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A James Ellroy Playlist: Sing It Like It Is

March 15, 2021

James Ellroy has often described his work as an alternative or secret history of twentieth-century America. In this world, ‘Bad White Men’ are in power and they are determined to keep a firm hold on it. Power may stem from positions of influence in the White House or the FBI, but Ellroy prefers characters whose authority comes from their status as corrupt cops, entrepreneurial gangsters or ideological racists. These are the noir characters who have discarded conventional morality in order to ‘dance to the music in their own heads‘. Ironically Ellroy frequently references music which is beyond the understanding of his racist men. For Ellroy understands that music is language, and if you are outside of its rhythm, then you cannot gain access to the world it is creating. Therefore, Ellroy can utilise jazz, Motown or soul music to undermine or mock the authority of his Bad White Men.


One of Ellroy’s most prominent racist characters is the Mormon tycoon Wayne Tedrow Sr in The Cold Six Thousand. Tedrow Senior’s son, Wayne Jr, is a Las Vegas Sheriff who despises his father. But when Wayne Jr’s wife is murdered by a black man, Junior somewhat ambiguously embraces Senior’s racist views. Tedrow Sr’s wife Janice has a string of affairs to escape her husband’s boorish behaviour. Tedrow Sr tacitly endorses Janice’s flings as it gives him blackmailing opportunities. But when Janice sleeps with the black saxophonist Wardell Gray he is furious with her as she has crossed a (racial) line. Wayne Jr learns that his vengeful father personally beat Wardell Gray to death. One of his father’s ex-employees tells him: ‘Mommy had this unauthorised thing with a coloured musician named Wardell Gray, and Daddy beat him to death with his cane.’

To exact revenge on his father, Wayne Jr begins his own unauthorised affair with his stepmother Janice. In James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction, Jim Mancall argues that ‘It is not a coincidence that when Tedrow Jr and Janice finally consummate their lust, Junior notices that “the hi-fi was on” playing “cool jazz or some such shit-matched horns discordant”‘. The discordance of the music indicates that vows, contracts and traditions are being broken. But on a higher level, the harmonies are speaking of a love and sexual satisfaction that the sadistic Tedrow Sr will never experience. He can only view it from afar, quite literally, as he records Janice making love with her partners.

The circumstances surrounding Wardell Gray’s death are still murky. Ellroy gives some insight into how he adapted Gray’s story into fiction in this interview with Robert Birnbaum. One of Gray’s most famous compositions is ‘Twisted’. Here’s his original tune. Annie Ross added lyrics and it became a hit song for the jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1952. Their version is below. It’s a nicely comic number which now reminds me of the twisted trysts and love triangles of Tedrow Sr, Wayne Jr and Janice. Enjoy:

Tell It Like It Is

In Blood’s a Rover, Ellroy achieves some of his most effective and comical critiques of racism in his portrayal of the mental decline of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover might be considered the most powerful racist in Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. However, by the late 1960s, he is gradually succumbing to senility and faces a new threat from President Richard Nixon who clearly thinks Hoover’s time has passed. Hoover mocks Nixon’s efforts to appeal to a younger, ethnically diverse demographic through his use of the phrase ‘Tell it like it is’. In conversation with agent Dwight Holly, Hoover remarks, ‘Your telex implied that you have bad news. “Tell it like it is,” as President Nixon often states in his fawning efforts to sound au courant with longhairs and insurrection-seeking Negroes.’

The genesis of the phrase, both in popular culture and as a campaign slogan, is fascinating. Roy Milton recorded a song ‘Tell It Like It Is’ in 1954. In 1966, two years prior to Nixon’s election as President, Aaron Neville had a major hit with his song ‘Tell It Like It Is’. His version is below. For a hilarious reading by Ellroy himself of Hoover and Richard Nixon using jive phrases, check out this video. The reading begins at around the 53 minute mark.

The Tighten Up

It’s not just jive phrases that seem to be bugging Hoover in Blood’s a Rover. He develops a fascistic fixation on Archie Bell & the Drells. Hoover mentions to Dwight Holly that he heard a ‘very disquieting song on the radio’. The song is ‘The Tighten Up’ which, according to Hoover, ‘carried the air of insurrection and sex’. Early in the novel, Holly isn’t sure whether Hoover is genuinely senile or just trying to test him. How is he supposed to respond when Hoover tells him that he has instructed the ‘Los Angeles SAC to open a file on Mr Bell and to determine the identity of his Drells.’ But as the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Hoover is suffering from a sharp mental decline and all his attempts to deny it comically fail, ‘My physician, Dr Archie Bell, considers me to be an outstanding specimen’.

Here is the song that kickstarts Hoover’s dubious fascination with Archie Bell & the Drells. It’s a funky tune but I’m not sure why Hoover deemed it subversive. Maybe it’s the long intro. Bell always mentioned that the band was from Texas as after JFK’s assassination in Dallas, a DJ remarked ‘nothing good ever came from Texas’. Bell managed to prove him wrong:

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