Rock and Roll Days . . . .

Evergreen - - Contents Summer 2015 - El­iz­a­beth France

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.

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