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'Fresh Air' Remembers Rock Historian Ed Ward

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We got some sad news this week. Music, art and food writer Ed Ward died at the age of 72. He has an important place in the history of rock criticism and an important place in the history of our show. When FRESH AIR was making the transition from a local show in Philadelphia to a daily national NPR program and we were scouting for reviewers and commentators, we asked Ed Ward if he'd be interested in doing a weekly piece on the history of rock 'n' roll. That was a really smart move on our part. He was our rock historian from 1987 until 2017, sharing music he loved.

He knew the history of the blues, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, pop, folk, protest and psychedelic music, soul, funk, Tex-Mex, punk and techno. In 30 years with our show, he never ran out of ideas or great music. He talked about the most famous musicians, like Chuck Berry and the Beatles, and the most obscure, musicians and bands that worked in the shadows of the music industry and never got their due. He told us about musicians who had one brilliant recording and were never heard from again. There were stories about overcoming the odds, and stories that ended tragically. But always in Ed's pieces, there was great music.

Ed has been described as one of the first people to write seriously about rock 'n' roll. In 1966, he started writing for the early rock magazine Crawdaddy. He became the reviews editor for Rolling Stone in 1970 and for most of the '70s, wrote for the music magazine Creem. At the end of that decade, he moved to Austin and became the music critic at the Austin American-Statesman. In '84, he moved over to the Austin Chronicle, where he wrote about food.

He was one of three authors of the 1987 book "Rock Of Ages: The Rolling Stone History Of Rock & Roll," in which he wrote the chapters about the earliest years of the music up to 1960. Ed was one of the first staff members of South by Southwest, the annual music conference that has become a major music industry gathering and showcase. He wrote two recent books, "The History Of Rock & Roll, Volume 1" and "Volume 2."

During the nearly 20 years he lived abroad in Germany and France, he managed to keep recording pieces for us. Early in his time with FRESH AIR, back in 1988, we invited him to be interviewed on our show so that we and our listeners who heard him every week would get to know more about him. This is what Ed told me about how he first started listening to rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ED WARD: I can blame this on a kid named Jeffrey Schlosberg (ph), who I was going to school with in third grade or maybe second. He came into school and said, you know, you better watch out because my brother's turned into a rock. I'd never heard this term before. In fact, it's a fairly localized one. But essentially what had happened was his brother was in high school and he had decided to become a hood, and he'd gotten himself a Harley Davidson and a leather jacket.

And so I figured, well, you know, this was a guy whose right side I wanted to be on. So I went over to Jeffrey's house after school. And we went into his sister's room, and he played a bunch of records that he said would help me understand what this whole phenomenon was about.

GROSS: What did he play for you?

WARD: Well, he played a lot of Elvis Presley records. And to me, he sounded like some sort of amphibian singing at the bottom of a well or something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WARD: I really didn't like him at all. And he played - oh, let's see. I think there was some Buddy Holly in there. And the stuff I responded to best, I guess, back in those days was what has come to be known as doo-wop - you know, Black harmony singing. I think that was probably because I was in the church choir, and I really liked to sing. And you'd hear one of these records on the radio, and you could sing along with it. You could, like, find a part in there that you could sing and harmonize with it.

GROSS: How did you find out about Black music?

WARD: Well, it was on the radio. I mean, in those days, believe it or not, Top 40 radio was integrated, very much unlike what it is these days. If a record isn't made with a specific crossover intent these days, you generally won't hear it on Top 40. But in those days, rock 'n' roll radio consisted of - well, there was even country music on rock 'n' roll radio in those days, people like Don Gibson. And that stuff was very much what country people were listening to. And the Black stuff, like Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers or the Moonglows or people like that, were very much what Black people were listening to.

GROSS: Did you go through periods of abandoning rock 'n' roll for other music?

WARD: Oh, yeah. During the early '60s, I got disgusted with rock 'n' roll radio because there was less Black music being played and more stupid music manufactured for teenagers kind of thing, the infamous Philadelphia sound of Fabian, Frankie Avalon and all that garbage. I remember one day I just got so mad, I twisted the dial as hard as I could, and the dial spun all the way down to the end. And I hit WQXR, which was the classical station in New York City, and began listening to classical music pretty much from that moment on. At about that same time, I befriended a pair of twins who were in my junior high school. And their parents had been heavy leftists, and the kids were really into folk music. And we used to go into New York City and see Pete Seeger. And I really got into the folk thing at that point and pretty much stayed that way until I went to college in 1965.

GROSS: And then what?

WARD: Well, then I came home for Christmas vacation, and my best friend's little brother started making fun of me for being a folkie. And he said, well, you know, the Rolling Stones have recorded a protest song. I said, yeah, sure. You know, the Rolling Stones are just a bunch of commercial pop music mongers. And - but he put on "Satisfaction," and I thought, well, gee, that's a pretty catchy record. So I started listening more to rock 'n' roll at that point.

GROSS: So the Rolling Stones drew you back into rock 'n' roll.

WARD: Yeah. Yeah, the Rolling Stones - and shortly after that, I guess "Rubber Soul" came out, and I thought, well, this is sort of the Beatles doing folk music. And it was just - it was a good time to get back into it. I guess by about 1966, I was really heavily back into it. And I still think of that as, along with 1957, one of the true golden years of rock 'n' roll because it was just before rock 'n' roll lost its innocence, before the calculatedness came back into it and the - sort of people all grasping to become huge stars. There was a lot of really great records that came out in 1966 that were real innocent because nobody really knew what was happening, but they were doing it anyway.

GROSS: How did you start writing about rock music?

WARD: I'd been at school for about three weeks, and I was already bored. This was college. And I was a subscriber to a folk music magazine in New York. And I started sending them book and record reviews, and they printed them. And I thought, well, gee, you know, I've always wanted to be a writer, which is, you know, still the case. And here I am being a writer. So at one point, I was living in New York City, and I read a piece in The Village Voice about Crawdaddy magazine, which had just moved to town from Boston. That was January 1967. So what happened was I wound up moving into the Crawdaddy offices and writing for them. And in about, oh, late 1969, I got a copy of Rolling Stone magazine, and there was a call for writers there. And so I submitted some stuff and started publishing and haven't really stopped since.

GROSS: When you say you moved into the Crawdaddy offices, I have a feeling you mean literally (laughter).

WARD: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Like, you really lived there (laughter).

WARD: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We had this great loft on 6th Avenue, great big old floor, and we just scavenged a couple of mattresses. And that was - you know, we all lived and worked there.

GROSS: Now, in Philadelphia, where I live, there's a new proliferation of oldies stations, of stations that only play music from the '60s, basically, early through late '60s. And I wonder if you think that this is a good trend or a bad trend. I know that it's happening to some degree around the country.

WARD: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's the largest growing radio format that exists at this point. And that - I find that to be really chilling because their view of rock 'n' roll history is an ugly one. I mean, you're not going to hear The Moonglows. You're not going to hear The "5" Royales. You're not going to hear anything obscure or anything that's, like, too ethnic. It's a very carefully managed, very carefully selected view of the past on those stations, and I really don't like that.

GROSS: On FRESH AIR, we think of you as a historian of rock 'n' roll, but I bet you listen to a lot of contemporary rock music.

WARD: Oh, I listen mostly to contemporary rock music. It's only when I have to do these shows that I pull out...

GROSS: (Laughter) We make you go back to those old records.

WARD: I pull out the old records and go, geez.

(LAUGHTER)

WARD: No, I mean, one of the great things about right now is that a lot of the great records of the past are being remastered and reissued. And to that extent, I'm not a record collector nerd, you know? If somebody finds one of my favorite records and remasters it and puts it out on a clean pressing, hey, I'd rather have that than the original.

GROSS: Ed, it was really nice to talk with you.

WARD: Oh, it was great talking with you.

GROSS: My interview with Ed Ward was recorded in 1988. He wrote about music from many publications and was FRESH AIR's rock historian from 1987 to 2017. His death was reported earlier this week. He was 72. We're grateful for the recordings, stories and insights he shared with us over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER")

THE 5 ROYALES: (Singing) Yaki taki oowah, yaki taki oowah, yaki taki yaki taki yaki taki. Right around the corner, that's where my baby stays. Right around the corner, that's where my baby stays. And I can get to my honey's house 15 different ways. Yaki taki oowah, yaki taki oowah, yaki taki yaki taki yaki taki. Well, I can go around the side. I can cut through the back. I broke a picket off the fence.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER")

THE 5 ROYALES: (Singing) Yaki taki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.