Rock and Roll Days . . . .
In 1955 a middle- of- the- road, classroom drama called The Blackboard Jungle hit British cinema screens. As the titles rolled the pioneer of rock Bill Haley and His Comets played “Rock Around the Clock”. Audiences stomped their feet, waved their arms above their heads and, for the first time, young and old together rocked and rolled in picture house aisles.
This made Hollywood producers realise rock and roll was exactly what movie fans wanted and 20th Century Fox went swiftly into action with Jayne Mansfield in, The Girl Can’t Help It ( 1956). But outspoken critics did not approve, and one newspaper writer told readers, “Judging by the sounds Miss Mansfield is making, she can’t help it either!”
Nevertheless, young rock and roll fans weren’t bothered what the newspapers had to say and they judged for themselves, by going to picture palaces in droves throughout Britain and all over the world.
In 1956 Elvis Presley made his debut appearance on the silver screen. The theme song of the movie Love Me Tender gave Elvis his first hit record.
It was not until 1957 that the British film industry realised that it was letting Hollywood dominate British cinema screens. It was well- known that musical knowledge was amiss in the British film industry. But suddenly British studio bosses woke up and started looking for a British musical star with the right kind of talent.
At the tender age of 21, Tommy Steele found himself in the limelight as the British moviemakers’ answer to Elvis Presley. After some clever persuasion the young lad agreed to star in a story depicting his own life The Tommy Steele Story ( 1957). That proved to be a successful forerunner to another two pictures starring Tommy The Duke Wore Jeans ( 1958) and Tommy the Toreador ( 1959).
But alas, Tommy was far from happy making movies, he preferred to be on stage in front of a live audience showing off his own talents. Being stereotyped as Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley was not his idea of stardom. Tommy wanted to be a star in his own right.
Determined to find another Presley- type rock and roller, British producers turned to Frankie Vaughan who had made his film debut in a low- budget movie entitled These Dangerous Years ( 1957). But Frankie — already acclaimed as a Victor Mature lookalike — was now in his late thirties and this “older rocker” did not appeal to younger cinemagoers, and proved to be more of a “housewives’ choice”!
In a forerunner to what became an unremitting “Find- a- Presley” campaign, teenager Terry Dene, with his first big hit “A White Sports Coat” rising in the charts, appeared to be exactly right to fit the top spot. Not only did Dene swing his hips and have almost identical body language as Elvis, he curled his bottom lip in a mirror image of the man being hailed all over the world as the “King of Rock and Roll”.
Terry Dene was quickly groomed to star in The Golden Disc ( 1958) alongside other notables of the day Dennis Lotis and Sheila Buxton. Then he was pushed in at the deep- end when studio chiefs sent him out on the road to entertain cinema audiences and publicise his movie.
Barely 17, Terry was petrified by this sudden stardom. He confessed that he didn’t really want it to be like this and openly admitted he was scared out of his wits at the thought of becoming a teenage idol. “I never intended it should go this far, I will never be able to cope with all of this... I just really want to sing, without all this hype,” he repeated. Sadly, no one listened and even though not legally old enough to buy or consume alcohol, he took to the bottle to ease the burden of his sudden leap to fame. Fined on many occasions for his drunken exploits and vandalism, Terry’s name constantly hit the headlines.
Shortly after his 18th birthday he was called up for National Service, but two months after his initiation in the army, without explanation, he was discharged and just as suddenly, his music career collapsed. The one- time rock and roller who, a few months earlier, had the whole world at his feet, swiftly turned to the Christian gospel and street corner evangelism.
Once again the search was on with producers determined to fill the gap. Colin Hicks, Tommy Steele’s younger brother, thought he would fit the bill and producers were happy to give him a go. But British rockers made it clear that they would not allow studio bosses to pick anyone who would sing and strum a guitar with a shake of the
hips. So Hicks was quickly given the cold shoulder. The British public decided they wanted their own King of Rock.
Cliff Richard was 19- yearsold when he first showed up on the rock and roll scene. He had recently appeared in the film Serious Charge ( 1959), which starred Sarah Churchill ( Prime Minister, Winston’s daughter) and Anthony Quayle. It was just a minor role for Cliff, but it gave him the opportunity to sing “Living Doll”, which he recorded with The Drifters who later changed their name to The Shadows.
The single went on to sell a million copies and from then on Cliff’s eminence as a rock and roll performer was never in any doubt. It seemed Britain had, at last, found its answer to Presley passion!
Adam Faith was the same age as Cliff Richard when he set out to prove that he could sing and act. And prove it he did! Britain struck lucky with not one, but two top rockers. That was until Adam Faith became bored with rock and roll and decided he just wanted to act. He went on to make a big name for himself as Budgie on television in the early Seventies.
The Six- Five Special television programme was a tremendous success and it was followed by a full- length movie in 1958. The film starred Jim Dale, a good- looking part- time rock and
roller of the early Fifties. Petula Clark also put in an appearance, together with Lonnie Donegan of “Rock Island Line” fame. Russ Hamilton, Joan Regan and Dickie Valentine made up the team of fabulous stars in what turned out to be Britain’s smashhit musical of the decade.
By the end of the Fifties, the fever and passion of rock and roll that once sent cinema audiences wild began to subside. Stars like Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Petula Clark and Lonnie Donegan were now recording more soothing and popular ballads.
Maybe it is just sentiment, or a kind of adoration we hold for the Fifties, that it has become fashionable to refer to all pop music as “rock”, and many of today’s singers call themselves rock singers. Musicians too, do not seem to mind the terminology used by DJs to describe them as “rock” musicians. Yet little remains in today’s music of the original rock and roll that erupted like a volcano in the early Fifties.
The real rock and roll, as introduced by Bill Haley and His Comets, is now a jealously guarded memory, and arguments still continue that the Six- Five Special was the forerunner for Oh Boy! and Top of the Pops. Initially the BBC refused to play rock and roll, which they said could lead the young — and especially teenagers — into trouble. Reluctantly, and under pressure, radio and television producers had to give in and rock and rollers got their first chance to view the Six- Five Special in 1957. Top rockers featured regularly in the programme and Halifax- born Don Lang, with his Frantic Five became the show’s house band.
Artistes included Marion Ryan, remember “Why do Fools Fall in Love?”, and Lord Rockingham’s XI with “Hoots Mon”, and vivacious Alma Cogan. Then there was Marty Wilde, Conway Twitty and who could forget Wee Willie Harris with his bright pink hair?
Another Six- Five specialist worth a mention was 14- year- old Laurie London, whose first record sold more than a million. The confident youngster took the city by storm when, in 1957, he leapt onto the platform of the BBC Earl’s Court Radio Show and said he wanted to sing. He took a guitar from one of the musicians and burst into “The Ballad of Jesse James”. Within hours he was signed up by EMI and his first single “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” was a massive hit.
Then along came East Ender Tommy Bruce, with “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, who the critics accused of being too much like the Big Bopper. Britain was no longer short of rockers and very soon Liverpudlian Billy Fury, alongside Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard, were named as the most celebrated rockers of the decade.
By the early Sixties The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were on their way. So too were Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers and Cilla Black ( see Evergreen, Spring 2014). Rock and roll, once regarded as degrading and degenerate by those in authority, was proving to be the music of the moment. To be truthful though it was nearing a decline as the new era of Twist and Shake was taking over.
But true rock and rollers will never let their exciting, rough- edged music disappear and there is little doubt that sometime in the future, the generations will get together to “Rock Around the Clock” in a revival of those good old, rock and roll days. Let it be soon!
Tommy Steele was billed as Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley.
Terry Dene became a reluctant star at the age of 17.
Cliff Richard ( above) and Adam Faith ( below) were both 19 when they hit the rock and roll scene.
Jim Dale starred in the “Six- Five Special” film while Wee Willie Harris ( above) appeared on the television programme. Pete Murray ( top left) hosted the “Six- Five Special” and Don Lang ( below) led the show’s resident band.
Billy Fury sculpture in Liverpool.