Thursday, December 9, 2010


Cover airbrush artwork by David Willardson

The soundtrack has a special importance.  A nonstop stream of fifties music, punctuated with fragments of a disc jockey's crazy free-form monologue, accompanies all the action.  The radio is these kids' lifeline, and by keeping it in the background of almost every scene, Lucas mesmerizes us right along with the characters.  The music releases our own memories, and gives an emotional charge to everything on screen
-Stephen Farber, Time Magazine

In May of 2008 George Lucas's sister, Wendy Lucas was a featured speaker at a hometown celebration at the State Theater in Modesto, CA.  In her speech she attributed a large part of the success of American Graffiti to the music. "[George] knew," she said, "that rock and roll  songs would take the audience back to the moments in their lives when they first heard them.  Not everyone grew up in Modesto but  everyone heard those songs and listened to the same music."  The music helped give the film a universal appeal.

When writing the script for American Graffiti, Lucas actually listened to specific 45 rpm records that he and Wendy had purchased at the local music store in Modesto called Harleys.  He used the music for inspiration and then would write that song into the storyline. (For more on the script see our WRITING GRAFFITI page). The result of writing songs into the script is a film with a soundtrack that humorously alludes to the action in the film.  For example, Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" plays on the car radio when Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) first glimpses the blond in the white T-bird.  And later on in the film, Fat's Dominoes', "Ain't That a Shame" accompanies another glimpse of the blond, however, this time the music underscores the fact that Curt is stuck in a car with gang members.

Before the release of American Graffiti many of the songs on the soundtrack had long been forgotten and past the point of generating any income through sales. When Lucas was going to secure the rights to these songs, many times nobody knew who the owner's of the songs were. The 1950s was a period where there wasn't much organization in the rock and roll music business and consequently finding a particular song would often lead them to somebodies garage some place where the master recording was kept in a dusty unlabeled shoebox. Attorney Tom Pollock worked to secure most of the rights to the tunes in the film. Once all the footwork had been done, the price to secure the rights to the music in the film cost approximately  $70,000.  The low-production budget prevented them from using some of their first choices.  For example, they could not use any songs by Elvis because the cost of procuring the rights was too expensive.  Other tunes such as "Its Just a Matter of Time" by Brook Benton, "In the Still of the Night" by the Five Satins and Peggy Lees' version of "Fever" were removed from the script.  As a result an original list of songs picked for the film was whittled down to 42. Co-producer, Additionally, Co-producer, Gary Kurtz, who was a friend of Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, secured rights to play two of the group's songs in the film for an affordable price. It is also rumored that they were able to get permission to use the song “Chantilly Lace” from the mother of The Big Bopper, the rock and roll musician/DJ who died in 1959.

Many times when a song was too expensive or not available Lucas and Walter Murch (Sound Designer) would simply replace it with a different song.  In 1974 Lucas told Film Quarterly, "[The] amazing thing we found was that we could take almost any song and put it on almost any scene and it would work.  You'd put a song down on one scene, and you'd find all kinds of parallels.  And, he explained, you could take another song and put it down there, and it would still seem as if the song had been written for that scene.  All good rock and roll is classic teenage stuff, and all the scenes were such classic teenage scenes that they just sort of meshed, no matter how you threw them together.  Sometimes even the words were identical.

George Lucas told National Public Radio (NPR) in early 2010 that the total budget for the film was $700,000.  He spent approximately 10% of the budget for the rights to the songs. At the time, the studios were not happy about that.  They had never heard of anyone doing that before.  They told him he was making a big mistake and that he needed to score the film.  They couldn't have been more wrong.  Considering the subsequent popularity of the music generated through box office sales, the $70,000. price tag  for securing the rights  was relatively cheap.  If executives had any faith in how popular and lucrative the film would be in just one year they would have purchased the rights to these recordings before its release.  Lucas explained, “At the time we said, look, for another $5,000 per song we can get you the record rights to this. And they said no, no, no, no, we don't want any record rights. We don't want anything.”  A year later, after witnessing the popularity of the film, executives wanted to release the soundtrack on a double album and they wound up paying over a million dollars for those same songs.

 Writers such as Jeff Smith have noted that the success of American Graffiti made it one of the dominant models for using popular music in films.  Smith notes that it's use of pop records both as a subtext reference and as a source of authorial commentary would influence several directors and screenwriters who subsequently adopted Lucas technique of writing songs directly into the script.  More importantly, Smith adds, Graffiti also presaged the growing influence that economic and industrial factors would have on developing film scores.

Let's explore now, the history of the individual songs as well as some of the more clever usage of music in American Graffiti.


SIDE 1 of 4, (Record 1)

Bill Haley & The Comets
(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock: 
Bill Haley and His Comets (2:08)
The Bill Haley tune is the perfect song to start AMERICAN GRAFFITI as it immediately establishes the time period and sets the energy level for the incredibly classic film. As ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK  plays on the soundtrack, the friends arrive with their cars and Vespa at Mel’s Drive-In. They will soon depart for their separate, yet occasionally intersecting, adventures during the night, only to meet again the next morning (after time has truly moved “around the clock”).  The song's record chart history began In 1954, when Bill Haley & the Comets first released ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (which had originally been recorded in 1952 by Sunny Dae), it received very little attention. However, the tune got a second chance at popularity by being chosen for the soundtrack to "THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE," a 1955 movie about high-school delinquency.  The film generated controversy in the press and pandemonium among the young, which in turn helped ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK became an anthem for rebellious Fifties youth.  Sometimes referred to as the first rock & roll song, ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK has everything a good rock song should have including a catchy beat, infectious lyrics, and a smoking guitar solo.  Mastering the blistering solo provided by Donny Cedrone on his Gibson ES 300 is still a rights of passage for guitar students today. Thanks to the popularity of the film, ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK became synonymous with the '50s nostalgia craze.  The song charted anew in the Top 40 during 1974 when it turned up as the theme music for the hit television series HAPPY DAYS during its first season.

Sixteen Candles: The Crests (2:48)
When The Crest's released their single, BESIDE YOU in 1958 they had no idea that the flip side, 16 CANDLES would be more popular.  At its peak, the single was selling 25,000 copies a day and quickly becoming one of the most popular birthday songs. 16 CANDLES was originally called "21 candles" by its authors, Luther Dixon and Allyson Khent. Upon learning that the average age of record buyers was much younger, 5 candles were pulled from the birthday cake.  Johnny Maestro's (b. May 7, 1939) warm tenor made 16 CANDLES a national smash, and pop/R&B hybrids like THE ANGELS LISTENED IN and STEP BY STEP also fared well. Maestro went solo in 1960, scoring the next year with MODEL GIRL on Coed, while the Crests attempted to survive on their own.                                            
Runaway: Del Shannon (2:18)
When Del Shannon's (real name Charles Westover)  "Runaway" was released in the spring of 1961 a lot of commercial music had begun to sound the same.  "Runaway" was unique and original. Shannon’s soaring falsetto vocals along with the sound of Max Crooks solo on his miniature custom-built keyboard he called a Sumiton played a crucial role in "Runaway's" success.  Legend has it that the lyrics were written while at The Carpet Outlet, where Shannon sold carpets by day.  When the song was finally pressed, Shannon took the first single and presented it to his carpet store boss, Peter Vice, for allowing him to write "Runaway" on company time.

Why Do Fools Fall in Love: 
Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers (2:14)
In the film WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE is playing on the radio when Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) first glimpses a beautiful blond in a white T-bird who looks at him, smiles faintly and then says something so softly that he can't hear her.  Infatuated and obsessed, Curt spends the rest of the evening chasing her all over town like a fool who has fallen in love.   "WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE" was first released on January 10, 1956, it only took 3 weeks before a hundred thousand copies had been sold.  The song was so good that it 
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
immediately spawned two other cover versions:  one by Gloria Mann and the other by The Diamonds.  All three versions charted but The Teenager's record beat out the competition landing a number six spot on the pop charts and number one on the R & B charts.  After a few months, the record and the group became international hits as "Fools" reached number one in England.  It was the first time an R & B/ rock and roll record by an American group had ever peaked at number one.  It was quite an accomplishment for five American teens from New York City.

That'll Be the Day: Buddy Holly & The Crickets (2:14)
Holly along with drummer Jerry Allison wrote "That'll Be The Day" after watching the movie, "The Searchers" (1956) in which John Wayne uses the catch phrase, "That'll be the day," several times.  Although first recorded in July of 1956, the definitive version was recorded eight months later and when released it became a number 1 seller on the Billboard Hot 100.  It is believed, that although he is given a credit for the composition, Norman Petty was never actually part of the writing process. He insisted on co-ownership of the song as a reward for producing the tune.
Buddy  & The Crickets, 1957

Fanny Mae: Buster Brown (2:52)
Buster Brown (real name Wayman Glasco) was close to fifty years old when his infectious, FANNIE MAE hit the charts in 1959. The versatile Georgia-born musician plays harmonica 
Buster Brown & Harmonica
 and sings on the tune.  The recordings he made for the owner of Fire Records, Bobby Robinson (who discovered Brown working in a chicken and barbecue joint in New York), demonstrates Brown's adaptability and ease at playing the Blues as well as Pop music, Folk music, and standard R&B material.

 At the Hop: Flash Cadillac 
and the Continental Kids (2:25)
Flash Cadillac were the musical answer to the 1970s nostalgia craze as baby boomers longed for the good old Happy Days of the '50s and '60s.  Forming in 1969 on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder, Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids played and performed new songs in the manner of preceding decades.  Eventually they moved to Los Angeles and landed a gig at the famous Troubadour where Fred Roos, casting director for Graffiti, saw them perform and then later asked them to be in American Graffiti. Incidentally, Fred Roos discovered Mackenzie Phillips, who plays Carol in the film, at the Troubadour too.  In the summer of 1972, before filming, the band recorded three songs in San Francisco, at the legendary, Wally Heider Recording studio on Hyde Street, (now the location of Hyde Street Studios).  The next day they lip-synced them during the filming of the sock hop scene.  The first song they perform in the film is the Philadelphia-based Danny and the Junior's 1957 classic AT THE HOP.

Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids as Herbie & The Heartbeats
She's So Fine: Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids (2:18)
SHES SO FINE is the second song performed by Flash Cadillac in the film.  The tune was penned by the band and is an excellent piece that fits right along side the band's cover versions of oldies. The simple production, slow tempo and falsetto vocals all work together to give the song an authentic 50s feel while at the same time sounding like an original group piece.

The Stroll: The Diamonds (2:26)
The Diamonds
Along with The Platters, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Flash Cadillac, vocal group, THE DIAMONDS has the distinction of having more than one song on the soundtrack. Originally based in Ontario, The Diamonds were the ultimate cover act recording tunes often made famous by other artists, including their 1956 version of WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.  Up until December of 1957, THE STROLL became the Diamonds only original hit.  Dick Clark's American Bandstand helped popularize the tune and make it the number one dance of 1958, while topping out at number four on the Pop charts. In the movie a group of kids in the gym can be seen doing THE STROLL to this song right after Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) "strolls" through the halls and attempts to open his old locker.

See You in September: The Tempos (2:03)
In late 1959 the Pittsburgh vocal group, The Tempos received a temporary set back when one of the band members left to pursue a solo career.  Jim Drake filled the vacancy and the
 band, under contract with Climax Records, quickly recorded their next single.  The A-side, BLESS YOU MY LOVE generated little interest however due to popular acclaim the B-side SEE YOU IN SEPTEMEBER, became a hit. The song was (and still is) unique to pop music because it has a bolero rhythm that is usually associated with a ballroom dance called the beguine.  Although the music is somewhat refined the lyrics are closer to something teenagers who were about to begin a summer vacation could relate to as the vocalist asks, WILL I SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER OR LOSE YOU TO A SUMMER LOVE? The song lasted 23 weeks on Cash Box charts and 14 weeks on the Billboard charts.


-Amburn, Ellis. Buddy Holly: A Biography.  St. Martin's, 1995.
-Bianculli, David. Lucas Looks Back On Movie-Making.  Fresh Air from WHYY.  National Public Radio broacast. <>  Retrieved 12/10/2010
-Buddy Holy Page.  The Rockabilly Hall of Fame website. <>  Retrieved 12/12/2010
-Flash Cadillac website
-George-Warren, Holly (Ed) The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll Fireside. New York.  2005
-Lucas, Wendy. (May 31, 2008) Spoke about the success of American Graffiti at a hometown celebration for George Lucas. State Theater, Modesto, CA. I taped her speech and posted it on You Tube.
-Warner, Jay American Singing Groups Hal Leonard Corp. Milwaukee. 2006
-Young, C. Brian. "The Making of "Runaway" <> 1998-2006

1 comment:

  1. Hello Kip:
    You have done a fantastic job with writing all of this most informative information about the film, American Graffiti! You wrote that "At the Hop" by Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, was recorded in San Francisco, at Wally Headers studio. The correct name of this recording studio is, Wally Heider Studios. Many of the finest 1960's/70's albums were recorded here. I hope this is helpful for you, as you have obviously put a huge amount of time and effort into your website. A really fine job!

    Phil Vier