History is important, but there is a lot of it to keep track of. History, by its nature, is about things that are preserved and archived so they won’t be forgotten. In this case, we are looking at a little slice of the history of rock and roll. Is the history of rock and roll something that is important? I would argue that everything about the past is important. Not everyone cares, but some people care passionately about forgotten gems from the past. Everybody cares about something, and some people care about everything, but the further back in the past something goes, the more likely people won’t care at all.
The 1955 Rock ‘N Roll Revue and Rhythm and Blues Revue with Rock, Rock, Rock! Is a 228 minute/2-DVD set, and that title is sure a mouthful. It is like a time capsule from those good old days before music videos, because everything on it looks ancient and outdated by modern standards, but to those who remember those times, it is a wonderful blast from the past. Some of the big-name musical performers on the collection include Nat king Cole, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Martha Davis, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Chuck Berry, The Flamingos, Lavern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, The Moonglows, Herb Jeffries, Johnny Burnett Trio, and Connie Francis. It also includes a very young Nipsey Russell. The first disc is a combo of two entertainment movies that played in theaters at the time that were put together in a Harlem variety revue. Don’t forget that back in those days television was still a new thing, and there was no internet or home video or cable. Entertainment was something you had to go out and find. It is hard to imagine today how different things were back then. The emcee was named Willie Bryant, and he and director/performer Leonard Reed rolled out a roster of talent to appeal to a special race market. Back then black acts weren’t accepted everywhere, and lots of rock and roll material was converted later for white audiences. Those were the bad old days. That’s why material like this is valuable, because it shows important pieces of the puzzle of our checkered past. But despite oppression, there was a vibrant marketplace and a hungry audience for this music that was the cutting edge of the time. Jazz had flourished for decades, and now we can watch the early growth of the new mediums of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. At this stage, it is just beginning to evolve at this time. I’m not going to go in depth, but this collection is a valuable artifact if you want to see the birth of a movement.
The second disc is a very early rock and roll movie called Rock, Rock, Rock! which featured influential promoter and DJ, Alan Freed. It is also notable for being the first starring role of one of the great beauties of 1970’s cinema, Tuesday Weld. Weld is a mature looking 13-year-old who lip-syncs a couple of Connie Francis songs while trying to earn money for a jazzy prom dress. Alan Freed is legendary as one of the most prominent figures in the early days of rock and roll. He is also a major figure in the payola scandals. This new music was shocking in those days, with an older generation furiously fighting to save the morals of their young people. It really is the same old song over and over down through history. Kids will be kids, and you just can’t save their morals. Rock and roll/rhythm and blues are still musical styles to this very day, but some people might not admit that things really haven’t changed all that much in 60 years. There were many, many of these rock and roll movies over the years. The disc also includes a trailer for another film from 1956, Don’t Knock the Rock, which features Bill Haley and his Comets and Little Richard. The overall collection shows styles like big band jazz merging with simple guitar, piano, and drums. Things really were happening back then, and things were going to change radically in the years to come, but the essential elements were all there. If the history of music is important to you, a collection like this is fascinating. It may seem crude and ridiculous by today’s standards, but it’s like cutting layers out of rock and ice to uncover the strata of the past. The performers might be familiar to fans of early TV, but the presentation is different when compiled for the big screen. As silly as it seems, there was an enormous amount of censorship and racism at the time.
Unfortunately there is no historical commentary included, which would have been extremely helpful in putting things into context. This is a time capsule, pure and simple. It is an unvarnished view of times that were a-changing.