no glasses at all.

3. The plane that crashed and killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper was named the American Pie.

Singer Don McLean leaves much of the speculation about his monumental 1972 epic "American Pie" open to speculation: the song, after all, does feel open-ended lyrically, like a sonic dream. What McLean has admitted is that the tune centers around the 1959 plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and what happened to rock and roll in the years following.

The "Miss American Pie" is the symbol of that Fifties America, the passing of which the singer laments. But quite apart from the fact that the official reports and photos of the crash reveal no such aircraft name, McLean himself was forced to issue a press release in 1999 debunking this myth once and for all: "The growing urban legend that "American Pie" was the name of Buddy Holly’s plane the night it crashed, killing him, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, is untrue. I created the term."

4. The hit Kingsmen version of "Louie Louie" contains dirty lyrics.

The 1964 hit "Louie Louie" may be one of frat-rock's greatest anthems, but it's also one of the most poorly-recorded records to ever hit the Top 40: most of the vocals on the song's one take went into one big boom mike hanging from the ceiling. For this reason, it's impossible to make out what lead singer Jack Ely is singing, and so fans went to work trying to inject the most salacious lyrics their dirty minds could imagine. Tthe resultant controversy led to the song being banned by the state of Indiana and even to a full-fledged FBI investigation -- the FBI, however, concluded that it couldn't prosecute something unintelligible, and the furor died off.

There are three compelling reasons to assume the lyrics are actually as tame as those in the 1956 original by Richard Berry. For one, the lyrics sound like the original ones, when you know what they are, although the first line of the last verse remains lost and floating around in that studio somewhere. We also have the testimony of Berry himself, who's repeatedly insisted the words are the same as his own. However, you CAN hear something spontaneously shouted out at the end of the second chorus: drummer Lynn Easton has claimed that he hit his sticks together accidentally at that moment, which caused him to yell "Oh, f---!" Ironically, no complaint has ever centered around that goof.

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