Last weekend found me and my friend Geoff indulging in an activity I haven’t done for a very long time: browsing the used CD section at FYE. (Yes, I still buy most of my music on physical media. Did you really expect otherwise, given my motto over there in the sidebar?) I managed to find several items from my wishlist, but my real score that night was a copy of an old favorite I had on cassette back in the Awesome ’80s, but haven’t heard in 20 years or more: The Honeydrippers, Volume One.
I’ll forgive you if that name doesn’t ring a bell, although my fellow Gen-Xers will probably at least remember the album’s big single, “Sea of Love.”
The Honeydrippers was a project created by singer Robert Plant in the aftermath of Led Zeppelin’s breakup in 1980. Plant had long been an admirer of early American R&B music, the stuff that hadn’t quite evolved into rock and roll yet, but definitely prefigured the genre, and working with Zeppelin hadn’t given him much opportunity to explore that sound. So in 1981, while the remains of the mighty Zep still smoldered, Plant pulled together his bandmate Jimmy Page, along with Jeff Beck — who was Page’s old bandmate from the Yardbirds, the group that also launched Eric Clapton — and various session musicians to have a little fun. Soon, though, he began working on original material that would lead to his first solo albums in ’82 and ’83, and the Honeydrippers got shelved
Enter Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary co-founder of Atlantic Records who’d signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic way back in 1968, effectively giving them their big break. Ertegun wanted to record some of his favorite songs from the early rock era, and he remembered what Plant had been doing with The Honeydrippers a couple years before. A few phone calls later, and a reformed Honeydrippers — now including Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic, and Paul Shaffer, best known as David Letterman’s sidekick but actually an accomplished keyboardist — were in the studio laying down the tracks that became The Honeydrippers, Volume One. Released in 1984, Volume One was a five-song EP that sounded like it had tumbled through a wormhole from three decades earlier. I loved it, myself… but then, I’d cut my musical teeth listening to my mom’s scratchy old Elvis Presley 45s, so this was like comfort food to me.
“Sea of Love” became the highest-charting cut from the album, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100 — one notch higher than Zeppelin’s biggest seller, by the way — but oddly enough, that song hadn’t originally been intended as a single at all. It was the B-side to tonight’s video selection, “Rockin’ at Midnight.” In one of those weird quirks that used to happen when there were real-live DJs spinning actual records on the air, “Sea of Love” started getting more radio play than “Rockin’,” and the single was eventually reissued with the two songs flipped. My understanding is that Robert Plant wasn’t too happy about that; he feared the success of the crooning ballad “Sea” might derail his persona as a rocker, and that evidently was a big part of why there was never a Honeydrippers, Volume Two. A real shame, in my book, as I played the hell out of Volume One when I was a teen, and I certainly have enjoyed revisiting it this week. There’s just something about the roots of rock, an authenticity and a joyful swing that slowly bled out of the genre over time… see if you don’t agree:
The original “Rockin’ at Midnight” was a 1949 “jump blues” tune by a man named Roy Brown. It was a so-called “answer record” — a sequel, to use the more familiar terminology of cinema — to an earlier Brown song called “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which was later recorded by — guess who? — Elvis Presley during his early days on the Sun label. And I’m pretty certain that version was among those old 45s of my mother’s that The Honeydrippers always reminded me of. Wheels within wheels, man.
Also, I have to say it’s been a little weird to assemble the chronology of these events in my mind, really for the first time. I started finding my own music (as opposed to whatever Mom was listening to) in 1981, more or less. Led Zeppelin had broken up only one year before, but they’d already taken on the mystique of timeless legend. This was a time when it seemed like you couldn’t go 10 minutes without hearing “Black Dog” or “Rock and Roll” on the radio, and every fifth kid at Oquirrh Hills Middle School was wearing a “Swan Song” t-shirt. And yet the band itself was no more, and in fact its heyday had been a good decade earlier. It was almost as if their music had always existed, simultaneously old and current, while the band itself never had. So looking at the actual dates, figuring out that I barely missed Zeppelin’s period as an active band, and that their breakup and The Honeydrippers, Volume One happened within a scant four years of each other — really, it was only four years — has been kind of surreal for me. The Zeppelin era and Plant’s solo era always seemed geological ages apart to me, but it was merely the span of time I spent in middle school. More or less.
One final thought: At the time he recorded “Rockin’ at Midnight,” Robert Plant seemed very old to me. Not ready-for-a-rest-home-and-walker old, just very… adult. It turns out he was 36 in 1984. Ten years younger than I am now.
Makes you think about what the hell you’ve done with your life, doesn’t it?