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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?'
"They contacted my record company up in Syracuse, and then they called me and said, 'Jimmy, they took an interest in you up in England! They wanna do a revival of you and the Teenagers up in England, called Rock Rock Rock Revival.' And that's how it all started."
The festival gig was his first trip to play in Europe in his 50-plus-year career and his first time playing to crowds as large as 10,000. He's played a few more European festival dates since, including one in Italy.
And it's not just Europe calling these days. Just a couple of weeks ago, Cavallo played to 3,500 rock faithful at Green Bay's Rockin' Fifties Fest, a six-day, 150-act showcase of rockabilly, doo-wop, and early rock 'n' roll. He shared a bill with legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ruth Brown, Link Wray, and Wanda Jackson and with modern revivalists Los Straitjackets and Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys.
Last year, in response to the success of The Houserocker, his label Blue Wave issued Rock the Joint!, a compilation of material from 1951 to the early 1970s. For film buffs, Rock, Rock, Rockwas released on DVD in '03.
"These big things just came now in the last four years, and it's just revived my whole career," Cavallo beams. "They've been playing my records on the radio again and saying, 'Jimmy, thank God you're back on the scene.' [It's] rejuvenated my career. They don't see my gray hair or that I'm a lot older than I was in the '50s. They see me as I was."
So do the crowds at Doogie's. On almost any night Cavallo's band plays, you'll find a full house of whooping, exhilarated retirees and jump-blues mavens. Some are fans who saw him play in Syracuse or Wildwood, New Jersey, throughout the '50s. Many end up dancing up a storm in front of the stage.
"It's inspiring to watch somebody that still loves what he does and is pretty close to the top of his game," Blue Wave's Spencer says. "He doesn't sound like a 79-year-old guy. He sounds like he's 55. A lot of guys you see like that, like Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked frail in that [Rock 'n' Roll] Hall of Fame induction ceremony."
"I'm in very good shape, and I keep [playing two nights a week], week after week," Cavallo enthuses. "Whenever my name is mentioned now, it's mentioned along with Bill Haley and Elvis and Buddy Holly."
You don't spend more than 50 years chasing stardom without thinking big.
"I think they overlooked me at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame too!" If there's any justice in rock 'n' roll -- and Cavallo's tale suggests there just might be -- that oversight won't last long.