When my father was a teenager growing up in Seal Beach, California, he would stay up late at night listening in the dark to The Johnny Otis Show being broadcast from KFOX, a Long Beach AM radio station. It’s hard at this late date to imagine what a subversive act it was for a white bread teenage square like Allan Dean Dobkins to be listening to that sort of devil music in that house with my strict and upright grandparents sleeping in the room next door. My pop kept the sound volume on his radio set at a barely perceptible level to avoid discovery and punishment.
I didn’t come into his life until a decade later when he started dating my mother. They married, set up house together, and co-mingled their belongings. A couple years later, Dean adopted me, making me a Dobkins and becoming officially my father.
It’s impossible to meet our parents before we are born, or, in my dad’s case, before he started dating my mother. Who they were remains a mystery that we can never fully crack, but young children are excellent observers like little mini-Jane Goodalls in the field, collecting clues, listening to stories, and noting details about these large looming giants that dominate our early lives so, our parents.
Somewhere in my explorations out in the field of the Dobkins co-mingled household, I came across an old 45 record of Little Richard. It was issued in 1956 with “Long Tall Sally” on side A and “Slippin’ and Slidin'” on the B side. I was just beginning to listen to pop music on my own initiative and this 45 record, no longer of use to its original owner in the age of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Woodstock, became part of my growing collection of LPs and 45s. I inherited a lot of culture this stealthy fashion when I was just starting out.
It wasn’t until decades later when I mentioned in passing that I had been listening to Johnny Otis on KPFK, a left-wing and left of the dial FM station in the Los Angeles area, that I found out my dad’s naughty little secret about listening to forbidden music played low in the dark when he was a stealth teenage rebel in the fifties. I didn’t immediately make the connection, but at some point, I realized that the Little Richard 45 I now owned was a direct physical artifact from that era in my dad’s life.
So I’m not really writing about Little Richard in this piece. Other people, better versed in his autobiography and his musical significance will be doing that. What I am trying to set up and share is a scenario that I’ve conjured in my mind from the strands of youthful field research into my now deceased dad’s life. I can’t swear that it happened exactly this way, but it’s possible. Maybe even likely.
It’s 1956. My father’s sixteenth birthday is less than three months away. A cool night sea breeze laps at the lingering heat from summer day, and there’s a slight salty tang in the air from the waves breaking on the shore of the beach two blocks away. The only light in my dad’s bedroom is the faint glow of the radio’s tuner.
From a tinny little mono speaker, Little Richard’s voice swoops and dives and delivers all you will ever need to know about a gal named Sally while a sax wails and the drum and piano pound a joyous rhythm that makes you giddy to be alive. The track ends and Johnny Otis tells my father in a low volume whisper that he has just heard “Long Tally Sally,” a brand new 45 recorded by Little Richard. Right then and there, Dean Dobkins (he never really liked Alan part of his name) decides he has to possess this 45 record — even if it means a trek into Long Beach to find a record store selling this music.
It’s a moment I want to believe happened, when my dad was fifteen and Little Richard was only twenty-three, and their whole lives waited ahead of them.