April 2012 Issue
Lost and Found
Die-hard Elvis fan Christopher Kennedy used his sleuthing skills to uncover new photos that help define a generation.
As he descended the stairs into Keith Winters’ basement, Christopher Kennedy prayed the two-hour flight from New York to Milwaukee wouldn’t turn out to be a wild goose chase. Three years of tireless research had boiled down to what he was about to see in the Wisconsin cellar: Within minutes, Kennedy hoped to shed new light on Ohio’s connection to “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The excitement was almost unbearable. For 35 years — ever since he’d heard Elvis Presley sing “In the Ghetto” — Kennedy, 44, has idolized him.
“I was 10 at the time, and that song affected me on an emotional level,” explains the singer/songwriter, who was also the bass guitarist for ’90s pop punk band Ruth Ruth. “I was just beginning to figure out there might be more to the world than just my world.
“And, when I saw Elvis for the first time,” he remembers with a grin, “I couldn’t believe anybody could be that cool.”
So Kennedy voraciously read every biography of the entertainer he could lay his hands on. He was surprised to see that the majority of them credited a gig in suburban Cleveland with being the catalyst for Presley’s meteoric rise to fame: On October 20, 1955, the 20-year-old truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, took the stage at Brooklyn High School, and proceeded to hip-swivel his way through “Mystery Train,” “That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” It didn’t take long, those who were there reported, for the show-business newcomer to whip teens into the frenzy that would change the course of music history.
Credit for organizing the concert — which also starred Bill Haley & His Comets and Pat Boone — went to Bill Randle, a DJ on Cleveland’s WERE-AM. Sensing Presley’s impending fame, Randle decided to film the event for his autobiographical documentary, “The Pied Piper of Cleveland.” While cameras rolled, Randle asked colleague Tommy Edwards to take still photos of the acts. A budding shutterbug, the fellow disc jockey happily obliged, snapping pictures with his Kodak Pony.
As Kennedy poured over accounts of that momentous night, the musician decided he wanted to see Randle’s movie for himself. What began as a casual quest to find the Technicolor footage quickly became an obsession. He scoured countless websites and queried music sources in search of a copy. To date, his efforts have proved fruitless: For now, “The Pied Piper of Cleveland” has disappeared into the mists of time.
But Kennedy did not come up empty-handed: A copy of the Ektachrome photograph Edwards shot of Presley and Haley backstage at the high school popped up.
“At first glance, it looks like a simple handshake between two friends,” Kennedy reflects. “But Bill Haley, our first rock superstar, never personified the sexual rebellion his new sound promised. Within a few short months, it was Elvis who’d be deemed the savior of a generation.
“Tommy’s photo,” he adds, “stops time to capture Haley both at his pinnacle and eclipse.”
As additional photos surfaced on the Internet, Kennedy’s focus switched to finding out all he could about the man whose penchant for picture-taking captured the vibe of the times. For starters, he located and read every copy of Edwards’ weekly newsletter published between 1953 and 1960. Filled with witty repartee, the missive served as a time capsule, chronicling musical happenings and Top 10 hits in Cleveland. Kennedy was also wowed by the DJ’s commitment to bringing the sounds of Southern rock to the Midwest. (In fact, Edwards was responsible for booking Presley’s first concert north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The show took place at Cleveland’s Circle Theater on February 26, 1955.)
“Bill Randle might have been the more influential DJ when people came to Cleveland to plug a record, but Tommy worked just as hard,” Kennedy explains. “He had the eye for talent, but not the ego.”
Sadly, as the researcher continued trolling for images, Edwards’ 1981 obituary came to light. Survivors listed included his nephew, Keith Winters. An email correspondence ensued. Kennedy learned that the 72-year-old retired accountant had inherited five slides from the Brooklyn High concert.
“After seeing them, I knew they belonged in the Rock Hall, and Keith agreed,” Kennedy says. “I thought, ‘All in all for an amateur sleuth, I accomplished a nice bit of detective work.’”
But the best was yet to come: A few weeks later, in April 2007, Kennedy received an astonishing late-night phone call from an ecstatic Winters. While stacking boxes of Christmas decorations in his basement, he’d spied several dusty containers that had been overlooked for decades. Winters opened them and was flabbergasted: 1,790 slides taken by Edwards throughout his on-air career spilled out.
Barely keeping his euphoria in check, Kennedy caught the first plane to Wisconsin. After the two men exchanged pleasantries, Winters led Kennedy into the family rec room and plugged in the Kodak Carousel slide projector the musician had brought with him.
“It was truly emotional,” says Kennedy, still swept away by the moment. “I mean, here was Elvis Presley projected 8 feet tall on the wall. And then came Bill Haley and Chuck Berry, and we kept going and going …”
The Everly Brothers, Patti Page, Johnny Mathis and Roy Orbison were among the cavalcade of faces grinning at him from the screen.
“It’s clear that Tommy had a knack for putting his subjects at ease,” Kennedy explains. “He’d take classic publicity poses and follow them up with candids. Then, he’d display the pictures at record hops throughout Northeast Ohio.”
“Tommy had everything labeled alphabetically,” he adds. “The guy loved his collection and took really good care of it.”
It didn’t take long for Kennedy to realize he’d discovered a Holy Grail of rock ’n’ roll.
The pair went upstairs, and Kennedy called his pal Terry Stewart. The Rock Hall president and CEO flew out the next day.
“I knew immediately that these photos are a treasure trove,” Stewart recalls. “It’s so unusual to see pictures from this period in fabulous color. We’re excited about that.”
“But,” he adds, “it’s also gratifying to see a DJ who clearly deserves it to get his moment in the sun once more.”
The tribute is a fitting one: Last summer, Kent State University Press published Kennedy’s coffee-table-worthy book, 1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards
, a compilation of 200 of the radio host’s best slides, accompanied by reminiscences from many of the subjects. The companion exhibit at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is on display through this summer.
“Tommy documented an incredible era that we’ve never had before or since,” Kennedy says. “People who see these images will get a rare and intimate glimpse of it.”
“I’m proud,” he adds, “to have played a part in sharing them.”
But he’s not finished. The hunt is still on for “The Pied Piper of Cleveland.”
“Bill Randle’s story is yet to be told,” Kennedy enthuses, “and what an archive that will be!”
For More Information
To learn more about 1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards, published by The Kent State University Press, visit kentstateuniversitypress.com or call 800/247-6553.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is presenting "1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Cleveland Deejay Tommy Edwards" through this summer. Visit
rockhall.com or call 216/781-7625.