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James Cavallo (born March 14, 1927, Syracuse, New York, United States) is an American musician best known for performing with his band in the 1956 movie, Rock, Rock, Rock, by pioneering music DJ Alan Freed. Jimmy and the Houserockers were the first all-white band to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where they celebrated the movie's release.
Starting out in Syracuse
When Cavallo (often misspelled Cavello) was in high school in Syracuse in the early 1940s, he played in a swing band, playing harmony on alto sax. He knew even then that playing the harmony was not for him, and he wanted to do the melody line, sing and lead a band. Cavallo started buying Louis Jordan records and learning those songs, and other jump blues records, and soon switched to tenor sax because that was the lead horn in jump blues. When Cavallo was around 16, he formed his own band, but the only work they got was playing local Italian weddings (and the occasional Polish, Jewish, or Irish wedding).
When he left home to serve in the United States Navy at the end of World War II, Cavallo took his saxophone with him. While in the service in North Carolina, and Washington DC, he spent his free time in black clubs, listening to the latest in the blues, and jamming with some of the rising stars of what would soon be called rhythm and blues, and later, rock and roll.
Upon his discharge, Cavallo hit the Carolina beaches with a band called the Jimmy Cavallo Quartet, one of the world's first white R&B bands, playing Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan, and Hucklebuck Williams tunes, as well as originals. The line-up was Bobby Wrenn, drums; Max Alexander, bass; Bobby Hass, sax, and Diz Utley, sax. They played in the beach music or "shag" scene all over North Carolina through 1947 and '48, and during 1949 had a residency in Carolina Beach at a dance club called Bop City, drawing huge crowds of dancers. (A first-hand account of this scene can be found in Shagger Magazine, volume 2 issue 2).
Success in upstate New York
At the end of the summer of 1949, Cavallo moved back to Syracuse, got together some local musicians, [Sam Barone, bass; Al Antonello, drums; Mike Peluso, piano] and went looking for work, but the clubs in the white section of town were still playing hotel music, so in order to get work, he had to play in black clubs like the Penguin. His big break came at the end of 1949 when his uncle, who owned a large night club called Sorrentos, let him play there. He was expected to play old standards to the mostly Italian audience, but when he sneaked in uptempo R&B numbers, the crowd went nuts. After that, the Jimmy Cavallo Quartet started packing the club, and playing all the R&B they wanted. The band was a phenomenon. In the summer of 1950, he got a steady gig at Di Castros in Sylvan Beach on Oneida Lake.
Word spread fast in Central New York's large Italian community, and Jimmy drew a crowd from an area which spanned from Utica to Rochester to Binghamton, with people flocking by the thousands to dance to Jimmy Cavallo's rocking R&B. In 1950, Jimmy's band was drawing crowds of 1000 to 1200 every Sunday afternoon to DiCastros. In 1951, they cut 2 records for the tiny BSD label, numbers 1004 and 1005. These records were recorded in the basement of the home of label owner Angelo Pergolito, in Auburn, New York, 25 miles from Syracuse. This record label, which lasted from 1951 to 1956, was strictly aimed at recording local talent.
The A side of BSD 1004 was "Ha Ha Ha Blues," which was Jimmy's reworking of a Joe Morris tune, also from 1951, called "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" The flip side was "I Got Eyes For You." BSD 1005 had on the A side, Cavallo's cover of Jimmy Preston's "Rock The Joint." Bill Haley and his Saddlemen's 1952 waxing of that tune marked the dawn of guitar-based rockabilly, but Cavallo's earlier record was done with saxophones and brass in the germinal rock and roll style.
Side B, "Leave Married Women Alone," is an original done also in that vein. He wrote the tune with Diz Utley, another tenor saxophonist, who had honked alongside Cavallo in the earliest days in North Carolina. Other artists on these two recordings are Syracuse natives Elmer "Al" Antonello on drums, Sam Barone on bass, Mike Peluso on keyboards, and Georgie Horton on trumpet. (note: the song was re-written as "Soda Shop Rock" in 1956). Vocals on "Rock The Joint" are Jimmy in the lead with Diz and Horton backing up.
They played Di Castros for two more years and disbanded, and Jimmy went on the road with a new band, in 1953 and '54. A falling-out in Detroit led to this band's demise, and Jimmy's manager appointed him as the new leader of tenor saxophonist Joe Marillo's band, an already-working R & B band in the Buffalo area, and named them "Jimmy Cavallo and The House Rockers." With the dual-sax sound of Marillo and Cavallo, national recognition came for the House Rockers after an audition, in July 1956, for Alan Freed in his studio at WINS in NYC. They soon began appearing at Alan Freed shows and making records for the Coral label.
Alan Freed and Rock, Rock, Rock
In August 1956, they played the Brooklyn Paramount with Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner, after which they appeared with Freed in the Vanguard movie Rock, Rock, Rock, in which they played the title song, and another tune called "The Big Beat," (that's Joe Marillo in the movie on second sax). The movie was released December 5, 1956, and the House Rockers played Harlem's Apollo Theater at the same time to promote the movie's release. In the 10-day extended gig, the House Rockers were augmented by a big band of veterans of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, led by Sam The Man Taylor. Playing the Apollo in December 1956 was special, because it put the House Rockers in the books as being the first white rock 'n' roll act to play the celebrated Apollo Theater (Buddy Holly would play there in 1957). In 1957, they did a summer-long residence in Wildwood, New Jersey at a club called Harry Roeshe's Beachcomber, and the headliners of this bill were the Treniers. After that, Freed put them in another movie, Go, Johnny, Go, in 1959. After cutting 12 tracks for Coral, they waxed for the Sunnyside and Hand labels in 1959, the Darcy label in 1963, and the Romar label in 1965.
Continuing to perform and record
Jimmy still visits hometown Syracuse for a gig or two every summer. His fans there never seem to tire describing the old days in Sylvan Beach, and even 60+ years later, he can still pack a club in Syracuse with followers who went to his shows in the early 1950s, and who wait patiently every year for Jimmy's annual migration back home. Once a year, these people, now in their 70s and 80s, dance like they were 25 years old again. Jimmy is still playing in Florida, and had a resident engagement at P.G. Doogie's in Deerfield Beach and Saba Asian Restaurant & Lounge in Boca Raton, until recently.
After years of playing R&B in America, Cavallo finally played his first gig in the United Kingdom on November 22, 2002 at the Rhythm Riot festival in Rye, England. Joe Marillo lives in San Diego and still plays actively. The dual-sax sound of Cavallo and Utley, heard on the beaches of North Carolina in 1947 and in the 50's with Cavallo and Marillo, has echoed in Cavallo's work ever since.
Cavallo performed every Friday and Saturday night at Timpano Chophouse in Fort Lauderdale from 2006 to 2013. Cavallo no longer performs at Timpano, but is the regular headliner on Saturday and Monday evenings at Blue Jeans Blue in Fort Lauderdale.
Jimmy has three CDs on PetCap called Jimmy Cavallo Live at The Persian Terrace, of big band music, Live At Freddy's, recorded in 2003, and Jimmy Cavallo and the Houserockers, Then and Now, released in 2006. They can be bought directly from Petcap Music. There also is a CD of new recordings cut in 2002, called The Houserocker released on Blue Wave Records, which can be purchased directly from them. Also available from Blue Wave is a compilation CD that has every record Jimmy made from 1951 to 1973, even the rare BSD records, a total of 29 sides.
Jimmy recently celebrated his 89th birthday, as usual, with a performance.
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