Music producer, songwriter, record company executive
An American rockabilly revival might never have materialized without the efforts of Ronny Weiser and Rollin' Rock records. The label's scrappy honcho brought a record collector's love to the genre and enlisted a slew of like-minded artists to create fresh, primitive rock 'n' roll on a consistent basis, long before(and long after) anyone cared about it as a trend. Although the music business has not brought him great monetary rewards, his ceaseless efforts have helped revive the careers of many forgotten performers, and he has opened the doors for new practitioners who keep the scene alive today.
An Italian Immigrant
An Italian Jew, Weiser's youth was multi-cultural and multi-lingual. His father, Rolf, was born in Dresden, Germany. His grandmother, Grethe Weiser, was a famous film, stage, and TV comedienne who appeared in more than 140 movies. Weiser's mother, Dina Pinto, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and eventually migrated to Italy. At home the family spoke Italian, but young Ronny learned German in Vienna, and then French, and finally, "through comic books, rock 'n' roll and pulp magazines," plus eleventh and twelvth grade American school classes in Milano, he learned English.
"My first remembrance of American culture actually was when I was six years old," he told Marc Bristol of Blue Suede News, "because I had met two American girls. One had a blue dress and black hair and the other one had a red dress and blond hair. So I liked American girls already." Musically, Weiser's first love was Dixieland jazz, but once his mother bought him copies of "Mambo Rock" and "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, he was hooked on the big beat. The youngster's obsession with all things American was further fueled by Elvis Presley's 1957 film Loving You.
Weiser's mimicking of American teenagers and their style of dress nearly got him expelled from school in Italy, but the youngster remained unrepentant. During his off hours, he and a few friends gradually picked up more and more rock 'n' roll records. Like many overseas enthusiasts, Weiser's musical tastes weren't dictated by radio, but instead by what he could actually purchase. "Basically, my thing when I was growing up was Elvis, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Little Richard," he told Original Cool. "I didn't even know about Carl Perkins until the late 60s. I didn't have Chuck Berry records in Italy but I did have such relatively obscure performers as Ronnie Self, Johnny Burnette Trio, and 'The House of Blue Lights' by Chuck Miller." By the time Weiser convinced his parents and brother to move to America, he had become remarkably knowledgeable about rare labels and obscure rockabilly performers.
Gene Vincent Led to Rollin' Rock
The Weiser Family immigrated to the United States in 1965, and young Ronny expected that the music he and his friends cherished would be playing on every street corner. However, the 19-year-old was stunned to learn that the true rockers of the 1950s had been relegated to the oldies stations by British Invasion acts, the onset of psychedelia, acid rock, and manufactured bubblegum singers. "I knew that whole '60's scene happened," he recalled, "but it didn't mean anything to me as far as music is concerned."
During his days as a student at the University of California (UCLA), Weiser began seeking out like-minded people to listen to the sounds of American rock 'n' roll. The result was a small aggregation known as the Hollywood Rock 'n' Roll Fan Club, which featured such area luminaries as K-Earth radio programmer Jim Pewter and Martin Margulies, a.k.a. Johnny Legend. "Each week there would be literally 18 of us showing up," Legend told Roctober. "[We] would just get together and listen to records and lip-synch songs. We held on to it for about a month or two."
After the Hollywood Rock 'n' Roll Fan Club dissolved, Weiser began his own newsletter, Rollin' Rock. Sporting hand drawn covers, poorly typed pages, and published on an erratic schedule, Rollin' Rock became popular reading for devotees of early rock 'n' roll music and its artists. Its pages listed charts of great all-time artists, as well as the great unknowns who were well-known to Rollin' Rock's knowledgeable readers. At the heart of every issue were Weiser's own passionate rants, which delighted readers frustrated with the growing pomposity of 1960s and 1970s rock culture. It also became an excellent promotional tool for Weiser's greatest claim to fame: Rollin' Rock Records.
Prior to forming the label, Weiser had also made two other important friends, little known rockabilly pioneer Ray Campi and legendary 1950's rocker Gene Vincent. According to Legend, the latter was down on his luck and forced to play shows with bands that didn't know his style. Weiser assembled a band to play for Vincent, but the latter died soon after, and the collaboration never came to pass.
Weiser reasoned that if he could put together a band, he could also assemble a studio and a record label. He contacted the multi-talented Campi, who eventually moved into Weiser's Van Nuys home, and they set to work. Weiser told Original Cool, "I asked [Campi], 'Is there a way we can record real rock 'n' roll the way it should be recorded, the way it was in the 50s?' So Ray said, 'Sure, why not?' We didn't even have a stand-up bass or drum on those early records. Ray slapped the guitar for the drum beat…. We used an electric bass, and Ray sang the slapping part however he does it, and that was on 'Eager Boy' and 'Tore Up.'" Surprisingly, that first disc sold well enough locally to keep the enterprise going.
In addition to cutting fresh sides for original rockers such as Campi, Mac Curtis, Jackie Lee Cochran, Alvis Wayne, Groovy Joe Poovey, Johnny Carroll, and Charlie Feathers, Rollin' Rock also introduced younger performers, including teenager Jimmie Lee Maslon, shock rocker Johnny Legend, and heartthrob Ravenna and the Magnetics. The sessions for these acts were held in Weiser's garage or living room, and sometimes featured the label owner himself slapping a stapler or pounding the bongos to provide extra percussion.
Many of the early recordings featured Campi playing all the instruments by way of a crude sound-on-sound overdubbing set-up. Sometimes, when an artist was only in town for a day, Weiser would have him sing along to old records as a guide-track and later replace the vintage recording with something by Campi and his band. These techniques allowed Weiser and Campi to cheaply fashion a slew of recordings that sounded very similar to the lo-fi rockabilly and country discs of the 1950s, a sound that pleased genre purists.
Although hamstrung by lack of distribution and promotional cash, Rollin' Rock's influence was felt worldwide. After the death of Elvis Presley, when the music industry became briefly rockabilly-conscious, Weiser's eccentric little label was the only one boasting a credible track record. Greg Shaw of Phonograph Magazine even quoted Weiser's liberal use of the previously obscure phrase "rockabilly," and soon it became synonymous with hard-driving 1950s roots rock. Moreover, the band set-up, as exemplified by his two most popular rediscoveries, proved remarkably influential. Said Weiser: "Until the Rollin' Rock Records import into the U.K. and the Rollin' Rock tour with Ray Campi & His Rockabilly Rebels and Mac Curtis, no British rock 'n' roll bands were using the standup slappin' bass, and their followers were mostly Teddy Boys and rockers in their late twenties and mid-thirties. But, after Rollin' Rock's arrival, many thousands of teenagers also joined the rock 'n' roll-rockabilly rebellion."
For the Record …
Born Ronald Weiser on July 14, 1946, in Milano, Italy; became naturalized citizen of the U.S., 1977; son of Rolf (a gemstone trader) and Dina Weiser; married Laurie Lee, 1984; children: Benny, Jeremy Aaron, and David. Education: University of California at Los Angeles, B.S., electrical engineering, 1970.
Record producer, label owner, part-time songwriter, bongo player, 1970–; started the Hollywood Rock 'n' Roll Fan Club, 1969; put out his own Rollin' Rock newsletter, 1971–1980; formed Rollin' Rock Records, 1972–1984; reissued early recordings through Hightone label, 1997–1998; produced projects for such independent labels as Skizmatic, Dionysus, and Goofin', 1996–1999; revived Rollin' Rock label, 1999; Charlie Feathers's Rollin' Rock recording of "That Certain Female" featured on the popular soundtrack for the movie Kill Bill, Vol. 1, 2003.
Awards: Inducted into Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1997.
Discovered the Blasters
In retrospect, the label's most successful alumni were the Blasters, a Los Angeles area band that melded punk, rockabilly, and blues in a fashion that both punished and uplifted their live audiences. Unlike other Rollin' Rock acts, who primarily used Ray Campi's acoustic upright bass on their recordings, the Blasters featured an electric bass and full drum kit. Weiser recorded the band all in one room and achieved an irresistible live sound. The resulting LP American Music quickly sold out of its 2000-copy pressing. Rollin' Rock finally had a hot young act that interested radio and club owners. Alvin's song "Marie Marie," on which Weiser held publishing rights, was made into a U.K. hit by rockabilly revivalist Shakin' Stevens. However, the heady days of popularity didn't last long.
Slash Records, a prominent punk label with major label connections, lured the Blasters away. Weiser, who had the group under contract, didn't stand in their way. However, although The Blasters may have made more money with other labels, it is possible they never found another producer as sympathetic as Weiser was to their wild, club band sound. "I look on those times with Ron and it was a thrill," reminisced Blaster co-founder Dave Alvin. "There are people out there who say, and maybe they're right, 'Well, that's the best those guys ever did!'"
During the early 1980s Weiser expanded Rollin' Rock into the home video market with the instructional exercise tape Rockabilly Glamorcize, which sold surprisingly well. That said, Weiser estimated that the most money he ever took home from Rollin' Rock during a single year was $9,000. By 1984 Weiser had begun a slow fade from the music scene. He married, started a family, and began working as a commodities broker. Although he continued to lease sides of his masters to labels worldwide, for ten years he cut no new music.
Rollin' Rock Revived
Weiser moved his family to Las Vegas, Nevada, during the summer of 1993, but it wasn't until the swing revival craze began a crossover into rockabilly that he considered truly reviving his legendary label. After leasing many of his early masters to Hightone in 1997, he began to get the itch to record again.
Armed with digital recording equipment and a fresh slant, Weiser began an assault on American roots music. His first choice was Mack Stevens, a self-admitted rockabilly weirdo from Texas who had grown up on the Rollin' Rock sound. Together he and Weiser recorded one album for Hightone and three for Rollin' Rock, which included such satirical songs as "Diet Pill Boogie," "I Grab It Out of Habit," and "Momma Stop Me Before I Kill Again." Stevens also recorded one of Weiser's rare compositions, "Basta Don't Mean Pasta."
When not recording bar bands like Johnny and the Blades, Paul Galaxy and the Galactix, or Dragstrip 77, Weiser has continued to offer a helping hand to rock's pioneers. Country star Narvel Felt, who began his career as a 1950s rockabilly, recorded an album with Weiser that made him a star on the international rockabilly scene. Better still were Rollin' Rock's efforts on behalf of Bill Haley's Original Comets. "Ron came to see us when we did the Rockabilly Weekend in Denver, Colorado," recalled Haley's original bass player Marshall Lytle. "He was a real fan! We had a problem getting records distributed here in the States and when we started doing some performing in America, we wanted to have some product to sell." He called Weiser to ask if he would like to record the Comets. According to Lytle, Weiser immediately replied, "Oh hell yes! Who wouldn't want to record the Comets?" Lytle told Original Cool, "[Weiser] captured our sound better than anybody had done before. I look forward to every session we work with him."
The economic downturn of the early 2000s that nearly decimated the recording industry affected Rollin' Rock too, limiting production of new discs. However, the inclusion of Rollin' Rock tracks in soundtracks for the movies If These Walls Could Talk and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 kept the label afloat and ready to pounce at the first sign of a new rockabilly revival. When asked if he thought he would still be running Rollin' Rock 35 years after it first started, Weiser responded with pride, "Yes, because I never had any doubts that it was a worth-while cause that I had to be involved in—even if marginally at times—till the end."
(Ray Campi) Rockabilly, Rollin' Rock, 1973.
(Mac Curtis) Ruffabilly, Rollin' Rock, 1973.
(Chuck Higgins) Motor Head Chuck, Rollin Rock, 1973.
(Ray Campi) Rockabilly Lives, Rollin Rock, 1974.
(Jackie Lee Cochran) Swamp Fox, Rollin' Rock, 1974.
(Ray Campi) Rockabilly Rebel, Rollin' Rock, 1975.
(Mac Curtis) Good Rockin' Tomorrow, Rollin' Rock, 1975.
(Ray Campi) Eager Beaver Baby, Rollin Rock, 1976.
(Various Artists) Rollin' the Rock, Vol. 1, Rollin Rock, 1976.
(Jackie Lee Waukeen Cochran) Rockabilly Legend, Rollin Rock, 1977.
(Various Artists) Rollin the Rock, Vol. 2, Rollin' Rock, 1977.
(Ray Campi) Born to Rock, Rollin' Rock, 1977.
(Ray Campi) Rockabilly Rocket, Rollin' Rock, 1977.
(Johnny Carroll) Texabilly, Rollin' Rock, 1978.
(Various Artists) Rollin' the Rock, Vol. 3, Rollin' Rock, 1978.
(Mac Curtis) Rock Me, Rollin' Rock, 1978.
(Rip Masters) Rock That Rock, Rollin' Rock, 1979.
(Tony Conn) Total Insanity, Rollin' Rock, 1979.
(Jimmie Lee Maslon) It's Me Jimmie Lee, Rollin' Rock, 1979.
(Chuck Higgins) Chuck Higgins Ph.D, Rollin' Rock, 1979.
(Ray Campi) Rockabilly Rebellion, Rollin' Rock, 1979.
(Jimmie Lee Maslon) Salacious Rockabilly Cat, Rollin' Rock, 1979.
(The Blasters) American Music, Rollin' Rock, 1980.
(Various Artists) Forever Gene Vincent, Rollin' Rock, 1980.
(Ray Campi and his Rockabilly Rebels) Rockabilly Music, Rollin' Rock, 1980.
(Ravenna & the Magnetics) Rockabilly Fools, Rollin' Rock, 1981.
(Screamin' Scott Simon) Transmissions from Space, Rollin' Rock, 1981.
(Johnny Legend and his Skullcaps) Soakin' the Bone, Rollin' Rock, 1981; reissued, 1992.
(Ray Campi) Hollywood Cats, Rollin' Rock, 1983.
(Ray Campi) Gone Gone Gone, Rounder, 1986.
(Mac Curtis) Rockabilly Uprising, Hightone, 1987.
(Various Artists) Turning the World Blue, Skizmatic, 1996.
(The Blasters) American Music, Hightone, 1997.
(Jackie Lee Cochran) Rockabilly Music, Hightone, 1997.
(Johnny Carroll) Texabilly, Hightone, 1997.
(Johnny Legend) The Best of Johnny Legend, Volume None, Hightone, 1997.
(Ray Campi) Rockabilly Rebellion, Hightone, 1997.
(Jimmie Lee Maslon) Salacious Rockabilly Cat, Hightone, 1997.
(Various Artists) Rollin' Rock—Got the Sock, Vol. 1, Hightone, 1997.
(Various Artists) Rollin' Rock—Got the Sock, Vol. 2, Hightone, 1998.
(Various Artists) Cat Music, Hightone, 1998.
(Mack Stevens) Mack Stevens at Rollin' Rock, Hightone, 1998.
(Mack Stevens) Hardcore Texas Cat Music!, Rollin' Rock, 1999.
(Dragstrip 77) Sin City Hot Rods, Dionysus, 1999.
(Rip Carson) Rip Carson & the Twilight Trio, Rollin' Rock, 1999.
(The Original Band) Still Rockin' Around the Clock, Rollin' Rock, 1999.
(Narvel Felts) At Rollin' Rock: Those Pink & Black Days, Goofin', 1999.
(Alvis Wayne) Rockabilly Daddy, Rollin' Rock, 2000.
(Dragstrip 77) Rockabilly Daze, Rollin' Rock, 2000.
(Johnny & the Blades) Let's Make Vegas Tonight, Rollin' Rock, 2000.
(Mack Stevens) Texas Heat, Rollin' Rock, 2000.
(The Chop Tops) Always Wild, Rollin' Rock, 2000.
(Rip Carson & the Twilights Trio) Stand Back, Rollin' Rock, 2000.
(The Starlight Drifter) Thirteen To Go, Rollin' Rock, 2001.
(Paul Galaxy & the Galactix) Cross the Line, Rollin' Rock, 2001.
(Mack Stevens) Let's Rock Tonight!, Rollin' Rock, 2001.
(Alvis Wayne) Proud of My Rockabilly Roots, Rollin' Rock, 2001.
(Bill Haley's Comets) Aged to Perfection, Rollin' Rock, 2001.
(Paul Galaxy & the Galactix) Slingshot, Rollin' Rock, 2005.
Blue Suede News, Fall 1997; Spring 2001; Fall 2003.
Original Cool, July, September, and November 1999; January 2000; May 2000.
Roctober, Fall 1999.
"Grethe Weiser," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (March 4, 2006).
"Ronny Weiser," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 4, 2006).
"Ronny Weiser," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com (March 6, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from interviews with Ronny Weiser, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.