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WOSTER: Chasing guitars and dreams

Terry Woster

I was 10 years old when Bill Haley and the Comets first recorded "Rock Around the Clock," so I expect no argument when I say I grew up with rock 'n' roll.

I did a Google search (so I expect no argument there, either -- people can't put stuff on the Internet unless it's true; no, I'm not really that naïve, but it would be a good rule) on that song the other day as I pondered the birth of rock. I always believed "Rock Around the Clock" was recorded specifically for the movie "Blackboard Jungle," which was released in 1955. Turns out, if Google is to be trusted, Bill Haley cut the record a year before that -- 1954. It had little commercial success until it showed up as the sound track behind the opening credits of the movie. Then it rocketed to the top of the charts.

I don't remember exactly when I saw the movie, but I remember the song. I remember Glenn Ford playing the movie lead, too, a teacher at an inner-city school who has trouble with gang members. I didn't know until my Google search that Sidney Poitier was one of the unruly students. Maybe that's why Poitier later took the role of a new teacher in a school full of unruly students in the movie, "To Sir, With Love." Poitier wasn't the worst of the students Glen Ford faced. That was probably Vic Morrow. Well, sure. If you have Vic Morrow in your film, he's either an uncontrollable villain or Sergeant What's-His-Name from that TV series "Combat."

(Odd little sidebar here: Google's synopsis of the film says Ford is a teacher at North Manual High School "where many of the pupils frequently engage in anti-social behavior.")

I was thinking about Bill Haley and the Comets during a reflection fest brought on by the coming anniversary of the death (Feb. 3, 1959) of Buddy Holly, the Lubbock, Texas, songwriter and singer who formed the rock group "The Crickets," and who had a big hand in popularizing Fender electric guitars. Not that he promoted them, he just played them. That was enough for every male teenager in America to want to own one and to be able to play it fluently in a day or so.

There was a hit song sometime during my teen years in which the narrator says, "Bought me a guitar a year ago, learned how to play in a day or so." I did so want that guy to be me. I got my first guitar when I was 14, eighth grade, I'm pretty sure. It was quite a nice, if inexpensive, acoustic from Montgomery Ward. Acoustic was fine for folk singing, but electric was what was happening on the rock scene. I wanted the same Fender guitar as the ones played by Holly, the guys in the Ventures and Luther Perkins from the Tennessee Three who backed up Johnny Cash.

Well, Leo Fender is remembered for making a wildly popular, great sounding and relatively inexpensive electric guitar, but at a couple of hundred bucks, the biggest bargain instrument in the Fender line seemed way out of reach for a farm kid who only knew four chords and about five songs -- if you counted "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." I didn't have the money, I could never justify asking my dad for the money (for a what??) and no matter how many customers I added to my Sunday Minneapolis Tribune route during the school year, I couldn't earn the money in time to catch the first wave of rock superstars. The hits were coming faster than Bauer's Locker could sell the 45 rpm singles, and I was on the sidelines.

I turned to the mail-order catalog. Sears, Roebuck featured a gleaming Fender Telecaster look-alike, and the price was $29. I sold my acoustic for half, broke the piggy bank for some more and nagged my mom until she fronted the remainder.

I played my first public song ("Blue Suede Shoes") on that guitar in high school as the rhythm guy for the Bearcats. I traded up eventually. I got a more expensive guitar, but I never did get that hit record.