Along with keeping track of labor and working class issues in the U.S. South, this ink-stained wretch has always been a film lover and that’s the why of my recent book Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) and articles such as “Nehemiah Persoff – Intensity in-Depth” in TCM “Noir Czar” host Eddie Muller’s Noir City magazine back in 2016.
“Go, Johnny, Go!” offers a glimpse into the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, the day before “the day the music died,” as Don McLean would sing in “American Pie”. Rock ‘n’ roll’s first Latino star, Ritchie Valens, makes his sole screen appearance in it, an appearance that came just months before he’d die in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. That crash took place before the film was even released.
Eddie Cochran, the solid for-real rocker who gave us “Summertime Blues”, made his third and last film appearance in “Go, Johnny, Go!” He died in a car wreck the year after the film came out. Chuck Berry, a co-star with legendary disc jockey Alan Freed in the film, would be charged with taking a teenager across state lines for “immoral purposes” the same year of the film’s release. That charge would eventually put him in prison.
Freed is a major reason the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s where he gained fame playing rock ‘n’ roll—evening coining the term for the music—as well as R&B and blues before he moved to the Big Apple. A pioneer in bringing black and white artists together on the same stage, he became a target for his race-and-music mixing, one of the reasons his career would begin a downward spiral in 1960 because of a payola scandal.
“Go, Johnny, Go!” also features Jackie Wilson, The Flamingos, Jo Anne Campbell, The Cadillacs, and, of course, “Johnny” himself, Jimmy Clanton. Clanton was often dismissed as yet another milquetoast Fabian or Pat Boone type, but the Louisiana native studied at the feet of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, recorded for Ace Records in Mississippi, and wrote many of his songs.
Another treat for this writer is the collection of great character actors in the film. Faces you’ll recognize, but names like Frank Wilcox, Barbara Wooddell, Herb Vigran, Milton Frome, William Fawcett, Phil Arnold, Joe Flynn, Dick Elliott, and Robert Foulkk that you won’t. Harry Dean Stanton would've fit right in.
(Harry Dean in the 1985 film "Fool for Love")
Yours truly got this gig Sunday as a charter member of TCM’s “Backlot” club, an organization of fans and film buffs. I entered a competition by naming 10 films I’d like to co-host. Of course, I named four Harry Dean Stanton films, a handful of noir films, and slapped “Go, Johnny, Go!” on as number 10. That’s the one they picked, along with me!
I first saw “Go, Johnny, Go!” back at the old Temple Theater in Sanford, North Carolina, in the early 1960s, probably a third or fourth run of the film. Restored today to beauty and prestige, the Temple back then was a musty old movie house, the kind where your shoes stuck to the floor as you walked down the aisle, a time when blacks sat in the balcony and whites below.
Years later I found an old DVD of the film at a Memphis flea market and would slip it in and wade through waves of nostalgia every now and then.
The plot’s pretty thin, the singers are lip syncing, and the guitars aren’t even plugged in, but it’s a fun romp that seems innocent through today’s world-weary eyes but which also provides a whiff of the rebellion rock ‘n’ roll truly was back in the day, a music that scared parents, preachers, and politicians, and drove racists through the roof for making both whites and blacks want to dance, and maybe even on the same dance floor!