How many of us had a barber silently reflecting upon short-lived rock and roll stardom as he cut our hair? That lady behind the florist window could well have danced and sang with pop music headliners in one of Sam Katzman’s quickies. The Whatever Became Of … list generated over years of R&R meteor showering grows ever longer and more obscure. Never did as many young stars flash so brightly and disappear so quickly. Cast lists from features I’ve recently watched run a gamut from faintly familiar to totally unknown. Where did all that promising talent go? Back to school (hopefully)? Jobs within the music industry perhaps? Chances are most (eventually) lived and worked among folks ignorant as to their past glories in vintage rock and roll movies. My imdb search turned up nothing beyond a single credit for many of these performers. I wonder where they did end up. Grocery clerking, bank telling, cobbling my shoes --- or yours? Teen idols of yesteryear frequent Ray Courts autograph shows four times a year in North Hollywood. Back when I attended, Tommy Sands, Michael Callan, and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes were accessible as a clerk behind your meat counter at Harris-Teeter, and at least as unaffected and free of star temperament. Fifty years ago, I’d have had to wade amongst thousands of screaming teenagers for but a glimpse of them. Imagine knowing such fame and adulation so long ago --- then to look back from comparative anonymity you’ve known since. Sands, Callan, and Byrnes have remained visible for those who looked closely, as have other luminaries from teen idolatry’s past. I’d assume most could peruse a Burger King menu without fear of molestation from youthful autograph seekers, though you figure they’ve got to miss it from time to time.
Bands featured in Rock, Rock, Rock! seem qualified enough for a gig at my local YMCA. Such relaxed casting standards among low-budget R&R producers lend roughhewn verite qualities to shows otherwise (and unfairly) dismissed as amateurish. Rock, Rock, Rock! combines missiles poised for career take-off (Tuesday Weld) with duds sputtering in a first and last audition for teen pic glories (Jacqueline Kerr and Fran Manfred, neither to appear in further motion pictures or TV). Campus catch Tommy Randazzo has that silken Duke Mitchell quality about his crooning that made me wonder if rock and roll was really such a departure from vocal styling that had gone before. Randazzo was another of those fringe performers I’d not heard of before seeing Rock, Rock, Rock!. An imdb search revealed further appearances in rock musicals of similar pedigree and many hits as a songwriter later on, yet Tommy might have had a hard time convincing most of us he’d once been (sort of) famous on screen. For the few that hit, there were thousands who didn’t, or like Tommy, sparked but briefly. Rock, Rock, Rock! otherwise delivers on the promise of its advertising. This is a real teenage musical, about kids and starring kids. Tuesday Weld, at thirteen, is dubbed by Connie Francis when songs are needed. 1956 was perhaps the final year girls wore white gloves like Tuesday’s when downtown shopping. The picture is just slapdash enough to be utterly convincing. Camera-awkward teens were what all these shows needed to connect with their intended audience. Compare Rock, Rock, Rock! with the following year’s Bop Girl Goes Calypso, a woebegone effort to catch a musical wave that failed to break on US boxoffice shores. Its title was ultimately shortened to Bop Girl when calypso references were deemed a liability, and post-release pressbooks made nary a mention of the now discarded fad. Producers seemed bent on denying young viewers screen access to their peers. Judy Tyler (at 24) was romanced by pre-Emergency Bobby Troup (38), with sideline kibitzers George O’Hanlon (best known as middle-aged, and eternally set-upon, Joe McDoakes) and surefire teen magnet Lucien Littlefield, fulfilling promise initially shown in 1914 when he started out with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Bop Girl is salvaged by unexpected forays into outer limits of rock and roll variation. The Goofers sail across the stage on trapeze rings as they (expertly) play trombone upside down. This band’s eventual fate is unknown to me. For sheer physical effort, they should have outsold The Beatles, but I’m betting they finished up in rural supper clubs. Amazing the talent people took for granted in those days …
Alan Freed was the man who put rock and roll on the map. He (literally) sang its praises on radio, first from far-flung Cleveland in the early fifties, then on NYC airwaves when he and the music got hot. Instinctive genius Freed saw what was coming early on (check him out here with Little Richard and Bill Haley). He’s featured in five rock and roll features as recognized King of the Big Beat, ruling unchallenged until a corporatized new order pushed he and his raffish kind out. Team players along the lines of smooth operator Dick Clark would then take over. Freed and Clark were the Goofus and Gallant of pop interlocutors. A 1953 auto pile-up rearranged Alan’s handsome features and left him with a crooked grin and scarred nose to complement raspy and staccato on-air delivery. Everything Freed did wrong, Clark did right, including testimony before a Senate committee investigating payola in the music biz. One could say Alan paid for Dick’s sins. Freed represented everything smoky, visceral, and forbidden about R&R in its opening act (and would, in time-honored fashion, die utterly broke and forgotten in 1965) --- Clark would skate, for decades, along a surface newly polished by major labels back in control. The contrast between Freed in Don’t Knock the Rock and Clark in 1960’s Because They’re Young is testament to times and how they were a-changin’. The former’s a go-getter and admitted charlatan, but at all times rock and roll’s champion (here with femme admirers at an in-person theatre appearance). Freed played himself in all five of those pictures he made, and no voice for the movement evoked its special qualities so well. Samples of his airchecks are online. Nothing I’ve heard summons up those early days of radio R&R quite like this. Dick Clark’s television shows are meanwhile unreleased on legit DVD. I’d hoped to see volumes of early American Bandstands available, but nothing so far. Must be music rights holding them up. The one item I did come across (among a dealer’s bootleg stock) was the 9-12-59 installment of The Dick Clark Beech-Nut Show, a teevee relic tying in with his screen dramatic debut in Because They’re Young by way of feature player Roberta Shore’s singing appearance. I could only wish now to have every Beech-Nut show Clark did, as this one’s a priceless time capsule. Freckled girls swoon over Paul Anka. The ghostly kinescoped image of Bobby Rydell sings I Dig Girls in a manner reminiscent of gaunt footage I’d seen of Hank Williams close to the end, and host Clark holds packs of Beech-Nut spearmint gum in flawlessly manicured hands (would hyperactive Alan Freed ever have sat still for a manicure?). All this was my build-up to Because They’re Young, in which Dick played an idealistic high school teacher helping troubled teens find themselves. It’s a masterpiece embracing the all kids are basically good philosophy Clark espoused in all walks of his professional life, plus there’s James Darren dropping in on prom night to warble the title song (otherwise played by Duane Eddy in a hit-bound instrumental I begged for, and got, when I was six years old). Michael Callan seduces Tuesday Weld, robs a warehouse, then effects an eleventh-hour reformation (oops, my spoiler). Dick Clark’s a relaxed and confident lead. He might have done more along these lines were it not for punishing schedules he maintained for television. Judging by the unavailability of pictures like this and Universal’s The Unguarded Moment (along with others less ambitious), you’d think the only high school dramas anyone made were Rebel Without A Cause and The Blackboard Jungle. I don’t recall Because They’re Young turning up anywhere before TCM ran it recently. Is it too much to hope that Sony might someday release it on DVD?
A couple of images worth noting here. That’s William Benton, manager of Stanley-Warner’s Liberty Theatre in Philadelphia, checking out a Rock, Rock, Rock! display with noted disc jockey George Woods, whose personal appearance in connection with the film’s opening is anticipated here by the crowd surrounding a standee announcing his forthcoming gig. Woods promoted concerts with early Motown artists and commanded a huge following in Philadelphia’s black community. He acted on occasion as Dick Clark’s laison to that audience, for whom Clark programmed much of his own radio and television content. Integrated downtown houses were always leagues ahead in terms of programming. My own examination of newspaper microfilm reveals shows I’d have walked (over broken glass) to see back in the sixties, and they were all booked into so-called "colored" venues. While "A" locations in Winston-Salem were running mainstream dogs like The Honeymoon Machine and Dear Brigette (as first-run singles), there was the Center down on Liberty Street unspooling triple bills of The Mummy, Curse Of The Werewolf, and Horror Of Dracula, while the Lincoln up the block would open at 10:00 am and grind out She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Vertigo, and Vera Cruz --- and this was in 1964! Vintage rock and roll features played well into the sixties here as well, a happy result of prints still on hand in Charlotte exchanges and rental terms seldom exceeding $20 per title. Our own Liberty Theatre staged rock and roll parties during the fifties. I would have assumed Lloyd Arnold and his Rockin’ Drifters was some nowhere band out of the sticks that played our town plus a few gymtoriums, but I was happily corrected by websites celebrating a rockabilly group that still enjoys a loyal following. Warren Smith was another stellar name among southeast bands. We had him July 3, 1957, and more’s the pity I was only three at the time, for I’m sure this was one amazing show. The Liberty seems to have booked most of its live programs out of Memphis. They’d hosted country-western acts for years, in addition to cowboy star appearances along the lines of Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown. What was rockabilly but an extension of these sounds? Of all regions in the country making the adjustment to rock and roll, we might have been best prepared for it.