The Rocking Chronicles
by Tim Van Schmidt
1957- Rocking Records
More. That seems to be the general theme for contemporary music in 1957- just more of everything. In 1956, things broke wide open commercially and culturally, especially for Elvis Presley and rock and roll. In 1957, the music industry had gotten its firm grip on the new music movement and positioned itself better than before to cash in on it. But by this time, it wasn’t new anymore. When something gets accepted as business of the day by the music industry, then you know it has settled securely into the public consciousness. The record industry doesn’t just chase trends, it captures them, twists them into commercial formats and beats the life out of them with imitations.
However, that doesn’t mean that the creativity of the artists of 1957 was particularly stifled. New artists- notably performers like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers- were coming up so fast that the record industry couldn’t re-shape everything in its own image. The flood had started with the establishment of rock and roll and was gathering force. Despite the power the record companies wielded, they could not tame everything that came their way, solidly indicating that rock and roll was a movement of the people and not a corporate invention. Rather than trying to tame it all, they just kept shoveling it out there.
When I’m talking about there being MORE of everything in 1957, I mean it literally. When I finally decided I’d had enough of 1956, I started my research for 1957 and came up with a much longer list of potential tracks to listen to. When I pulled out the appropriate records from that dusty old stack of vinyl I’ve got piled up in my basement, the 1957 pile was three times as big as the records from 1956 I studied. That could well be a function of myself as a record collector- just what I came into contact with, almost by random selection- but my supply of 1957 music was just much bigger.
I’d like to add a little footnote to how I ranked the 1957 records I pulled out- and this is highly unscientific. However, I think it does indicate something about the music. That is, I kept track of how many times certain 1957 records occurred in my collection- as original issue 45s and a few albums, plus LP collections. It was the occurrance of several tunes over and over in the LP collections that caught my eye. The number one most reproduced song of 1957 was Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” indicating that there was something there a lot of people liked.
That seemed like a good place to start this investigation into the popular music of 1957- the songs that have thrived- and the songs that took a dive. Some of the popular songs in the charts in 1957 have not survived- or are buried deep in the back of some Readers’ Digest collection. And in the process of the search, some unknown gems that still move the listener more than fifty years later have surfaced.
Jerry Lee Lewis
If you want “more,” then “more” you will have and in 1957, “more” came in the explosion of Jerry Lee Lewis. His body-rattling hit “Great Balls of Fire” is a thrilling rock and roll classic. His nervous, aggressive vocal style mixes with the madcap abandon he applies to the piano for a riveting performance indeed.
Lewis came from the Sun Records camp, but his music was all about that hyper-active piano of his, rather than the guy-and-a-guitar approach so popular in Memphis. Rock and roll piano seemed to be a combination of boogie and ragtime- the boogie element gave it its rhythmic underpinnings while the ragtime element gave it constant, unrelenting motion. It’s a percussive and jangly sound to begin with. But Lewis takes it further- he bangs on the piano keys, runs his hands up and down the whole keyboard, revs up his attack so that it is the attack itself that is important- stray wrong notes and all. He’s a frenzied piano punk doing whatever he wants in the face of conventional playing.
But above and beyond the busy piano work, Lewis’ vocals on “Great Balls of Fire” are a rock and roll showcase in itself. He plays with the sounds of the words (“you mo-o-ove me…”) and has this consciously shakey delivery that underscores the nervousness of the character in the song. The recording itself supports this- there is a heavy echo/reverb effect on the vocals- sounding like this guy is locked up tight inside a bottle. Lewis sounds crazy through and through, but he’s admittedly happy about it too. All he can do about it is “twiddle” his thumbs in his predicament- and shock those around him with his untamed passion.
If “Great Balls of Fire” doesn’t have enough of the independent rock and roll attitude, the flip side to the single I collected- an English release- “Mean Woman Blues,” does. She must be mean alright because she’s “almost as mean” as Lewis and he doesn’t mind admitting it. It must be a strained relationship, but strained or not, Lewis plunges right into the middle of it with fiery abandon.
But as with “Great Balls of Fire,” the lyrics on “Mean Woman Blues” aren’t all that’s testy. Lewis also shows plenty of attitude on the piano, going even further overboard than on “Great Balls of Fire.” He’s all over the keys during the instrumental breaks, playing at break-neck speeds, raking his hands all up and down. He lets loose and the supporting band lets loose and “Mean Woman Blues” gets hyperactive.
However, Lewis adds a little something extra here. He tells the band to take it “easy now,” and brings the progress of the song down a couple of notches, only to build it back up in a hurry. This is a well-worn musical device- you shouldn’t always keep up a frenzied pace. It works better if you back off a little once in a while, then you have somewhere to go when getting back to business. Whatever- it sure sounds like Lewis and band are having fun in the studio recording this one. Lewis laughs, he does a little tiger growl and keeps on rocking.
Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On”- his initial breakout hit- took it even one step further. In a way, the track imitates a live concert setting. During one of those “easy now” moments in the song, Lewis talks to an imaginary girlfriend about how to dance to his rock and roll. But he could be talking to a whole crowd in effect. I would have loved to see Lewis in action in his prime, getting everyone in the audience to “shake”- and I bet they did too. It probably worked in the juke joint too.
Interestingly, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On,” also points out just how crazy Lewis was as a performer. First of all, when Lewis gets to the instrumental break in the song and tells the band “let’s go,” the drums seem to stumble, momentarily producing a jarring effect in the recording. It sounds like the drummer wasn’t quite ready for his big moment. Also, the guitar solo in the recording is so tame and, well, “regular,” compared to Lewis’ wild keyboard excursions. This indicates that perhaps it was just really hard for musicians to keep up with Lewis.
This holds true also for his own 1957 signature tune, “Lewis Boogie.” It’s a song meant to introduce Lewis’ music and his style. His vocals are just a little bit wired and his piano solo is, of course, hyperactive, but also fairly precise. The guitar once again responds with a dull attempt at a solo- slower, lacking fire and dexterity. Still, Lewis and band do find the groove together and put in a reasonably intense performance.
Lewis also released a version of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” in 1957. It’s not much of a stretch either because Lewis’ nasally vocal quality is reminiscent of Williams and he handles the song with authority, apparently comfortable with country music. While Lewis pretty much plays it straight here, his piano solo remaining relatively calm, the group does put a little fiddling around into the arrangement, putting a little extra rhythmic trill in here and there, working towards making it their own.
The quicker tempo of Lewis’ ’57 recording of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” seems to agree with him much more than the more sedate “You Win Again.” It’s a revved up tune about drinking, plain and simple, and it gives Lewis the opportunity to just bang on those piano keys with abandonment. Again, the guitar seems to get a little bit lost, but that’s OK, because everybody’s drinking wine, wine, wine.
It seems to me that the development of rock and roll gave characters like Lewis a platform to launch from. In the typical commercial environment of previous years, Lewis wouldn’t have made it because he was so on-the-edge. If Lewis, who might have been diagnosed with ADD, didn’t have rock and roll as an outlet, he might have been one of those roiling personalities that would eventually snap mentally. Instead, he became a feisty star, maniac or not.
Speaking of a maniac piano player, Little Richard was still going strong going into 1957- maybe even a little too strong. It’s somehow understandable that Little Richard quit the music industry in the fall of 1957. There are several stories about why and when that happened- Richard praying to God to avoid a plane wreck, throwing an expensive ring into a river to prove his point while abruptly leaving a tour of Australia after seeing a “ball of fire” fly through the air during one of his concerts. No matter about the actual impetus of his decision, Richard just shut down his rock and roll to work as an evangelist. These are not necessarily inconsolable roles, as he found out later, but in dramatic fashion, Richard made a choice in 1957, while his career itself was a “ball of fire.”
Part of his decision to stop rocking had to be that Richard was such an intense performer. His music was rough, raw and generally played at break-neck speed. He had a reputation for wild stage shows and that came through on his recordings too.
Just listen to “Keep A-Knockin” and hear some hair-raising music. It all starts with that unrestrained drum intro and Richard’s out-of-control howl just before the standard sax solo is primal and wicked. I mean “standard sax solo” here not that the sax work is pedestrian. On the contrary, Richard had some deluxe sax players- their instrumental breaks define the rock and roll solo, squeezing plenty into just a few seconds with funky be-bopping precision. I just mean that it seemed to be standard business for Richard to feature a sax solo in each song- along with his rhythmic banging on the piano keys in the background to heighten the tension.
It’s the same with other 1957 Richard hits. “She’s Got It” just plows right ahead in a frenzy and there are no brakes. The flip side, “Heeby-Jeebies” just keeps it going- the “jump back, jump back” lyrics highlighting Richard’s skill at coming up with effective hooks. The flip side to “Keep A-Knockin,” “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave” is a medium tempo piece- a kind of relief, actually. Richard’s piercing vocal quality- perhaps best described as a vocal saxophone- probably came through just fine on a car AM radio.
Richard’s definitive 1957 recording- if you had to pare it down to just one- would have to be “Lucille.” For this investigation, I listened to original 45 releases of Richard’s work- all on that colorful Specialty label. The sound on the “Lucille” 45 was just so far superior to the other records- maybe a higher grade of vinyl, a much better recording studio or both. Compared to “Keep A-Knockin” and “She’s Got It,” “Lucille” seemed a little “sedate” at first, tempo-wise, but Richard’s eardrum-piercing vocal glissando at the end of each “Lucillllllle” in the song makes up for that. This record has a great sax solo- the hot blowing imitating Richard’s vocal craziness.
The extent of Richard’s distinctive rock and roll artistry- his voice- became clear to me after listening to the flip side of “Lucille.” The song, “Send Me Some Lovin'” features vocals by Richard that reveal the real, unaffected quality of his voice. It’s actually very nice, but perhaps lacking the character of his rougher work. That’s why he developed his Little Richard persona- the wild man with the unbelievably raw voice. The uncharacteristic vocal clarity doesn’t last long on “Send Me Some Lovin,” because he just has to get into it by the end, but this one is like a great actor breaking character.
Maybe with all that energy Richard was putting out, he just couldn’t stay sane in the rock and roll world. Legends jump off the page in the history books about rampant sex and suitcases full of cash- so a retreat to a holier life is an understandable survival tactic. That he eventually returned to writing and performing secular material, however, indicates that he was truly a natural musician, but the craziness of those initial rock and roll years must have had to stop because that’s what happened.
Of course, the piano had also played an important role in the music of Fats Domino- particularly in his 1956 hit “Blueberry Hill.” In 1957, however, Domino was letting the guitar have its due. On “I’m Walkin,” the rhythm guitar plays an upfront part in the success of the tune. It’s an upbeat arrangement and the electric guitar prominently accentuates the rhythmic motion, matched by a bubbly sax solo and all underscored by an irresistible shuffle in the drums. I’ve come to really enjoy Domino’s vocal performances. His voice carries a kind of ageless quality that defies the youth trend at the time- it’s warm, round and friendly, even while sporting a little arrogance, as in “I’m Walkin.”
The flip side to “I’m Walkin” is “I’m in the Mood for Love.” It’s a slow dance tune with slippery saxes in the background. The slower tempo offers the opportunity to get more of the flavor of Domino’s distinctive voice- rich and expressive without much hoopla.
Meanwhile, the guy-and-his-guitar approach to rock and roll was still gathering steam. In the case of the Everly Brothers, actually, it was two-guys-and-guitars. The Everlys were coming out of the country end of things, but their songs were about common teenage strife, they had a nice energetic bounce to them and their harmony vocals were irresistible.
The guitar played an important part in the Everly Brothers’ music. Both 1957 hits “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” kick off with distinctive guitar figures. The guitar also serves to interject instrumental counterpoints to the vocals at key times throughout the songs.
But it was the Everly’s vocal arrangements that set them apart. Their voices have the same basic timbre and they kept their harmonies tight. But more, those harmonies weren’t just reserved for the choruses, but were often woven throughout the entire song, establishing a vocal signature that was easy to recognize.
It seems “Wake Up Little Susie” stirred up some moral controversy at the time, but sounds pretty innocent 50 years later. A lot more of the Everly’s country roots are evident on “Susie’s” flip side, “Maybe Tomorrow,” an easygoing medium tempo tune that gives their blend of voices a chance to flow.
Despite it’s sad story, “Bye Bye Love,” has an energetic, almost happy, kind of bounce to it. Its flip side is “I Wonder if I Care as Much,” a waltz-time tune featuring syrupy steel guitar and savory vocal harmonies.
In the 21st century, it’s just not cool to consider women as sex objects. But back in 1957, Buddy Knox apparently didn’t have such social constraints. His hit “Party Doll” is about just that- hooking up with a woman, just about any woman, who wants to party. Knox comes on like a cowboy who’s been out on the range for a long time. He’s all wired up and looking for action. There’s an honesty here, but also a wildness that might spell trouble. A double wallop on the drums gives “Party Doll” an infectious skipping beat while a savory background vocal mix helps support Knox’s quest for fun.
You could talk all day long about the new artists of 1957 and what already established artists of the time were doing, but all of them were operating within the huge shadow of Elvis Presley. Presley’s marketing machine, which got its kick start in 1956 thanks to his first national hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was in full swing in 1957 with two movies, multiple record releases and just a ton of Presley merchandise. The record industry and related businesses were having a field day with Presley-mania.
This could easily make Presley a suspicious rock and roller- a commercial contrivance rather than a folk artist. Some of his records bear this out- insincere performances and bloated arrangements mark some of Presley’s 1957 records. But there are particular gems in the mix as well- Presley had real vocal talent that couldn’t be restrained by commercial invention. And it may be accurate to say that Presley’s talent included rock and roll, but once unleashed, went in other directions as well.
There’s something about “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” that seems very fake to me. The song bubbles along nicely enough I suppose, and while the lyrics are full of male myths, Presley does take the opportunity to work the vocals a little bit, underscoring the rhythm with his voice, injecting a little fun into a song that is a trifle at best. It’s a big production, though, and the whole thing sounds like a radio commercial with a resounding barbershop quartet-like ending. It could be said that this song was a commercial- for helping sell Elvis Presley teddy bear products. What finally sunk it for me was when Presley says “Oh let me be” the backing vocals respond “Oh let him be”- it’s all about Presley, here. Besides, what kind of a stand-up guy would tell a girl to “put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere?”
Let’s throw the flip side to “All Shook Up,” “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” into the insincere bag with “Teddy Bear.” It’s a slow crooner tune that breaks down into some talk-singing, making the lyrics sound all the more hollow when brought down into a conversational tone. It’s just cheesy and evidence that even the great Presley could make some clinkers.
But then again, Presley sure made some strong records in 1957. There is “All Shook Up” itself, for example. It’s a little subdued- revealing some sophistication in the arrangement- but jumpy, a little nervous. In terms of male myths, this is exactly what girls want to hear- that their guy is so in love with them that they are truly confused. The movement of the vocals, not the instrumental arrangement, defines the movement of the music, showcasing Presley’s distinctive sense of style.
“Treat Me Nice” is the same kind of thing music-wise- a simmering medium tempo arrangement- but in the lyrics there’s a real attitude, even arrogance. I got to like this one even more after I saw the “Treat Me Nice” recording session scenes in “Jailhouse Rock.”
Speaking of “Jailhouse Rock,” that pile of old records in my basement yielded a five-song EP from the movie that includes the title song plus “Young and Beautiful,” “I Want to Be Free,” “Don’t Leave Me Now” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.”
“Young and Beautiful” starts out simple- with just the vocals and piano and it takes the hype out of it, offering a more sincere approach. Some additional vocals are added, but unnecessary. The purposeful “I Want to Be Free” exhibits an aggressive energy, with a powerful refrain and an extra emphasis on the drums. “Don’t Leave Me Now” is a bluesy, medium tempo crooner. But my favorite on this record, other than “Jailhouse Rock” itself, is “Baby I Don’t Care.” It’s kind of a dumb scene in the movie- performed during a pool party- but the recording is upbeat, starting with a funky bass intro, and lyrically throws in going to the movies, hot rodding and new dance steps.
“Jailhouse Rock,” of course, is a bona fide classic, its guitar-drum intro is instantly recognizable and Presley’s vocals are roughed up and wild, a little like Little Richard. The instrumental guitar solo in the bridge section is loud and proud and the subject is dangerous- why, even hardened convicts want to rock and roll. There is a sense that the song is really a novelty number, a clever play on words- just like “Heartbreak Hotel” painted a vivid urban scenario with its lyrics. That aside, “Jailhouse Rock” may stand as the most effective- and exciting- recording of Presley’s career.
But if you want to hear a little of Presley’s raw rock and roll spirit to the extreme, turn to “Too Much.” The song has an aggressive, exaggerated tone, Presley huffing it up mightily with his delivery. The guitar solo, however, is what really stands out. It just takes off and goes a little wacko, veering into some different kind of scale. It’s a little hard to believe that this record passed corporate inspection compared to most of the rest of Presley’s productions, but maybe this was a concession to Presley’s power- he could do anything he wanted.
That Presley became so very popular- so popular that no one could really compete- ended up actually working for the some of the other artists of the time- after all, even Presley couldn’t be everywhere, all the time, and the hunger for whatever was being called rock and roll was voracious. That the public accepted, and even sought out, alternative rock and roll icons above and beyond Presley indicates just how big this movement had gotten.
The guy-and-a-guitar from Texas, Buddy Holly, for example, stepped up to claim a spot in 1957 with top hit records and a very different style than Presley. He wasn’t handsome like Presley and his glasses- big thick things- became a kind of Holly trademark. Holly’s music also differed from Presley’s- it was simpler and cleaner. While Presley was having the time of his life making heavily produced records, Holly’s records seemed closer to the original intent of the music, more authentic. Presley’s records were big and dynamic, but I think fans could more easily identify with Holly’s on a personal level. They could imagine themselves playing Holly’s songs. They could imagine themselves BEING Holly.
Holly’s breakout hit, “Peggy Sue,” gets jumpstarted by the rolling rhythm of the drums, sending notice that Holly’s band, the Crickets, was an integral part of the music from the start. There’s a mix of electric and acoustic guitar chording in “Peggy Sue” that adds to the percussive quality of the tune. But it’s Holly’s distinctive, affected voice that stands out, exaggerating and playing with the sound quality of the words. The flip side to “Peggy Sue,” was “Everyday,” a very sweet recording featuring a simple melody supported by the tinkling of bells. It’s subdued and intimate compared to “Peggy Sue,” but Holly manages to spice things up a little with his vocal delivery anyhow.
Holly’s other great 1957 hit, “That’ll Be the Day” is more aggressive, featuring a rolling guitar intro and more prominent backing vocals. Holly and band play with the arrangement and work little hiccups into it that help underscore the dramatic tension of the song. The opposite side of “That’ll Be the Day” is an upbeat rocker, “I’m Looking for Someone to Love.”
Of course, leave it up to Chuck Berry to pen 1957’s main rock and roll anthem. That is, the great tune “Rock and Roll Music.” It’s an entire song devoted to rock and roll. In fact, one verse is made up almost entirely of the term. There’s a piano tinkling in the background throughout the recording, but it’s Berry’s upfront vocals this time that carries the song. It’s also a showcase for Berry’s creative lyric play, especially in rhyming unusual combinations of words. He manages to make combinations like “band…hurrican” and “mambo…tango…piano” work despite the stretch. The flip side to the “Rock and Roll Music” 45, “Blue Feeling,” is a slow blues instrumental, a rare recording without Berry’s signature vocal or his clever lyrics. It’s just filler, a chugging jam piece featuring more piano than guitar.
Other key Berry hits rolled out in 1957 included “School Day.” It opens up with a little guitar flurry that could act as an alarm clock going off, then breezes through a typical day for an American teenager. Berry has a knack for writing lyrics that keenly reflect the trials and tribulations of getting through a day of school while gently poking fun at it- from “working your fingers right down to the bone” in the classroom to lunchroom activities to finally laying the “burden” down at the end of the school day. It all ends well at the juke joint, however, dancing and romancing. Another Berry hit in 1957 was “Oh Baby Doll.” This one wistfully recalls those school days too, but the song is really about the changing times in a relationship.
Perhaps partially because of the popularity- and energy- of rock and roll, the vocal group music in 1957 (the term “doo wop” would be coined some years later) featured more aggressive vocal performances. Singing groups wanted to rock too, it turns out.
The most exciting group to come out with vocal-based records in 1957 was the Del-Vikings. Their two hits, “Come Go With Me” and “Whispering Bells,” are happy workouts that sport strong musical invention. What sets this music apart from vocal songs merely supported by background vocals is the involvement of the singers and what they are singing. Rather than adding chords to the arrangements, group vocalists added various sounds, making up words, augmenting the rhythm in a way that drums and percussion instruments cannot. Everybody in the Del-Vikings seems to be involved in their arrangements and the diverse sounds make for interesting listening.
There was plenty more where that came from. The Monotones, Danny and the Juniors, the Diamonds and Five Satins all produced vocal group records in 1957 that remain fresh and lively more than fifty years later.
The Monotones’ “Book of Love” begins with a funky vocal introduction- one of the most distinctive of the time- “I wonder wonder who….who wrote the book of love.” All the voices on “Book of Love” are active and energetic, playing with the sound and rhythm of the words. The vocals are supported by a snappy drum part and the electric guitar helps maintain the rhythm. The bass vocalist in particular reveals a distinctive, fun character. The song itself is a kind of primer for teenagers- or any aged person for that matter- for love relationships. Each chapter of that “Book of Love” offers some good advice- to love her with all your heart, tell her you’ll never part, remember the meaning of romance and when things go badly, give her another chance. As simple as all that fits into the lyrics, its pretty poignant stuff.
Danny and the Juniors “At the Hop,” then, is a raucous call to party. It’s about getting together to dance the latest dances, to be where the action is.
But also add in the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin.” The tune starts out with some castanets and a mambo beat, then plows into some real aggressive vocal work. It’s actually fairly strident, the lead vocalist dramatically clipping off the words, playfully adding vowel sounds to produce a jerky, jumpy rhythm. There’s a brief spoken word section, full of male myths, which stands out from the rest, though not any more sincere due to its energy. The Five Satins’ “To the Aisle” features an interesting mix of sax and guitar in the supporting arrangement.
The flip side to “Little Darlin,” “Faithful and True,” is a much slower tune. The vocals slide around in easy-going harmony, a hot sax solo livening things up. That seems to be the record-making formula for this genre- a faster song on one side, a slow one on the other. Almost universally, the slower tunes are not as effective, as in the case of the Diamonds. The B-side of the Monotones’ “Book of Love” is “You Never Loved Me,” a slow dance tune about a poor young guy with a sad story. Though the vocalists remain completely involved in the purposeful arrangement, it remains a surety that it’s hard for this music to be convincing at a slower pace. That also goes for Danny and the Juniors’ “Sometimes (When I’m All Alone,)” another plodding slow dance tune full of male myths.
The best of the vocal group B-sides would have to be the Del-Vikings’ “Don’t Be a Fool,” opposite “Whispering Bells.” “Don’t Be a Fool” benefits from the slower pace, spotlighting the group’s intersecting, crisscrossing vocal parts. This recording also features an interesting guitar and sax dual solo.
Other Vocal Hits
On the Specialty label, the same as Little Richard, Larry Williams’ “Bony Maronie” comes on just like a Richard record at first. For this investigation, I made a work tape out of many of the records I would be listening to- to cut down on all the turntable work- and since then I have been duped several times into thinking the Little Richard portion had come around on the tape when “Bony Maronie” kicked in. But it becomes apparent as the song progresses that Williams is no Richard- his voice even cracks at one point. That gives it a non-professional charm. The flip side is “You Bug Me, Baby,” a trifling ditty that features both a sax solo and a piano solo.
Thurston Harris’ “Little Bitty Pretty One” could be attributed to a single artist, but the power of the recording is a group effort. Most of the song is a kind of hum-along melody, easy to pick up and uncomplicated by actual words, carried by multiple voices. Harris sings on top of that, but it’s the punch of the vocal chorus- and the additional handclapping- that keeps this one moving.
For true vocal grace for a solo artist, however, turn to Sam Cooke on “You Send Me.” It seems significant to me that “You Send Me” features female voices in the background. They are there for support only- adding nice, crisp chords to the arrangement- and the feminine touch seems especially important. Meanwhile, the vocal spotlight remains on Cooke, who maintains a smooth, silky approach throughout. His vocals seem effortless, not forced or strident in any way. He knows his way around the melody but is in no hurry to get it done.
Compared to 1957’s rock and roll and pop hits, Terry Gilkyson and the Outriders’ “Marianne” sounds like a novelty record. It’s really a folk music sing-along with a snappy island beat. It may have served as a dance song, but all the intent is in the lyrics and the vocals. It’s a little seaside story, a mini movie about life with this beautiful girl with an ugly mother. The lover is personable enough and has an upbeat attitude about it, so everything turns out in the end. “Marianne” features both humor and love, an inoffensive combination for sure.
The Real Thing
Though Carl Perkins’ career had been derailed by a traffic accident in 1956- just as “Blue Suede Shoes” was peaking- that didn’t mean he was down and out. Perkins kept recording and his 1957 tune “Matchbox” proves that his gift at making irresistible recordings was very real.
On “Matchbox,” a revved up old blues tune, Perkins just digs right in with a roughed up boogie shuffle. His nasally vocals cut right through the mix, spitting out the hobo lyrics right in time with the brisk swing of the music. Guitar and vocals are matched with intensity for just a touch of the real thing- rocking music you just can’t arrange and make happen. It’s a fusion of sound and intent that rises above and beyond musical formula. In this case, it’s Perkins wailing away with abandonment- again.
Another artist with the same rocking authenticity as Perkins would be Dale Hawkins. His 1957 tune “Susie Q” displays the same digging in quality as “Matchbox.” But here, the lyrics are just an excuse to play guitar, the instrumental breaks in “Susie Q” sharp and sizzling. It’s another touch of the real thing- aggressive and loud- maybe a little ahead of its time considering the tentative quality of most guitar solos on record in 1957.
Somewhere along the line, I must have run into a big Johnny Cash fan because my collection of 45s sports a nice fistful of original Sun Records releases by Cash. These include his big 1957 hit “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” as well as “Next in Line” and a four-track release, featuring “Rock Island.”
“Ballad of a Teenage Queen” is a story song about a hometown girl who becomes a movie star, but gives it all up to return home to “the boy next door.” You never forget that because Cash underscores it every time with a quick repeating rhyme- “who worked at the candy store.” The song is about roots, of course, and it is no mistake that the queen in question takes a train home from the big city. The train was traditionally how country folk were connected with the rest of the world and though that wasn’t particularly the case in 1957, it was still a favorite country notion. Cash’s deep, rolling voice makes it easy to assume he is, in fact, the “boy next door” and you think to yourself just how lucky he is.
The flip side to “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” is “Big River,” a funky, kind of jumpy tune that features an energetic mix of acoustic and electric guitar work and a lot of clever rhyming. It sounds like Cash and band had fun recording this one.
On “Next in Line,” Cash overemphasizes his deep voice, almost talking the lyrics, or rather, intoning them. This helps set the appropriate tone for a song about a steadfast, victimized lover whose time, he feels, has come- but he’s willing to wait too. The flip side, “Don’t Make Me Go,” is also a pleading confessional, the two tunes hinting at a sense of vulnerability in Cash’s character.
The four songs released together on a special Cash EP release on Sun in my collection were all recorded in 1957 and includes two train songs and two “country” songs- that’s “country” as in non-urban, for sure. “Rock Island” is a talk-song that tells a story about a scheming train engineer and his love for “the road.” The song is fun because as the story picks up speed, so does the tempo until Cash is really talking fast. “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow” is about a convict who hears a train off in the distance and it makes him wistful for the life he can’t have. Both “Country Boy” and “If the Good Lord’s Willing” reflect country living with an upbeat attitude, from chores to romance.
Other 1957 country hits include Marty Robbins’ “White Sport Coat”- he’s all dressed up for the dance, but all alone in romance- and Bobby Helms’ twangy “My Special Angel,” which prominently features steel guitar in the arrangement. Jim Reeves’ deep voice underscores the lonely, waltz-time country blues tune, “Four Walls,” also featuring gospel-like vocal support. The most infectious of them all, however, is Jimmie Rogers’ “Honeycomb,” which features a lively melody, easy sing-along chorus and plenty of infectious handclapping. Rogers’ voice is interesting here- he just doesn’t sound like a kid- and the lyrics, as sing-songy as they are, are clever enough to go beyond being just a “cute little song” to become a respectable love song. This guy adores his honey right down to hair and bone- and you’re happy for both of the lovers on that score.
One unusual 1957 hit is Bill Justis’ “Raunchy,” unusual because it was an upbeat instrumental workout. I place it in the “country” category because it has a strong country flavor, but really, it is a crossroads recording in that it features both sax and guitar. This turns it into something new- a kind of summit meeting between country and urban styles.
As I listened to the music of 1957, nothing jumped out of my hi-fi speakers like the record by Patti Page, “Old Cape Cod.” OK, this has nothing to do with rock and roll, but the recording features gorgeous multi-layered harmony vocals working over a simmering melody- and it is a decidedly female recording.
On “Old Cape Cod,” Page’s rich voice is in the lead, but she is supported by fully harmonized female vocals that help keep things cool and easy. Added to this is a string arrangement, brushes on the drums and the distinctive bottom of a stand-up bass helping to illustrate the “breath of salt air,” the taste of “lobster stew,” and the gorgeous “ocean view” in the song. Page has a distinctive singing style too- kind of drawing out some of the vowel sounds, applying a little accent to the melody.
Also making inroads on the charts with a rich female voice, but coming from the country side rather than the pop side, was Patsy Cline. Her 1957 breakout hit, “Walkin After Midnight,” was the result of a successful appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show on television.
Meanwhile, Debby Reynolds had a hit song, “Tammy,” from her movie “Tammy and the Bachelor.” Simple, warm and direct, “Tammy” is a time-out record, creating its own atmosphere away from the hub bub of popular music. This is a place where it doesn’t really sound so bad when Reynolds sings about the “hooty-owls” and whipperwills- it’s actually kind of nice.
Not so successful is Peggy Lee’s “Mr. Wonderful,” a schmaltzy, full orchestra work out that kind of buries Lee’s crooning. Her voice is just not powerful enough to contend with all that stuff in the arrangement and the female myths she’s shoveling out in the lyrics sound pretty insincere to boot.
I thought I had found the ultimate in pop music flaccidness in the recordings of Pat Boone. But actor Tab Hunter takes the cake in 1957 with his record, “Young Love.” No wonder the stories say that Hunter was scared to death of performing- because really, he wasn’t a singer. His vocal performance on “Young Love” is weak at best and the song itself is an inconsequential ditty. The able arrangement- with strong backing vocals- only serves to underscore Hunter’s lack of vocal punch.
Meanwhile, Boone was shoveling out the hit records in 1957, even outpacing Elvis Presley. In fact, Boone was kind of an antidote to the frenzy of Presley and rock and roll in general and his hits included “April Love,” “Love Letters in the Sand” and “Why Baby Why.” “April Love” combines weak vocals with a weak sax solo to produce a real wet noodle of a tune. There’s a whistling break during “Love Letters in the Sand” that makes you involuntarily say “ughhh.” And “Why Baby Why” starts off promising enough, propelled by the light, consistent triple figure on the piano, and Boone even gets a little blues bend into his vocals, but when he gets into promising that he’ll be “your slave the rest of my life,” you have to just barf.
More pop on the charts in 1957 included the Tune Weavers’ letter song, “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby.” The Ames Brothers released the island-flavored “Melodie d’Amour,” a big production but surprisingly fun despite a kind of jarring harpsichord-ish keyboards solo. And Perry Como’s “Round and Round” is an unabashed sing-along, a simple melody repeated and modulated over and over, adding extra voices until everything is in full, gregarious swing.
Not all of pop is frivolous, however. More on the crooner end of things, Johnny Mathis brought a fresh grace to a stiff genre. Mathis’ voice had a clear, pliable quality that mixed just fine with full orchestra arrangements. It also worked on more intimate arrangements. “It’s Not for Me to Say” for example, has a stringed section, but most of the song is a slow-burning back and forth affair between Mathis’ voice and the tinkling piano figure that counterpoints the melody. “Chances Are” works the same formula. Another Mathis hit, “Wonderful, Wonderful,” features a big production complete with orchestra and vocal support, but creates a nice ambiance anyway.
Also, I continue to find the music of Nat King Cole irresistible. His 1957 hit, “Send for Me,” features swelling strings but transcends the touch of schmaltz with clean, clear vocal work, slipping into something smooth, flowing gracefully.
Rocking Music in the Movies
“Jailhouse Rock,” starring Elvis Presley, is not just a star vehicle for the hottest thing around in 1957. “Jailhouse Rock” is a movie about music first and foremost, perhaps concocted for Presley, but easily standing on its own as a production. The movie is also much darker and grittier than any of the rock and roll movies that preceded it. Unlike “Rock Around the Clock,” for example, “Jailhouse Rock” is not a whitewashed version of the music business.
First of all, the main focus of the story- a troubled young man named Vince, played by Presley- is not introduced particularly as a musician. He’s just a hotheaded guy who gets into a lethal bar fight and is sent to prison for manslaughter as a result. In the penitentiary, his wizened cellmate teaches him some of the tricks to surviving the hardships of prison- and pulls out a guitar to sing a country blues tune, “One More Day,” to soothe the nerves of other prisoners in the cell block. Impressed, Presley’s character shows that he can sing too- strumming on the battered old acoustic guitar and sweetly delivering a verse and chorus of “Young and Beautiful.” It’s a nice moment, an opportunity to hear Presley’s voice without any outside meddling from a band or singers. And so the foundation for the movie’s action is laid.
While Vince proves in prison that he has a respectable singing voice, he is raw and untrained, as well as extremely naive. His cellmate tells him of his former success in the music business as a country singer and Vince focuses on a music career as a way to make money, not because he is dedicated to music as an art form. For him, it’s all about the cash- and the girls, of course.
There’s a lot of luck involved in Vince’s development as a recording star. A television crew, it turns out, is producing a talent show from the prison, giving Vince his first opportunity to shine. He does too, receiving a sack full of fan mail- mail that the prison warden does not deliver to him until his day of release. The letters help convince him he has a chance.
When Vince shows up at a club owned by a former associate of his cellmate to get a job singing, he ends up sitting next to a woman working in the record business. They chat, he bulls on stage to perform when the club owner turns him down and while he doesn’t get the job, he gets the girl and his career, thanks to her, gets kick-started.
The scene in the nightclub indicates just how naive Vince is. After he takes the stage without being invited, he goes ahead and plows into his favorite ballad, “Young and Beautiful,” only this time with a band. One loud guy in the club doesn’t pay attention to the music and this inspires Vince to jump off of the stage and smash his guitar on the guy’s table, stomping out of the club, fuming.
Vince’s temper is his worst enemy throughout “Jailhouse Rock.” It’s what puts him into prison in the first place and it’s what separates him from his associates as he gets famous. He’s selfish and butt-headed despite the fact that his girlfriend and others help him to his success. His lack of clarity gets in the way time and time again, all the way through to the end of the movie.
Fortunately, “Jailhouse Rock” also is about the creative process and the early scenes of Vince’s recording attempts are ultimately what makes this interesting as a legitimate rock and roll movie of the time. It turns out that Vince has never heard a recording of his own voice and his girlfriend suggests that doing a recording might be instructive in terms of improving his chances as a professional.
The first tune Vince records- one that gets stolen by another record company- is “Don’t Leave Me Now” and it’s performed twice. The first time, Vince performs on guitar while being backed by his band. It’s an easy rolling version accented by the strum of the guitar. After listening, he decides he doesn’t like it- that he “sounds like a million other singers.” At the encouragement of his girl friend, who tells him to make the song “fit you,” Vince records another take, but this time without the guitar. This allows him to concentrate on his vocals, something that adds power and energy to his performance. So much so, he has to stand up and push his stool away during the song.
Interestingly, the biggest production number of the movie- the title song- is the least interesting. That’s because this is a set piece. It has to do with the dancing and movement more than the music. That’s OK, because during the number, Presley gets to demonstrate the hip-swiveling skills that made him such a danger to the youth of 1957. Still, this is not about the song, it’s about the visual elements. In fact the original “Jailhouse Rock” recording is augmented by horns and extra vocals, changing its nature from gritty rocker to big production showpiece.
That goes for “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” as well- a tune performed during a backyard pool party. Presley gets to gyrate but the performance is ineffective because of its stilted set-up- out in a back yard during the day, an unlikely place and time to see a fiery rocker. The people sitting around the pool during the performance must think so too because they witness this moment without hardly moving a muscle. Added to this is the slick sweater and white-topped shoes Presley wears during the song- hardly the attire of a mixed-up rebel. It’s pretty unconvincing.
The best music moment of the entire movie, however, is when Presley, his group, his girlfriend and lawyer record “Treat Me Nice” in the studio. Presley seems to genuinely get into it and for just a moment you imagine you are really seeing a recording session with Presley and band. That the girlfriend and lawyer, just sitting around in the studio, add some energetic hand clapping to the track gives a laid-back, friendly feel to the moment. This is not a superstar doing the recording, it’s just a talented kid who finds a reasonable outlet for his roiling personality in music. That he begins the song by tapping on the microphone for a percussive effect also supports the unpretentious feel of the moment.
“Treat Me Nice” becomes the recording that gets Vince’s foot in the door in the record industry- he and his girlfriend bypass the established record companies and set up their own. At first, “Treat Me Nice” gets played underneath a dog food commercial, but radio listeners complain so much that the record gets its due on the air and becomes a smash hit. Soon Vince is signing autographs for crowds of pretty girls.
I also felt the performance scene during the prison television show, Presley doing “I Want to Be Free,” was a major highlight. Just as you might imagine the recording scene of “Treat Me Nice” was authentic, you can also imagine the performance of “I Want to Be Free” as being authentic. Sure, Presley and band are all dressed in prison garb, but they are placed on stage like you would place a live band- Presley up front at the mike, playing guitar, with the bass, drums and guitar behind to one side and the piano to the other side. It’s just a simple, standard stage set-up and offers a glimpse of what Presley really did look like live with his band.
There’s another music moment worth mentioning in “Jailhouse Rock,” and that occurs when Vince’s record industry girl friend takes him home to meet her parents. It turns out the parents are having a party and at one point, they put on a modern jazz record and the guests start discussing it. They compare the “atonality” of artists such as “Brubeck and Desmond” to “pure old Dixieland,” and then ask Vince his opinion. Rather than being interested, Vince takes this as a slight and storms out of the party, again indicating at just how little he appreciates the efforts of those around him.
It’s almost shocking how raw some of the action is in “Jailhouse Rock.” The bar fight that lands Vince in prison is ferocious. He literally gets whipped as punishment for his part in a prison riot and his work is tough and grimy. Vince viciously slaps a record executive back into his chair when he confronts him for stealing his “style.” The guitar-smashing scene adds to this as well as the fight scene between Vince and his former cellmate that sends the singer to the hospital. All of this comes on with frantic bursts of hostility that tend to set this movie apart from its more lightweight predecessors.
Directed by Richard Thorpe…1957…96 minutes…Elvis Presley (as Vince Everett)…Judy Tyler (as Peggy)…Mickey Shaughnessy (as Hunk)…Vaughn Taylor (as Shores, the lawyer)…Bill Black (on bass)…DJ Fontana (on drums)…Scotty Moore (on guitar)…Mike Stoller (on piano)
Jailhouse Rock songs
“One More Day”
Written by Sid Tepper & Roy C. Bennett
Performed by Mickey Shaughnessy
“Young And Beautiful”
Written by Abner Silver & Aaron Schröder
Performed by Elvis Presley
“I Want To Be Free” Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
“Don’t Leave Me Now”
Written by Aaron Schröder (as Aaron Schroeder) & Ben Weisman
Performed by Elvis Presley
“Treat Me Nice”
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Choreographed by Elvis Presley
“(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
I watched the 1957 Elvis Presley movies out of order, viewing “Jailhouse Rock” first, then “Loving You.” It probably doesn’t make much difference, but I think that “Jailhouse Rock” may have had even more impact had I watched the lighter, cooler version of “the making of a rock and roll star” theme in “Loving You” first. “Jailhouse Rock” is most certainly the stronger of the two. However, “Loving You,” also about the music industry, carries weight of its own.
“Loving You” casts Presley as Deke Rivers, a delivery guy who gets an unexpected break at a political candidate event. At the urging of a friend, he gets pulled on stage to entertain the local crowd who are getting restless with the candidate’s hollow speeches. Rivers is a little surly, but also humble, and a rocker, making the local girls twitter. The effect he has does not go unnoticed by a wily press agent and manager of the touring band accompanying the candidate. In fact, she dumps the candidate and convinces Rivers to join the band on tour, sensing a change of fortune for everybody.
Lizabeth Scott plays Glenda, the mover and shaker behind Rivers’ career, with cool confidence. She is the acting anchor to “Loving You,” making all the key connections for the plot action and being the center of attention in every scene she’s in. But Wendell Corey also adds able and humorous support in the role of Tex Warner, the aging country star looking for a contemporary boost only a kid like Rivers can give.
Despite the ultimately artificial environments created to showcase Presley in action, “Loving You” features a nice collection of performance sequences, including “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do,” “(Let’s Have A) Party,” “Mean Woman Blues” and “Hot Dog.” Also included is Presley’s big 1957 hit “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” and the romantic theme song “Loving You.”
The two numbers that stand out the most are “Mean Woman Blues” and the big finale, “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ to Do.” “Mean Woman Blues” is performed by Rivers in a juke joint- singing to a record playing on a jukebox- where he not only gets the crowd clapping their hands and yelping, but also slides and jerks across the floor. It’s an exciting sequence.
“Got A Lot O’ Livin’ to Do” closes out the movie with a celebration of music and movement in a theater setting- another exciting scene of handclapping fun- but also appears early in the movie. It’s the song Rivers ends up singing when first pushed onto the stage in the beginning. I liked the scenes of Presley performing with the band at community fairs and various outdoor functions towards the beginning. It’s a fine fantasy- to be able to see a performer like Presley in some laid-back, back road event. It’s all artificially staged, but gives a taste of it anyway.
My favorite musical scene in “Loving You,” however, is Presley- in full Western gear- performing “Lonesome Cowboy.” It all starts with a dramatic scene- Presley shot from a distance, standing alone in a spotlight. The relative quiet of the song’s introduction is in contrast to the other more upbeat music in the movie. The song, despite the cowboy flavor, is a breath of fresh air in the production. Presley plays it straight with the tune and uses his voice to create a beautiful moment. The beautiful moment is ruined in the movie by a girl in the audience interrupting the song, confusing and embarrassing Rivers, foreshadowing the problems his popularity will create. His rendering of “Loving You” during a family picnic is also very sweet.
“Loving You” has one ferocious fight scene- when a local tough gets in Rivers’ face one night- and Rivers gets hot when Tex makes an innocuous crack about his family, but for the most part, Presley plays Rivers as a little thickheaded, but ultimately a good and righteous person. This is in stark contrast to Presley’s character, Vince, in “Jailhouse Rock,” who is selfish and bullheaded throughout.
There is another stark contrast between “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock,” and it’s an obvious one. That is, “Loving You” is shot in full color and “Jailhouse Rock” is in black and white. It’s interesting that the color film comes first. Why would the movie studio go back to black and white, once the young star has made the jump to color? The unique contrast that black and white offers seems to play along well with the grittiness of “Jailhouse Rock,” but I’m wondering if the aesthetic of the medium had anything to do with it.
The two movies- “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock”- are very good book ends in the emerging story of rock and roll. On one end is the success of a rather innocent, naive but talented singer and on the other end is the equal success of a rebellious, hot-headed yet ambitious performer. Both achieve more than they could have on their own, speaking to the importance of other people recognizing and nurturing raw talent. But the gold nugget here is the talent itself. This offers a new dream to the exploding teenage population of the 1950s- to overcome big odds to become a rock and roll star. These movies offer a kind of come-on to the audience. Like, it happened to Presley’s characters so it can happen to you.
It seems important to point out that in these rock and roll movies, it is an individual who succeeds. In “Rock Around the Clock,” for instance, it is Bill Haley and the Comets, a group, who are catapulted to fame. But the Presley movies concentrate on the fortunes of one guy. This clears the way for fantasies of stardom that can be achieved without the benefit of a bigger group. The message seems to be “YOU can succeed, too” not “You and your band can succeed.” Personalizing the rock and roll dream is the result here.
I wanted to mention a few stray details from “Loving You.” The first is that one of the key elements to Rivers’ character is his car- a souped up hot rod he calls “the ride” that makes several appearances in the movie. It’s a nod to the car culture that was raging at the same time as rock and roll.
Another detail is the irony in a statement Tex makes to Rivers. Tex ends up being a kind of mentor to Rivers and in a talk about the entertainment business he tells the younger man how quickly everything can come- the record deals, the big concert tours and “…maybe even movies.” Here, maybe unconsciously, the movie reveals the pecking order in entertainment. Music is great, it seems, but movies are the ultimate. That attitude adequately mirrored what happened in Presley’s career in real life.
I’ll also mention the reoccurring theme of the broken guitar string. Rivers has raw talent, but is not quite a pro yet and that gets underscored by his breaking a guitar string during each of his early performances in the movie. Eventually, Rivers is given his own guitar and is from then on responsible for changing his own strings. This is a tiny, humorous but telling detail of life as a musician.
Directed by Hal Kanter…1957…101 min…featuring Elvis Presley (Deke Rivers,) Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, Dolores Hart, Paul Smith.
Loving You Songs
“Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do”
Written by Aaron Schröder (as Aaron Schroeder) & Ben Weisman
Performed by Elvis Presley
“(Let’s Have A) Party”
Written by Jessie Mae Robinson
Performed by Elvis Presley
“(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”
Written by Kal Mann & Bernie Lowe
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Sid Tepper & Roy C. Bennett
Performed by Elvis Presley
“Mean Woman Blues”
Written by Claude Demetri
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Mister Rock and Roll
“Mister Rock and Roll” is a mixed bag at best. The movie is currently out of print, but I was able to dig up a copy via the rock and roll memorabilia underground- and I’m a little on the fence as to its value. Ultimately it’s a pretty poor production, however, there are some highlights to make it worth wading through. Those highlights include getting a primetime look at Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Also, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. What really rocks, however, is a surprise- Lionel Hampton and his orchestra. That says something about the kind of “rock and roll” being presented here.
The lowlights are also plentiful in “Mister Rock and Roll.” For some reason, some of the movie is like a performance film- with acts on the concert stage or sound stage- but some of it is like a musical, actors breaking out into song during the course of the action. The roughest part of that in “Mister Rock and Roll” is the duet between Teddy Randazzo and Rocky Graziano. That’s right- Rocky Graziano, the great fighter- is in the mix here for some kind of comic relief. It just wastes time that could have been used for another song by Little Richard or Chuck Berry.
There are similar problems with a reoccurring bit with a pair of songwriters continually trying to catch Randazzo’s eye with a new, screw ball tune. While it illustrates something about the music business- the hungry songwriter continually hitting on the star- it’s just goofy; wasting time.
Perhaps because “Mister Rock and Roll” is trying to vindicate a youth movement- rock and roll- that is battling a bad public image, the diversity of the music waters down any kind of sense of what “rock and roll” is. That means including performances by artists such as country crooner Ferlin Husky and female popster Shaye Cogan.
Husky, in particular, turns in limp performances at best, while awkwardly mugging for the camera. However, it’s interesting that Husky is shot performing one song with a cigarette in hand, flicking ashes onto the floor throughout. Cogan turns in a stiff performance of “Get Acquainted Waltz,” complete with corny arrangement and lyrics about being “tongue-tied.” However, she fares a little better with “Pathway to Sin,” a more upbeat but still graceless performance.
Some of the more talented artists in “Mister Rock and Roll” don’t particularly fare much better. It seems to me that La Vern Baker is a talented vocalist, but her skills seem wasted here on frivolous songs, particularly the stupid “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” a tune where Baker sings to a catatonic boyfriend. Baker has it better in her second tune, “Love Me Right in the Morning,” which is straight R & B- without the stupid boyfriend.
The spots by vocalists Brook Benton and Clyde McPhatter are both compromised by unimaginative filming, working close-ups that underscore the ineffectiveness of lip-synching. The recording of McPhatter’s voice sounds unnaturally strident coming out of the cool customer photographed on stage. He performs twice, including “You’ll Be There.” Benton, who performs “If Only I Had Known,” must have gone to the same performing school as Husky, adding awkward, dramatic hand and arm motions to the production.
The height of embarrassment in “Mister Rock and Roll” has to be the spot by the Moonglows, featured awkwardly wearing Mexican sombreros for the tune “Barcelona Rock.” Let’s just forget that Mexico and Barcelona are on different continents. The hats turn a fairly upbeat tune- that prominently features electric guitar- into a novelty song. The guys in the group smile and get it done- after all, illustrative choreography was not foreign to vocal groups- but it’s just goofy.
Who really scores the top star treatment in “Mister Rock and Roll” is Randazzo, who is also a key player in the plot. Randazzo’s music is dynamic thanks to upbeat arrangements, plenty of instrumental and vocal support, and some physical histrionics from the performer. It’s show music alright, but is it rock and roll?
Randazzo gets to kick “Mister Rock and Roll” off with the bluesy show tune “Kiddio.” He also gets the full band production for “Next Stop Paradise.” During one of those movie musical moments, Randazzo does sit down to sing a solo ballad at the piano that perhaps best showcases his vocal talent. But he’s back to a big, splashy show tune again for the closing number- “I Stop Anything I’m Doing”- a tune which inspires Randazzo to take off his coat, pull off his tie and get crazy while everybody around him, including Alan Freed and Lionel Hampton, are partying. None of it is particularly convincing- the music sounds contrived and Randazzo looks like he is mostly in pain as he winces his way through each piece.
Fortunately, there are a few good scenes too- starting at the top with Little Richard performing “Lucille.” Richard is a riveting figure no matter how bad the production is, and here there are some close-ups. Then add in Chuck Berry, pantomiming to “Oh, Baby Doll.” Lean and sassy, Berry makes a conscious effort to make his spot interesting by purposefully moving to the music. Playing guitar and singing are not enough for him and his fancy footwork and constant motion add plenty to a stiff situation at best.
Also interesting are the spots featuring Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Dressed in dark suits, the group is presented rather formally and this works against them at first. But Lymon’s characteristic beaming face- his broad smile and exaggerated expressions- as well as his strong, effective voice manage to overcome this problem. Although it’s odd to see a 14-year-old making such faces about love and romance- he doesn’t seem old enough to be so wise- Lymon’s comfort with the spotlight goes a long way toward legitimizing the sentiments. The Teenagers offer plenty of vocal and visual support, the entire group proving that it could work well as a complete unit. They appear twice- in sound stage settings- performing “Love Put Me Out of My Head” and “Fortunate Fellow.”
But the best music scenes- and most curious- in “Mister Rock and Roll” are the rocking dance tunes played by Lionel Hampton and his orchestra. These include “Bravo,” which features a solo by a female sax player, plus the infectious “Hey Popa Rock” and “Star Rocket,” which features a lengthy vibes solo by Hampton.
As a big band leader and vibes player, Hampton is not the first artist you think of when the term “rock and roll” is mentioned. However, Freed introduces Hampton as an artist popular with “two generations” and what happens is a swinging dance party. The orchestra packs a definite punch, Hampton is a gregarious front man and the crowd does not seem to care who the artist is as long as they keep a snappy dance tempo in gear. Throughout these scenes in “Mister Rock and Roll,” featured dancers take turns soloing on the dance floor in a raucous good time.
The most interesting part of “Mister Rock and Roll,” however, above and beyond the handful of good performances, is the part Alan Freed plays in the whole thing. Of course, really, it’s all about Freed, the Mister Rock and Roll the title refers to. In the movie, like in real life, Freed has become a major focal point for the rock and roll movement- he spins the records the teenagers want to hear, all the while hammering on the term “rock and roll,” which he applies to everything he plays. Freed calls rock and roll “the greatest pop musical era of all time” and also becomes the focus for criticism of rock and roll. A major newspaper columnist calls him out as a fake and a danger to youth.
Randazzo makes it clear that from the artist’s standpoint, Freed has been nothing but supportive. An exchange between Randazzo and Freed in “Mister Rock and Roll,” then, becomes prophetic. Randazzo expresses his regrets for the trouble Freed is experiencing and Freed comes back with “Don’t you worry. I can take care of myself. You just wait and see.” This becomes darkly prophetic because Freed would become a central figure in the Senate payola investigation that opened up in 1959- and he wasn’t alright after that.
On film, however, Freed prevails. In a classic public relations move in “Mister Rock and Roll,” he finds an answer to the misconceptions of rock and roll by challenging his youthful listeners to prove their worth by encouraging them to donate to a heart fund. Predictably, the effort is a raving success and once again, Freed has saved rock and roll.
That the Lionel Hampton scenes are the most exciting music moments, along with Freed’s constant reference to “rock and roll” as he spins diverse platters on his radio show, helps support the idea that maybe rock and roll was not particularly about the music- though important- but about the dancers and listeners. This turns “rock and roll” into a kind of universal term for the music of that particular generation, not a term referring to a particular genre of music. While this blunts rock and roll as a definitive cultural movement, it also helps break down prejudices drawn from too narrow a view of what rock and roll really is.
The haphazardness of “Mister Rock and Roll” as a production ultimately dooms the movie to its fate as an out-of-print curiosity. Still, the attempts to make a logical case supporting rock and roll as a healthy outlet for teenage energy are laudable. The very beginning of the movie even includes a little history lesson about the development of popular music- Blues, Dixieland and Jazz have to make room for Mister Rock and Roll- so despite the ragged quality, there are solid points being made here.
Directed by Charles S. Dubin…1957…86 min…featuring Alan Freed, Teddy Randazzo, Lois O’Brien, Rocky Graziano, Lionel Hampton, Ferlin Husky, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Richard, Brook Benton, Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, La Vern Baker, Shaye Cogan, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
“Jamboree” is not a rock and roll movie. There’s some “rock and roll” in it, but the main body of the movie is about the music business as it existed in the 1950s all around the relatively new and relatively small music movement. This movie is about pop music in general- from syrupy ballads and novelty numbers to country, jazz, blues and unabashed show tunes.
If you were to connect “Jamboree” to rock and roll, other than through a mere handful of appearances by artists who might be said to be playing the new music, it would be through the factor of youth. The teenager explosion of the 1950s was reflected in many kinds of music other than rock and roll, including straight, clean cut records where the kids sang like birds.
That’s the set up for “Jamboree”- two talented young singers team up as a romantic duo on record and in real life. Their names are Pete and Honey and they are sweet, likeable young folk who are just starry eyed about their good fortune. They’ve got a hit record, they’re being interviewed on radio from coast to coast and their fan clubs are growing.
But the main players here aren’t the kids, they’re the adults pulling the strings behind the scenes. In this case, Pete and Honey’s managers. As it turns out, Honey’s manager Lew and Pete’s manager Grace were married to each other at one time and there’s really nothing young about them. They’re hard-bitten and cynical and wary of each other’s wily ways. They aren’t particularly evil people- although Grace does mess with Pete and Honey’s personal relationship- but they’re a far cry away from the world of rock and roll. That’s all clear when Grace declares that Pete and Honey rhyme with “bank and money.”
For all of the supposed hoopla, the Pete and Honey record, “Who Are We to Say,” is a slow, purposeful ballad. Honestly, it’s pretty dull and that makes the whole frenzy surrounding the two all the more unbelievable. However, the Pete and Honey story does attempt to give a feel for the recording process, since several of the scenes take place at a studio. That also is kind of unbelievable, though- the idea that a decent recording can be made with the vocalists singing toward a single mike and the rest of the room is filled with an orchestra. It’s also funny that for all of the nervousness around recording, in the end, all the engineer does is turn on a little reel to reel tape recorder.
Thankfully, the wooden storyline of “Jamboree” is only about half of the movie. The other half is full of performance clips of a wide variety of artists. Only a handful of them- certainly Carl Perkins, but also Charlie Gracie, Jimmy Bowen and the hot Jerry Lee Lewis- could be considered rock and rollers. But they are all part of just one big variety show. That, however, makes “Jamboree” a very interesting time capsule of the pop music of 1957.
To support that statement, there is a very unique element to “Jamboree” that beats all the other rock and roll movies. That is, throughout the course of the story, more than a dozen famous disc jockeys from around the United States, England and Europe are featured introducing the musical acts. They don’t say much, it’s true, but it’s a very interesting look at what radio professionals of the time looked like- mostly older guys, all in dapper suits. My favorite of the disc jockey scenes, however, is that of Jocko Henderson, the DJ from “outer space.” Henderson appears in a wild space suit concoction and even does a little poetic rapping before introducing Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords.
But further, the commentator for a telethon Pete and Honey participate in is Philadelphia DJ and television host Dick Clark. He’s a very young man in “Jamboree” but has already mastered that suave sense of cool that would serve him so well on American Bandstand, which went national in 1957.
Television seems to be written all over “Jamboree” to me. Most of the musical performances occur on what looks like a television sound stage. There’s a consistent look to the background sets- trying to look jazzy with as few materials as possible and spare lighting- and several of the scenes feature groupings of dancers who try to illustrate the songs. Meanwhile, most of the musicians are turned loose to walk around the set with their instruments unplugged, miming to the records. It all smacks of a production line approach that television producers would approve.
With all of that said, however, I’m thankful “Jamboree” features so much music, no matter how awkward the situation. Sure, some of it makes me wince, but some of it is pretty exciting, transcending the general production values.
On the weak side in “Jamboree,” first of all, are several attempts to incorporate ethnic elements into the music- culturally based novelty records- perhaps to give the sound stage scenes some variety. Vocalist Jodie Sands gets wrapped up in a tight Oriental dress to sing “Sayonara.” Ron Coby takes on the dramatic role of the bull fighter in “Toreador.” The most successful of the ethnic spots is Buddy Knox performing “Hula Love.” While the set-up is dumb- Knox and band performing uncomfortably in suits and leis- Knox still manages to put a little energy into it, trying out a few dance steps as well as putting a little echo of his hit “Party Doll” in the fade-out ending.
As stated, the Pete and Honey stuff is pretty sedate. That’s Connie Francis’ voice coming out Freda Holloway, who plays Honey. Francis’ voice is strong, despite the general flaccidness of the music, and the scene where Honey records a solo song, “Siempre,” is the best showcase moment for her contribution. However, Holloway is not a very good lip syncher and it makes it all the more obvious how artificial it all is.
Other questionable spots include the introductory song, titled “Record Hop,” performed by members of a revue called “Cool Cats.” It features insultingly dumb song lyrics that rhyme “soda pop” with “record hop” and a whole troupe of dancers who turn rock and roll dancing into just another fake, unbelievable situation. Slim Whitman’s performance of “Unchain My Heart” is also very awkward- Whitman has a guitar strapped on, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it while strolling around the set alone. The Four Coins’ slick vocal performance of “A Broken Promise” isn’t so bad- it’s performed with reasonable vigor- it’s just not my cup of musical tea. The Four Coins make me think of barbershop quartet music- it’s jazzier, yeah, but also kind of goofy. These are clean cut boys, down to the matching handkerchiefs in the Coins’ pockets.
“Jamboree,” however, also features some pretty good stuff. A scene that surprised me was the one of a very young Frankie Avalon recording the tune “Teacher’s Pet.” It’s a pop ditty with a bouncy beat and despite his obvious youth, Avalon displays a mature sense of style and confidence that overcomes the over-twangy background vocals, which is a distracting element.
I was also surprised by the Count Basie tunes. The great bandleader and his orchestra are a bunch of old pros and there’s no awkwardness about them as they perform two tunes. The first is an instrumental titled “Jamboree,” which starts out low, but builds plenty of swinging steam as it proceeds. It’s interesting to note that the dance floor is filled with people in suits and evening gowns. Again, this is a far cry away from the world of rock and roll. The second song Basie and group plow through is a big blues tune, which features vocalist Joe Williams, introduced as “the world’s greatest blues shouter.” It’s a big, dynamic number and Williams turns in one of the best pseudo-performances in the movie.
I also enjoyed the opportunity “Jamboree” affords to check out some artists I had not heard of before. That includes Charlie Gracie, performing “Cool Baby.” In the scene, which also includes some dumb dancers in the background, Gracie is wearing a big, hollow-body guitar that is almost as big as the performer. But Gracie’s breathy vocals and an infectious beat make the performance cool indeed. That also goes for Jimmy Bowen, who performs “Cross Over.” It’s another pop ditty that Bowen manages to enhance with confident delivery. It’s also interesting to note that, of all the performers in “Jamboree,” Bowen seems to be the most comfortable with the camera. During his spot, he does some obvious mugging and moves around the set like he knows what he’s doing.
It is also fascinating to check out the performance by Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, performing the song “Your Last Chance.” Lymon was the younger brother of Frankie Lymon and you can hear a close resemblance in his voice. Lewis, however, is much younger than Frankie- perhaps the record industry was trying to form a new star early. Also, like Frankie and the Teenagers, Lewis and the Teenchords remain purposefully busy throughout the song, including a nice little choreographed dance section during the song’s bridge. The scene also includes some interesting lighting effects, casting the group’s shadows on the wall behind as they perform. “Your Last Chance” is not as musical as Frankie and the Teenagers’ records, but the infectious energy is similar.
Finally, though, the best music in “Jamboree” comes from some familiar characters- Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.
Perkins and band perform “Glad All Over,” an upbeat country-flavored tune. This was my very first look at Perkins as a performer and while the situation is stiff- this particular scene looks like it was filmed at a different time than a lot of the music spots- his music still cooks. Perkins does a pretty good job of lip synching the tune and that’s saying something because the piece has some quick moving nonsense lyrics that make it a challenge. Obviously Perkins knew his own song very well. There’s a nice close-up of Perkins’ guitar and he even gets a little rock and roll hopping in during the instrumental break. The music sounds fresh and exciting- an authentic invention of the musician- compared to a lot of the commercial drivel in “Jamboree.” It’s interesting to note that Perkins and band are dressed in casual street clothes, not suits and ties, distancing themselves from a more groomed show business appearance.
Fats Domino is the last star on the stage before “Jamboree” wraps up with a Pete and Honey tune. Domino and band make the best of the situation, and actually look like they’re having fun. I like Domino’s image- this big guy in a suit, big smile, slick hair and a warm, pliable voice- and here he’s performing “Wait and See.” He’s smooth and confident and the band is right there along with him.
The best of all in “Jamboree,” however, is Jerry Lee Lewis, who performs his hot 1957 hit “Great Balls of Fire.” Like Perkins, Lewis knows his song real well and does a good job lip synching. But more, he does a pretty good job at “finger synching” his piano part. On “Great Balls of Fire,” Lewis does a lot on the keyboards- not just chords supporting the song. He’s plenty active in the recording and manages to make it look like he’s really playing it in the movie. He misses a few strokes up and down the keys, but pretty much nails it.
There’s a production problem during the Lewis scene in “Jamboree” that also crops up in others. That is, at random times during Lewis’ performance, the lighting changes abruptly. It goes from well-lit to dark and shadowed, I suppose to give the scene some visual variety. What it really does, however, is distract mightily with what’s going on- Lewis passionately delivering one of the top hits of the year. The producer who thought that was a good idea needed a new job.
Fortunately, Lewis prevails in “Jamboree” anyway. He works the camera a little, his hair comes unglued and he comes off as quite a character. But what’s clear is that Lewis OWNS his song and his piano. For stirring up excitement, if you can’t have Elvis Presley or Little Richard in your movie, Jerry Lee Lewis is the next best bet.
Directed by Roy Lockwood…1957…1 hr. 26 min…featuring Kay Medford (as Grace,) Bob Pastine (as Lew,) Paul Carr (as Pete,) Freda Holloway (as Honey,) Dick Clark, Carl Perkins, Frankie Avalon, Charlie Gracie, Jodie Sands, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, Ron Coby, Slim Whitman, Four Coins, Count Basie, Joe Williams, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Fats Domino…Otis Blackwell serves as musical director.
“Ricky the Drummer”
It’s plenty understandable to me why rock and roll would invade the lives of squeaky clean families like the Nelson brood on television’s “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Despite the light all-American humor the show was centered around- and its polite yes-sir, no-ma’am manners- the truth was that the Nelson boys- David and Ricky- were teenagers and for them to seem typical to the rest of America’s teenagers in the 1950s, popular music had to become a part of the story. So, in April 1957, the Ozzie and Harriet episode titled “Ricky the Drummer,” did exactly just that.
But more than just include popular music in the storyline, “Ricky the Drummer” actually created a new pop star. In the process of the thin plot that gets young Ricky on stage with a touring band to sit in on drums, then to sing the popular Fats Domino tune “I’m Walkin,” he became a new singing heartthrob to the world at large. Nelson had recorded a version of “I’m Walkin” previous to the episode, he lip-synched his own version on TV and when the record was released, it became an instant hit- such is the power of television. “I’m Walkin” would be the first of many hits for Ricky in the following years.
The “Ricky the Drummer” episode is a lot about the music business above and beyond Ricky’s specific performance. In it, Ricky shows a passion for music by first of all going up to his room to practice his drumming to the latest record by the artist appearing at the town’s dance that evening. He turns the music up and finds the groove, even playing it with a little swing in his body language.
The story of the Nelson family already includes music, since Ozzie had been a sax player and bandleader earlier in life. So when an invitation comes Ricky’s way to actually sit in with the band that night, everyone in the family gets excited, especially Ozzie who is full of old-fashioned advice. Ricky ends up donning David’s tuxedo for the gig, but when he arrives, he finds that what the band really wanted was a boy to “sit in” and haul the equipment for them. This disappoints Ricky, but he takes it well and seems happy to just be around the musicians, serving them soft drinks.
But the Nelson clan does not know how to lie down when they don’t get what they want, so David pulls a few strings with the bandleader and Ricky is called up to the bandstand to play anyway. He plays the drums on one song, attempting with some success to “drum synch” his playing to the soundtrack, including a rather impressive drum solo, while looking cool and collected.
But then, Ricky is called up to the mike and the band plows into “I’m Walkin.” Nelson approaches the tune with his own vocal style- a kind of relaxed, cool kind of delivery. It’s a unique take on the song, not a copy of Fats Domino’s music. But, there’s nothing striking about the performance in particular until the instrumental break where Ricky puts a little of his body into it, doing just the slightest Elvis Presley twitch. That elicits a couple of squeals from the girls in the audience- but not too much.
Of course, not to outdone or overshadowed, Ozzie, Harriet and David then take the stage and the whole thing winds up in a big band/barbershop quartet version of “My Gal Sal.” However, in the middle of the piece, Ricky leaves the bandstand and does a little dancing with a pretty girl in the crowd. He doesn’t flip her around or anything- a few stiff twists is all- but he does apply some smooth footwork to the song. He then returns to the stage to finish the song with the family- always back to the safety of the family.
“Ricky the Drummer” is a Ricky showcase for sure- featuring his drumming, singing and even dancing- all within a short 20 minutes. That 20 minutes, however, would establish a whole new career for him that would, so to speak, get him out of the house, like the rest of teenage America was dreaming of. It is significant that it is music- you could even call it rock and roll music- that gets it done.
The Joker is Wild ****
A show-business story revealing its gritty underbelly. Sure, there are some moments that glitter here- like some swinging performances and a little romance- but what’s really happening most of the time is much darker and harsher. That is, alcoholism, lack of self-esteem and confidence and an addictive personality, all brought about by unrestrained violence.
“The Joker is Wild” features Frank Sinatra as comedian Joe E Lewis, originally a popular singer who becomes a comedian after having his throat cut by gangsters. It’s a long road to success when, following the attack, he withdraws from his career track and gets lost in the seedy world of burlesque. Friends rediscover him and help him get reestablished, now armed with the comic talents he learned on the burlesque stage.
Despite the love of two gorgeous women, Lewis’ insatiable thirst for alcohol and a compulsive addiction to gambling ruin the best parts of his personal life while giving him plenty of fodder for his cynical comic act.
There are some moments of genuine intensity in “The Joker is Wild.” The ending is very ham-handed compared to the rest of the movie, but I suppose there was a feeling that the moralistic point must be underscored. Perhaps there was the fear that without the object lesson being spelled out, audiences might mistake the intent of the production. But surely, no one could mistake that this movie glorifies show business. There is no glory here and success on stage does not necessarily equate to success as a person.
Directed by Charles Vidor…1957…126 min…featuring Frank Sinatra (as Joe E Lewis,) Mitzi Gaynor, Jeanne Crain, Eddie Albert, Beverly Garland, Jackie Coogan.
Short Cut to Hell ***
At some point while watching “Short Cut to Hell,” I thought that if this movie had been made and released in the 21st Century, it would be considered a kind of masterpiece. Its highly stylized form alone- a crisp black and white with carefully planned settings and lighting effects- would raise eyebrows because, well, they just don’t make them that way anymore. The gritty story, hard-edged characters and engaging details then would be hailed as a distillation of the crime genre movie, featuring terse, matter-of-fact action with an active, even thrilling soundtrack being busy in the background. It would be called an artful homage to film noir.
The quality inherent in “Short Cut to Hell” must be the work of director James Cagney. Cagney would know all about crime movie-making from the inside out as an actor. This is his only directorial effort and he keeps a brisk pace throughout. Film noir had been established a long time before this, so Cagney must have known all the tricks and made sure he used them in this tight little package.
Added to this are the distinctive performances by the lead actors- Georgann Johnson and Robert Ivers. Johnson plays an outgoing singer who gets kidnapped by Ivers’ character, a killer seeking revenge on a former associate for a double-crossing deal. Johnson is the liveliest thing in the production- much more so than her big, stiff detective boyfriend- and comes on like a gust of fresh air. Ivers creates the opposite kind of character- a brooding, snarling loner- and the two mix like oil and water. However, their interaction affects both of them as the action winds up on the wrong side of a bullet.
The movie is full of flavorful details- from the shadows on the walls during some scenes to the cool factory setting in others to an old newspaper dating an air raid shelter. Distinctive details are also built into the story, like the “Fat Man” nickname and his peppermint patties. There are also some really great lines. Johnson delivers one right in the kisser when she tells her boyfriend “Well, here’s one for your mother!” Ivers spits out the most arresting line, however, when he admits “I’m not a person, I’m a gun.”
The inevitable ending falls kind of flat- once the chase is over, there isn’t much else to do- but for the most part, “Short Cut to Hell” delivers an entertaining ride.
Directed by James Cagney…1957…89 min…featuring William Bishop, Robert Ivers, Georgann Johnson.
Witness for the Prosecution ***
A fat old barrister with a heart condition and a wicked mouth takes on one more challenging case before retiring- that of a woman-chaser accused of murder. It’s an English courtroom drama that does have a twist, but as the “public service” message at the end of the movie advises, I won’t give away the ending. Let’s just say that Marlene Dietrich appears as a cold fish but she may not be the coldest one in the courtroom.
Directed by Billy Wilder…1957…116 min…featuring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester.
The One That Got Away ***
A German pilot uses every trick he can think of to escape his British captors during World War II. To begin with, it’s an odd movie in that it doesn’t necessarily glorify the German prisoners, but does paint them in realistic colors- they’re just soldiers like everyone else despite their opposing views on patriotism. The film was made in the United Kingdom and that adds to the oddness- not very long after the war, the British people could hardly have forgotten the suffering they endured at the hands of the Germans and to portray them even in a half-light of positivity was brave of the filmmakers.
The success of this movie is due to actor Hardy Kruger, who plays the German prisoner. He’s even kind of cool in his leather jacket and hair slicked back almost in a ducktail. As he escapes from one situation and gets into another, he is also cool with how he handles the people he meets- not only lying his way through the meetings, but doing so with even a sense of humor. He’s smart, young and determined- the scenes toward the end of the movie where he crosses a frozen river despite being exposed to the elements are inspiring as the prisoner struggles mightily. Those struggles become the struggles of anybody, not just an enemy soldier.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker…1957…106 min…featuring Hardy Krüger, Colin Gordon, Michael Goodliffe
In the midst of rock and roll mania, here comes actor Sterling Hayden. I ran across him in two 1957 productions and he is an interesting leading man indeed. Not particularly handsome, or bright, Hayden comes on in both “Five Steps to Danger” and “Crime of Passion” with good old boy charm with a surprising capacity to go with the flow.
In “Five Steps”, Hayden is a guy on the road with a broken down car- kind of a wise guy, down on his luck. In “Crime” he’s a dogface flatfoot who likes the suburbs and his job. In both cases, his characters are willing to go out on the limb for a woman, but it may not be his idea and he might not like it either.
And is it a coincidence that both women in his 1957 movies are nuts? Actually, in “Five Steps,” Ruth Roman plays a woman everyone says is nuts, but isn’t. In “Crime,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a suburban wife who is supposed to be in control but really isn’t. All the while Hayden’s characters stand back in disbelief, but melt every time the ladies turn on the water works. What a softy, despite the rough exterior- and he gets married quickly in each feature.
Or is Hayden a softy? Not when escorting Stanwyck’s character down the hallway leading to the Homicide division at the police station.
Five Steps to Danger **
Two things in particular stood out here for me. The first was the mode of transportation of the vital information- a small card-like mirror with a fine engraving- a kind of micro-chip. The one thin slice of metal supposedly carried years worth of scientific material vital to the missile project at hand. The second was a chilling conversation between two cops about what was going on, in which they underscore the high stakes at hand- the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles- ICBMs.
Directed by Henry S Kesler…1957…81 min…featuring Ruth Roman, Sterling Hayden, Werner Klemperer, Jeanne Cooper, John Mitchum.
Crime of Passion **
There is a sense of rebellion here as Barbara Stanwyck’s character cracks under the strain of dull suburban life. It’s really unbelievable that the self-assured woman with a well-read advice column in the beginning of the movie becomes this raving Looney-tunes killer by the end, but that must be a comment on the insidious power of suburban living- sweet and deadly for some.
Directed by Gerd Oswald…1957…84 min…featuring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, Raymond Burr, Fay Wray, Royal Dano.
A Farewell to Arms **
I wonder if Ernest Hemingway saw this version of his novel. If he did, he probably left through the back door afterwards because this is a production that teeters on the edge of embarrassing. Neither of the lead actors, Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, create believable characters and their romance isn’t very believable either- and the romance fills this movie with a lot of syrup.
What ends up redeeming this movie is the little stuff, the details that come and go in between the smooching and excitable chatter about true love. After all, this story occurs in Italy at the end of World War I, so the world is in tumult around the would-be lovers, offering plenty of opportunity for memorable scenes. Those include a shot of legs hanging down as a truck rolls by the camera, the boots caked in mud and blood. Other war images include a twisted body laying awkwardly on some barbed wire and a young baby suckling at her dead mother’s breast.
It’s startling to realize that the blood that is dripping on Rock Hudson’s character’s face in an ambulance scene after he is wounded is coming from the soldier hemorrhaging in the bunk above him. Though the attempts at comedy here are pretty poor, there is one amusing moment when Hudson’s character takes a thermometer out of his mouth, takes a drag off a cigarette, then replaces the thermometer, like a little boy trying to get away with something.
The most riveting moment in the movie, however, is when a priest elects to stay with the wounded as the town they are in is being overrun by the Germans. He begins singing as the bombs start raining down and the others join him in their last moments- this says a lot more about courage than most of the rest of this snoozer.
Directed by Charles Vidor…1957…152 min…featuring Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones, Vittorio De Sica, Mercedes McCambridge, Elaine Stritch.
The Big Caper **
In “Crime of Passion,” Barbara Stanwyck’s character can’t stand the suburban lifestyle she finds herself in. The exact opposite happens in “The Big Caper.” A crime gang targets a small town bank that carries a big time payroll, easing into the job by planting a couple in the community months before. The boss’s girl moves to the town with his most trusted partner and the pair become popular newcomers, even while keeping their heist in mind the whole time. The trouble begins when the girl starts to like the small town life and it threatens to undermine the entire operation.
Directed by Robert Stevens…1957…84 min…featuring Rory Calhoun, Mary Costa, James Gregory.
20 Million Miles to Earth **
A slow-moving movie set in Italy about a fast-growing monster brought to Earth by a space mission to Venus. The creature effects by Ray Harryhausen remain riveting- the creature at times looking more alive than the actors themselves. The battle between the creature and an elephant is titanic and the final showdown at the top of the Coliseum in Rome recalls King Kong’s famous last stand.
Directed by Nathan Juran…1957…82 min…featuring William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Frank Puglia, John Zaremba, Thmoas Browne Henry, Tito Vuolo, Bart Braverman.
The Delinquents **
Delinquency is a disease- that’s the public service message here and the action is custom cut to prove the point: a good boy gets mixed up with some bad boys and things end up getting violent- let that be a lesson to you.
The trouble is that the message falls flat as the liveliest scenes in this movie are those including the loose gang of delinquents that bedevil a straight, struggling young couple. In fact, their party looks kind of fun, kids dancing to some cool music. Now, cutting someone’s tire at the drive-in movie is something else again, especially when they blame it on a squeaky clean guy like the troubled lover. Yeah, it gets worse, but the years have worn off the shock appeal of the young hoodlums in this movie, making even the rough guys seem naive and even likeable to some degree.
That is, except for the movie’s most intense sequence- when the good boy is forced to drink some liquor straight- drink after drink- turning him into a rubbery mess. This is a unique torture scene- no hitting, no cutting, but with plenty of dramatic effect. Both Peter Miller and Richard Bakalyan show plenty of spark as the bad boys, dominating every scene they are in.
Directed by Robert Altman…1957…72 min…featuring Tom Laughlin (as Scotty), Peter Miller (as Cholly), Richard Bakalyan (as Eddy), Rosemary Howard
More 1957 Movies
12 Angry Men
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Prince and the Showgirl
3:10 to Yuma
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
The Incredible Shrinking Man
The Spirit of St. Louis
The Sun Also Rises
The Three Faces of Eve
Tammy and the Bachelor
The Lower Depths
Man of a Thousand Faces
I Was a Teenage Werewolf
The Amazing Colossal Man
Rock Around the World
Island in the Sun
Nights of Cabiria
The Abominable Snowman
Fire Down Below
Throne of Blood
Rock Baby: Rock It
Rock All Night
“Rock and roll” is a slippery term. It refers to a type of music. It refers to a kind of lifestyle and attitude. It also refers to a generation, or more specifically, a particular period of time. “Rock and roll” has become a term that is bigger than a single definition can clarify which makes it hard to get a handle on.
“Rock and roll” was the invention of a particular generation- the baby boomers who were coming into their teenage years in the mid-1950s. It was a particular way of looking at the world- aggressive, fun-seeking, physical, youth-oriented, arrogant, challenging and even a little bit selfish. And it wasn’t all about music- it was also about hot rodding, school and other teenage activities.
I do not believe anyone sat down to figure it out in advance, but it was the result of cultural conditions. Youngsters had inherited a world that was fresh from war- the Korean War and even World War II- and their numbers were exploding. An atmosphere of relative prosperity made the environment ripe for cultural development and the new generation of teenagers was restless and needy.
I believe that the restlessness and the need of the baby boomer generation is what created “rock and roll.” These kids wanted to party. They wanted to do their own dances. They wanted something unique from their parents’ established culture. The result was a movement of a tremendous number of kids who were looking for something new to do.
Since dancing seems to be one of the main elements here, it’s easy to pull the musicians of the time into the circle. I do not think that Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard or Elvis Presley ever thought to themselves that they were creating a definitive music that would serve a generation and live forever. I think they were just trying to please their crowds. When your fans want to dance, and they like to dance to a particular type of rhythm, then you learn or write the music that serves that crowd. The lucky thing for these performers is that they came along at the right time. They didn’t create the movement, but helped fuel the fire.
Well, that may not be exactly right. While I believe that the musicians of the 1950s were reflecting the desires of their audiences, they also added new recruits to the cause. Kids who weren’t hip to the culture that would create rock and roll would quickly jump on the bandwagon thanks to the spread of the music through commercial media. So, in my mind, it went this way- a movement of kids were looking for more exciting times, the hip musicians started serving them and their music turned other kids onto the scene. That savvy music industry people like Alan Freed recognized all of this and created a name for it – “rock and roll”- cemented the deal.
Once the term “rock and roll” came into play, it pretty much got applied to anything. That could be a function of the commercial world- you name something, then you sell it and anything else like it you have. This completely clouds the issue when it comes down to defining “rock and roll” music.
This is what leads me to the conclusion that “rock and roll” as a musical term could be applied to the whole body of work of the time. These musicians were creating rock and roll music because it was the rock and roll generation, not because a particular musical formula worked. Therefore, all the various flavors of music of the mid-1950s came under one big umbrella- and the catch phrase of the time was “rock and roll.”
By 1957, rock and roll was mainstream. It was not to be denied. And it was accomplishing part of its purpose- to put the rock and roll generation on the map.
Poetry Readings in the Cellar
Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Cellar Jazz Quintet
What a couple of characters. I mean the seminal beat poets Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti on this 1957 album of live recordings. On the outset, this is pretty serious stuff- words flowing in hypnotic waves of sound and meaning. But eventually both performers reveal a wryly clothed sense of humor that pokes fun at society at large and at themselves, the happily raving poets.
The serious part of the atmosphere is underscored by the contributions of the Cellar Jazz Quintet- sax, trumpet, piano, bass and drums- who accent the words without stepping on them. They add some bop jazz, but mostly abstract passages perhaps better described as chamber music. Nonetheless, the musical accompaniment adds color and flavor without being the main thing.
The main thing is these two guys rolling on and on with their sly verbiage. At first, both Rexroth and Ferlinghetti seem to be pretty serious orators, but by the end of all four pieces included on “Poetry Readings in the Cellar” the guys can’t help but get funny. They make broad statements about mundane things, make joyful connections between images and words without worrying about their sense or logic. This must be delivered with a poker face, I imagine, but you can hear the audience in the background of these recordings chuckling when they get the jokes these guys are slinging inside their poetry.
Something else you can hear in the background is the occasional ping of the cash register since apparently business was being conducted as usual in the Cellar. Those little pings tell me that this recording is the real stuff- of the moment- and if that means letting a little commerce happen while the poets and musicians jam, then so be it.
Rexroth sounds like a dramatic radio reporter, with a strong delivery and a habit of spacing out his groupings of syllables by letting them trail off to nothing before starting the next phrase- like a guy trying to be understood over a PA system across a big crowd. He gets your attention even if you can’t quite make out what he’s actually saying.
Ferlinghetti sounds more like a guy you might meet in a bar and have a good time with despite being total strangers. He might even get a little annoying because the impression here is that he just loves to talk- whether it’s spinning stories about junkmen on parade or occasionally observing the beauty of the moment.
I found a copy of Sylvia Plath’s first appearance in the venerable publication Poetry- Volume 89, Number 4, January 1957 and it’s an interesting counterpoint to the Rexroth/Ferlinghetti recordings. The biggest difference is that Plath’s stuff is pretty dry- dry as the paper it’s printed on.
That is the chief difference right there between Plath and Rexroth- the gap between what is poetry on paper and what is poetry in the night club, spoken out loud. Plath was one of those academic poets writing complicated stuff and Ferlinghetti was on the street just jabbering away in language that was simpler and more direct.
Another difference is laughter. Except for maybe some sound and word play within the structured lines, I don’t get much humor in Plath’s work. It seems that it is the structure that’s important- you can see it on the pages, the rhyme schemes clearly laid out at the ends of lines, though the rhymes as such are more sound associations than gimmicks.
That shows a true sophistication- a mastery of language and references, twisting grammar around without mercy. But it’s just not very entertaining- it’s got a hushed tone, inscrutable but somehow wise, cold yet inferring emotion. I also pick up a chill aggressiveness.
Rexroth and Ferlinghetti just let it all hang out- there is no hiding when they plow into their constant streams of words. In fact, I would say the more honest the material, the better.
When I turned to the rear section of the Plath issue of Poetry I found a review of the first book by one of my favorite teachers at University of California at Santa Barbara- Edgar Bowers- written by Thom Gunn. Even when I took classes from him at UCSB in 1977-78, Bowers insisted on structure in poetry, but he was also resigned to the fact that students liked free verse- kind of as a result of those beatnik hooligans. In 1957, Gunn really liked Bowers’ work and spent plenty of space trumpeting Bowers’ verse.
More 1957 Poetry:
Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Selected Poems of H.D.
Denise Levertov, Here and Now
W. S. Merwin, Green with Beasts
Ogden Nash, You Can’t Get There from Here
Frank O’Hara, Meditations in an Emergency
Kenneth Patchen, Hurrah for Anything
Kenneth Rexroth, In Defense of the Earth
Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman
I didn’t get to see the movie, but dug up the screenplay for Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie “Wild Strawberries.” After reading it through, I found not just the clichéd atmosphere of a Bergman movie- the dreary grey cloud hanging over everything- but also just a little bit of color. That comes in the form of some little red strawberries that figure prominently in the screenplay.
In “Wild Strawberries,” an old doctor is on his way to be honored by academic colleagues and the color he finds in the world is from his past. The doctor is having episodes where memories melt into the present as he mulls over the events of his life. While en route to the ceremonies he is to attend, the doctor makes a stop at his childhood home. There, his other concerns drop away and he is transported to another time. The strawberries are a prized gift being gathered by his first love decades before, but the doctor sees them as clearly as he sees the girl he loves, who will marry his brother and break his heart.
The old doctor did not get the girl and his own marriage became tarnished by sexual assault, guilt and coldness. By the end of his life, the strawberries represent what he still has left- just a little bit of emotion peeking through his controlled exterior, from a long ago time.
Mixed into the doctor’s reveries are the marital problems between his son and daughter-in-law- echoing his own dysfunction and that of his large family. The daughter-in-law has left the doctor’s son- and has been staying with the doctor- and she ends up taking the wheel on the road trip. Along the road, the doctor and his daughter-in-law encounter a bickering couple who illustrate clearly to both the old man and the younger woman just how horrible marriage can get.
Also involved in the trip is a trio of young people- a girl and two boys- who ride along just by chance. They’re adventurers on their way to Europe and they mirror the Doctor’s yearning for that flicker of youth. The flicker of youth he gets from them sends him back to his daydreams of the girl with the wild strawberries.
All of this moves the doctor profoundly and he grasps at some renewal from the experience. Both his daughter-in-law and son do the same. But not the doctor’s longtime housekeeper- she stubbornly holds onto how things have always been, refusing to accept even familiarity of speech. She represents the world that does not want to change- the rigidity that entraps us all- even as we yearn for something more colorful.
The most arresting quotes in Bergman’s screenplay are from the old doctor’s son, a man who believes living is “absurd” in the first place, and it was “ridiculous to populate it with new victims.” His is a cynical and defeatist attitude that admits only a desire for stone cold death. However, even he finds a spark of meaning in his love for his wife, despite an unwanted pregnancy. This indicates that despite the general harshness of Bergman’s view of the world, he leaves a small crack in the door for redemption.
On the Beach
by Nevil Shute
It doesn’t take long for Nevil Shute to nail the problem to the wall that continues to eat away at the characters in his 1957 novel “On the Beach.” That is, that all the death and all the waste that occurs because of a nuclear conflict just isn’t fair.
Shute gets it said pretty much right away in the beginning of the book. To begin with, an Australian navy officer assigned as a liaison to an American submarine invites the captain to his home for some beach time and a party. The Australian and his wife call upon a friend to keep the American busy during his stay, but her insatiable taste for alcohol makes her quite a handful.
The friend has become a lush in the face of impending doom- the radiation clouds that are rapidly approaching their location after a nuclear war in the north- and she doesn’t mind sharing why, lamenting how “bloody unfair” it was that everyone had to die because countries thousands of miles away had a devastating war they didn’t participate in there in Australia. The waiting- and knowing what’s coming- had turned her into an alcoholic.
The same thing makes others act differently and that nagging feeling of being victims draws a tragic pall over the final months of their lives. Some would rather keep busy with their work, some take up the pursuits they have always dreamed of- like racing a car in the Grand Prix- while others try to deny the facts. “On the Beach” is a tearjerker to say the least. There isn’t a page in the book that doesn’t refer to death.
One interesting idea that stuck out was a section that discussed a rumor that some government agency was using its dwindling time etching a history of the war- and presumably the extinct human race- into glass and sealing them into bricks. These histories were then to be placed in a vault in a mountain top judged a likely destination for future visitors. This reveals a desire to preserve some of the basic knowledge of the human endeavor in a form that could outlast paper, electronics and apparently the race itself.
“On the Beach” is imaginative and mostly descriptive, following the actions of the characters and what they say, but not trying to guess what they are thinking. Instead, you end up starting to wonder what you yourself would use those last few months for.
What I disagree with most is the decision of the submarine captain to remain true to his wife back in devastated Connecticut, denying the affection of his lady friend in Australia. His Australian friend becomes a different person because of him, but he holds fast to his ideals despite the facts he himself witnessed. It makes me feel that, especially in the last hours of humanity, love should not be denied no matter what promises were made when the world was different.
More 1957 Books:
Isaac Asimov – The Naked Sun
L. Sprague de Camp – Solomon’s Stone
Ian Fleming – From Russia with Love
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago
Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged
Dr. Seuss – The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Art Linkletter — Kids Say the Darndest Things
Jean-Paul Sartre — Existentialism and Human Emotions
Nobel Prize for literature: Albert Camus
Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Superman No 113 May 1957
The legend of Superman gets fleshed with this 1957 “novel-length” story by starting with a very cool idea- a mind tape machine. Superman rescues the machine from a lump of Kryptonite and finds that the tapes on this machine were recorded by his father, Jor-El, on Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The tapes tell the story of Jor-El’s adventure as a super-human hero trying to save his planet from one kind of destruction, only to find it doomed by another.
In between sessions with the mind tape machine, Superman must take breaks to save humanity. But finally, he finds the time to follow up with what he has learned by searching out the alien queen who Jor-El first fought against, then learned of Krypton’s fate from.
The alien queen has aged slowly since Jor-El’s time and remains kind of hot looking. She immediately sees Jor-El in Kal-El when he first arrives on the queen’s huge ship and, after talking, sums up Superman’s situation: “You are an orphan of space!”
It brings up an interesting situation- the queen kisses both Jor-El and Kal-El in the course of the “novel” and she even says it out loud when she gives Superman a good smack on the lips after he works out a plan to save her planet: “I kissed your father in gratitude…now I kiss his son!” Now that’s a space vixen!
Of the historical notes that I ran across while searching 1957, one that stood out strongly was an article released by the BBC on June 27: “Smoking ’causes lung cancer'” (BBC News, 1957-06-27.) The article is the first to report on research that linked smoking with cancer- the first shot in a war against smoking and disease that continues to rage today. Smokers- and tobacco companies- scoffed at the idea, but cancer quickly became a new enemy- one that attacks from the inside, therefore all the more insidious.
Fears were also mounting on the outside in 1957 too- the Soviet Union kicked the space race into high gear by successfully launching Sputnik, Earth’s first orbiting artificial satellite. Apparently Sputnik was a marvel in skies that did not include any other traffic and it scared the willies out of Americans who could not help but think of bombs and air superiority.
The Soviets actually launched Sputnik twice in 1957. The second time included a live dog, Laika, but this launch was only a partial success and Laika did not survive.
Meanwhile the Unites States’ effort in 1957 fell flat- the first US attempt at putting a satellite into space exploded on takeoff. However, American John Glenn did set a new transcontinental air speed record in 1957 by flying a jet to New York from California in 3 hours and 23 minutes.
Other unsettling news in 1957 reflects the upheaval that was mounting over racial matters: in Little Rock, Arkansas Governor Faubus called on the National Guard to keep a group of nine black students from enrolling in a white high school.
Meanwhile, everything was going gangbusters on television in 1957. American Bandstand leapt from being a local show in Philadelphia to national TV. Other shows that premiered in 1957 included Have Gun, Will Travel, Perry Mason, Maverick, Leave It To Beaver, Zorro and Wagon Train. All of these would become a part of bedrock TV viewing in the coming years- as active series and as reruns. Shows ending in 1957: The Roy Rogers Show and The Three Stooges- both of which would live on as reruns.
Two of the era’s most famous stage shows also premiered in 1957. That would be “West Side Story” and “The Music Man.” Both shows not only succeeded on Broadway, but then became popular feature movies.
Baseball hero Ted Williams was voted Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957, not a surprise considering his dominance of the game. But change was in the air elsewhere for major league baseball at the end of the 1957 season- the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco and the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
1957 baseball cards also changed and were an improvement over the 1956 designs. The new cards were smaller- just a color photo with simple block letters using both capital letters and lower case in various configurations. This would become the standard size for cards in the future. Elsewhere in sports, 1957 saw the introduction of something else brand new- the Frisbee, made by Wham-O.