home page | discography | contact | links
 

by Robert Meyerowitz

 

 

Three years ago, Jerry Englerth was at a record show in the Village Gate Mall, rifling through boxes of old 45s. He was looking for one record in particular, a very obscure rockabilly side on Brunswick, #9-55037 - and he wasn't having any luck. "And then I got smart about it," Englerth recalls, "and started asking the guys if they knew of 'Sputnik.'"
He found a collector who knew the record - in fact, this particular dealer had had a copy for sale until a moment earlier. "A kid standing across the table had bought it," says Englerth. "The dealer pointed to him. I told him who I was. And the kid said, 'I'd be more than happy to let you take it.' He'd paid something like 30 bucks for it. So the guy gave him his money back.
"I said, 'What do you want for it?' And (the dealer) said, 'Well, because it's your record, I'll let you have it for 10,'"
Englerth explained all of this to me one recent morning in the kitchen of his Irondequoit home. On the table between us as we talked were two red leatherette scrapbooks - the remains of his turn in the spotlight.
"That's it," he said apologetically, as he flipped though one of the books. "It's weird - you'd think I'd have more. But it all happened so fast, and geez, who thought to get pictures and all of that?"
It was the "all of that" that Englerth wanted to talk about; slowly, we worked our way backwards. "Ya know," he finally said, trying to reconstruct a date, "I don't think anybody's ever asked me about all of this before - at least, not in an interview. Well, not in a long time, anyway."
There was a time, once, when Englerth was the hot new kid on the block, and fast-talking deejays across the state were pumping him for information. It was a time when the Tupelo-by-way-of-Memphis shouter was blazing a path up the charts, when ducktailed wannabes were plunking down hard-earned cash for guitars, when the Reds had put an ominous object in orbit - but we're getting ahead of ourselves again.
Jerry Englerth was born in Rochester in 1936. He had some musical inclination - he remembers singing all through grade school - but as he tells it, music didn't really grab his sleeve and tug hard until he was 10 years old, when his family moved out West. He spent four years in Arizona, and that's when he heard Country and Western music. Local bands. Marty Robbins. And Mexican music: "Oh, I loved those trumpets, and the guitars, and how the kids would dance...."
Still, it was Country music that made the biggest impression on him. His parents split up while his family was in Arizona; Englerth returned to Rochester with his mother and brothers and sisters, and his new love.
Englerth soon discovered that Country music was a genre that had more legitimacy the farther west one travelled. "'Hillbilly' was a derogatory term," he recalled, "but they'd use it (in Rochester). If people knew you played Country music, they'd call you a hillbilly, they'd say, 'Oh, you do Country? You're a' - pardon my language - 'shit-kicker.'
"And I'd say, 'Well, do you like "Ghost Riders In The Sky"? Do you like "Jambalaya'? "'Ooooh,' they'd say, 'I love that!' "Well, that's Country, just done with a big band, that's all it is....And today, Country's phenomenal! I mean, there's no bigotry, no prejudice toward it! People who had no use for it in my day are going for pure Country now."
Through high school Englerth did what nice, musically-inclined boys did then: He played in the high school band, on the French horn and mellophone. In his spare time he worked on his cowboy numbers, but he didn't quite have a match between interests and instruments.
And then he found the guitar. "I was always a singer, and then I wanted to accompany myself. I had a paper route, and bought my first guitar, a Martin D-28, in 1951. Cost $200 - which would be equivalent to something like $ 1,000 today. That was highly unusual: a kid of my age, walking around with a Martin guitar."
He played his Country numbers in talent shows, and then he started to fool around with them. "I'd always liked rhythm, jazzing up things. So even, like, 'White Sportcoat' - boom-boom, I'd do it in a jazzy style, put rhythm to it. I had my brother, who was a drummer, and we were playing basically rock-and-roll rhythm, but without a lead guitar. If you heard it today, you'd say, "They're rockin' it' - damn right we were rockin' it, 'cause we liked the rhythm !".
'Whoa - who can do this?'
Englerth was playing a steady diet of talent shows and any other available venue, and still playing his jazzy Country music - until one day, when he heard Elvis Presley singing on the radio.
"Boy, did that blow me away. Geez! And then I had to go out and buy all his records. He just pushed a button in me, you know? And his guitar player, Scotty Moore, whew! That finger-picking, it was, oh, I don't know, nirvana. So that's when I said, 'I've gotta find a guitar player. Who in town can do this?'.
"You've got to realize, in the era of rock and roll, in Rochester, trying to find a guitarist - it was like hen's teeth, they were so scarce. You knew just about every guitar player in Rochester, and you could count 'em on both hands. See, you were brought up in an era when you accept guitars, and everybody can go out and buy one. But I had a hell of a time, particularly finding somebody who could play the way I wanted 'em to play - which was Carl Perkins, Presley, (Bill) Haley's stuff."
A year out of high school, Englerth found his lucky hen's tooth: local guitar ace Neil Marvel, who already had a band. Together with Englerth, they were soon Rochester's first rock and roll band. Englerth, the front man, was (as the local papers had it) the city's first "rockabilly songster."
In short order, Englerth also snared a manager, Nick Nickson. It didn't hurt any that Nickson was then the city's top afternoon disc jockey ("The 'Ole' Professor"), on WBBF-AM.
Englerth was the first and last act that Nickson managed. "We were doing a lot of record hops, week after week and every Friday and Saturday," Nickson, now 70, explained by phone recently. "In the mid-'50s there, all of a sudden everything got rock and roll. And bingo, it all dissolved into one great big pop market." Locally, said Nickson, Englerth "was quite popular. He was a nice-looking young man; he played guitar and just wailed away."

Meanwhile, Englerth worked a string of day jobs, starting as a bank teller; and then, after a few years, moving over to the secure arms of the Eastman Kodak Company. But he kept burning the candle at both ends: he and his newfangled band were packing 'em in at local hotspots like The Chateau, The Paramount, and The Bel-Air Club. They were playing a mix of Presley and Perkins covers, Country standards, and Englerth's own material.
One of the first songs Englerth wrote - a space-age number - was destined to be his best-known tune.
Flyin' all around the world
In 1957, the Soviet Union announced that it had put the first man-made object into orbit, a satellite dubbed Sputnik (Russian for "fellow traveler"). Sputnik, at best a speck to the naked eye, would eventually engender paranoia, recrimination, and the space race. Initially, however, it simply inspired awe.
A newspaper article at the time caught Englerth's eye: The writer wondered, how long would it be before Sputnik, this triumph of engineering, was immortalized in song?
A fuse was lit under Englerth. On a Kodak coffee-break, he dashed off the lyrics:
I say the fun has Just begun
We 're on Sputnik Number One....

And he kept moving quickly. "I went right into Fine Recording, on St. Paul Street, and laid it down. I wanted a vocal group, so I started asking around, Was there a vocal group in town? I wanted the complete sound, and that was the sound then. And somebody said, (get) the Four Ekkos."

He did; and the song was cut, for a thenprincely $600. "Then I took it up to Nick (Nickson). He got all excited - he's quite a motivator. He picked up the phone, and called Len Levy (at the Decca/Brunswick record label) in New York. He played it for Len over the telephone. And then Len went crazy! He said, 'Get it down here.' And then, aw geez, the whole thing just took off."
When the finished record came back, Englerth discovered that Brunswick had changed "Englerth" to "Engler," and retitled the song "Satellite Girl" - but he had a record. And a hot one. "Engler is on his way toward becoming the toast of this nation's teenagers," boasted a Brunswick press release. "He's definitely' out of this world'!"

Trying to milk its new property, Brunswick quickly booked him onto rock and roll bills in Buffalo, Syracuse, Detroit, and Canada. "Jerry Engler" was suddenly sharing a stage with Sam Cooke.
It was a shorter ride than Sputnik's. Englerth was still busily writing, but he was on the road, and he didn't have another record to take its place when "Sputnik" slipped earthward.
"It seemed like it was so short," Englerth says quietly. "And then boom! It was over."
In retrospect, Englerth has said that he believes sales of "Sputnik" may have been adversely affected by growing anti-communist sentiments. Just as likely, the single was elbowed off the charts by competition like "Great Balls of Fire" (although during the third week of November, 1957, in the "Detroit Area Teen Tally," Englerth's single charted a spot higher than Jerry Lee Lewis's).
At the same time, Englerth' s marriage, to his high school sweetheart, Diane Whitehead, was falling apart. They had had two children, Mark and Sharon.
"When' Sputnik' took off, tilings went crazy. It was taking a lot of my time, I had to take a leave of absence from Kodak, and I felt I was neglecting the kids. I had a decision to make. I'm very family-oriented and, coming from a divorced family, I said, 'No way are my kids gonna be put through what I went through. They're going to have somebody there.
"In some places I'm considered a one-hit wonder. But a lot of one-hit wonders kept trying. I didn't."
Englerth came off the road. But before he relinquished his place in the spotlight, he played on a dream bill at the Rochester War Memorial, opening for Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, and Paul Anka. Backstage, Anka introduced Englerth to Holly. Holly suggested that he come out to Norm Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Holly had cut his hits.
Englerth gave it one more shot. He paid his way out to Clovis, and recorded there with Holly on September 7, 1958 - on Holly's birthday. Holly had just turned 22 years old (the same age as Englerth). The two Country-minded rockers cut two songs together, both Englerth's compositions: "What A You Gonna Do?" and "I Sent You Roses."
Several days later, Holly played in the Clovis studio for the last time. He then returned to New York, where he had relocated from his native Lubbock, Texas. Amazingly, neither of the last two songs Holly released, "Heartbeat" and "It's So Easy," dented the pop charts. Discouraged, and needing money, he went back out on the road.
Five months later, Buddy Holly was dead.
It just didn't sound like music anymore
Englerth returned to Rochester from New Mexico, carrying the two master tapes of his sessions with Holly. The next Englerth heard of Holly was a radio bulletin, announcing Holly's death in a plane crash.
"It was a shock," Englerth recalled. "I'd never lost somebody that was young; it had always been older people. And to lose somebody that young, that had so much to live for, That was so talented - God, it just floored me."
Englerth continued to play music after that, but he didn't play out as much. In 1959 he got married again (to his current wife, Elaine), and then had two more daughters. He moved from Kodak to Xerox, and slowly worked his way up the managerial ladder - until he was stalled by a heart attack in 1971. He returned to work, but he soon suffered a second, third, and fourth attack, as well as a minor stroke. He retired in 1973.
In 1988, Englerth recorded an album of engaging, original Country songs, Win Some-Lose Some, in the small studio he'd set up in the back of his house. Like the Sun Records pioneers - Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis - Englerth had emerged from a Country music background to take a brief turn with rockabilly; like those stars, Englerth, in his own time, returned to his first love. Indeed, the "Country" bins of a music store are where you'll find albums by most ex-rockabilly stars, from Charlie Feathers to Wanda Jackson to Charlie Rich.
Englerth told me that he had been impressed by The Beatles and the other British Invasion bands, but lost interest in pop music when harder rock came into vogue. "There was that period of time when the music just went hollerin' and screaming, and the loud playing, the guitars and that - it just didn' t sound like music, you know?"
(Of course, that was the same criticism that greeted Elvis Presley when he first hit the national airwaves, but no matter, by now, there must be Sex Pistols fans, somewhere, who find modern music strange, savage, and unsettling.)
Lately, Englerth has returned to music from a different angle: 12 years ago, he began Songwriters Advocate, a workshop group for aspiring composers. "I've never been out of music; it's been a part of my life, one way or another, and I don't know what I'd do without it."
A year ago, after Englerth had discovered that his 1950s recordings had a collectors' cachet, he went back into a recording studio and re-recorded "Sputnik." Following the advice of the collectors, he issued it as a limited-edition 45 rpm, backed with "What A You Gonna Do," one of the Holly-produced sides that he'd been sitting on all these years. Through classified ads and in local music stores, the $10 record has sold slowly but steadily. Later this year he hopes to release another record with the other song Holly produced and played guitar on, "I Sent You Roses."
Not long after I heard the re-recording of "Sputnik," I mentioned it to Bruce Miles, the owner of Richmonds and Milestones. "You oughta see if you can get him to come down and play," I said. "You could try to get Bobby Henrie & The Goners" - a tight local rockabilly trio - "to back him up."
We were several beers into the evening, and Miles was, understandably, noncommital.
A few nights later, on Halloween of last year, Miles left a message on my answering-machine: "Just thought you'd like to know your guy Engler is down at Richmonds right now. And he's playing with Bobby Henrie & The Goners."
It was a coincidence: They'd found each other independently. In fact, two of the Goners had played on the new "Sputnik."
At Richmonds, they ran through "Sputnik" and a couple of other Englerth numbers. Alas, by the time I got to the bar, Englerth was gone.
"It was probably one of the most exciting nights I'd had in many, many moons," Englerth told me later. "I mean, I felt like I was 21 years old again"

Interview done in 1993

More : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/JerryEngler.html


Jerry Engler today
 
JERRY ENGLER'S LYRICS
Sputnik - Unfaithful One - I Sent You Roses - What A' You Gonna Do
 
home page | discography | contact | links