The Rocking Chronicles
by Tim Van Schmidt
The lights go on, June 8, 1956. This is what I imagine: a radio is on in the nurse’s station in Harvard, Illinois and one of the top hit records of the time- Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”- has just kicked in. I take my first breath and wail just about the time Perkins yelps “go, cat, go” in the intro. Let that fantasy be the place this project begins.
I knew that pile of dusty old records I’ve been saving for years would come in handy someday. Same with those books I have collected about the history of contemporary music. Just sit right down and crack one open and get more details than you need. Then go diving into the stacks and see what you can find. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt and each scratchy old chunk of vinyl is a prize.
45s- the main music product of the day in the 1950s, the main outlet for the artist. Two songs, one on each side. Sometimes there are two on each side, like those Little Richard Specialty releases I found. I managed to collect a bunch of 45s by burning leisure time in the late 1970s at garage sales. I’d look for records, but found it was even more effective to just ask, “Do you have any old records?” Many times, the people would turn around and grab a dusty record case off a shelf and say, “Sure, how about these.” “How much?” “How about a nickel each?” I did garage sales like that in northern Wisconsin and in New Jersey and found some gems. What I’m finding out now is that I didn’t even really know what I was collecting, but I had some good luck.
Such is the power of a great record collection- to be able to go to the shelf and pull out the record itself- either the original release, or on a collection. Oh, it’s OK for me to talk about “records” now because that’s what everyone called the round pieces of vinyl everyone was buying as music products- “records.” Later, much later, using the word “records” will get much more complicated. Wrangle with that then. For now I’ll declare that I’m going to use the term “records” to refer to any format of music product- 78s, 45s, LPs, cassettes, compact disks, files. They are “recordings,” “records” for short.
My good luck at record hunting includes an original copy of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Sun Records label. I don’t care if the thing is beat to smithereens, dirty, written on and part of the label has leaked away, it’s still an original- one of the greats. And I’m not just talking about a record that sold some units, I’m talking about a record that really works. What I mean is that when I gritted my teeth and put the thing on the turntable to start this study of the music of 1956, the needle dragging through the scars of reckless abuse, it popped right out of the speakers and my heart beat quicker. Perkins had it going on, no doubt about it- it sure sounded like fun to be playing the new “rock and roll” in the Sun studios. More than 50 years later, it still sounds like fun.
“Blue Suede Shoes” is THE song- a devil-may-care anthem for the rock and roll movement that was breaking out in 1956- but I can’t help but also get the same pulse quickening out of the back side of this beat up old thing from Memphis- “Honey Don’t.” Same format- get the band in gear and at some point turn them loose while yelping like a real cool cat who can’t help himself.
But “Honey Don’t” percolates with something even more real than “Blue Suede Shoes.” “Blue Suede Shoes” is about drawing some kind of line, and for a rock and roller, that’s his shoes- maybe a frivolous claim to an outsider. But in “Honey Don’t,” you don’t have to be a rocker to relate to the sentiment. That is, don’t say you will when you won’t- a common frustration for teenagers and lovers of all ages.
The main common point between the two sides of Perkins’ music is fun. The songs are first and foremost upbeat dance tunes. I have tried it personally- that is, dancing to Perkins’ songs- and even though they are each less than three minutes each- “Blue Suede Shoes” is only 2:14, compared to the hefty 2:48 of “Honey Don’t”- you WILL get worked up physically if you stick with the beat.
The two songs also share attitude. Both tunes are high energy dance tunes, and that in itself displays an attitude, but the song lyrics also reveal a confidence, even an arrogance. They are a declaration of independence from the blind acceptance of style and romance. Combined, the tempo and the attitude are just what a teenager looking for a little excitement ordered- just drop in a dime and go, cat, go- a little bit of fun, a little bit of swagger, even a shade of danger. I get it.
But not just a singer, Perkins is a guitarist too and the strong presence of the instrument points toward a particular element of the rock and roll that was coming out of Memphis. Perkins’ snaky, wiry lead kicks off “Honey Don’t” and winds its way through “Blue Suede Shoes”.
Even more, in these recordings you get the sense that Perkins was a part of a group of other musicians, the band he is recording with in the studio. In both songs Perkins speaks to the band, his cats, who he’s having a great time with. That is an infectious element to the records- Perkins isn’t alone having fun in the studio and hopefully you’re not alone when you’re listening to it. The rock and roll musicians- perhaps like cool jazz musicians- had a special camaraderie going that the audience could share by dancing together.
How does Perkins’ music stand up over time? At a January 2010 party for some close friends who were born in 1956, I put on “Blue Suede Shoes” and within seconds everybody in the room was into the rhythm. A few seconds more and just about everyone was dancing- proof positive that great music can still do what it sets out to do, even 54 years later.
Despite the cool fun of Perkins’ tunes, the big fish in the sea in 1956 was Elvis Presley. He broke way out in 1956 with hit record after hit record, starting with “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first release on the big time RCA label, and in feature movies. Presley had come out of the Sun Studios stable with authentic rock and roll credentials and became the number one popular recording artist of the time. It became hard to tell if Presley was riding on the popularity wave of rock and roll, or if rock and roll was riding on the Presley wave, so intense was his domination of the market.
“Heartbreak Hotel” can be called a rock and roll song, although it almost seems like a novelty record of sorts- a hyped up blues tune with exaggerated instrumental elements- like the raw, rough guitar solo- and dramatic, vivid lyrics. It’s kind of a slow tune to dance to, but riveting in Presley’s dominating vocal performance. It truly sounds like Presley is howling at the end of an alley. There’s also the sense of a band playing together when the song breaks for the guitar solo and a little piano tinkling- harkening back to the fun of the old Sun days, perhaps.
“Hound Dog,” however, was the real rock and roll deal- upbeat, raw, just a little bit out of control, lyrics that don’t really mean much but who cares when you’re have fun? It’s a dance tune, accentuated by an insistent snare drum. The other side, “Don’t Be Cruel,” is also a snappy kind of dance tune, but smoother, gentler. This allows for certain elements of Presley’s recordings to come to the forefront- especially the rich backing vocals. The song still bubbles along, despite being relatively calm.
But Presley was also playing the other side of the fence too. He was induced to also record some slower crooner type ballads, perhaps by his big record label who not only wanted to cash in on the rock and roll craze, but also put their new star into old commercial molds. “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” could be a slow dance tune, but plays more like a showpiece. Presley could certainly croon, his voice at times piercing through the thick arrangement. But it’s what he does with it- playing with the sounds of the words and approaching the whole thing with just a little bit of aggressiveness, exaggeration- that sets his crooning apart.
The words to “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” are full of what I want to call “male myths,” statements that males make to convince females of the sincerity of their advances. Even if the guy thinks it’s all a load of hogwash personally, often he ends up saying them anyway, that is, if he is going to progress in the potential relationship. You get that feeling out of Presley on “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”- that these statements are not particularly sincere- so he vocally plays with the melodies to get something out of it all.
I got that feeling doubly out of another 1956 Presley nod to the crooners, “Love Me.” Here, Presley is all over the melody like a drunken sailor, exaggerating the words, playing with the sound quality of his voice and generally trying to have fun with the song- perhaps not the most sincere way to approach a lady, either. This is what rock and roll brought to crooning- the tongue in cheek.
However, Presley’s other 1956 ballad, “Love Me Tender,” is a classic of vocal music. Presley plays it straight here, singing simply with the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. His nice, graceful rendering of the song- singing it as gingerly as one might sing a favorite hymn- results in sincerity you can believe in. Yeah, there are male myths throughout this one, but the solemn tone and heartfelt reverence with which Presley approaches the song seem to bypass those questions. In this case, Presley’s vocal talent is very real.
Presley’s image itself became an indelible reflection of the time- the slicked back hair, the little unruly curl, that surly scowl. In this investigation, however, I ran into multiple male artists who were working on the same look- including Gene Vincent and Wayne Cochran. Again was rock and roll chasing Presley, or was Presley chasing rock and roll? Were Presley’s peers imitating him, or was Presley the lucky stiff who won the popularity contest and ended up being the one who defined the image?
How enduring has this image been? On January 8, 2010, more than 30 years after his death and 75 years from his birth, the Denver Post ran a full-sized color photo of Presley impersonator Jonny Barber, billed as the “Velvet Elvis,” who was performing in Denver that day- Presley’s birthday. The next day, on January 9, the Post ran an Associated Press article in the business section that revealed the big money behind the enduring image of Presley, owned by a CKX, who purchased Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005 for $100 million. On January 17, during a national broadcast of a football play-off game between the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets, the cameras scanned the stands and sure enough, in the crowd, was a guy in a Presley outfit.
Presley is everywhere in the 21st Century- more than 50 years after his first hit. His photo appeared on the cover of the January 29, 2010 issue of The Week to tease a lengthy article discussing Presley’s taste for pajama parties with 14-year-old girls. The Winter/Spring 2010 booklet for the Rialto Theater in Loveland, Colorado featured one upcoming show by Bill Chrastil, pictured as Presley, but who also reportedly does impressions of other performers as well. And then on a recent Northern Colorado restaurant experience, I heard a female cover of Presley’s big hit “Love Me Tender”- so long after the frenzy had started, Presley, as a character any way, still peaks out from around the corner. The man may be dead, but his image, his character, his place in history lives on.
So what did Presley bring to the table musically? A sense of style and timing. His vocal quality was plenty good enough, but there were plenty of great singers around. But perhaps thanks to his association with the feisty beginnings of rock and roll, Presley was able to infuse some personality and attitude into the recordings that was fresh in 1956. As a star, he was making movies and records at an amazing rate, which could confuse anybody. But somewhere deep in the belly of his early work, Presley still seemed to be having a good time.
Despite the incredible domination that Presley maintained on the record charts in 1956, he was by no means the only thing going on. Rock and roll was the new, exciting thing, but the contemporary music scene at the time offered plenty of alternatives for those who didn’t like the brash new dance music for teenagers.
Just look at the record that bumped Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” off of its number one perch on the charts- Gogi Grant’s “Wayward Wind.” It’s got a big orchestra arrangement- complete with trumpeting horns, layers of angelic background vocals and Grant’s purposeful, deliberate lead vocal performance. The song tells an epic story about a relationship gone astray and plays like a movie theme song- and is a long way away from the hot fun of rock and roll. Still, there is a nice swelling quality to Grant’s voice that makes this showpiece a comfortable enough ride, despite the clunky arrangement.
The charts were full of a lot of other calm, non-rock and roll stuff including several instrumental pieces. Les Baxter’s “The Poor People of Paris” and Nelson Riddle’s “Lisbon Antigua” both sound like they were perfect for the ballroom dance set- nice, clean, deliberate music- sugary and bland with slippery strings, cheesy vocal parts, a few light jazz touches and even a little whistling. There’s some kind of elegance to them, a formal kind of pride- that this is BEAUTIFUL music- but so measured I can’t help but think of ballroom dancing. Even better, the records seem like they would also be perfect for an ice skating rink- there’d be no ice melting when these tunes were on. It should be said that despite the rather vapid nature of the music itself, both recordings have very clean, crisp sound- a testament to probably the best the recording industry had at the time. These sound like movie songs too.
Also still chugging along were the crooners, who had inherited the music scene from the Big Bands as vocal music became more popular after World War II. Perhaps at the top of the heap was Perry Como, whose recording of “More” is as much a dance floor waltz as a sing-along tune. Como’s voice has a nice, warm quality to it, not as strident or effected as Martin’s. You get the sense that Como was going for a general audience with this- the chorus of male and female voices heartily supporting the choruses. In my imagination, I can see people swaying back and forth, singing this one in a German beer garden somewhere. This one is also a good one for the ballroom floor- clean, conservative and very deliberate.
On the complete other end of the crooner mix from Como was Vic Damone, whose “On the Street Where You Live” is more bluster than art. It starts out with this incredible outburst about a “towering feeling.” It all ends up with a dramatic finish, complete with cascading voices. When he does the “towering feeling” thing again later on in the song, you kind of have to chuckle. No one is believing these male myths. It’s all a set up- some arranger’s fantasy. First of all, nobody has time to just walk around mooning about their girl. And nowadays, a guy doing that would be arrested for stalking.
Not all of the crooner style music sounds out of place in the 21st century. Nat King Cole’s “Night Lights” sounds very smooth and graceful indeed. First of all, Cole had some great sound- apparently using a top notch recording studio. Everything about the track is crisp and clear, from Cole’s deep, rich vocals to the bright, but muted, punctuation of the horns. Sure, there’s a big arrangement here- even including some ice rink strings- but it’s also tempered by Cole’s calm, smooth vocal performance and just the right amount of tinkling jazz piano, mellow bass and soft brushes on the drums. Cole makes it all seem so effortless and it makes you want to be in the nightclub that he’s performing in- maybe a dimly lit place with stiff drinks and elegant people.
Guitars and Pianos
The genius of rock and roll was partly that it cut all the big production stuff way down to its basics- a piano, guitar, drums, bass, maybe a sax. This trend had also hit country music in 1956 and was even exaggerated. The pure country sound of Johnny Cash’s hit “I Walk the Line” is as simple and honest a production as it gets- it features Cash’s voice, a guitar and a little chugging percussion. Cash hums a little at the beginning, maybe to find the key he launches the song in, but there are no extra vocals to back him up. It’s very bare, the fragile guitar seems a little out of tune and Cash bulls on through with the power of repetition, the deep timbre of his voice becoming the focus of the music.
What a difference between Johnny Cash and Fats Domino. Domino’s tune, “Blueberry Hill,” starts with this robust roll on the piano and a full band launches in right behind him. Domino’s New Orleans-influenced sound is a little bit bluesy and his voice has a kind of ageless quality that wasn’t particularly indicative of the teenage pop music at the time. His medium tempo dance song, propelled partly by some insistent cymbal work, is full, thick and rich.
Domino’s “Blue Monday” has some big band punch to it too. The song was featured in the 1956 rock and roll movie “The Girl Can’t Help It,” his wide face beaming, the dance floor full. By the way, this tune, despite its general success has perhaps one of the worst sax solos on record. The flip side of the record- a kind of nervous, medium tempo dance tune titled “What’s the Reason I’m Not Pleasing You”- has a significantly better sax solo.
Roughly, this illustrates what seem to be two main camps in the burgeoning contemporary music scene in 1956. The first is the one that Domino represents- the one where the performers depended on the piano and horns to make their arrangements successful. Saxophone was often applied in these cases as the solo instrument of choice. This could be directly tied to the dance bands of preceding years. The piano, however, took the place of multiple horns and helped cut the band down to a more manageable size.
The second camp is the one that Cash (and Perkins, Presley and others) represents, where the guitar is strapped on right up front and plays a major part in the arrangement, including instrumental breaks. The epicenter for this approach to the song arrangement seems to be Sun Records in Memphis, which sired so many of the up and coming rock and rollers. Part of the difference here could well be that those who wrote their songs on guitars, performed with guitars, and those who wrote their material on piano, performed with a piano.
The difference between the two could be as simple as convenience- you can carry around a guitar easier than a piano. However, the guitar had not enjoyed much time in the spotlight up to this point, so it is reasonable that most bands still clung to the piano and horns to fulfill the expectations of their audiences. But the guitar’s time had come thanks to rock and roll.
The king of the bands- at least the piano-sax driven bands- had to be Little Richard. On all of his recordings-“Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin and Slidin,” “Rip It Up,” “She’s Got It” and “Miss Ann”- his band just wails. The sax player particularly defines the rock and roll sax solo- honking, squeezing, blasting, blaring- everything within a few seconds- all with that piano banging hard in the background. The backbeat was especially strong on “Slippin and Slidin” making the rhythm irresistible. All of this made Richard’s music undeniably energetic and fun.
Little Richard could rightly be called the most exciting act of 1956- even more so than Presley thanks to his over-the-top vocal style, maniac stage presence and jamming band. Presley took rock and roll histrionics to the mainstream, but you got a sense that it was less musical abandonment and more of a marketing ploy. But Richard is so intense, so worked up, you get the idea that the guy just can’t help being such a character, yowling and howling, roughing up his own vocals unmercifully. That the songs were about carrying on no matter what makes them a great escape from the real troubles of the world. When Richard was doing his thing, you just couldn’t think about anything else
I had the good luck of not only collecting a couple of Little Richard single 45s in my big garage sale hunt, but I also found a couple of 45 releases that featured two Richard songs on each side, including one with “She’s Got It,” which acted like a theme for the movie “The Girl Can’t Help It.” That was paired on one side with “Can’t Believe You Want to Leave.” The other side is the great “Long Tall Sally,” paired with “Miss Ann”- a great discovery. “Miss Ann” is everything that was great about Little Richard and his band- the raspy, roughed up voice, the yowl just before the instrumental break, the honking saxophone- just slowed down a little. That one increment less in the tempo department serves to let the band have even more room to nail the tune.
La Vern Baker
Perhaps a good female counterpart to Little Richard in 1956 was La Vern Baker. Baker is featured in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock!” performing her tune “Tra La La”- a robust woman in a sea of male dominance. “Tra La La” is a trifle- a sing songy jingle of an excuse for a song and you get the sense that Baker’s talent- her strong voice and delivery- is wasted here.
But Baker gets the real prize with the flip side of the “Tra La La” single, that is, “Jim Dandy.” Baker’s voice isn’t wasted here- she growls and roughs up the words, like Little Richard, even giving a little howl just before the honking sax break. My problem here- the song fades out in the climax of the song. There should have been more to “Jim Dandy” because Baker and band, listed on the record as the Gliders, are truly rocking.
Unlike the beautiful music orchestra arrangements of Nelson Riddle and Les Baxter, the instrumental hit by Bill Doggett, “Honky Tonk” is a bottom basic production, using a pared down band formation. But in this case, there’s just a little twist. That is, underneath the jazzy, slippery guitar and the aggressive sax is this insistent chugging on the keyboards, giving the groove a little extra push. It sounds like an organ, giving the chords a nice, thick character. However, Doggett plays his keyboard gingerly, lightly adding the supporting chords like a rhythm guitar might- you can hardly detect he’s there at points, but his work is crucial to keeping “Honky Tonk” moving along.
But the element I like most about “Honky Tonk” is the handclapping in the background- and a little bit of shouting and yelping. This seems to say that the band is having fun with music- like Perkins on his recordings. Rather than being just another medium tempo dance tune, it comes off like a jam you want to be there for. It’s pure theme and variation structure-wise- which is what jamming really is- and comes off like a party.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Right at the tail end of 1956, pianist Jerry Lee Lewis released his first record, “Crazy Arms,” a ragtimey country work-out. Despite lyrics about loneliness, there’s nothing lonely about Lewis’ recording as his active piano playing mixes with aggressive drumming and a slightly exaggerated approach to the vocals. But it is the opposite side to the record that foreshadows Lewis’ future as a rock and roller. The song is his own composition, “End of the Road,” appropriately introduced by a rolling piano part, and it’s a dance tune. Maybe because “End of the Road” is an original, Lewis and band seem to come together much more than in “Crazy Arms” to put some real swing into it. The guitar solo is also effective to help produce Lewis’ first rocking hit- soon to be followed by many more.
The simplicity of production that rock and roll championed was also the genius of the music of the vocal groups of 1956. That style of vocal music, later termed “doo wop,” featured a lead voice supported by layers of other voices, usually in harmony- kind of like barbershop quartet music, but so much more passionate and more intricate arrangement-wise. Doo wop could be exciting like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, chilling like the Five Satins and highly dramatic like the Platters.
The top vocal group of 1956 seems to be the Platters. On “My Prayer” the soaring lead vocals are anchored solidly by layers of harmony vocals. However, as a top act, the Platters’ recordings also included orchestra arrangements- the full production treatment. For all the power on “My Prayer,” it works because it is all based on something intensely personal. It’s a love song and passion comes pouring out of the pipes of the lead singer. He compares thoughts of his loved one to prayer which is also intensely personal and passionate. The group scores a home run for the beating heart with grandeur and sincerity- after all, a feeling likened to something so sacred as prayer has to be the real thing.
The most exciting of the 1956 vocal groups, however, would be have to be Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Their hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” doesn’t waste any time snapping the listener to attention- it’s crisp, energetic and sonically aggressive. Lymon’s strong and confident vocal attack propels this song, there’s a great sax solo and the Teenagers fill out the progress of the song with a cascade of voices. All of this comes across loud and clear five decades later, busy and fun.
One of the songs that really grew on me as I listened to the vocal music of 1956 is “Eddie My Love” by the Teen Queens. For one thing, the song comes from the female perspective. It’s a “letter song,” with the girl pleading with the guy to just get in touch- or it might be her last day. The melancholy is so infused in the song, the voices seem to get lost a little in the crowd- as though, really, Eddie doesn’t matter anymore, it’s more about mooning over his memory. What I like about the song is the multiple female vocals, the thick layers of saxophones and a nimble signature piano line thrown in between the vocals. This song could have been penned by any teenage girl in love, perhaps a true expression of everyday life for the American teenager.
One tune that seemed to come more from the street than the recording industry was “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins. I really do imagine this group standing together underneath a streetlight somewhere in the city, singing about love. The highly purposeful backing vocals on the record sometimes result in a raw mix of voices that cannot be mistaken for pure studio invention. There’s a homespun quality to the arrangement and the group performance suggests that the vocalists had their own hand in it. It’s got kind of a plodding movement to it tempo-wise, however, thanks to the strong backing vocals and a demure sax solo it all winds up in a stirring emotional climax. “In the Still of the Night” features the real thing, the very basis for doo wop- “doo wop doo wah” in the bridge section of the song. The great falsetto crooning at end of the song could be wafting down a city alley somewhere, a sweet, dreamy fade out.
Also add in the Heartbeats’ “A Thousand Miles Away” for the same sort of street credibility- a sense of original, personal expression. There’s something a little funny about the affected lead vocal- a falsetto- but then again the backing vocals are so up front, filling in the spaces between the lines so well, that the whole thing continues to tease the ear. The slow dance intensity of the tune is underscored by the idea that this seems to be a group effort despite the distinctive lead voice, with very deliberate sounds coming from the backing chorus. That last great “Oo-oo-oo-ooo” is a tremendous release, a classic ending with a vocal flurry.
It’s my impression that the music business in 1956 was an adult business, haphazardly filling constant commercial need with various singers to see what flew. By not really being hip to what was going on, by running a production machine dictated by numbers, the record industry not only found its hits as certain quality artists rose to the top, but also by leaving the door open for trend-chasers looking for the quick buck. These trend-chasers saw elements that worked in successful records- like the nervous boogie underpinnings of rock and roll, or the cascading multi-layered vocals of doo wop- and quickly made records of their own that used the new tricks, but with varying degrees of success. This stuff became known as “pop music,” a watered down, or softer, version of other more original efforts.
The king of pop in 1956 seems to be Pat Boone. It’s tempting to say his tune, “I’ll Be Home,” is full of male myths, but his promises to his loved one go over the top, vowing to come home to “start serving you.” Boone isn’t exactly a strong crooner and not a rock and roller- by the time he gets to the spoken word part of the song, it’s a done deal that he really isn’t a loyal member of the male club- he’s playing the other side with shameless pandering. Pull the plug. Break the record. This “letter song” may work on the “girlfriend”- the teenage female record buyer who doesn’t know any better- but it makes for terrible listening for everybody else. I’d tell the unlucky recipient of this limp musical missive to run the other way from this smarmy brownnoser.
Speaking of smarmy, how about the Four Lads’ “Standing on the Corner”? It’s all about ogling the girls, the “harem” parading by. This song plays especially badly fifty years later thanks to its baldly misogynist attitude. The line that is completely out of place now is “You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.” Don’t count on it these days, bub. This one sounds like a bunch of fraternity brothers doing a talent show in their secret lair- some of them performing in drag. Perhaps imitating doo wop, the group sings in multi-vocal layers. But it comes off more like Barbershop Quartet music- maybe some drunk barbers- or a Vaudeville sketch. These guys obviously don’t have enough to do with their time and are setting themselves up to be arrested for sexual harassment. I say lock ’em up- at least lock the doors to the recording studio.
Johnnie Ray’s 1956 pop song, “Just Walkin in the Rain,” has more to do with Tin Pan Alley- the original source for manufactured music- than rock and roll. It’s just another song for the market. The fact that it starts out with easygoing whistling indicates from the get-go that this record won’t be rocking too much. That’s underscored by the lyrics- this poor sap doesn’t have anything better to do than walk around out in the rain. Now, Ray isn’t a bad crooner and there’re some great multi-layered harmony vocals, but there’s something fake about the production, fluffy. Ray might also be picked up for loitering for hanging out on the street, thinking about girls. Maybe he’d be in the same paddy wagon as Vic Damone. In both of their songs, both guys mention people stopping and staring at these love struck dopes- their hearts on their sleeves and mouths wide open- so somebody is probably call the cops. I imagine them in the same jail cell as the Four Lads.
Guy Mitchell’s pop hit “Singing the Blues” also seems to be keeping alive the Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition- a trite ditty. But, there’s a slight effect on his crooner vocals- like he was singing through a megaphone. There’s whistling too- apparently a definite musical trend in 1956- but it’s more like an instrument answering Mitchell’s vocals than an attempt to “sing” the melody. While Mitchell plays it mostly straight here vocally, he does play with the melody just a little throughout the production. Despite similarities, I liked “Singing the Blues” much more than Ray’s “Walkin in the Rain.” Maybe the gentle strum of the ukulele and the effective backing harmony vocals have something to do with it, but it just has a different spirit, maybe a hair bit faster tempo that makes it more memorable than dispensable.
Thank God for Chuck Berry, who was simultaneously a great performer and a savvy synthesizer of what was going on around him. He synthesized it in his songs and it’s important to note that Berry wrote his own material- go ahead and look at a collection of his recordings and you’ll see only one name in the credits- Chuck Berry. That wasn’t the case with most musicians, who depended on that special animal, the songwriter, to keep them supplied with new material. In his quest for new material- or in his case, to CREATE new material- apparently Berry was a keen observer of the trials and joys of the people around him.
That includes the rock and roll movement- “Roll Over Beethoven” takes full advantage of rock and roll by pasting together many of the key indicative phrases being used by and about rock and rollers at the time into an irresistible dance tune of its own- including a reference to Perkins’ “blue suede shoes.” Berry points out that all it takes is one thin dime- in the jukebox, that is- to keep the dance party rolling. This was a sly piece of self-promotion.
“Roll Over Beethoven” stands next to “Blue Suede Shoes” as another of the important theme songs of what was happening in music in 1956. But more than just running down a grocery list of rock and roll terms, the song also displays that feisty rock and roll attitude. It tells the grand old daddies of accepted music- Beethoven and Tchaikovsky- to step on over because there’s a new music in town. Berry was one of the stylistic leaders of the movement as well as a pretty good musical spokesman.
Berry’s song “Too Much Monkey Business” is also a synthesis of the times, but it isn’t about rock and roll, rather, it’s about real life- jobs, bills, school and Army life. I like the words fine, but nothing expresses the things he’s talking about- frustrated about- better than that “ahhhh” at the end of each verse. It’s also an expression of an attitude, like “look at all the bull I have to contend with, oh well…” but in just one exhausted sound. That’s what rock and roll is good for too- to get over that kind of feeling. It’s interesting to note that Berry was deliberately working on a format he could rely on in terms of arranging his songs- the guitar part in “Too Much Monkey Business” is just like the guitar part in “Roll Over Beethoven.” He had found a vein of gold and he was working it for all he could.
The flip side to “Monkey Business” was “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” also real wise to the ways of the world, but jaunty, even arrogant. From romance to baseball, that brown-eyed man has been cool throughout history. In fact, he’s so cool, Berry doesn’t mind taking a rather lengthy time-out in the middle of the song for some back and forth soloing between the guitar and piano. The piano is a powerful part of nearly every Berry recording- always tinkling in the background- and here shares the spotlight.
Berry keeps his guitar upfront on these records and that puts him roughly in the company of the Sun Records boys- the guitar-based rock and rollers. But Berry had his own style, a manic kind of eagerness to please that was perhaps more steeped in rhythm and blues than country. This clearly set him apart from the Memphis fellows in terms of roots, but the result was the same- the dance floor filled up. Berry was a take-charge performer- he wrote his own stuff, developed his own style and even played his own guitar solos, a multi-talented powerhouse of a rock and roller, for sure.
However, Berry wasn’t 100 percent about rabble rousing and the flip side to “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Havana Moon,” proves a point. That is, that Berry’s songwriting skills were not necessarily limited to the trend of the day. “Havana Moon,” in its kind of hushed tone, is a bold step away from rock and roll, entering into a more exotic, foreign sound. For one thing, the lyrics are in Berry’s version of a Cuban dialect, and its simple structure- Berry’s voice, guitar and a little bass only- naturally backs away from the brashness of the more popular music of the day.
“Havana Moon” tells a story, not unlike Berry’s other songs. But this story is not about an American teenager, but a love struck Cuban waiting for his American girlfriend to arrive by boat. The wait is excruciating for the young man and it drives him to drink rum to ease the pain. Unfortunately, the rum does too good of a job and the fellow passes out as the girl arrives, fails to find him and gets back on the boat for home. It’s a story of tragic proportions, the tragedy of losing this burning love because of bad decision-making. The guy is kind of an idiot, and he’s constantly talking, in his dialect, about “me,” but the music makes it easy to eavesdrop on his sad story. He’s a dreamer, fantasizing about moving to New York with his love and finding “…a home up in the sky.” Such is the genius of Berry’s songwriting, creating a whole vivid scenario in just a few minutes time.
The lyrics are interesting, but I think the haunting thing about it is the guitar part- perhaps more Oriental sounding to me than Cuban. It keeps coming back to counter Berry’s crooning of the refrain “Havana moon…” Of course, even in the midst of “Havana Moon’s” foreign ambiance, Berry can’t help but mention the term “rock and roll.” No matter, the tune is just another little bit of treasure from Berry’s catalog.
His 1956 hit “You Can’t Catch Me” is a classic rock and roll fantasy, served up with Berry’s characteristicly wise lyrical sense. This time, it’s about rock and roll and the road, flying around with Berry in his new “airmobile.” Cars, radios, cops and girlfriends- “You Can’t Catch Me” is a hip road trip, full of action and adventure, in just 2:42. The tune runs like a well-oiled machine at a nice cruising tempo- just a little too fast to touch the ground. No one has anything on Berry’s character, who is always “gone like a coooooooool breeze.” That had to become the ultimate driving experience in 1956- hurtling down the open road with Chuck Berry on the box.
Presley was anointed the “king of rock and roll” a long time ago, but my vote would have to be for Berry. I’ll say that Perkins perhaps had the number one rock and roll record with “Blue Suede Shoes,” but Berry’s amazingly prolific output, with “Roll Over Beethoven” right on top, his energetic delivery and words that continually reflected the world around him tips the scales his way. Maybe it’s best to say that Chuck Berry was A king of rock and roll in 1956, wise and sassy.
The biggest surprise of this investigation was how much I enjoyed pulling out a copy of the top selling, long playing album of 1956- Harry Belafonte’s “Calypso” record. In the midst of all the new rock and rollers, the pop star wannbes, the rhythm and blues divas and easy listening slop of the time, here was someone who was trying to do something truly refreshing, foreign. This music didn’t have much to do with the rest of the music industry, being folk music- steeped in tradition.
Just check out what Belafonte’s smash hit “Day-O” was all about- hard work. While the Four Lads were singing about ogling girls, Belafonte was singing about long days, dangerous jobs and hard rum. Just the intro sets “Day-O” apart from the other pop music of the time- a wailing voice, maybe way off in the distance, and a fluttering, trembling flutter on some drums. The supporting vocals are crucial for helping maintain the tempo of the piece, making the progress of the song a group effort. Belafonte’s voice prevails, but it is in no ways alone.
“Jamaica Farewell,” the other big Belafonte hit on “Calypso,” features a nice warm acoustic guitar right up front. Like many pop songs, it’s about a girl, sure, but its exotic locale offers a cool escape from urban America. The delicate nature of the arrangement tends to bring the listener in close and personal and Belafonte’s voice is so measured, forming the words- and the melody- so purposefully, that it is an intimate and memorable musical narrative.
The rest of the “Calypso” album gives the opportunity to see Belafonte’s vision in a bigger scope. On the record, with only a little more than 30 minutes of total music, Belafonte includes some bigger band arrangements and dance tunes- especially songs such as “Man Smart (Woman Smarter.)” But, again, what really come on like a breath of fresh air are the quieter, very deliberate tracks. Belafonte is uniformly controlled as an artist throughout the production. Though he’s willing to play a little with language and rhythm, it remains a closely defined effort overall.
Belafonte’s folk experiment is a bold journey to another place, as opposed to just a trip to the musical marketplace. His music challenged the industry to recognize that the songs weren’t just a commodity, but a part of a particular culture, and that people still wanted to hear them. It was the record-buying public who proved him right. Artistically, however, Belafonte was an innovator and a champion for the people’s music.
If all that isn’t enough, then let’s put on something really rough, raw and passionate- like James Brown’s 1956 hit “Please, Please, Please.” I was playing it for a friend the other day and he started toward the stereo system thinking that the record was stuck. It wasn’t stuck, it was just Brown hammering a single word, “please,” right into the ground. There is no mistaking his intention as such a seriously fanatical character- he means to get your attention. Brown threw out the common expectations of a song and just went with the skeleton, then filled in with his raspy, sandpaper rough voice while dramatically lengthening the groove. He’s spreading some more male myths, but it’s the delivery not the words that prove his over-the-edge sincerity.
Way on the extreme of recording in 1956 is the weird and wild “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus. Oddly enough, this thumping novelty record is the most serious effort at social comment of all the music I heard from 1956. It takes a tongue-in-cheek swipe at drunk drivers, guys hot rodding to their dates and dangerous drivers of all kinds on the highways. Rather than change their speeding ways, which always leads to a loud wreck, the pushy drivers just ask for a transfusion of blood and then they’ll be on their way again. Norvus has fun with it, rhyming creative synonyms for blood with the offbeat names of the ambulance drivers. He uses some of the youthful slang of the day to give his narrative character some hipness. But it’s the sound effects in the recording- the loud car crash sound that punctuates each verse- that brings a smile. It’s a fun tune, wild and wacky, but ends up with a message: slow down today.
On the whole other end of the spectrum from artists like James Brown and Little Richard- and Nervous Norvus- were easy listening vocalists such as Doris Day. I separate her from the other pop artists of the time because her big 1956 hit, “Que Sara Sara,” strikes an emotional chord that is not as easy to dismiss as a lot of the more dispensable material pop artists were doing. “Que Sara Sara” was a movie song- introduced in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 feature with Day and James Stewart, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”- but stood by itself as a record that turned Day from the girl next door to a warm, loving mother in the space of just a few minutes. Her friendly voice seemed to invite love and trust.
I read a story that Day didn’t even like “Que Sara Sara” when she recorded it, but it became her signature recording for very good reason. In a world that was breaking wide open with the rough energy of teenage America, Day’s recording offered a happy innocence that is not altogether unenviable. It’s a neat package of a song, a confessional narrative touching on several phases of life, always coming to the same conclusion- your fate is in the wind, so why worry? That’s a fine fantasy, especially in a time when war was still fresh in the public psyche and teenagers were becoming a massive, unruly force to contend with. “Que Sara Sara” is easygoing, clear, clean and smooth and a wonderful escape from reality. This is a feel-good escape, not one of dance floor rock and roll abandonment; something to help balance all that wildness out.
I just didn’t know. About the incredible burst of energy that was the rise of Elvis Presley in 1956, that is. I am getting to know about the records and I’m watching the movies, drawing conclusions about Presley’s talent from the evidence. But I just didn’t have a handle on WHAT WAS GOING ON with Presley’s career and with his fans, their parents and the public at large, until watching “Elvis ’56,” a very efficient and rich documentary about the time.
“Elvis ’56” pieces together stacks of still photos and rolls of archive footage to follow Presley’s incredible commercial breakout, which corresponds neatly with the calendar year of 1956. Presley records his first big hit for RCA in January and by the end of the year he has amassed multiple gold records, caused nationwide controversy on television, created pandemonium at his concerts and made the jump to a movie star career.
It all starts with rock and roll, or more precisely, “rockabilly,” as the fusion of country, blues, R & B and gospel was being called. That is where Presley’s noteriety originates from- he was a musician. A good-looking musician with a distinct voice and a quick study of styles. But more, Presley was a performer. He knew exactly what he was doing when he would shake, jerk and gyrate on stage. You could see it in the films in “Elvis ’56,” the performer stepping back to do a little twitching during the instrumental breaks in each song, females in the audiences reacting and a little smile coming to his face as a result.
All of this comes through strong and clear in “Elvis ’56.” Wow, what an opportunity this one hour production gives to get a taste of the real Presley through news film and television clips. From his very first television appearance on the Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show,” performing Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” to his final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show- performing “Peace in the Valley”- it’s possible to see EXACTLY what the people of 1956 saw. The footage of actual stage appearances also augments the feeling of authenticity you get from “Elvis ’56.” I couldn’t be there for these events, but I can still see some of it even fifty years later.
But there was more to Presley than music. He went beyond being a rock and roller to becoming an international entertainer and this transformation, apparently, happened in one fast year. I think he was a true rock and roller and that informed his rise, but when he achieved success, it seemed like his movie career was more important. This seems to be in line with the idea that at that time, the pinnacle of being an entertainer was being a movie star. Presley became royalty when he became a movie star. Until then, he was a very, very successful upstart musician riding the crest of a huge wave.
Presley was a talented upstart, though. As a singer he was inventive and a little bit sassy. As a performer he was aggressive. Still, there are reasons above and beyond Presley’s talent that can also account for this phenomenon of popularity. Luckily for Presley, all the elements needed for success converged at the same time.
The public apparently needed a new icon in 1956. For example, there had been a craze in the country over Davey Crockett just a few years earlier, multiple product sales spurred by a hit song and a movie. Who replaced Crockett? How about a rock and roll star, since rock and roll was the latest craze in the news. This worked for the record business. The music industry wanted a new star- it always wants new stars- and the public needed a new figure to turn into an icon, so a rock and roll star was at the top of the list.
Presley- and the people around him- were very ambitious according to the wheeling and dealing “Elvis ’56” exposes along with the performance footage. The production follows the deals that Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker made, taking his rockabilly sensation to the top of the market. Though Parker has been reviled by many as a “husker”- greedy and responsible for leading a rock and roll talent down an unabashedly commercial path- what he did worked and he helped fullfill what also seemed like Presley’s dreams.
But, let’s also throw in that television was still coming into its own as an entertainment medium as the population of teenaged viewers was exploding in the 1950s. This plays a huge part in propelling Presley from the regional Southern star of 1955 to the immensely successful international star of 1956.
This comes through loud and clear in the controversy that was ignited nationally after Presley’s appearance on Milton Berle’s show- performing “Hound Dog”- in June 1956. “Elvis ’56” asserts that 40 million viewers watched Presley get crazy, jerking and twitching to some raw, electric blues. Not all of them liked what they saw and Presley became another icon of sorts for non-rock and rollers- the face of unrestrained, undisciplined youth. It must have truly scared some of them and kind of disgusted the rest.
On the Berle Show, Presley plowed into “Hound Dog” with apparent relish. Its a rough yet kind of goofy tune and the singer and the band both seem to be having a great time with it. Presley jerks and twitches whenever he isn’t singing- all with a little smile on his face- and ends it all up with an extra dramatic ending, purposefully putting his body into the act.
Presley performed the song again in June on the Steve Allen Show, only this time it was turned into a comedy routine. Allen introduced Presley as “the new Elvis Presley,” who appeared dressed in a tuxedo and performed the tune to a real dog, standing on a pedestal. It’s really kind of a good natured thing- and somehow big of Presley to kid himself a little bit- but it must have curled the toes of rock and roll fans across the country- here was their icon being the big butt of a joke. “Elvis ’56” reveals that all of this occurred before Presley had actually recorded “Hound Dog” in the studio.
Other highlights in “Elvis ’56” are plentiful, such as scorching performances of “Baby Let’s Play House” and Little Richard’s hit “Tutti Frutti,” the latter messing up his hair and bringing a healthy sweat to his face. There are television performances of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes” and on one of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Presley plows through “Ready Teddy,” crossing his eyes at the camera, falling back into a wild, fun instrumental break. But then he turns around and cools things off with a sincere reading of “Love Me Tender,” underscoring Presley’s ability to quickly change approach and style to keep his listeners guessing. His last appearance on Sullivan’s show- in January 1957- featured a crisp, bubbling version of “Don’t Be Cruel,” the vocal group the Jordinaires prominantly grouped around the star. That appearance drew 54 million viewers- one in three Americans- according to “Elvis ’56.”
Unfortunately, “Elvis ’56” also reports on the breakup of Presley’s great core band- guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer DJ Fontana. Much of the footage in “Elvis ’56” features this band and they prove to be up to the task. THAT must have been a fun band to be in! By August 1956, however, Presley was shooting his first movie and the studio wanted to dump the trio. Presley made the movie without them and though he would return to performing with his original group, they would finally dissolve in 1957.
“Elvis ’56” makes good use out of other sources of images and sounds like still photos and rare session tapes. For example, there is a hilarious sequence displaying various Presley products that flooded the market- such as dog tags, lunch boxes and charm bracelets. But what is best about it is the performance footage- it’s the real deal, not the stiff recreations in Presley’s movies.
Why was this entire cultural episode- Presley’s rapid rise to the top- so intense? The difference between a rock and roller and a movie star is very basic in that, for a while at least, it was still possible to see a rock and roller perform. That’s why Presley’s concerts were so big. Sure, Presley must have been fun to see, but I imagine conditions were primitive at best for a live music experience. Rather, the concerts became so big because people wanted to be in the star’s presence. It wasn’t just about Presley, it was also about the public’s desire to rally around a star. In this case, the public was legions of teenagers and the star had become THE rock and roll icon.
Directed by Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond…1987…61 min…featuring Levon Helm (narrator), Elvis Presley, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Bill Black, DJ Fontana, Scotty Moore, Jordanaires (Hugh Jarrett), Liberace, Tom Parker.
Thanks to a world of instant communication, just about everything you can think of is available. That includes the session tapes from the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” meeting between Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at Sun Studios in Memphis in December 1956. (Though there is some controversy over how much Cash really participated.) Long unavailable, tracks from the session were eventually released in Europe and then finally in the States. Now, you can not only find the music, but also exhaustive, blow-by-blow accounts of what was happening, who was saying what and critical examination of every note of music- all just a couple of easy clicks away in the home office.
What I found when I listened to “The Complete Million Dollar Quartet” CD- featuring the entire session presented in its original sequence- was fun. OK, that’s not a very critical term, but that is how I can best sum it up. This was not a session to make a record, this was a session just to fool around, to exchange ideas and tell stories. There are some complete songs here- mostly old gospel numbers- but there are also long stretches of chit chat, start and stop snatches of songs and general chaos from a situation that was not meant to be presented to the public.
Rather, it’s a meeting of musical friends, apparently happy to get together to swap sounds. The friend who helped me secure the recordings- a big Presley fan- was disappointed with his initial listening of “The Complete Million Dollar Quartet.” I found it to be very interesting indeed because this was a peek inside the personalities of some of the great musical names of the time. And what is there isn’t mind-staggering in the least- it’s just a bunch of guys who love playing music doing just that.
I would characterize “The Complete Million Dollar Quartet” as a summit meeting between Presley and Perkins. The meeting happened at Sun Studios following a Perkins session and Jerry Lee Lewis had also been playing on the session. According to the stories, Sun owner Sam Phillips called Cash, who stopped by but did not take a big part in the music-making, if at all. Of course, that’s what the rest of them do- they keep their instruments handy and launch into various songs, laughing, trying out different stuff than apparently they normally played.
Presley seems to take charge of the room during the jam and keeps a kind of running monologue going as it proceeds. He tells stories and illustrates them with singing little parts of songs. He often refers to “Carl” throughout the recordings and you get the sense he felt comfortable in the little studio with musical peers, far away from Hollywood and being an international recording star. This goes a long way toward revealing that Presley was not just a music industry tool, but a knowledgeable, experienced vocalist with a distinctive, down home charm.
Perkins really doesn’t say much during the sessions, but keeps his guitar strapped on and keeps noodling away throughout each tune. Presley can’t help but gravitate toward vocal music and the group digs back to songs apparently they were all familiar with, settling on some upbeat gospel material. I’m glad I heard it too, because the influence of the music these guys were having fun with has not yet been mentioned. In the Million Dollar Quartet sessions, there isn’t a very big divide at all between gospel and rock and roll. While the subjects of the songs may differ radically, the spirit is very much the same.
I like hearing these guys make mistakes on the Million Dollar Quartet recordings- dropping lyrics, messing up chords, stopping abruptly. It’s a little chaotic, but out of it you get a sense of what was going on in Memphis in 1956- an energetic new generation of musicians were turning a big bag of old influences into something new again. What was new, was the energy these guys were pouring into it.
Throughout the Million Dollar Quartet session, Presley tries on a number of musical approaches to singing some of the songs the group works over. He tells stories about seeing other vocalists imitating him and illustrates it in song for his friends. Presley shows a restless talent for vocal stylings and apparently was pretty adept at guitar too since many of his disgressions are matched with solid guitar-playing.
The music the “Quartet” gravitated to is all over the map. There are references to current work, such as snatches of Presley’s hit “Don’t Be Cruel,” Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rip It Up” (a hit by Little Richard and covered by Bill Haley) and even Pat Boone’s hit “Don’t Forbid Me.” There’s some Christmas music too- it’s just a few weeks before the Holidays and the group noodles around on “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” to warm up at the beginning of the session. There are some country tunes by Faron Young, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb. There are several Bill Monroe tunes in the mix too, including “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” “Summertime is Past and Gone,” “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong.”
What ends up feeling most comfortable to Presley and company, however, is the traditional material. Songs such as “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and “Down by the Riverside” inspire hearty sing-alongs, hand clapping and more spirit than professional musical intent. The traditional material also includes “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” and “Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley.”
What’s interesting here is that all of this diverse music seems of equal interest to the Quartet. It’s all vital to them and they switch from pop to traditional without blinking an eye. This indicates that these guys didn’t just write songs themselves, but were walking songbooks- and were eager to do any of it any time.
Buchanan and Goodman- “Flying Saucers”
Lonnie Donegan- “Rock Island Line”
Frank Sinatra- “Songs for Swingin Lovers”
Ray Charles- “Hallelujah I Love Her So”
Clyde McPhatter- “Treasure of Love”
Rocking Music in the Movies
Yeah, I’m old fashioned. I still play DVDs on a machine for entertainment. That’s how I viewed these great rock and roll movies of 1956. I just put them on my Netflix queue and they came in the mail. Put ’em back in the envelope and slip ’em in the mail, movie gone again- no problem.
I wasn’t going to write about movies in this particular investigation. But then the historian in me perked up when in my reading and research I kept running across particular references about the rock and roll craze of 1956 as reflected in several movies released that year. The movies themselves prove pretty slow watching as far as the plots are concerned, but then again, each one is jammed with studio footage of many of the artists of the time. What a treasure trove of experience- to actually see Frankie Lymon’s beaming face, Little Richard’s stage mania and Chuck Berry’s rock and roll dominance.
The Girl Can’t Help It
I began my 1956 rock and roll movie journey with “The Girl Can’t Help It,” starring Jayne Mansfield, a blonde bombshell if there ever was one. She teases the eye every time she is on the screen and I’m not talking about her acting ability. Mansfield plays a gangster moll named Jerri Jordan. Edmond O’Brien plays her gangster boyfriend (Marty “Fatso” Murdoch) and Tom Ewell plays entertainment agent Tom Miller, who gets hired to turn Jerri into a star. Everybody is getting into making rock and roll records and Murdoch wants to get in on it. The trouble is, Jerri doesn’t really want to be a star- she just wants to be a plain old housewife- serving her husband and making a home. Yeah, right. That about tells you what the plot action is like in this one.
Fortunately, Miller shows Jerri around town- literally showing her sexy wiggle off to the club owners- by attending performances by great artists of the time like the Platters, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Gene Vincent. Some of the artists are playing for live audiences- at least in a studio- and the crowds are often dancing to the music, American Bandstand-style. The performances are lip-synched, OK, but you get to see all of these performers in their prime.
That includes the great Little Richard, who gets to perform two numbers standing in front of his piano and with his full honking band in the background. The camera focuses on Richard’s cool shoes, the sweat and his wild hair on “Ready Teddy” and “She’s Got it” is an appropriate theme song for the movie- that Mansfield wiggle, in specific. Richard’s music is busy, brash and hepped up, his wide eyes maybe betraying a certain unease with lip-synching in front of the camera, but rocking with aggressive, deliberate abandon nonetheless. In this case, Richard is presented more formally- the audience is sitting back and letting Richard wail.
More great footage in “The Girl Can’t Help It” includes Gene Vincent and his band, the Blue Caps, performing the great 1956 hit “Be Bop A Lula.” In the story, the band is just another rock and roll group in town using a rehearsal space Miller and Jerri drop by to use. Vincent is working on the look that seemed to be in favor for up and coming rock and rollers of the time- the partially slicked by hair, a shock of it going wild, performing with an acoustic guitar and self-absorbed passion. In “The Girl Can’t Help It,” Vincent is intense and dramatic, his voice percolating with the bubbly progress of the song. It’s a great moment when the Blue Caps flick off their hats all at once- a simple, yet visually effective action.
Look no further than Elvis Presley to define the look that Vincent also seemed to be adopting at the time. The Presley-Vincent rock and roll look was also being cultivated by two other performers in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” Eddie Fontaine and Eddie Cochran, clearly suggesting a common fashion trend. (A nagging question comes up here: was Presley setting the trend or was he a follower too?)
In “The Girl Can’t Help It,” Fontaine performs “Cool It Baby,” a splashy, showy piece, his guitar more of a prop than a necessity. Fontaine has the Presley-Vincent look, but the music betrays a connection more to show business than to the burgeoning music movement of rock and roll- it’s a big production piece, a showpiece as opposed to a dance record.
More authentic is Eddie Cochran, depicted performing his tune “20 Flight Rock” as part of a mock television broadcast. The guy in the song is just too tired to rock after trudging to his honey up all those flights of stairs- but in true rock and roll style, sandy-haired Cochran doesn’t look worn out at all and performs with appropriate abandon. It’s a fun and passionate highlight of the music in the movie.
Another major music highlight of “The Girl Can’t Help It”- and a discovery for me as I had previously been unaware of this group- was the Treniers, performing “Rockin’ is Our Business.” In the story, they’re a band recording in a studio. But with three main vocalists and a backing band to boot, their lively, active performance style is nothing but handclapping fun.
That’s not all the music in the movie either. A group called the Chuckles perform another show-businessy piece titled “Cinnamon Sinner” and prove that rocking and rolling with an accordion is something to contend with. Vocalist Abbey Lincoln, first of all, proves that Mansfield isn’t the only good looking woman in a gown in the movie, but also delivers an impassioned, gospel-influenced performance with “Spread the Word.” Julie London figures into the plot of the story- as Miller’s old flame- and she appears in some dreamy, otherworldly sequences, including when she delivers a steamy “Cry Me a River.” The Platters also appear, performing “You’ll Never Know.”
My very favorite music moment in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” however, is when Fats Domino performs “Blue Monday.” Domino has such an interesting look compared to all the rocker wannabes- a kind of beaming rhythm and blues Buddha at the piano with a full supporting band. The song is good unto itself, but what makes it thrilling is that the crowd is dancing away to it. The camera cuts to scenes revealing that some of the female dancers are barefoot, their dresses swirling.
I had to do a double-take during the Domino scene because the camera not only catches the dresses swirling, but also, for just a split second, a peak underneath. It was a little shocking considering how basically conservative the movie is in general, except when Mansfield is jiggling on screen, of course. It seemed “out of character” to include a little panty-watching. Underpants or not, however, what makes this scene great is the excitement of the dancing in combination with Domino’s music.
Watching the dancing is not only exciting, but also perhaps reveals something about rock and roll. The dancing is very active and busy but there is a sense that the actual rock and roll dance steps were related to swing dancing. You could say that the music has an element of swing to it too, but kind of tightened up and brought down to the very basics- the progress of the beat, with just that fun little skip going on in the rhythm. This suggests that rock and roll owed a lot to the swing music of the previous decade- as much as it did to country elements and rhythm and blues.
That movies became another outlet for the rock and roll music craze is not surprising- Hollywood was still king of entertainment at this time and it was searching for new things to make movies about all the time. It would make sense that a trend attracting teenagers to the dance halls in larger and larger numbers would also attract movie moguls who would rather attract those teenagers to the movie theaters.
Also interesting in “The Girl Can’t Help It” is the portrayal of the music business. Here, it’s an adult business, pandering to the swelling ranks of teenagers- the Baby boomers just starting to come of age- not unlike the movie business. Years later, the element of youth would not only take over the style of music being presented, but it would also end up taking over the business itself. But in 1956, it seems that the performers were just the performers and that the business side of things was taken care of- and manipulated- by adult professionals, who “knew better.”
This movie about the music business gets pretty corny, but it does reveal another key ingredient to the music scene of 1956- the jukebox. Besides the radio, where else would kids hear the latest records? As in the movie, it seems those who controlled the jukeboxes controlled part of the music market.
The youthful frenzy of rock and roll maybe is a little out of place in the showrooms, the suits, ties and evening gowns in a lot of the scenes in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” clocking in at 1 hr 39 min. Here again, it’s an adult and established music industry trying to fit rock and roll into old molds. But just that rock and roll got in the door is impressive enough.
Rock, Rock, Rock!
The second 1956 music movie I checked out was “Rock, Rock, Rock!” featuring Tuesday Weld as teenager Dori Graham. Also appearing is Teddy Randazzo, as Dori’s love interest and the winner of an Alan Freed talent contest. Randazzo is credited in “Rock, Rock, Rock!” as being a member of “The Three Chuckles,” the group in “The Girl Can’t Help It” who attempt to rock and roll with an accordion. Randazzo is free to be a crooner in this one rather than wrestle with the squeeze box.
The production values of “Rock, Rock, Rock!” (1 hr. 23 minutes) are really clunky and the story itself is pretty dumb- a high school yarn- thin yarn at that. The whole thing is arthritically stiff, the acting is childishly delivered and there’s little of even fleeting interest in the main body of the movie.
However, the scenes in “Rock, Rock, Rock!” moderated by Alan Freed are a treasure. Freed’s influence dominates in two sequences- one is a slice of Freed’s television showcase, watched by Dori and her friend one evening at home, with her goofy Dad trying to resist the primal pull of the new music. The other sequence occurs when Freed brings his live showcase to Dori’s school for their prom. Both chunks of the movie present more of the music stars of the day, appearing rapid-fire like at the Grand Ole Opry. Freed succinctly sums up the new music he was so intrinsically involved in promoting when he calls rock and roll “a river,” picking up body and strength from a number of musical streams.
Freed himself performs a little with his own rock and roll orchestra- vocally chipping in the phrases “rock and roll boogie” and “we want rock and roll all night long” during a couple of upbeat tunes.
Jimmy Cavello and His House Rockers, a showbusy unit with some of the rock and roll look (the Presley-Vincent look) but a smoother show band delivery- is featured on two songs, “The Big Beat,” a song cataloging various types of music at the time, and “Rock, Rock, Rock,” both high energy dance songs. There’s something about their splashy sound that doesn’t seem authentic in terms of rock and roll- like the band, apparently a tight, rehearsed unit, just added the word “rock” to whatever they were doing. It’s perhaps a little telling that the instrumental breaks in both songs feature sax and piano solos, not guitar work. Still, their confidence and the swinging nature of the material make Cavello a movie highlight.
Also working the rock and roll look and sound is the Johnny Burnette Trio, playing “Lonesome Train.” Not an orchestra or a show band, Burnette plays with an electric guitarist and an upright bass player. You get a sense that they are truly a working unit and they seem to be hooked into the main vein of the rock and roll coming out of Memphis- a little bit of rhythm and blues injected into a simmering country song.
“Rock, Rock, Rock!” also offers some notable appearances by vocal groups. I enjoyed getting acquainted with the Moonglows, who are featured twice, performing “I Knew From the Start” and “Over and Over.” The group featured a lead vocalist, three supporting vocalists and a guy, right up in the front line, playing an electric guitar. The group delivers their songs with a smart, sharp sense of rhythm, indicating that their inclination was to produce dance tunes, despite the cascading vocals and seriously sincere finishes of both pieces.
A black and white, photo studio quality scene with the Flamingos, performing “Will I Be Crying,” is very effective. The group, identified as being from Chicago, features a smooth, high pitched lead vocalist, a nice blend of backing voices and a sweet sincerity.
Mixed into all this is La Vern Baker, the only female performer in the lot, whose sing-songy “Tra La La” carries a little bit of mambo in the beat. It’s kind of a dumb song and you get a sense that Baker could definitely do better, but since it’s the performer’s only opportunity in the movie, she seems content with hamming it up a little.
The variety factor works against the movie, however, in the goofy performance of Cirino and the Bowties, from Brooklyn, performing “Ever Since I Can Remember” like some fraternity boys mugging around with their girl friends. That also applies to some of the other clunky musical elements, including star Weld lip-synching to a soundtrack by Connie Francis. The movie dips lowest when even a little girl at an outdoor party- Ivy Schulman- sings a “rock and roll” song.
But who cares, really, when “Rock, Rock, Rock!” affords the opportunity to get up close and personal with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers? The outfit- featuring young Lymon singing out in front along with a rank of vocalists- performs two tunes, “Baby Baby,” and “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” Lymon is obviously a natural performer and his confident, unbroken youthful voice combines with an active and riveting stage presence to make him stand way out from the rest.
However, the Teenagers seem to know this and their smiling faces, choreographed moves and able vocal support accentuates Lymon’s powerful presence with professional grace. But it also looks like the whole group is having fun. That is underscored by the instance of group dancing during the brief instrumental break in “Baby Baby.” Unlike anyone else in “Rock, Rock, Rock!” or “The Girl Can’t Help,” Lymon and the Teenagers dance to entertain, doing the splits, then quickly get back to rocking and rolling.
The scene featuring Lymon and the Teenagers performing “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” certainly seems odd- like a commercial break from the main sponsor. The song extols the virtues of staying in school and out of trouble and I find it hard to believe that any teenager would write such a piece of adult propaganda. Lymon and company seem to know this and their smiles at the end of the song, with their fingers cutely raised to their chins as youthful angels, betray a little irony in the whole thing.
But my favorite scene in “Rock, Rock, Rock!”, hands down, is the one featuring Chuck Berry, performing “You Can’t Catch Me.” At the beginning of the scene, you see Berry crouched down, waiting for the track to begin. It’s just a second, maybe, but in that second you see a performer poised, ready to leap. Once the track starts, Berry wrangles his guitar with exaggerated abandon, wriggles constantly in his loose suit and adds expressions and physical motions to act out the action in the song. When Berry talks about putting his foot into his gas tank, he steps on it on stage.
Berry gets a little duck-walking in at the end of the song- strutting low to the floor with the knees bent- and all in all it’s a great performance. His intense stare at the camera as he tries to reproduce what was probably an exciting live stage presence told me he was a showman deluxe, ready to rock at the drop of a hat.
The dancing scenes in “Rock, Rock, Rock!” are more plentiful than in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” especially for the bigger band numbers. When you don’t really have a plot, it’s the wise thing to do. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that a lot of the dancers in the crowd scenes were professionals- it all looks so wild and fun, so easy. Once again, the camera is deliberately set up to catch the feet, some barefoot, and the whirling skirts of the girl dancers, resulting once again in just a flash of underpants here and there. It can’t be a mistake that both films so far in my investigation would have this element.
Rock Around the Clock
The big daddy of the rock and roll movies of 1956, it turns out, is “Rock Around the Clock.” Hollywood paid tribute to the new phenomenon of rock and roll by producing a movie ode to the new and the old of the music business. This one isn’t so much of an excuse to showcase the bands, although that happens, as a story about savvy business people riding a new wave of popularity. That includes Johnny Johnston as band manager Steve Hollis, Alix Talton as Corinne Talbot, a conniving New York booking agent, and DJ Alan Freed, a club owner and a staunch promoter of rock and roll. Talton in particular stands out as an actor in this crew, moving easily across the screen and delivering her lines with a wise chill that makes her character completely despicable even more than fifty years later.
The opening sequence of “Rock Around the Clock” (directed by Fred F. Sears, 1 hr. 17 min.) is an important indicator of the time. In the story, manager Hollis gets into an argument with the leader of a dance band orchestra he is booking- an old fashioned unit playing limpid big band stuff. The sparse audience and the lack of interest by the bandleader to try something new results in Hollis parting ways with the orchestra, hitting the road to find something fresh, exciting and tuned in to the current music trends. These scenes most certainly reflect what was really going on at the time on the established music circuits- the old ways of making money with music were proving ineffective as change loomed on the horizon.
Alan Freed, once again, appears as himself. Appearing in these 1956 rock and roll movies, Freed is portrayed as a tireless promoter of rock and roll and seems to be the first name on anyone’s lips when they mention the term. That film producers understood this and made sure Freed gave his stamp of approval to their projects by being featured in the movies speaks volumes of the influence he wielded. Even though the rock and roll craze was about teenagers, Freed represents those adults in the music business who were sympathetic to the movement. They were as much promoters of the music as they were the kids who were dancing to it. That it also made sense money-wise was a definite plus.
Fortunately, the business end of it isn’t the only element to the movie, it’s just the beginning. Bill Haley and the Comets appear as themselves in a fictionalized account of their rise to prominence. Hollis and a buddy stumble across the band at a small rural town’s Saturday night dance and start scheming almost immediately to turn the group into a nationally touring hit. That means playing their happy amalgam of country, swing and boogie, and Haley and the Comets do plenty of that throughout the movie- well, lip-synch, anyway.
Haley and the Comets’ song list is huge, including, of course, their runaway hit from the previous year, “Rock Around the Clock,” as well as the fun, infectious “See You Later, Alligator” and the honking sax showcase number, “Rudy’s Rock.” Other Haley songs included in the movie are “Happy Baby,” “Rock,” “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie,” the very memorable “Razzle Dazzle,” “ABC Boogie” and “Mambo Rock.” Not all of the music is presented as a performance- it also serves as a soundtrack to the action. The movie mightily defines Haley and the Comets and leaves behind a full legacy even if the group never accomplished anything else again.
Also performing in “Rock Around the Clock” is the Platters, Tony Martinez and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. The Platters, introduced by Freed as the number one vocal group in the country, perform twice with the Ernie Freeman Combo. Both times, the group trots on stage with the energy of top shelf athletes, ready to go and aiming to please with their two big, big hits of the time, “Only You” and “The Great Pretender.” Lead singer Tony Williams is strong indeed, his voice swelling and rising with each tune, the soaring melodies punctuated by the layered vocal support of the others. It’s passionate, emotional music, so sincerely delivered it overcomes the impulse to discard some of the romantic overstatement in the lyrics that might sound less convincing in the hands of a less successful unit.
Tony Martinez and band appears several times in “Rock Around the Clock” as a nod to another musical trend of the time- the novelty combo. Martinez and his attractive dancer-singer actually have brief speaking parts, but their spicy mambo music, full of lots of percussion and rhythmic fireworks, gives an interesting counterpoint to the rock and roll. At one point, Martinez steps away from his role as vocalist-bandleader and starts wailing away on a vibraphone, perhaps one of the most impressive displays of instrumental work in the movie.
Most fun, however, are the sequences with Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They’re one of those splashy showbusy units seemingly attaching “rock” to their slick, upbeat tunes. Still, the group’s energy is infectious. It sure looks like they’re all having fun as the stage remains very active, every band member seemingly in motion. Bell and the Bellboys deliver their big hit, “Giddy Up A Ding Dong,” a goofy, nonsensical delight, and “I’m Gonna Teach You How to Rock,” one of those direct efforts to cash in on the rock and roll craze.
While the rock and roll of Haley and the Comets and the others is an important element to “Rock Around the Clock,” it’s actually the rock and roll dancing that takes center stage. It’s a big part of the story, with Lisa Gaye and Earl Barton playing Lisa and Jimmy Johns, a brother-sister dancing team whose steps on the dance floor help inspire the rock and roll craze. It’s not a stretch. As Johnston says as band manager Hollis, the Johns help demonstrate how to dance to the new music. It’s an exceptionally insightful observation because he sees that it’s not enough just to present the music, but to also present a way to use it. Therefore, the dancing is also a big part of the action of the movie. That includes multiple crowd shots of whirling and twirling.
Don’t Knock the Rock
But wait, there was even another rock and roll movie released in 1956. Apparently, “Rock Around the Clock” was so successful that they put another movie- “Don’t Knock the Rock”- in the works right away using many of the key elements. That means featuring Bill Haley and the Comets, including Alan Freed in the cast and showcasing prominent acts from the day like Little Richard and the Treniers. The movie also gives plenty of screen time to rock and roll dancing.
Both “Rock Around the Clock” and “Don’t Knock the Rock” (84 minutes) were directed by Fred F. Sears and both sandwich in stories about the music industry in 1956. However, “Rock Around the Clock” is about the rise of rock and roll and “Don’t Knock the Rock” is about the backlash to the popular trend once it had risen.
“Don’t Knock the Rock” starts with a popular rock and roller named Arnie Haines, played with a collected coolness by crooner Alan Dale, who has become exhausted by a full schedule and by the frenzy of his fans- particularly his clothes-ripping female fans. This is all continually stoked up by his publicity-hound manager, Alan Freed. Haines and his band are missing the life they used to live in their old hometown and decide to chuck a fistful of bookings in order to go back home and take an extended vacation.
But there’s trouble in the old home town, called Mellondale. It seems the mayor and other parents have put their foot down squarely on rock and roll, banning it from local events and putting the parents and teenagers at odds with each other. When Haines and band arrive at the train station, they are met by celebrating teens and disgusted parents. The first showdown between Haines and the mayor occurs just moments after stepping off the train and it sets a gloomy tone for the start of the group’s visit.
While it’s the musicians who get popular, becoming the public focus of rock and roll, it seems that it isn’t the music the parents and teenagers are at odds over, it is the dancing. When Dale has his first argument with the grumpy mayor, he asks what is so wrong with dancing, not playing music. Later in the production, during an arts exhibition which is meant to soften the adults’ attitude toward rock and roll, the focus is on styles of dancing throughout the years- from George Washington’s time to the 1920s and finally to contemporary rock and roll.
Dale, as Haines, makes for an unusual rock and roll hero. First of all, it’s a little hard to tell how much rock and roll is in his music. “Don’t Knock the Rock” opens with Dale performing the song “I Cry More” on stage and he proves to be more of a crooner than a rock and roller. It’s a high-energy performance, with the four backing vocalists adding plenty of handclapping and Dale doing a little bit of dramatic stage posing and some hip swiveling. But the song, along with others in the movie, seems to be more show business than invention.
Next, Dale just doesn’t look like a rock and roller- he’s dressed in a suit and tie most of the time, his hair slicked back. This is in sharp contrast to the surly guitar-and-a-guy image being worked by Elvis Presley and others. That could well be on purpose, since the message of the movie is that rock and roll is OK for typical teenagers. Dale’s image softens the rebellious tone of rock and roll and brings it on home, literally.
And yet, Haines is doing something very rock and roll-like in “Don’t Knock the Rock.” He’s going ahead with the party no matter what the authorities say. And it’s promoted in a time honored tradition of independent music- word of mouth. In his cool way, Dale creates a decent hero in Haines after all.
This set up for “Don’t Knock the Rock” brings up an important element about the music industry and that is, the power of the press. A lot of the action in the movie revolves around what goes into the newspapers. In the first part of the movie, Freed stays busy grabbing headlines for Haines and crew, which raises their commercial profile. However, bad publicity also plays a big part here- the trouble Haines and band stir up in their home town puts them into the national papers and not only affects their string of bookings, but also the bookings of other rock and rollers. In this case, the old phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” just isn’t true. Added to this is the element that the female lead’s mother is a national newspaper columnist and seems to be holding the whole future of rock and roll in her hands. It turns out that regaining positive publicity becomes the saving grace at the end of the movie.
The dancing scenes in “Don’t Knock the Rock” were “staged and created” by Earl Barton, half of the “brother-sister” dance team featured prominently in “Rock Around the Clock.” Those scenes occur often throughout the production, sometimes almost randomly, including in Haines’ apartment living room- fan club “kids” literally bouncing off the furniture- and on the railroad station platform in Mellondale. While the dancing is fun, there is a sense that what is being presented is being done by professional dancers, taking the action away from regular kids.
The costuming is sharp, dancers dressed in everything from tight shorts and pulled up argyle socks to whirling skirts. Thanks to those professionals, there also doesn’t seem to be a need for panty-peeking dance shots of the crowd, especially during one scene featuring Haley rehearsing with a chorus line of female dancers, all wrapped up tight in short shorts. There’s no mistaking the emphasis on the dancers’ rears. There’s other tight short shorts- or rather bathing suits- in other scenes, also focusing on the rears, giving “Don’t Knock the Rock” that little bit of sex it needs to connect to the perceived racy image of rock and roll. Actress Jana Lund- who plays Sunny Everett, the scheming female of this movie- adds to that with a sensual solo dance to some blues piano in an especially tight top.
However, there is one particularly unusual dancing scene in “Don’t Knock the Rock.” That is, while Little Richard and his band are performing “Tutti Frutti,” the dance floor is cleared for the winners of a local dance contest. Apparently, the dancers are not professionals, and, in fact, the male dancer is obviously overweight. This perhaps leads to a little extra reaction by the crowd- some twittering and laughing- but the couple dances away only a few feet away from Richard, they look like they’re having fun and the scene succeeds mightily where the professional segments do not- it ties things back to real, everyday people.
That doesn’t mean that the music is not important in “Don’t Knock the Rock.” There are plenty of musical highlights in the movie starting with several Haley and the Comets tunes. Several of the songs, including “Hot Dog, Buddy Buddy,” and an instrumental titled “Goofin’ Around,” showcases the Comets’ great guitarist Franny Beecher, whose speed and dexterity are impressive indeed. As in “Rock Around the Clock,” Comets sax player Rudy Pompilli and bassist Al Rex also take center stage, Pompilli honking and squealing and Rex literally turning his bass on end for a little crazy fun.
Another major Haley highlight isn’t a Haley song at all- it’s Haley performing a song popularized by Little Richard, “Rip It Up.” In the hands of Haley and band, the tune keeps its original liveliness, but acquires a little polish. The dance showcase on screen during “Rip It Up” is terrific- dancers throwing each other, spinning, laughing and generally just flying through the air. Haley’s “Hook, Line and Sinker” also appears in the soundtrack.
The Treniers appear twice in “Don’t Knock the Rock” and, each time, they just take over the screen. The first tune, “Out of the Bushes,” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as the three lead singers of the Treniers mix exaggerated, leg wiggling stage motions and facial expressions with the upbeat music. They are scary indeed, ending the song with a dramatic “Boo!” The Treniers must have been a great act to see live. That also goes for their second tune, “Rocking on Saturday Night,” which is effectively underscored by some energetic handclapping and antics like holding their ears when the sax plows into a solo.
Less comfortable on the screen is Little Richard, who does have a kind of stunned look throughout. I don’t blame him- it must be rough trying to lip-synch to such exciting music. Still, Richard pulls out an exciting approximation of a performance- jumping back in “Long Tall Sally” when Uncle John “ducks back in the alley,” playing the piano backwards or with his leg up on the instrument, occasionally whooping and squealing. And wow, what a band- including four sax players doing choreographed moves. Haley must have been a Richard fan because not only does he and the band perform “Rip It Up,” but there’s even a glimpse during “Long Tall Sally” of Haley sitting and enjoying the music.
Also appearing in “Don’t Knock the Rock” is Bill Appell and the Applejacks, playing a light rock.
The writing in “Don’t Knock the Rock” gets a little heavy handed at times, making obvious pitches for a certain point of view. But the lessons they are trying to teach are still valid- that teenagers should be able to make up their own minds on some things and adults should try to trust rather than dictate.
In a beach scene, Haines and his love interest end up discussing the meaning of rock and roll, concluding that it is a business like any other, but has also become a flag that teenagers are waving in their parents’ faces. Haines sees that it isn’t about him particularly, it’s about the need for teenagers to have someone, or something, to focus on. Later, it seems like the whole community of Mellondale is in on a discussion about how parents don’t want to blame themselves for their teenager’s behavior, but want to blame rock and roll instead- and how unfair that is.
Fay Baker, who plays big time news columnist Arlene MacLaine, gets to deliver some of the best lines in the movie, drily telling her daughter that the rock and rollers “all need a sedative,” that they are moving so fast “they look like a double exposure” and that rock and roll looks like “the most violent exercise.”
It all ends in a celebration with Dale taking over at the mike, the band wailing and the dancers going nuts to the title tune, “Don’t Knock the Rock.” Everything ends happily and rock and roll is restored. It remains, as Haines puts it, “a safe and sane dance for all young people.” As the end of the movie puts it, “Dig you later.”
Shake, Rattle & Rock!
Directed by Lou Rusoff…1956…72 min…featuring Mike Connors, Lisa Gaye, Fats Domino, Tommy Charles, Big Joe Turner.
Rock Pretty Baby
Directed by Richard Bartlett…1956…89 min…featuring Sal Mineo, Fay Wray, Rod McKuen, Shelley Fabares, John Saxon.
Forbidden Planet ****
Buried deep under the surface of the planet Altair 4 is the remnants of an ancient civilization- a huge labyrinth of machinery and technology, far outliving its creators. The complex has been discovered by a scientist from an exploration mission, and while the rest of the crew from the mission perished- except for his daughter- he has survived and dedicated decades to its study. His regimen is interupted when another mission- a military-run operation- comes to the planet to check up on the fate of the previous explorers.
Such is the set-up for the 1956 science fiction classic “Forbidden Planet.” It’s a classic because even though the movie was released in 1956, it outshines most later efforts in creativity and execution. This movie is a total package of supposition and fantasy, interesting visually and mentally.
The acting in “Forbidden Planet” is not too bad- it comes off at first like a battleship movie- with a captain and crew interacting as if they’re fresh out of World War II. The military men adopt a dispassionate dedication to their mission- even when their comrades die. But the action in the movie takes them into situations far beyond normal military experience, challenging the characters to think beyond what they actually know. Anne Francis’ turn as Alta, the only female in the movie, is refreshing compared to the stock military characters that pour out of the space ship.
The sets in “Forbidden Planet” are not just servicable backdrops, but art works in themselves. The spaceship scenes in the beginning, for example, are conceptual masterpieces. The commanding bridge of the spaceship does not look anything like any kind of World War II ship. Upon landing, the barren landscape of Altaira 4 is desolate and plenty alien-looking, the back drops offering a sense of vast distances. Added to this is Morbius’ home- a futuristically designed residence with odd plants, mechanisms and strangely shaped doorways.
But the sets used while Morbius takes the captain and the Doc for a tour of the alien complex are those that make the concepts of “Forbidden Planet” come to fruition. The hugeness of the machinery dwarfs the characters, indicating power and scale far beyond the human experience. The mechanisms in the laboratory Morbius has been using to study the Krell are designed purposefully to fit non-human technicians, completing the illusion.
There are instances of cool special effects throughout the production- bright streaks of color- probably hand-applied- flash across the screen whenever the military men use their blasters. The attack of the monster is riveting for the crackling brightness of the color. This tends to be in sharp contrast to the filmed footage and very effective, even spooky.
All of this is underscored by the soundtrack, filled with the “electronic tonalities” of Louis and Bebe Barron. There’s a scene where Morbius drops a disk into a machine and sounds come out he claims is music recorded 500,000 years before. That’s a mindbending concept in itself and the Barrons respond by making a kind of bubbling and burbling of tones, the sound coming out in bursts and dashes. The Barrons’ otherworldly work accompanies the rest of the movie with as much exotic power, heightening the tension of the action- and has nothing to do with rock and roll, pop, or even music in the traditional sense.
The Barrons bring a brave and courageous artistry to their work in “Forbidden Planet,” and while the bloops and bleeps of various primitive electronic boxes are far, far removed from the rest of this discussion, I felt it was important to include their accomplishment. That is, not only was there an avant-garde experimenting with sound in 1956, but they were able to get it exposed to a mass market via a big release movie. The soundtrack is a showcase of mind-teasing sound art- and the movie’s great too.
Of course, one of the things that made “Forbidden Planet” a hit was the robot named Robby- a big, thick, clunky machine that can do anything it is ordered to do, except harm a human being. While the robot becomes a distinctive element of the movie, it is also used for comic relief- perhaps the weakest parts of the movie. Robby interacts with the cook of the space ship over Kentucky bourbon- bringing the production down to much more common, gutteral level. Robby is a clear inspiration for talking robot characters and scenes that occur in many movies since.
But in the end it’s the ideas and philosphical questions the movie brings up that gives it so much weight. It’s been said that “Forbidden Planet” is based on the Shakespeare play “The Tempest,” but even Shakespeare didn’t have the imagination it took to create this production. Just the scope of time involved in the story- “2,000 centuries”- is a challenge in itself. To imagine a source of knowledge and power just as big is to also ask questions about who is fit to be in control of such power.
The most compelling moment of “Forbidden Planet” is the change that occurs in Morbius’ character. Pidgeon’s dramatic outburst just prior to Morbius’ death is compelling in its raw, desperate passion. He has become a man with super intellect thanks to the ancient machinery, but his intellect is not enough to prepare him for the awful truth. There is still plenty of human being left in Morbius and the tortured anguish he expresses in his final moments is gripping indeed.
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox…1956…Walter Pidgeon (Morbius)…Anne Francis (as Alta)…Leslie Nielsen (as Commander Adams)…Warren Stevens (as Doc)…Earl Holliman (as Cook)…Robby the Robot…98 minutes…electronic soundtrack by Bebe and Louis Barron.
There’s one thing viewers get to see in “Giant” that they wouldn’t ever see again- that is, actor James Dean as an old man. “Giant” was Dean’s last movie before dying in a car crash at age 24. In “Giant,” the events take place over several decades, so by the end of the production, Dean and the other leading stars- Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor- get old and grey. Dean’s character- a ranch hand turned oil tycoon- descends into a constant state of drunkenness, his hair thinning, speech slurred, becoming incapable of speaking to a crowd or marrying the woman he proposes to. It’s not a pretty sight. Is that what Dean would have become as a mature artist?
What also is not pretty in “Giant” is the shadow of racism that moves throughout the long, sprawling movie. Ultimately, despite a story that follows the lives of a rich assortment of characters- who are mostly rich financially- that’s what “Giant” is all about: the social segregation of white Texans and people of Mexican heritage. This racial prejudice affects all of the main characters- it’s the major flaw that ends up destroying Dean’s character; it’s one of the major problems between Taylor and Hudson’s married characters; and it’s the impetus for one of their sons to embarrass the family in a major social situation.
The most fascinating actors on the screen in “Giant” are Dean and Taylor. Dean’s ranch hand character shies away from others with a kind of confused humbleness, his face obscured by his hat, standing in the shadows, slumping down in a heap in a chair. The older version of the character is not so shy outwardly, but he is hiding nonetheless- in the debilitating haze of alcohol.
Taylor’s character is feisty and even kind of annoying, despite her arresting good looks. However, that feistiness is the one thing that brings hope to her husband’s Texas ranch- for her family members and for the Hispanic workers who live in a nearby village. Without regard for the predominant social structure, she insists on saving a sick Mexican baby; without regard to her husband’s family traditions, she encourages her children to follow their personal desires. Eventually it is her approval that becomes the ultimate standard for everybody, including her powerful husband.
Still, the underlying tension in the movie is the racial issue- it is much more widespread than the influence of even a powerful woman. This is illustrated in the return of a white Texan and a Hispanic boy from serving in the armed forces in World War II. The white Texan returns to a marching band and a cheering crowd. The Hispanic boy returns home in a coffin to a lonely greeting and a sad funeral.
“Giant” is full of sweeping landscapes and the big ideas of the characters. It’s also full of misunderstanding and insensitivity. Perhaps that’s why the change that occurs especially in the rich rancher becomes the movie’s triumph. It seems that power, money and lots of land doesn’t prevent a person from being stupid when it comes to the people around them. Getting smart may take decades and a lot of heartache.
Directed by George Stevens…1956…201 min…featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Chill Wills, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor.
Pulled off the streets in Paris by hopeful Russian refugees, a young woman is declared to be the only surviving family member of the Czar’s family, who had been imprisoned and executed following the Russian revolution. The woman bears a striking resemblance to one of the Czar’s daughters and since she suffers from amnesia, shuffling in and out of various asylums, her new handlers work hard to mold her into exactly what they think she should be. The mystery then becomes whether this is true or not, since the woman seems to have some memories not implanted by her discoverers, and even her supposed grandmother is taken in by the hope that her granddaughter still lives.
Despite the fact that this movie is rich in colorful imagery, a lot of it is talk. The strongest presence on the screen is lead actor Yul Brynner, whose sharply chiseled appearance is matched by his intensity in every scene. I don’t think the guy cracks a smile even once during the production. He’s stern, cold and very focused on the project at hand. This makes him a curious love interest for the young woman in question, played by Ingrid Bergman. The most authentic emotions in this movie come during the interactions between Bergman and actor Helen Hayes, who plays the grandmother with a mix of haughty entitlement and the fragile longing of an old lady who has thought her family was long gone.
Directed by Anatole Litvak…1956…105 min…featuring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Martita Hunt.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters ***
An American release of the original Japanese sci-fi classic, badly edited and featuring added-on voice-overs and lackluster scenes with Raymond Burr.
Despite the apparent phoniness of the monster costume and the model sets, “Godzilla” succeeds because of the enormous scale of what is being presented. Godzilla is huge- bigger than anything around it, including the buildings- making it something completely outside human experience. The concept itself creates fear. But it is the sound the monster makes- a horrible trumpeting roar- that is most frightening- and the ultimate weapon used to destroy it. But more insidious than the monster itself is what created it- irresponsible H-bomb testing.
However, it is the love triangle between some of the principal Japanese characters that brings the movie closest to reality. The ultimate sacrifice the brilliant scientist makes has as much to do with relationship issues as killing Godzilla. As for Burr’s character, he is the “ugly” American if there ever was one, assuming preferential treatment wherever he goes.
I imagine that just a little more than ten years after World War II, the scenes of mighty Japanese armed forces blasting away at the monster were uncomfortable for those who fought against them in the war. I suppose the scenes of Tokyo being destroyed- left in burning ruins- made up for that.
Directed by Ishiro Honda, Terry O. Morse…1956…80 min…featuring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Raymond Burr.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ****
This movie follows the struggles of a World War II veteran trying to make his way in the New York City business world. Pressures from home mix with pressures from work while the bloody experiences of the war haunt the protagonist and keep him on the edge of his seat most of the time. A theme of hard honesty as the best policy emerges as the veteran happens into a public relations job that puts him at the right hand of a powerful media businessman. He establishes a working friendship with the industry giant and discovers that his personal trials are part of what keeps him alive.
Directed by Nunnally Johnson…1956…153 min…featuring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Fredric March, Lee J Cobb, Keenan Wynn.
Alexander the Great ***
Great costuming, towering sets with rich details and a compelling story help make “Alexander the Great” a sword and sandal classic. But it’s the acting and political intrigue of the yarn that is what’s important here rather than the sword play and battle scenes. Rest assured there’s plenty of the latter- after all, this is about a voracious conqueror- but that stuff is somewhat stiff. Rather, the deep hatreds and ambitions that the characters reveal as they interact are what continue to fascinate.
There’s the deep chasm between young Alexander and his father, Phillip, the King of Macedonia, for example. Envy, distrust and cold disregard flow between them as the old king meets the inevitable future. Phillip is a forminable king and it is easy to see how an arrogant, intelligent and ambitious young man would be jealous. It seems that it is Phillip who unites Greece after years of warfare and it is his ambition to take the fight to the Persian empire right next door. It is Alexander who steps in to solidify what Phillip has accomplished and to go that next step further to challenege Persia, once Phillip is assassinated.
There is another relationship – between upstart king Alexander and the great Persian ruler Darius- that takes jealousies and blanket hatreds to the highest level.
But other relationships also bear the strain of warrior ambition. Alexander’s close friends fall by the wayside as his campaign to conquor the world progresses. Alexander personally sticks one in the back with a spear during an arguement. Pretty soon, he has no friends and doesn’t have much luck with the women either. Everyone is telling him his ego is getting in the way of making prudent decisions, so he gets rid of them when they stand in his way.
Apparently it seemed important to the Greeks to have their names resound through history and Alexander did accomplish that- we’re talking about him now more than two thousand years later. But I’m not so sure just how “great” Alexander was, at least according to this portrayal.
Directed by Robert Rossen…1956…136 min…featuring Richard Burton, Fredric March, Claire Bloom, Danielle Darrieux, Peter Cushing.
Other 1956 movies:
Around the World in 80 Days
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Lust for Life
The Silent World
The Ten Commandments
What’s this all about- collecting, retrieving, preserving a little tiny echo of the past- my past, according to the years, but millions of other people’s past too? The dusty old records are true artifacts- literally voices and sounds revealing something about the people of the time. The movies make it so I can look right at them, watch them move, see their faces- somehow, they’re still alive and doing what they did best, right there on my home video screen.
What does the music and footage reveal? A struggle between youthful restlessness and social regimentation? A shifting of the musical continents with the new pushing the old into the sea? Rebels without a cause but a very definite soundtrack?
1956 was not the start of something- rock and roll as such- but it was a big breakout year. The flood gates were opening on the baby boom teenage population and everyone was rushing to cash in on the new market. The music business was especially well situated- if the kids say they like rock and roll, then give them rock and roll, coming out of their ears. Call everything and anything “rock and roll” and get it out there.
There seemed to be some kind of massive search going on for a new identity. Rock and roll was exciting and offered new lifestyle possibilities. Rock and rollers were like the new movie stars, only with a difference- you could actually go to a dance and see them perform live. The power of the movies as the king of entertainment was being challenged by television, but also by pop music. Pop music, of course, invaded television and the movies, besides fueling the record industry, proving to be a versatile and readily applicable art form, seeping into the many cracks of the 1950s popular culture.
Part of the allure of rock and roll was the dancing part. If you didn’t want to dance yourself, then you wanted to be around the action- at a sock hop, or even around the jukebox in the local burger joint. This made rock and roll something everybody could participate in if they wanted to. Sure the rock and roll was being MADE by select people, but anyone with a dime could get the jukebox going. Even better, you could switch on the radio for free.
And what was important about rock and roll wasn’t so much the records themselves, but that people wanted to party to them. The party wasn’t in the music itself, it was in what the people did to the music- tap their toes, snap their fingers, get out on the dance floor and flip a girl around in big, swinging motions. Rock and roll helped people come together, if for no other reason than to dance. You can’t dance to a Cary Grant movie in a movie theater, but you sure can dance to a Chuck Berry record in your living room.
To me, the material from 1956 is vivid and exciting. I think a lot of it carries very well over more than fifty years. I’ve seen it with my own eyes- people dancing like kids in 2010 to music from 1956. This indicates that many of the artists of 1956 were mining a fresh vein of gold. Though rock and roll was already attracting plenty of imitators, the progenitors were still hard at work creating the seminal works that would last for decades. Rock and roll was still new in 1956 and the excitement of the burgeoning movement of music was authentic.
This is all in my mind- the actual sounds and images of 1956 mix with my fantasies to create some kind of version of the time. Somewhere in there is the real thing- at least a bare echo of it- and the strongest elements continue to reverberate through the years. But I was just a baby in 1956- I was on the planet, but wouldn’t learn about what was happening until much later.
Maybe Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” was on the radio in the nurses’ station the night I was born, maybe it was Perry Como’s “More.” Maybe there was a ban on music at the hospital and it was quiet. These potential details of my personal history are lost in time and maybe they should be. Many things- like day-to-day occurrences and everyday habits- are not meant to last.
What becomes history are the hot spots of culture that do not cool down, that continue to churn decades later. One of those hot spots of 1956 would be the seminal works of rock and roll and there’s a good shot that if the music has lasted this long- more than fifty years- then it will continue to affect people for decades to come. You could say that rock and roll will never die- at least our need to get together and celebrate being alive will carry on. That celebration, underscored by the yowling of Little Richard, the rolling piano of Fats Domino and the cool snarl on the face of Elvis Presley, keeps us going in more troubling times.
Albert Camus “The Fall” (“La Chute”)
Albert Camus’ “The Fall” is full of the anxious, nervous chatter of one Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a French lawyer living in Amsterdam. What you are getting is one side of a conversation you probably wouldn’t hear much of the other side anyway. Clamence is a relentless talker and has a comment for everybody and everything around him, revealing a cynical response to the world. He is a self-styled know-it-all in human response, as well as self-analyzing and narcissistic; so aware, so sensitive, so “intelligent” that he becomes a misfit and a drop out.
As his monologue progresses, Clamence admits that despite a mountain of good deeds and female conquests, his greatest love is himself. He helps others purposefully to appear magnanimous and he “loves” women because their attentions bolster his self-esteem. His self-centeredness ultimately breeds a distrust of society, government and especially religion as well as a self-loathing, the dilemma of a thinking man caught in the muck of thousands of years of engrained human patterns- like jealousy and hatred- but conscious that there could and should be a better way. A certain kind of madness takes over when you think too much, characterizing and classifying everything, becoming paranoid at even random laughter on the street, and Clamence has tipped over the edge.
Despite his knowledge- or even because of his knowledge- Clamence has become a desperate man, clinging to the ears of strangers he meets in his favorite bar, like the traveler who has caught his attention in “The Fall.” At first, Clamence impresses with his cool, calculated responses to the world, but as he gets more and more intimate with his listener, cracks appear in his coolness. And it is when the cracks appear that it starts getting interesting- his language gets more lyrical and the ideas fly.
Hard honesty in “The Fall” means accepting the flawed characteristics that keep the human race from progressing and the fact that they are deeply engrained in our beings. No one escapes without guilt, according to Camus, making innocence a misty pipe dream. The results are shamelessly selfish, but so predictable that characters like Clamence can use the ugly knowledge to his best advantage, all the while decrying its effect. Admission of his own guilt, symbolized by admitting that he did nothing to help a drowning person he came upon, becomes his authority to analyze and condemn others.
Throughout the book, Camus breaks into some penetrating social commentary that reveals a distrust for established institutions of the time. But more than just passing out blame, Camus implicates the individual too. This is the hardest truth of all- that what makes things on the outside so tumultuous is what is inside every person, from the highest society of gentlemen to the twisted thinking of a cynic lurking in a dirty bar.
My favorite quote comes early in the book, when Clamence describes how society at the time is “organized” for a certain kind of “liquidation,” comparing it to the function of ravenous flesh-eating fish. In order to live “a good clean life” complete with work, family and “organized leisure activities,” one must submit to the teeth of the fish, eating “right down to the bone.” But more than having the “organization” forced upon us, Camus suggests that it is our choice.
This passage succinctly expresses what I believe was a common psychological malady of the time: the fear of being swallowed up by society at the same time as being taken care of by it. This became a solid plank in the platform of social revolt that was to come.
Eugene O’Neill – Long Day’s Journey into Night
According to the back of my Yale University Press edition, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” was written in 1940 and published posthumously in 1956. The play was pivotal for me as a sophomore student in a literature class at Arizona State University because even though the text is difficult as a whole- dealing with morphine addiction, alcoholism and the general wreckage of a dysfunctional family- a lyrical moment late in Act Four made a deep impression on me and has provided long-lasting meaning.
The particular passage occurs when the character, Edmund, tries describing some of his more transcendental experiences while at sea. He first talks about a moment while lying on a bowsprit in the middle of the night, becoming “drunk with the beauty” and being “set free” to feel a part of the totality. Edmund describes a similar moment while standing lookout in a crow’s nest, everyone sleeping on the ship- just him and the dawn that was creeping “like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together.”
Edmund calls this state “the moment of ecstatic freedom” and finally likens the experience to a huge hand pulling aside “the veil of things as they seem” to reveal “the secret.” The rub is that the hand then lets the veil fall back and you are once again “lost in the fog.”
This whole speech resonated with me because it described something that I had experienced myself. It was my first time visiting the ocean in California. My folks packed us up in the San Fernando Valley and drove over the hills to Malibu Beach. There, I walked along the sand until I found a secluded little stretch cordoned off by rocks. I hung out there until the sound of the waves and its relentless motion just washed everything away. I was awake, I was conscious, but everything inside had been stilled and everything outside seemed super real. And everything seemed momentarily in place.
Reading someone else’s description of a similar experience made me understand that what I had felt was not my imagination- others have felt it too. This has kept me on the lookout for these moments of clarity, these times when the hand pulls away the veil, ever since. They are rare indeed, but somehow essential to a sense of hope. Not everything is a muddled mess all of the time.
“Howl” Allen Ginsberg
Just as Elvis Presley challenged the status quo with his snarling, hipshaking rock and roll, so did poet Allen Ginsberg in 1956. His book of poetry, “Howl”- one of the touchstones of the beatnik era- ignited not just popular interest but a controversy that became a very public trial for obscenity. Ginsberg’s poetry just wasn’t nice- it was full of street language about drugs, music and homosexual intercourse. It flowed without respect to the ridgid meters of the poetry of the past and didn’t consider life in the same way either. Ginsberg’s world was nearly a blurr, it was so active, like a saxophone player on speed. His combinations of words tricked the ear and the mind and just kept on blasting until you no longer try to assign meaning and definition to them, but found those things in the general wash of it all. The churning words end up creating their own power- more of a visceral experience than an exchange of academic wisdom.
Other 1956 books:
Philip K. Dick – The Minority Report
Ian Fleming – Diamonds Are Forever
Saul Bellow – Seize the Day
Life Magazine, January 9, 1956
Two advertisements in particular caught my attention. The first is a two-page spread by Mutual of Omaha, which features the phrase “Spend with an easy mind” and a car dealer handing a set of keys to a young father and his family (already in the car, with the family dog.) This line is supported by others of the same come-on: “Have what you want…buy what you need.” Of course, the ad is really about “EASY MIND insurance” which allows the consumer to “spend your income with confidence.” Here, insurance is “a new and happier way to live.”
The other is a John Hancock ad that shows two head shots of the same guy- one very worried and one very relaxed and happy. It turns out one guy is “unsure of the future” while the other has “planned for any eventuality.” The ad states that buying insurance will “add to your enjoyment of living in later years…to assure your children’s education…to pay off the mortgage.”
To me this indicates the desire to lead a settled and secure life after the tumultuous war years of World War II and the Korean War- and the companies that were stepping up to cash in on these desires.
Other ads help illustrate the other desires and concerns of 1950s: “Automatic top touch tuning” for the television, condensed soup, toothpaste, cigarettes, Brylcreem, antacids, headache pills, cold remedies, breakfast cereals, coffee (which, according to the ad, “always helps people work better, think better, feel better,”) station wagons, catsup for your hamburgers, and Cadillacs for a “Happy Resolution.” An ad for Pan American airlines features Mary Martin as a glamorous passenger and a two-page spread illustrates the advantages of the “electronic voicewriter,” created by the Thomas A Edison company, a “pioneer in electronics.”
My favorite ad though is the 7up soda ad which shows a young couple who are being encouraged to “‘go steady’ with this cool, clean taste.” What interests me is that the young couple is depicted hanging out right next to a jukebox and the 7up bottle featured in the ad is accompanied by a school banner and several records. This is the work of a company obviously trying to access the teenage population directly.
Comic books established a poor reputation in the early 1950s. Horror and crime comics had taken the industry into territory many parents found uncomfortable. The backlash to this was the effort by a number of companies, such as Dell, to produce toned down, general audience books that did not offend in any way. By 1956, this had become a full-blown campaign to change the nature of comic books- and make them more saleable to a larger audience.
Looney Tunes No 180 Oct 1956
Right at the bottom of the first page: “Dell Comics are good comics.” This book features Warner Brothers cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester and Yosemite Sam. On the back page, Dell Comics makes a “pledge” to parents that they only publish “clean and wholesome entertainment” as opposed to “objectionable material.”
Walt Disney’s Secrets of Life Dell No 749
This is “good comics” at work and is the best of the educational efforts- an excellent round-up of the concept of evolution, even lyrically written. But it’s not just another cartoon character romp but depicts real drama, even horror. I was amazed at the story of the Diving Spider, who takes air bubbles underwater to build a domicile. I found the section on the Tarantula Hawk gripping indeed- a smallish wasp incapacitates a larger tarantula, drags it into a burrow and lays an egg on the body, fills the hole and leaves the spider to be consumed by the larvae. The book is beautifully illustrated, with a trusted name splashed across the top- “Walt Disney.” NO ADVERTISING- made this book a real bargain at 10 cents.
Lassie No 29 Jul-Aug 1956
The Schwinn bike advertisement in this book is geared toward making the young bicycle enthusiast like a car purchaser. The name of the new bike alone- the 3-speed Schwinn Corvette- is named like a car and there is an odious couple of lines just below the bike itself- “Easy Budget Terms at most Schwinn Dealers”- in other words- you can go into debt just like Mom and Dad! They’ll even let you “test-ride” the unit! There’s some patriotism too: “…and it’s made in America…so you know it’s the best!!”
A Juicy Fruit ad illustrates safe swimming tips- from avoiding cramps by not swimming after a big meal, to drying off after swimming to avoid getting sick. No one wants to be a “klunk-head” or a “dummy,” or so says “Bill Wisdom” who has got all the answers for young swimmers.
Bugs Bunny No 50 Aug-Sep 1956
On the back cover: “Dopey Dan and Safety Sam” ad for Juicy Fruit Gum, encouraging kids, with little poems and cartoons, to “be smart” and don’t do things like hitch a ride behind a car or riding at night without a light.
Jungle Jim Vol 1 No 10 Oct-Dec 1956
There are both entertainment and educational elements to this comic book. The stories are the dramatic adventures of explorer Jungle Jim. But also in the comic are panels telling readers about such subjects as the Sikhs of India (“considered India’s finest fighting men”, who eat pork, not beef, and who “cremate their dead”) and the Bingyi Caves of Burma, which contain “countless shrines” to Buddha.
November 3 – The 1939 MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” is shown on television for the first time.
New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956 and became MVP. I picked up that little tidbit of sports info from Wikipedia. But some of the most interesting sports facts are on the backs of the baseball cards I collected as a kid. No, I didn’t collect cards when I was one month old- I picked up 1950s cards from a young friend whose uncle had collected. That gave me the opportunity to get in touch with sports talk of the time.
The design of the baseball cards from 1956 isn’t the greatest- a utilitarian collection of boxes and strips. All the cards were oriented horizontally and each featured a close-up and an action pose on the front, along with an autograph. The back side featured stats from the previous year plus a career total, as well as cartoon drawings illustrating fun facts.
The facts included recent accomplishments- like leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to their first World Series championship in 1955 (Walt Alston,) snagging the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1954 (Wally Moon,) and hitting more than 40 home runs for a third year in a row (Ed Matthews and Ted Kluszewski.) But there’s other stuff too- like who plays with the heaviest bat in the major leagues (Hank Sauer,) who is nicknamed “Scooter” (Phil Rizzuto,) who improves his home run record every year (Rip Repulski) and who holds the record for completing fielding opportunities without committing an error (Chico Carrasquel.)