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In a fairer reality, Mike Pedicin would be as well-known as Bill Haley, or, at least, thought of as highly as, say, Johnny Otis — his name should evoke smiles of delight from anyone old enough to remember rock & roll when it was dance music, before it was "art" or made a social statement. He doesn't evoke such smiles (except maybe from some perceptive Philadelphians), but he should, because Mike Pedicin was there playing rock & roll about as early as any white musician this side of Haley or Otis.
Mike Pedicin might not have been the oldest man ever to play rock & roll — a few black musicians with earlier birth dates, like William Perryman (aka Piano Red) and Big Joe Turner, were around in the 1950s — but he was right up there, eight years older than Bill Haley and 19 years older than Elvis Presley. The saxman/bandleader was born in 1917 in West Philadelphia, and came of age just as the swing era was booming, played in that idiom for a decade, and by the early '50s had moved on to playing an edgy brand of R&B-flavored dance music, and was among the very first white musicians doing that kind of crossover music to be signed by RCA Victor. The son of a barber, Pedicin was one of four children, and he had taken up the alto saxophone by age ten, in 1927 — a year later, he was playing as part of a children's band on radio, and in his teens was leading a band of his own, playing local dances. By the time Pedicin was in his mid-teens, swing music was starting to make itself felt, and musicians such as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and (later) Glenn Miller were ascending to stardom. Pedicin absorbed what they had to say musically and by 1940 had organized his first band, the Four Sharps, with Maurice Belmont on vibes, Louis de Francesco playing bass, and Dave Appell on rhythm guitar. The quartet got to become a fixture on the local bar scene in Philadelphia and locales such as Seaside Heights, NJ, and they had plenty of work — based on the recorded evidence, they had the musical talent to justify the success; they even rated a gig with Frank Sinatra in 1944 when he was already a pop superstar.
The group managed to survive into the early '50s, well past the end of swing music's dominance — the clubs they played were able to support quartets, if not full bands, and the work was there. Interestingly, the group had added drums to their lineup by then and were known variously as the Mike Pedicin Quartet (or sometimes the Mike Pedicin Quintet) or the Four Men of Rhythm, and their development paralleled that of a similarly configured outfit out of rural Pennsylvania called Bill Haley & His Saddlemen — the latter had also added drums to what was basically a country outfit and began absorbing R&B influences. Both bands ended up in just about the same place musically by 1953-1954, essentially white acts doing heavy R&B-influenced dance music — both outfits even recorded for Ivin Ballen, and Pedicin ended up with a lot more early recordings, but Haley's band (rechristened Bill Haley & His Comets) had the advantage of getting Danny Cedrone sitting in on guitar and access to a pair of songs, "Rock the Joint" and "Rock Around the Clock," that made enough noise to propel them out of Philadelphia and into the national spotlight. According to scholar Bill Millar, the two bands also shared a common link through the songwriting of DJ Bickley "Bix" Reichner, whose work went back to the 1930s and who provided both outfits with repertoire.
Pedicin and company were signed to RCA Victor in early 1955, months before anybody at the label was familiar with Elvis Presley. At the time, the label was hoping to find an outfit akin to Haley's band, or the white equivalent to the Treniers on OKeh or Piano Red on RCA's own Groove Records subsidiary, who could do rocking dance music that sold. The group was awesome, in the studio as well as live, and were so much like Haley's band in their sound that it was a crying shame they never got the break of a good song or a movie appearance for such a song. They were a day late and a dollar short on their first session, cutting "Mambo Rock" a month after Haley had done it. Despite their slightly late start, the Mike Pedicin Quintet showed a startling mix on the track, the remnants of their swing-era virtuosity on the tenor sax solo, a pounding drumbeat with lots of ornamentation, slashing and crunching rhythm guitar, and all of it played as loud as any R&B outfit of the era. "I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya" was a cover of a Chess release from the year before, and they sounded white but played it louder and harder than most white bands would ever have tried to even a year earlier.
Much more successful artistically was the Pedicin-authored "D-E-V-I-L," where they broke down the color line a little bit in their singing, and "Rock-A-Bye," which carried the process even further. "I'm Hip," authored by George Weiss, was a throwback despite its title, a slow swing-style ballad that showed how much class this band had. Any solos that Pedicin couldn't handle easily were given to Sam "The Man" Taylor, and Dominic Arnone and Sam Cocchia played guitar with the same kind of aplomb that one associates with Frannie Beecher of Haley's outfit. Pedicin's band finally reached the lower echelon of the Top 100 with Reichner's "The Large, Large House." It was a fleeting moment, a single week at number 79, and the group would only ever see one more entry on the charts.
Pedicin was busy at RCA for the first ten months of his two-year contract, through November of 1955, but after that he only had one session in the spring of 1956. It was clear by then that rock & roll was going through a change, passing into the hands of younger performers and evolving into a more personal and charisma-driven form embodied by the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, et al. He'd gone hitless for the duration, though that never affected the band's bookings — they played some of the best hotels in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and ranged as far west as Detroit and even Las Vegas with some of their performances. A surviving tape of a live performance from Detroit Stadium in October 1955 captures a bracing, stunning performance and is 20 of the most exciting minutes of live rock & roll you'll hear this side of Piano Red's incomparable live Magnolia Ballroom tape of the following year. Anyone hearing the tape will be challenged to say whether these guys were black or white.
The band recorded a single for Cameo, enjoying a brief chart entry in 1958 with "Shake a Hand," aided by an appearance on American Bandstand (then a Philadelphia-based show). They also cut sides through the 1960s on Federal, ABC/Paramount, and Apollo Records, among other imprints. Pedicin was still making music into the 1980s and beyond, and in 1994 saw his RCA sides compiled on a Bear Family Records CD entitled Jive Medicin, augmented with the live 1955 Detroit material.