By Ashley Zimmerman
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It's Saturday night, and Jimmy Cavallo is doing what he's done nearly every weekend for the past decade. The 78-year-old singer and sax man is playing to a full house at Doogie's, a jazz supper club in Deerfield Beach. Between Sinatra standards, Louis Prima hits, and big-band-era favorites, the Pompano Beach resident and his comic foil, veteran bassist "Sharky" Nadaoka, deploy a trove of moldy jokes, including a creaky set piece on playing ethnic weddings. Japanese-American Nadaoka does a rivetingly politically incorrect Jerry Lewis-as-a-Chinaman shtick, circa 1955.
But the borscht-belt routine is not Cavallo's claim to fame. Halfway through the first set, he launches into what he calls "the medley of my hit." Suddenly, the band's jazzy frills are stripped away. No bebop horn runs, no colorful drum fills from Val Colombo, who's played with Cavallo on and off for decades. Just raw power. Cavallo jumps and shouts and leans back into wailing, screeching sax solos, twisting back and forth and straight-arming the horn out in front of him, the whole band pounding away. They're tearing into two numbers that go all the way back to 1956, "The Big Beat" and "Rock, Rock, Rock." The latter is his title song from the movie he appeared in alongside Chuck Berry, Frankie Lyman, and Tuesday Weld.
Impressive company, for sure, and Cavallo belongs with it. Jimmy Cavallo, you see, is one of the inventors of rock 'n' roll.
Cavallo has been playing the music that came to be called rock 'n' roll since the late 1940s. It was then that, fresh out of the Army, he formed a band to play hard rhythm and blues in the white clubs of coastal North Carolina. The sound was lean and horn-driven, inspired by black R&B originators like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. Around 1950, Cavallo moved back to his hometown of Syracuse, New York, and put together his band the House Rockers, playing regularly and, in '51, recording his primordial form of rock 'n' roll.
In 1956, Cavallo and the House Rockers were discovered by Alan Freed, the influential Cleveland DJ credited with coining the term rock 'n' roll. Freed got them signed with Coral Records, showcased them in concerts and TV appearances, spun their records on the radio, and cast them in the teensploitation musical Rock, Rock, Rock. It was Freed who was also responsible for getting Cavallo booked at the Apollo as one of the first white rock 'n' rollers to play the legendary Harlem theater.
"People look at me and don't realize I was a pioneer," Cavallo says. "I was there in the beginning. I was there before Bill [Haley], I was there before Elvis, I was there before Buddy Holly. The only one in there before me was Chuck Berry."
Somehow, though, Cavallo never gained the spotlight -- or even the due respect -- that shone on his immediate successors.
"I was kinda overlooked during the whole rock period," he recounts. "I didn't have enough of a hit record."
It's a story familiar to every musician who never quite made it big, even in the late '50s: a decade of steady club gigs, constant touring, short-lived record deals, shows in Vegas and Atlantic City. Weary of life on the road, Cavallo moved to Florida in 1968 and took a series of day jobs with Broward County.
"When I first got down here, they opened the auto inspection program," he says. "I worked in one of those stations for a couple of years. Then I went back on the road, and it was the same old crap." So he kept on at the inspection stations until they shut down, then took a series of random jobs, all the while playing weekend gigs all over Palm Beach County. About ten years ago, he started playing at Doogie's, where he's been most weekends since.
But recently, the story veered into unexpected territory. Over the past couple of years, Cavallo's contribution to rock history has aroused interest in revivalists and vintage aficionados. In 2002, Cavallo recorded his first-ever full-length, The Houserocker, which was released on Syracuse blues label Blue Wave.
"Jimmy's a living piece of history who seldom gets written about in the history books," says Blue Wave owner Greg Spencer. "Here's a guy that did a lot of things first that he doesn't get the credit for. When he was down south in the service, he learned the R&B stuff from the black artists and brought it back here. That was the idea of the records I did with him -- to help set the record straight." The Houserocker was nominated for a prestigious W.C. Handy Award for Best Comeback Album in '03; it also garnered a glowing review in the snarky, rockist mag Creem. Eventually, the record made its way to Europe, where early rock 'n' roll still enjoys a following, and into the hands of a British concert promoter.
"He was running a big rock concert in England called the Rhythm Riot," Cavallo explains. "One of the stars was Frankie Lyman's Teenagers. They realized the Teenagers and I were in the same movie, Rock, Rock, Rock,and they said, 'God, he's still alive? And he's still cookin'? How do we get in touch with him and get him over here?'