Out Here

Cashing in

Mr. Action Packed
Johnny Dollar
Dragon Street Records

Until 1997, the 20 tracks on this collection were safely tucked away in a North Dallas closet, lost to history 40 years after they were recorded. Had they been released when they were made in 1957 and '58, who knows--maybe these songs would have made a star out of the man born into this world as John Washington Dollar Jr. years before he signed to Columbia Records as a country artist. At least he would have had a fighting chance to cash in on those deep-dark rockabilly good looks and his honky-tonk-gone-wild voice that turned hillbilly into rockabilly into rock and roll. But for some reason still unknown even to this compilation's producer, David Dennard, who rescued Dollar from that closet and total obscurity, his singles were banished to never-never land--as in, he ain't never, never gonna be anybody.

Should he have been? Could he have been? Probably; why the hell not? It was a 24-year-old Dollar who first recorded "Rockin' Bones" and "Action Packed," two songs that became the calling card for a teenage Ronnie Dawson; and he managed to perform "Great Balls of Fire" and "Jailhouse Rock" without coming off like some half-assed tribute act--the man had enough piss and vinegar in his delivery to pass himself off as the real thing. Back then, Dawson was a novelty--a sweet little kid singing "cat music" while still a pup; his voice was high, that of a teen angel's. To hear Dollar's original "Action Packed" four decades too late is to discover a slightly rougher, tougher version--the musicians sound as if they're about to fall off their barstools, while Dollar himself delivers the lines ("I want to lay it on the line, 'cause everything I do, I do double time") like a leering punk-rocker hiding behind a sheep's smile. Same goes for the slinky, surging "Slim Jim Baby," which is about a meat stick that don't need no shrink-wrapping.

But not all of this stuff deserves to be rewritten into the textbooks: "Don't Blame it On Me" and "It's My Day" are such generic rockabilly, you understand why the music lasted no more than two years (tops). The self-penned "My First Love" sounds like something the Buddy Holly estate ought to look into, and "Honey Bee Love" is truth in advertising. Still, you can't help but listen to Mr. Action Packed and feel a little like you're staring down history: If Gene Summers and Mac Curtis are local heroes to the cultist crowd, then why not Johnny Dollar? But great stories do not always make for great records, and though the disc better defines Ronnie Dawson's early years (he and Dollar shared songs and musicians), it also presents a man who never had the chance to prove he was better than these faded black-and-white snapshots. And, unlike the great Dawson, he never will: In 1986, Dollar was diagnosed with throat cancer and killed himself. That alone ought to make him a rock-and-roll legend.

--Robert Wilonsky


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