Rock 'n' roll high school

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

Leonard Maltin's Movies on Video called it a "silly period piece"; Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever termed it "weak" and advised that "it probably isn't worth your time." It got attention on It Came From Hollywood, a video collection of cinematic wretchedness, and another video guide awarded it negative stars.

The source of all this approbation is Rock, Baby, Rock It!, a steaming bowl of celluloid queso shot in Dallas back in 1956 and masterminded by an aspiring promoter looking to ride the rapidly growing "rock 'n' roll" fad to the big time. Totally devoid of professional actors, Rock It! is every bit as dreadful as Messrs. Maltin and Hound indicate, but it also has redeeming qualities beyond a "so bad it's good" appeal, garnering a cult reputation and a small but devoted cadre of fans. Rock on Film calls it "one of the most widely sought after, but seldom seen of all rock films" and judges it "a must-see poverty row extravaganza." I was a Teenage Delinquent Rock and Roll Horror Beach Party Movie Book admits that the flick has a "certain charm" and "definitely captures a certain time and place." Straining--as few books do--to be nice, Teenage Delinquent closes its discussion of the film by remarking, "what an assortment of faces!"

Chock full of local musical talent and scenes from pre-freeway Dallas, Rock Baby is a standard variation of the hoary old "let's have a show!" storyline: Kids just having a rockin' good time in their clubhouse are menaced by thugs seeking a front for their organized crime-type skullduggery. The kids decide to fight back. Shot on the cheap as well as the fly (in one week) by a music promoter who went by J.G. Tiger--even though his name was Jack Goldman--the film features performances by contemporary acts like Johnny Carroll, The Cell Block Seven, The Bon-Aires, Rosco Gordon and the Red Tops, and others.

Tiger's budget wasn't big enough for fripperies such as trained actors, and the film--all 77 minutes of it--is as padded as a hotel lobby couch. The "actors" stare at the camera or off into space, get in each other's way, and are generally as self-conscious a bunch as you'd ever chance--or want--to see. Their thick Dallas accents were deemed too regional for the national distribution Tiger (and no doubt his investors) were hoping for, so many lines were ineptly dubbed in California: Rock Baby proudly stands toe-to-toe with any Godzilla movie in terms of noises coming from nowhere, silently moving lips, and complicated feats of ventriloquism. The story is more of a blur than a line, and what movie critics and professors call "the suspension of disbelief" is never even given a warning ticket. The movie's original title--Hot Rocks--was deemed too suggestive, even though that was the name of both the title song and Carroll's band.

Tiger was a character, to say the least. Local jazz guitarist Donnie Gililland played Ronnie, the bespectacled guitarist in the film, and recalls "a huge guy, with a booming voice and this big, long beard." Prior to making Rock It!, Tiger had been a low-level booking agent and concert promoter, one of the first to set up multi-act rock 'n' roll stage shows in the Metroplex.

The big promoter with the even bigger voice had a variety of strategies for keeping obligations at bay. "He chewed raw garlic constantly," Gililland says of Tiger. "Pieces of it would get stuck in his beard and just hang there; he was pretty horrible to be around."

Gililland had been playing around town with various groups since high school, but nobody had enough seasoning to stand up to Tiger. "I think he had a background in wrestling and carnies. He was always working some sort of con; I don't know if it was all an act or not," the guitarist admits. "But we were all kids. Tiger was always very slow to pay, and one of the things he used to say to us was--in lieu of pay--'I'm gonna put you boys in a movie.' Sure enough, he got the funding--I don't know from where--and then he got this director from California."

Tiger had a small stable of local talent that he managed out of Top Ten Recording Studios down on Ross Avenue, groups like Don Coats' Bon-Aires, Johnny Carroll and his Hot Rocks, and others. Rock 'n' roll was just starting to break, and the movie seemed a natural next step up from the small-time regional bookings and package shows that Tiger was putting together, shipping his bands off in the 1948 Packard hearse he used as a bus.

Still, money was always a problem. Gililland recalls more than one person dunning Tiger and driving him to the telephone to desperately beseech, importune, and beg his backers for more money to cover their investments. "He would yell and holler," Gililland says, shaking his head. "Later we found out that the phone wasn't even hooked up."

To avoid having to pay actors, Tiger used "any warm bodies," according to Gililland. Being a warm body for Tiger could take on a very literal meaning, as one hapless transient discovered when the clove-chomping promoter hired him to help with a summer show's advertising in New Orleans. Tiger put the poor guy in a polar bear suit and gave him leaflets that said something like "come to the cool rock and roll show" to hand out; the shill almost died of heatstroke.

Making the movie wasn't much different. "He was such a con man," Gililland says. "It was a very ragtag operation." During Rock It!'s climax--when the gangsters and the kids rumble laughably before the big club-saving benefit--Carroll had to bust the production's only breakaway guitar over a bad guy's head. The first take was for naught because of the wrong film, and the shattered guitar was taped back together. On the second take, one of the thugs--all of whom were recruited from the ranks of wrestlers who worked the Sportatorium--forgot to pull his punch, and the kid he smacked could be heard swearing, so that was scratched. The prop guitar was now mostly tape, but a third take and some editing saved the day.

"Working with the wrestlers was fun," Gililland says. "They were a hoot." Indeed, next to the rockers, the heavies are the best thing about the film (admittedly not saying much), their beefy builds and ruined faces perfect for their parts. Johnny Dobbs played the part of "Crackers" Louis, the main badass; his career as a "heel"--the bad guy back in the days when pro wrestling was framed in terms of morality plays rather than hyperkinetic Jolly Rancher commercials and stupid haircuts--prepared him well for the role, although his elocution was less than inspired. One of his best scenes is poolside at the gangster chief's (suspiciously suburban) hangout, wearing his shoulder holster and swimming trunks.

As can be imagined, Tiger was a difficult man to deal with. The California director--Murray Douglas Sporup--banned him from the set the first day of shooting. One of the investors in the film--who was also in one of the movie's featured musical groups--disavowed all connection with the film after its March 21 Dallas debut in 1957. "When the movie came out," Gililland reports, "the reaction was so bad that everybody was pretty ashamed and embarrassed. It was so terrible." In fact, Gililland remembers going to see the movie at the old Rialto in the rain--glad for the excuse to hold his coat over his head.

Still, there were no real bad feelings or ill will; it had been a wild, youthful adventure. Gililland ran into Tiger in the early '70s. "He looked about the same," the bespectacled guitarist--legally blind since birth but able to get around--recalls. "He had no time to talk--he was working another con of some kind, I'm sure--and I didn't hang around that long, but we'd [the actors] sat around since and talked and laughed about it so much that it was impossible to have any hard feelings. He truly was a lovable scoundrel, and for us, he was just a part of growing up. We had great stories. We weren't too happy with it at the time, but it was a great experience to look back on." Tiger hasn't been seen in the area since.

Gililland camped out on Tiger's doorstep for a week before he got his money--fifty bucks, "not at all bad for a 17-year-old's week's work." Gradually, people drifted apart. "I never really kept up with any of them after that," Gililland admits. Kay Wheeler, Rock It!'s female lead, who does a very strange "rock 'n' bop" catwoman-dance at the film's close--went on to found the very first Elvis Presley Fan Club; she moved out of the area several years ago.

Johnny Carroll went on, underappreciated, to a middling career in country and rockabilly that never matched his talent. Like many here, he was more popular in England and Europe; he died in 1995. Paul Menard of the Bon-Aires went on to success as a radio DJ; Leroy Cooper--the great big guy playing sax with the Deacons--went on to become a mainstay of Ray Charles' band. Joe Johnson--also of the Deacons--went on to become a major power locally, one of the first black acts to play for white club audiences. "He was so popular that he had three or four bands that'd gig as the 'Joe Johnson Band,' and he would play a set with each," Gililland says, "traveling from club to club."

Ironically, the filler that Tiger used to cover up--or at least compensate--for the moviemaker's utter lack of skill was what got Rock It! its passage to cult status. Of the movie's 77 minutes, less than 30 involve actors actually talking or doing something to advance the plot; the rest is bands playing, often three or four songs in a row. "The music was very good, for the time," Gililland says, and he's right: Carroll was an inspired performer who--given the right breaks, of which Rock It! was definitely not one--might have rivaled Carl Perkins or even Elvis. The black acts--Preacher Smith and the Deacons, Rosco Gordon and the Red Tops--had a sharpness and professionalism that the kids could only dream about, and other acts like the Bon-Aires and the Cell Block Seven were excellent representations of their times. Rock on Film called the music "surprisingly quite good" [italics theirs].

"Nobody knew what they were trying to do," Gililland explains. "Nobody knew what rock was, and so they were looking all around for what would appeal to the kids. That's why you've got all sorts of music--Dixieland (the Cell Block Seven), rockabilly (Carroll and the Hot Rocks), doo-wop (the Bon-Aires) and straight-ahead R&B (Gordon and the Red Tops, Preacher Smith and the Deacons). They were trying to get it all in there."

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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