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'Shindig!' Tapes Bring 1960s Rock Back to Life : Television: The prime-time program, which featured a dizzying half-hour format that was way ahead of its time, is now seen as a precursor to today's music videos.

December 14, 1991|DAVID WHARTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David Wharton is a Times staff writer

If there is a rock 'n' roll god, this was his altar.

Jerry Lee Lewis played piano. Tina Turner and Marvin Gaye sang a raucous duet. Go-go dancers frugged in the background, except when the stage grew dark and silent and James Brown stepped to the microphone for a gospel-drenched ballad.

In 1964, when "Bonanza" and Andy Griffith ruled the airwaves, an upstart show called "Shindig!" had the audacity to broadcast rock 'n' roll during prime time. It was loud. It was frenetic. It was not created for a pleasant family evening.

Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry. The Beatles, Howlin' Wolf and the Rolling Stones. Black and white musicians were thrown together in an era when much of the country was segregated. And, for the first time, television had a rock music show that was truly about the music.

Sure, "American Bandstand" was already an institution, but that came on afternoons with dancing kids and interviews and usually just one singer doing a pop tune. "Shindig!" pounded the audience with a dozen performers in a dizzying half-hour.

"Music don't breathe unless it's live," said Brown, who appeared often. One week, he gyrated through "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" on a platform with girls circling below as though in an ancient ritual. " 'Shindig!' was the greatest," he said. "It gave us what was happening in the world."

But ABC never knew what to do with the show. By 1966, after months of format changes and backstage bickering, it was off the air. The original kinescope reels were shelved in a storage room. At one point, rumor had it, tapes of the series were recorded over with "The Dating Game."

"Shindig!" might have been forgotten were it not for a record producer who, 20 years later, became obsessed with resurrecting "some old footage collecting dust, which also happened to be some of the most historically important performances by rock pioneers." Artie Ripp spent five years coaxing ABC to unearth "Shindig!"

The resulting home-video series--the first six tapes are now available in stores--offers half-hour compilations of the show's best moments. On Dec. 7, the VH-1 music network broadcast a "Shindig!" day with prizes and clips from the videotapes.

Such footage includes rare glimpses at the likes of Jackie Wilson, Roy Head and Joe Tex. It is also a documentary, in shimmering black and white, of the beginnings of rock's love affair with television.

"I don't think we realized what we had," said Bobby Sherman, who got his start as a regular on "Shindig!" "It was the first MTV."

Dramatic lighting, extreme close-ups, rapid cuts: Watch modern rock videos and you'll see the techniques that earmarked "Shindig!"

Each show opened with a monologue from Jimmy O'Neill, the snappy young host: "Howdy-hi, Shindiggers . . . we've got a 'Shindig!' for you that's so far in it's out of sight."

One moment, Major Lance sang a smooth version of "Monkey Time." The next, Petula Clark stood stock-still for "Downtown," one of a few lip-synced renditions in the show's history. Producer Jack Good lavished his sets with dancers and keylights. He kept a breakneck pace by having the bands shorten their tunes by 20 or 30 seconds.

Good had developed this formula in England, where he produced two similar hit shows, "Oh Boy!" and "Ready Steady Go!" With $15,000 of his own money, he arrived in Hollywood determined to conquer America's teen-agers.

One of the few people Good knew in Los Angeles was Jimmy O'Neill. The young disc jockey enlisted two groups, the Blossoms and the Wellingtons, to serve as backup singers for the proposed show. As a reward for his help, Good made O'Neill the emcee.

A pilot, called "Young America Swings the World," was filmed in a rented studio at CBS Television City in 1962 with guests Sam Cooke, the Righteous Brothers and the Everly Brothers.

"We'd had a longtime experience in England with Jack Good, so we wanted to pitch in and help with the first show," Phil Everly said. "England always had a more adult approach to rock 'n' roll. Jack respected rock 'n' roll as opposed to using it."

Said O'Neill: "I thought we had an instant hit on our hands."

No one else did. ABC had already failed with "The Dick Clark Show," a Saturday night program that featured mild acts lip-syncing their hits. Good met with every television executive who would let him in the door. There were no takers. After a year, the producer gave up and went home.

That should have been the end of it. But bright ideas have a way of surviving, even in Hollywood. A year later, producer Chuck Barris heard O'Neill on the radio and asked the deejay to audition as a game show host. O'Neill submitted a tape of Good's pilot.

"Chuck called me and said, 'What is this? I love it,' " O'Neill said.

With Barris pushing the project, ABC agreed to take another look. First, though, the network experimented by filming a country version of the show with Roy Clark as host. That attempt failed, but the countrified name--"Shindig!"--stuck.

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