Wildwood Days-The "Doo Wop" Era

Dazzling lights draw charmed tourists down the strip, past garish hotels and plastic palms swaying against a star-filled night. Caravans of Bel Airs and Thunderbirds, Packards and Chevy Townsman take to the streets. Marquees flash big names: Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Mathis, The Drifters, and Fabian. The sidewalk pulsates as the music captivates. It could be Sunday or Tuesday, but it feels like Saturday, as crowds with Coppertone tans and money in their pockets, drift along the avenue.

Is it Las Vegas? No, guess again. This was the place where the great entertainers honed their skills before moving on to “Sin City.”

Atlantic City? No, you are getting warmer (and closer). “America’s Playground” enticed its share of talent, including Miss America, but years before Dick Clark hosted the pageant, he was spinning records further south-at the Starlight Ballroom-in Wildwood.

World War II was over, and America was experiencing unprecedented prosperity. Everything was new, especially the music, and as the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra gave way to the revolutionary sounds of the Fifties and Sixties, Wildwood was there to help it along. The town’s clubs were in many ways a proving ground for the music the world would come to know as rock and roll.

According to an article in Shout News in 1978, Chubby Checker “was so sure his Twist would be a hit that he offered to work for free at the Rainbow (Supper Club)” at Spicer and Pacific Avenues. The song and dance fad became so popular that it sparked the creation of New York’s Peppermint Lounge. Audiences may have forgotten the origins of the Twist, but Chubby Checker never did. He was quick to credit the Rainbow Supper Club (and Wildwood), as the birthplace of his pop phenomenon.

At the Riptide Club on Oak Avenue near Atlantic, vacationers “found their thrills” while jamming to the tunes of Fats Domino and the Dovell’s. On other nights, Danny and the Juniors got the club jumping with “Let’s Go to the Hop.”

In 1964, Diana Ross and the Supremes performed at the Riptide receiving $3,500 for a ten-day gig, two shows a day. Their song “Where Did Our Love Go” soared to the top of the charts that year.

Bobby Rydell’s top-ten hit, “Kissing Time” contained a tribute to fans who were “wailin’ in Wildwood,” and swooning girls followed the Philadelphia native around town. Teen idol, Frankie Avalon, another local boy, received similar treatment. Tony Bennett, who played at the Bolero, remembers singer, Guy Mitchell being trailed around the island by a Life photographer and hundreds of female fans.

Sammy Davis, Jr. played drums in his father’s band at the Bolero, and fellow Rat Pack member Joey Bishop would eventually become a fixture at Club Avalon.

Wildwood was known as “Little Las Vegas” or the “Las Vegas of the East,” and promotion managers in the music business encouraged bands to build a following among the throngs of tourist.

One exceptionally clever agent, Lord Jim, came to Wildwood to promote the music of his new act, Bill Haley and his Comets. Haley got a job playing at the HofBrau on Atlantic Avenue, and it was here that he first performed his classic, “Rock Around the Clock.” The song had an infectious beat, and incorporated elements of country-western, rockabilly, and R&B.

Lord Jim rented a large lake-front house in Wildwood Crest and invited disc jockeys from other home bases to enjoy seashore vacations at his expense. They returned home, happy to give ample air time to Haley’s song.

Dick Clark, the American Bandstand icon, dubbed Bill Haley’s tune the “National Anthem of Rock and Roll.” John Lennon would later credit, “Rock Around the Clock,” as the inspiration for the direction of his musical career.

So while Vegas and New York and Atlantic City claim to be cities that never sleep, and Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was Wildwood’s bold vitality that spawned the birth of rock and roll and radically changed the musical landscape in America and Europe forever.

(Originally publlished in Wildwood Properties)

Articles by Maureen Cawley