Ron Givens
March 15, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll in the Wild Years Before Elvis

Current Status
In Season
Nick Tosches
Music, Pop Culture

We gave it an A-

Nick Tosches makes his musicological bias clear from the get-go: ”Rock ‘n’ roll is dead,” he says, perfectly symbolized by ”the bald spot on Paul Shaffer’s head.” Shaffer’s music epitomizes rock in general, he believes — a lame bar mitzvah band led by some ”asshole baldy.”

But there was a golden time in the ’40s and ’50s when, for Tosches, rock & roll hadn’t congealed into pop. Unsung Heroes, first published in 1984 in a shorter version, offers a portrait gallery of some untamed musical pioneers, mostly R&B or rockabilly performers who thought a little too far wasn’t nearly far enough.

None of Tosches’ heroes represent the pure woolliness of that time as well as Ming and Ling. This Chinese duo socked it to club audiences in the ’40s with garish impressions (Frank Sinatra doing ”The Hucklebuck” in Chinese) and raunchy boogie-woogie (”My eggroll has gone soggy,” they sang in ”Eggroll Eatin’ Mama”).

Tosches has a naturally wicked bent that is perfectly suited to the irrepressible nature of these characters. If his writing can’t always make us hear the music, he does summon up the gaudy nature of the people who yelped it. ”To hear Louis Prima sing,” he writes, ”is not only to begin to comprehend the world, but also to begin to comprehend why no one in a tweed suit ever got laid within ten miles of downtown Newark.” Tosches is the perfect chronicler of this deliciously tacky music.

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