Oh Boy!

It was as if the launch of Oh Boy! was timed as my treat at the end of a testing first week at grammar school. A reluctantly short-trousered eleven-year-old, I owned the beginnings of a record collection – Little Richard and Lonnie Donegan 78s; Crickets, Fats Domino, and Everly Brothers EPs – and had already intuited that if Tommy Steele was Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley, then, as some wag put it, we must have misheard the question.

I’d seen Steele on Saturday evening’s 6.5 Special and sensed something equally hokey about the BBC’s flagship teen show: the cable-knit jollity of a church youth club, with hosts Pete Murray and Jo Douglas as the would-be with-it vicar and his wife, both blithely clueless as to what appealed to young people. All we wanted on a show that started in February 1957, with ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ in the hit parade, was rock’n’roll, not a hotchpotch of jazz, skiffle, classical, choirs and crooners, never mind the comedy, sport and eggy interview slots.

More than three years on from ‘Rock Around The Clock’, the music fanfared by that record had fallen short of undisputed pre-eminence and, through the months leading to Oh Boy!’s launch, the pop papers bristled with articles bashing the big beat. Melody Maker’s curmudgeonly Steve Race was not alone in railing against “that particular kind of infantile and often suggestive chanting known as ‘rock’n’roll’,” while Methodist minister Donald Soper, deploring “the undue emphasis on sex in so many songs” and calling for censorship to shore up artistic and moral standards, claimed, “I watch 6.5 Special sometimes – as a penance. I’m perplexed. I can’t understand how intelligent people can derive any sort of satisfaction from something which is emotionally embarrassing and intellectually ridiculous.” The populist ‘Dr Soapbox’ could have been having a dig at 6.5 Special producer Jack Good, whose intelligence, vouched by an Oxford degree, had not blinded him to the effervescent glory of rock’n’roll.

In fact, Good had quit the programme – and the frustrations of the BBC – early in 1958 and begun almost at once to plan a music show for the rival commercial network, unencumbered by the baggage that too often slowed 6.5 Special to a stumble. This was to be his masterpiece: a spell-binding visualisation – through movement, camerawork and lighting – of rock’n’roll.

The resistance to rock’n’roll aired in the music press prevailed at school. Most of my peers had been brow-beaten by parents or older siblings into disbelieving Danny & the Juniors’ brash assertion that rock’n’roll was “here to stay”, so being a fan was like belonging to a secret society. I looked for signs among the thousand other boys: a brylcreemed quiff, trousers taken in on mother’s Singer, tie worn the wrong way round, fat end tucked away, thin end dangling slim jim-style from a Windsor knot. I bonded with a boy in my form because he wore Buddy Holly glasses, and found a musical mentor in the older brother of a form-mate who had seen me inscribe Little Richard’s name in illuminated text on the back cover of my rough book. Pomdadoured Pete Briggs would introduce me to Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’, Jesse Hill’s ‘Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo’ and Larry Williams’ ‘She Said “Yeah”’, this last the B-side of a record that wasn’t even a hit in the States. How could a sixteen-year-old from the home counties have come across it?

Twenty-seven-year-old Jack Good was mentor to Marty Wilde, who had appeared on 6.5 Special. It was Good who introduced him to American Jody Reynolds’ ‘Endless Sleep’, Wilde’s cover of which brought him his first hit in July 1958 and remained a top five fixture the week Oh Boy! began.

Good could spot home-grown hits too, inking Cliff Richard for the opening show the moment he flipped the seventeen-year-old’s first single and heard ‘Move It’. “This disc could sell 50,000 copies on its first eight bars alone,” he enthused in his 9 August Disc column. “Even as I play it over again for the hundred and first time, I still can’t believe it. That this disc comes from Britain and not the States is fantastic – absurd. If this is not a hit, I have never heard one.”

While I was finding my feet in 2C, Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde and the regulars recruited for Oh Boy! – house band Lord Rockingham’s XI, wide-eyed Cherry Wainer with her upholstered Hammond organ, Leicester doo-woppers the Dallas Boys, and the leggy Vernons Girls, whose short shorts would have dads’ eyes glued to the tube – were rehearsing at an Islington club, where every movement, every look was minutely observed through the producer’s owlish lenses. Richard, clearly in the thrall of Elvis, wore sideboards and an acoustic guitar slung across his chest. Shaping his hands in front of his face to approximate a TV screen, Good studied the young singer, and made a note to have a word with him.

The next day New Musical Express’s Keith Goodwin interviewed the debutant, who “set about telling me of his sudden attack of nerves. ‘It’s wonderful to be going on TV for the first time, but I feel so nervous that I don’t know what to do. I mean, I only turned professional five weeks ago, and before that I was working as a clerk and only playing at local dances and things in my spare time. I wore sideburns then, but I shaved them off last night – Jack thought it would make me look more original. I think he’s right,’ he said.”

“Make no mistake,” the singer insists fifty years later, “Jack Good was the boss. He was totally in control, always. Unless he permitted it, you couldn’t do it! I’ve said many times that it was Jack who created the beginnings of Cliff Richard. He didn’t want an Elvis look-alike, so off came the sideburns, away went the guitar, and in came the sneer, the curled lip, and that sultry look up at the camera. I was one hundred per cent directed by him but, oh boy, did he know what he was doing!”

Oh Boy! was screened live, with a five-minute start on 6.5 Special, from London’s Hackney Empire, whose stage was overhung with high-watt spots to generate dazzling chiaroscuro effects: circles of stark white light across which danced angular black shadows cast by the singers, each gyration mirrored in negative monochrome, intensifying the screams – already whipped to crescendo during Good’s frenetic warm-up – from the teeming balcony.

There was a host – Tony Hall one week, Jimmy Henney the next – but no waffle; songs chased songs relentlessly, many condensed into medleys to maximise the output. And although few family TV’s had a screen larger than a laptop today, the scale of Good’s production was cinematic. Performers were backed by as many as thirty supporting musicians and singers, marshalled into teaming-and-toning, individually choreographed groups, the ensemble urged on from the wings by the inexhaustible producer.

Good’s preparation was never less than meticulous, as Marty Wilde confirms. “I don’t know anyone else who would have spent the time that he did. He would rehearse for hours and hours and hours to get things right, and it really paid off. He produced, he directed, and people like myself, Cliff and Billy Fury would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. If he’d have said, ‘Boys, at the weekend we’re jumping from the cliffs of Dover,’ we’d have gone, and we’d have jumped, because we believed in him totally.”

When he wasn’t framing shots with his hands, Good was plotting sequences on paper. “He would have a pencil and a board,” Wilde explains, “and he would draw a square, shade it in and say, ‘I’m going to shoot under your jaw here, and this is what it’ll look like, then here, I want you to look slightly to your right, and the camera will be there, and I want you to look down.’ He would tell you where the camera was going to be and what he planned to do with it.”

“Television was just black-and-white in those days, of course,” Richard points out, “but the dramatic effect you could achieve with white light stabbing through the blackness was stunning. Frantic, fast-moving camera shots reinforced the excitement, which produced something totally new for the small screen. Nothing had been done like it before – and again it was entirely Jack Good’s doing.”

Vernons Girl Joyce Baker, who would become Joyce Wilde when she married the lanky heartthrob in 1959, highlights another aspect of Good’s production: “Jack would have some marvellous idea about a hit song someone had sent from America, and he’d get the girls to do dance routines around that song. He’d pick a couple of girls out to do an Everly Brothers number or whatever, and the others would be like a backdrop.” Wilde concurs, “Jack would often pick up songs that weren’t high in the American charts, he’d just pick out something that he really liked. He had amazing foresight in that direction really. He would pick out a song and say, ‘This is going to be great.’” So, on the opening show, Wilde sang the Leiber-Stoller rocker, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, Ricky Nelson’s new UK hit, ‘Poor Little Fool’, and Buddy Knox’s rarely-heard ‘Somebody Touched Me’.

Richard, who sang Milton Allen’s ‘Don’t Bug Me Baby’ as well as ‘Move It’, observes, “What we did was, in essence, very simple: we presented the charts to people. The UK couldn’t get Elvis or Jerry Lee or Conway Twitty, so we did their music for them – and everyone was a winner. The fans happily accepted covers of US hits from their favourite UK pin-ups, music publishers were thrilled to have their material promoted here, and there were certainly no complaints from the original American stars, who saw their record royalties increase on the back of soaring UK popularity.”

By November, the show’s nationwide popularity, which would soon prompt the BBC to drop 6.5 Special for the brazen Oh Boy! clone, Dig This!, was confirmed when Lord Rockingham’s XI’s ‘Hoots Mon’ topped the charts, but the protectors of public morality continued to keep watch, and in December NME’s Alley Cat columnist harrumphed, “Producer Jack Good must be held responsible for permitting the most crude exhibitionism ever seen on British TV – by Cliff Richard last Saturday. His violent hip-swinging during an obvious attempt to copy Elvis Presley was revolting – hardly the kind of performance any parent could wish their children to witness.” In unapologetic protest that this show had been singled out, the singer claimed cheekily, “After all, I’m always sexy,” while Good’s response was to book him as often as he could, and it was inevitable that Oh Boy!’s most sensational discovery should perform the closing number – a duet with Marty Wilde – of the 38th and final show on 30 May 1959.

A second series was anticipated in September, but by then both name and format had changed. Although Boy Meets Girls disappointingly abandoned the breathless pace and brio of Oh Boy!, it didn’t stop Good making British heroes of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, a cheery Southerner whom he spectacularly transformed into a brooding, leather-clad Richard III.

Wham! followed in 1960, but the upbeat exclamation mark could not disguise the truth that pop was in the doldrums, and in 1962 Good moved to the States “for a year” that stretched to many more.

Time crawled through my teens, and it seemed a lifetime later that I saw the Rolling Stones in the back room of a Windsor pub, and yet it was less than four years on from Oh Boy!. This was British R&B, a new beginning and, for its acolytes, bigger than the Beatles. By August 1963, it had spawned its own stylish music show, which I watched across the ironing board as I pressed my tab-collar shirt and John Stephen strides before heading into an amphetamine-fuelled all-night, but not even the iconic Ready Steady Go! could surpass the feverish excitement of Oh Boy!.

(Originally published in September 2008)

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