The Rocking Chronicles
by Tim Van Schmidt
1958- Rocking Records
At one time, I thought I had a pretty great stereo system- all cool black boxes that put out a lot of sound. Unfortunately, it was not to last. I had noticed that my turntable was dying when I was making my work tapes for 1956 and 1957 in this review of 1950s music- apparently the belt that rotates the platter has worn out and you just can’t get the thing going fast enough, particularly to play 45s.
This was a problem when I turned to the music of 1958. In order to continue, I had to replace that belt- or did I? I’ve been keeping a friend’s old stereo- a compact, all-in-one Panasonic unit- on a shelf for years because it is the only turntable I have that will play 78s. It is also so retro-looking that it actually looks kind of cool just sitting there like an antique.
But it’s not just an antique because it can still play records. I found out by pulling it down off its perch, plugging it in and giving it a try with some of the 1958 45s I pulled out of my dusty stack of records. One channel was weak, but with a little manipulation with the balance knob and the volume, I could hear the records just fine.
As the first tune was spinning on the old Panasonic- Ritchie Valens’ “Donna”- I realized that the loss of sound quality from my “quality” system on the old, cheap system, just didn’t matter. In fact, the records I played almost sounded better. Maybe that’s because originally, sound quality wasn’t particularly the issue- it was just being able to play your records. The Panasonic played the 45s like they were meant to be heard- everything coming out of the little speakers, simple yet mighty.
Making my 1958 work tape for this project, however became a challenge with a faulty turntable. I used 45s, LPs, cassettes and CDs to assemble the music. For the vinyl stuff, I had to plug the old Panasonic into the bigger system. One channel was missing completely. Going from tape to tape, I discovered tape machine two had something going on with its motor, making a loud sound as it played. Then, as I used the Panasonic, its motor seemed to be having some trouble keeping things going, songs occasionally slowing down a little, then picking up speed again.
Despite all this, the 1958 tape is a success. The music still works- over the years and strained through all the various formats and equipment.
The most influential song of 1958- “La Bamba”- was a pop hit, but originally was a Mexican folk song. Young Mexican-American performer Ritchie Valens took a traditional Mexican wedding song, added some rock and roll drive, inspired vocals and full-flight electric guitar to it to create a classic that is probably being played at a social event somewhere right now.
That’s why I consider it influential. “La Bamba” is not just a popular song, but an indelible part of world culture. Nearly everybody knows the song. Without even knowing the words- in Spanish- it is an international invitation to celebrate and can often be heard when a dance band wants to get people moving. You often hear people let out a little yelp when the song comes up- like it’s definitely time to get down.
But more, the song also affects people off of the dance floor. In March 2010, I personally witnessed a principal lead the entire population of a Colorado bilingual school in a rousing version of “La Bamba” before an assembly. The kids sang it like it was just as much their song as anybody else’s. The whole group added an enthusiastic “arriba” at the end leaving all with an upbeat vibe.
What did Ritchie Valens have to do with it? His recording stuck that song in the public mind and his basic rock and roll arrangement of it will last for a very long time.
The flip side to “La Bamba,” “Donna,” is another story. It’s a slow dance, romance song. Valens’ high, clear voice turns over the usual teenage heartache adequately, but if there was anything to distinguish the song from others of the time it would probably be the sound mix of the recording. The electric guitar is very prominent on “Donna,” snaking around Valens’ vocals throughout the whole tune. There’s a nice vocal harmony flourish at the end to top it off sweetly. You can practically hear the swishing dresses and smell the hairspray.
The lofty words I’ve given to Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” actually apply to the Champs’ 1958 hit “Tequila.” It also is an international invitation to celebrate. All you need to know is one word- “tequila”- and the drums, guitar and the sax do the rest. Now, “La Bamba” is a general call to celebrate, but “Tequila” is a particular kind of celebration- a wailing party where you drink up and get down. At least get out and shake a leg. The record is well-built, the music changing up every eight bars and there are no words to get in the way. “Tequila” swings in the bridge section and the sax is hot and sassy throughout- a quintessential sax showcase if there ever was one.
Interestingly, another Champs instrumental party song, “Train to Nowhere,” is the “side one” on the 45 release of “Tequila,” which is side two. The same strong sax work is featured, and there’s this cool tinkling piano playing throughout. There’s also a little bit of vocals here- just some “oooo wa wa” sounds, perhaps to imitate a train whistle- but again, this is more about the instrumental arrangement.
I like “La Bamba” and “Tequila” a lot- who doesn’t?- but my favorite recording of 1958 is Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” It’s hot; it’s atmospheric thanks to the sparse arrangement- just standup bass and drums. The percussion in particular is cool- easily answering Lee’s simmering vocals. It’s smooth, it’s sexy- you get a little history lesson of romance in it too. The finger snaps complete this smoky midnight confessional. The only other recording I’ve heard by Lee- “Mr. Wonderful”- was a big production. This one just cooks by stripping away the excess and letting Lee’s vocals purr, rather than strain.
Even the biggest pop star on earth must knuckle under to the United States military. That’s what happened to the rock roll icon- Elvis Presley- in 1958. He was drafted and inducted into the Army. It has been suggested by some that perhaps Presley was served his notice to help put an end to the rock and roll craze, but for whatever reason, it punched a hole right in his career momentum when Presley reported for service in September.
Or did it? The world had experienced two full years of Presley mania by 1958. He catapulted to fame as a recording artist and became a movie star and a money making machine in that time. There is some good strategy to taking a superstar out of circulation for a time in order to build up the public’s interest again. Doing your duty in the armed forces was considered a good thing, so if your superstar had to cool his heels a bit, being in the Army could be a constructive, image-building opportunity. Besides, his hitch in the Army didn’t stop Presley from continuing to dominate on the record charts.
The top hits kept rolling, including “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Don’t,” “I Beg of You,” “One Night,” and “I Got Stung.” Still, it could be said that the releases do not have the consistency that might be there if Presley had been free to work on his recordings, without the Army gig. As a result, Presley’s 1958 hits are a mixed bag of music.
“Don’t” is a gorgeous gospel-flavored recording, almost reverent in its sincere approach. It has an intimate atmosphere, with cool, cascading backing vocals. Presley applies a simmering control over his voice, which also reveals a deeper, more mature quality.
But two of Presley’s 1958 hits in particular- “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” and “Hard Headed Woman”- are ill-advised, garish show tunes. I have a hard time with the quality of lyrics that rhyme “neck” with “by heck” in “Wear My Ring”- it’s just bad writing. And “Hard Headed Woman”- with its outlandish trombone glissandos- sounds more like a Dixieland rave up than a rocker. It’s also misogynist- lyrics blaming the failures of some famous men on pushy women. Presley’s forced vocal hiccups during the tune and a mess of a horn arrangement reveal high blood pressure more than rock and roll abandon.
Two of Presley’s 1958 hits- both “I Beg of You” and “I Got Stung”- suffer greatly from over-production. With a vocal intro that goes something like “bum bumba bum,” I Beg of You” features so much vocal support, the vocal chorus doing most of the work here, that Presley is kind of drowned out of the mix. Besides, there’s nothing about the music, the lyrics or the performance that stands out- it has the feel of a production line recording. It’s the same with “I Got Stung,” also plagued by a fuzzy sound mix, Presley again getting lost in the thick arrangement.
The closest recording in 1958 to Presley’s rock and roll roots is “One Night,” a powerful blues-flavored work out for him and a smaller musical outfit. The layers of background vocals and fat instrumental excess are gone on “One Night,” giving Presley room to do the stuff that catapulted him to fame- use his voice to make a song howl.
For anyone who thought Presley was the king of rock and roll, his induction in the Army must have been a little bit of a let down. After all, part of rock and roll is rebellion and it’s hard to be a rebel in the Army. The famous photos of Presley getting his GI haircut say it all. Here was the chosen image of rock and roll, now another grunt. A famous grunt, for sure, who would not go away, but busted down nonetheless.
The rise of young television star Ricky Nelson to recording star and teen heartthrob could have been exactly what the public needed to fill the vacuum left by Presley’s preoccupation with the Army. It has been said that pop hit maker Pat Boone was the antidote to the frenzy created by Presley- but I think Nelson was the real answer. His music was calm, purposeful and steady, nearly sedate, but there was some rock and roll spark in there somewhere.
There is a big difference between the young kid singing “I’m Walkin” on television in 1957 and the artist pumping out hit recordings in 1958. On record, Nelson had developed a kind of understated but somewhat seductive vocal style easily applied to a variety of material. He was smooth, cool. The songs themselves had fine melodies and apparently Nelson had some great players at his disposal because the backing work is top notch.
You can start with “Poor Little Fool,” a light she-done-me-wrong tune with some memorable vocal refrains. It’s got a melody that easily and naturally goes somewhere- to a chorus laden with various hooks. The song also features a notable acoustic guitar solo in the bridge section, a little bit bluesy, a little bit country. The flip side to “Poor Little Fool” was the upbeat “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Compared to recordings like Presley’s “I Got Stung,” this has a smooth mix, Nelson’s vocal out front.
“Lonesome Town” is another great recording, a slow acoustic number with prominent recording effects sending the vocal off in la-la land- perfect for a song about all the lonely hearts. It’s interesting to compare and contrast “Lonesome Town” with Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” released two years earlier. In Presley’s case, lonely people keep filling up a fictitious hotel and he tells the story by howling. In Nelson’s case, there’s a whole town of lonely people and he tells their story by barely moaning. Presley succeeds by ripping it up a little. Nelson succeeds with a steady, pure voice. The recordings are opposites in effect but made from the same basic material- the lonely hearts club.
The opposite side to “Lonesome Town, “I Got a Feeling,” is another upbeat arrangement featuring Jordinaire-like vocal backing, a first class rock and roll guitar solo and some infectious handclapping. Nelson has plenty of support here, but exhibits plenty of style. He was the smooth rocker, making excellent records.
Speaking of style, the Everly Brothers continued to create some of the finest vocal arrangements of the 1950. All it takes is that one luscious, reverberating electric guitar chord in the intro to “All I Have to Do is Dream” to set the stage for an easygoing melody and the Everlys’ close, intimate harmonies. I don’t even mind that the song rhymes “is” with “gee whiz.”
“Bird Dog” also begins with the trademark Everly Brothers guitar intro, then digs into the meat of teenage relationships. One guy, it turns out, is funny and cool, which also makes him a little dangerous around your girlfriend. It’s shocking to hear the Everlys reveal that this kid even kissed the teacher- oh my! That would result in a firing and perhaps a prison sentence in the 21st Century. The monotone refrain that keeps coming up in the song- “He’s a bird dog”- is also kind of funny, off-setting the Everlys’ sweet vocals. Rhyming “quail” and “trail,” “Bird Dog” makes the best of the hunting motif with their voices, not the lyrics.
“Devoted to You,” on the opposite side from “Bird Dog,” is slow and sweet. You can’t seriously focus on the lyrics- they’re a jumble of dry male myths so elemental they almost don’t mean anything- but you must admire the successful traditional approach to the vocal arrangement.
Not surprisingly, 1958 Everly hit “Problems” also starts up with a distinctive guitar phrase. The lyrics mull over mundane stuff- worries about romance and school- but some acoustic guitar/electric guitar point/counterpoint makes the recording plenty lively. The flip side to “Problems” is “Love of My Life,” full of as many male myths as swelling harmonies, again featuring a mix of electric and acoustic guitar in the introduction.
Rock and Roll
Rock and roll had become a public menace by 1958- and was already becoming old hat. Fortunately some familiar characters were still holding up the rock and roll banner- and creating seminal work.
That included Chuck Berry, who released two of his signature pieces in 1958, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B Goode.” “Johnny B. Goode” is certainly in the category of indelible pieces of the culture- like “La Bamba” and “Tequila.” When people think of the basics of rock and roll, they usually think of “Johnny B Goode.” That makes three strong elemental songs coming out in 1958, a good harvest.
“Johnny B Goode” is the quintessential, guitar-based show tune, starting out with some instrumental fire that inspires instant recognition. Then Berry’s vocals come in loud and clear, piercing through the rest of the sound with confidence and style. But “Johnny B Goode” is also a story song about that character Johnny whose talent was- surprise- playing guitar. This song clearly defines the rock and roll dream- rising to popularity and success from humble beginnings and Berry turns it into a rocking celebration.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” is not just talking about a cute female rock and roller, but about the whole scene- listing many of the hot spots of rock and roll around the country- from Pittsburgh and “Philadelphia, PA” to Texas and beyond. Dancing is the top priority for the young cutie in question and it sounds like a blast, even if she has to get back to class when the rocking night is through.
The other 1958 Berry hits, “Carol” and “Beautiful Delilah,” also have the same elemental quality to them. “Carol” features some call and response action between Berry’s vocals and lead guitar work- and an uncharacteristically loose guitar solo. “Beautiful Delilah” is real upbeat, the guitar up front, the Berry basics allowing even less distinctive efforts like this to raise the pulse.
Also continuing to raise the pulse on the rock and roll scene was Jerry Lee Lewis. His frenetic hit, “High School Confidential,” was the introductory song to a 1958 movie of the same name that explored the subject of drugs and crime in school. On record, the jukebox in the song is “blowing a fuse,” just like Lewis’ full throttle performance, nailing his solo with ease and even inspiring a little more adventurous guitar work. Still, it sounds a little weird having this guy singing so authoritatively about the high school hop.
“Breathless” is also a rocker, but comes off as a kind of a boogie woogie novelty record. Lewis often stops the progress of the song to let off an airy “breathless” which becomes the song’s most distinctive element. However, he does interject some wild exclamations about his “crazy” girlfriend, who is “much too much,” that underscore the fact that Lewis’ passion- and music- can’t be restrained by mere song form.
Added to these 1958 hits are others that prove Lewis wasn’t constrained by rock and roll- because he had some other musical tricks up his sleeve, such as country music. “Fools Like Me” is pretty energetic for a she-done-me-wrong song, but the country blues flavor is unmistakable. Still, you might call this progressive country. His honky-tonking piano solo sounds easy for him and the sound mix includes some of that handclapping that was becoming a staple of pop records of the time.
Two other Lewis hits in 1958 were Charlie Rich songs- “Break-Up” and “I’ll Make it All Up to You.” “Break-Up” is kind of a rocker- though the frenzy seems toned down quite a bit. However, Lewis still manages to fly all up and down the keyboard during his solo and get in a little play with the sound of the words- extending words like “night” and “tight” to “nigh-hight…tigh-hight.” “I’ll Make it All Up to You” is a slow confessional ballad with a slow conventional piano solo that’s very calm for Lewis.
Also still on the rock and roll scene in 1958 was Buddy Holly, whose “Maybe Baby” is simply based on that rhyming word hook in the title. Here, Holly gets plenty of help from the strong, active supporting vocals- maybe too much help. Like some of the Presley recordings from 1958, Holly also seems to get drowned out some on this one.
To prove that the public was open to new sounds- above and beyond the rock and roll phenomenon- witness the tomfoolery involved in the novelty record hits of 1958.
Some may protest that I include the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” in a section of novelty records, but that is exactly how it sounds 50 years later. I get it- it’s a riff by a rollicking rock and roll DJ- with a rocking chorus- but that’s about it. It comes off like a parody and while the piece swings, Bopper’s vocal antics don’t mean very much in the end- it’s a lark, a laugh and once the joke has been heard several times, it just gets tedious.
Now, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” is a different story. “Purple People Eater” makes no bones about being a novelty record- it exists to make people laugh. If there’s a little toe tapping, or even a little rock and roll in there, then all the better.
In fact, “People People Eater” helps prove that rock and roll had become common place by 1958- it was common enough to be made fun of. The tune references several popular hits of the time- the Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts,” the Champs’ “Tequila” and even Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”- but all as goofy asides. Not only that but the monster states he came to Earth to get a job in a rock and roll band, which he does successfully and ends up playing some wailing music on TV out of the horn on his head.
I always chuckle a little when the monster’s instrumental solo comes on in the end- sounding like a toy saxophone, but crisply played. Other elements to “Purple People Eater” also tickle the ear- like the effected vocals of the monster. The backing vocals are also a little odd, deliberately mixing and emphasizing a diversity of male and female voices. The chorus of the song sounds like one of those nursery rhymes that add new parts each time it comes around again. All of these elements work together to make “Purple People Eater” a fun and memorable production.
The Playmates’ “Beep Beep” is also a song meant to make you laugh. It also brings to mind the 1956 Nervous Norvus hit “Transfusion.” They’re both highway shenanigans songs- both with a little road rage built into it.
The king of the novelty record, however, would have to be David Seville- you know, the guy responsible for the Chipmunks. Well, Seville got all that kick started with his hit “Witch Doctor,” which not only features some of the most tongue-twisting, but somehow memorable word play of the 1950s, but also altered recordings that foreshadow his biggest hit creation.
“Witch Doctor” goes quick and the nonsense lyrics are classic in their own way- just try to sing the “ooo eee ooo ah ah, ting tang…etc.” at the speed of the record and pronounce clearly each syllable. Despite the silliness, it’s hard work. “Witch Doctor” is well-mixed and demonstrates recording studio mastery- and experimentation. The chorus is sung by an effected voice, one that sounds kind of like a chipmunk
Naturally, that leads us to Seville’s next big hit, “Chipmunk Song.” The setting here is that Seville is acting like a producer for a recording session featuring three singing chipmunks. One of the chipmunks- Alvin- is a malcontent and this creates some tension in the studio. In between the outbursts over Alvin’s behavior and a general melee at the end, the chipmunks deliver a sweet little Christmas song, in chipmunk harmony all the way. The record is cute and distinctive and vividly establishes a new kind of pop star- completely and undeniably fictitious.
It is important to note that the Chipmunks have lasted more than fifty years as a cultural element. There are still Chipmunk movies. In 2007, the movie “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” directed by Tim Hill, brought live actors and computer graphics together to reheat the old story of Seville and the singing chipmunks.
The flip side to “The Chipmunk Song” was “Almost Good.” It’s not really a novelty recording. Other than the occasional spoken part, “That’s almost good,” it’s an instrumental that cooks along nicely. It’s got a deep beat, some effective handclapping and a jazzy change-up that keeps the recording interesting. This speaks to the fact that despite the fact that Seville’s hit records generally were comedy records, he really did know what he was doing musically.
Rock and roll may have been sputtering a little, but vocal music in general was burgeoning.
On the top of the heap was the Platters, whose pure vocal power overwhelms even the heavy handed arrangements of their records- big orchestra arrangements, full of bluster. But lead vocalist Tony Williams is just so strong and powerful that he can sing over just about anything, including the syrupy strings on their 1958 hit “Twilight Time.” Perhaps it’s the drum beat that ties “Twilight Time” to the other popular music of the time better than anything else, but other than that, the Platters apply full vocal power to the tune with combined voices as thick as the strings.
That also goes for their other big 1958 hit, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s a remake of an old standard tune, with a swelling melody and dramatic, “Bolero”-like progress in the instrumental arrangement. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is full of emotion, Williams again nailing the mood with passion.
But other groups were also working hard to make vocal music interesting- and fun. On the top of the list is the Monotones with their 1958 hit, “Book of Love.” The record 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.
“Book of Love” 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.
The B-side of the Monotones’ “Book of Love” is “You Never Loved Me,” a slow dance tune full of “chapel bells’ and “angel choirs” and 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- apparently the curse of vocal music. Interestingly, both sides of this 45 attribute the songs to the Monotones- an early example of group work.
Just as effective as “Book of Love” is the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job,” which opens up with a distinctive “yip, yip, yip, yip.” It’s all about the trials of looking for work, something certainly less exciting than the Silhouettes’ music, which is strong and upbeat. “I Am Lonely” is on the opposite side of “Get A Job.” The vocals are up front, the emphasis on voices not instruments. It’s a calmer tune, for sure, even a little subdued, featuring a breathy sax solo, but in this case, it allows the opportunity to really hear what the group is doing with their vocal arrangement, escaping the B-side curse somewhat.
The Shields’ 1958 record “You Cheated” is a much more serious song than “Short Shorts.” It turns over the angst-ridden confusion of teenage romance with a full, purposeful sound. As the lead vocal admits the truth about a love interest that doesn’t work, some effective falsetto vocals soar in the background. “You Cheated” makes dramatic progress thanks to this confessional soul-baring, but in the end, the young would-be lover can’t help but continue to be interested in his object of desire- hence the angst and confusion.
Two of the most fun songs of 1958, Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” and Bobby Day’s “Rockin Robin,” could well be considered quintessential recordings of the time. What I mean here is that both records are completely successful productions in and of themselves and stand up very well more than fifty years later. The people making these records knew exactly what they were doing.
“Splish Splash,” which kicks off with some water sound effects, is just a little bit wild. Darin isn’t so focused on precision as he is on nailing the mood of the piece, which is something like “this Saturday night turned out to be a lot different than it began.” It’s kind of funny- a guy’s taking a bath, but then a dance party erupts in his living room and he can’t help but join in.
Bobby Day’s performance of “Rockin Robin” is inspirational because despite lyrics that could be considered really dumb- with a lot of “tweet tweets” throughout- he gets down and owns the song. Both Day and the backing vocals really work the song, rather than endure it and the results are exciting.
I’m not exactly sure what to do with the Diamonds’ “The Stroll.” The Diamonds were responsible for the 1957 vocal group hit “Little Darlin,” but “The Stroll” is a different animal. The song basically features one lead voice and minimal input from any other voices, except for the vocal/saxophone swells that underscore the whole thing.
“The Stroll” has a low, simmering groove, perfect for some kind of dance style that doesn’t require much exertion. Though the tempo is restrained, the lyrics still mention “rock and rolling.” It sounds to me like “The Stroll” was recorded at midnight as kind of a lark. It’s a rough production, without much grace, and it ends up with some aimless whistling and sax suggesting a lack of ideas as to how to get it finished.
Laurie London’s 1958 hit “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is a curious record indeed. It’s an old spiritual tune- a simple melody, repeated over and over- and stands out, first of all, as an interesting choice for an English vocalist. Added to this is the obviously young voice of London- he was 13 when he recorded it- backed by more mature voices. Also, London’s accent sounds odd in the context of an American spiritual, especially his pronunciation of the word “hands”(more like “honds”) and the way he sings about the “little bitty babies” (“bay-bies.”)
All of this makes “He’s Got the Whole World” come off like a novelty side, but it doesn’t seem to be meant to entertain in that way. Except for a the little bit of jazzy vocal riffing at the end of the record, this is a big serious production- maybe even a little too big with heavy, extraneous backing vocals.
Less serious is the flip side to the “He’s Got the Whole World” 45, “Handed Down.” It’s a goofy song about getting clothing and shoes handed down from older siblings. The twist here is that after complaining about the handed down clothes, London declares he’s going to get his own “gal.” It seems like quite a jump to me to go from practical concerns like clothing to making plans about romance- that was a songwriter’s trick, rather than a natural extension of the singer’s basic concerns.
“Handed Down” is also a big production and the heavy layers of mature backing vocals are over done without really adding much. Without the elemental spiritual power of “He’s Got the Whole World,” “Handed Down” comes closer to being a novelty record. In terms of being a young performer, London’s efforts fall short in terms of convincing the listener of the recording’s authenticity, particularly when compared to the records of another youngster of the time, Frankie Lymon.
After all of the above, the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” is a breath of fresh air. It’s calm, measured, yet full of drama- murder and hanging- all to the simple accompaniment of acoustic instruments, including banjo (decidedly NOT a rock and roll instrument.) The record builds up nicely from a single voice telling the tragic story to criss-crossing vocal parts, swelling and achieving its own musical power.
But more than just effective music, “Tom Dooley” is the start of something new. It’s not a get-up-and-dance song. It’s a sit-down-and-listen song, meant for the concert hall seat, providing entertainment for those who are not going to the high school sock hop or hanging around at the juke joint. It’s a more mature approach to songwriting, telling a story and dealing with elemental passions far removed from middle American teenage concerns. That the tune is based on an older folk song gives it age and depth even as it introduced a new, more intellectual purpose for popular music.
Meanwhile, some crooners were still in business in 1958, including Dean Martin, a hit maker, performer and movie star. His recordings of songs like “Return To Me” were big orchestra productions to be sure, complete with angelic female supporting vocals. It’s a graceful showpiece in a way- also somehow appropriate for the movies- and sometimes Martin’s voice kind of fades off into this pleasant kind of honeyed hum while delivering some more of those male myths Presley did in “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.”
But it’s a little hard to keep a straight face when Martin delivers some of the lyrics of “Return to Me” in Italian, a deliberate nod I suspect to one of the crooner-style’s biggest supporters. Referring to his love as “darlin” rings a little hollow too. When hearing this, I imagine a showroom in Florida or Las Vegas and a dance floor full of beautiful people in suits and gowns, cocktails on the tables.
Nat King Cole’s “Looking Back” features that great deep, rich voice, but guitar accompaniment rather than piano. After hearing it several times, I’m warming up to it, but truly I think Nat King Cole’s voice just begs for a piano.
Rocking Music in the Movies
High School Confidential
“High School Confidential” is not a rock and roll movie- it’s a movie with just a smidgen of rock and roll in it. But that smidgen is lively- Jerry Lee Lewis playing his “High School Confidential” hit song on the back of a flat bed truck while being driven by a high school during the opening credits. There’s a banner on the truck, calling it the Jerry Lee Lewis “music truck,” and Lewis and band make the most out of their brief appearance by throwing themselves into the lip synched performance- without throwing themselves off of the truck.
Lewis looks like he’s having a pretty good time on the back of the truck in “High School Confidential.” He gets up off his piano bench and attacks the keyboard with abandon, purposefully flipping his hair back. He’s smiling too as the truck gets surrounded by “high schoolers” who break out into some energetic rock and roll dancing there on the pavement. It’s a rousing beginning to a movie that slows down plenty when the plot- about drug dealing in the schools and hot rod racing on the streets- begins to unfold.
One other scene from “High School Confidential” is also worth mentioning. The movie is full of teenage hipster slang- almost overburdened with it. At one point, a band backs a young female poet- played by Phillipa Fallon- who super-seriously spews some hipster lines and cues the group with a snap of her fingers when she wants them to join in. She’s got a tight sweater on, which underscores her pointy bullet bra look. Fallon’s character is cool, collected and just a little arrogant. It’s just an amusing look at beatnik poetry that stands out from the skullduggery of the rest of the production.
Directed by Jack Arnold…1958…85 min…featuring John Drew Barrymore, Mamie Van Doren, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Coogan, Michael Landon.
The buzz among Elvis Presley fans (at least the ones on IMDb.com) is that 1958’s “King Creole” is the best of Presley’s movies- that he showed his true colors as a talented actor. That, perhaps, could be debated. I personally think “Jailhouse Rock” is a better production- more terse, more raw. Everything about “King Creole” screams “better”- the director, the film noir-ish black and white photography, the New Orleans setting and especially the supporting cast. However, the weakest element of the movie is the star, whose halting, aw-shucks delivery style seems wooden and forced. Presley just seems inexperienced at creating a believable character when next to skilled actors such as “King Creole” co-stars Walter Matthau and Vic Morrow.
However, of the three Presley movies covered in this project so far- including “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock”- “King Creole” is the best showcase for Presley’s music and when he takes the stage in various scenes, he dominates completely. The generous number of music scenes in “King Creole” fit in nicely with both the plot and the atmosphere of the movie, too. New Orleans is one of the great music centers of America, so a story about a night club singer which spotlights various performances is perfectly natural.
There are several upbeat night club performance highlights in “King Creole” and many of these feature Presley’s basic rock and roll mixed with Dixieland jazz influences- notably the use of brass instruments.
The first of these performances is when Presley’s character, Danny Fisher, is forced into an impromptu audition for a local mobster. Introduced as “Caruso, the Bus Boy,” he gets on stage, joins the raucous band who just backed up a stripper and belts out a dramatic, bluesy tune titled “Trouble.” The song starts slow, but revs up plenty as it goes along, Presley’s hair going askew and the horns blasting. But there’s more to it than just the performance because as Fisher emphasizes how “evil” he is in the song, it becomes like a theme song for him- and a warning to the mobster who got in his face.
The song “Dixieland Rock,” performed by Fisher after being hired as a featured singer in another Bourbon Street night club, gets a jump start with a dramatic handclapping introduction. Presley lets loose physically during this scene, eventually jumping down into the audience to stir up some wild, handclapping support from the patrons.
For the song “New Orleans,” a rocking ode to the excitement of the city, the lighting is affected so that Presley and his backing vocalists, played by the Jordanaires, all cast huge shadows on the wall behind them. The song is another up-tempo work out with some cool word play about losing the blues in “Louisi-oozi-oozi-ana.” The title song, “King Creole,” also rocks with Presley performing with a big acoustic guitar around his neck, “playing” the lead guitar part and generally exciting the audience that is, at least in the front rows, mostly made up of attractive women. Smoke curls up in the air as Fisher does his thing, yelping about the “hip shaking King Creole” who plays his guitar “like a Tommy gun.”
Personally, I like the lower key performances in “King Creole” better than the louder stuff for the simple reason that when slowed down, the tunes do a much better job at revealing just what a gorgeous voice Presley had. That includes “Young Dreams,” which Presley performs while sitting down, which looks hard for a star who likes to shake a leg. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is a dramatic rock and roll ballad that particularly showcases Presley’s deep tenor vocals. The movie winds up with another one of those slow ballads- “As Long As I Have You”- while bugs fly around his head and the smoke swirls.
The best of the lower key pieces, however, is “Lover Doll,” an acoustic ditty that Fisher plays in a crowded five and dime store while some of his associates steal the place blind. The softer arrangement- with only some acoustic guitar strumming and understated accompaniment- once again allows Presley to showcase his vocal control. There is an effective time signature change too as he strolls from attractive girl to attractive girl, some holding teddy bears, others hanging out by the toy dolls.
Overall, though, my favorite music piece in “King Creole” is in the opening sequence of the movie. The song is titled “Crawfish” and it’s a duet between Fisher and a street vendor. The woman’s voice is credited to Kitty White and the tune has a subdued, yet deep beat, kept on track by bass, drums and prominent high hat cymbals. It’s cool and bluesy- and the most unique song in the movie.
In “King Creole,” then, Presley scores mightily with his music and not so much with his acting. Fortunately, he’s supported by an exceptional cast. Walter Matthau is completely convincing as the hard-nosed mobster. Vic Morrow is an appropriately creepy mobster henchman and Carolyn Jones shines as the mixed up mobster moll that catches Rivers’ eye. Added to this is a good message- ambitious, naive singers are easy targets for those with selfish designs.
Directed by Michael Curtiz…1958…116 min…featuring Elvis Presley, Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, Carolyn Jones, Dolores Hart, Dean Jagger, Paul Stewart, Jan Shepard.
King Creole Songs
Written by Fred Wise & Ben Weisman
Performed by Elvis Presley and Kitty White
“Steadfast, Loyal And True”
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Sid Wayne & Abner Silver
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Aaron Schröder & Rachel Frank
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Aaron Schröder & Martin Kalmanoff
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Sid Tepper & Roy C. Bennett
Performed by Elvis Presley
“Hard Headed Woman”
Written by Claude Demetri
Performed by Elvis Presley
Written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Performed by Elvis Presley
“Don’t Ask Me Why”
Written by Fred Wise & Ben Weisman
Performed by Elvis Presley
“As Long As I Have You”
Written by Fred Wise & Ben Weisman
Performed by Elvis Presley
The Big Beat
Directed by Will Cowan…1958…81 min…featuring Gogi Grant, Rose Marie, Howard Miller, the Diamonds, Fats Domino, Harry James, the Lancers, Mills Brothers, George Shearing, Cal Tjader…music by Henry Mancini.
Let’s Rock (Keep It Cool)
Directed by Harry Foster…1958…79 min…featuring Paul Anka, Danny and the Juniors, Roy Hamilton, Wink Martindale, Della Reese, the Royal Teens, Tyrones.
St Louis Blues *****
I can’t resist the power of Eartha Kitt. She is one of the most vivid, smoldering female actors I have ever seen on the screen. In “St Louis Blues,” Kitt plays the sexy, hard singer Gogo Germaine, who steals the show from the main subject of this biopic of composer WC Handy. Gogo is the only one in Handy’s life that “gets” him- to the point of even discouraging a love affair in favor of the music.
But Kitt isn’t the only strong female presence here. Also include Pearl Bailey’s performance as Aunt Hagar. Thanks to a booming voice and an intense expression, Bailey makes her presence known in every scene she is in. One of the sweetest musical moments in the movie is Hagar riffing with Handy on his great tune “St Louis Blues”- until the guilt of playing “the devil’s music” gets too much for Handy and he runs out on her.
But also add in some powerful hymn singing by Mahalia Jackson as well as a performance by Ella Fitzgerald. The women certainly dominate in “St Louis Blues.”
Nat King Cole is a little less strong as WC Handy- he’s stiff and it’s hard to say that he doesn’t look a little too old for the part, however, he conveys enough of the soul-searching torture a musician goes through to accept his own talent to come up with an authentic character, caught between trying to please a dissatisfied father and the pull of the music that he was born with inside himself. Besides, he also does some singing and Cole’s rich, velvety voice is always pleasant to hear. Who knows if Cole’s voice sounds anything like Handy’s, but it sure sounds good. Cole’s spotlight moment comes with a beautiful performance of “Morning Star.”
A great surprise here was discovering that Billy Preston plays the part of WC Handy as a boy. Juano Hernandez plays Handy’s hardnosed preacher father.
Despite the powerful cast, however, there is an elemental struggle going on here that tests them all. That is, the struggle to do the right thing. How each person defines what “the right thing” is to do is what makes it a struggle- there are as many opinions about this as people willing to speak up. Finally, Handy must figure this out on his own- and succeeds as a result.
Directed by Allen Reisner…1958…105 min…featuring Nat ‘King’ Cole (as WC Handy), Eartha Kitt (as Gogo), Cab Calloway, Juano Hernandez, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Billy Preston, Pearl Bailey, Ruby Dee.
Anna Lucasta ***
Eartha Kitt plays another sexy woman in “Anna Lucasta,” but instead of a streetwise singer, she’s damaged goods- a lady of the night trolling the waterfront bars of San Diego with a harsh family background. Between schemers and nut jobs, her family is perhaps less “honest” than her patrons in San Diego, but the woman returns home when they reach out to her. Little does she know that it is all a ploy to get a hold of a young man’s fortune.
Redemption does occur in “Anna Lucasta” but at a high price. After suffering the emotional abuse and domestic violence from her father and the unrelentingly selfish greed from her brother-in-law, it is little wonder she returns to her partying ways when her energetic sailor suitor tracks her down to take her away. But having experienced a much truer love, the free and easy life just doesn’t satisfy anymore.
Actor Sammy Davis Jr is a bright spot here- as kinetic as the hepped up jazz music that comes through on the soundtrack every time he appears. There’s an especially cool fantasy sequence where Davis is featured dancing- and he adds the vocals to the movie’s theme song. Eartha Kitt is also strong, but showing much more of a fragile side than in “St Louis Blues.” It is refreshing to see her discard her hard woman identity to try to conform to a more conservative life.
The strongest performance here though is actor Frederick O’Neal’s portrayal of the greedy brother-in-law, Frank. His know-it-all attitude and scheming ways make for a truly despicable character. Rex Ingram puts in an over-the-top performance as the father- truly a loose cannon willing to raise his fist to his son and strike his wife.
It’s interesting to note that both “St Louis Blues” and “Anna Lucasta” are both based on a conflict with a stubborn father. WC Handy’s father is a bull headed preacher with a narrow view. Anna Lucasta’s father is obsessed and crazy- both men using their Bibles to hide from the things that bother them. In both cases, the paternal relationship severely alters the lives of the son and the daughter. Handy ends up succeeding. For Anna Lucasta, it’s not so certain.
Directed by Arnold Laven…1958…97 min…featuring Eartha Kitt (as Anna), Sammy Davis Jr., Frederick O’Neal, Henry Scott, Rex Ingram, Georgia Burke.
A cop takes time off from the force when his acrophobia contributes to the death of another officer in the line of duty. An old friend takes advantage of the situation by hiring the cop to investigate his own wife, who has been acting oddly. This leads to a dark web of deception and obsession.
There are certainly some mundane scenes- there’re a lot of scenes with actor James Stewart at the wheel of his car- but Hitchcock at least creates a pleasant background, shooting in colorful and even elegant locations, taking full advantage of the general San Francisco area, from bustling city to redwood forests to ocean cliffs.
But the sequence that is not mundane in the least is following the wife’s apparent suicide. The cop has a fever dream that jumps off the screen with geometric designs going haywire in the background while special effect nightmare shots spin around on the screen. This breaks completely away from the gritty reality unfolding throughout the rest of the movie, unbalancing the production and adding tension as a result.
Most fascinating here, however, is Kim Novak, who plays two parts- or does she really? In any case, she appears both as an exotic, well-bred woman and as a sturdy Midwestern single gal.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock…1958…128 min…featuring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Ellen Corby.
The Fly ***
Should we be afraid of significant scientific breakthroughs? That question is asked over and over in this 1958 sci-fi classic.
It all starts as a murder mystery- a brilliant inventor has been killed, his head and arm squashed in a huge industrial press. His wife is a suspect in the incident but it is not clear whether this is a murder or suicide. The real answer here is too hard for the police inspector to believe as the wife tells her story- and he goes for murder.
According to the wife, it all has to do with a matter transference machine her husband created in his basement lab. The trouble is that the transference is not entirely perfect. The impatient inventor, however, cannot wait to work out the bugs, but ramps up his experiments until he himself goes through the process. However, his self-experiment goes array in an unimaginable way, prompting the tragic solution.
“The Fly” is mostly famous for the ending sequence- a look at what that white-headed fly they search for throughout the movie really looks like- while being devoured by a spider. But beyond that, the pondering about the role of science gets plenty of screen time- from being enamored with its wonders to being frightened out of your wits.
Directed by Kurt Neumann…1958…94 min…featuring Vincent Price, David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Herbert Marshall.
Attack of the Puppet People ***
Loneliness is at the heart of another 1958 sci-fi classic, “Attack of the Puppet People.” Sure, there’s some science involved as a doll maker uses an invention to miniaturize real people. He keeps them in suspended animation tubes except when he decides to bring them out to play.
Apparently, the reason for all of this is because the weird old doll maker’s only love left him broken hearted. So, it’s not about scientific breakthroughs, like in “The Fly,” but about collecting favorite people and making sure they don’t get away. Of course, that’s just what happens anyway as the police close in on the obsessed inventor.
Overall, “Attack of the Puppet People” is a creative production and the use of miniature- and oversized- props help heighten the action. A particularly interesting scene is at the drive-in movie theater. As the two characters talk marriage, director Bert I Gordon’s 1957 sci-fi movie, “The Amazing Colossal Man,” is playing on the screen. Poignant quotes come through and foreshadow the upcoming adventure. Also, the scene sequence in the theater, putting the puppet people into the mix with a Jekyll and Hyde marionette is certainly surreal.
Directed by Bert I Gordon…1958…79 min…featuring John Agar, John Hoyt, June Kenney.
Hot Rod Gang ***
For a lightweight comedy, there’s plenty of action in this movie. Hot rod cars, willing girls, fist fights, rock and roll, juke boxes, dancing- it’s all happening here despite the lame teenage hijinks in between the action scenes and the screwball contributions of the older members of the cast.
There’s a lot of music here, featuring the male lead, actor John Ashley as a finger snapping vocalist, making his way onto the hit parade thanks to the help of Gene Vincent.
Vincent is the real rock and roller here- and stands out when he’s on the screen- and he gets to perform a few tunes. Vincent is a slick dresser and his stage show features a couple of fellows in sailor suits adding dance moves and handclaps to the music. Despite the generally wooden dialogue, he looks more comfortable with playing a role than the actual actors do.
But the music is a means to an end- to earn enough money to build a super slick hot rod a young “gang” wants to enter into the races. There’s some problem with the police, there’s some sneaking around behind the backs of the witless adults and there’s some backstabbing and reckless violence added in.
Directed by Lew Landers…1958…72 min…featuring John Ashley, Jody Fair, Steve Drexel, Lester Dorr, Doodles Weaver, Dorothy Neumann, Claire Du Brey, Helen Spring, Gene Vincent.
It! The Terror From Beyond Space ***
Cheesy, yes. Outdated, yes. But the dire circumstances these space travelers experience in this movie is still plenty compelling. That is, Mars explorers discover they have an alien creature- which sucks the moisture out of its victims- aboard their ship on the return journey to Earth.
Can anyone say “Alien” here? Yes, this is the very same mix of Sci Fi and monster movie elements as that classic- but many years beforehand. Only here, a dwindling crew of both men and women frantically fights the monster, not just one woman in her underwear.
The sets are imaginative and aptly suggest the cramped quarters of a space ship. The space walk sequence is unusual- a silent, slow and death defying feat. Actor Marshall Thompson’s character keeps a cool head throughout the production, whether being accused of murder, or having to face the monster.
Directed by Edward L Cahn…1958…69 min…featuring Marshall Thompson, Shirley Patterson, Kim Spalding, Dabbs Greer, Ray Corrigan.
More 1958 Movies:
Another Time, Another Place
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
Bell, Book and Candle
The Big Country
The Black Orchid
The Bonnie Parker Story
The Brothers Karamazov
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Cry Baby Killer
The Defiant Ones
The Geisha Boy
Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole)
The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin)
The Horror of Dracula
I Want to Live!
In Case of Adversity (En Cas de Malheur)
The Last Hurrah
The Left Handed Gun
The Long, Hot Summer
The Magician (Ansiktet)
Me and the Colonel
The Night Heaven Fell (Les Bijoutiers du Clair de Lune)
No Time for Sergeants
The Old Man and the Sea
Run Silent, Run Deep
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
Some Came Running
Touch of Evil
The Young Lions
Here’s a contemporary clue to just how mainstream rock and roll had become by 1958. It’s a listing on a popular Internet sales site for a 1958 Sears Silvertone electric guitar. It seems that Danelectro made some really cheap guitars for the Sears stores chain. Now if Sears thought there was a profit in selling electric guitars, then you can bet it was based on market research that said that kids and rock and roll were big- really big.
The guy listing the guitar in 2010 says he bought the thing from a lady who had it in her attic. She told him that she bought it for her daughter, who played it a little and abandoned it.
This guy, apparently a musician, calls the guitar “Old Coppertop” and describes the instrument: “Semi-hollow, single lipstick tube pickup, coke bottle headstock, mother of toilet seat pick guard.” Despite also describing the guitar as producing “primitive Fred Flintstone tones,” you get a sense of a little fondness for it by the seller.
Plus look at the price- a guitar that sold for $39 in 1958 was now $600. Not bad for a “cheap” knock off that originally came in a cardboard alligator case.
The peace symbol, which figured significantly in the anti-war movement in the United States in the 1960s, was designed in 1958 for a nuclear disarmament group in the United Kingdom. Also in 1958, the first artificial pacemaker was implanted into a patient in Sweden while in July 1958, NASA- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration- was created in the US.
1958 began tragically when baseball icon Roy Campanella is left paralyzed after an automobile accident in January, ending his career. In April, the Los Angeles Dodgers lose to the San Francisco Giants in the first Major League Baseball game played in California- at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium.
In 1958, the baseball card design was upgraded- carrying on the smaller size introduced in 1957, but with bright primary color backgrounds and full color team logos. The backs, of course, mixed brief info and cartoons. Some nuggets: Lew Burdette was hailed as a “sensation” from the 1957 World Series, winning three games off the Yankees, and Al Kaline hit two homers in the same inning in 1955.
Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman
Again, I couldn’t see the actual movie, but I was able to read Bergman’s screenplay for his 1958 release, “The Magician.” The writing is terse and poetic at the same time, careful attention to a wide scope of details mixed with penetrating dialogue that goes directly for the throat at times, confronting death and despair as everyday business.
Everyday business for the ragged troupe of performers Bergman introduced in “The Magician” seems to be in evading the law. It seems their “Magnetic Health Theater” is suspect of conning the public into buying phony potions and believing in supernatural “miracles.” The whole thing centers on a “mermerizer” named Vogler, who is accompanied by a crew including an assistant, a driver, a huckster and an old witch.
The troupe has been snared by a group of local authorities near Stockholm and is being challenged to produce irrefutable results in a private show or risk arrest. From there, it gets dark and scary as a few twists and turns in the proceedings keep the troupe, their accusers and the help on the estate where they are being held on their toes.
The final twist is even kind of funny- an irony of a high order. Along the way, though, Bergman still manages to get some serious stuff in there. That includes some exchange of ideas about the “inexplicable.” The accusations the troupe absorbs in their journey together also asks a heavy toll on the performers as they play off of the desires and beliefs of the audience, all the while knowing it is all trickery.
Or is it all trickery? Bergman’s writing on occasion veers off into a kind of “magical realism” area, a kind of twilight time of reality when it’s unsure what the boundaries are between imagination and what is really there, indicating that the writer believes in something. Like in “Wild Strawberries,” where the little red berries become a symbol of that tiny faint bit of hope in the darkness of life, in “The Magician,” Bergman holds out the tiny hope that Vogler’s power is real- by getting them out of jam after jam- and giving them a summons from the King.
Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
Sadness rises from stubbornness in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” That stubbornness is cross-cultural, too.
First of all, there is the stubbornness of the main character here, Okonkwo. He has grown into a man in his African village adhering strictly to the traditional customs of his people- glorifying physical prowess in war and work, as a husband and a father, and as a leader who participates fully in the ceremonies honoring a set of gods or marking the social occasions of his family and neighbors. However, that strictness makes him blind to the spirit of the people around him and the events that unfold.
But stubbornness also comes from the white men who enter the lives of Oknonkwo’s clan- uninvited and initially unwelcome. The whites bring a new religion and a new divisive government that is aimed at subjecting the traditional Africans, “saving” them from themselves and their beliefs. Theirs is not an agenda of acceptance, but of conversion. The bullheadedness of both the traditional Africans and the white missionaries creates a tragic and violent clash of cultures.
Unfortunately, there is a loser here and what is lost- a rich native culture, creative and reverent in its own way- is not destined to return.
A lot of “Things Fall Apart” is about the native people and their beliefs and there are times when their ideas- like fearing twins and discarding them to die in the “Evil Forest” or killing a boy because an “oracle” said so- seem so far off base that it can only be counted as ignorance. However, the words and actions of the missionaries seem pretty ignorant too- like speaking to natives without learning their language or customs or tricking influential men into a meeting then shaving their hair off and imprisoning them- so there really isn’t an innocent side in the clash. That makes the one thing both groups share- a resolute stubbornness- the real shame of it all.
More 1958 Books
Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita
Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Ian Fleming – Dr. No
Jack Kerouac – The Dharma Bums
Dr. Seuss – Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Samuel Beckett – Krapp’s Last Tape
Tennessee Williams – Suddenly, Last Summer
J. Edgar Hoover – Masters of Deceit
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World Revisited
Donald Hall et al., editors – New Poets of England and America
David Cecil and Allen Tate – Modern Verse in English
Djuna Barnes – The Antiphon
John Berryman – His Thoughts Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt
Gregory Corso – Gasoline; Bomb
E.E. Cummings – 95 Poems
Lawrence Ferlinghetti – A Coney Island of the Mind
William Carlos Williams – Paterson, Book V
Of the new television shows that debuted in 1958, I would say my favorite became Sea Hunt. There was nothing more exotic to some boys in land locked Illinois than underwater adventure. The danger in these adventures was real elemental- you had to keep that breathing apparatus going no matter what the bad guys were doing, much less keep swimming. There always seemed to be danger underwater.
But the Rifleman, another 1958 debut, was also important. Not only was there rough and tough action in “The Rifleman,” but also family values, along the lines of “Bonanza.” Chuck Connors was the rather stern yet fair single father, Lucas McCain, who happened to be an expert at a suped up rifle. Johnny Crawford played Mark, his son, a well-meaning lad who found trouble often enough anyway.
Also debuting in 1958 was “77 Sunset Strip” featuring the first “cool” character I recognized on the little screen- “Kookie” played by Edd Byrnes. Kookie was in and out of the picture at a private detective agency headed up by Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Roger Smith. Other 1958 television debuts include Peter Gunn, The Huckleberry Hound Show and Bat Masterson.
Smokey the Bear His life story No 932 1958 Dell
The first comic book I remember clearly is the 1958 Smokey the Bear story. Comic books were just part of the landscape at our house when I was growing up and the Smokey comic was just part of the jumble. I’m not even sure I could read the text when I first looked into the Smokey comic, but the artwork told a riveting story nonetheless- the blazing forest, the brave men battling the fire, the hurt bear cub with bandages on his feet, the heartwarming attention the young cub receives.
Mickey Mouse April-May #59 – 584 Dell
A Mickey Mouse comic book is a strange place to encounter futuristic thinking, but that’s exactly what I found in Issue 59. A story in the rear of the comic begins at the worksite for an “electronic brain”- a machine invented to make calculations quicker than humans- in short, a computer. Mickey has a dubious connection to the scientist and his busy schedule calculating things for people, and then he gets Goofy involved. Goofy certainly does some damage as a janitor and several panels follow him behind the computer where he “tidies up” the wires plugged into the back. Elsewhere in the comic I found that Mickey Mouse and Goofy aren’t really just powder puff cartoon characters. Other characters draw guns on them and fire- arrows shoot at them- they’re in plane crashes and get into plenty of trouble.
Blondie Comics Monthly Sept 1958 No 118 Harvey
Also getting into plenty of trouble is Dagwood in Blondie’s Sept 1958 comic book. The poor guy is being run ragged by his pretty wife, his boss, his kids, friends and neighbors. But Dagwood always keeps going and that is part of his charm. Dagwood does have a few choice things to say about marriage- like “all your thinking is done for you” and “the only adventures we married men have are in our dreams.” He is also a crafty escape artist at times as the intro to “You Can’t Win” illustrates- when Blondie calls for Dagwood to do something, he is nowhere to be found- magically- but when food is mentioned, he reappears, ready and willing. What a character.
Arizona became a very important destination for our family. Here’s a collection of 1958 Arizona Highways magazines that came from my parent’s library, indicating they had an interest in Arizona long before we moved there in 1966. It’s no wonder Arizona looked so good from small town Illinois. In the magazines, Arizona is revealed as an otherworldly place- full of amazing landscapes, strange natives, hillsides of bright wildflowers and big, manmade projects.
March 1958- Wildflowers issue featuring color photos of a wide variety of flowers including “Star Rockets.” Also included is a full-length article on cotton, its history and business in Arizona. The author reveals: “…if you buy cotton clothing you can wear it for hundreds of years- if you live in Arizona, of course. That may not appeal to many women, but most cotton growers are men.” Also included: history and scholarship- a bibliography- as well as a respect for natives and their ingenuity at using native stuff.
June 1958- The Colorado River special issue greets readers with an artist’s conception of how Glen Canyon Dam will look. At this time, it was still under construction and not expected to be done until 1964. The accompanying article featured construction photos. The Colorado River is a big subject- as big as the West- but here it is amply illustrated by an article and photographs by Naurice R Koonce, “Flying the Colorado,” featuring images from Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Also: a history of river running. The most interesting page in the magazine is a piece written by Frank Waters, who adds some poetry to the issue: “The Colorado is an outlaw. It belongs only to the ancient, eternal earth…the Colorado is the vertebral tube carrying the spinal fluid of the continent…”
July 1958- Petrified Forest and Painted Desert issue includes lots of photos including one of Newspaper Rock “where prehistoric men scribbled news and idle gossip.” Also includes features on the Yucca Moth and ancient ground sloth- the history of Arizona gets prehistoric- and a surprising amount of poetry. There’s a full page spread for Clarence Edwin Flynn’s “In the Petrified Forest” with a nice black and white photo of wildflowers. Also featured is Frederick Ebright’s “Petrified Forest” who muses about “…the sleep of stone”…”Transformed by time’s Medusa stare…” There is even more poetry in a column in the back including S Omar Barker’s “Ghost Town”: “Let only whispers be your talk/Where none but fragile phantoms walk!”
August 1958- Special issue on “Indians of Arizona.” The two-page spread introducing the issue tells the story- 14 photos ring a map of Arizona, each photo representing the many tribes in the state, lines stretching from the photos to their reservation homes around the state. The Navajo is the biggest, covering maybe 20 percent of the state. Scholarly treatment of each tribe is accompanied by photos showing life in various villages, craftwork and ceremonial events.
It turns out poetry was a regular feature of Arizona Highways and the August 1958 issue included Elizabeth-Ellen Long’s “Navajo Sand Painting” with a photo of a sand painting in progress. There is also a poem by a Navajo man eulogizing a friend- the owner of a famous reservation trading post. And there is another strip of poems on the last page. As I look at other issues, poetry appeared regularly in this location in the magazine. Two poems in this issue stand out- “Reins West” by Reeve Spencer Kelley and “Western Summer” by Betty Isler. Kelley recounts a good day’s ride, standing “on the rim of the sky at noon.” Isler aptly describes the desert heat. that makes everything “explosively dry.”
December 1958- The pub box proudly declares “This issue 1,000,000 copies” and goes on to detail a new printing process and new paper for the magazine- slicker, thinner pages with a glossy finish. The issue itself features a collection of Navajo art, every one of the pieces with a horse or other animals in the image. The rest of the issue is a feast of color photography from Arizona- from a feature on 1958’s “Lovely April” in Arizona (rains and sun created a riot of wildflowers) to landscapes from around the state. The text waxes poetic throughout the issue and even tries to ask the hardest question: What is beauty? The answer here: “Look to yourself for the answer and like the Navajo, if you have a receptive ear, eye, heart and soul you will find beauty everywhere.”