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Hooked on Phonics

There's a reason the black leather jacket and the pompadour continue to stand as calling cards among lovers of Fifties rock and roll. After all, they were two of the more disturbing fashion statements to parents whose kids were forsaking Pat Boone for Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. More than four decades later, these symbols of vintage revolt remain a hallmark for those embracing the wilder side of days gone by. But while they play the same sort of rebel-without-a-cause music as the aforementioned artists, Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics adopt more of a schoolboy aesthetic as they nod to the era of Elvis and Eisenhower. The result is the kind of well-mannered stuff even a hipster mother could love, music that reels and rocks without scaring off the neighbors.

According to Dickerson, however, his act's squeaky-clean, lighthearted approach is presenting a few problems. "I like to do stuff that has a sense of humor to it," says Dickerson, who is now touring in support of his new Hightone Records release, More Million Sellers. "And it kind of ticks me off, because a lot of the people that do music writeups on roots music have declined interviews on this latest record. They think it's too much of a novelty type thing. But I think the one thing everybody's lacking here in the dawn of the new millennium is a sense of humor. So I'm here to bring it back.

"I don't know," he continues. "It seems like everybody nowadays is just screaming and not making very much music or singing any songs. With us, it's not really a conscious effort to be Happy Days wholesome. But at the same time, we can be plenty tough and not have to be like everybody else. It's still rock and roll -- we still get crazy."

A listen to More Million Sellers confirms that claim. A glorious fifteen-song platter that encapsulates an almost encyclopedic array of pre-British Invasion sound, it's a dream date for lovers of Sun-burned rockabilly, hillbilly bop and juiced-up Western swing. Following an intro from age-old TV actor Billy Barty, Dickerson and his pals leap onto a house-rocking cover of Earl King's "Let the Good Times Roll" that does just that. It's the kind of raving-mad stuff that made Jerry Lee the Killer before he entered rehab, with a let's-bring-it-down-boys greeting from Dickerson in which he earnestly promises to try to bring down the roof for the loving public.

From there the men slip into a shuffling Leiber and Stoller cut ("The Hatchet Man"), a Joe Maphis instrumental ("Rockin' Gypsy," in which Dickerson slices and dices across the octave neck of his trademark double-neck guitar) and various forms of early rock. The album's many highlights include covers of songs by the Rebel Rousers, Sam Phillips, Nervous Norvous and like-minded gems from Dickerson's own pen. The tunes call to mind Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, the Collins Kids, Big Joe Turner and other bygone greats. The recording is especially impressive thanks to the band's overwhelming chops; Dickerson and his peers re-create a gymnasium full of retro styles with astounding command and marksmanship. Adding to the disc's payoffs is its authentic vintage sound and a stream of special guests that stretches from X's Billy Zoom and little-known boogie pioneer Hadda Brooks to Joey D'Ambrosio (of Bill Haley's original Comets) and piano ace Sonny Leyland of Big Sandy's Fly-Rite Boys. But while all of this retro excitement could certify it gold for the Father Knows Best set, the disc packs a wicked sucker punch. It's more Eddie Haskell than Wally Cleaver, a brand of music that appears polite and proper on the surface but hides a dagger and a leer behind its "Gee, your hair looks lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver" exterior.

"It's definitely not a nostalgia trip for me," Dickerson says. "I was born in 1968, and in my head, it's the Nineties. But certain people have influenced me, and I'm happy to be able to get some of these people that I've long admired to be alongside me on a record. That's the beauty about living out here in L.A., because so many of these people still live out here, and a lot of them are forgotten. I mean, Jerry Scoggins, the guy who sang the Beverly Hillbillies theme [and who also appears on Million Sellers], lives out in the San Fernando Valley and sings in a few senior citizen homes. He was really surprised when I dug him up. And the amount of musicians that have done something out here is staggering. It's hard to throw a rock without hitting somebody that wasn't involved with a hit record in the last four decades. I was in a bar about a week ago and started talking to this older guy sitting at the bar. Turns out he's the guy who played drums on 'Alley-Oop,' by the Hollywood Argyles."

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Marty Jones

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