If you’re not familiar with Freddy Cannon’s unmistakable sound, the key’s in his nickname, “Boom Boom.” Listen once to any of his hits and you’ll get it, even if the volume’s turned down to almost zero. And Cannon would have it no other way.
Renowned and respected for never having sacrificed his thunderous bare-bones approach to become cheesy tuxedo-clad supper-club schmaltz the way some so-called “rockers” of his generation did – and for being the most frequent guest on American Bandstand with a whopping 110 appearances – Cannon blended the raw energy and live dynamism of his boyhood idols Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry into a flaming acoustic cocktail all his own, becoming a rock ‘n roll icon with an unwavering commitment to his noisy, sweaty, heart-pounding craft, always using a scrappy, stripped-down musical model even when squeaky-clean doo-wop groups and ersatz pop idols were dominating the charts
Born Frederick Anthony Picariello on December 4, 1940, in Revere, Massachusetts, and raised in nearby Lynn, Cannon’s father was a truck driver who played trumpet and sang in local combos on the side using the stage name Freddy Karmon, and his mother was an amateur songwriter who penned the basics of Cannon’s first big hit. As a young boy he listened to the radio constantly, especially drawn to R&B heavyweights like Big Joe Turner and jump-blues giants like Buddy Johnson and falling in love with rock ‘n roll – especially guitar, which he picked up at age 13 – when he heard Chuck Berry. He watched American Bandstand almost daily from its premiere episode in 1952, years before one of his future best friends, Dick Clark, became the host in 1956.
In 1956, while a student at Lynn Vocational High, Cannon played lead guitar on the doo-wop/R&B group The G-Clef’s single “Ka-Ding Dong” which reached #24 in the Billboard Hot 100 and was the first major rock ‘n roll album out of Boston, almost two decades before the nationwide success of other Boston-based groups like the J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, Boston, and The Cars. In 1958, Cannon sang and played rhythm guitar on The Spindrifts’ local hit “Cha-Cha-Do” while working full-time as a truck driver and performing part-time, just like his father.
Later in 1958, he formed Freddy Karmon & the Hurricanes, which became wildly popular among Boston-area teens thanks to regular appearances on the radio program Boston Ballroom, hosted by Bob Clayton on AM station WHDH. While still developing his distinctive strained singing style, Cannon signed a management contract with Boston DJ Jack McDermott who took Cannon’s latest song “Rock and Roll Baby” – for which his mother had written the lyrics – to songwriters/producers Bob Crewe and Frank Slay, who rearranged the tune, changed some of the words, renamed it “Tallahassee Lassie” and started shopping a recording to labels.
In 1959, the track caught the attention of Dick Clark, who was part owner of Swan Records in Philadelphia in addition to his job hosting American Bandstand. After overdubbing hand claps and re-editing the track to highlight the bass drum’s thud – and filling in gaps with Cannon’s “whoos,” a vocal gimmick that would become his signature – the single dropped in May, reaching #6 in the Billboard Hot 100, the first of Cannon’s 22 songs to eventually appear on the chart. At Swan President Bernie Binnick’s insistence, “Freddy Karmon” had become “Freddie Cannon” before the single’s release.
Almost immediately, Cannon’s fans started calling him “Boom Boom” for the sheer ferocity of his sound. In 1960, he released his debut album, The Explosive Freddy Cannon which included “Tallahassee Lassie” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” – a cranked-up version of a song from 1922 – that went to #3 in both the US and the UK, becoming Cannon’s biggest overseas hit and leading to a UK tour that year. The LP became the first rock ‘n roll album to hit #1 on the UK charts, three years before The Beatles debut album, Please Please Me, reached the top spot in March 1963. Cannon’s North American tour to support the album included stops at two Connecticut venues, the Crystal Lake Ballroom (Ellington) and the State Theatre (Hartford).
In 1961, two new singles had modest chart success, “Transistor Sister” (#35) and “Buzz Buzz A-Dittle-It” (#52), but his 1962 single, “Palisades Park” – written by television producer Chuck Barris 14 years before he became host of The Gong Show – reached #3 in the Billboard Hot 100 and #20 in the UK. With Cannon’s riveting double-tracked vocals and rollercoaster effects overdubbed, the song remains a staple on oldies rock stations to this day. Later that year, Cannon appeared with teen idol Bobby Vee in the British musical film Just for Fun.
In 1963, Cannon signed with Warner Bros. Records, where he recorded his last US Top-20 hits, 1964’s “Abigail Beecher” (#16) and 1965’s “Action” (#13), the theme song for Dick Clark’s new variety show Where the Action Is. In 1965, after Swan sold Cannon’s previous recordings to Warner Bros., Cannon toured North America both solo and with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, with whom he performed at the Bushnell Memorial Hall in Hartford alongside Little Anthony and Herman’s Hermits while also appearing as himself in the teen film Village of Giants and the teen soap opera Never Too Young. In 1967, he left Warner Bros. and would go on to release singles on Sire, MCA and a variety of smaller labels.
From the late 1960s through the 1990s, Cannon toured North America, including a 1980 show at Center Stage in Providence and a 1983 Boston Common gig, and he joined the Legends of Rock ‘N’ Roll concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1990. In 2002, Gotham Records released Have A Boom Boom Christmas!!, which featured holiday-season standards and Cannon originals, and in 2009 the Dutch label Smith & Co Sound & Vision issued the definitive collection of his most celebrated songs, the 52-track double CD The Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Recordings 1956-1961.
In 2011, Cannon’s cross-generational musical influence gained newfound attention when The Rolling Stones included a previously unreleased cover of “Tallahassee Lassie” on the deluxe remaster of their 1978 classic Some Girls and “Palisades Park” was featured in the film X-Men: First Class. That same year, American Star Books published Cannon’s memoir, Where the Action Is!, for which Dick Clark wrote the introduction.
“You know, I was always categorized as ‘bubble gum’ or a cute rock ‘n’ roll teenage idol,” Cannon said in a 2012 interview. “I never wanted to be that. I never thought of myself as a teen idol. I was a rock ‘n’ roll artist. That’s why The Rolling Stones covered ‘Tallahassee Lassie.’ I feel like I’m a real rock ‘n’ roller. That’s what I am.”
(by D.S. Monahan – May 2022)
Published on March 2, 2013