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Monday, November 07, 2022

Just Face It --- Rock and Roll Can't Last!


The Fad Taking Seventy Years So Far to Fade

Rock and roll was a threat not just to parents but a thinking mainstream everywhere. Even ones calling themselves hep drew lines here. Not only was R&R disruptive, it was plain bad music. Why this wasn’t real music at all! Most papers it seemed had at least one columnist to lob grenades. Cincinnati’s was Dale Stevens, born 1921, so it wasn’t an altogether generational thing, and besides, he did show biz on a side, playing comedy, even doing records, with a pal (Jack Clements), “The Weird and the Beard” their club label for tunes like "Talking Horses" and "The Dog Doctor" (both at You Tube on Fraternity label). Why a guy who identified so with kooks and edge-cut humor would so disdain new-arrived music was anyone’s guess. Was teen age to age thirty-five so wide a leap? I bet Stevens listened to modern jazz and liked it. But as for so many others, younger even than him, R&R was going too far. The Cincinnati Post was where Stevens hung his writer hat, and he’d zero on whatever Big Beat jamboree came to town. Late fifties was an era of itinerant acts bundled for sake of shared costs, umbrella held by likes of Alan Freed or Dick Clark, but road mishaps, cancelled dates and the like made profit uncertain. There was always fear of community action queering plans, Freed especially traveling always under a cloud. Stevens’ was no crusade however, just slow drip of disapproval for a vogue that just had to end sooner than later for this critic’s piece of mind. How many in their mid-thirties embraced rock/roll? The fad seemed exclusive to youth. How many over eighteen attended an Alan Freed show? Dale Stevens was curious enough to find out from horse’s mouth that was Mister Rock and Roll himself.

Freed took inquiring calls from local press, this preferred to police reps inviting him to scat and stay gone. To grease a known columnist was to buy peace for short time spent in Cincinnati. Occasion was April 14, 1958, event at the Cincinnati Gardens, site to commune with known worst acoustics in Middle America. Here Stevens found Freed amidst 6800 kids come to see all-star assemblage that was Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, more talent than one could shake legacy CD box sets at. Imagine R&R historians transported back to that. They’d die of rapture. Column header thus, Rock-and-Roll Originator Says: “I Didn’t Count on This, Freed wise enough not to fudge aim of his game. “Rock and roll has changed music. In the beginning, it was 100 percent negro music,” this dating to earlier in the fifties when Freed first spun shellac on radio and popularized rhythm-and-blues for young white listeners. “The market for negro music was then very limited.” Rather than widen appeal for these artists however, Freed opened doors for “freak acts, the commercial copy-cats, and imitators.” Jerry Lee Lewis exemplified this to his mind, country singers and “rockabilly” slid deftly under cracks while Freed “thought I was bringing something new to the white people.” He was never a fan of rock-and-roll, did not choose it for leisure hours. Freed saw a like mind in Dale Stevens. “We’ve got a few years of (rock-and-roll) ahead yet. Most of these music eras are ten-year things.” Freed noted college students among following, “in another few years, we’ll have an overall college trend to rock-and-roll.” This all was vaporous but kept kids happy, he said, safer for them to do than “roam the streets.” In times, tastes would improve. “They have to start somewhere in music, and I think they’ll go on to better things,” said Freed.

Dale Stevens may have had scant enthusiasm for rock-and-roll revues, but as they had become fact of his life, he would report if not thump for them. Upcoming, he said, was more of same, a next week’s stand at the Garden to feature Frankie Avalon, La Verne Baker, and the Royal Teens. Same venue also put out feelers for a package to include Tommy Sands and Sal Mineo, Post readers invited to vote yay or nay as to booking for this bunch. R&R jamborees, you see, were never a sure thing. Stevens meanwhile plied his also-Post trade as a film critic, this more to his aesthetic liking, and that of theatre-men he called friends who’d let him in on coming attractions. Insider dope re Cincinnati handling of Raintree County made Post readers feel they ran cinemas of their own, for Stevens kept them current on business ends of house management and push to keep seats filled. He was clearly more into movies than music (currently popular music at least). Stevens would later initiate a film society that to this day operates in his name. Cincinnati was a show town any of us could embrace. Theatres and drive-ins with loaded bills made it seem as though decline facing the industry had somehow bypassed the town. I came by ads circa fifties into sixties and swooned over likes of Randolph Scott in person with The Tall T at the Twin Drive-In. What was protocol for outdoor personal appearances? Did Scott walk among parked cars and greet customers, or take position at head or tail of the canteen line? Tim Holt showed up at our Starlite Drive-In, a personal favor to owners it was said, this in 1954 after he had retired from westerns. I wonder if nature and under-stars enhanced the real Randy sighting that awaited Twin patrons. Would indoor handshake somehow confine, even diminish, such granite persona as his? There too was “The Daredevil Flying Valentines” at the Oakley Drive-In, them as seen in Trapeze, a 1956 hit. Was wire hung on site for the troupe to perform? Did they swing in front of the great white screen to contrast their figures in flight? I imagine this as akin to ancients doing myth-things in Greece of old.

Later April 1958 saw “Rhythm and Blues” back at Cincinnati Gardens, this time with headliners Clyde McPhatter, Lloyd Price, Frankie Lymon, and the Coasters. Dale Stevens reported “there weren’t too many people in attendance,” but he seems to have dug this show more than the previous one. “There is much of the freak or sensational involved in these performances,” but on a plus ledger, “the showmanship was effective in working up the crowd, frenzy-wise” (had this been written two years later, I would have thought Dale just came back from a screening of The Apartment). He had praise, if backhanded, for Bo Diddley, who as Stevens put it, was the “best” of the “good” ones,” a quote I doubt Bo kept among his souvenirs. Observed Dale: “Bo simply turns his electric guitar volume up past the distortion level and creates a remarkable amount of excitement.” Lloyd Price of “Stagger Lee” fame captivated the audience “by bringing the entire orchestra down front and shouting over them.” Dale Stevens wasn’t all sarcasm, for he saw bigness of the Big Beat and did forecast that this epoch would be remembered. “The cops and the ushers may say they hate it, but I suspect someday they’ll be telling their grandchildren about the fun they had back when rock-and-roll was the thing,” operative word being was, for who imagined in 1958 that rock-and-roll would be a permanent thing? At most they gave it ten years, far less by majority’s reckoning. Did Jerry Lee Lewis dream that he would perform until old age would no longer let him? Dale Stevens was very much of baffled witnesses to a genuine upheaval of music standards as most understood them.

We assume youth gathered round the rock-roll tree, but did they all? Surely there were ones that shunned the Beat. Sirius radio features a Sunday hour of Pat Boone spinning song, I said Pat Boone, and he’s swell. Stories between, reminiscence by a maybe longest and healthiest survivor of the times. Pat recently recorded sides with Ann-Margret (those State Fair sweethearts together again!), also paid tribute to his Bernadine co-star Janet Gaynor, a name not uttered by media since before the siege of Troy. We may now assume that anything is possible in a still thriving rock-and-roll world (Pat Boone incidentally is 88). And hold … Neil Sedaka is 83, and he’s on Sirius too, a regular, and as engaging as Pat. There also comes miracle of music reclaimed from scratchy surface of 45 RPM, a best there was for lo the years until technology enabled hardest-core fans to turn monolithic mono into stereo utterly like the real thing and an only way I will want to hear these tunes from now on. Thank Hit Parade Records for the revolution, produced by Bill Buster with sound sweetened by Mark Mathews and Walt Weiskopf. The process is called DES (the “New” DES) which breaks down to Digitally Extracted Stereo, the result of “endless patience and many hours of repetitive listening and spectral analysis by renowned reissue engineers.” What they entice from old records is not to be believed. Seems relics of music like elderly of movies play better than ever. The “Hard to Find Jukebox Classic” series on CD is available from Eric Records. Each disc contains thirty or so songs, and numerous volumes are so far released. So don’t be all purist about mono integrity of original recordings. These are as real a deal as if they had been multi-track recorded when new, a true listening revelation.

And yet there is much that technology can never give us back. What progress won't recapture is emotion felt when revues, film, TV first made hot voodoo that was voice of teens which till then were regarded as children. Scare was put into hearts of many, and not just parents. Much of movie advertising amounted to threat toward way of raising offspring. Alan Freed saw hazard of Rock Around the Clock overlaying credits for violent youthquake that was Blackboard Jungle. This would do rock-and-roll no service, he warned. Cincinnati needed all the reassurance of personal-appearing Randolph Scott they could get. And there was more for balm. Jerry Lewis came to town on behalf of The Delicate Delinquent, itself a comfort, for if goofball Jerry could break up a bad teen gang, then surely there was hope for the culture. Till-then backwoods clown Andy Griffith showed up on behalf of A Face in the Crowd, latter an alert to television as a possibly malignant force. I’m guessing Griffith performed “Mama Guitar” for stage benefit of Cincinnatians, the tune a mean riposte to perceived decay that was rock-and-roll. Better toward virtue for all was the Lone Ranger filling Garden arena for a “Big Action-Packed Show” with horse “Silver” and Lassie the Dog to accompany. A free silver bullet was issued to all children, better to ward off increasing encroachment of rock-and-roll? A thing worth noting is peak popularity of TV and movie westerns at a same time Beat was beating us. Were cowboys a best defense against R&R’s onslaught, being traditional defenders of entrenched values?

The Dick Clark Caravan touched Cincinnati ground on 10/5/59 and Dale Stevens was there. Performers included Jimmy Clanton, Paul Anka, and “one of the big attractions” Annette Funicello, late of Disney’s “New Kind of Horror Movie … Horribly Funny,” The Shaggy Dog. Stevens got boxoffice tally of 3100 in attendance, $8300 in paid admissions, resulting $2000 loss for promoters. They “weren’t sure” why the show failed, as Clark's tour did better elsewhere. Maybe it was overexposure of certain artists, ones that seemed to turn up at all R&R shows, or perhaps, as one candid insider pointed out, these singer/shakers were “short in talent, so people don’t come back for a second look.” Stevens realized, as did managers, that talent (should we say "talent"?) was learning on the job. What yesterday may have been sophomores in high school were now teen idols expected to duplicate in person their effect as carefully controlled recording artists, minus protection the studio and attendant amperage gave. The Skyliners and the Jordan Brothers “obviously don’t know what showmanship is all about,” Stevens wrote, Paul Anka virtually an only one “sharp at handling an audience.” Much as he sympathized with “very pretty young girl” Annette, Stevens found her “a decidedly poor singer,” not aware perhaps that what voice she had was triple tracked for release on records that gave three Annettes for the price of inadequate one. Personal appearances were cruel in exposing limitations of neophyte pop stars. If ability no longer mattered, what did? Stevens never mentions the audience getting up to dance for these exhibitions as they often did at theatres where swing music thrived during the forties. I assume Cincinnati kept a tight lid on too-engaged watchers, all limited to bleachers or metal chairs and role of passive viewership. Was this what eventually burned out the travelling rock and roll revues?


Blogger Mike Cline said...

"Bernadine co-star Janet Gaynor, a name not uttered by media since before the siege of Troy." - Love it.

Paul Anka came to Statesville, NC. Andy Griffith appeared at the Capitol Theatre in Salisbury, NC to promote, not A Face in the Crowd, but No Time For Sergeants.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Not so much changed -- Debbie Harry, at the height of her 80's Blondie fame, recorded a fairly acoustic version of Lerner & Lowe's Follow Me from Camelot, and demonstrated decisively that she uncontaminated by a sense of pitch. Despite the studio amplification, echo effects and bells and whistles, there was no "there" there.

12:30 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A marginal question: Was it only the downtown palaces and converted legit theaters that could accommodate concerts and added attractions? I've seen old neighborhood houses with a vestige of a stage in front of the curtain, enough for the Lone Ranger and maybe Lassie to do something, but Silver would be hard pressed to turn around. Most cinemas now have screens on a wall, perhaps with space for speakers behind, and nothing up front but legroom for the front row.

Drive-ins always had some real estate in front of the screen. Here they could place a playground or a basic platform. I recall reading -- here? -- that some of those drive-in personal appearances took place on top of the snack bar.

It's been a long time since I've heard of any live added attraction at a movie. The Granada in Morgan Hill had a spook show in the 60s, but beyond that there have only been the occasional costumed characters doing a "meet and greet", and even those tended to be at big box stores rather than theaters.

5:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Our Liberty had a fairly deep stage, enough to accommodate a high school band for special occasions, plus live appearances during the forties of a Bill Elliot, Johnny Mack Brown, or Lash LaRue. The Starlite Drive-In could host visitors on the roof of the projection building, or down front at the screen. The playground was situated right from the screen. For live turkey giveaways, the bird was often let loose among parked cars and the winner would be obliged to chase down and catch his prize. Fun for patrons would come in watching him do it.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

One of my family's drive-ins (VILLA HEIGHTS - Statesville, NC) had a stage built into the screen tower. The lower part of the screen opened inward for stage performances.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

The subject of live movie star appearances at drive-ins will always conjure up the finale of Peter Bogdanovich's classic TARGETS. Boris Karloff facing down clean-cut psycho Tim O'Kelly.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

[I submitted a comment, but Blogger ate it, I think; so here it is again, as well as I can remember it - please select one or the other if this is turns out to be a double post - assuming Blogger doesn't eat this one too.]

Rock'n'roll would have been a short-lived fad had it remained only available at venues, with no inexpensive and thus affordable-for-teenagers home record players and transistor radios being in existence. The latter technologies working together ensured that rock'n'roll would out-last the live "traveling revue" phase of its being.
In other words, rock'n'roll would have been no different than the short-lived movie fads were back in the days before the inexpensive home availability of movies-on-demand. Now that that availability does exist - it coming into being for film decades after home record players and cheap portable radios first became available to younger people to listen to rock'n'roll anywhere and anytime they wished/were allowed to - movie fads themselves are no longer quite so short-lived as they used to be, either.

5:37 AM  

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