Political lessons learned from Kilgo’s Kanteen, Don’s Rockers

  • Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 10:27 a.m.

In addition to my memories of Spence Hatley’s kids and me playing together, I also have a memory of rock and roll tied to that house, two doors down. A musical memory connected to the home of the man who ran “The Music Mart” on West Innes Street in those days is something that would be expected.

This memory involves watching “Kilgo’s Kanteen” on Charlotte’s WSOC-TV, Channel 9, one Saturday in the late 1950s. “Kilgo’s Kanteen” got its name, of course, from its host, Jimmy Kilgo. His show was like a Piedmont North Carolina version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (except that Kilgo was “cooler” than Clark). What made that particular Saturday special was the fact that “Kilgo’s Kanteen” was hosting a rock and roll band competition in its studio, and one of the competing bands was Don’s Rockers of Salisbury. At that time, my brother Joe was the band’s drummer.

I went over to the Hatleys to watch the rock and roll competition with them on their television. It being the late 1950s, while waiting for “Kilgo’s Kanteen” to come on, we saw an episode of “Superman” starring George Reeves. (I always preferred George Reeves’ suave characterization of Clark Kent over others’ portrayals of him as an inept bumbler.)

During the Kanteen, the time came for Don’s Rockers to perform. Having become accustomed all my life to seeing my brother Joe in “living color,” I was suddenly seeing him in black and white, just like everyone else whom I saw on television back then.

Don’s Rockers put on a great performance, and after the other competing band had finished doing its best, the time came for the deliberation to be undertaken as to which group was better. The decision as to the winner of the contest was to be determined by the Kanteen’s teenage studio audience.

Teenagers are known for their naturally partisan views regarding their school and their school football team, the shouting of the phrase “We’re No. 1” being used with cliche-like frequency, that chant being often accompanied at the game with the raising of a foam-rubber “hand” (by adults as well, including me, on occasion) with its crafted, outstretched forefinger (the forefinger, not the “other” one). This sort of viewpoint also applies to those of either political party of any voting age who happen to see their own particular party’s nominees as the heavenly Saints themselves (while evidently wearing blinders), and at the same time comparing the opposing candidates to the Devil himself, or at least to an unheavenly host including Nero, Caligula, Attila, Alaric, etc.

On top of the groundwork which I have just laid concerning the “impartiality” of teenagers, I will inform you that the band from Salisbury was competing against a band from Charlotte, while now adding that the studio audience consisted primarily of Charlottean teenagers. I could put all of this into some sort of algebraic form: If A equals “something,” and B equals “something else,” then they both must add up to equal C, which translates into “something or other,” but algebra always gave me trouble, so I won’t attempt it. I’ll just say that the “Charlotte kids” chose the “Charlotte band.” (That in itself represents some sort of mathematical “constant.”)

At the risk of sounding as if this were just a case of my having (both then and now) sour grapes on my brother’s behalf, as well as on the behalf of the other members of Don’s Rockers, I will now give the qualifying evidence to prove my case. I learned then that the host and DJ of the Kanteen, Jimmy Kilgo, told Salisbury’s “Rockers” (out of earshot of the Charlotte teenage studio audience) that in his opinion, Don’s Rockers were the best, but he had left it up to his teenage studio audience to make the decision.

In bringing this up, I’m not trying to right some wrong, because there are a multitude of much graver wrongs in this world which will never be set right; it’s just that this one became stuck in my mind early on, leaving its lasting impression. I also see the innate goodness of Mr. Kilgo’s allowing his teenage studio audience to make the decision. Since others made many decisions for teenagers back then, that left them with little to decide on their own.

In such decisions as the one made by the Charlotte teens at WSOC-TV that day, in which a group fraught with favoritism opts for the locals, mainly on the account of their “being local,” politics is then said to have entered into the equation. Even though those studio members of “Kilgo’s Kanteen” were still some years away from being able to make decisions in a voting both, “politics” (of a sort) had evidently worked its way into their deliberations regarding rock and roll.

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