Lucille Balls, born Francis Samuel "Frank" Clarence (November 15, 1901 - July 3, 1956) was an American singer, songwriter, and bandleader. His orchestra struggled for years to find success due to their off kilter blend of swing and traditional pop stylings, Balls's outrageous stage persona, and offensive, often shocking, lyrics.
Frank Clarence was born in Los Angeles to George, a locally famous bandleader, and Ethel, an obscure solo artist. He had an older sister, Alice.
Young Frank didn’t fit in at school, and did so poorly that he was held back three times. He fell in love with music in high school as his few misfit friends introduced him to big band, swing, lounge, and the traditional pop that was in vogue at the time. While he liked the music, he didn’t take too kindly to the lyrics, which he said were “too clean, love-y gooey bullshit. I decided to put my own stamp on it.”
Early years: 1923 — 1930
After graduating high school in 1923, Clarence formed a small lounge/swing band with Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Benny Goodman (clarinet), George Wilson (piano), Danny Boone (guitar), and Jimmy “Bangs” Banger (drums). They were originally billed as Frank Clarence & His Orchestra, but the only reason they got work was because Clarence was mistaken for another Frank -- Frank Sinatra. Venues were offended by the lyrics that Clarence would ad lib to popular songs.
“Let me tell ya about what happened last night! Hell, yeah!
There's a girl I'm wild about, Every time I take her out
Mind blurry, speech slurry, I love ya so.
And I'm dropping my pants down, when there's no-one else around
And she gave me, what a blow, I love her oh-wo-oh
Yes I love her in the morning and I love her at night
I love her yes I love her when the stars are shining bright
I love her in the Springtime and I love her in the Fall
But last night on the back porch, Mr. Happy saw it all”
The orchestra was considering breaking up until Clarence decided to invent an alter ego. He decided his stage persona should be “a woman who turns out to be a man.” He chose the name Lucille Balls not because of the comedienne and actress who would become a household name in 1951, but because Lucille was a popular baby name at the time.
The band performed its first public gig as Lucille Balls & His Orchestra on May 15, 1926 at a Bar Mitzvah. They unveiled their first ever original song, “It’s the ‘20s, But I’m Not Roaring.”
“Give me some Jack, Danny!
What's all this bullshit 'bout the '20s being roarin'?
You better get your facts straight, for you're a fucking moron!
Ain't got no beer, baby, can you give me moonshine?
I'll give you something else, babe, not in the daytime!”
That first verse got them kicked out and banned from performing at the building for ten years. The band continued performing wherever they could find work, while writing more and more original songs that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman left the group due to creative differences and utter disgust at Balls's lyrics. Balls decided to replace them with members of his father's orchestra.
The lineup now included:
- Lucille Balls (Lead vocals)
- Tom Williams (Alto saxophone)
- Albert Lewis (Alto saxophone)
- Daniel "Andy" Andrews (Tenor saxophone & clarinet)
- Pete Michaels (Tenor saxophone)
- Dino Theodore (Baritone saxophone)
- Jack Stanley (Trombone)
- Abner Martin (Trombone)
- Henry Henry (Trombone)
- Sam Thomas (Bass trombone)
- Fred Bernard (Trumpet)
- Richard Benjamin (Trumpet)
- Eugene Levi (Trumpet)
- Oscar Reuben (Trumpet)
- George Wilson (Piano)
- Danny Boone (Guitar)
- Wesley Abraham (Bass guitar)
- Jimmy "Bangs" Banger (Drums)
George Clarence had disowned his son by this time, but decided that his son could learn from veteran musicians.
"The music Frank was making was pure junk," Clarence said in 1948. "And what the heck was he doing dressed as a woman? I couldn't figure it out. I wanted him to clean up his act and play a little more like me."
Though still offensive and shocking, audiences had slowly warmed to the band's music. "They didn't care about the lyrics; they just cared about the music," Balls said in 1953. "Whatever. I'm just glad I can sing whatever I want whether anyone notices or not." After performing at Vernon Stadium in June of 1930, they met Thomas Edison, who wanted to sign the group to his newly established record label, Talking Machine Records.
They signed with Edison and released their first album, What is This Person's Gender?, in October of that year.
- "She's Got Balls" (Balls/Wilson/Boone) 4:00
- "Let Us Fornicate This Evening" (Balls/Wilson) 2:15
- "Show Me, Kind Sir, Where I Can Find Some Beer" (Balls/Wilson/Boone/Stanley) 8:09
- "Tirade Against Decency in B Minor Part 1" (Balls/Wilson) 5:08
- "Tirade Against Decency in B Minor Part 2" (Balls/Wilson) 20:00
Critics scathed the album, and it sold poorly. However, Edison did not drop the group, as he felt they were the revolution that the industry needed. Balls was unsatisfied with the final product, as he had to slightly tone down the lyrics for commercial and ethics purposes. Many retailers refused to carry the album for depicting a mustachioed Balls in full drag and many Christian groups burned dozens of copies. They were ignored by conversative radio stations who prefered the music of Armstrong, Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Bing Crosby, and George Clarence.
Cult commercial sucess: 1934 — 1936
Lucille Balls and His Orchestra were set to record their second album in October of 1931, when tragedy struck; Thomas Edison died of complications from diabetes. Balls had lost the one man who truly believed in his repulsive vision. To make matters worse, the Great Depression had taken its toll on the country and the band was struggling to make ends meet.
Balls searched high and low for a producer, and in late 1933 out of desperation, he asked former bandmate Louis Armstrong to do the honors. He agreed, on one condition: that he sing and play on one of the songs. The song in question was an amusing tale of a one night stand Balls had with an obese woman named Bertha. "Whole Lotta Bertha," a bare fifth riff-fest that set a template for power chord-heavy rock and roll, contains many clever lyrics such as:
“[Louis Armstrong plays a trumpet "boogie" riff unaccompanied]
Skidaddy boppity bop!
Skidaddy boppity bop!
Skidaddy boppity bop!
Skidaddy boppity bop!
Skidaddy boppity bop!
Let me tell you gentlemen a story
(Skidaddy boppity bop!)
About a lady I know
(Skidaddy boppity bop!)
When it comes to fornication
(Skidaddy boppity bop!)
Oh, she steals the show
(Skidaddy boppity bop!)
She ain't exactly pretty
(Skidaddy boppity bop!)
Sure the hell ain't small!
(Skidaddy boppity bop!)
Her chest, her tum, her butt is huge
You could say she's got it all!”
The album, Low Society, was released in May 1934, along with a 7" single of "Whole Lotta Bertha" containing the original studio version and an instrumental version edited to 3:30. The album was moderately successful, selling 200 copies. The "Whole Lotta Bertha" instrumental went into heavy rotation on the radio and the single sold 56,000 copies, giving the band its first hit.
- "Low Society" (Balls/Michaels) 3:17
- "Whole Lotta Bertha" (Balls/Armstrong) 5:18
- "What's So Taboo About Zoot Suits?" (Balls/Michaels/Henry/Boone/Bangs) 3:30
- "Ladies in Pantaloons" (Balls/Boone/Bangs) 2:15
- "Reefer Madness" (Balls) 3:00
- "I Think She Just Flatulated" (Balls/Armstrong/Williams/Andrews/Michaels/Boone) 3:49
- "Last Night With a Sheep" (Balls/Wilson) 2:18
The band was playing sold out shows, and it became apparent that more people were attending Balls's concerts than buying his records, so he decided to kill two birds with one stone.
The next release would be a live album recorded at Ford's Theater. Titled Live Bullet and not to be confused with the 1976 Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band live album, the album featured all the elements of a Lucille Balls concert, plus several jokes and references to the Abraham Lincoln assassination. Released in 1936, it became the band's first top ten album, selling 1 million copies. Reviews were generally favorable, with the exception of the obscene lyrics.
Music critic Nora Holt quipped:
|“||The orchestra had a huge hit with an instrumental version of their "Whole Lotta Bertha." They'd have plenty of hits if all of their songs were instrumentals. These lyrics would make a sailor blush! The subject matter and Balls's stage persona are equally deliberately offensive. This man -- or woman, I'm not exactly sure which -- should be institutionalized immediately. Only the instrumentation is worth any praise. The Lincoln jokes are tasteless, and if John Wilkes Booth were still alive, he'd shoot them all, too.||”|
Disc 1, Side A
- "High Society" (Porter Steele) 8:05
- "Low Society" 5:15
- "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (Duke Ellington/Irving Mills) 6:00
Disc 1, Side B
- "Let Us Fornicate This Evening" 3:29
- "Sing, Sing, Sing" (Louis Prima) 9:56
- "My Romance (Not the Kind You Wanna Hear About)" (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart/Balls) 4:00
- "Last Night With a Sheep" 2:30
Disc 2, Side A
- "I Got Rhythm (In My Pants)" (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin/Balls) 0:45
- "Love For Sale" (Cole Porter) 4:00
- "Mood Indigo" (Ellington) 6:00
- "Whole Lotta Bertha" 7:00
Dissolution of the orchestra and hiatus 1936 — 1942
In late 1936, just hours before the final tour date in support of Live Bullet, Lucille Balls was stricken with the common cold, a serious and often deadly illness at the time. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and spent a month there. It was around this time that Balls was also stricken with dipheria, ramatic fever, and polio. Balls recovered in 1937, thanks to penicillin, and held a press conference announcing that the orchestra was disbanding, citing tensions within the band and swing music's decline in popularity.
During Balls's hiatus from music, traditional pop (also known as classic pop, lounge, or "standards") gradually replaced big band and swing as the popular music of choice. Out of vogue were Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington; in were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. This inspired Balls to take his music in a different direction — less is more, stripped down, piano-heavy.
Return to music as solo artist
Balls reunited with his former pianist George Wilson, who was a little reluctant to return. "We had fought a bit once we became big," Wilson said. "We had the usual creative differences and complaining about money." They agreed to patch things up and begin work on Balls's debut solo album. They wrote several songs and narrowed it down to nine. Columbia Records thought the album needed something extra, so they asked Balls and Wilson to scrap five songs and replace them with ones written by established songwriters.
The album, Cure for the Common Cold, was released in July 1942 and contained an even mix of songs written by Balls and those written by others.
- "All of Me" (Gerald Marks/Seymour Simons) 2:35
- "Cure for the Common Cold" (Clarence/Wilson) 3:00
- "The Way You Look Tonight" (Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields) 2:21
- "No, Sir, That's Not My Baby (But That Is My Woman)" (Clarence/Wilson) 2:56
- "When You're Smiling" (Larry Shay/Mark Fisher/Joe Goodwin) 3:25
- "Makin' Whoopee" (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn) 3:30
- "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler) 4:00
- "I Can Feel You in My Pants" (Clarence/Wilson) 2:15
- "It's Only a Paper Moon (If I Draw a Picture of Myself Exposing My Tush)" (Arlen/Clarence) 0:59
Columbia had told Frank Clarence to retire his gender-bending "Lucille Balls" persona, record and perform under his own name, and clean up his act to the extent possible. Clarence agreed to drop Balls, but was unwilling to make his music and stage act more wholesome and socially acceptable.
His stage antics at the time read like an Aristocrats joke: Humping Wilson's piano during a brief interlude; burping and flatulating openly; using obscene and profane language; performing in the nude; being frank about his personal, moral, and political beliefs; mooning the audience and flatulating in their faces. But he had already left the building before the police arrived.
These antics — and the burning of his records by outraged conservative music enthusiasts — only made him more popular. The album, Cure for the Common Cold, sold 10 million copies and the less offensive songs were quickly released to radio and as 7" singles. By the end of 1942, he had sold more records than labelmate Sinatra.
Clarence released one more album under his own name, 1945's Fuck Dreamland, whose three-year delay was the result of numerous creative differences between Clarence and Columbia. The label objected to the use of the word "fuck" in the title, and also the disparaging of the popular song "Hit the Road to Dreamland" from the 1942 Paramount musical, Star Spangled Rhythm. Three producers were fired from 1942 to 1944 until Clarence decided to produce the album himself with Sinatra behind the mixing console — a big risk for Sinatra's career. Clarence wanted as much creative control as possible and rejected songs by outside writers that were being suggested to him.
The album was a huge sendoff to Columbia for restricting and confining Clarence from pushing the envelope too much. All songs are written by Clarence and Wilson:
- "Fuck Dreamland" 2:15
- "Suck My Lucille Balls" 5:35
- ""Ain' No Censor Gonna Stop Me Now" 3:15
- "Right is Wrong" 3:39
- "Ölder and Weiser" 6:59
- "Hold On, I'm Coming (A Lot)" 2:17
- "The First Amemdment" 3:45
- "Valedico Columbia" 0:10
The title song, "Fuck Dreamland," offended the small town of Dreamland, NJ, and started the long-running East Coast-West Coast Lounge Feud, which had many participants: Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Tony Bennett on the East Coast; Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee on the West Coast. The feud ended in 1954 when Bennett changed sides and recorded George Cory and Douglass Cross's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," which became Bennett's signature song. The crooners realized that it was stupid to fight over silly matters such as this.
As for Clarence, he terminated his contract with Columbia shortly after the album's release; Columbia agreed, on the condition that he play at least one gig in support of the album. That gig resulted in Clarence's arrest on obscenity charges.
The trial went on for almost two years. New pieces of evidence were brought in, and there was speculation that Clarence would get off. In August 1947, Clarence was acquitted of all charges because the court viewed the concert as recorded on a hand-cranked 35mm camera and a state-of-the-art (for the time) mono sound system. The court also thought lawyer Gianni Cockerini's catchphrase "If he doesn't shit, you must acquit" was amusing.
Lucille Balls reunion and advent of rock 'n' roll
Clarence spent the remainder of 1947 looking for a record label; none of the majors were really interested. In November 1947, Clarence used half the money he had made from record and ticket sales to establish a new independent record label, Gamma Delta Iota Records. The name was a reference to the fictitious Greek organization "Gamma Delta Iota," which means "God Damn Independent," and to the fact that Clarence had washed his hands of belonging to an organization that "hindered" his free will.
Around this same time, Clarence was missing his Lucille Balls persona and wanted to reunite with Danny Boone, Wesley Abraham, and Jimmy "Bangs" Banger. He also was yearning to create a brand new style of music — one with a reckless, raucus, rebellious, carefree attitude; more suggestive lyrics; and "heavy" guitars. Clarence built (with the help of friend Leo Fender) an electric guitar and electric bass from scratch for Boone and Abraham to use, respectively. Boone's guitar had a solid body, 24 frets, a single-coil neck pickup, a bridge humbucker pickup, a "whammy bar," and .010 gauge nickel-wound strings. It resembled a cross between a Fender Sratocaster (introduced in 1954) and a Gibson Les Paul (1952), with a Gibson SG (1961)-shaped body. Both the guitar and bass were plugged into a 100 watt amplifier built by Clarence himself. This amp would later inspire the legendary Marshall amps of today. Abraham's bass more closely resembled the electric guitar than the standard upright acoustic bass.
The music itself contrasted sharply from pop standards. Most of the songs only had three chords, "power chords" distorted by the amp's gain setting. The songs had verses, a chorus, and a guitar solo. Some of the songs were in a minor key, whereas many standards were in a major key. Clarence told Banger to emphasize the snare drum. It was a sound that had never been heard before, but has been heard innumerable times since — rock and roll. Clarence was inspired by rhythm and blues music that was happening at the time, but wanted to take it to the next level.
In June 1948, the Frank Clarence & Sam Phillips-produced Rocket to the Moon — the first-ever rock and roll album — was released, despite a recording ban imposed by the Musician's Union in protest of the Taft-Hartley Act. The ban took effect from January 1 to December 14, 1948 — but because Clarence/Balls was an independent artist and had quit the union in 1946, he was exempt from being fined. The album exceeded low expectations from the public and sold 25 million copies to become Clarence's most successful album up to that point. Four singles were released and quickly became top five hits. All songs are written by Clarence/Balls, Wilson, Boone, Abraham, and Banger.
- "Rocket to the Moon" 3:30 — R&B #1 June 1948
- "This is Rock 'n' Roll" 3:32 — R&B #1 August 1948
- "Taking the Piss" 3:01
- "Shake Me All Night Long" 3:25 — R&B #5 July 1948
- "Pppppppppppt! (Oops!)" 2:59
- "Come and Get Some More" 3:03
- "Make No Bones About It" 3:25
- "My Only Regret" 2:48
- "Let's Have a Party" 3:15
- "Get It While It's Hot" 3:30 — R&B #2 September 1948
Clarence had never been happier with the finished product of his previous albums. He wasn't pressured by a record label, songwriter, producer, engineer, or the general public. His bandmates had warmed up to his free spirit. The band was on fire with music and lyrics that transcended anything they had done before, together or apart. Clarence had finally invented a musical style to suit his tastes and rebel against social norms of the time.
The Rocket to the Moon tour sold out every show and became Clarence's most successful tour up to that point. The band captured this legendary tour on not only a live album, but also an Orson Welles-directed concert film (both titled Rocket to the Moon: Live and In Your Fucking Face! and released in 1949). The band took a well-deserved break before planning their next endeavor. Meanwhile, after the recording ban, major record labels rushed to jump on the rock and roll bandwagon, which initially met with resistance from more conservative musicians. "These guys [Balls and his band] were just trying to piss people off," said Duke Ellington. "That's not my style at all."
Death of George Wilson
The lack of competition seemed to guarantee success for the next Lucille Balls album. Recording sessions were to begin in April 1951, but were postponed after Clarence/Balls learned that Wilson had died of the chickenpox at the age of 46. The band considered breaking up out of respect for their fallen pianist, Wilson's funeral intended to be their final performance. However, Clarence/Balls decided that only his own death should break up the band. "Lucille Balls is my alter ego, not his," Clarence said shortly after the funeral. So it was decided to continue the band. After auditioning several pianists and even making an offer to Ellington to join the band, Clarence/Balls decided that the piano was not necessary for rock and roll, that it should be a guitar-heavy style. However, Balls played a piano himself on the instrumental track, "George."
"George" was the first song written for the album. Composed solely by Clarence (who couldn't bring himself to be credited as Balls on the song), it begins with a slow tempo of 71 bpm. The song changes moods and tempos frequently, covering several styles such as jazz, traditional pop, rhythm & blues, boogie-woogie, classical, and Clarence's own rock and roll.
The rest of the album was hard to come by. Clarence/Balls had lost a bit of momentum from Wilson's death, but he knew exactly the sound he was looking for. He had a friend of his create what he called "pedals": a flanger, a phaser, chorus, and a "wah." He wanted to take his and Boone's guitar playing to the next level. But the material just wasn't there quite yet.
Lacking inspiration and with Wilson's death still looming over him, Clarence attended a concert by classical pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who was noted for his reading of Chopin's "Marche Funèbre," or the "Funeral March." He saw how the somber piece could work in a rock context.
The next day, Clarence walked into the studio with a reel to reel recording of the performance and explained his intentions. He wanted to pay tribute to Wilson and get past his death, elevate rock and roll to a more artistic level, spark inspiration, and put out an album that could match, let alone surpass, its predecessor.
The band's arrangement is in 12/8 time signature at 51 bpm, in the original key of B♭ minor. The main motif (Dum, dum, da-dum, dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum) was adapted into Clarence's guitar soloing over Boone's crunchy power chords, Abraham's somber bass, and Banger's thunderous drums. The track surpasses the 10 minute mark and clocks in at an astonishing 11:15. "George" and "Funeral March" had the potential to fill an entire A side of an album, but two songs just wasn't enough. They had worked too hard and the fans had waited too long for just two songs.
The reworking of Chopin's "Funeral March" boosted the band's confidence and they were quickly writing the same upbeat rockers they pioneered on Rocket to the Moon. While experimenting with the "wah" pedal, Clarence/Balls and Boone wrote the upbeat "Cry, Baby, Cry," but felt that it would be inappropriate to place the song immediately after "George" and "Funeral March" on the tracklist, as they had done enough crying and mourning. Clarence/Balls based the lyrics on a fight he once had with his wife, Gertrude, and also on the wah pedal's ability to mimic a crying voice. By the end of October 1951, the band had written and recorded ten songs for the album. But Clarence/Balls felt the album needed an extra push, one more song -- one that would be a monster hit.
When he returned home on the night of October 15, he and Gertrude discovered a brand new TV series entitled I Love Lucy on CBS. Clarence loved the show, and thought he could take advatage of Lucille Ball coincidentally sharing her name with Clarence's Lucille Balls persona. He wrote down the title "I Hate Lucy" and brainstormed lyrics in his sleep.
He returned to the studio the next day, asked his bandmates if they had seen the show, and presented the lyrics. The band loved it. The song is a 12-bar blues-based rocker in the key of E with a tempo of 155 bpm, 4/4 time signature. It follows the standard verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus pattern of many popular songs. The song describes Clarence's fictitious hatred for Lucy for stealing his stage name. A tremolo-picked guitar lick copies the I Love Lucy theme song at the beginning of the solo.
George/I Hate Lucy album split
After debating whether the album should be titled George or I Hate Lucy, Clarence/Balls told Sam Phillips and the band that it would be splitting the album into two albums, the bulk of what they recorded being pressed onto I Hate Lucy; George would be composed of "George" and "Funeral March" on Side A, while side B would be composed of other songs by or about Wilson. Also included is their previously unrecorded version of "Last Night on the Back Porch," which the group played in its early days when it lacked original songs.
Produced by Clarence/Balls, and Phillips, George and I Hate Lucy were finally released — simultaneously — in March of 1952. Clarence refused to be credited as Lucille Balls anywhere on George, unless referring to the band as a whole. He felt that an album paying tribute to a late friend was no place for offensive tomfoolery and lasciviousness, except where it couldn't be helped. The single album was intended for release in November of 1951, but the band needed more time to work on George after the album split was announced. Several singles were released in the meantime, which became R&B chart-toppers.
- "George" (Clarence) 5:35 — R&B #1 & Pop #41 November 1951
- "Funeral March" (Chopin/arr. by Clarence) 11:15 — R&B #10 & Pop #47 December 1951
- "Don't Let the Pox Getcha Down" (Clarence/Boone) 3:39 — R&B #1 & Pop #69 March 1952
- "Last Night on the Back Porch" (Carl Shraubstader/Lew Brown) 2:20
- "It's the 20s, But I'm Not Roaring" (Clarence/Wilson/Boone/Abraham/Banger) 5:30
- "Rocket to the Moon (Flanger Version)" (Clarence/Wilson/Boone/Abraham/Banger) 3:30 — R&B #4 February 1952
- "Too Soon" (Clarence/Boone) 4:39 — R&B #1 & Pop #46 January 1952
I Hate Lucy
- "The Show Must Go On" (Balls/Boone) 3:16
- "I Hate Lucy" (Balls/Boone/Abraham/Banger) 3:30 — R&B #1 & Pop #41 November 1951
- "Don't Let the Pox Getcha Down" (Balls/Boone) 3:39 — R&B #1 & Pop #69 March 1952
- "All the World is Red" (Balls/Boone) 4:00
- "Rocket to the Moon (Flanger Version)" (Balls/Wilson/Boone/Abraham/Banger) 3:30 — R&B #4 February 1952
- "Cry, Baby, Cry" (Balls/Boone) 3:28 — R&B #2 January 1952
- "Hound Dog" (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller) 2:52
- "Are You Legal?" (Balls/Boone) 2:56 — R&B #28 & Pop #106 April 1952
- "Let's Talk About Divorce" (Balls/Boone) 3:01 — R&B #12 & Pop #68 May 1952
- "Babalu" (Margarita Lecuona) 6:00
While critics weren't too kind to I Hate Lucy, they praised George for not being overly offensive. I Hate Lucy sold 50 million copies, while George nearly matched with 49 million. The making of what would become two albums was documented by Welles, minus concert footage; releasing two simultaneous albums put pressure on the band and how they were going to pull off the tour. Should they pay a more somber tribute to Wilson or should they stay in their comfort zone? How would they tackle Wilson's parts on past songs?
George Hated Lucy tour
In June of 1952, Clarence/Balls unveiled a short list of potential piano players to fill in for the late Wilson. Among those were Fats Domino, Little Richard, and a then-unkown Jerry Lee Lewis. They made an offer to Domino, but he couldn't bring himself to play such "offensive filth." Richard was interested, but they couldn't agree on Richard's salary. In July, Lewis had officially signed on to play Wilson's parts on the George Hated Lucy Tour. The original tour name was going to be A Pair of Balls, but they had trouble booking dates under such a crude title.
The September 16, 1952 tour date marked the first and last time the band would ever play in Mexico, a gig that will live in infamy. The band appeared on stage dressed as a traditional Mexican mariachi band — outfits, oversized sombreros, fake mustaches and oversized acoustic guitars. They played their usual set to wild applause, but halfway into the gig, Balls and Boone started playing flamenco on their acoustic guitars accompanied by Abraham and Banger's brass section. The crowd immediately recognized the song — it was "Besame Mucho." This was well received, but the band's blasphemous renditions of "Guantanamera" and "Himno Nacional Mexico" were booed.
Mexican law dictates that its national anthem be performed respectfully, for non-commercial purposes, and cannot be performed in a mocking manner (deliberately or otherwise). Balls and his band played the song in their usual rock and roll style, Balls himself used profanity and lewd conduct during the song, flatulated openly, and humped his guitar. The band was booed. Balls mooned the audience and flipped them the bird. He shouted "¡Andá a joderte, Mexico!" The band was booed out of the country and banned for life. This incident is featured in their Welles-directed tie-in documentary, A Pair of Bulls, which was finally completed and released in December of 1952 "for Oscar consideration," Balls joked.
Other dates were more warmly received, somewhat. The band was as shocking and offensive as ever, but the audience — mostly teenagers — dug the music and lyrics. Conservative parents were outraged by the band and its music, in particular "Are You Legal?," a 12-bar blues pattern in E with lyrics such as:
“Before I make you my little queen
I gotta make sure that you're really 18
Are you legal? Baby girl, are you legal?
I wanna make sure... I'm not going to jail
You told me you were born in '33
But you don't really look that age to me
Are you legal? Baby girl, are you legal?
I wanna make sure... I'm not going to jail”
"Let's Talk About Divorce" was less controversial, but it was still a taboo in the 1950s to talk about divorce. Both singles were banned from the radio, but were popular on jukeboxes and sold quite well in record stores. Strangely, not even now-legendary disc joickey Alan Freed would play the records.
Both songs were performed late in the band's set. One December date caused controversy when after performing both "Are You Legal?" and "Let's Talk About Divorce," Balls performed a lewd rendition of a recent hit Christmas novelty song retitled, "I Saw Mommy Fucking Santa Claus." The teenage crowd went wild, but conservative parents were not pleased. On other occasions, it was "I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus" or "I Saw Daddy Killing Santa Claus."
When the tour concluded, the band was exhausted. Lewis invited the band to play on his solo album should one ever materialize. The band had worked up enough sweat to rest on their laurels for a while.
Clarence wasn't entirely inactive during his 1953 hiatus. For one, he was working on a parody of "Besame Mucho" for the next Lucille Balls album. The parody was entirely in Spanish and called "Besame Mi Asno Mucho," which roughly translates into English as "Kiss my ass, a lot." Clarence wrote the song in response to the Mexico incident and Lucille Balls's subsequent ban in the country. But he wasn't ready to work on an album just yet.
He had spent so much time establishing Lucille Balls and rock and roll as a prominent force in music, that he hadn't bothered signing anyone to his Gamma Delta Iota record label. So he quickly signed Lewis, Little Richard, and tried getting Sinatra. Sinatra wasn't too keen on converting his traditional pop to wild rock and roll, so he instead signed with Capitol Records. "I didn't like the shit these kids were putting out," the famed crooner said in 1980, "and Capitol gave me a better deal." Sinatra become a very vocal critic of rock and roll for years to come.
On the flipside, Lewis and Richard embraced this new style of music. Clarence kept his promise, and he and his Lucille Balls bandmates played on Lewis's demos. Three songs were recorded: "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and "Hubba Hubba." An album never materialized due to a disagreement between Clarence and co-producer Phillips, who left to form his own record label Sun Records, and took Lewis with him. Lewis and Phillips would re-record and sanitize "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" years later, which would become massive hits.
As for Little Richard, an album never materialized because both Clarence and Richard were unhappy with the demos, though they knew "Tutti Frutti" had the potential to be a huge hit. Clarence dropped Richard from the label, which was a mutual decision, and Richard signed with Peacock Records. Richard did, in fact, score a #2 R&B hit with a sanitized "Tutti Frutti" in 1955.
Clarence was desperate to sign somebody to his label, but most of them chose Sun Records instead. Clarence became increasingly bitter towards Sam Phillips and was desperate to make a major rock and roll star out of somebody. He found this young boy who was born in Tupelo, MS, and raised in Memphis, TN. The boy said, "Hi, I'm Elvis Presley," and quietly went into the studio. The band started playing a song from I Hate Lucy entitled "Hound Dog," which had been written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who would become in-demand rock and roll songwriters. A cover of the song had been an R&B hit for Big Mama Thornton in 1952. Elvis belted out the wild, raucus lyrics:
“You ain't nothin' but a hound dog!
Been snoopin' 'round my door!
Yeah, you ain't nothing but a hound dog!
Been snoopin' 'round my door!
You can wag your tail, but Lord, I ain't gonna feed you no more!”
Clarence knew he had a star on his hands; he just had to keep him away from Phillips. They recorded a few more demos including Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight," Ike Turner & Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," Jimmy Preston's "Rock The Joint" (which had been recorded by Bill Haley in 1952), and Lucille Balls's own "Whole Lotta Bertha."
Presley found the name Bertha to be off-putting and dated, so he changed it to Rosie and made the lyrics more rock and roll.
Unfortunately for Clarence, Presley would be seduced by Phillips and his Sun Records label. Clarence decided if anybody was going to have a mainstream hit with a rock and roll song, it was going to be himself or nobody. Around this time, he discovered that radio stations had hired session players to record sanitized (sometimes even instrumental) radio-only versions of his Lucille Balls singles, and that was the only reason the band had scored any hits. Even worse, conservative music listeners who had bought the albums immediately returned them and got their money back, the albums thus dropped off the charts, and their record-setting sales were no longer valid. Clarence sent out cease-and-desist letters to every radio station he could, and even put a full-page ad in Billboard condemning and disowning these and future sanitized covers of his music — band, orchestra or solo. Clarence ordered his name or Balls stage name to be removed from songwriting credits on sanitized covers. "If anybody's gonna sanitize my music," he wrote in the ad, "It's me."
It was almost 1954, and Clarence knew it would be a landmark year for rock and roll. He also knew he needed to up the ante and sanitize his own music and image if he stood a chance against Sam Phillips's Sun Records roster.
1954: The great rock and roll war
In 1954, the recording industry was finally preparing to capitalize on rock and roll after six years of setbacks. Though Lucille Balls had failed to achieve mainstream success, the labels feared the band would soon cross over into mainstream/pop territory and put the competition out of work. The one thing that had been setting the labels back for six years was figuring out how to sanitize and sell this wild burgeoning music. The labels knew it wouldn't be easy, and so did Clarence/Balls, who was so desperate for success that he was willing to "sell out" and clean up his act.
The band Lucille Balls was hard at work writing its next album. They were unsure whether "Besame Mi Asno Mucho" would make the record, so they wrote an upbeat song about masturbation disguised as a dance song entitled "The Stroke." Unfortunately, the band knew it would be too risque for radio, so they turned it into a song about the music industry and selling out. The opening line, "Now everybody/Have you heard/If you're in your bed/Then stroke's the word" became, "Now everybody/Have you heard/If you're in the game/Then stroke's the word." The band knew it would be a big hit and possibly crossover to the top of the pop charts. The 1981 Billy Squier cover is played in half-time.
Meanwhile, Bill Haley & His Comets were getting a head start on their rock and roll career, having scored a national hit with "Crazy, Man, Crazy" the previous year. They had also recorded (as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen) a country-Western cover of "Rocket 88," which was a Northeastern regional hit in 1952. Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock," which was intended to bring rock and roll into the mainstream.
Not to be outdone, Clarence/Balls felt the pressure to release a competing single. He just needed a song to serve as the B-side to "The Stroke" and he would be all set. They rushed to write and complete a short, clean, poppy rock and roll song entitled "The Almighty Dollar," just in case the A side flopped. Both Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" b/w "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)" and Lucille Balls's "The Stroke" b/w "The Almighty Dollar" were released on May 20, 1954. While Haley's single was an initial commercial dissapointment until it's use in the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle and subsequent reissue in May 1955; Balls's single flopped entirely.
Meanwhile in July, Sam Phillips, desperate for a hit himself, was recording with Presley, Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Phillips knew Presley's version of "That's All Right" would be huge, and he needed a strong B-side to accompany it. They tried several songs, including those by Balls, but none of them worked. Presley's bassist Bill Black suggested an old bluegrass song entitled "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Phillips and Presley liked the idea and recorded it quickly.
Mainstream commercial success
After learning that Presley had completed his first single and it was to be released July 19, Clarence/Balls rushed another single out in the hopes that it would make up for their previous flop single. They re-recorded a Bowdlerized version of "I Hate Lucy" and backed it with "Rock Around the Clock," hoping to one-up Haley and Presley. This single was released in time for its July 19 deadline. Having sold 1 million copies and debuted at #20 on the pop charts — the first time the band had cracked the Top 40, let alone the Top 20 — Ball's single proved to be more successful than Presley's, which sold 20,000 copies, but failed to chart nationally. "That's All Right" did, however, reach #4 on the local Memphis charts.
Frank Clarence and his Lucille Balls alter ego had finally made a dent on the Top 40 after 24 years of music — band, orchestra, or solo. He and his band had scored their first hit on their own merits rather than unauthorized edited, instrumental, or other such tampered versions that radio offered if they were bothering to even play the band's decidedly uncommercial music. They did so without gimmicks, outrageous lyrics, without an outrageous stage show, and without a major label.
The success of "I Hate Lucy" prompted Milton Berle to invite Balls and his band on his television show. The band's performance of the song on July 28, 1954 began with a recording of the "I Love Lucy" theme. Milton Berle appeared in drag as Lucy; Clarence appeared in matching drag as Lucille Balls, however he decided against wearing his trademark black and white "rebel" makeup that he could never get right anyway. The band busted into "I Hate Lucy" with Berle dancing like a buffoon. The band and performance were warmly received and the song skyrocketed to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts.
Now that the band was on top of the charts, Balls decided to re-release "The Stroke" single, backed with a new song entitled "Top of the Pops" while writing more songs for their album. In August, as "I Hate Lucy" gradually dropped out of the Top 10, "The Stroke" b/w "Top of the World" was released. Radio stations were a tad reluctant to play "The Stroke" with its unintentionally risque title, so they chose to play "Top of the Pops," which debuted at #1. Radio's stance on "The Stroke" soften eventually and the song reached #2 a few weeks later. Lucille Balls no longer had to fear being labeled a one hit wonder band. They promoted the Double A-sided single by appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and performing both songs, plus "I Hate Lucy."
The singles and the TV appearances had distracted from the album, so in December, they decided not to release any more singles until the album was complete and released. Lucille Balls Sells Out was finally released in January of 1955.
- "The Stroke" (Balls/Boone) 3:38 — Pop #2 August 1954
- "I Hate Lucy" (Balls/Boone/Abraham/Banger) 3:30 — Pop #1 & R&B #1 July 1954
- "The Almighty Dollar" (Balls/Boone) 3:05 — B-side to "The Stroke" (original release); B-side to "Paycheck Song" April 1955
- "Rock Around the Clock" (James E. Myers/Max Friedman) 2:11 — B-side to "I Hate Lucy"
- "The Numbers Between One and Ten" (Balls/Boone) 0:12
- "Top of the World" (Balls/Boone) 3:23 — Pop #1 August 1954
- "Party Friday Night" (Balls/Boone) 3:16 — Pop #1 & R&B #1 January 1955
- "Big Balls" (Balls/Boone) 2:38 — B-Side to "Keep it Clean"
- "I'm a Rebel" (Balls/Boone) 2:59 — Pop #9 March 1955
- "The Days of the Week" (Balls/Boone) 0:06 — B-Side to "Paycheck Song"
- "Keep It Clean" (Balls/Boone) 3:30 — Pop #3 & R&B #5 February 1955
- "Paycheck Song" (Balls/Boone) 3:25 — Pop #1 & R&B #1 April 1955
- "One Note Song" (Balls) 0:01
- "Drink More Pepsi" (Balls/Boone) 1:05
- "McDonald's Ain't Bad" (Balls/Boone) 2:36
- "(Gimme, Gimme Gimme) Money, Money, Money" (Balls/Boone) 3:39 — Pop #1, R&B #1 & Country #1 May 1955
The album earned Clarence the best reviews he had ever gotten in his career up to that point — band, orchestra, or solo. Although some critics accused the band of shamelessly selling out (the album title, "The Stroke," "Paycheck Song," "Money, Money, Money," "The Almighty Dollar"), corporate advertising (Pepsi, McDonald's), and lack of effort in favor of a paycheck ("One Note Song," "Days of the Week," "Numbers Between One and Ten"), they praised Clarence and his band for watering down their highly controversial underground image and music in exchange for mainstream commercial success.
Record and ticket sales went through the roof. Lucille Balls outsold several other major artists' tours. Mainstream success meant that the band had to, however slightly, tone down their stage shows and keep them socially acceptable. This meant that the band's earlier hits had to be Bowdlerized or, unfortunately, dropped from the set list. They chose the latter, as it was less nerve-racking, it respected Wilson, and rendered hiring a touring pianist unnecessary. Clarence had already spent a great deal of money as it was on the band's own private train, christened "Crazy Train."
Return to roots
Three gigs into the tour, Clarence became increasingly unhappy with what he and the band had become — sanitized, watered-down, squeaky-clean, mainstream sellouts. "This isn't what Lucille Balls is all about," he reportedly said. "Why the fuck am I doing this?" The tour was put on hold indefinitely. Clarence told the band members that they needed a break in order to return to their raw, uncensored, "no-bullshit" roots. He also expressed his desire to play his older songs with the orchestra plus a touring pianist. Unfortunately, he learned from Boone that half the orchestra had retired or died of old age by this time. George Clarence himself had died from a tongue infection in 1953. The orchestra idea was scrapped, but hiring a touring pianist was still a possibility.
The band reconvened on August 2 for informal jam sessions. Added to the group was Trevor Groom on a keyboard instrument he invented called a "synthesizer." The band played several old and new songs. The band wrote five songs for their next album, to be entitled New Amplitude. The overproduced radio-friendly sound of Lucille Balls Sells Out was dropped like a hot potato and the band sounded exactly like they did on Rocket to the Moon, George, and I Hate Lucy. They had had enough. The Sells Out tour was officially cancelled on August 30.
The jam sessions continued, the band trying desperately to reclaim their old sound. Songs from Clarence's solo years retained their original stripped-down piano-and-vocals arrangements, only synthesized; songs from the orchestra years were adapted into the band's hard rock and roll style. The band also threw in a few blues numbers for good measure.
Clarence had asked Orson Welles to document these sessions, but he refused, accusing them of selling out. Clarence had seen the 1953 cult film, Glen or Glenda, directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.. Wood starred as a transvestite in the film, and was eager to film the band returning to their roots. Coincidentally, Wood admired, and once met, Welles. Everything from August 2 onward was captured on celluloid by the man famed for being the worst director of all time. Unfortunately, the filming didn't go very well. The band clashed with Wood, who insisted on replacing Boone with Bela Lugosi and Abraham with Delores Fuller. Clarence had had enough, and by Halloween, Wood was brutally fired.
Clarence and the band continued honing their sound until it was as wild, raucous, rebellious, aggressive, and "Lucille Balls" as possible. They had written 50 songs for the album at this point. They were finally happy, free. Clarence did worry too much about documenting these sessions, since it was about the music first and foremost. They finished one last session before Thanksgiving, and returned to play some hard rocking Christmas songs before taking one last Holiday break.
In January 1956, the band planned to go on the road for a return-to-roots New Amplitude preview tour. It would alternatively be named Roots. Hollywood horror veteran Jack Pierce was hired to recreate Clarence's classic Lucille Balls makeup. By this time, Elvis Presley had moved from Sun Records to RCA Victor; Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" was released on January 27, and became a #1 hit and the bestselling single of the year. Presley was quickly eclipsing Lucille Balls in success and as the face of rock and roll, and Clarence simply didn't care. He did, however, make peace with Sam Phillips and Presley.
The band had now written over 100 songs for the album, and planned to narrow down the songs based on audience reception. Clarence took out a full-two-page ad in Billboard magazine in February and announced his next musical direction, page two being a photograph of Clarence as Balls in full makeup. That iconic photgraph was taken by legendary photographer Smitty Smorgenstein.
The mainstream public never really noticed the ad at the time, as the band's time had passed and Presley had taken the spotlight. But the band's fans since Rocket to the Moon and earlier rejoiced that the band was returning to their roots.
After months of planning, the Roots tour finally kicked off on May 28 to kickstart the summer season. By this time, the band was toying with the unrealistic idea of releasing all the songs in one big box set, which was unheard of in 1956. The first show in Cleveland opened with the title song "New Amplitude," a play on the words "new attitude." Balls introduced the song by saying:
|“||We goofed up when we came up with the title. It should be "New Amplification" instead of "New Amplitude." We were like "Oh, shit! What do we do now?" We couldn't decide whether to call this song "New Amplitude" or "Amplified." So I guess that'll be up to you guys.||”|
—Frank Clarence/Lucille Balls, introducing "New Amplitude"
By the next gig, in Detroit, the song became "New Attitude," a synth-heavy hard rock number that would later be a 1984 hit for Patti LaBelle, albeit with radio-friendly lyrics and a happier sound. Another synth rocker included "Color TV," whose rhythm has been copied by Led Zeppelin ("Trampled Underfoot"), Skid Row ("Youth Gone Wild"), and Finger Eleven ("Paralyzer").
Death and posthumous final album
In June 1956, Lucille Balls's concerts and new material drew wild reception from fans, and the band laid down tracks in their mobile recording studio; Lucille Balls was the first band to ever have a mobile studio. By July, the album was half-finished.
On July 3, the band was scheduled to perform a gig in Chicago, birthplace of George Clarence. The show had been sold out for months. The band boarded their Crazy Train from Detroit and practiced their set. The clock struck midnight and Clarence realized that they were late for the 7:30 concert. He rushed from the caboose to the engine to discover that the engineer, Paul Fredericks, was dead, supposedly of a heart attack. He was unable to find the emergency brakes, so he ran back to the other carts to warn the rest of the band. He also called his manager and 911.
The band was finally able to find the brakes, but the lever broke. And soon, the band members found themselves in Pittsburgh, which was way off-route. Plus, the train had mysteriously caught fire.