Seven years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Elvis Presley recorded his first hit at Sun Records, Jimmy Cavallo stood at the intersection of two movements later associated with King and the King that would go on to define the last half of the 20th century: civil rights and rock ‘n’ roll.
It was 1947, and singer-saxophonist Cavallo and his band the House Rockers were creating a following at large dance parties held inside tobacco warehouses throughout the Carolinas, translating the music of Cavallo’s black rhythm-and-blues heroes (raucous shouter Wynonie Harris was a favorite) for young, white audiences. It was a sound that would bring Cavallo a glimmer of fame playing the title track in rock pioneer Alan Freed’s 1956 film “Rock, Rock, Rock!”
One night, the band rolled up to a roadside diner for a meal, but were stopped at the door. Cavallo was told his black trumpet player would have to go around to the back of the building and order his food through a window. Raised in upstate New York, it was Cavallo’s first time witnessing segregation.
“I says, ‘He can’t come in and eat?’ And [the proprietor] said, ‘Where you from, boy?’ You know, he gave me that,” Cavallo recalls. “I said ‘Syracuse, N.Y.,’ and he said, ‘Well, you don’t know, they have to go around.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ So the whole band followed him, right? We wouldn’t go in. And we lined up right behind him at the window, and we put in our order. And they’re frowning at us, you know, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ”
Cavallo, who went on to be the first white rock ‘n’ roll act to play Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, says music is a meritocracy, and performers do not judge one another by the color of their skin, or even the content of their character, but on their ability to swing.
“When you’re a musician, you’re like a soldier. You’re like brothers in arms,” he says. “Musicians, they don’t think about the color barrier. If you can play and swing and have a good time, man, we don’t care if you’re yellow. … It was all new to me. I’m talking 1946-47. I must have had a hand in the civil rights movement and didn’t know it.”
Turning 90 on March 14 and living in Pompano Beach, Cavallo is still swinging and having a good time while leading a band four nights a week in clubs in Fort Lauderdale and Deerfield Beach. Filled with favorites from Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and old friends Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole, these sets are made special by Cavallo’s infectiously upbeat stage persona and stories shared with chummy swagger.
You can see for yourself when Cavallo performs during 90th birthday celebrations Sunday, March 12, at City Pub in Deerfield Beach, Monday, March 13, at Blue Jean Blues in Fort Lauderdale and Wednesday, March 15, at Nick’s Italian Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. A recent bout of bronchitis will likely limit Cavallo’s sax work, especially at Sunday’s party, but he promises to sing a few favorites and share his best stories.
THE BIG BEAT
Cavallo was on the brink of stardom in the mid 1950s when his agent got the House Rockers an audition with a New York record label.
“A guy there named Jack Hook — he was digging everything that was going on, and he liked my group — he went to a phone and called Alan Freed,” Cavallo says of the influential DJ on New York’s powerful radio station WINS who popularized the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” “He said, ‘Alan, I want you to hear this band. It’s a white band, but you won’t believe it. They got the black sound. It’s right up your alley.’”
After a quick audition for Freed — “it was like a scene in a movie. We all jumped in a cab, didn’t put the horns in a case or nothing, and went down to the studio” — Cavallo and his band got a deal with the Coral label and recorded songs including “The Big Beat,” “Cherry Pie” and “The Groovy Thing.”
Freed had appeared as himself in the first rock ‘n’ roll movie, 1956’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and, seeing the lucrative possibilities of the genre, quickly produced his own film later that year. Featuring a number of early rock ’n’ roll stars, including Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Teddy Randazzo and the Moonglows, the high-school musical “Rock, Rock, Rock!” starred a young Tuesday Weld (with vocals dubbed by South Florida icon Connie Francis) and highlighted high-energy performances by Cavallo and the House Rockers in several pivotal scenes.
The film opened nationwide in December 1956, including in a Harlem cinema next door to the Apollo Theater, where Cavallo was booked to take advantage of the publicity buzz (this was seven months before Buddy Holly’s better-known debut, Cavallo says).
If this was the dawn of a culture-changing style of music, its place in history was lost on Cavallo, who began perfecting the sound a decade earlier while sneaking into black clubs around Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was known as “the white boy with the saxophone.”
“I had been playing that music way before Alan called it rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “I was playing it in the South in 1946. … Me and my piano player used to go to the outskirts of town, to the blue-light district, and sit in with all these cats. And that’s how we learned our thing.”
Without a manager to seize the opportunity, the glow of national fame from “Rock, Rock, Rock!” was fleeting, and Cavallo returned to his native Syracuse, where he was a popular regional act, performing and developing relationships with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole.
“I loved Nat. He was very humble. He treated the lowest guy just like the highest guy,” Cavallo says.
A resident of Pompano Beach since 1968 with his wife of more than 60 years and a fixture on the local music scene for nearly that long, Cavallo was nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Award for comeback album of the year for “The Houserocker” in 2003 and was elected to the Carolina Beach Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2005.
“My one regret is I never got that hit record that I needed to get into the Hall,” he says of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I’ve talked to them, and they say, ‘Jimmy, we know you’re out there,’ blah, blah, blah.”
THE LIGHT GOES ON
Moments before they jump into a muscular duel on Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In” at Nick’s Italian Restaurant, Cavallo greets saxophonist Richie Malfitano the old-country way, with a kiss on the cheek. Cavallo is not afraid to show affection for fellow musicians or the audience.
When he’s not swinging his 14-pound tenor sax, or belting out an upbeat vocal, the impeccably stylish Cavallo is engaged in warm audience banter — “Harry, you’ll dance to anything” he barks at one regular — and telling behind-the-music stories about Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Louis Prima and Frank Sinatra.
The man who dropped the alto sax in junior high school to be more like bandleader Louis Jordan is, above all else, a showman.
“When the light goes on, he performs. He could open up his refrigerator and do 15 minutes,” drummer Val Colombo says with a laugh. Colombo and Cavallo have been friends for nearly 50 years. “He has enormous energy. I’ve never, ever seen him give anything less than 115 percent.”
The Wednesday-night crowd in the upstairs supper club at Nick’s stick to their seats until Cavallo cranks up his brassy signature, “Miss Fanny Brown,” which turns the dance floor into a whirl of swinging sax fiends, whetting their appetite for other staples to come, including Louis Jordan’s jump-blues hit “Caldonia” and Louis Prima’s rollicking “Buona Sera.”
“We’re dancers, and we really think he’s the best,” says Harry Preston, a Fort Lauderdale transplant from Michigan seated next to Cindy Compact, a Pembroke Pines school teacher who lives in Plantation. Preston, the “Harry” admonished on the dance floor, has followed Cavallo for years. “You go see a lot of groups, younger groups, and they’re half dead. They’re going through the motions.”
Cavallo credits his vitality to his wife and kids, genetics (his parents lived into their late 80s), avoidance of drugs and his fans.
“I love doing what I’m doing. I love people,” he says. “You notice that I’m never looking at my watch up there? I could play forever.”
Jimmy Cavallo will celebrate his 90th birthday with performances 7:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday, March 12, at City Pub, 956 S. Federal Highway, in Deerfield Beach, 954-427-8213, DeerfieldCityPub.com; 4-7 p.m. Monday, March 13, at Blue Jean Blues, 3320 NE 33rd St., in Fort Lauderdale, 954-306-6330, BJBLive.com; and 7-10:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 15, at Nick’s Italian Restaurant, 3496 N. Ocean Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale, 954-563-6441, NicksItalianOnline.com.