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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mining More Rock and Roll Gold

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? Jobs within the music industry perhaps? Chances are most 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 autograph shows held in/around North Hollywood. Back when I attended, Tommy Sands, Michael Callan, and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes were accessible as a clerk behind your market counter, and at least as free of star temperament. A few generations ago, I’d have had to wade among mobs of screaming teens for but a glimpse of them. Imagine knowing such fame so long ago --- then to look back from comparative anonymity you’ve known since. Sands, Callan, and Byrnes remained visible for those who looked closely, as have other luminaries from teen idolatry’s past. I’d assume most could peruse a fast food menu without fear of molestation from 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 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 where songs are needed. 1956 was perhaps the final year girls wore white gloves like Tuesday’s when downtown shopping. The picture is slapdash enough to be utterly convincing. Camera-awkward teens were what 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 mention of the now-past 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 was 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 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), while Clark skated 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'd change. Freed is 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). He played himself in all five of screen appearances, and no voice for the movement evoked its special qualities so well. Samples of his airchecks are online. Nothing I’ve heard captures early days of radio R&R like this. Dick Clark’s television shows are meanwhile unreleased on legit DVD. 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 tied 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, host Clark holding 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. Dick Clark is a relaxed and confident lead. He might have done more along these lines were it not for the punishing TV schedule. 

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. 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 had 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.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

My favorite part of "Rock Rock Rock" is when Tuesday Weld meets Tommy Randazzo, who, within two minutes, tells her he's in love with her. She was 13 and he was, what, 35?

8:06 AM  
Blogger Rich D said...

I've never seen BOP GIRL, but your description of The Goofers had my clicking over to Google to see if I could find any more information. Evidentally, they made at least 1 appearance on Ed Sullivan and their drummer also drummed for Louis Prima! (Prima's Vegas shows were of course known for their wildness...)

From the description of their act, I have to wonder how much of an influence Spike Jones and his City Slickers was on the group.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

Hmmm...I'd have to say George O'Hanlon's best-known character was not Joe McDoakes but George Jetson.Of course, THE JETSONS were still in the future (aren't they always?) when the film was made so I guess you're right. Never mind.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Warren Smith, "the nation's top rock 'n' roll star"???? That lasted for what, 20 minutes? I've never even HEARD his version of "Rock and Roll Ruby" - which, by the way, was written by Johnny Cash.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor Judy Tyler was dead in a car wreck before BOP GIRL and JAILHOUSE ROCK wound their way into theaters - I assume that's why her should-be-starring-billing is way down in the poster.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last surviving member of the Goofers is living in an Elder Care Center in Las Vegas, NV, Tommy.

7:01 PM  

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