LISTEN: GPB's Kristi York Wooten talks with Zombies cofounder Rod Argent about his love for Southern music.

An entire generation of British musicians owes the roots of its success to the early stars of rock and roll in America, particularly Black songwriters and performers who created the sound imitated by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.

For Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Zombies, founded in England in 1961 and famous for hits such as "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season," there was a reverence for and awareness of the originality of the music of the American South, even as kids. 

Ahead of the Zombies' April 3 performance at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse, co-founder and keyboardist Rod Argent talked with GPB about his earliest memories as a young pianist and his love for Southern artists, including Albany, Ga.-born Ray Charles.

Kristi York Wooten: First, let's talk about your background as a musician. Take us back to your earliest days of sitting at a piano.

Rod Argent: Sitting at a piano. I was probably, about 7 years old … My dad was a dance back pianist. He had his own small dance band between the ages of 17 and the ages of 83. And it meant there was a piano in the house, of course. And I always used to sit down and pick out notes, play by ear completely. And, from a very early age, really working out a simple, chord progressions just by ear. That was the way I preferred, to actually play music and to learn.

Through my dad, I heard some early Duke Ellington stuff, which I loved right from the start. I just thought it was terrific, the bits that I heard. My mum was a great classical music lover, but in a very popular, sort of popular classic sort of way…She got me involved with, a very, very good choir, actually, and we were from a very working class home. And this was quite unusual, but it was a cathedral choir. And I passed the audition and got in, and it opened my ears to sort of 400 years of some of the finest music ever written, in a classical way. That was an incredible experience for me, and something which has stayed with me all my life.

So that was a brilliant way of exposing myself to that area of music.

And then when I was 11 years old, my cousin Jim Rodford, who was later bass player with The Kinks on their biggest ever selling records — he was four years older than me. I was 11. He was 15. It was in 1956. And he played me Elvis singing “Hound Dog,” and it blew me away. It changed my whole world around. And for six months, to my parents’ horror, I didn't want to hear or anything except the rawest rock 'n' roll I could find.

But at the same time, even then, I mean, unbelievably, it makes me sound very precocious ... maybe this was a couple of years later, actually. But I was walking home on a summer's night from a place called The Lake in St. Alban's. And it was a lovely surrounding, but it was dusk, and someone had the window open of his upstairs bedroom, and he was playing a Miles Davis track [from the album called] Milestones and I couldn't believe this. It was the most extraordinary thing I'd ever heard. I'd never heard the tonalities like that. It was like post-bop, bebop stuff. And it really, really got to me.

So all the time I was listening to Elvis, being completely, outrageously knocked out with him and Little Richard and a lot of the other early people around and the really rawest, sort of soulful rock and roll. At the same time, my eyes were also open to people like Miles doing Milestones.

Kristi York Wooten: So, to give our Georgia listeners some perspective: When the Zombies formed in the early 1960s in England, American music was, as you said, in the midst of the rock and roll revolution. And a lot of those artists were from the South, including Elvis. But Ray Charles [who was born in Georgia and grew up in northern Florida) had a No. 1 hit with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” in 1960. Little Richard, by that time, had several albums under his belt at that point having gone from “Tutti Frutti” to “Good Golly Miss Molly” and then finally on to gospel music. But do you remember actively hearing their playing, especially both of them being piano players, Ray Charles and Little Richard, having any sort of influence on any of that early Zombies songwriting?

Rod Argent: 100%. Absolutely. One of the earliest albums that I ever managed to buy was, I think it was 1959, Ray Charles in Person. And it was recorded with a single mic by, I think it was someone from a radio station, but obviously a huge fan. [The album was recorded by WAOK disc jockey Zenas "Daddy" Sears on May 28, 1959, at Morris Brown College's Herndon Stadium in Atlanta.]

Let me tell you about Ray Charles. I listened to Elvis, as I told you. But it was my way into Black music by proxy. Because very soon after I'd heard Elvis … He sounded like a Black rhythm and blues singer to me at the time. I mean, we, you know, we didn't know anything else to it, but it was wonderful. And I still think that early period is wonderful. But very soon I discovered that Big Mama Thornton was the person who did “Hound Dog,” first of all. And I had to listen to that, and that blew me away.


In 1965, The Zombies recorded "Sticks and Stones" by Atlanta songwriter Titus Turner and made famous by Ray Charles. The band occasionally performs the track.

And I got into Black music very quickly, along with many people of my age at the time. I mean, you know, people like Van Morrison would tell you the same thing. Certainly John Lennon would have told you the same thing. He said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing," you know. And it very quickly led me to Ray Charles. And when I heard this Ray Charles in Person album, I used to go home every night. And when my parents are gone to bed, I'd lie on the floor and on our radiogram, I used to put on Ray Charles in Person and listen to things like “Drown in My Own Tears,” which was the slowest version live, that I've ever heard of it. And it was with the Raelettes, and it was so slow that it didn't get to the chorus to about two or three minutes in, and then suddenly this glorious sound of the Raelettes singing, the whole thing just blew me away. And I absolutely loved it right from the beginning.

We did very early on; we started playing, and we do a version now, still, of the Ray Charles' song “Sticks and Stones” [written by Atlanta singer-songwriter Titus Turner], which was his follow up to “What I’d Say,” which was his first huge hit [which Ray Charles premiered at the Morris Brown concert]… But what wonderful discovery of some of those players at the time. 

The Zombies perform at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta on April 3, 2024.