Rock 'n' roll high school

Rock, Baby, Rock It! is classic kitsch, but there's a lesson amid the cheese

This attempt at all-inclusiveness leads up to one of Rock It!'s creepier moments, when the Belew Twins come out and sing a couple of songs. The twins look alike--think miniature Frank Gorshins--and dress alike; the effect, coupled with their not-quite-right songs and delivery, remind one of what you might get if Martians replicated an earthling pop group: 95% accurate, but still unsettling in a wholly alien way.

The Belews had been child stars who had grown up playing hillbilly music; at the time, they had a popular TV show, The Belew Twins' Western Frolic, and were knockin' 'em dead at the Sportatorium's Saturday-night concerts, which routinely drew over 5,000 people. "They were cute when they were little," Gililland remembers. "They grew out of that real fast." Added at the last minute to broaden the film's appeal, the pair sang two songs with oddly inappropriate melodies and overdone hiccup-y vocals that might be dismissed as lackluster Everly Brothers ripoffs--if their efforts hadn't pre-dated the Everlys' first hit by a good six months (it was the Belews that made it onto It Came From Hollywood).

"They weren't exactly comfortable" with the mix of hillbilly and pop that they sang for the movie, according to Gililland, but they were every bit part and parcel of the changes that were sweeping away all the boundaries that then existed in pop music, even if they were weirder than hell. This reflection of the times--and the fact that more than half of the movie is footage of bands playing--has made Rock It! a favorite in Europe and particularly England, where the appreciation of that process is much keener than (sigh) it is at home.

After 1957, Gililland continued to pursue the guitar, studying at North Texas State University and playing with the famed One O'Clock Lab Band. Later he gigged around town with Joe Johnson as the only white face in an all-black band. (When Johnson would play a mainstream club, he'd have to replace Gililland, as Whitey was not yet ready to see the two races together, even when making music. It would take time: In the early '60s, the guitarist was thrown out of the Vegas Club for attempting just such a heresy with old pal Johnson, escorted out by none other than Jack Ruby himself, who said that Dallas "just was not ready" for such a sight.) Gililland went on to work with Buster Smith and eventually moved into the country club circuit; he worked days for the Oak Cliff Tribune for 26 years, becoming managing editor, and currently works for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. At age 58, he still plays around town, although "not as much as I used to."

"I always was into jazz," he allows, owlish behind his thick glasses. "I learned the blues from a guy in high school named Joe Rodriguez who was a year ahead of me in school. In the movie, when you hear me playing, almost all of what you hear is licks that Joe taught me, probably the week before."

In its own way, Rock, Baby, Rock It! is an unintentional documentary, a hopelessly inept stab at greatness that ended up being something far more telling: a vivid black and white snapshot of the dreams and delusions that ended up making rock 'n' roll what it was then and is today. Johnny Carroll and Elvis are gone, and we are soon to join them, but Rock, Baby, Rock It! will remain a bit longer, giving those

who come after some idea as to what all the fuss was about.

Rock, Baby, Rock It! is available for $7.95 from Rhino; call 1-800-432-0020.

Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever may sniff at Rock, Baby, Rock It!, but Street Beat thinks that's pretty elitist coming from a movie-watching dog. That just won't hunt, and it certainly won't get any doggy treats from Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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