Connecticut has played a central role in the history of rock ‘n’ roll since the genre’s earliest days in the 1950s.
While never a major music center on the order of New York City or Los Angeles, the state has nurtured some of the country’s greatest pop artists, and hosted historic (and notorious) concerts.
A new book by Anthony Renzoni, “Connecticut Rock ‘N’ Roll: A History” (The History Press), is packed with mini-biographies of stars who were born here, such as John Mayer and Karen and Richard Carpenter, as well as archival photos of Connecticut concerts that have become legendary, including the 1967 New Haven show in which Jim Morrison of The Doors was arrested in the middle of the performance for “public indecency” (i.e., using obscenities).
“Basically I feel like I’ve been researching this book since I was in high school,” Renzoni jokes of his lifelong love of rock music, starting with a 1960s youth spent listening to Connecticut radio stations WPOP and WDRC.
The Branford baby boomer got hooked on rock music in his teen years and then delved deeper into the Connecticut music scene as a student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. Renzoni has been gathering memorabilia and recordings most of his life — he has a collection of 10,000 records — but didn’t start thinking about writing a book until after he retired from a federal government job.
“I never wrote a book before, but my daughter Carrie has a sense of these things, and she took me to R.J. Julia (Booksellers) and said, ‘That’s the publisher you want,’” he says of her steering him in the direction of a shelf of books from The History Press.
Renzoni wrote to the company and found it was very interested in the idea. He set off on the several years of research and writing that produced the book.
“They knew Gene Pitney,” he says of the Hartford native who went to the top of the charts with “Only Love Can Break a Heart” and other early 1960s hits. “But I had to educate them in terms of some of the popular regional groups.”
Renzoni includes groups like The Wildweeds and The Ramrods, who had huge Connecticut followings but never scored national success. The book shows how every local radio station had its own top 40 chart in those days, which made it possible for a Connecticut band to get nearly as much airplay as The Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
“I was pleased when the editors said they were taking a little longer than normal because they wanted to listen to the (regional) music I wrote about — that indicated that what I was doing was important,” he says.
The book takes readers decade by decade, showing how some Connecticut artists, like “The Beehive Queen,” Christine Ohlman, of Waterbury, have thrived from the 1960s until now by changing with the times. Renzoni deals with popular artists who have made the state their home for many years, such as longtime Fairfield County residents Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, and Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.
Richards has made several impromptu musical appearances in Connecticut over the years, including a jam session at Southport’s BoxCar Club in 2004, and joining Willie Nelson for a few songs during a concert at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport.
“The purpose of the book is to pay tribute to all of these artists — those with fame on an international level, fame on a regional level, fame on a local level. Hey, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll,” Renzoni says.
The book shows how the pop music scene began fragmenting around the turn of the century, with music downloads killing record stores across the state, and with Connecticut radio losing its youth audience as the medium moved away from contemporary music and into talk.
“Record stores were more than businesses, they were a social thing too. A place for us to congregate,” Renzoni says. The shops also made young people aware of what new music was heading up the sales charts.
Baby boomers will enjoy the section on the invention of the transistor radio and the musical freedom it gave to teens of the 1950s and 1960s. With its compact size and earbud, it was the iPod of its era.
“They were so important to teenagers,” the author says. “They gave you independence because you could listen to whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Free of adult supervision.”
Renzoni has been gratified by the response to the book since it was published in August.
“I’ve already gotten correspondence from people in the United Kingdom saying, ‘We get it.’ They relate to the material on record hops and after-school hangouts. The book is really about more than just Connecticut because rock ‘n’ roll is universal,” he says.