Ole Miss journalism professor and author Joe Atkins will co-host a showing of the 1959 rock ‘n’ roll film Go, Johnny, Go! on Turner Classic Movies this Sunday, March 21 at 12 p.m. EST/11 a.m. CST. Last November, 360°Sound spoke with Atkins about his book Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel.
Go, Johnny, Go! stars influential disc jockey Alan Freed and legendary rockers Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and Ritchie Valens, among others. We caught up with Atkins ahead of his co-hosting spot.
360°: For those of us who haven’t seen Go, Johnny, Go!, please give us a little preview of the film. And who do you think this film would appeal to?
Joe Atkins: Go, Johnny, Go! is a classic early rock ‘n’ roll film that features some of the best rock ‘n’ rollers of its day. Yes, it has a weak plot, and, yes, the singers are lip-synching without even their guitars being plugged in, but still, it stands alongside The Girl Can’t Help It in 1956 as one of the best films ever to showcase rock ‘n’ roll’s beginnings.
Music lovers of any generation should get a kick out of it. From Jackie Wilson to the Cadillacs to Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Jo Anne Campbell, and Chuck Berry, what’s not to like? For jazz fans, there’s even Dave Brubeck filling in as Berry’s pianist (on “Little Queenie”)! Jimmy Clanton as “Johnny” is often dismissed as just another Fabian-slash-Pat Boone type, but Clanton actually got his start in New Orleans with the help of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, recorded with Ace Records in Mississippi, and wrote many of his own songs.
What’s the film’s significance and how does it fit into the story of rock ‘n’ roll?
To me, the film is a glimpse into the day before what Don McLean called “the day the music died” in his classic song “American Pie”. In Go, Johnny, Go! you see 17-year-old Ritchie Valens’ only appearance on the screen before he would die alongside Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in a plane crash. Valens died in February 1959 just months before the film was even released. Eddie Cochran made his third and final film appearance in Go, Johnny, Go! He would die in a car wreck in England the next year.
The film came out the same year Chuck Berry would get arrested for taking a teenager across state lines for “immoral purposes.” He’d later serve time in prison for it. The year after the film came out the great disc jockey Alan Freed, who produced and starred in the film, would see his career begin a downhill slide because of a payola scandal. Just a couple years later began the British invasion with the Beatles and the Stones.
Freed was the first disc jockey to play rock ‘n’ roll to a national audience. He even coined the name for the music. He became a target because he promoted a music many saw as a sex-and-race infused rebellion. Freed played R&B, blues, and rock and brought black and white musicians together on the same stage. He ended up paying a $300 fine for two counts of accepting gifts from producers to play their music–common practice then and not even a crime outside NYC and Pennsylvania–and saw his career go up in ashes.
I understand you recorded your co-hosting spot via Zoom last month. Tell us a little about what the experience was like getting to co-host for TCM.
I’ve been a film buff all my life and a fan of TCM from its very beginning. I got the co-host spot because as a charter member of its “Backlot” club I was able to enter a competition by naming 10 films I’d love to co-host. Since I’d just written a book on the actor Harry Dean Stanton, I listed several of his films. Go, Johnny, Go! was No. 10 on the list, and that’s the one they picked along with me!
I loved it, however, because I’ve loved rockabilly, and really all music, as long as I’ve loved movies! I’m co-hosting with Alicia Malone, who’s one of my favorites on TCM, and she’s just as nice and easygoing to work with as she is on the screen.