by Robert Seoane

ELVIS PRESLEY – THE EVERLY BROTHERS – THE TEEN POP IDOLS – BOBBY RYDELL – FABIAN – FRANKIE AVALON – BEACH MOVIES AND GIDGET – THE BRILL BUILDING – DON KIRSHNER – NEIL SEDAKA – PAUL ANKA – BOBBY DARIN

1959 was more than just the last year of the most prosperous decade for America. It was a year of changes that would reverberate through the rest of the Twentieth Century. In world news, a dangerous revolution was establishing itself just ninety miles from the United States on the island of Cuba. It would start to produce a wave of refugees entering the United States en masse by 1962. In the meantime, film and television offered the public an entertainment option that differed greatly from the days when the family huddled around the radio to listen to their favorite shows. Movies were bigger and brighter than ever, relying on state-of-the-art late Fifties technology called Technicolor, Vista Vision and Cinerama. All of them added up to very large screens and less black and white films, two advantages that were impossible for the television industry to compete with in 1959. Hit movies of that year include Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classic “North By Northwest” with Cary Grant, the spectacle of William Wyler’s “Ben Hur” with Charlton Heston, and the comic brilliance of Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” (considered by AFI to be the best movie comedy of all time) with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.



Children’s programming had been making inroads on television since the medium’s first broadcast year. In 1947, “Howdy Doody” was one of the first national TV shows broadcast daily on the NBC Network. Sales and ad men drawn by the financial potential of selling television advertising to children (who in turn will nag their mothers until she buys the damn thing) incorporated their clients’ products into the programming as a novel and sneaky way of brainwashing the children of America. “Howdy Doody” pioneered product integration and in 1959, was enjoying its last year on national television.

 

ELVIS’ SECOND YEAR IN THE ARMY

Elvis Presley was in Friedburg, Germany in 1959, going through his second and last year in the Army. That was the year he bought and moved into his three story, five-bedroom house at 14 Goethestrasse, Bad Nauheim on February 3rd, the same day Buddy Holly’s plane crashed. He had purchased the home for whenever the Army would give him time off from the barracks life. The news of Holly’s death must have spooked Elvis because he avoided small planes and opted for ground transportation that summer on his way back to Friedburg from a 15-day furlough in Paris with his pals. He rented a limousine for him and his entourage instead. It cost him $800 to take them from Paris to Friedburg, approximately $6500 in 2015 dollars. These pals that were quickly becoming his entourage hung around Elvis frequently, making themselves comfortable in his new home. From that moment on, Elvis would always have hangers-on and yes-men dogging and flattering their way into his inner circle.

Elvis was introduced to lifelong interests and vices during his time in the US Army. His Sergeant had already given him and the rest of his fellow servicemen amphetamines to maintain their stamina when going out on early morning drills and Elvis took them eagerly. He also developed a lifelong interest in weapons and handguns during his time in the Army, as well as a fascination with martial arts; he began studying karate in 1959.

Despite his best efforts at trying to be average Private Presley, his rock star celebrity status was impossible to squelch. Fans were constantly coming over from all over Europe to get a chance to meet him, and Elvis was always available and cordial. A sign hung outside his front door on 14 Goethestrasse that read “Autographs from 7:30 to 8:00PM”. He threw a major rock star-style “Over The Hump” party on the day of his first year anniversary of his induction into the Army to celebrate the fact that he only had another year to go. He spent his 15-day furlough in Paris in June 1959 and, among other dalliances, dated sex bomb movie star Brigitte Bardot. During that furlough, he and his entourage booked an entire floor at the Prince De Galles Hotel near the Champs Elysees and frequented the Lido Club and the Moulin Rouge, where they would bring back a different dancing girl nightly to their rooms. One particular evening, Elvis received a complaining phone call from the Lido house management demanding their entire chorus line be returned back to them immediately.

Elvis served in the US Army during a time of peace, so any chance of America’s reigning King of Rock ‘n’ Roll to sustain any war injuries were minimal. Still, he managed to injure his knee when he fell off a jeep while the driver was making a sharp turn on March 18, 1959. That was the worst injury he sustained during his entire tour of duty. Approximately two and a half months later, Presley was promoted to Specialist 4th Class and received a $122.30 a month salary (about $1000 in 2015, a small stipend next to the millions he was already making).

 

PRISCILLA BEAULIEU

On August 15, 1959, Army Captain Paul Beaulieu was reassigned to Wiesbaden, Germany, near Friedburg, with his three daughters and his fourteen year old step-daughter, Priscilla Ann. In order to make friends, Priscilla would frequent the Eagles Club, an eating and entertainment establishment for US servicemen and women. There, she befriended a handsome twenty-something airman named Currie Grant and his wife. On September 13, Currie asked Priscilla if she’d like to go meet Elvis Presley at a private party.

Priscilla wore a white navy sailor dress the night she met her future husband. Elvis took an immediate liking to her, but was keenly aware of her tender age. They made small talk and kidded each other. Priscilla commented how she was sorry to see that the Army had shaved off his sideburns. Elvis felt comfortable around her; Priscilla was not your typical swooning fan. She kept her cool, besides the fact that she was beautiful. Elvis decided that despite the fact she was only fourteen, he would start courting her. Priscilla gladly visited him regularly. For the following six months that Elvis would be in the Army, he and Priscilla became inseparable. Indeed, they tied the knot on May 1, 1967, approximately seven years after they first met. The courtship would last until her twenty-first birthday, but it wouldn’t be an easy courtship for Priscilla, having to look the other way countless times while her future fiancée dallied with every famous actress in Hollywood.

In the meantime, the A&R men at Capitol were still churning out Elvis product to keep him in the public eye. Besides compiling best-selling greatest hits collections, they released three singles during 1959, all to Top Ten success.

ONE NIGHT/I GOT STUNG – ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis first recorded “One Night” on January 18, 1957 with different, more explicit lyrics (for the Fifties) than the eventual release. Although he liked the song, Capitol wouldn’t release the recording. Elvis then sat down to change the words and re-recorded the tune. Originally called “One Night (of Sin)”, he changed the lyrics from “one night of sin is what I’m now paying for”, to “One night with you is what I’m now praying for”. It was then released and climbed to Number Four on the Billboard Pop chart in the Winter of 1959.

Rock critic Pete Johnson pointed out that ‘One Night” is one of the few rock ‘n’ roll songs with the use of a triple negative in the lyrics: “I ain’t never did no wrong.”

Its B-Side, “I Got Stung”, was recorded the previous year in Nashville when he was given leave for a week. He used that week to record more product because Elvis was very concerned that his fans would forget him while he was away so long. He needn’t have worried. “I Got Stung” is a fast-paced catchy tune that managed to reach Number Eight on Billboard’s Pop chart.

“Holy smokes, land sakes alive, I never thought this would happen to me… I got stung… yeh…” –“I Got Stung” – Elvis Presley

(NOW AND THEN THERE’S) A FOOL SUCH AS I/I NEED YOUR LOVE TONIGHT – ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis’ second single released in 1959 was another Double A-Side, where each song on both sides were equally good and suitable for maximum radio airplay. Originally performed and released by Hank Snow in 1953, Elvis’ version of “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” reached Number Two in the Spring of 1959.


The song had other covers besides Presley’s. Bob Dylan played the tune during the Big Pink recording sessions in 1967. Those sessions produced the famous Basement Tapes that have been bootlegged for decades, until 2014 when the entire set of recordings were finally released in its entirety in a CD box set.

The flip-side, “I Need Your Love Tonight” also enjoyed chart success, reaching Number Four in the Billboard Pop chart, also during the spring of ’59. The Elvis juggernaut was showing no signs of a slowdown, despite the fact that its resident King was out of commission until March of 1960. The songs he had left behind for release while he was away was proving to be as popular as if he was a civilian.

A BIG HUNK O’ LOVE/MY WISH CAME TRUE – ELVIS PRESLEY

Released for the summer of 1959, this would be the last Elvis Presley single in 1959. It was a good ending because, although “My Wish Came True” stalled short of the Billboard Top Ten at Number 12, “A Big Hunk O’ Love” made it to Number One and stayed there for two weeks.


1959 was drawing to a close and Elvis was less than three months away from returning to civilian life. The Sixties would be an entirely different journey for the King, as he started to prefer making movies over recording. Although he still released albums and singles throughout that decade, even his popularity began to wane with the arrival of The Beatles. It took a national television special on NBC, broadcast in 1968, that brought the King back to his rightful throne. Music once again became the primary force of his life and as he morphed into a new Elvis for the Seventies, he began to launch world tours that at one point made him the biggest draw in Las Vegas.

THE EVERLY BROTHERS

Phil and Don took it hard when their good friend Buddy Holly died. They had toured with him in 1957 and 1958. Holly had noticed how well dressed the Brothers always were when they appeared on-stage, so he took it upon himself and his group the Crickets to always wear matching suits onstage, a wardrobe style mimicked just a few years later by the Beatles.

Phil Everly attended the funeral and sat with Holly’s parents. Don stayed at home, shocked by the tragic accident.

“I couldn’t go to the funeral. I couldn’t go anywhere. I just took to my bed.” – Don Everly

The Brothers’ recording output in 1959 was comprised of merely a few singles. Their second album, “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us”, was released in December of 1958. It was a brave departure from rock ‘n’ roll into the folk music they grew up with and loved, and as a result didn’t fare too well commercially. It didn’t even crack in Billboard’s National Top Albums chart, nor did it appear in any UK charts either. It did however, immediately follow the Kingston Trio’s folk release the summer before, and aided in heralding the introduction of the folk genre into rock ‘n’ roll.

RIP IT UP – THE EVERLY BROTHERS

Their first single of 1959 was their version of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up”. The fact that it didn’t even crack the Billboard Hot 100 was a strong indication of how the young rock ‘n’ roll audience had enough of whitened version of songs when the original versions sound great anyway. The recording is good, and the Everly Brothers sing it well, but when you compare it to Little Richard’s original, it just doesn’t compete.


TAKE A MESSAGE TO MARY – THE EVERLY BROTHERS

Their second single was equally uneventful. It followed the same musical vein as their current folk-tinged album as a storytelling love song. It did manage to break the national Billboard chart all the way into the Top Twenty, climbing up to Number 16.

Despite the Brothers’ return to the chart, it looked as though they had lost their pop inspiration and was heading towards a more musically traditional path. Their next string of singles however, would change all that.

(‘TIL) I KISSED YOU – THE EVERLY BROTHERS

The Everly Brothers’ third and final single of 1959 was the charm. A sweet, simple, happy love song that makes you want to hold hands and skip down the road with the first person you meet on the street… or at least think about doing so.

“Never felt like this until I kissed ya, how did I exist until I kissed ya, never had you on my mind, now you’re there all the time, never knew what I missed til I kissed ya, uh-huh, I kissed ya, oh yeah…” – (‘Til) I Kissed You – The Everly Brothers

The song cracked the national Billboard Top Ten Pop chart and reached Number Four in the US. It also captured the Number Two position in the UK. It made it to Number Eight in the Country chart and even hit Number 22 in the R&B chart, proving the song’s universality and the ability of the Brothers’ talent to cross ethnic divides, very much like the young, white rock ‘n’ roll audience’s eager acceptance of R&B. Rock ‘n’ Roll was integrating everyone.

As the Fifties drew to a close, the Everly Brothers were poised to continue their string of hit singles, including their biggest selling song, released in 1960 and co-written by them, “Cathy’s Clown”.

Their stardom would be eclipsed like most everyone else’s with the arrival of the British Beatles onto American shores, but their impact and influence in rock and roll is deep. Their lilting melodies, crisp, tight acoustic guitars and pitch perfect vocals touched the subsequent generation of musicians and they in turn interpreted it in their own unique, personal ways, giving rise to a flood of songs written during the Sixties that would last for decades to come and sound as fresh as when they were first released. This is the legacy of the Everly Brothers.

 

THE FIRST ROCK ‘N’ ROLL TEEN POP IDOLS

Practically every generation had their teen pop idols. In the beginning of the 20th Century, they were crooners like Rudy Vallee. During the Thirties and Forties it was the classic voices, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. It’s safe to say that rock ‘n’ roll’s first teen pop idol was Elvis, although precursors of rock ‘n roll like Johnny Ray was also enjoying similar teenage adulation. But Elvis was a spark that came out of nowhere. Unlike the King’s success, the typical teen pop idol would be, for the most part, deliberately manufactured for the female teenage market. Entrepreneur Ozzie Nelson was the first to bank on the teen pop idol craze with his son Rick. It was simple to promote him because Rick was a co-star in “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet”, his father’s very popular situation comedy. The show had the audience, so all Ozzie had to do was let Rick sing on the show and the young girls would swoon. He already had the looks. In fact, by 1959, all the teen pop idols were dark haired, white young men.

It was watered down rock ‘n’ roll. Some of the songs weren’t even rock ‘n’ roll at all. Although these pop stars were mostly talented and gained much fame, the new, softer rock ‘n’ roll sound and the proliferation of doo-wop groups was effectively taking over the charts. The Establishment, as far as it was concerned, was successfully taming the savage beast.

The following group of artists comprised the teen pop idol craze of 1959 through the early to mid-Sixties.

 

BOBBY RYDELL

Another teen idol plucked from the new medium called television, a new form of communication and entertainment that was just marking its first decade in existence, was Bobby Rydell. Just like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera started out on TV (The Mickey Mouse Club) as children, Rydell also had been on a daytime show called “Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club”, since 1950, at the young age of eight, having won a talent contest and rewarded with being a regular cast member.

Of all the most popular teen pop idols in 1959, Robert Louis Ridarelli, otherwise known as Bobby Rydell, got the short end of the stick when it came to his legacy. Not much is known today about the music of Bobby Rydell and there’s a reason for that. The owner of Cameo-Parkway Records, the label that released all the Rydell singles and is now owned by ABCKO, refused to reissue the entire Rydell catalog for forty-five years until 2005. As a result, Bobby Rydell was almost robbed a rightful place in rock ‘n’ roll history as one of the first teen pop idols.

Having said that, his music isn’t really very memorable, except that he was a big star in the early Sixties, with 34 Top Forty hits. His other claim to fame is that one particular song of his accidentally inspired the Beatles’ “She Loves You”.

Seventeen year old Bobby Rydell’s debut single, “Kissin’ Time, was released in 1959. It just missed entering the Top Ten, reaching Number 11. If you listen closely to the opening verse, you’ll hear a strong resemblance in melody to the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA”, released just a few years later in 1962.


The glam rock group Kiss redid the song in 1974, choosing it mostly for the title’s connection to their own name more than anything else, although they had to rework the lyrics to fit their image. Kiss didn’t really even particularly like the original song. Neil Bogart, owner of Casablanca Records, the label they were signed to, made them record it and chose this particular tune in their quest of a hit single for their debut album. The group grudgingly went along. At least Kiss’ version certainly sounds a lot more palatable to listen to thanks to its hard rock edge.

Bobby Rydell subsequently made it to the Top Ten with his next single “We Got Love”. The following year in 1960, Rydell would reach the Top Ten two more times, one of those times all the way to Number One with his only chart topping hit “Wild One” a title taken from the film “The Wild One” (1953) with a young Marlon Brando. “The Wild One” was a movie immensely popular with the teen market of the day, and the movie that launched the Fifties “leather jacket and white t-shirt” look. Besides the title, Bobby Rydell’s “Wild One” has nothing to do with the movie.


His next single, “Swingin’ School”, reached Number Five on the Billboard Top Ten and inspired the Beatles to write “She Loves You”. They were attempting to write an answer song similar to “Swingin’ School” but ultimately abandoned the idea and wrote the song. They did manage however to write an answering song in 1967 that worked marvelously called “With A Little Help From MY Friends”.

“John (Lennon) and I wrote “She Loves You” together. There was a Bobby Rydell song out at the time and, as often happens, you think of one song when you write another. We’d planned an ‘answering song’ where a couple of us would sing ‘she loves you’ and the other ones would answer ‘yeah yeah.’ We decided that was a crummy idea but at least we then had the idea of a song called “She Loves You.” So we sat in the hotel bedroom for a few hours and wrote it— John and I, sitting on twin beds with guitars.”-Paul McCartney

His follow-up to “Swingin’ School” was a sure-fire hit. Rydell recorded one of the most classic Italian songs of the day with lyrics translated to English. “Volare” made it to Number Four on the Billboard Hot 100, but didn’t come close to the immense popularity of the original Italian version by Domenico Modugno.


After “Volare”, Bobby Rydell wouldn’t make it into the Top Ten again until 1964, hovering on the charts in the 20s or never going past the bottom twenty. 1964 was the year where he was able to send one more of his records into the Top Ten. “Forget Him” also made it up to Number Four.

It would be his last Top Ten though, but his career in touring was assured. From the beginning of his career until now in 2015, 72 year-old Bobby Rydell has toured continuously. His last tour was through Australia in October 2014, which should be applauded, simply because not many septuagenerians, besides Rydell and Paul McCartney, still tour. God bless ‘em.

 

FABIAN

Fabian Forte was the perfect example of a manufactured teen pop idol of the late Fifties. He didn’t audition for anything and probably didn’t even sing in the shower. He was discovered because his father had a heart attack one day.

One of his neighbors, Bob Marcucci, was co-owner of Chancellor Records with Peter DeAngelis. In 1957, they had their eyes peeled for good-looking young teenagers to turn into pop stars.

“He kept staring at me and looking at me. I had a crew cut, but this was the day of Rick Nelson and Elvis. He comes up and says to me, ‘So if you’re ever interested in the rock and roll business…’ and hands me his card. I looked at the guy like he was fucking out of his mind. I told him, ‘leave me alone. I’m worried about my dad.'” – Fabian Forte

Fabian ignored the offer, but when his father returned home, he couldn’t work because of his convalescence, so Fabian went to Marcucci and took him up on his offer.

“They gave me a pompadour and some clothes and those goddamned white bucks and out I went.” – Fabian Forte

Fabian also wasn’t fooled by the sudden stardom and knew the songs he was being given to sing were crap.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew my goal, to try to make extra money. That meant a lot to our family. I rehearsed and rehearsed, and I really felt like a fish out of water. And we made a record. And it was horrible.” – Fabian Forte

His first two singles went nowhere, but his third made it into the Billboard Top Forty at Number 33. It was called “I’m a Man” and was written by legendary songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Even Fabian liked this one, although the song was reminiscent of many rock ‘n’ roll songs that had already come before.

His career was taking off, particularly because of his good looks making young girls swoon. His next single, the mediocre “Turn Me Loose” cracked the Top Ten at Number Nine. Watching his performance of this song, anyone can see that this guy was no rock ‘n’ roll singer. Yes, he had a voice that could carry a tune, but he was tremendously stiff onstage, unlike most of his teen pop idol peers.

His next single from 1959 was his biggest hit. The equally mediocre and derivative “Tiger” inexplicably reached Number Three in Billboard’s Top Ten.

Fabian didn’t enjoy working with Marcucci. At one point, the record label owner even hit him for not sitting where he was told to at a movie opening. Fabian bought his contract out from Marcucci in 1960 for $65,000, more than half a million in 2015 dollars, calling working with him a nightmare and admitting to the press that he “felt like a puppet”.

Although he signed a new recording contract in 1963 with Dot Records, the Beatles new sound would quash any song coming out from the new “old guard” just a year later, so Fabian concentrated on making movies. Just like it happened to all the other teen pop idols, Hollywood came calling to cash in.

Fabian was a much better actor than he was a singer, but they never put him in a movie that was any good. He achieved critical respect in a TV show called “Bus Stop” in an episode called “A Lion Walks Among Us” directed from still unknown director Robert Altman, where he played a psychotic killer. The show was banned from broadcasting again due to its mature content and violence for the early Sixties, even though his performance did help Fabian’s career.

Today, Fabian still performs. One of his last gigs was with Frankie Avalon and some of his other peers played the Dick Clark Theater as “The Original Stars of Bandstand”.

 

FRANKIE AVALON

Francis Thomas Avallone was another one of the slew of clean-cut white pop stars to replace Elvis while he was away in the Army. Along with Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darin and Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon carved a niche for himself in rock ‘n’ roll history thanks to two things; his beach movies with Annette Funicello and “Venus”.

VENUS – FRANKIE AVALON

Although Frankie charted a total of 31 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 from 1958 through 1962, the only song that is really worth mentioning is “Venus”.

“Venus if you will, please send a little girl for me to thrill, a girl who wants my kisses and my arms, a girl with all the charms of you…” Venus – Frankie Avalon

Frankie Avalon was the perfect clean-cut “boy next door” with perfect hair. Since age 11, he played trumpet, thanks to his father’s insistence. As a young teenager, he was already playing in a group called Rocco & The Saints, whose member was another future teen idol, Bobby Rydell.

His career began to take off after that appearance. He released two instrumental singles showcasing his trumpet skills in 1954. They were called “Trumpet Sorrento” and “Trumpet Tarantella.” The records earned him an appearance on the Jackie Gleason Show when he was only 12 years old.

His recording career really began in 1957. He released six singles between 1957 and 1958, songs like “Teacher’s Pet” and “You Excite Me”. Three of them, “DeDe Dinah”, “Bobby Sox To Stockings” and “Ginger Bread” actually made it into Billboard’s National Top Ten. All of these songs had one thing in common. They weren’t very good. Each of them sound by-the-numbers, as if the songwriter wasn’t so much writing a rock ‘n’ roll tune as much as he was copying the sound and style of a rock ‘n’ roll tune… badly. It’s been said that even Frankie himself didn’t like the songs he was told to record, and actually held his nose during the recording of “DeDe Dinah” more as a protest than trying to obtain a different sound, resulting in a nasally vocal.


“Venus” was the sole exception. It’s a pretty song and endures as a classic Fifties Pop ballad, with remarkably good fidelity for a 1959 stereo recording. It stayed at Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks and broke into the R&B Top Ten at Number Ten. “Venus” cemented Frankie Avalon’s career. His pop teen idol looks caught the eyes of the average teenage girl and they soon made him a pop star, all but replacing Elvis in their hearts… at least until he got out of the Army. In the meantime, Dick Clark was happy to have Frankie on his “American Bandstand” more than once.

The success of “Venus” was enough impulse to propel his subsequent three singles into the Top Ten, with one of them, “Why”, also making it to Billboard’s Top spot.

Once the new decade of the Sixties dawned, Frankie Avalon’s musical career began to descend. He was never able to crack the Billboard Top Ten again. None of his albums entered the Billboard Top 200 Album chart. He released singles sporadically through the Sixties and Seventies. Most of them didn’t chart except for a disco remake of “Venus” in 1976 that made it to Number 43.

Also, as the Sixties began, Frankie Avalon made a career adjustment that further cemented his reputation as a legitimate star; he turned towards movies. His first few were serious, dramatic roles in important films such as John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (1960) and Irwin Allen’s “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea” (1961) in which he sang the theme song that made a voyage to the bottom of the charts (Number 101 to be exact). But in 1963, he was paired with Annette Funicello to co-star in a movie called “Beach Party”.

The title speaks for itself, and American International Pictures churned out six other sequels over two years, making a huge profit from the teenage market. The movies were “Muscle Beach Party” (1964), “Bikini Beach” (1964), “Pajama Party” (1964), “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965), and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine” (1965).




Only one beach movie with Annette Funicello did not also star Frankie Avalon, and that was “How To Stuff A Wild Bikini” (1965).


Although they all made money, each storyline went from bad to worse, with its nadir being “Dr. Goldfoot…” A take off on James Bond’s “Goldfinger”, Vincent Price plays Dr. Goldfoot, a mad scientist intent on making a bikini machine. Just the summation of this plot should give the reader a clue as to how bad these movies were. Actors must have had fun with them though, because cameos abounded from popular names and stars of the day such as the aforementioned Vincent Price, Don Rickles, Robert Cummings, Dorothy Malone, Morey Amsterdam, Keenan Wynn, John Ashley, Peter Lorre, the original “Bride of Frankenstein” Elsa Lanchester, silent film comic legend Buster Keaton and former child star Mickey Rooney. Comic Harvey Lembeck would reprise his role in some of those beach movies as Eric Von Zipper, the leader of a biker gang that was supposed to parody Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1951). Dick Dale and the Deltones were the resident rock ‘n’ roll band of the movie series, and even a young up and coming performer by the name of Little Stevie Wonder appeared.


The director of all these movies was William Asher. Asher’s career began directing all the “I Love Lucy” episodes from its first season in 1951 and all throughout the rest of the decade. When Asher began directing these movies in 1963, he was also working on producing the classic Sixties sit-com “Bewitched” that ran from 1964 to 1972. His wife, Elizabeth Montgomery, played the beautiful witch, Samantha Stevens. Asher had a simple explanation as to the formula of his beach movies.

“We take the same teenagers and put them in a slightly different experience in each picture. The plot may change but the faces stay the same… The key to these pictures is lots of flesh but no sex. It’s all good clean fun. No hearts are broken and virginity prevails.” – William Asher

Frankie Avalon made a few more movies after his series of beach movies but mostly faded into early Sixties nostalgia until he made a comeback in 1978 in the movie “Grease”. He had no role. Instead, he was a cameo in a dream sequence of one of the characters, serenading her with a song called “Beauty School Dropout”. A highlight of the film because of its underlying wit and Frankie’s ever youthful persona and charm, the song was a parody of all the Fifties love ballads Frankie Avalon was known for, and was a perfect tongue-in-cheek affirmation of his career up to that point.

He made a second minor comeback in 1987 when he teamed up one final time with Annette Funicello to make a parody on all the beach movies they did together called “Back To The Beach”. It would be the last movie Funicello would make, having to retire due to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which she lived with until her death at age 70 in 2013.

Besides cameos from retro TV stars like Tony Dow from “Leave It To Beaver” and Bob Denver with Alan Hale from “Gilligan’s Island”, “Back To The Beach” did have one other redeeming value. It paired up the musician who had been showcased in most of the beach movies, Dick Dale from Dick Dale and the Deltones, with the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan. Together, they play The Chantay’s classic instrumental “Pipeline” over a montage of the film as its music video.

Frankie Avalon continued to appear in films sporadically over the remainder of the 20th Century, including a cameo appearance as himself in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” (1995) with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Although Frankie Avalon is still active at age 74 in early 2015, his last national television appearance was on “American Idol” on April 8, 2009. Amazingly enough, he looks at least twenty years younger looking than his actual age.

BEACH MOVIES AND GIDGET

It all began inside the mind of author Frederick Kohner. In 1957, he published his first novel in a series of a young teenage girl who loved surfing, dancing and boys, in a strictly 1950s innocent teenage crush sort of way. Kohner’s character was a tiny teenage girl, like a midget, hence he nicknamed his character Gidget.

The book was originally called “Gidget, The Little Girl with Big Ideas” and it was based on the life of Kohner’s teenage daughter, Kathy and her involvement with the surf culture in Malibu Point, California. Kohner was fascinated with the culture, their lingo and the fact that her daughter was brazen enough to become part of a boys-only sport. In a few years, the surfing craze would spawn surf groups such as the legendary Beach Boys.

The success of the book prompted the idea of producing a movie. Kohner sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures for $50,000, which amounts to a little over $400,000 in 2015 dollars.

The Gidget name spawned three movies and Kohner wrote seven more books through the Sixties, including two novelizations of Gidget’s two sequels. It also kick started the career of 18 year old Sally Field, a future Academy Award winner who played the character on TV for only one season from 1965 to 1966. Other actresses who played the iconic beach blonde in the movies were Sandra Dee and Karen Valentine in a 1969 telemovie called “Gidget Grows Up”.

The beach movie is closely associated to rock ‘n’ roll simply because that was the soundtrack of the early Sixties teenage audience as well as the movies’ characters. The first “Gidget” movie, a sweet coming of age film, was a hit. Hollywood as usual, capitalized on its success and began to churn them out with less and less interest in story quality. Its resulting output throughout the decade of the Sixties made a fortune, despite the fact that most of these movies were really, really bad.

Those who are old enough to remember early Sixties beach movies are sure to remember them fondly, but when watching them today, they’ve become an artifact of another era. All these teenagers did was kiss, hold hands, surf and dance to rock ‘n’ roll music (not that any of that is a bad thing). In some of the films, they had a villain, usually a biker gang. As the movies got worse, the villains became more fantastic. The only thing worse than the plotlines were the songs.

One might wonder why something so poor deserves a place in rock ‘n’ roll history. Well, it doesn’t have to be good to make history. The truth is, Sixties beach movies made a helluva profit for the movie industry. It didn’t matter that the stories were ridiculous and the music was putrid. Everyone was having fun, and that was enough to tolerate a series of movies that were so bad, they were good.

One notable exception to the string of profit-making mediocrity was “Where The Boys Are”. Released in 1960, it was a more adult version of the beach movie, dealing with coming of age of four college girls. Pop star Connie Francis played one of the girls. The movie was highly moralistic, ending with the lesson of how college girls should keep their virginity until marriage, but the fact that they even dealt with that subject for 1960 raised adolescent maturity to a new level. The title song of the film sung by Francis reached Number Four in the Billboard Top Ten in 1960.

 

DON KIRSHNER & THE BRILL BUILDING

Several rock ‘n’ roll tycoons with a golden touch had already sprouted since the musical genre took hold in 1956. There was Memphis Sun Studios owner Sam Phillips, who not only discovered Elvis, but also Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Then there was Leonard Chess of Chess Records and Ahmet Ehtergun of Atlantic Records. They all signed legendary performers and rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. Cities all over the country were becoming symbols of rock ‘n’ roll. Besides Memphis and Los Angeles, Detroit was poised to become the center of R&B in the Sixties as Berry Gordy began operating Motown from there. New York City was also building its own reputation in producing rock ‘n’ roll classics, and one of the most prominent architects of the genre was someone who earned the moniker “The Man with the Golden Ear”, Donald Clark Kirshner.

Although the Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway on 49th St., did in fact house literally dozens of music industry offices and recording studios where many classic tunes were written, it wasn’t the only building nearby to share that distinction. The area between 49th and 51st Streets on Broadway was kind of a modern day Tin Pan Alley neighborhood. Two blocks north on 51st St., there was also the 1650 Broadway building. That’s where Don Kirshner had his offices, Aldon Music, with his business partner Al Nevins, and where the songwriters he discovered came to work and churn out pop songs like links in a sausage factory.

Kirshner was the pioneer of soft rock and pop as well as the bubblegum pop craze of the late Sixties and early Seventies. His genius was centered on his eye and his ear for talent. The “sausage makers” who’s career Kirshner launched during the late Fifties and early to mid-Sixties include Bobby Darin, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and eccentric record producer Phil Spector. They all wrote songs for teen pop stars like Connie Francis, Sandra Dee, a barrelful of girl groups, The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere & The Raiders and even Elvis. Kirshner also created several famous musical groups, some out of thin air, including The Monkees and The Archies.

The Monkees were put together as a desire to produce a situation comedy that mimicked the antics of the Beatles in their films “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”. Kirshner was asked by the producers of the Monkees TV show to find songwriters to write hits for the group. As a result, the faux group recorded a handful of pop rock classics, including Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer”, which topped the Billboard Pop chart during the first two months of 1967 for seven weeks.

The Archies were nothing but a Saturday morning cartoon. Kirshner assembled a group of studio musicians to record catchy, soft pop music that took on the name “Bubblegum Pop”. One of the biggest hits of this offshoot was The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim. It ruled the Billboard Number One chart for four weeks during the summer of 1969.

In 1972, ABC Network contacted Kirshner and asked him if he would act as Executive Producer and Creative Consultant on a new nighttime musical series called “In Concert” that would air once every other week, alternating with “The Dick Cavett Show”, Friday nights at 11:30PM. By then, rock ‘n’ roll was now being called just “Rock”. “In Concert” would showcase contemporary rock and pop artists with their own live concert. Ratings for “In Concert” more than doubled over “The Dick Cavett Show” and in some markets even beat out Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”. For 1972, this was a huge step forward for rock music. There were very few outlets that existed on TV for rock music except for “American Bandstand” and a handful of other daytime pop shows that aired in the mid-Sixties like “Shindig” and “Where The Action Is”. There was also the few minutes Ed Sullivan would contribute to the exposure of rock to the masses, but that was it. Kirshner quickly accepted the offer, and within the year, he quit to start his own version of “In Concert”. “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert” ran as a syndicated show from 1973 to 1981. When the show’s run ended, it was almost like Kirshner was passing the baton to MTV, which coincidentally premiered in 1981, as rock and pop was finally coming of age on national television.

Kirshner’s last big discovery was during his only foray into harder edged rock in 1973 when he signed the group Kansas to the Kirshner record label. Kansas would release a few hit singles which culminated in their 1977 album “Point of Know Return” and the release of their biggest hit single “Dust In the Wind” in 1978.

After the end of “Rock Concert”, Kirshner settled into the sidelines of the music industry for the rest of his life, only occasionally dabbling in the music business. He died on January 17, 2011 of heart failure at his home in Boca Raton, Florida. Don Kirshner was 76 years old.

 

NEIL SEDAKA

Neil Sedaka of Brooklyn, New York was never meant to play pop and rock ‘n’ roll music. As a child, he attended the Julliard School of Music’s Preparatory Division for Children every Saturday morning. His mother’s aspirations saw him as a classical pianist, similar to the currently popular classical pianist of the day, Van Cliburn. But little Neil had an affinity towards rock ’n’ roll.

When his neighbor Mrs. Greenfield introduced Neil to their similarly aged son Howard, Neil discovered that Howard was also keen on writing pop songs. They formed a songwriting partnership and within a few short years, managed to sell more than forty million records between 1959 and 1963.

Besides having dated Carole King while they were both in high school, Sedaka’s other claim to fame, other than his songwriting, was that he formed the doo wop group The Tokens and actually recorded a few unsuccessful singles with them until Neil left the group in 1957. Four year later, in 1961, after more personnel changes, the Tokens finally scored a hit with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. By that time, however, Neil Sedaka was already a successful teen pop star.

Sedaka and Greenfield were the first songwriters Don Kirshner and Al Nivens would hire to write songs for Aldon Music, their new music publishing company. Their first break came when Neil and Howard went to visit one of Don Kirschner’s teen pop stars, Connie Francis, to play her some of their songs for her next single. Bobby Darin was with her that day, and after they both listened to some of the duo’s ballads, they both agreed that they were all a little too sophisticated for the teen audience that was their market. Of course Sedaka and Greenfield interpreted this to mean that they hated their music, so when Francis asked Neil if they had something a little more lively, he played her a song he had written originally for a group called the Shepherd Sisters called “Stupid Cupid”. Greenfield balked but Sedaka played the song, figuring they had nothing to lose since Francis had already rejected everything else she had heard. As soon as Francis listened to the first few stanzas of the song, she knew it was to be her next single. Connie Francis’ version of Neil Sedaka’s “Stupid Cupid” was released in August of 1958 and made it up to Number 14 on Billboard’s Pop chart.

“Stupid Cupid” was a catchy little ditty with a basic rock ‘n’ roll beat, complete with handclaps and a rhyming title that served as a sing-a-long background vocal. It was a typical example of the Sedaka/Greenfield style. Happy, catchy songs that followed the standard rock ‘n’ roll style, but with a softer edge that was completely palatable to a culture still trying to deal with the new rock ‘n’ roll music that had invaded the radio airwaves a short four years earlier. Rock ‘n’ Roll was now a toddler, and it had been taught to behave.

Besides writing for other artists, Al Nevins focused on turning Sedaka into a pop star. Neil was another marketable, good-looking young clean-cut boy with a sweet, middle tenor voice and a talent for writing catchy songs. His first single was “The Diary”. Originally intended for Little Anthony & The Imperials, the group passed on the song, so Nivens recorded Sedaka singing it. It was released as a single in 1958 as Neil Sedaka’s debut single and it made it to the same number as Francis’ “Stupid Cupid”, Number 14.

Sedaka’s next two singles didn’t do as well, one of them wasn’t even able to crack Billboard’s Hot 100. Determined to write a hit, Sedaka bought all the latest pop tunes and listened to them repeatedly, deconstructing them in order to figure out how to write a proper hit. He discovered that many of the songs had a basic structure, and he used that discovery as a foundation for his songwriting. His research proved fruitful. “Oh, Carol!” was his fourth single, after the previous two duds, released in 1959, and the one that gave Neil Sedaka his first Top Ten hit.

OH, CAROL – NEIL SEDAKA

“Oh! Carol, I am but a fool, darling, I love you though you treat me cruel, you hurt me and you make me cry, but if you leave me, I will surely die.” Oh, Carol! – Neil Sedaka

Sedaka’s tribute to his high school girlfriend Carole King, then Carole Klein, made it to Number Nine in the national Pop chart and the Number One position the following year, 1960, in Italy, giving Sedaka the pleasure of having a Number One single somewhere in the world. As a response, Carole King’s husband, Gerry Goffin, wrote the lyrics to an answer song to “Oh, Carol!” called “Oh, Neil!”. Using the same melody as the Sedaka tune, Carole King sang “Oh, Neil!” back to her ex-boyfriend. A funny gesture, but the song went nowhere.

“Oh! Neil, I’ve loved you for so long, I never dreamed you’d put me in a song, I’m Carol and I live in Tennessee, I never hoped that you’d remember me, Darling, when I saw you at the square dance, my pulse skipped a beat, my heart felt so heavy, like I had too much to eat.” Oh, Neil! – Carole King

“Oh, Carol!” boasts the first spoken verses in a rock ‘n’ roll song. It’s corny, but effective. Gerry Goffin’s lyrics continue the parody in “Oh, Neil!” as Carole King also recites a spoken verse.

Oh! Neil, I’d even give up a month’s supply of chewin’ tobacky just to be known as Mrs. Neil Sedaky, my Grandpappy, he don’t like your records, he said if I play them, I will surely die,” – “Oh, Neil!” – Carole King

As the Sixties dawned, Sedaka continued releasing singles that became Top Ten hits. In 1960 he made it to Number Nine with “Calendar Girl”.

The following year he had another Top Ten hit with “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” at Number Six.

But it was in 1962 where he would finally grab the Top spot on the National Billboard Pop chart in the US with his biggest hit “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”.

Just when Sedaka had reached the culmination of his young career with his first Number One, his musical output suddenly started to flounder on the charts and took a final nosedive when the Beatles arrived on US shores in February of 1964, bringing with them a totally new sound and opening the door for a flood of new British artists. Times had changed from one year to the next, and that left Neil Sedaka out in the cold. RCA Records let his contract run out.

Fortunately, his relationship with Don Kirshner had continued throughout his solo years and Sedaka managed to make a living writing songs for him to use for his own stable of talent. Sedaka wrote songs during much of the Sixties for the Monkees (“When Love Comes Knocking At Your Door”), Frank Sinatra (”The Hungry Years”), Elvis Presley (“Solitaire), Tom Jones (“Puppet Man”) and The Fifth Dimension (“Workin’ On A Groovy Thing”).

During the early part of the Seventies, Neil Sedaka began to release albums in the UK. The albums “Emergence” (1971), “Solitaire”(1972) and “The Tra-La Days Are Over”(1973) (the title referring to the “tra-la-la” chorus in his “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen”) were LPs filled with competent Sedaka tunes. Some of the compositions were used by other Seventies artists to record for their own albums such as The Carpenters (“Solitaire” in 1976).


The Captain & Tennille, a husband and wife singing duo, had a Number One Pop hit in 1975 with Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”, their debut single and a recording that set the standard for Seventies soft pop. The song was originally recorded by Sedaka for his 1973 “Tra-La Days…” album. In C&T’s recording, they pay tribute to the catchy-as-hell tune’s composer by singing the phrase “Sedaka’s back” during the song’s fade-out.


Neil Sedaka’s musical style had flourished over the years. He had drifted away from the sound of early Sixties rock ‘n’ roll soft pop. His songs were still very soft and very pop, but they had matured, being more melodic and intricate, using the primary musical instrument he had been trained in, the piano, as the centerpiece of his compositions. These albums weren’t heard in the US because he had no record contract in the States, but by 1974, pop superstar Elton John had just started his own record label, Rocket Records. Elton met Neil Sedaka at a party and was amazed to find out that he had no record contract, so he asked him if he would like to sign with John’s own label. Sedaka readily agreed and his career resurgence began in 1974, one decade after his fall from the charts.

LAUGHTER IN THE RAIN – NEIL SEDAKA

His pop confections finally hit commercial paydirt again when Neil released his album “Laughter In The Rain”. That was its title in the UK, but in the US, they changed the album’s title to a more appropriate “Sedaka’s Back” and replaced the album cover, a rather dated looking design that framed Neil Sedaka who looked balding and pudgy. This wouldn’t do for a re-emerging pop star, and Elton John was sensitive to both baldness and pudginess. Elton always struggled to control his weight and was already losing his own hair in his mid-twenties. So they put a hat on Neil for the cover of his comeback debut in the States.

Sedaka’s comeback single was the title song of the UK album, “Laughter In The Rain”, co-written by Sedaka and lyricist Phil Cody, who claimed to have written the words for the tune in five minutes after nodding off under a tree while smoking a joint. “LITR” is a sweet, soft pop tune heavy on piano and sugary lyrics. It was reminiscent of a really corny Paul McCartney tune, complete with a quite nice saxophone solo by Jim Horn. The song had been released in the UK during the summer of 1974 but had only made it to Number 15. In the US, it reached the Number One Pop spot in February of 1975 for one week and Number One in the Adult Contemporary chart for two weeks.

Sedaka’s follow-up single, “The Immigrant” didn’t fare as well in the charts, reaching Number 28 in Billboard’s Hot 100. Oddly enough, “The Immigrant” was dedicated by Sedaka to John Lennon. Lennon was having troubles with deportation issues at the time. Then President Richard Nixon saw him as a troublemaker and was trying to get Lennon deported, so Neil Sedaka wrote the song with Lennon in mind.

His third single of the year also hit Number One, this time for three weeks. “Bad Blood” was a duet between him and Elton John. Back in the early to mid-Seventies, Elton John could have released a single comprising of just his own farts and it would have probably reached the Top Ten. “Bad Blood” was an average pop song, but the fact that Elton sang on it put the single on top of the charts, just as he had done for John Lennon the year before when Elton sang with him on his Number One “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” (1974).

In 1976, Sedaka followed the same idea his ex-girlfriend Carole King had when she took “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, the song she wrote for the Shirelles in 1960, and slowed it down for her Grammy-winning “Tapestry” album in 1971. Sedaka, took his own 1962 Number One, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and slowed it down. The result was a truly beautiful bluesy rendition of a song that proved to sound even better than when it was first recorded.

“BUIHTD” reigned supreme in the UK for an entire week at Number One in the winter of ’76 and made it into the US Top Ten at Number Eight. This would be the last Top Ten single Sedaka would ever record. For the rest of the Seventies and the early Eighties, his output was steady but the public was no longer interested. His follow-up to “Sedaka’s Back” was called “Steppin’ Out”. It was to be his last album with Rocket Records. Elton John appeared singing in the title song but not even his accompaniment lifted the song anywhere near the Top Ten. The fact was that by 1976, Elton himself was also witnessing a downturn in popularity from his mega-stardom of the early to mid Seventies.

Neil Sedaka took to touring in the Eighties and Nineties with a treasure trove of songs. The great showman that he is onstage, Sedaka still puts on a great concert for those lucky enough to see him perform, even today at age 75.

 

PAUL ANKA

Although Paul Anka started out as a teen pop idol, he was a legitimate singer-songwriter. Unlike most of the rock ‘n’ roll stars of the day, Paul Anka wrote the songs he sang as well as for others. “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” was a song he gave to Buddy Holly to record, which he did, during one of his last recording sessions in late 1958. Anka was very adept at picking the right song for the right artist.

Anka recorded the song as well, but Buddy Holly’s is without a doubt the definitive version. The background vocals in Anka’s version is almost laughable with the baritone repeating “anymore…” After Holly’s death, Anka decided to do the right thing.

“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” has a tragic irony about it now, but at least it will help look after Buddy Holly’s family. I’m giving my composer’s royalty to his widow – it’s the least I can do.” – Paul Anka

Indeed, the lyrics almost sound like Buddy was singing from the Great Beyond.

“There you go and baby here am I, oh well you left me here so I could sit and cry, well golly gee what have you done to me? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore…” – It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

Anka wrote an instrumental called “Toot Sweet” that was recorded by Tutti Camaratta and his Orchestra in 1959. Although the single wasn’t too successful, ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who Anka was dating, recorded a version of the song that same year with lyrics Anka also wrote, called “It’s Really Love”. But its real claim to fame came in 1962 when his composition was chosen to be the opening theme song of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For thirty years, Anka’s song would be heard every night at 11:30PM to open what TV Guide called the greatest TV show of all time.



By 1958, Paul Anka had achieved teen pop idol success after his second single, “Diana”, a tune about a May/December romance much like the theme of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” released in 1971, became a million seller and reached Number 2 on the Billboard Top Ten. Anka’s lyrics however, weren’t too tactful when it came to Diana’s age.

“I’m so young and you’re so old, this, my darling, I’ve been told. I don’t care just what they say, ’cause forever I will pray you and I will be as free as the birds up in the trees, oh, please stay by me, Diana…” “Diana” – Paul Anka

He had recorded his first single when he was only 14 and it went nowhere. But, “Diana”, released in the middle of summer in July of 1957, replete with a mini-operatic “oh-oh-oh-oh” section, proved to be the record that would propel the just-turned-17-year-old into the teen pop stratosphere. His voice was strong and tuneful, sounding as if he was still going through puberty as his voice would crack when he reached those high notes, which probably made him much more relatable to the young teen market.

He released seven singles in 1958, but only one, “You Are My Destiny” made it into the Top Ten at Number Seven. Unlike “Diana”, it’s not a great song.

Anka only had four singles make it into the Top Forty in 1959, but three of them hit the Top Ten. “Lonely Boy”, showcased in the movie “Girl’s Town” with perennial blonde rock ‘n’ roll actress Mamie Van Doren was his first Number One single. It also made it into the Top Ten US R&B and the UK pop chart. Anka was developing a talent for writing songs about young boys’ yearning for girls, young and old, with a melodramatic vocal that almost sounded like he was about to break into tears at any moment.

“I’m just a lonely boy, lonely and blue, I’m all alone with nothin’ to do, I’ve got everything you could think of, but all I want is someone to love… someone, yes, someone to love, someone to kiss, someone to hold at a moment like this…” “Lonely Boy” – Paul Anka

His follow-up, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”, was one of those heartfelt Fifties ballads where Paul Anka belts his heart out all the way up to Number Two in the charts. It’s probably his best tune, too; a romantic, well sung ballad, accompanied by perfect, Fifties-style staccato piano playing and angelic background vocals. The song was most certainly played and performed in countless high school dances of the day, giving lovestruck teenagers the opportunity to dance close and “make out” to a really romantic song. It was perfect.

“Put your head on my shoulder, whisper in my ear… baby, words I want to hear… tell me, tell me that you love me too.” – “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” – Paul Anka

In the 1960s, Mexican singer Enrique Guzman translated famous rock ‘n’ roll songs like “Jailhouse Rock” for the Mexican market. One of the songs that became immensely popular for him and is even more famous in Mexico than the original version is “Tu Cabeza En Mi Hombro”, essentially the Spanish language translation of Anka’s “PYHOMS”.

Anka’s last single release of 1959 went to Number Two on the Hot 100.”Puppy Love” was another tragic teen love song he excelled in writing and singing, sounding as if he was about to break down in a puddle of tears but managing to get through the song dry.

After the success of the Jackson Five in 1970, a group called the Osmonds was formed and had a number one hit in 1971 called “One Bad Apple”. With hair so styled that they looked like helmets, the Osmonds attempted to be the white version of the Jackson Five, and like the pre-teen Michael Jackson, twelve year old Donny Osmond was the lead singer of his group.

Twelve years after the success of “Puppy Love”, in 1972, Donny Osmond, recorded Anka’s “Puppy Love” solo. It became a big hit for him, reaching Number Three in Billboard’s Hot 100 and immediately turning him into the teen pop idol of the day and giving Michael a run for his money, albeit for a very brief time.

Paul Anka’s career began to dwindle after that last hit. He only managed to enter the Top Ten twice between 1960 and 1963, out of thirty of his singles that had entered the Hot 100 during that period. Like many others, Anka and his music were swept away with the British Invasion tsunami in 1964 when the Beatles opened the door to an entire new sound and a whole new generation of British rock musicians. Although Anka continued to faithfully release songs throughout the Sixties, he didn’t begin to start climbing back up the charts until 1969. Five years later, in 1974, at about the same time another Fifties teen idol, Neil Sedaka was making his comeback as well, Paul Anka once again made it to the Number One position with a song many considered chauvinistic.

“Having my baby, what a lovely way of sayin’ how much you love me, having my baby, what a lovely way of sayin’ what you’re thinkin’ of me… I can see it, face is glowin’, I can see in your eyes, I’m happy you know it..” “(You’re) Havin’ My Baby” – Paul Anka

Despite it going to Number One, Anka caught flak with the word “my” instead of “our”, as the song’s lyrics reflect a self-centered attitude from the male singer. Frankly, even if Anka had changed the lyrics to something a bit more inclusive of the mother, the song wasn’t as good as his past work.

Paul Anka made a comeback in the Seventies thanks to “HMB”. It would last him another ten years, charting singles 17 times through 1984. He had two more Top Ten hits in 1975 but his subsequent output over the years would mostly enter the Billboard Hot 100, then hover under the Top Forty.

Anka did however still manage to write songs for other artists that became big hits. In 1971, Tom Jones had his biggest hit to date with a Paul Anka written song called “She’s A Lady”. It became a million seller and made it to Number Two in Billboard’s Hot 100. He also translated the lyrics of a 1967 French song called “Comme d’habitude” (direct English tranlslation: “As Usual”) into English for Frank Sinatra to sing. He called the song “My Way” and it became one of Sinatra’s signature tunes. Elvis also used to sing the song on tour, looking puffy and pale, just months before he died in 1977. It was appropriate that both these iconic legends sing a song with Anka’s reaffirming lyrics.

“I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried, I’ve had my fill, my share of losing, and now as tears subside, I find it all so amusing, to think I did all that and may I say not in a shy way, oh no, oh no, not me, I did it my way…” My Way – Paul Anka


Paul Anka was a pretty accomplished actor as well. Starting with small roles as the teen pop idol that he was in the late Fifties, he managed to land a serious role in the World War II film about landing on D-Day in “The Longest Day” (1962) as well as sing its theme song. It seems that back then, Hollywood would make it a habit to turn teen pop idols into movie stars and then have them sing the theme song of the movie they were in, much like Frankie Avalon and “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea”. The way Paul Anka tells the story however, the idea for singing the theme song was Anka’s.

He made six films during that time, then didn’t make a movie again until the Nineties, culminating with the ironic role of an Elvis hating casino manager in “3000 Miles To Graceland” (2001).

Anka managed to write two songs with Michael Jackson in 1983, “I Never Heard” and “Love Never Felt So Good”. Upon Jackson’s death, the record company released the former song and re-titled it “This Is It”. Anka sued and received 50% of the copyright.

His second song written with Jackson was released in the 2014 posthumous Jackson release “Xcape”.

At 73 years old today in 2015, Paul Anka still makes appearances and performs throughout the country. He has a tour going on currently from January to April of 2015.

 

BOBBY DARIN

Of all the pop teen idols popping up during the late Fifties rock ‘n’ roll era, Walden Robert Casotto, aka Bobby Darin, was probably one of the most talented and beloved of pop stars back in his day, by people of all ages. He was a singer, a songwriter, an actor and one of the few rock ‘n’ roll stars who could effortlessly slip from rock ‘n’ roll to jazz and Big Band, the music of Fifties teens’ parents, and be equally successful in both genres. Part of the reason for his success was Bobby Darin’s fervent desire to achieve success as quickly as possible, perhaps because he always knew he was going to die young.

When he was eight years old, young Bobby began to suffer from bouts of rheumatic fever that managed to weaken his heart. Doctors believed he wouldn’t live past his 18th birthday.

Besides the specter of mortality looming over him his entire adult life, he was also duped as to who his parents were. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, Vivian Fern “Polly” Walden, who he thought was his real mother. His grandfather Saverio Antonio Cassotto, had already died the year before Darin was born.

It seems that Bobby Darin’s real mother, Vanina Juliette “Nina” Casotto, got pregnant out of wedlock, a shocking situation for a woman in 1935, and she and her mother concocted this idea of telling everyone, including little Bobby, that Nina was actually his sister and Nina’s parents were Darin’s parents. Her “sin” was apparently so profound that Nina never divulged the name of Bobby Darin’s actual father to anyone, particularly from Darin himself. Bobby Darin was never aware of the truth until 1968, at age 32.

Darin was always interested in music. When he was a teenager, he could play the guitar, drums and piano. He learned the harmonica and the xylophone soon after. In 1955, at age 20, he formed a songwriting partnership with his high school friend at Bronx High School, Don Kirshner. In 1956, Darin began recording for Decca Records, his first label, but his records didn’t sell. He spent his time instead writing songs for Kirshner and his growing stable of talent.

It was during that time when the still unknown Darin met and fell in love with the still unknown Connie Francis. They dated for a while and almost eloped, until Francis’ father, gun in pocket, barged through the stage door of the “Jackie Gleason Show” during rehearsals where Darin and Francis were both that week’s guest stars. Having found out about their plans of eloping and wanting to rid of Darin from her daughter’s life, he was out to at least scare him away. It worked. Darin escaped through a bathroom window unscathed, but their relationship collapsed. Connie Francis married four times, but in her autobiography she admitted that the true love of her life had always been Bobby Darin.

Darin left Decca and signed with Atlantic Records’ subsidiary, Atco Records. Atlantic’s owner, Ahmet Ertegun was like Berry Gordy and Don Kirshner, a star-maker, and he guided Darin’s career. Darin’s new songwriting partner was Murray Kaufman, a New York DJ who called himself Murray the K, and, as a publicity stunt, labeled himself the fifth Beatle in 1964 when the “Fab Four” landed in New York for the first time.

SPLISH SPLASH – BOBBY DARIN

It was 1958 and Murray and Bobby were trying to write a hit record. Kaufman’s mother, Jean, called to give him a phrase for a song. It was “Splish splash, take a bath”. Kaufman at first thought it corny, and bet Darin he couldn’t write lyrics to a song that began with those words. They began writing out lyrics together and threw in a couple of famous rock ‘n’ roll song titles. Soon, a melody popped up. Bobby Darin recorded “Splish Splash” on April 3, 1958. It was released the following month and made it up to Number Three on Billboard. Bobby Darin had his very first hit.

“There was Lollipop with Peggy Sue, good golly, miss Molly was even there, too! A-well-a, Splish Splash, I forgot about the bath, I went and put my dancin’ shoes on, yeah…” “Splish Splash” – Bobby Darin

DREAM LOVER – BOBBY DARIN

His next single was called “Dream Lover”, and it was an even bigger hit than “Splish Splash”. Fellow teen pop idol Neil Sedaka plays the piano on this record. It sold millions and made it to the second position on Billboard’s Pop chart. As Darin was achieving a fan base, the record label even issued the single with a picture sleeve, something reserved for only the biggest stars.

“Because I want (yea, yea… yea), a girl (yea, yea… yea), to call (yea yea… yea) my own (yea, yea… yea), I want a dream lover so I don’t have to dream alone…” “Dream Lover” – Bobby Darin

Bobby Darin was an elegant man when he performed onstage. Always wearing either a suit or a tux, he would snap his fingers and dance in place, moving and swaying to the rhythm without showing off and delivering the song in his strong, mellifluous voice. His second single had become so successful that Atco Records allowed Darin to pick and choose any song he wanted to record after that, allowing him complete creative control. He decided to record songs that weren’t rock ‘n’ roll for his next album, titled “That’s All”. One of the songs he chose to record for the album was “Mack The Knife”, from a 1928 musical “The Threepenny Opera”, composed by Kurt Weill with German lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. The song almost never got written until just before the musical’s premiere, when the actor Harold Paulsen demanded that another song be written to introduce his character Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife in German), a murderer. The tune served as a “moritat”, a murder ballad sung by the play’s commentator at the beginning and the end of the musical. Mack the Knife is based on the character Macheath, from an even earlier work by John Gay called “The Beggar’s Opera” That work in turn was based on an actual historical thief named Jack Sheppard. But Weill and Brecht’s Mack the Knife was much more sinister.

Louis Armstrong was the first to record an English language translation of “Mack The Knife” in 1956, so it was already understood that the song worked well with a jazz arrangement. The lyrics from Darin’s version were only slightly different, thanks to Darin’s ad-libs.

Darin’s record label wanted him to release “Mack The Knife” as a single, rearranged with a dynamic, contemporary jazz feel, but Darin was hesitant about it. Dick Clark, who showcased him often on his “American Bandstand” and “Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show”, also advised him not to release it as a single because he felt it would alienate his rock ‘n’ roll fans. In the long run, Darin opted to release it after all. It had much more of a Big Band Sinatra-style song than his last two singles and he delivered the song like the pro that he was. “MTK” became a huge success and closed out 1959 in the Number One position in Billboard’s Pop chart for nine weeks, an unheard of amount of time. It also climbed to Number Six in the R&B chart and the following year, Bobby Darin’s ”Mack The Knife” won a Grammy for Record Of The Year.

“When the shark bites with his teeth, dear, scarlet billows start to spread. Fancy gloves, oh, wears ol’ Macheath babe, so there’s never, never a a trace of red…” – “Mack The Knife” – Bobby Darin

Many artists recorded “Mack The Knife” after the popularity of Darin’s version. Ella Fitzgerald recorded it live in 1960, forgetting the lyrics halfway through and having to improvise by singing about Satchmo and Darin. That improvisation won her a Grammy as well.

Admittedly, it’s really a great song and Bobby Darin owned it once the single was released. Even Frank Sinatra, who recorded the song in 1984 for his album produced by Quincy Jones, “L.A. Is My Lady”, agreed that Bobby Darin’s version of the song was the definitive one. The lyrics he sang were similar to Ella’s improvised words.

“Ah, old Satchmo, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, they did this song nice, Lady Ella too, they all sang it with so much feeling, that Ol’ Blue Eyes, he ain’t gonna add nothing new. But with Quincy’s big band right behind me, swinging hard, Jack, I know I can’t lose, when I tell you all about Mack The Knife, babe, It’s an offer you can never refuse…” Mack The Knife – Frank Sinatra

Latin star Ruben Blades in collaboration with Willie Colón paid tribute to “Mack The Knife” by composing their own version of the same murderous character in 1978 and called him “Pedro Navaja” (Peter Razor). Blades’ version was totally different musically and with a salsa beat. The song was just under eight minutes.

“Usa un sombrero de ala ancha de medio lao, y zapatillas por si hay problemas salir volao’, lentes oscuros pa’ que no sepan que estA mirando y un diente de oro que cuando rie se ve brillando…” Pedro Navaja – Ruben Blades

TRANSLATION: “He wears a wide-brimmed hat tilted to the side, and slippers in case there’s a problem so he can fly off, sunglasses so no one can see where he’s looking, and a gold teeth that shines when he smiles…

Bobby Darin had cemented his stature in the musical world by proving he can move effortlessly from rock ‘n’ roll to a more traditional sound, a sound the rock ‘n’ roll teenage market’s parents enjoyed. As a result, Darin’s popularity transcended age barriers. It was just a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.

Besides making countless television appearance through the years like Dick Clark’s shows, he appeared on many other national TV shows as an actor, from TV westerns such as “Wagon Train” to variety shows that were named after the TV star, a favorite type of show back in the Sixties. Darin appeared in skits on the Red Skelton Show in 1965 and The Flip Wilson Show in 1972, to name just two.

His first film, “Come September” (1960) was a teenage romantic comedy in which he co-starred with Sandra Dee, the girl who played the original Gidget in 1957. Bobby and Sandra fell in love and got married soon afterwards. They had a child, made a few more movies and divorced in 1967. In Darin’s next film, “Pressure Point”, he managed to pick up a Golden Globe nomination. Unlike Elvis, this young man knew how to act. In 1963, he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role of a shell-shocked soldier in “Captain Newman, M.D.”. He did however win the French Film Critics Award for his performance when it premiered in the Cannes Film Festival. He continued making movies up until his premature death in 1973.

BEYOND THE SEA – BOBBY DARIN

Darin continued recording songs throughout the Sixties and, like all the other teen pop idols of the day, disappeared from the charts in 1964 when the Beatles took over the charts and other groups followed suit. Darin released 21 more singles and 16 albums after “MTK” from 1960 to 1963. Five of the singles made it into the Top Ten, but only “Beyond The Sea” is really worth mentioning.

Bobby Darin continued to move effortlessly from rock to jazz with his albums and singles. His next single, “Beyond The Sea”, released in 1960 was similar to “MTK” in that he took another famous European song and sang it in English. “Beyond The Sea” was originally recorded in English in 1946 by a singer named Jack Lawrence. The music however, came from a French song written by Charles Trent called “La Mer” (The Sea).

Although “Beyond The Sea” would be recorded by many other artists before Darin got a hold of it, it’s Darin’s version that remains, once again, the definitive version of the tune.

“Beyond The Sea” would reach Number Six on the Billboard Top Ten Pop chart in 1960.

18 YELLOW ROSES – BOBBY DARIN

Darin would continue releasing singles and albums during the Sixties and early Seventies as his fan base’s age range varied from teenage to middle-age. His last Top Ten, entering at Number Ten, was “18 Yellow Roses” in 1963. It was a pretty ballad with a more contemporary feel and sung in a lower register than Darin usually sang in.

IF I WERE A CARPENTER – BOBBY DARIN

He did manage to sneak in one more song into the Top Ten in 1966. “If I Were A Carpenter” was written by Tim Hardin and sung by very many artists, but Darin’s version was the first, even before Hardin’s recording. The reason for the song’s success, besides the fact that it’s a beautiful song, is because it had a much more modern feel to it then his earlier singles, and encompassed a wider audience than the older skewing material he’d been releasing.

Bobby Darin’s stage manner was relaxed and he was always very witty and charming. Nobody knew that as the years progressed, his heart was growing weaker, to the point of having oxygen tanks backstage so he could take gulps of air before and after his performances to keep his strength up. One day in 1973, he had a dental appointment but didn’t take any antibiotics to protect his heart before visiting the dentist. As a result, he developed a serious infection that affected one of his blood vessels. On December 11, he entered the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for open heart surgery to replace the valves that had been inserted into his heart just two years before. The team of doctors worked for five hours on Bobby Darin’s heart on December 19, 1973. The next day, five days before Christmas, Darin died, having never regained consciousness after the operation.

In 2004, Kevin Spacey produced and starred in Bobby Darin’s biopic “Beyond The Sea” in which Spacer danced as well as sang Darin’s songs. It’s a film worth seeing for those who remember this beloved, charming entertainer and a good way for new fans to learn more about the late, great Bobby Darin.

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