Thursday, April 19, 2007

This Army rocked and rolled

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Question: What do you do when you're a rock 'n' roll star whose last hit was in the sixties? Answer: You get together with your contemporaries and tour, of course.

That's exactly what a group of former hit-makers called the Rock & Roll Army did during a set of dates at the turn of the millennium.

The assemblage of eight rock 'n' roll veterans made a stop at Chip- In's Island Resort and Casino on Jan. 28 & 29, 2000 to advance their cause by promoting hits they originally delivered when they were barely in their twenties.

Not to be too analytical, but anybody who lived through the sixties knows the decade was perfectly divided between before the Beatles and after. The earlier period was represented in the Rock & Roll Army by Len Barry, Brian Hyland, Dickie Lee and Chris Montez. The later sixties were typified by Gary Lewis, Tommy Roe, and Mitch Ryder. The British Invasion of 1964 was covered succinctly by Billy J. Kramer, discovered by Beatles manager Brian Epstein.

The concert showed these purveyors of old rock still had some staying power. They earned 26 Top Ten hits among them, although their fame largely dimmed with the arrival of the seventies. Still, they were out on tour, with the entire group being 50-something, except Lee who was 66 years old at the time of the Harris performances.

It's no surprise casinos have been instrumental in providing exposure for older entertainers who might not otherwise make a commitment to touring. The gaming establishments provide modern venues, attractive accommodations, good working conditions and a guaranteed paycheck.

Despite the obstacles of age, the Rock & Roll Army put on a crowd-pleasing concert as evidenced by the Saturday show my wife Sue and I attended.

During his segment of the show Barry performed "Bristol Stomp," a number two smash and the first hit for his group, the Dovells. Barry, at age 57, then brought the audience back to 1965 with the catchy "1-2-3," which also just missed the stop spot on the Billboard singles chart.

Chris Montez, a protege of Richie Valens, defied his age (57) by jumping off the stage into the audience during "Let's Dance." The crowd loved the stunt.

Brian Hyland performed his biggest hits, including the number one "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," which reached its peak during the summer of 1960. The 56-year-old pop singer followed that with "Sealed With A Kiss" and "Gypsy Woman."

Dicky Lee touched a sentimental note with his rendition of "Patches," first recorded in 1960 by Jimmy Isle.

Meanwhile, the Merseyside-born Kramer, then 56, sang the Lennon- McCartney composition "Bad to Me," which the Fab Four hadn't bothered to to record themselves, as well as "Little Children." The two songs, issued on the same single, were a double-sided Top Ten hit.

The 54-year-old Gary Lewis gave the Upper Peninsula audience a trip back to the mid-sixties with "This Diamond Ring," a number one smash. The son of comedian Jerry Lewis demonstrated his pop credentials with a series of hits including "Count Me In," "Save Your Heart for Me" and "Everybody Loves a Clown."

Tommy Roe, at age 57, was no slouch, either. The Atlanta-born singer performed both his number ones, "Sheila" and "Dizzy," as well as "Sweet Pea" and "Jam Up Jelly Tight."

Detroit rock 'n' roller Mitch Ryder pumped out lively versions of "Jenny Take a Ride," "Devil with the Blue Dress" and "Sock It to Me Baby." The 54-year-old shredded his vocal chords for us, just like he did as a young man.

The crowd was treated to a nostalgic evening; that was to be expected.

What might not have been as likely is that those old hits continue to attract listeners. After all, when the stars themselves recorded these songs they were merely fodder for the radio. If you didn't like one song another would follow in two minutes. Songs were just little blasts of noise expected to occupy our time while we were busy doing something else. Even 45 rpm records were totally disposable.

Today we treasure those tunes because they became snapshots of our youth. Perhaps those portraits get more valuable as we get older.

If that's true, the rock 'n' roll heroes of long ago will continue to entertain us well into their dotage.

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