The Rocking Chronicles
by Tim Van Schmidt
1959- Rocking Records
Who would have thought that the most passionate love song of 1959 would come from a cowboy. That is, Marty Robbins and his epic cowboy ballad “El Paso.” It’s a tale of burning desire and reckless abandon, all with a pleasant, snappy waltz-time beat propelling it.
“El Paso” recounts the tale of a young cowboy who kills another over his jealous love for a barmaid. The guy gets away but returns to the scene of the crime because he can’t stand to be away from his girl. Robbins tells this incredibly involved story- for pop record standards at least- with a calm control, though a simmering passion eventually rises out of the repetition of the lilting melody.
This engaging story of manslaughter and romantic obsession is related in the lyrics of “El Paso” in the first person, so when the cowboy gets shot, he’s telling you right from the inside what it’s like. You don’t know if the barmaid really does run to his side as he dies, or if it’s a hallucination. But you get the sense that this cowboy is somehow dying satisfied despite his dumb crime- he died trying to reach the woman he loved. That’s high drama.
There’s also some burning passion in Elvis Presley’s releases during 1959. Apparently, he had to really squeeze his passion into small packages- such as memorable hits like “A Fool Such as I,” “A Big Hunk of Love” and “I Need Your Love Tonight”- because he was still in the Army.
“I Need Your Love Tonight” ably demonstrates that Presley still had some vocal chops. The song itself is pretty silly- with words like “wow wee” and “gee” as part of the chorus. But Presley applies his distinctive sense of style- that hurried hiccupping and breathless delivery- and makes it work anyway.
That same distinctive delivery is what moves “A Fool Such as I” too, but also some strong male vocal support. That there is some emphasis on the lower register in the arrangement makes it all the more male perhaps. Still, it’s a higher quality song and it happily percolates despite the heartache lyrics.
“A Big Hunk of Love” is another big hunk of that same vocal styling, but in a lot more energetic, frenetic setting. In fact there’s a blazing guitar solo and pounding piano in this one and such an energetic arrangement that it would be possible to believe that the “King” was back.
Still, these records were made by a guy who was not free to promote his music because of his Army commitment and there is a sense of hurried pop production to each track. But to say Presley was out of commission while in the service would also be wrong, since his records made a particularly strong showing in 1959.
In 1959, the real passion of rock and roll was being kept alive on the street by the perennial live wire Chuck Berry. It’s no surprise that Berry had some key hits in the last year of the 1950s- including “Little Queenie,” “Antony Boy,” “Memphis, Tenn.,” “Almost Grown” and “Back in the USA.” He was also featured in the final Alan Freed rock and roll movie, “Go Johnny Go!” as both a performer and an actor. This would be another peak year for Berry- a hard working performer, an outstanding guitarist and an accomplished songwriter.
Berry’s mature sense of songwriting is what makes “Memphis, Tenn.” tick. While employing standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop song structure, it’s all presented with just a little extra twist to the beat, more of a boom-chuck-boom-chuck precursor to the reggae beat than the straight 1-2-3-4 of rock and roll. The instrumental work is also recorded with a lighter touch, allowing the plaintive voice to come to the forefront.
“Memphis, Tenn.” also stands out because it is a love song of a different kind. While most of the pop hit makers were singing about romance, Berry put together this little gem about a guy being separated from his daughter. You don’t know that until the end of the song- it runs along through most of the song like any other lovesick story. While the situation might bring up some questions if you really thought about it- like why did his wife want to separate?- it’s actually quite touching that the guy in the song is heartsick over being away from his child. “Memphis” recalls an earlier Berry hit, “Havana Moon” in its musical creativity and story-telling power.
“Little Queenie” puts Berry right back in the rock and roll driver’s seat. It’s a guitar rocker which also showcases Berry’s power at making characters come alive. In this case, it’s a guy working up the courage to ask a cute girl to dance. He gets it all worked out in his head- that’s what the song is made up of- but it isn’t really clear that the guy will ever get up the nerve to do it.
Both 1959 Berry hits “Almost Grown” and “Back in the USA” feature something fresh- much stronger background vocal work. The vocals, rather than support, are a part of the arrangement to offset the lead voice- to respond to it with distinctive phrases and plenty of gut. This gives Berry’s new style recordings a fuller, more packed feel- like a crowded recording studio.
At this point, let’s also mention that pianist Johnny Johnson- a longtime Berry band member- had returned to recording with Berry during this period after a short hiatus. There’s some extra fire in those keyboards too. Maybe one reason is that recording and mixing techniques had improved, allowing for the great piano parts on Berry’s records to be heard more clearly. But added to that is some extra sense of flourish. Several times during my listening I thought Jerry Lee Lewis had joined Berry’s band. Johnny Johnson’s work certainly stands out on Berry’s 1959 records.
Berry’s “Almost Grown” is a unique song in that it takes another wry look at everyday life and everyday people- this time about a guy who has a job, a wife and is pretty satisfied. There’s no whining here- the guy doesn’t need a “mob” to enjoy life or get in “Dutch” to get a thrill. He’s willing to get his thrills right at home and he’s fine with that since he’s “almost grown.” This is an upbeat tune that doesn’t really exhibit any angst or rebellion whatsoever- rock and roll can be just clean fun.
“Back in the USA” is fun too, as well as an upbeat ode to the burgeoning American culture of the 1950s- jets touching down on the runways and hamburgers sizzling on the grill. This isn’t so much patriotism as appreciation for what we have- and celebrating it with a rocking guitar and some wailing voices.
More of the Real Stuff
One of the reasons I like records like Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” is that they sound really authentic- revealing flashes of stylish musical invention, not record company studio invention. Another one of those records is Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 hit “Kansas City.” It’s a cool, medium tempo hit that sounds just like a band having a midnight jam session.
At the instrumental break in “Kansas City,” Harrison can’t help but exclaim “Yeah!” as the band kicks in for some spirited soloing. He’s getting carried away with it and the band is smoking- all centered around what a hard-luck case is going to do: find himself something new to forget about his latest loss in love. The solution seems simple- get to the big city and start fishing- and the guy doesn’t mind rocking a little in the process. Like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Kansas City” mixes attitude in the lyrics with attitude in the lively band arrangement. That’s the kind of thing that helped make the original movement of rock and roll so exciting- it was challenging the status quo socially and musically.
Speaking of challenging the status quo, despite major public backlash to a 1958 scandal set off by his marriage to a youthful cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis still managed to score a minor rock and roll hit in 1959 with “Lovin Up a Storm.” The tune is a return to Lewis’ rabble rousing antics, banging on the keys and shouting out the lyrics with some upfront resolve.
Also still on the scene in 1959 was Fats Domino, whose upbeat “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” is all about resolve. The guy in the song not only resolves to become something special, but he also resolves to flaunt it in the face of the girl who rejected him. The song has a jaunty movement to it and despite Domino’s friendly voice, you can hear the hurt pride of the rejected suitor- and what he’s going to do about it someday.
The flip side to “Wheel” is “I Want to Walk You Home,” a slow dance romancer, showing sincerity over bravado. It’s actually a sweet notion, that all you want to do is walk along with your honey and Domino’s smooth vocals make it sound real enough.
The Everly Brothers’ 1959 hit “Til I Kissed You” stands out particularly as a major original composition by Don Everly, sidestepping the competitive world of song peddling. The song carries on the trademarks the Everly Brothers had already well developed- the close harmonies, the savory melodies- with a sense of maturity. One standard element in Everly records was the knack for answering various vocal lines with a little riff on the guitar. But on “Til I Kissed You” there’s a little twist- the drums are what answer back. Other 1959 Everly hits include “Oh, What a Feeling,” “Take a Message to Mary” and “Poor Jenny.”
By 1959, Ricky Nelson had also matured and his records had plenty of punch to them for being a music industry creation. Nelson’s “Just a Little Too Much” is a top notch rocker, shined up and featuring just an excellent guitar solo. “Sweeter Than You” was the flip side.
With all those guys dominating the pop music scene in 1959, it makes sense that there would also be a strong female in the mix somewhere and Connie Francis was a very strong hit maker indeed. Those hits in 1959 included the perky “Lipstick on Your Collar” and slower, moodier tunes like “My Happiness” and “Among My Souvenirs.”
Francis’ success was based on several elements. First of all, she had a strong, expressive voice- able to swell and ebb according to the needs of the melody- and a professional sense of style. She wasn’t intimidated by the big studio productions- she held her own no matter what they threw at her. Then there were those gorgeous support vocal arrangements- close, savory vocal harmonies matching every nuance of Francis’ lead.
“Lipstick on Your Collar” adds some fiery emotions in with Francis’ natural talents and the result must have been delicious for any girl who had uncovered a boyfriend’s infidelity. In this case, it’s a good telling off. The song recalls an earlier Francis hit, “Who’s Sorry Now” where the “he got his” is even stronger.
“My Happiness” and “Among My Souvenirs” work the same ground- a wistful romantic blur- but from different stages of the relationship. The harmonies are slightly haunting and the sentiments are blue.
Another spunky female artist of 1959 was Brenda Lee. Lee had attitude and showed it by roughing up her voice at key times, like a rhythm and blues singer. Her hit “Sweet Nothings” has a pretty nice swing to it to begin with, then Lee spices things up with that rough little vocal glissando. She’s wise and bubbly at the same time.
On the other end of the scale from Brenda Lee in 1959 was classy Dinah Washington, whose “What a Difference a Day Makes” is slow, smooth and cool. It’s an intimate confessional with a calm, mature outlook, though it all ends up in the same place- a lover can’t stop thinking about their object of desire.
Vocal group music continued to gain strength in 1959, the Impalas’ bouncy “Sorry, I Ran All the Way” perhaps the least polished of the bunch- on the lighter side too. Its an upbeat confessional from a guy to his girl after an argument. The voices sound young and the subject is naive. Still, other than the horn parts, it sounds pretty authentic. The lead voice and the supporting parts seem to be truly engaged here, whereas the horn parts seem to be add-ons. It’s not a particularly cohesive mix but the record still succeeds thanks to the creative, busy vocal work.
The Coasters returned in 1959 with “Charlie Brown” which has a much more mature sound and confidence than “Sorry, I Ran All the Way.” It’s mature because the Coasters handle the quick pace of the song with professional ease- and the recording cooks.
But the subject of “Charlie Brown” isn’t mature at all- and that’s the point. The song is about a class clown who’s always getting into trouble. He’s a common high school character given a name and a reputation by some wailing musicians. The Coasters, no where near being high school teenagers themselves, get away with it by matching the subject’s hijinks- smoking, calling the teacher “Daddio,” what have you- with musical hijinks. The quick pace, the confident vocals, the percolating sax solo plus that funny stop time statement by the bass singer about being picked on all come together in a rollicking good time.
Still, I think the most fun on record from the vocal groups in 1959 is the Clovers’ “Love Potion Number Nine.” It’s a story- it’s got characters and there’s a little bit of mystery, like what’s in that magic potion the gypsy gives the guy that makes him want to kiss a cop? But not just a great song, “Love Potion Number Nine” has a great vocal arrangement. Just that little vocal glissando at the beginning of the record tells you that the Clovers mean business. Their arrangement is sophisticated, blended, perhaps more easily worked into a balanced studio recording than “Sorry, I Ran All the Way.” However, it should be noted that the vocals aren’t all that makes “Love Potion” a good ride. There is a very distinctive piano part threaded throughout the record that helps keep things moving instrumentally. All in all, a very cool production.
More than fun, there really was something else going on in 1959 with vocal group music. That is, a melding of the sound of the voices into something more smooth and unified- like the Clovers’ “Love Potion.” It wasn’t as much about helping carry on a beat or filling in cracks in the song as about the overall sound or mood the music creates.
The epitome of successful vocal group mood music would have to be the Flamingos’ 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You.” It is a lush and enthralling production and dispenses completely with the idea that a vocal group can’t make a good slow tune work. There’s a simmering passion to it, a movement so slow and deliberate, yet smooth and sexy. The lead vocal has certainly found a soulful muse in the melody and the support vocals successfully paint a warm background while finding innovative ways of delivering the offbeat. “I Only Have Eyes for You” is a breakthrough record for the genre- or the start of a new genre?
The same kind of rich studio melding could be identified on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby.” There’s something special about the record’s environment, its ambiance. Lead vocalist Ben E King ‘s voice echoes hauntingly and the innovative arrangement includes strings. The combined sound creates a picture- a truly regretful guy sees his former girl go by on the street and he’s wailing about it on the corner, his song carrying up the lonely boulevard.
Other Vocal Hits
Vocalist Lloyd Price emerged as a new hit maker in 1959 with a raucous, goodtime sound. “Stagger Lee” is a gritty piece of upbeat pop funk about a mean killer. His tune “Personality” is a lighthearted romp in comparison to “Stagger Lee.” It’s a show tune, really- with a catchy chorus that can stick in your head, despite its silliness.
Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” is a raw-sounding 1959 medium tempo ballad. What stands out is that instead of jamming the chorus with a lot of words, “Sea of Love” allows the listener a break, stretching eight words across the entire section. It’s Phillips’ oddly strident vocals that carry them through in dramatic style.
Very lively indeed is the Isley Brothers’ 1959 hit “Shout.” Sure, it’s a vocal work out, but I guarantee that this record had to be a popular sock hop record and only the serious dancers could make it all the way through this frenetic blast of energy. You can just see exhausted dancers revel in the moment when the action breaks on the record- only to be churned up again some few seconds later.
The first number one record I considered in this study of the music of the 1950s was Elvis Presley’s 1956 breakout hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” The final number one hit of the 1950s is Frankie Avalon’s “Why” and there’s obviously a big difference.
Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” is an electric burst of passion and heartache. Avalon’s “Why” is a romantic trifle with a cutesy instrumental arrangement and little strain on the vocalist.
Music like “Why” probably comes more from crooner territory, but Avalon is a pretty young crooner. He certainly sounds like a youngster compared to people like Dean Martin and Perry Como. That very well may be the point, however. The commercial pursuit of America’s teenage audience had to include younger vocalists. Right in the same league as Avalon is young crooner Paul Anka whose 1959 hit “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” is a drippy, over produced affair. Despite the fat production, however, there is some ear catching give and take between the vocals and the instrumental work on the record that gives it some distinction.
The cult of the teenager in pop music was reflected in several other ways in 1959. Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love” was a declaration of emotional confusion that the whole nation of teenagers could relate to. The Crests’ “16 Candles” went right for the heart of the matter and placed a teenage girl up on a pedestal, her face lit up by the candles on her birthday cake. Some years later, this might be considered pedophilia, but here it seems almost sacred to adore a sixteen year old.
But also added to this is a special kind of teenage record- the memorial song. This is typified by Mark Dinning’s classic “Teen Angel,” a tragic story about a young couple whose car gets stuck on some railroad tracks. They get away as a train approaches, but the girl goes back at the last second and does not survive. She went back for the guy’s ring and the first thing that comes to mind is the phrase “natural selection”- she may have not been meant to live. But finally, it’s truly harrowing when Dinning intones “they buried you today” in the last verse. That’s not fuzzy romanticism, but hard-hitting reality poking straight up out of the tearful story.
Let’s also mention here that Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” is also about a lover’s death. I don’t get the sense that the cowboy in the song is a teenager, but you get it that he is young and pays the ultimate price for his love. Again, this story is told from the first person and that makes the tragedy all the more heavy.
Typical teenage pop fare, however, was not so dark. For example, Annette’s 1959 Walt Disney hit “Jo Jo the Dogfaced Boy” is an upbeat studio romp. Other fun pop records in 1959 include the very catchy and cute “Pink Shoelaces” by Dodie Stevens. It’s corny, it’s bubbly and there’s just a little bit of rebellion in this story of a guy with outlandish clothing and an eccentric lifestyle. And David Seville’s Chipmunks returned in 1959 with “Alvin’s Harmonica.”
The heavy production going into the pop music at the end of the 1950s made the more simplified approach of singing groups such as the Kingston Trio sound fresh and lively. The Kingston Trio’s sound- two acoustic guitars and a banjo supporting three active voices- came across as a little old fashioned, therefore earning the “folk” label. However, their choice of material was skewed toward contemporary subjects.
The Kingston Trio’s 1959 hit “MTA,” for example, is a fanciful take on subway fares and local politics in Boston. You see, a guy gets stuck on the subway train because of a fare snafu and can’t get off. All he can do is ride and ride- and see his wife once in a while as he breezes through the station. It’s a humorous story, satirical in its mentioning of local politicians and the transit system itself. The Trio approaches their cover of this 1940s song with plenty of energy- like a subway train rattling along at full speed between stops.
Another 1959 Kingston Trio hit, “A Worried Man,” makes a joyous sound for a bland subject- life in suburbia. The guy in this song has the wife, the house and the job- the entire package. There’s a taste of gospel resolve to this upbeat tune just as the guy is trying to tell himself everything’s going to be okay. The original of this one was titled “Worried Man Blues,” recorded previously by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie.
But let’s also throw in “Tijuana Jail.” This 1959 Kingston Trio release approaches the not so delicate subject of young Americans partying in Mexico. There’s a dice game and a trip to the jailhouse without the money for meeting bail. It’s a sad story told by the unlucky inmate. Again, the Trio’s presentation is lively and gives a sunnier outlook on a situation a real kid under arrest in Mexico would not find appropriate. Still, there’s a good chance the Kingston Trio’s college-age audiences could relate.
I don’t know what else to call Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit “The Battle of New Orleans” but “folk” music. It’s a folk tale about rag tag Americans chasing British forces out of the country through New Orleans in the early 1800s.
“The Battle of New Orleans” is a spirited production and Horton recalls some rockabilly hotness by roughing up his voice at points. What drives the whole thing is the military drum cadence in the background and the strong support of a chorus of male voices- recalling the strong male chorus of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O.” I always chuckle when Horton gets to the part about the alligator losing his mind. This production, with its wealth of voices, begs you to sing along to the memorable chorus.
As it turns out, being able to sing along to the music on the radio or the record player- or the television- was important to many and Mitch Miller created a folk movement of his own that included families in the process. Miller’s “Sing Along with Mitch” records featured recordings of group sing-alongs of clean, classic material, accompanied by printed lyrics so the listener could join in, for example, in singing songs like his 1959 hit “Children’s Marching Song.”
Let’s also mention Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” once again because the song not only fits in the country music category, but it is also a folk song. “El Paso” is a story, not a pop confection and the western tradition of telling stories in song is an authentic folk invention.
With all that singing, it’s refreshing to consider some 1959 instrumental hits as well. The first is Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.” It’s a dreamy, soothing, syrupy couple of minutes featuring a surprising fluid combination of steel and electric guitars. The melody is handled by the steel guitar and floats along slowly while the electric guitar establishes rhythmic movement. “Sleep Walk” is a distinctly emotional composition, emphasized by the wiry flexibility of the steel guitar- a beautiful and rare recording.
Added to that is Johnny and the Hurricanes’ 1959 hit “Red River Rock,” a simple rock and roll beat version of “Red River Valley.” Maybe this is a good place to leave rock and roll at the end of the 1950s- fun, light, danceable, a little raunch in the sound, but nothing but confection. “Red River Rock” features strong organ and guitar jamming while the rest of the band bashes away. It could probably be worked out in seconds by any bar band in the world, but Johnny and the Hurricanes are the ones who got it done in this case.
Johnny Cash- Thanks a Lot
I’ll finish this study of the pop music of the 1950s where it started- with a dusty old Sun Records release. I started with a copy of Carl Perkins’ 1956 hit “Blue Suede Shoes” and will end with Johnny Cash’s 1959 release “Thanks a Lot.” Oh, the other side of the record was a hit too- “Luther Played the Boogie”- but I think “Thanks a Lot” has just the right attitude to sign off with.
“Thanks a Lot” is a confrontational song despite its easygoing, shuffling rhythm. While the electric guitar twangs and some sandpapery percussion chugs along, Cash’s plain and simple vocals accuse a lover of social abuse. However, the hitch is this guy would get back together with the offender in a split second given the chance, so the tune is a confessional too. The “thanks a lot” that Cash intones in the chorus is pretty sarcastic, yet there’s some pleading in there too.
By 1959 Cash had moved on from Sun Records and releases like “Thanks a Lot” and covers of Hank Williams tunes like “You Win Again” and “Hey Good Looking” had been in the can. In terms of the record business, the sun actually was setting on the Sun Records era, the growth of the corporate music industry in general serving to weed out unprofitable independents who couldn’t compete. However, the legacy of Sun would be the reputation as the place where some of the best and most exciting, AUTHENTIC music of the 1950s got its jumping off point: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Cash.
This dusty, dirty copy of “Thanks a Lot” still has some music in its grooves in 2010 and I’m glad. Thanks to survivors like this record, I can still get just a little taste of what it was like in 1959:
In my mind, it’s the end of the year and I’m three and a half years old. My parents are probably working on arrangements for their floral business and I’m playing with something over by where the radio sits. Coming out of the speaker is some spit and static and maybe, just maybe, Johnny Cash’s voice, some up front electric guitar and the friendly honky tonk tinkle of a piano.
Peter Gunn/Jack Sperling
This special section begins with Peggy Lee. I’ve stated Peggy Lee’s 1958 hit “Fever” was one of that year’s hottest, steamy records- one of my favorites. And some of that has to do with a visit to my brother Andy, who was living in the Bay Area at the time.
I knew that my sister-in-law Deah’s father was a session and television drummer in Hollywood and had heard a collection of music that featured his work, but his contribution to music didn’t become clear to me until Deah suggested taking a look at a video compilation of some of his performances. The first video was of Deah’s Dad, Jack Sperling, performing “Fever” with Peggy Lee in a television appearance- complete with hand work during those cool drum roll responses to Lee’s vocals.
Recently I found the very same Peggy Lee video online- and the counter said it had attracted well over one million viewers- so the Sperling/Lee connection is strong even though he did not play on the original recording. Of course, Lee is super sultry in the video and Sperling’s drumming stands out and I became an instant fan of both musicians.
But finally, it is Henry Mancini and his 1959 hit “Peter Gunn” that finally makes my path cross with Sperling’s in this particular study of 1950s music. You see, I based this study on charted hits and a review of Sperling’s career helps demonstrate that the actual scope of the music scene was much, much bigger at that time than the parade of predominantly vocal hits on the charts. “Peter Gunn” is a powerful instrumental- and there’s Sperling giving it all he’s got in that little drum flourish at the end. Drummers all over the world must have been a little jealous of that gig and that one fleeting showcase moment that wraps the whole thing up.
Here’s what Jack Sperling was doing in the four years of the 1950s I was researching. While singles by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino and the like were tearing up the charts, Sperling appeared on each of the following albums and television shows- and it’s an extensive resume covering a lot of jazz, show music and a little folk:
Scatman Crothers: Oh, Yeah! (Tops); Rock and Roll with Scat Man
John Towner: Jazz Beginnings-Fresh Sound
Walter Gross: Walter Gross plays his own great songs
George Van Eps: Mellow Guitar
Freddie Slack: Boogie-Woogie on the 88
Bob Crosby Show (1954-57) CBS
Les Brown & His Band of Renown: Les Brown & His Band Renown (Coral); Swinging Song Book (Coral)
John Towner: The John Towner Touch
Ella Fitzgerald: Get Happy!
Jo Stafford & Paul Weston: The Original Piano Artistry of Jonathan Edwards, Vocals by Darlene Edwards
The Kirby Stone Four: Man I Flipped
The Four Freshmen: The Four Freshmen and 5 Guitars (Capitol)
Harry Belafonte: Harry Belafonte Sings the Blues (RCA)
Sheb Wooley: The Purple People Eater (RCA)
Peter Gunn (1958-1961) MGM
Pete Fountain: Pete Fountain’s New Orleans (Coral)
Henry Mancini: Fallout/ Music from Peter Gunn (RCA)
Les Brown & His Band of Renown: Live at Elitch Gardens 1959
The Modernaires: Like Swung (Mercury)
Ella Fitzgerald: The Secret of Christmas; The Christmas Song
The Kingston Trio: Here We Go Again (Capitol) (Bongos, Conga)
Chet Atkins: Chet Atkins In Hollywood (RCA)
Ralph Marterie And The All Star Men: Big Band Man (Mercury)
Paul Smith: Saratoga
The Five Pennies (Paramount)
Peter Gunn (MGM)
Mr. Lucky (CBS)
Peter Gunn (1958-1961) MGM
Mr. Lucky (1959-1960) CBS
Rawhide (1959) Paramount
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
Bob Hope Show (1959-1962) NBC
The Steve Allen Show (1959) NBC
The “Curse” of Buddy Holly
Death is a powerful legend maker. Such is one of the subjects in the book “Take a Walk on the Dark Side” by R. Gary Patterson. Patterson writes about the eerie and creepy details behind the stories of music figures such as Robert Johnson, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles. One chapter deals directly with the mysterious occurrences and collateral damage surrounding the plane crash that killed rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959.
Patterson describes the events leading up to the crash itself- the grueling winter tour that brought these musicians together and the decision to rent an airplane so that the main star- Holly- could escape the freezing bus ride following the last gig in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly had hired the plane for himself and his backing band, but both band members- Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup- gave up their seats to JP Richardson- the Big Bopper- and Valens. According to Patterson, Valens “won” his seat on the plane with the flip of a coin which in hindsight is a wrenching twist of fate.
A lot of what Patterson attaches to the 1959 plane crash all seems to fit in hindsight. For example, he reports that all three of the stars who died in the crash had some sort of premonition about their deaths. In fact, Patterson asserts that not only Holly, but his young wife also had a horrific dream that could be interpreted as a plane crash. Valens had been scared of planes after witnessing a plane crash that hurt and killed kids at the school he went to, including one of his best friends. Richardson apparently “saw” his own death in a hallucinatory state brought on by a marathon DJ session on the radio.
However, it should be mentioned that death is a subject that fascinates teenagers. In the 1950s, from the early death of actor James Dean to recordings like Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” death was a part of the popular landscape and while the premonitions attributed to Holly and the others are eerie looking back at them, it is not unreasonable to think that many young people predicted their own early demise. I would bet death was a common dream element, but not all of those who dreamed of an early death would die early, putting some suspicion on making such dreams an indicator of fate.
Perhaps the eeriest detail Patterson brings up about the crash in “Take a Walk on the Dark Side,” is the Tarot card prediction of Holly’s death. This occurred in England and centers around a recording engineer and producer named Joe Meek. Meek and others met to use a Tarot deck and the result of the experience was a date- February 3- along with the words “Buddy Holly dies.” According to Patterson, Meek delivered the warning to Holly personally during Holly’s successful English tour in 1958. Nothing tragic had happened on February 3, 1958 and Patterson recounts that Holly was simply “polite” about it.
But further, Patterson also examines the details of how other people connected to Holly met early ends, prompting Patterson to call the crash and the effect it had on friends and loved ones a “curse.”
That included Holly’s friend and fellow rock and roller Eddie Cochran, who, according to Patterson, had been slated to join Holly and company on the tragic winter tour but passed thanks to a date on the Ed Sullivan television show. Just after the crash, Cochran recorded a tribute song titled “Three Stars,” written by a California DJ, but stalled its release because the recording session became emotionally intense.
Patterson then goes on to report that Cochran, still despondent over Holly’s death, died in a 1960 automobile accident while touring England with rocker Gene Vincent. Also in the car was songwriter Sharon Sheeley, who had written a song Valens recorded for his album as well as Ricky Nelson’s hit “Poor Little Fool.” Cochran died the next day while Vincent and Sheeley survived. Patterson also notes that Cochran’s last recording featured Holly’s former band the Crickets.
There are plenty of other occurrences of bad luck associated with Holly, according to Patterson. The singer hired to replace Holly on the tragic winter tour that killed Holly, Valens and Richardson, Ronnie Smith, eventually hanged himself in a state mental hospital. The singer the original Crickets hired to replace Holly in their band, David Box, died in a plane crash in 1962. Patterson underscores the coincidence that Box was the same age as Holly when he died- 22.
Texas musician Bobby Fuller also died at age 22, beaten to death under mysterious circumstances. But Patterson points to a number of other connections between Holly and Fuller. Fuller’s break-out hit, “I Fought the Law,” had been given to him by Crickets guitarist Sonny Curtis. The last song Fuller recorded before his death was a Buddy Holly tune, “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” Fuller had also worked extensively with Holly’s first producer, Norman Petty, as well as with Valens’ manager in California.
Patterson then follows the Holly “curse” through several other events including tragedies surrounding the production of the 1977 feature film about Holly’s career, “The Buddy Holly Story.” Also in 1977, Patterson notes that investigators found a Holly fan button in the wreckage of the car accident that killed T. Rex guitarist Marc Bolan. In 1978, the Who’s Keith Moon died of a drug overdose the day after seeing “The Buddy Holly Story”- on September 7, Holly’s birthday.
Finally, Patterson connects the deaths of two more rock and rollers- Ricky Nelson and Del Shannon- to the Holly “curse.” Nelson, Patterson reports, recorded two Holly songs, “Rave On” and “True Love Ways,” in 1979. At his last gig, the last song Nelson played was “Rave On,” before dying in a plane crash. Shannon’s last performance was on February 3, 1990- at the same venue and in the same city that Holly played his last show- before taking his own life a few days later.
All of these details hang together in hindsight if all you look at is the Holly connection. I would guess, however, that if you dug this deep from another direction, you would find other connections that have nothing to do with Holly.
With that said, however, I would recommend Patterson’s “Take a Walk on the Dark Side” for some creepy entertainment. Patterson has pulled together a fascinating collection of information that, when presented together, makes an engaging case for supernatural goings on in the rock and roll world. Believe the details or not, Patterson has created a thought-provoking book that tingles the spine as well.
“Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends and Curses” by R. Gary Patterson, 2004, Fireside.
Rocking Music in the Movies
Go Johnny Go!
“Go Johnny Go!” is a poorly propped-up music movie that nonetheless manages to showcase a lot of 1950s talent. By 1959, it seems like a tired pursuit making a rock and roll movie, at least with the same old Alan Freed at the center of it all- even he doesn’t seem to be all that thrilled by it. Fortunately, Freed has a sidekick in this one- Chuck Berry.
Berry not only strings along as an upbeat character in the movie- much more lively than Freed himself, who also produced the movie- but he also supplies a couple of tunes. He’s sly, he’s hip- and a promoter of up and coming musicians. He’s the one in “Go Johnny Go!” who is always trying to get Freed’s ear about this young artist or that- from the central character to the musical sketch group the Cadillacs to the young Ritchie Valens.
The featured character in “Go Johnny Go!”, however, is played by Jimmy Clanton, who performs numerous times throughout the production- after all, the story is about his character, Johnny, and his struggle to get noticed in the music biz. Clanton’s Johnny is a tough orphan with a big chip on his shoulder and a drive to succeed through music. When Freed reluctantly announces a talent search for a new boy singer to be named “Johnny Melody,” Johnny the orphan sees his chance.
In “Go Johnny Go!” Clanton serves up a mixed bag of music, from glitzy show tune stuff to tender, reflective ballads. Honestly, the ballads sound more sincere and are more effective. When Clanton roughs up his voice for tunes like “It Takes a Long Time” or the movie finale “Ship on a Stormy Sea,” it sounds forced and unnatural. That could be because Clanton’s image is so strikingly straight and clean. His idea of passionate performing is to unbutton his suit coat and take off his tie during the song. He’s just not a convincing rocker, despite the full band arrangements backing him up.
It is the more intimate, ballady songs like his “Johnny Melody” hit “My Love is Strong,” the hymn he sings in a church choir or the sweet duet he sings with his female counterpart in the movie, Sandy Stewart, “Once Again,” that succeed in showcasing Clanton’s vocal talent. He’s not so much a rocker as a crooner and he’s got a pretty nice voice for it, making male myth heavy songs like “Angel Face” palatable.
Stewart plays Johnny’s love interest in “Go Johnny Go!”, who is also an orphan and who also has musical talent. It’s a touching part of the plot, really, that two orphans come together over music.
Stewart’s showcase moment is during a demo recording session where she records “Playmates” with a lively band and strong male vocal back-up. It’s an upbeat, fun piece that gains more from Stewart’s handling of the song- with strength and verve- than from its silly lyrics. It’s a highlight of the movie. Her other tune, “Heavenly Father,” is a prayerful, solemn plea to keep her boyfriend safe, heavy on the female myths and acting as filler for the plot.
The thin plot and contrived showcase moments for the actors of “Go Johnny Go!” aside, there are notable appearances by some prominent artists throughout the movie- and it’s great to see them- but there is very little attempt to hide the fakey lip synching going on. Still, the quick succession of acts helps the movie maintain a quick pace and many of the performers battle the stiffness of the lip synching by putting a little extra effort into moving for the camera.
The liveliest moment in “Go Johnny Go!” comes when the Flamingos perform “Jump Children.” These guys are all over the place, jiggling, jumping, doing the splits and basically going nuts with various dancing antics. All the while, the guys are shouting “rock, rock, rock” in the background- what a shot of energy! It’s hard to believe this is the same group who produced the super smooth 1959 hit “I’ve Only Got Eyes for You.”
Both Jackie Wilson and Harvey, during solo spots, prove to be pretty adept at keeping things moving as well. Wilson, who Berry claims as a “relative,” does a lot of fancy footwork- working on a kind of foot glide across the stage- whereas Harvey swings his arms and uses his hands to good effect. Harvey is a smooth operator with a pedestrian song, “Don’t Be Afraid to Love Me,” while Wilson stands out because of that unique falsetto voice, performing “You Better Know It.”
Representing the “guy and guitar” rock and roll image, Eddie Cochran performs perky rocker “Teenage Heaven” and uses that big electric guitar for a dance partner during the song’s instrumental break. Without a band to look at, I guess you have to do something for the camera.
Jo-Ann Campbell perhaps fares the worst of the bunch for the camera in “Go Johnny Go!”. She performs “Momma, Can I Go Out” in a heavily starched dress that doesn’t compliment her movement to the song. You could say her spot is choreographed- she puts a coin in a juke box during the tune- and the unnaturalness of the whole thing detracts from the spicy vocals Campbell delivers on the sound track.
Of all the acts showcased in “Go Johnny Go!”, I particularly enjoyed getting familiar with the group the Cadillacs. They seemed to be a cross between a music act and a comedy act, wearing costumes and acting out the parts in the songs. They’re hams alright, but at least they give themselves something to do on stage. Two of the guys are wearing cop uniforms for “Jay Walker” and then they’re wearing work clothes and pushing brooms for “Please, Mr. Johnson.” Both tunes are lively and upbeat musically, addressing common urban themes and their physical antics are pleasantly amusing.
Perhaps the most significant appearance in “Go Johnny Go!”, however, is by Ritchie Valens. This is Valens’ only movie appearance and he proves to be a convincing rocker, despite being consigned to performing “Ooh My Head” for Freed, Berry and a table full of giggling teenage girls. The lip synching element here is glaring, because a key part to the Valens recording is the driving drum part, and there’s no drummer to be seen in the movie. Still, Valens shows spunk, looking like he’s really digging into that guitar around his neck and roughing up his vocals a little like Little Richard.
But don’t forget there’re some Chuck Berry performances here too, including a “television taping” of “Memphis, Tenn.” and a “jam session” version of “Little Queenie.”
Berry does his trademark “duck” walk- with a wink- at the end of “Memphis.” For “Little Queenie,” Freed is sitting in on drums and once again “Go Johnny Go!” fails to hide the lip synching- he is nowhere near actually playing the rhythm of the record, his drum hits completely off from those on the soundtrack. Fortunately, Berry is such an active performer- even when goofing to a prerecorded song- that there’s plenty of distraction from Freed’s lackluster contribution.
There’s plenty here to indicate that “Go Johnny Go!” is really Berry’s movie. The whole thing starts out with a close-up of Berry’s guitar and hands while he’s performing his hit “Johnny B. Goode.” Unfortunately, Hollywood decided Berry’s record wasn’t enough and they added blaring horn parts too, but at least Berry is featured from the opening credits.
Add in that Berry is also a central character in “Go Johnny Go!”- one who is hip and wise to the happening music scene- as well as a seasoned featured performer. This puts Berry in the audience’s eye for a lot of the movie- much more so than dour Mister Rock and Roll Alan Freed- and it all works in his favor.
Directed by Paul Landres…1959…75 min…featuring Alan Freed, Jimmy Clanton, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Ritchie Valens, Cadillacs, Jo-Ann Campbell, Flamingos, Harvey Fuqua, Eddie Cochran, Jimmy Cavallo.
Go Johnny Go songs
“MY LOVE IS STRONG”
Performed by Jimmy Clanton
“IT TAKES A LONG TIME”
Performed by Jimmy Clanton
“SHIP ON A STORMY SEA”
Performed by Jimmy Clanton
Performed by Jimmy Clanton
Performed by Chuck Berry
Performed by Chuck Berrys
“JOHNNY B. GOODE”
Performed by Chuck Berry
Performed by Sandy Stewart
Performed by Sandy Stewart
“OOH MY HEAD”
Performed by Ritchie Valens
“YOU BETTER KNOW IT”
Performed by Jackie Wilson
Performed by Eddie Cochran
Performed by The Cadillacs
“PLEASE, MR. JOHNSON”
Performed by The Cadillacs
Performed by The Flamingoes
“MOMMA, CAN I GO OUT”
Performed by Jo-Ann Campbell
“DON’T BE AFRAID TO LOVE ME”
Performed by Harvey
Performed by Jimmy Clanton and Sandy Stewart
Directed by Arthur Dreifuss…1959…81 min…Jack Jones, Earl Grant, Johnny Otis, Treniers, Nit Wits.
Directed by Paul Wendkos…1959…95 min…featuring Sandra Dee, James Darren, Cliff Robertson, Four Preps.
Hound Dog Man
Directed by Don Siegel…1959…87 min…featuring Fabian, Dodie Stevens.
Hercules Unchained **
Ho-hum adventure about the muscle-bound hero saving his hometown of Thebes from the conflict between two brothers, both of whom claim to be king. The action is limp by modern standards and the production quality is poor despite some effort to create exotic settings. The costuming is a strong point with a lot of flesh and plenty of jiggle to entertain while the plot plods along. There is an outstanding scene, however- a full dance sequence by a group of slave girls. The featured dancer is the liveliest thing in the entire movie and some earnest effort went into the choreography to make it challenging and tantalizing visually. Otherwise, the rest is a juvenile exercise in ancient Greek mythology.
Directed by Pietro Francisci…1959…97 min…featuring Steve Reeves (as Hercules,) Sylva Koscina, Sylvia Lopez, Gabriele Antonini, Primo Carnera.
The Angry Red Planet **
There’s a good reason why the planet Mars should be angry. It’s because the humans who finally come to visit the neighboring planet in “The Angry Red Planet” are boorish and dumb. That becomes the message that the inhabitants of Mars send back to Earth with the first manned expedition when it returns, crippled and cloaked in mystery- along with a warning. The powers that be on Mars have seen the people of Earth develop at home and they don’t want any of that returning to their planet- or else.
The four explorers who do reach the surface of Mars in “The Angry Red Planet” begin their adventures on the planet by testing their main weapon on the plant life. Then they disturb, then kill some local wild life as well as maim and blast a hideous monster. When the planet retaliates, they then fry a big blob attacking their space ship with intense electricity. The humans are reckless and short-sighted and deserve to go home with their tails between their legs.
Other than that message, there really is no good reason for watching this movie. “The Angry Red Planet” is a cheap and wooden production with lousy writing, lousy acting and unconvincing “special effects.” The lousy writing and acting go together- there’s little here to inspire the actors to do more than go through the motions. The “special effects” are as “un-special” as bad drawings for the Martian landscape, filtered photography for the Red Planet’s general atmosphere and a monster puppet that looks like, well, a puppet. The attack of the blob creature- seen through the rocket ship’s portholes- looks more like an icky mix of goo in a Laundromat washing machine.
But beyond this basic failure of the production to suspend reality and draw the viewer into a different world, the attitudes of the humans is just embarrassing. They don’t give a care about what damage they do to the foreign planet and its inhabitants. Added to this is the sexism that is displayed between the three male members of the crew and the one female. She doesn’t seem to mind being categorized as a screaming female or the males’ arrogance. She’s just as dumb as the rest of them, despite her attractive red hair. If I lived on Mars, I would also send them back to Earth with a dire warning never to return.
“The Angry Red Planet” is one of the worst science fiction movies I’ve ever seen and adds nothing but filler to the genre.
Directed by lb Melchior…1959…83 min…featuring Gerald Mohr, Naura Hayden, Les Tremayne, Jack Kruschen, Tom Daly.
A Bucket of Blood ****
I’ve rated this movie according to how much I enjoyed it- it’s a hoot! I suppose you could rate this according to technical points, and it would still come out pretty good, but in this case, it’s about fun.
“A Bucket of Blood” is a comedy classic, lampooning the Beatniks, film noir and horror movies all in one hip package. Most of the action occurs at an urban Beatnik hangout called the Yellow Door. Here, poetry and art talk is on everyone’s lips, including those of a numbskull busboy who emulates the hipsters. In a fit of desperation, the busboy creates a sculpture out of a dead cat and enjoys the reaction so much, he graduates to bigger projects.
“A Bucket of Blood” apparently had a pretty good budget- the settings are detailed, the dialogue is wise and well-crafted, the photography is expertly staged and the soundtrack is full of frenetic jazz, its tension underscoring the action on the screen. It’s put together with a smart confidence, it’s very tongue-in-cheek and actor Dick Miller creates a memorable character as the would-be sculptor.
But the most memorable character in the movie is one of the denizens of the Yellow Door- a poet named Maxwell H Brock, played to the hilt by Julian Burton. Brock is performing a poem on stage at the Yellow Door as the movie opens and he appears often throughout the production to represent the Beatnik artists who come to accept the busboy as one of their own. He calls the whole club to attention to laud the busboy’s work and even creates a new poem in his honor. As puffed up as this guy is, he is the most positive person in the group. Others are shifty and thuggish despite the artsy pose- or undercover cops.
Now, I swear that Brock’s opening poem is a send-up, at least partially, of Kenneth Rexroth’s great performance poem, “Thou Shalt Not Kill (In Memory of Dylan Thomas,)” which had been released on record in 1957 along with poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as “Poetry Readings in the Cellar.” The lines in the movie, “Where are John, Joe, Jake, Jim, jerk? dead, dead, dead,” sound just like Rexroth’s rant. Rexroth is performing with a jazz group and Brock is performing with a jazz saxophone. Brock’s poetry is drivel too- far-out and far-fetched, even more so than real Beat fare, which can be plenty funny, but a right-on mockery is even funnier.
Directed by Roger Corman…1959…66 min…featuring Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Antony Carbone, Julian Burton, Ed Nelson, Bruno VeSota.
Odds Against Tomorrow ****
“Odds Against Tomorrow” is not just a heist movie, but a morality play about racism besides. The black and white photography starkly reflects the harsh personalities that come together to do the job and an exceptional jazz soundtrack reflects the tension that comes with the situation. Not only do some basic rules of thievery come out- like, little stuff you didn’t plan for can change the plan- but also the clear message that racism is a dead end.
Besides having a very strong jazz soundtrack, the character played by Harry Belafonte in “Odds Against Tomorrow” is a jazz vocalist and vibes player, besides a desperate gambler. This makes jazz a distinctive element here.
But more, the action is underscored by character studies of those involved- the hard-bitten Southern bigot, the scheming young black man, the old retired cop who’s just sure he’s found a chink in the system to exploit. It’s a desperate project with desperate characters who live right on the edge, nervous, combustible jazz wailing in their ears.
Directed by Robert Wise…1959…96 min…featuring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley.
Slow and plenty gritty, “Warlock” unflinchingly pits frightened citizens and hired gunmen against thug cowboys- all swirling around in the Western dust. There’s passionate love, intense loyalty, strong individualism, harsh violence and a sense of impending doom throughout. The bad men here are not partially bad, they’re all bad and the good ones don’t look so good either.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk…1959…122 min…featuring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, DeForest Kelley, Dolores Michaels.
Look Back in Anger ***
Every time actor Richard Burton’s character starts in on another of his abusive tirades in “Look Back in Anger,” his wife and friend’s eyes roll back in their head. This guy is so relentlessly negative and offensive that there is no talking to him about it, just surrender. As a viewer, that’s what I had to do too- just let my eyes roll back in my head and give up trying to figure the guy out. What makes him so angry?
The truly puzzling part of this movie is why do the people in his life take the constant yelling and insults? Why do two attractive, intelligent women find this train wreck of a fellow so irresistible? Why is this romantic drama- heavy on the drama- of interest?
The bile that Burton’s character spews is well spoken and clever in its way, suggesting there is more here than meets the eye. He is also a rabid jazz fan, playing his trumpet for appreciative crowds at the local jazz club- and at inopportune times in his little crowded apartment, decorated with jazz posters. This recalls the strong jazz theme in “Odds Against Tomorrow,” perhaps reflecting a strong interest in the music in 1959.
Also like “Odds Against Tomorrow,” the black and white photography aptly reflects the grim emotional landscape of the characters and there are some innovative set-ups, like a scene between the angry jazzman and his wife, performed completely in the mirror. However, the constant yelling and intense sadness that it creates negates any form of happiness here- and pretty much any enjoyment of the movie.
One interesting connection I can make between “Look Back in Anger” and the 1959 western “Warlock” is that both movies feature a very strong bond between male characters. In “Warlock” that relationship is between the gun slinging marshal and his gambling business partner. In “Look Back in Anger,” the relationship is between the trumpeter and his buddy, who works a town market pushcart with him and shares the tiny apartment with him and his wife. Both relationships break up in the course of the stories and affects all the men with as much emotion as breaking up with a lover. Gary Raymond plays the buddy with a friendly charisma.
Directed by Tony Richardson…1959…98 min…featuring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Mary Ure, Edith Evans, Gary Raymond, Donald Pleasence.
The 39 Steps ***
A pleasant spy romp with some daring do. Success here is mostly due to the unflappable character played by Kenneth More. He’s perpetually cheerful, always polite and changes his plan with each new development. But who is this guy anyway? He doesn’t seem to be anybody in particular besides a very involved bystander setting off on an adventure. There are some pretty Scottish landscape scenes here, a death-defying escape on a moving train and some vivid characters throughout as the hero bumbles along in the name of national security. It’s a clever web of information smuggling he uncovers too.
Directed by Ralph Thomas…1959…93 min…featuring Kenneth More, Taina Elg, Brenda De Banzie.
Journey to the Center of the Earth ***
When it came to the bottom of the list of movies I could stream from 1959, it became a horrible choice- Pat Boone in “A Journey to the Center of the Earth” or Jerry Lewis in “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” I’d watched a little bit of each and had choked on returning to either. Boone appears so sickly sweet as a grinning fool of a graduate student in “Journey” and Lewis is a dimwit Navy man in “Ship.” Looking for adventure, I went with Boone but I’m not sure that was the best choice as the better of two evils.
Despite Boone, some silly dialogue and a slow start, there are some things to admire about “Journey.” Especially the final quarter of the movie has some eye-popping visuals worth exploring, including dinosaurs and lizards, the lost city of Atlantic and a volcanic eruption. The scenes portraying the underground ocean are also enchanting. These things elevate an otherwise tedious production.
One of the elements that I thought was extremely dumb at first was the duck Gertrude, a part of the exploration party. Finally, however, I thought Gertrude was one of the best characters- at least not spewing self-conscious doggerel.
In general I thought Arlene Dahl was very attractive and even sexy as the widow of an explorer involved in the adventure. James Mason is his usual self as a commanding figure, even when appearing in a cartoonish affair like this. His speech pattern and presence bring to mind actor Sam Neil.
There are some real nasty elements to “Journey.” That includes a murder by cyanide and a discussion between the characters about executing a man, so not everything here is squeaky clean, just mostly.
Directed by Henry Levin…1959…132 min…featuring James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker.
Don’t Give Up the Ship ***
What a goof ball affair- but then again, that’s the point. “Don’t Give Up the Ship” is a Navy-oriented vehicle for Jerry Lewis’ goofy, goofy comedy. He’s an ensign who has been tagged with the responsibility for a missing ship, on the eve of his wedding. This leads to a lot of miscommunication, lots of sight gags and just a little bit of nerd revenge.
Lewis is a master of contorted body language and whacked out facial expressions. He plays multiple roles throughout the movie- with tongue in cheek- and ends up in control of everything that’s happening despite his obnoxious stupidity.
The movie has lots of slapstick comedy in general. The best moments in “Don’t Give Up the Ship” revolve around the funny situations Lewis’ character finds himself in- on an island in the South Pacific surrounded by Japanese soldiers, in the middle of a wrestling match and in a hurricane at the Miami airport.
The best sequence, however, is underwater, Lewis’ goofiness working just fine even with air tanks and masks on. This is over the top goofiness, kind of like Mad Magazine, and Lewis’ nerdy character eventually prevails, kind of like Alfred E Newman in Mad.
So despite my cultured side telling me how inane it is to enjoy a Jerry Lewis movie, I ultimately did. I shook my head at first, but finally had to chuckle at the gags.
Just as James Mason reminded me of Sam Neil in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Dina Merrill’s speech patterns and voice here reminded me very much of Laura Linney.
Directed by Norman Taurog…1959…89 min…featuring Jerry Lewis, Dina Merrill, Diana Spencer, Robert Middleton, Gale Gordon, Claude Akins.
House on Haunted Hill ***
A mystery romp with haunted house trappings. It’s all tongue-in-cheek as Vincent Price pours on the creep factor. But he may not be the worst of the bunch as he hosts a “party” for five strangers who must survive a night in a haunted house to earn a big pay day. Despite the cheap tricks and overblown dialogue, “The House on Haunted Hill” still makes you want to believe in spooks.
Directed by William Castle…1959…75 min…featuring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Elisha Cook Jr, Julie Mitchum.
Solomon and Sheba **
The story of the tumultuous meeting between Solomon, the ancient King of Israel, and the Queen of Sheba. Lavish costuming and a compelling story hardly make up for slow, awkward pacing and flat dialogue here. The “voice of God” scenes are just silly besides.
However, there are some things to watch for- the choreographed pagan ceremony that is Solomon’s downfall, for example, features frenzied, stylized dancing and lots of action. Also, Gina Lollobrigida, as the Queen, is a sizzling image on the screen in a wide variety of gauzy, semi-see through gowns, even if she must painfully deliver lines of dialogue too. The sequence in which the attacking Egyptians are first blinded, then rush over the edge of a chasm is awesome. Yul Brynner plays Solomon with a perpetual scowl.
Directed by King Vidor…1959…139 min…featuring Yul Brynner, Gina Lollobrigida, George Sanders.
A foreign correspondent working in Japan begins a horrible transformation after interviewing a genetic researcher who has gone too far. I like the promo slug for this one- “Half man, half monster, all terror!” The concept here- of a totally separate being growing out of your shoulder and ultimately splitting off from you- is still frightening and adequately portrayed here with impressive special effects and what’s reflected in the terrified, confused guy’s face.
Directed by George P. Breakston, Kenneth G. Crane…1959…72 min…featuring
Peter Dyneley, Jane Hylton, Tetsu Nakamura.
Invisible Invaders **
This has a script written for 10-year-olds, but there is a flicker of creativity here, mixing aliens, zombies and basic ethical philosophy. The aliens here are mostly invisible- revealed only after being subjected to a sound gun- and they have come to earth with an ultimatum. That is, they have observed humans for centuries and paid them no mind- until these pesky humans started reaching for the stars and threatening their peace. So if the humans don’t behave, they’ll be destroyed, as simple as that. Of course, a group of top scientists work nervously to defeat the invaders, and they succeed as the landscape fills with the best-dressed zombies I have ever seen.
Directed by Edward L Cahn…1959…67 min…featuring John Agar, Jean Byron, Philip Tonge, John Carradine
The Wasp Woman **
Very poor production, especially in comparison to Corman’s other 1959 effort, “A Bucket of Blood.” There’s a little tiny bit of suspense here as a cosmetics queen lets her obsession with looking youthful get the better of her. That thin thread- and an inventive instrumental soundtrack, so much abused by being in this movie- is all that keeps this one out of the rubbish bin- the “monster” here is just stupid looking.
However, it’s great to see some of Corman’s stable of actors- Barboura Morris and Bruno VeSota- appear here and in “A Bucket of Blood.” Morris is an attractive girl next door type, but not so naive, and VeSota plays two very different comic character roles.
Directed by Roger Corman…1959…73 min…featuring Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Bruno VeSota, Terri Zimmern.
More 1959 movies:
The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock
The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)
Anatomy of a Murder
The Angry Hills
Attack of the Giant Leeches
Battle Beyond the Sun (Nebo zovet)
Battle in Outer Space
The Beat Generation
The Big Operator
Come Dance with Me
Darby O’Gill and the Little People
The Devil’s Disciple
The Diary of Anne Frank
A Doll’s House
The FBI Story
The Five Pennies
The Fugitive Kind
The Hanging Tree
Hiroshima Mon Amour
A Hole in the Head
The Hound of the Baskervilles
The Jazz Singer
The Last Angry Man
Last Train from Gun Hill
The Mouse That Roared
Never So Few
North by Northwest
On the Beach
Our Man in Havana
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Pork Chop Hill,
Sampo (The Day the Earth Froze)
Shake Hands with the Devil
Some Like It Hot
Suddenly, Last Summer
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
The Young Philadelphians
In hindsight, it would be easy to say 1959 was the sunset of the initial rock and roll movement. To begin with, there was the tragic plane accident, on February 3, 1959, that took away Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. But also Little Richard had recently retired and Jerry Lee Lewis was sidetracked by his wedding scandal. Elvis Presley was still in the service and the Senate payola hearings would begin in November 1959, and eventually succeed in taking down Alan Freed. The final blow came in December 1959 when Chuck Berry was arrested in a situation related to an under-aged employee of his night club. He would stay out of prison while trying and appealing his case, but the day would come when he would serve time for it.
However, in listening to the music of 1959, I got a sense that things were just naturally changing and developing- even getting a sunnier disposition. Instead of snarling rock and rollers, suave crooners and romancers like Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka were sporting slicked back hair. At the end of the 1950s, Connie Francis and Brenda Lee were as perky as it gets and there was sun and surf at the movies with “Gidget.”
Rock and roll was still a part of all of that but had become an established element of the musical lexicon. It was no longer new and it was no longer a definitive movement as such. In that sense, perhaps, an ending had occurred.
However, the indelible musical imprint the artists of the 1950s would leave would last far, far into the future- even more than fifty years later, in 2010, it remains strong. I recently heard Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” in a grocery store and I heard Connie Francis’ “Among My Souvenirs” coming from the PA system at the upscale regional shopping mall.
Rock and roll did not end in 1959 because it still continues- people are still listening to it, new generations are learning and playing the songs as if they were new.
One personal result of this search through the music of the late 1950s was that I chose five representative records from each year I researched- 1956-1959- and created a display of framed 45s- a physical representation of all that lively music- on the wall of my office.
Up in the top corner of my record display is the sunrise on Sun Records- Carl Perkin’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and finally, down in the far bottom corner is the sunset on Sun Records- Johnny Cash’s “Thanks a Lot.”
In the song, Cash’s “thanks a lot” is delivered tongue-in-cheek to an estranged lover. My “thanks a lot” is delivered with sincerity, however. I’m glad I dug back into my pile of dusty records and made this musical journey through some very lively years- a lot of what made the records great then has carried on through the years.
To finish, I’d like to refer to Lloyd Price’s 1959 hit “Personality.” At some point, while playing my 1959 work tape, the song came on at just the right moment to give me a clue to the success of the music of the 1950s: the artists and the sounds all had powerful loads of personality. Characters like Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino were very distinctive figures and music by people like Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
In this period of time, I sense a general outpouring- like a genie escaping from the bottle after being cooped up for so long. In this case, however, there were a couple of dozen genies, all acting out with outlandish style. That’s what the music from 1956-59 has- personality- and it stands out as influential because it mixed bursting talent with crazy fun.
Some of the really serious stuff that happened in 1959 includes Fidel Castro coming to power in Cuba in February. In March, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, seeking asylum in India.
Positive news in 1959: A pair of monkeys were shot into space and returned alive aboard a Jupiter rocket. Negative news: the first human died from AIDS in the Congo. In pop culture: 1959 marks the debut of the Barbie doll and Tampa, Florida’s Busch Gardens opened, both in March. In June, the first fully operation monorail system in the West opened in Disneyland.
The big news in baseball in 1959 was a 12 inning perfect game by the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Harvey Haddix against the Milwaukee Braves in May- and a loss in the 13th inning due to a fielding error.
Baseball great Ted Williams was honored in 1959 with his own set of baseball cards by Fleer, showing him making deals, at play and swinging for the fences. Topps’ new card design in 1959 included lower case lettering for the players’ names, bright background colors and the player photo in a circle. This design is pretty unattractive and begins a number of years of dull card designs going into the early 1960s. However, some of my favorite action cards from the era come from 1959- the “Baseball Thrills” cards.
1959 featured a landmark television premiere- Bonanza. This show, broadcast in color, above all others, would bring families together on Sunday nights all over the country. The show featured the adventure of the Cartwright men- a father and his three very different sons. It was rough-hewn western adventure with bad guys, perilous situations, a little romance and plenty of family values.
Another landmark premiere in 1959 was “Twilight Zone,” the mind twisting mystery show that dabbled in the weird and unexplained, all narrated by the calm, matter-of-fact master of ceremonies Rod Serling. Serling was also a writer- with the eye and mastery of the language of a poet.
The first episode of “Twilight Zone” features a familiar face from “Forbidden Planet,” Earl Holliman. He plays an amnesiac airman wandering around in a strangely deserted town. The twist here becomes more mundane and more insidious at the same time. What a great item on your resume as an actor- the first episode of “Twilight Zone”!
What I discovered is that “Twilight Zone,” in its first season at least, is just great television, even fifty some years later. The episodes are only 24 minutes long, but within each, Serling and company churn out detailed and developed little stage plays. Often that’s how the writing is credited here: “teleplay.” Added to this is a high quality, edgy soundtrack.
But more, Serling’s “teleplays” featured not just one or two, but a whole army of the day’s great actors. That includes characters like Ed Wynn, Jack Warden, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Rod Taylor and more.
The stories are often apocalyptic. There is a sense of karma here- and the justice is often dark, as dark as the devil in some cases. But further, it is a constant reference to the unknown that keeps working here. By reaching out to create stories on the edge of sanity and logic, a certain vitality surges from the project. In “The Twilight Zone” that vitality not only questions what people generally believe for shock value, but it also has a moral purpose, punishing greedy and mean people as the universe sees fit.
I watched the first few episodes of “Twilight Zone” out of curiosity- as artifacts. I continued to watch the entire run of 1959 episodes because I found new qualities in each one that kept me going. There isn’t much about what I saw that needs to be updated- the original “Twilight Zone” episodes are crisp pieces of work, full of wonder and meaning. They are just excellent television- setting a high standard.
Other 1959, first season “Twilight Zone” episodes:
Episode 2: Ed Wynn, Murray Hamilton. (A salesman works his magic on Mr. Death.)
Episode 3: Dan Duryea, Martin Landau (as a really nasty cowboy!), Jeanne Cooper. (An odd stranger comes to the aid of a town drunk in the Old West, as well as to the aid of a young gunslinger.)
Episode 4: Ida Lupino, Martin Balsam. (A faded film star wishes herself into her own glorious past.)
Episode 5: Gig Young, Frank Overton, Ron Howard. (A stressed out urbanite returns to his hometown- and to an important summer of his youth.)
Episode 6: David Wayne, Thomas Gomez. (A hypochondriac makes a deal for immortality without considering all the angles.)
Episode 7: Jack Warden, John Dehner, Jean Marsh. (A convict on an asteroid establishes a relationship with a female robot.)
Episode 8: Burgess Meredith, Vaughn Taylor. (A bookworm survives the apocalypse but fate deals him a blow.)
Episode 9: Richard Conte, John Larch, Suzanne Lloyd. (A man is frightened he’ll be killed by an exotic woman in his dreams. This episode is particularly intense, even for “Twilight Zone.”)
Episode 10: Nehemiah Persoff, Patrick Macnee. (A confused man become agitated about the fate of the ship he finds himself on during World War II.)
Episode 11: Rod Taylor, Jim Hutton. (The members of the surviving crew of a spacecraft crash seem to be inexplicably disappearing.)
Episode 12: Steve Cochran, Ernest Truex, Read Morgan, Arlene Martel. (An old peddler catches the eye of a thug looking for an easy angle.)
Also premiering in 1959: Dennis the Menace, featuring Jay North as Dennis Michell, Herbert Anderson as Henry, Gloria Henry as Alice, Joseph Kearns as George Wilson and Gil Smith as Joey. The first episode tells you what is to come- the ever-active adventures of a youngster too full of energy to keep tabs on. He might be a kid they would give drugs to today, but back in 1959, he was simply precocious.
Dennis is clever and creative with every situation that comes his way- from trying to fix the kitchen table to helping the neighbor paint his house. But he is also easily distracted. Plus, Dennis’s ambitions are bigger than his skills and nearly everything he comes into contact with gets upset. North plays Dennis just like the little Dennis icon in the opening credits- a tornado in a fireman’s outfit.
I liked Dennis’s parents- especially his Dad’s warm, wide smile. But the character who gets my sympathy is “good old Mr. Wilson,” played with plenty of vinegar by Kearns. He is bedeviled by this little monster, yet likes him just the same.
Above all, though, my favorite character of the bunch in the first episode is the little friend named Joey. He doesn’t say a word- just smiles and does what he is told by devilish Dennis- and is very refreshing for it. Joey becomes a stand-in for Dennis at home with a babysitter while Dennis sneaks into the movie theater to see the Western his folks have gone to, disrupting things in the theater, of course.
Other new shows: Rawhide, The Rebel and The Untouchables.
The Elements of Style
by William Strunk, Jr & EB White
I have been shaking my head often recently. In the early 21st Century atmosphere of free blogging and unbridled public comment on the Internet, I lament the shape our language is in. It has become truncated, squeezed, misused and neglected. I see it all of the time in site articles, blog entries and commentary- misspellings, lousy grammar and total disregard for form. The point seems to be to express yourself at all costs- quickly.
In a modern era where writing has become just terrible, 1959’s “The Elements of Style” reaches out of the past to plead for something more. It’s a dry and difficult book to try to read- unless you love language. That is, language with the love and intensity of poetry, and proper form with the love and care of a fine painting.
More 1959 Books:
Isaac Asimov – Nine Tomorrows
Saul Bellow – Henderson the Rain King
Robert Bloch – Psycho
Ray Bradbury – A Medicine for Melancholy
John Brunner – Echo in the Skull, The World Swappers
William S. Burroughs – Naked Lunch
Taylor Caldwell – Dear and Glorious Physician
Agatha Christie – Cat Among the Pigeons
Richard Condon – The Manchurian Candidate
Julio Cortázar – Las armas secretas (short stories)
Richard Crichton – The Great Impostor
Allen Drury – Advise and Consent
Lawrence Durrell – Mountolive
Ian Fleming – Goldfinger
William Golding – Free Fall
Günter Grass – The Tin Drum
Robert A. Heinlein The Menace From Earth
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
John Knowles – A Separate Peace
William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick – The Ugly American
H. P. Lovecraft and Divers Hands – The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces
Norman Mailer – Advertisements for Myself
James A. Michener – Hawaii
Mordecai Richler – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
Philip Roth – Goodbye, Columbus
Alan Sillitoe – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Terry Southern – The Magic Christian
John Updike – The Same Door
Leon Uris – Exodus
Kurt Vonnegut – The Sirens of Titan
Edward Albee – The Death of Bessie Smith (written)
Jean Anouilh – Becket
Samuel Beckett – Embers (first broadcast)
Bertolt Brecht – Saint Joan of the Stockyards
Albert Camus – The Possessed
Jean Genet – The Blacks
Lorraine Hansberry – A Raisin in the Sun
Eugène Ionesco – The Killer
Harold Pinter – The Caretaker (first published)
Jean-Paul Sartre – The Condemned of Altona
Tennessee Williams – Sweet Bird of Youth
Kenneth Anger – Hollywood Babylon
C. S. Forester – Sink the Bismarck! aka The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White – The Elements of Style
W. H. Auden, Selected Poetry
Hayden Carruth, the Crow and the Heart
Robert Duncan, Selected Poems
Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish
Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues
Kenneth Koch, Ko, or a Season on Earth
Denise Levertov, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads
Robert Lowell, Life Studies
James Merrill, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and Other Poems
W. S. Merwin, translation, The Poem of the Cid
Marianne Moore, O to Be a Dragon
Vladimir Nabokov, Poems
Ogden Nash, Verses from 1929 On
Ezra Pound, Thrones: 96–109 de los cantares
Charles Reznikoff, Inscriptions: 1944-1956
Theodore Roethke, Words for the Wind
Delmore Schwartz, Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems 1938-1958
Louis Simpson, A Dream of Governors
W. D. Snodgrass, Heart’s Needle
Gary Snyder, Riprap
May Swenson, A Cage of Spines
Richard Wilbur, Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems
Louis Zukofsky, A 1-12