By: DAVID WHARTON SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David Wharton is a Times staff writerIf 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.
Allowed to produce his own kind of program, Good assembled in-house talent, including young Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Billy Preston. Teri Garr was hired as one of the go-go dancers. The assistant choreographer was 17-year-old Antonia Christina Basilotta, who would later gain fame as Toni Basil.
Jackie DeShannon signed on as a regular singer. The show needed a male counterpart.
At the time, Sherman was studying psychology at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. His girlfriend took him to a wrap party for the film "The Greatest Story Ever Told." The band turned out to be some high school friends who coaxed Sherman onstage.
"We did a couple numbers," he said. "Afterward, three people came up to me--Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda--and said, 'You're good.' Three days later, I got a phone call from an agent."
The agent took him to ABC Studios to meet Good. Sherman sang along to a few 45-r.p.m. records. Minutes later, he was hired.
"Jack knew what he was doing," Sherman said. "He knew he'd have a lot of bands with long hair. What he was doing with me, he was keeping the peace with ABC with this clean-cut kid."
Even so, "Shindig!" might have been relegated to an afternoon slot, where it wouldn't offend parents. But CBS had a stranglehold on Wednesday nights with a one-two punch of the "Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." According to O'Neill, ABC decided to throw its newcomer to the wolves.
On Sept. 16, 1964, America got a taste of prime-time rock 'n' roll.
Jack Good was vacationing in Cordoba, Spain, and could not be reached for comment. He has kept a relatively low profile since "Shindig!" and, in fact, was recently reported dead by a San Francisco newspaper. Friends from the show say he was so embittered by Hollywood that it drove him out of television.
The man known as "Uncle Jack" was passionate about his work and left no detail untended.
Good knew a lot of teen-age girls wore glasses, so he made one of his dancers wear a fake pair. He ordered another dancer to wear false braces. The sound system in the television studio wasn't to his liking, nor did he care to see amplifier cables and chords littering the floor during his dance numbers. After the first few episodes, the bands usually recorded their background instrumentals in a studio and only pretended to play during the show. Soloists would play live. Save for rare instances, singers actually sang on camera.
As for visual aspects, guests were required to rehearse an entire week.
"He wanted the artist to know where the camera would be on every note of every song," O'Neill said. "He'd tell them, 'When you sing this part, the camera will be close-up, so don't move around. Do it with your eyes. Later, we'll pull back and then I want you to move around.' "
Good treated the prerecorded show as though it were a live broadcast. The cameras were stopped only for major glitches. Once, a guest suffered an epileptic fit. Another time, Johnny Cash showed up drunk and couldn't remember the words to the gospel classic "Amen."
"We were horrified because we idolized Johnny," O'Neill said. "It took us three hours to get an acceptable taping."
Even the biggest acts were willing to appear for union scale. British bands owed Good. The Who, for example, had been ignored until they appeared on "Ready Steady Go!" according to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. American acts were thankful for prime-time exposure.
"It was a great opportunity and everybody wanted it," Brown said.
So rehearsals were rigorous but upbeat. " 'Shindig!' was basically a fun show to do," Everly said.
O'Neill recalled that when the Rolling Stones were guests, Good secretly booked Howlin' Wolf because Mick Jagger was a fan of the bluesman. "As a result of the adrenaline rush that gave Mick, he turned around and gave a great performance," O'Neill said.
Author Robert Palmer, in his book "Deep Blues," asserted that the Stones demanded Wolf's presence. Either way, as Palmer stated, "there he was one night in prime time, moving his great bulk around the 'Shindig!' stage with unbelievable agility and screaming the blues for the millions."
Previously unknown regulars such as O'Neill and Sherman say working in such conditions was dreamlike. Sherman recalled chatting with Ray Charles: "I was totally in awe." Brown said the one memory that sticks in his mind is that of "this little cat standing outside and taking some of my equipment in."
"You know who that was?" Brown said. "That fellow was Glen Campbell. He hadn't done any of that Phoenix stuff yet."
"We had a year under our belt and everything was rosy," O'Neill said. "Then the dark shadow began to slide in."
In the winter of 1965, NBC launched its own prime-time rock show, "Hullabaloo." ABC continued to tinker with "Shindig!", expanding the program to an hour, returning it to half an hour, then airing two episodes a week, on Thursday and Saturday.
Good argued more and more with network executives. Rumors abound as to the nature of the friction and no one at ABC can recall much about the show now. Eventually, Good quit. Gone was the pacing and style. Gone was the man who knew which bands the kids wanted to see. "People would say, 'We can keep it up,' " Sherman said. "But Uncle Jack wasn't there to take care of us anymore."
Ratings slipped. In an attempt to lure older viewers, the network booked such guests as Mickey Rooney, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Boris Karloff. "It became a joke," O'Neill said. "We all giggled at the hideous miscasting."
Viewers continued to abandon the show. It was a matter of months before the network canceled "Shindig!" The final installment featured a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
"It was time," Sherman said. "People like the Righteous Brothers were having hits and spinning off in other directions. I got my show, 'Here Come the Brides.' It was becoming a little unraveled."
Of all the regulars, O'Neill took the cancellation hardest. His wife, songwriter Sharon Sheeley, left him soon after. He tried to set her house on fire, he said. Next came drugs and alcohol.
Today, at 51, O'Neill is sober and back where he began: He is the disc jockey for the morning show on KRLA (1110 AM) and says he feels reincarnated since Rhino Records began releasing the "Shindig!" videotapes in February.
"I had not seen the show in a quarter of a century," he said. "Those were special days. We felt like we were on a mission.
"Those rock 'n' roll stars, people like Jerry Lee Lewis, never had the exposure they deserved," he said. "Jack was proud to give it to them, and I was glad to be on the same train."
Ripp and Rhino will eventually release a dozen tapes in all. The first six feature performances grouped by category: "Soul," "Motor City Magic," "Groovy Gals," "Jackie Wilson," "The Righteous Brothers" and "Frat Party." The next two installments, due out in February, will be devoted to Jerry Lee Lewis and various 1960s bands.
Since "Shindig!," network television has continued to dabble with rock 'n' roll shows. "Hullabaloo" lasted only until the summer of 1966. "Soul Train" and "Don Kirschner's Rock Concert" became staples in the 1970s. Today, MTV broadcasts a series of live performances called "Unplugged." But none of these offer the wide exposure of network prime time. Brown, for one, mourns the absence.
"We need the live performances. If it's in the can, it's just in the can," he said. "I wish they'd bring 'Shindig!' back."
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