'At the Hop': A Lesson in Staying Power

With their first single, "At the Hop," slipping down the charts, the call went out early in 1958 for Danny and the Juniors to come up with another hit--and fast.

Dave White remembers taking a call from his record label boss, then sitting down in a hotel room in Davenport, Iowa, and writing "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" off the top of his head. It was as easy as that.

Nothing would ever be so easy again.

"Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" was a bubbly response to the adult world's grousing about a new style of music that alternately was decried as a threat to the nation's moral fiber, or dismissed as a passing fad that would fade away if ignored. The song made it into the Top 20; for Danny and the Juniors--and for White, the group's 18-year-old songwriter and tenor harmonist--it continued an ascendance that had begun late in 1957, when "At the Hop" had started its climb to No. 1.

With its rising "ba-ba-ba-ba" harmonies and its celebration of good-rockin' times, "At the Hop" took Danny and the Juniors from hanging out on Philadelphia street corners to hanging out with future rock Hall of Famers in promoter Alan Freed's all-star revues.

Thirty years later, lead singer Danny Rapp is dead--the victim, his old band mates say, of too much alcohol, of too many nights playing obscure lounges, and, ultimately, in 1983, of his own finger on the trigger of a gun. Baritone Joe Terry and second tenor Frank Maffei are soldiering on, billed as "The Original Juniors, featuring Joe Terry." They still live in the Philadelphia area and sing on the weekends, mainly in lounges and at Atlantic City hotels.

As for White, the group's founder and chief creative force, the aftermath of "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay" has been a long, up-and-down struggle to stay in rock 'n' roll. The trail that started in high school lavatories in Philly, where budding harmony groups would go to hone their sound in echo-chamber surroundings, recently brought White to a sound stage at Whitefield Studios in Santa Ana. There, clipboard in hand, the compactly built Orange County resident watched as a platoon of actors, directors and technicians shot sequences for a video that White hopes will return him to the pop charts for the first time in 20 years.

The squared-off sideburns that descend from White's brown, conservatively cut hair are showing the first sparse strands of gray. Telling his story between takes as the video crew waited for stage fog to bubble up from a bucket of dry ice, the 48-year-old exuded a low-keyed optimism about his present prospects, and spoke in an even, forthcoming manner about past peaks and valleys.

He was born David White Tricker, the son of a show biz couple who did an acrobatic routine. In high school, he started hanging out with black kids who were singing a new kind of harmony music. "I knew church music, and I knew how to read music. They taught me the R&B; and rock 'n' roll element," White said. "I was so excited about it that I went around and found guys in my neighborhood who could sing."

He called his quartet the Juvenaires. Often, the group would practice inside White's 1953 Pontiac. White said he would herd them into the car to avoid distractions ("I wasn't in it to attract girls. I wanted to make this group sound good"), though Joe Terry, reminiscing over the phone from his home in Turnersville, N.J., said it wasn't the singers who were in danger of being distracted.

"The neighbors would get disturbed. We'd be out on the corner singing, and they'd yell 'Shut up down there!' We'd have to get in the car."

The Juvenaires got their break when John Madera, a young record producer who lived in the neighborhood, liked their sound and introduced them to Artie Singer, who ran a Philadelphia-based record company. Singer changed the group's name to Danny and the Juniors after Rapp, who White says was a natural choice for lead vocalist because "he sounded real black, and he danced real good."

Dick Clark, host of the Philadelphia-based American Bandstand show, suggested another important change after hearing a song that White, Madera and Singer had written, called "Do the Bop." Clark liked the tune but said that "At the Hop" would be a catchier title. Clark plugged the record regularly on Bandstand and by January, 1958, "At the Hop" had begun a seven-week run as the No. 1 song in the country.

"What it meant to us," Terry said, "was we could get on the road and run around and have a good time. Today, people place a lot of emphasis on a star trip, the life style of the rich and famous. Back then, it was a gig, a chance to harmonize and do your craft."

Not that the group was lacking for adulation. "All we would hear," recalled White, "was a constant scream through our whole performance."

Danny and the Juniors never made it back to the Top 20 after the two initial singles that secured their niche in rock 'n' roll history, although they continued to place a string of songs on the charts through 1963. White left the Juniors in the early 1960s and formed a successful songwriting and record-producing partnership with Madera. They came up with three more Top 10 hits--"The Fly" for Chubby Checker in 1961, "You Don't Own Me" for Lesley Gore in '64, and "1-2-3" for Len Barry in '65. White also made the charts as a member of the Spokesmen, whose "Dawn of Correction," an answer song to Barry McGuire's apocalyptic hit, "Eve of Destruction," cracked the Top 40 in 1965.

Then things got harder. White split with Madera in the mid-60s. Soon after that, "I lost my office. I couldn't pay the rent, and (the landlords) absconded with all my gold records. I still have 'At the Hop' because I'd given it to my mom." White moved to a New Jersey farmhouse where the rent was cheap and fell in with a rock band called Crystal Mansion.

"I was just kind of struggling and hanging in there," he recalled, when Rapp turned up in the early '70s with an offer to join a reunited Danny and the Juniors for a stand in Las Vegas organized by Dick Clark. "Danny called me up and said, 'We can get $10,000 a week,' and I didn't have two cents," said White. "But I was really into what I was doing with Crystal Mansion."

In 1971, as David White Tricker, White released "Pastel, Paint, Pencil and Ink," an album in the mellow singer-songwriter mold popular at that time. "I thought, that was my real name, so it's who I should be," White said. "I was searching for my identity." The album didn't establish his identity with the music-buying public, though, and his struggles continued until 1978, which shaped up as a breakthrough year.

Nostalgia for the '50s was running high, and "At the Hop" found its way onto the hit soundtrack for "Grease," bringing White a windfall of songwriting royalties. At the same time, Crystal Mansion signed a big-budget recording deal with 20th Century Fox records. White moved to Los Angeles and pumped his royalty money into the band.

But "all of a sudden my sixty grand that I got from 'Grease' (was) gone," and soon, so were Crystal Mansion's hopes: A management reshuffling at 20th Century Fox shifted the group's album from a priority item to the back burner, White said. "They gave it a token release. It got great write-ups, but we were hung out to dry."

White stayed in Los Angeles and started taking courses at UCLA in film scoring. In 1982, he met Danny Rapp for the last time, at a Lake Tahoe lounge where Rapp and his latest lineup of Juniors were playing.

"He was real up, he was real excited about seeing me," White recalled. "I went up onstage and sang a couple of numbers with them. We talked till real late in the morning and he seemed fine. I came very close to going back with him because he was working like crazy."

But White had resolved to go back on the road only if he had to, as a last resort--and the residuals from the hits he had written in the '50s and early '60s were enough to keep him afloat.

Terry, who with Maffei had split with Rapp in 1978, got a call from Rapp around Christmas of 1982, a few months before Rapp shot himself in a motel room in the small desert town of Quartzsite, Ariz. "He was just on the road, pounding it out," Terry said. "He said, 'I'm tired, I'm coming off the road.' There was no hint, other than the fact he was tired, that he was going to do anything like that." White and Terry both portray their former lead singer as a troubled person, given to bouts of excessive drinking and out-of-control behavior. "He had a lot of personal problems--a divorce he never quite got over," Terry said.

For Terry, life as an original Junior in the '80s hasn't been opulent, but there is still a demand for middle-aged singers whose voices rose long ago in memorable harmony. "It's been a living," he said. "My wife works as a secretary, and between the two of us we make enough to make ends meet."

Terry and Maffei, along with two non-original Juniors, are still making demo recordings in hopes of landing a record deal. They released a single last year on a local Philadelphia label to mark Danny and the Juniors' 30th anniversary, but it didn't take off. "We've recorded almost every year, but we just haven't gotten lucky again. Our problem is everybody wants to hear 'At the Hop' from us. But you can't keep recording 'At the Hop.' You have to change."

White's current hopes are riding on a video concept called "Far Out" that is predicated on the notion that rock 'n' roll is really here to stay. Set far in the future, it centers on the tribulations of a group called the Invisible Band as it roams the universe on history's first intergalactic rock 'n' roll tour.

White wrote and performed the soundtrack, a four-minute instrumental with an alternately racing and thumping dance beat. He and his producers hope the short video--shot in Orange County by Cinema City, a production company based in Costa Mesa--will win them backing to make a full-length video album and feature film based on the space-band concept, and possibly to put a multimedia act--the Invisible Band, featuring the Far Out Dancers--on the road.

White, meanwhile, is finding once again that the rock 'n' roll hits he wrote early in his career have staying power. "You Don't Own Me" is enjoying a lucrative revival in a new version by Britain's Blow Monkeys included on the megahit "Dirty Dancing" sound track album. It has been worth about $50,000 in royalties so far, said White, who, after four years of living in a North Hollywood trailer park, recently moved into a Newport Beach condo.

Such periodic revival of his songs is "like an annuity or something," White said. "It helps to pay the bills, that's for sure. It's kept me going for 30 years, and I really appreciate it. But you never know what you're going to make next year. There was a time in there when I hardly made any money. Nostalgia wasn't in; it was all long hair. Now, it's hot again, but nostalgia could go into a decline. That's why I've been trying real hard the last few years to come up with new hits."

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