A wop ba-ba lu-mop a wap bam BOOM
The explosion that was rock “n” roll felt around the world caused only minor tremors in Vancouver.
It was an adult life then. Grown ups waltzed to big bands led by Lance Harrison or Mart Kenney at The Cave Supper Club.
The Cave, on Hornby Street, was a symbol of the old and the new. It was a supper club with a big stage and a wide-open booking policy. The interior was designed to look like a cave with its artificial stalactites. This, and an air of sophistication made it more daring.
The nascent teenage generation, born post Second World War, gritted its teeth as the radio played Patti Page’s How Much Is That Doggie In The Window? and searched for something of its own.
By the mid-1950s, youngsters, had found it in Bill Haley and His Comets’ Rock Around The Clock.
Teens cheered when the hit single became the theme song of Blackboard Jungle. The film starring Glenn Ford as a new teacher at North Manual High School, Sidney Poitier as his reform project and Vic Morrow as a punk gang leader examined inner-city violence to a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack..
In some places, kids danced in the aisles as the music played and slashed theatre seats as Morrow smashed Ford’s invaluable shellac 78s.
Vancouver teens had found their music.
They had Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Carl Perkins. They had rock ‘n’ roll.
Not that this transition happened over night or without adult resistance.
“When I was in high school in the 50s and we had a dance, the teachers would play Glen Miller or the popular bands of the day.” veteran DJ Red Robinson remembers. “But there was a little juke joint – no, it was a coffee shop – called the Oakway at the corner of Oak and Broadway and that guy had on the jukebox Ruth Brown, Wynonie Harris, Lloyd Price, and I loved it. So when I got my show I said to the guy at the Oakway, ‘Look, when the guy comes in to replace those records, could I have them?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be a nickel apiece.’ I said, OK. I thought, ‘This is my music.'”
Robinson got his show at CJOR by phoning Al Jordan, who had a show called Theme For Teens, and impersonating actor Jimmy Stewart. His ruse soon was exposed, but he was hired anyway.
” It all began on the day after Remembrance day in 1954,” Robinson recalls, “When program director Vic Waters told me the afternoon show “Theme for Teens’ was mine each afternoon on CJOR, but I would have to do a “live:” on air audition at 4 p.m..
“The previous host, Al Jordan, had left town for another job. I hit the air as a bundle of nerves but was able to play my favourite R & B tunes for a solid hour.
“The switchboard lit up and Vic told me that the show was mine. I can even remember the first song I played, a do-wop number by the Four Tunes titled “Marie” which had been a big band hit for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
“In those days I would buy my R & B records ,wrapped in brown paper as if they were pornographic . Of course they were mostly songs by black performers and called “Race’ records. I played a mixed bag in those days, pop hits and R & B which morphed into rock ‘n’ roll.”
His first shows went live in front of an audience from the basement the Grosvenor Hotel. Within a month, the 125 capacity radio theatre was overflowing. Kids, hoping to get in, lined up outside the Grosvenor for blocks. Robinson soon moved his live show to the Kitsilano Showboat, which attracted 10,000 of his ‘kids.’
Rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay.
On November 12th, 2014, Robinson will have completed 60 years on the radio.
Vancouver’s first notable rock ‘n’ roll show appropriately was headlined by Bill Haley and His Comets., March 1956, after the release of the group’s musical film, Rock Around The Clock. Opening was one of the city’s own rock and rollers, Les Vogt, with his band, The Prowlers.
The Haley show on June 27, 1956, was produced at the Kerrisdale Arena by clothier Murray Goldman and disc jockey Jack Cullen. It was emceed Robinson, still a teenager fresh out of King Edward school.
“Jack Cullen was my mentor – one of the greatest characters radio ever had.” Robinson states. “He was putting on the show. This was huge, with the movie Rock Around The Clock. In June of 1956 I get a phone call, ‘Red, it’s Jack Cullen.’ I said, ‘Hi Jack.’ He said, ‘You know Murray Goldman and me are bringing Bill Haley in. We’d like you to be emcee.’ Talk about a generous guy, eh. “
Goldman saw a chance to advertise his wares. Cullen wasn’t a fan of this new fangled music, being more fond of Frank Sinatra type pop or big band swing, but he had an open mind, as well as a record store, and likely saw rock ‘n’ roll coming. His evening CKNW radio show, the Owl Prowl, was the most popular in the Lower Mainland and wrote its own rules. Cullen often taped his interviews with guest stars, threw away any script he was given, made a few bootlegs, and gave Vogt’s band its name.
He was on the air one night in early 56 when a Vogt fan called and got him to listen to the band rehearsing at that moment. Cullen put down the phone receiver, put a microphone up to it and patched the group over the air. Suddenly, the band was legitimate and became The Prowlers out of gratitude to Cullen’s Owl Prowl.
It was natural that The Prowlers open for Haley.
“The opening act was a group called The Prowlers with Les Vogt,” Robinson confirms. ” I’ve got recordings of his. He could do Elvis Presley like nobody else could do Elvis.”
Of course, parents and the morality police were scandalized. On Wednesday night, The Comets rocked around the clock and shook, rattled and rolled. By Thursday morning Vancouver Sun music writer , Stanley Bligh, decried this “ultimate in musical depravity,” and worried over the “cacophonous noise that might cause permanent harm to not fully developed adolescent minds.”.
Haley told Province staff reporter, Hugh Watson, “The kids like their music simple. We give it to them that way but we always give them a beat. That’s the big thing – the beat.”
Vancouver police Sgt., Stan Laycock, told The Province , “It sort of looks like they sprayed the place with itching powder.”
The 6,000 kids in attendance saw no harm in dancing to the rock.
Haley was, however, prescient enough to predict that he, and the world, would be overtaken, overwhelmed, by a good looking and talented young man billing himself as The Hillbilly Cat.,” Robinson recalls.
As he told Red, “It’s been fun, but the ride’s over. There is a very handsome younger singer down in Memphis they call ‘The Hillbilly Cat.’ He’s got the looks, he’s got the talent, and he’s younger. We’re finished.”