Take 5 with Jim Culleny

Dr. Peter Narvaez wore many hats. Musician, singer/songwriter, folklorist, and friend. I was lucky to perform and record with him, but my favourite Peter moments were in his MUS 3018 Blues and Jazz course at Memorial University. When I was getting ready to start work at the University of Victoria where I taught a similar course, he laid all manner of great advice on me. This guy had big ears and a big heart. But “Peter the Teacher” is just one side of this incredible human who we lost too soon.

I had heard of this wild, provocative music he made as a youngster with Jim Culleny, and I finally found a mint copy of the 45 rpm recording. I posted it online and was thrilled when Jim himself reached out to say hello. Jim too has a big hat collection. Musician, poet, writer, project manager for an architectural firm. These really guys are kings, in name and at heart.


Jim Culleny was kind enough to eloquently answer some questions about poetry, music, early rock and roll, and Peter. Listen to his poetry here. Read it here. Make it a part of your life from here. I am so thankful to have made this connection with Jim.

1. How did you and Pete meet, and how did you go from being “Pete and Jimmy” to “Pete and Jimmy and the Rhythm Knights?” 

Our town, Boonton, in northern NJ was small and had two elementary schools. Mine went to the sixth grade, the other, which Peter attended, went to eighth, so our 7th and eighth grades merged in Pete’s school. We became acquainted there, but did not get to know each other well until high school.A real friendship began because we both loved music. I started  trumpet in the fourth grade and in HS joined boys chorus and glee club. Peter did too but our friendship took off through a shared awakening to the music coming out of radio stations in NY, Philadelphia and Newark: rhythm & blues, blues, doowop, rockabilly. Having come up with the radio of the mid to late 1940s: great standards, singers, Big Band, but also insipid stuff, we were essentially blown away by new sounds coming in on radio waves. The energy, thump, harmonies, coolness, drive; to us, all new.

So Pete suddenly had a guitar (a Gretsch) and encouraged me to get one which I did (an F-hole Harmony), and I guess right there was the beginning of Pete and Jimmy and the Rhythm Knights. Peter and I’d get together to learn songs, harmonies. Copping from that music we did covers of Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Penguins, James Brown, Gene Vincent, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, The Five Satins, Jonny Cash, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison…we along with young white others tapped into a rich vein of black gold and rural white.

We started doing local gigs. One of those was at The Meadowbrook, also in North Jersey, which had dances/shows on Sunday afternoons (one of our gigs, Link Wray also played there: Rumble; at another, Tom and Jerry who were our age and who wound up doing well for themselves as it turned out).

In the parking lot after one these shows Jimmy Frey of Livingston approached and asked if we wanted a lead guitarist —Peter and I were more chords than licks at that time, so we said, Yeh. Jimmy knew Skip Hegel of South Orange, a very good drummer, so that capped the Rhythm Knights, all of whom by fabulous coincidence loved playing and making music.

2. Could you describe the recording session itself? What memories stand out? Did you ever hear it on the radio?

—con’t from above:

So we did (make music), which soon produced a manger whose name I don’t remember but who made a connection with Castle Records nearby in NJ and we recorded So Wild and Bye and Bye. Those songs BTW, were Peter’s first songs —finally picking up on Peter’s lead I started writing a few years later.

We recorded at a small studio in Linden NJ, I think, or somewhere near —one town morphs into another in that part of NJ: you’re driving and before you know it it’s not Linden anymore, but looks the same. The studio was in a small block building jammed between two others, but was a cool place to be. We recorded both songs there one night, enormous fun. The session really was just doing the songs the way we did them, but with playback !— hearing decent recordings of the songs was cool and exciting. But remember, this was late 1950’s technology.

To promote the record we did an interview pretty much right away on an AM radio station in PA, maybe an hour or two from metropolitan NJ. Drove there in Jimmy’s coupe Ford (on happy before-drugs edge but psyched) and did the interview —at its conclusion, almost immediately the DJ dropped the disc on a spindle and spun the record while we raced to the car to hear it for the first time on the radio.

3. I love your poem “Jazzman Said.” Is there a connection between your music and your poetry?

I was in some waiting room and picked up a book of b&w photos of jazz musicians with quotes. The one of Coleman Hawkins intrigued me in the way it told much about his life in sustained brevity. So I saved it and later wrote that poem which explored the notion a little, imagining Hawkins saying a word or two more, which may have been the Irish in me. Jazz intrigued me in how those musicians pull off such spontaneous magic by head and muscle memory and spirit —and do it with such apparent ease despite sweat.

4. Peter loomed large in the music community of St. John’s, Newfoundland. What was it like coming up with him, and do you have any special Pete memories?

Peter was just solid, smart and fun. He had a way of busting out with laughter as he threw a hand to forehead that cracked me up. He did that later in life too, always put me in an old comfort zone. As to finding a lifelong friend (as it happily turned out) I couldn’t have had better fortune. Although in over 50 years we never lived in close proximity after HS, we never lost touch, sharing news and music, looking back and forward simultaneously. A thing I most miss now is being able to share that with Pete. He’d send me new vinyl —Homegas, Rock n’ Roll Ruby, or a tape and I’d send him a tape or, later a CD of things I’d been doing. I respected his sense of song, and looked forward to hearing what he had to say. Peter’s musical world expanded after HS when he discovered the music that lay behind everything we’d been doing.

I hadn’t seen him for a year or two after HS and visited him at his mother’s house in Boonton. His bed was strewn with blues records and his guitar right there. Pete was as animated as I’d ever seen him, loading me with info about blues musicians, spinning a song or two —people I’d never heard of: Blind Lemon, Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins. He was just blown away. Funny thing about this though. On one of his discs or records, somewhere in the blurbs and copy, he credits me with turning him onto those blues singers, but I recall just the opposite.

Over the years we’d visit each other, and every time we’d play and swap songs —drove from Massachusetts to St. Johns in 1991 with my wife and daughter —long drive. We once even did a little Rhythm Knights reunion when we were both in NJ at the same time, some 20 years later. We’d located Jimmy Frey and met at his home to play. Unfortunately, no one knew where Skip was so we asked another HS friend and drummer to sit it. the session was a little rusty but not bad —head and muscle memory rose to the occasion.

5. Finally, I ask everyone this: what’s the best food in your hometown and why?

Best food at The Westend Pub. Consistently on. Great crabcakes, pasta, shrimp, haddock, excellent soups, convivial, young people and old, good place to be and eat.