On Thursday, October 20, 1955, at approximately 1:45 pm, 20-year-old Elvis Presley’s rebel yell of “Wellll, I heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight!” smacked off the auditorium walls of Brooklyn (Ohio) High School, as cameras from Universal – International Pictures filmed, in color, the flashpoint of the birth of rock and roll.
This unseen footage, know today as The Pied Piper of Cleveland, remains the lost, Holy Grail of rock and roll. But not necessarily because of Presley’s performance, one of his first out of the South, which by most eyewitness accounts wasn’t so spectacularly mind-blowing, or by the appearances of the other, more established acts on the bill. The Pied Piper of Cleveland retains its mystery and allure simply because it has eluded capture for so many years, and because its producer and star, Cleveland top jock Bill Randle, made sure never to answer questions about the film's fate candidly, never letting its tantalizing specter fade from the rock and roll consciousness.
For the last eight years, I've dedicated a considerable amount of time peering through nearly 60 years of Randle's smoke and mirrors, attempting to discern exactly what transpired on that chilly, fall day, in that sleepy suburb of Cleveland. Was this Universal movie short about the day in the life of Randle – the first rockumentary – actually filmed? If so, then what happened to the footage? And if found today, would the results live up to expectations or could they be anything but anti-climatic?
The research supports that the concerts at Brooklyn High and later that evening at St. Michael's Hall were filmed, that someday the footage will surface, and that yes, it will be incredibly amazing to see the raw, untamed, pre-fame Presley splintering the innocent minds of the kids in the crowds.
Chalk up my optimism to an indefatigable treasure hunter spirit in me, which has been lucky enough to make a few exciting discoveries along the quest, and two lifelong friends. One standout discovery was to uncover, preserve and celebrate the legacy of Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards, with the publishing of my book for Kent State University Press, 1950s Radio in Color - The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards. Edwards was present at the Pied Piper shoots, snapped an iconic color photo of Bill Haley and Presley shaking hands backstage at Brooklyn High, and is the deejay responsible for perhaps the most important photographic and written documentation of 20th century music ever produced.
Since our first contact in November 2006, I've been inspired by my friendship with Edwards' nephew Keith Winters, the owner of the photographs. Winter's unwavering positive outlook on life and his leap of faith in me made the sharing of his uncle's amazing archives possible. Terry Stewart, the President of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has been my conspiring ally on all things Pied Piper related. From his first email reply to me in November 2004, where he wrote "I'd love to talk to you... what's your phone number?" through to his spearheading of the Tommy Edwards photography exhibit, currently on display at The Rock Hall, Stewart has been a steadfast supporter and friend. In my recording career, I've met many music industry types who seem to have no affinity with the power and beauty of music, or maybe they understood it once and just lost it somewhere along the way. Not Stewart. He remains passionate about life, madly in love with rock and roll, and always game to hop on a plane and meet me in a Wisconsin basement to look at some old photos.
So, we keep searching in attics, and through hutches and film cans; deep inside dusty filing cabinets and the mists of years passed, because you never know. And 99 percent of the fun is in the thrill of the hunt. Let the hunt continue.
On Wednesday, March 21 at 7 pm, songwriter, musician and author Chris Kennedy and Terry Stewart will tell the stories behind some of Tommy Edwards' photos of rock, pop and country's biggest stars from the Fifties and Sixties. The photos are part of the exhibit 1950s Radio in Color: The Lost Photographs of Deejay Tommy Edwards, now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Click here for more information.
About Chris Kennedy:
Songwriter, musician and music historian Christopher Kennedy discovered Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards’ photography collection during his research into the long-lost rock and roll film, The Pied Piper of Cleveland, which is rumored to contain some of the earliest footage of Elvis Presley. Kennedy’s discovery resulted in his 2011 book, 1950s Radio in Color, which features more than 200 images from Edwards’ collection.