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Freddy Cannon
Freddy Cannon

History of Boston Rock
     History of Boston Rock & Roll - Chapter 4 - The MIT Riot, Freddy Cannon, The Jamies

"They had some cars outside that you could smash with a sledgehammer for a buck. It kind of set the whole mood," remembers Cheapo Records' Big John, who was present at the second biggest rock 'n' roll riot of the '50s decade in Boston."


On March 5, 1956, MIT's campus newspaper, The Tech Talk, announced that the school "would proudly hold the 1st annual Charities Carnival," thereby reviving an MIT tradition. Booths set up by fraternities and professors would highlight the event along with the importing of 700 women from Fisher, Leslie, Brandeis and other women's colleges from the area.

The main event that would draw everyone, however, would really be the carnival's rock 'n' roll stage show, emceed by Bill Marlowe of WCOP, who boasted the largest fan club of any disc jockey in America, 85,000 people, including many MIT students.

The bill featured Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (Frankie, singer/author of 1956 #1 R&B hit, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, was the black man who danced with a white woman in 1958 on Alan Freed's Bandstand, an event that shocked and outraged many ,and ultimately led to Freed's dismissal). Also on the bill were The Valentines, The Cleftones and local acts such as The G-Clefs (Ka Ding Dong), Art Poulsan's Martians, the Dappers, featuring George Cromwell who penned the local smash hit, My Mother's Eyes, and Cindy and Lindy, local faves who scored with the hit Let's Go Steady in 1956 were also on the slate.

Proceeds from the fundraiser were earmarked for educating Nigerians.

Tech Talk told its readers that this "may prove to be the event of the season," prophetically supplying what was instead the understatement of the season.

Attendance predictions ranged from 2 to 10,000. Admission was 99 cents.


Violence and rioting by several thousand began at approximately 10:15 pm. Fifteen were treated for broken noses and lacerations. One MIT student was treated for injuries occurring when a gang armed with golf clubs attacked him. Several amusement booths, a number of 45 rpm records and equipment belonging to WTBS (MIT's radio station - the name of which Ted Turner bought and which was replaced by WMBR). The crowd spilled into the parking area and destroyed a car owned by an MIT professor of physics.

Boston newspapers and CBS news called the melee race riots, though MIT stated this was definitely not true, MIT also claimed that Marlowe gave the affair widespread spiced-up publicity by inviting "cool cats to put on a tie and jacket and come dressed as college men." Marlowe had signed a contract stipulating "that all advertising by Bill Marlowe will be strictly directed to the college population of Boston, and that it will not be mentioned as a record hop and that no encouragement whatsoever will be given to non-college elements..." Marlowe had, however, been encouraged by some MIT coordinators to do this.

March 13, '56, Tech Talk: "The trouble started at about 9:30 p.m. Bill Marlowe and Virginia Maffucci (Miss Massachusetts) had made their entrance earlier and were on stage, as were several of the 'rock and roll' artists."

WTBS station manager Brian Grover recalled "Marlowe was worried about the kids crowding around the stage. They were up on the platform next to the stage, trying to got as close as they could to the performers," Students called the police but received "little cooperation."

Cindy and Lindy, the first act, went on stage, but the crowd was getting closer all the time. "Then came the 'Cleftones,' a group of four or five fellows whose singing caused the crowd to start stamping their feet and jumping around." According to Grover, "when a couple of people started to fall, they all began falling - they were so close together.

"There were three kids fighting; one fell off the platform onto the ground and the others jumped down and started kicking him. More and more people kept coming up on the stage. Marlowe called it quits and he and the performers got out of there.

"When the fight broke out, one kid picked up a pile of Marlowe's records and threw them into the crowd."

"I saw that the equipment was in danger, and I told the crew to rip out everything and get it out of there. They did.' - There were no losses except for the microphone, some wire and a plug.

"Although the stage show was over, the side shows continued. These were the booths operated by the fraternities and other groups. Strings of five-cent tickets were sold to the crowd, enabling them to play the various games such as pitching pennies, tossing hoops and spinning roulette wheels. There were two old cars which for a small price, a person could whack at with a sledgehammer. For another fee, one could throw a tennis ball at a sort of protruding railroad signal, which if struck, would send a fraternity man into a tank of water. A sign proclaimed that a three-legged race among faculty members would be hold at ten-thirty.

"But the side shows next drew the attention of the mob. Periodically, the entire crowd seemed to sway toward one corner of the floor, During this time more police arrived, adding their number to the seven who were hired by the Carnival Committee. One youth was found with several records tied with string looped around his neck and concealed under his coat. However, no one could prove that these were Marlowe's records and the youth was taken outside and released.

"As the crowd milled about inside the Cage and the banter of the pitch men at the booths died down, a group of about twenty suddenly began pulling down one of the booths. Almost immediately afterward, the police ordered the Cage emptied.

"As the crowd left and moved toward Massachusetts Avenue, there was sporadic fighting," the article ends.

The Boston Globe had its own theory about what touched off the rioting. The event had been advertised as a record hop, but so many people were packed into the space allotted that no one could even move much less dance. In addition, the coeds who attended from other schools because they wanted to dance were especially annoyed because the dirt floor made it impossible to dance. Moreover, Cambridge city officials that worked that night told us there was not enough room for everyone attending the benefit, and that a crowd of 10,000-12,000 awaited outside.

A wake of headlines and bad press for rock 'n' roll followed the event: CHARITIES CARNIVAL CONCESSIONS TORN DOWN BY RIOTING TEENAGE MOB; POLICE CALLED T0 QUELL THREE THOUSAND RAMPAGING "ROCK 'N' ROLLERS" was a typical characterization of the event.


While rock 'n' roll stormed through the headlines. Boston's local music scene continued to evolve in 1956, one of the highlights of which was a record release that some music critics wishing to remain anonymous called "the worst rock 'n' roll song in rock's history": "Cha-Cha-Do".

The tune was sung by a North Shore act, the Spindrifts, who've popped up in our previous articles as featured stars of Bob Clayton's local bandstand show at the Boston Ballroom.

The band featured Jackie Dallas of Chicago and one Freddie Picariello, son of an orchestra leader, from Revere. In 1957 they were "discovered" by a local dj, Jack McDermott. He began corresponding with Swan Records in New York, and in April of 1959, while on a promotional trip to Boston, producer-song writing team Frank Slay, Jr. and Bob Crewe stopped in to catch the Spindrift's act at a local club. They dragged the band up to Revere's Ace Studio, presently Fleetwood Studios, where Bill Faroosi manned the controls. The demos were so impressive ("Cha-Cha-Do" wasn't one them) that they were flown to New York the following day and mastered. And Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon (nee Picariello) began his rise to fame as Boston and the nation's own white teen idol.

It's not that we want to ruin a fairy tale story, but our research shows that contrary to the usual "overnight discovery and success" rah rah version of Cannon's emergence through Swan, it was instead a long, arduous process. McDermott had previously sent the demos to Swan that drew Slay and Crew's interest, after a series of correspondences. The folklorish version of the story is that Slay and Crewe just coincidentally saw Freddie and were bowled over by his oh-my-God-raw-talent. Instead, they had been thoroughly prepped before coming to Boston and once here, they modified and edited existing demos after they'd confirmed that Freddie's act was legitimate.

Freddie subsequently became a house act at the Surf and met up with the famous Dick Clark. Mr. Clark obviously liked Freddie and signed him onto the Dick Clark Show. On September 7, 1959, along with Frankie Avalon and Jan & Dean, Freddie performed at the Michigan State Fair before 15,000, the Fair's largest-over attendance at that time. By that fall, Freddie's song "Tallahassee Lassie" had reached #6 nationally and stayed on the charts for some months. His mother allegedly penned the ditty.

Obviously not wanting to lose the momentum that double vowels brought his career, Freddie followed with "Okefenokee," a 1,000,000 plus seller, Next came "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," another hit of equal proportions, that was a remake of a 1922 jazz song. It hit #3 nationally in 1960.

If you think these songs sound more like dixleland ditties than rock songs, they weren't. However, evident in them was Cannon's love for Al Jolson's work ("Mammy! How I Love Ya").


1958 - WMEX hit the airwaves and recruited Arnie "WooWoo" Ginsburg who began his infamous Night Train Program there. Arnie had by this time mastered and refined his antics which were known throughout the Northeast corner of America and beyond. His arsenal of party hooters Included:

  • a taxl horn from India
  • an English train whistle
  • a Japanese New Year noise maker
  • a Cambodian rattle made from the bones of wild animals

He closed each of his shows with the memorable "I'll be wooing you on WMEX."

In 1958, he began hosting his annual Gilchrist's Back To School Fashion Hop which featured national and local acts at the Colonial Theatre.

By this time, Arnie was receiving, 50 to 70 records a week and was the only disc jockey to be given the rights to a flexible playlist, while all the other djs were stuck with a tight format playlist.

Writers of the Gilchrist Fashion Hop program flyer asked Arnie the question on eve- ryone's lips:
Q: "Where did 'Woo Woo' come from?"
AG: "Cause the train goes 'WooWoo'."


In 1958, WEZE's Sherm Feller took interest in a quartet from Dorchester. The foursome were singing in the First Baptist Church in Dorchester and were recording some doo-wop on the side. Epic Records signed them and the Jamies spawned their one hit wonder, "Summertime, Summertime," which peaked on the charts at #26 in August of 1958, nationally.

The band's name was taken from that of brother-sister members Tom and Serena Jameson, The song still aptly captures the teenage thrill of fleeing school for the beach every June: "We'll shuck those books and throw 'em away..." In the Real Paper's Earbook Vol. II, May 16,1973, David Bieber lists the song's charms:

"A never-to-be-heard-from-again group which featured a tricky, but instantly-memorable arrangement and a woman vocalist's voice which was guaranteed to irritate parents for at least three months."


1959 - The great American folk-revival was warming up and revamping in Cambridge. Coffeehouses popped up in numbers, most notably the one at 47 Mount Auburn Street. Joan Baez, then of Newton and Boston University, Tom Rush, a Harvard Student, and Tim Hardin, a U.S. Marine refugee, were all making contributions to the blossoming scene. Baez was invited to the Newport Jazz Festival and make her first major mark with a stellar performance there, acclaimed for the signature purity of her voice. More on this subject later, when Club 47 and its folk music stars flower in the '60s.


Congressional probing of TV quiz show scandals began to direct attention to possible "payola" (commercial bribery) scandals within the broadcast industry.

On Nov. 21, 1959, Alan Freed was dismissed from New York's WABC radio when he refused to sign a statement that he never received money or gifts to promote records. Two days later, his video dance show was cancelled.

Sen. Oren Harris' Senate sub-committee investigation into commercial bribery had begun. Massachusetts Representative Tip O'Neill called for all Boston radio stations to be investigated.

Next issue: The Payola Trials

This article originally appeared in The Beat in 1985
(c) Charles William White III

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