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'At the Hop': A Lesson in Staying Power

March 06, 1988|MIKE BOEHM

With their first single, "At the Hop," slipping down the charts, the call went out early in 1958 for Danny and the Juniors to come up with another hit--and fast.

Dave White remembers taking a call from his record label boss, then sitting down in a hotel room in Davenport, Iowa, and writing "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" off the top of his head. It was as easy as that.

Nothing would ever be so easy again.

"Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" was a bubbly response to the adult world's grousing about a new style of music that alternately was decried as a threat to the nation's moral fiber, or dismissed as a passing fad that would fade away if ignored. The song made it into the Top 20; for Danny and the Juniors--and for White, the group's 18-year-old songwriter and tenor harmonist--it continued an ascendance that had begun late in 1957, when "At the Hop" had started its climb to No. 1.

With its rising "ba-ba-ba-ba" harmonies and its celebration of good-rockin' times, "At the Hop" took Danny and the Juniors from hanging out on Philadelphia street corners to hanging out with future rock Hall of Famers in promoter Alan Freed's all-star revues.

Thirty years later, lead singer Danny Rapp is dead--the victim, his old band mates say, of too much alcohol, of too many nights playing obscure lounges, and, ultimately, in 1983, of his own finger on the trigger of a gun. Baritone Joe Terry and second tenor Frank Maffei are soldiering on, billed as "The Original Juniors, featuring Joe Terry." They still live in the Philadelphia area and sing on the weekends, mainly in lounges and at Atlantic City hotels.

As for White, the group's founder and chief creative force, the aftermath of "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" has been a long, up-and-down struggle to stay in rock 'n' roll. The trail that started in high school lavatories in Philly, where budding harmony groups would go to hone their sound in echo-chamber surroundings, recently brought White to a sound stage at Whitefield Studios in Santa Ana. There, clipboard in hand, the compactly built Orange County resident watched as a platoon of actors, directors and technicians shot sequences for a video that White hopes will return him to the pop charts for the first time in 20 years.

The squared-off sideburns that descend from White's brown, conservatively cut hair are showing the first sparse strands of gray. Telling his story between takes as the video crew waited for stage fog to bubble up from a bucket of dry ice, the 48-year-old exuded a low-keyed optimism about his present prospects, and spoke in an even, forthcoming manner about past peaks and valleys.

He was born David White Tricker, the son of a show biz couple who did an acrobatic routine. In high school, he started hanging out with black kids who were singing a new kind of harmony music. "I knew church music, and I knew how to read music. They taught me the R&B and rock 'n' roll element," White said. "I was so excited about it that I went around and found guys in my neighborhood who could sing."

He called his quartet the Juvenaires. Often, the group would practice inside White's 1953 Pontiac. White said he would herd them into the car to avoid distractions ("I wasn't in it to attract girls. I wanted to make this group sound good"), though Joe Terry, reminiscing over the phone from his home in Turnersville, N.J., said it wasn't the singers who were in danger of being distracted.

"The neighbors would get disturbed. We'd be out on the corner singing, and they'd yell 'Shut up down there!' We'd have to get in the car."

The Juvenaires got their break when John Madera, a young record producer who lived in the neighborhood, liked their sound and introduced them to Artie Singer, who ran a Philadelphia-based record company. Singer changed the group's name to Danny and the Juniors after Rapp, who White says was a natural choice for lead vocalist because "he sounded real black, and he danced real good."

Dick Clark, host of the Philadelphia-based American Bandstand show, suggested another important change after hearing a song that White, Madera and Singer had written, called "Do the Bop." Clark liked the tune but said that "At the Hop" would be a catchier title. Clark plugged the record regularly on Bandstand and by January, 1958, "At the Hop" had begun a seven-week run as the No. 1 song in the country.

"What it meant to us," Terry said, "was we could get on the road and run around and have a good time. Today, people place a lot of emphasis on a star trip, the life style of the rich and famous. Back then, it was a gig, a chance to harmonize and do your craft."

Not that the group was lacking for adulation. "All we would hear," recalled White, "was a constant scream through our whole performance."

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