Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rock, Rock, Rock! (Vanguard/Distributors’ Corporation of America, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had a rock ’n’ roll double-bill last night with the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock! from Milton Subotsky’s Vanguard Productions, releasing through something called Distributors’ Corporation of America; and Hey, Let’s Twist! (it’s an indication of the irrepressible energy the people merchandising these films wanted to convey to potential moviegoers that both titles end in exclamation points), a 1961 release by Harry Romm Productions and Paramount, Rock, Rock, Rock! is one of the vehicles featuring the ur-rock ’n’ roll D.J., Alan Freed, who not only popularized the music but even coined the name for it (which he drew from the old blues song “My Daddy Rocks Me with One Steady Roll”). The idea was to be able to sell rhythm-and-blues music to white people without giving away that the artists he was playing on his show were Black; in 1952 in Cleveland he held what he called a “Moondog Dance” (Freed was originally going to call it “moondog music,” after the Todd Rhodes instrumental “Blues for Moon Dog,” but the blind New York street musician Louis “Moondog” Hardin threatened to sue) and promoted it exclusively on his D.J. show. It was such a success that afterwards he took out trade-paper ads boasting, “Radio Alone Drew 50,000!” — an indication of how radio could secure its future as a medium now that television had usurped its previous function as a conduit for drama, comedy and news. It’s because of Freed’s contribution to the music — even though it was, as Arnold Shaw politely pointed out, “more promotional than creative” — that the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame ended up in Cleveland (artistically, it should have been in Memphis, Tennessee — which played the same role in the development of rock that New Orleans did for jazz — but the Memphis city fathers have made their town a virtual theme park for Elvis Presley and in the process have crowded out just about any other commemoration of their city’s rich musical history).

Freed rose and fell rapidly; in 1955 he was the most popular D.J. in the country, with a showcase on a big New York station, a national TV show called The Big Beat (also the title of one of the key songs in Rock, Rock, Rock!), a regular gig hosting package tours and a two-film contract with Columbia Pictures to bring his great stars to the screen in films with titles like Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock. Then he became the poster boy for the payola scandal, fueled by Congressmembers who, once the headline-making potential for going after movie stars and writers as secret Communists was pretty much drained, seized on rock and alleged that no one really liked it; it dominated the airwaves and music charts only because record companies were bribing D.J.’s to play it. Freed had taken advantage of all the opportunities to make “side action” money for a non-performer in the music biz, including taking cut-in writing credits on songs like the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” (the Moonglows are featured prominently in this film) and taking fees from record companies to play certain records; according to one of Arnold Shaw’s interviewees in the book Honkers and Shouters, Freed also was in hock to at least one record-company owner: Jerry Blaine, president of Jubilee Records, owned the mortgage on Freed’s house. Watching Rock, Rock, Rock! just after Jamboree! (made by the same production team the next year but released by a major studio, Warner Bros.) made it clear why Freed was destroyed by the payola scandal while Dick Clark, who made his big-screen debut in Jamboree!, was singed by it but ultimately survived; Clark was essentially the White Knight of rock ’n’ roll, clean, well-scrubbed, light-skinned and pushing people like Frankie Avalon and other representatives of the “Philadelphia Sound” associated with Chancellor Records, while the swarthy, almost intimidating Freed was its Dark Prince, presenting racially mixed programs and treating his Black performers as the equals of his white ones — not the way things usually worked out in the 1950’s.

As seamy as some of Freed’s business practices may have been, he was enough of a good guy it’s a shame he fell as far and as fast as he did — and even before the payola scandals broke he seems to have been on the way down, given that after making two films for Columbia his next movie project, Rock, Rock, Rock!, was under the less prestigious auspieces of Harry Romm Productions and Distributors’ Corporation of America. It’s one of those silly rock movies that looks like it cost $12.98 to produce, and Milton Subotsky’s screenplay reads like Romm bought it from a homeless person carrying a sign reading, “Will write for food.” Its plot is even more trivial than the stories of most of these movies: Dori (Tuesday Weld) is a young suburban teenager whose principal concern is getting a dazzling evening dress and getting her boyfriend Tommy Rogers (Teddy Randazzo) to take her to the high-school prom — while her dad (Jack Collins), in order to teach her the value of money, cuts off all her charge accounts just before she’s expecting to buy her prom dress. So Dori decides to try to make the money for the dress by becoming a banker, accepting a $15 “deposit” from her friend Arabella (Fran Manfred) and loaning it to her bitter rival, Gloria (Jacqueline Kerr) — the usual stuck-up bitch in these productions; she seems like the Jane Withers character from Bright Eyes about a decade later — who wants to buy a prom dress that will outdo everyone else’s. Thinking that she’s only charging 1 percent interest, she demands $15 in interest along with the $15 principal as her repayment — apparently Dori has been cutting too many math classes — and Gloria accepts the terms, then rats Dori out to Tommy and threatens to expose her to the whole school unless Tommy takes her, not Dori, to the prom. This plot is, if anything, even more boring on screen than it sounds in this synopsis, but fortunately Alan Freed and his rock stars get long montages of musical numbers to enliven the proceedings even though surprisingly little of the music in this film has much to do with rock ’n’ roll as we think of it today.

Certainly Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” qualifies — even though the dominant instrument on the song is Otis Spann’s blues piano (replacing Berry’s usual pianist, Johnny Johnson, for that one session only) rather than Berry’s guitar — and so does the great rockabilly side “Lonesome Train” by Johnny Burnette’s Rock ’n’ Roll Trio (though the appeal of this one has as much or more to do with the searing electric guitar by Johnny’s brother Dorsey than Johnny’s plummy Elvis-esque voice), and as Charles pointed out the two songs by the Moonglows and two by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers would count as rock if the 1960’s hadn’t taught us to think of rock and soul as different genres. Frankie Lymon comes off here, even more than usually, as the Michael Jackson of the 1950’s, projecting star charisma to spare and singing in a haunting voice that makes him seem wise beyond his years and towering over his group-mates (as well as his brother Lewis, who appeared with a similar act in Jamboree! and couldn’t help but evoke comparisons with the other Jacksons, even though the Lymons never performed together as a brother act the way the Jacksons did). He does two songs in a row — a rare privilege in these musical smorgasbords — one a “counting” song built around numbers the way the early Jackson Five hit “ABC” was built around the alphabet, the other an almost unbearably ironic song called “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” in which Frankie Lymon pledges to follow the straight-and-narrow — advice which, needless to say, he didn’t in real life. Arnold Shaw quotes an interview Lymon gave years after his success in which he was unsurprisingly bitter about the way he was treated, intimating that his managers saw him developing a drug habit and did nothing to stop him because a drugged-up Lymon was less likely than a sober one would have been to ask where all the money he was earning was going. As a result he died in 1968 at age 25 of an overdose of heroin. LaVern Baker — whose name in the credits, along with her listed record affiliation with Atlantic, led Charles to joke that she was the first Black artist credited who did not record for Chess (though Lymon and the Teenagers recorded for Gee, a label in the Roulette family) — plows through “Tra-La-La,” one of the nonsense novelty songs she hated but which sold millions of records for her; she wanted the kind of material Dinah Washington was getting and at one point persuaded Atlantic to let her do a Bessie Smith tribute album, which bombed. Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers, a rambunctious Haley-esque white band with two saxophone players, do two songs, one of which makes the spectacularly wrong prediction that the signature instrument of rock will be … the tenor sax.

Those are the musical high points; the rest of the film is filled with surprisingly lame non-rock pop ballads, including some sung in character by Teddy Randazzo and Connie Francis (as Tuesday Weld’s voice double) reflecting the ups-and-downs of their characters’ on-screen romance; Randazzo is clearly going after the Sinatra style (at a time when just about every aspiring male singer of Italian-American ancestry was lighting candles to photos of Sinatra!) and he’s got the voice to pull it off but not the Master’s sense of phrasing — and he isn’t helped by annoyingly shrill, brass-heavy arrangements that had Charles and I joking we were listening to Joshua’s trumpet section. And Connie Francis is … well, Connie Francis; she had a pleasant but thin voice and she seems to carry around her echo chamber with her the way Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly seemed able to materialize taps on their shoes whenever a dance number required them. Rock, Rock, Rock! is a lumbering mess of a movie, fun to watch when the more soulful rock and soul performers are on screen but saddled with one of the dullest and most trivial plots of all time and all too many non-rock acts on the musical program, including Cirino and the Bowties (at a time when many people still remembered that bow ties had been a Sinatra trademark in the 1940’s), a knock-off of the “Four” groups — the Four Aces, Four Lads, Four Freshmen, Brothers Four, etc. — who seem decidedly out of place in a film called Rock, Rock, Rock! If nothing else, Rock, Rock, Rock! shows that the takeover of pop music by rock ’n’ roll in the 1950’s was nowhere near as total as the legend would have it; groups with virtually no connection to rock were still making it big on the charts and selling lots of records. Indeed, many of Freed’s package tours included big bands — on one he had Count Basie, who’d just made it big with the rock audience with the 1955 hit “Every Day I Have the Blues” with singer Joe Williams — and the final number in this movie is an instrumental that, aside from the heavy backbeat with which the drummer is playing, wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the 1940’s and features ex-Duke Ellington tenor saxophonist Al Sears. During the early scene in which Dori’s dad joins her and Arabella on the couch as Freed’s TV show is playing — and gets so excited by what he’s hearing and seeing he pushes Arabella off the end of the couch — I half-expected him to say, “Of course I like this music! It sounds just like the big-band swing your mom and I listened to when we were dating!”