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It's Saturday night, and Jimmy Cavallo is doing what he has done nearly every weekend for the past decade. The 78-year-old singer and sax man is playing to a full house at Doogie's, a jazz supper club in Deerfield Beach. Between Sinatra standards, Louis Prima hits, and big-band-era favorites, the Pompano Beach resident and his comic foil, veteran bassist Sharky Nadaoka, deploy a trove of moldy jokes, including a creaky set piece on playing ethnic weddings. Japanese-American Nadaoka does a politically incorrect Jerry Lewis-as-a-Chinaman shtick, circa 1955.
But the Borscht Belt routine is not Cavallo's claim to fame. Halfway through the first set, he launches into what he calls "the medley of my hit." Suddenly the band's jazzy frills are stripped away. No bebop horn runs, no colorful drum fills from Val Colombo (who's played with Cavallo on and off for decades) -- just raw power. Cavallo jumps and shouts and leans back into wailing, screeching sax solos, twisting back and forth and straight-arming the horn out in front of him, the whole band pounding away. They're tearing into two numbers that go all the way back to 1956, "The Big Beat" and "Rock, Rock, Rock." The latter is his title song from the movie in which he appeared alongside Chuck Berry, Frankie Lyman, and Tuesday Weld.
Impressive company, for sure, and Cavallo belongs in it. Jimmy Cavallo, you see, is one of the inventors of rock and roll.
Cavallo has been playing the music that came to be called rock and roll since the late Forties. It was then that, fresh out of the Army, he formed a band to play hard rhythm and blues in the white clubs of coastal North Carolina. The sound was lean and horn-driven, inspired by black R&B originators such as Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. Around 1950 Cavallo moved back to his hometown of Syracuse, New York, and formed his band the House Rockers. They played and recorded regularly until they were discovered by Alan Freed, the influential Cleveland DJ credited with coining the term rock and roll, in 1956. Freed got them signed with Coral Records, showcased them in concerts and TV appearances, spun their records on the radio, and cast them in the teensploitation musical Rock, Rock, Rock. It was Freed who was also responsible for getting the group booked at the Apollo, making Cavallo one of the first white rock and rollers to play the legendary Harlem theater.
"People look at me and don't realize I was a pioneer," Cavallo says. "I was there in the beginning. I was there before Bill [Haley]; I was there before Elvis; I was there before Buddy Holly. The only one in there before me was Chuck Berry."
Somehow, though, he never gained the spotlight -- or even the due respect -- that shone on his immediate successors. "I was kinda overlooked during the whole rock period," he recounts. "I didn't have enough of a hit record."
It's a story familiar to every musician who never quite made it big, even in the late Fifties: a decade of steady club gigs, constant touring, short-lived record deals, and shows in Vegas and Atlantic City. Weary of life on the road, Cavallo moved to Florida in 1968 and took a series of day jobs with Broward County.
"When I first got down here, they opened the auto inspection program," he says. "I worked in one of those stations for a couple of years. Then I went back on the road, and it was the same old crap." So he toiled away at the inspection stations until they shut down, and then took a series of random jobs, all the while playing weekend gigs all over Palm Beach County. About ten years ago, he began playing at Doogie's, where he's been most weekends since.
But recently the story veered into unexpected territory. During the past couple of years, Cavallo's contribution to rock history has aroused interest in revivalists and vintage aficionados. In 2002 Cavallo recorded his first full-length album, The Houserocker, for Syracuse blues label Blue Wave.
"Jimmy is a living piece of history who seldom gets written about in the history books," says Blue Wave owner Greg Spencer. "Here's a guy who did a lot of things first that he doesn't get the credit for. When he was down south in the service, he learned the R&B stuff from the black artists and brought it back here. That was the idea of the records I did with him -- to help set the record straight." The Houserocker was nominated for a prestigious W.C. Handy Award for Best Comeback Album in 2003.
Last year, in response to the success of The Houserocker, Blue Wave issued Rock the Joint!: The Jimmy Cavallo Collection, 1951-1973. "These big things just came now in the last four years, and it's just revived my whole career," Cavallo beams. "They don't see my gray hair or that I'm a lot older than I was in the Fifties. They see me as I was."
So do the crowds at Doogie's. On almost any night Cavallo's band plays, you'll find a full house of whooping, exhilarated retirees and jump-blues mavens. Some are fans who saw him play in Syracuse or Wildwood, New Jersey, back in the day. Many end up dancing up a storm in front of the stage.
"It's inspiring to watch somebody who still loves what he does and is pretty close to the top of his game," says Spencer. "He doesn't sound like a 79-year-old guy. He sounds like he's 55. A lot of guys you see like that, like Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked frail in that [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame induction ceremony."
"I'm in very good shape, and I keep [playing two nights a week], week after week," Cavallo enthuses. "Whenever my name is mentioned now, it's mentioned along with Bill Haley and Elvis and Buddy Holly." After all, you don't spend more than 50 years chasing stardom without thinking big.
"I think they overlooked me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame too!" he adds. If there's any justice in rock and roll -- and Cavallo's tale suggests there just might be -- that oversight won't last long.