Don McLean may have dubbed Feb. 3, 1959 "the day the music died" in his 1971 song, "American Pie," but in the small town of Tucson, Ariz., rock 'n' roll was alive and well.
As a familiar story in American rock 'n' roll history, McLean was referring to the day that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Meanwhile, in Tucson, a less familiar rock 'n' roll story was unfolding.
On the evening of Jan. 30, 1959, Catalina High School seniors Burt Schneider and Ray Lindstrom attended a high school dance in the school's cafeteria. The entertainment that night was Jack Wallace and the Hi-Tones. Lindstrom recalls Wallace was "kinda like Elvis in a way, the slicked back hair ... a good voice." The girls in the audience were even screaming.
Schneider and Lindstrom had a revelation—why not record them? They approached Wallace after the dance and pitched the idea. Wallace agreed, and a mere eight days later, they all gathered in a recording studio in Phoenix to make a record. (There was no recording studio in Tucson at the time.) Less than two weeks from the school dance, Schneider received a box of records with the name of their label, Zoom, printed clearly on each one. The label existed for seven months, from February through August of 1959, and recorded nine titles by some of Tucson's rising rock 'n' roll stars.
This remarkable and touching story has been documented in ZOOM! Tucson's Late-'50s Rock 'n' Roll Record Label, a film by producer/director Dan Kruse. Kruse is a lecturer, ethnomusicologist, musician and local host of NPR's "All Things Considered" on KUAZ 89.1 FM. The film was shot by director of photography Bob Demers. Schneider and Lindstrom both live in Tucson and are still friends, 54 years later.
"I was having lunch with a colleague—Dr. Brian Moon, UA professor of musicology—and at the time, I was early in my Master's program," recalls Kruse. "I told him that I hadn't picked a topic for my thesis and that I wanted to make a documentary.
"He said, 'I met these guys who had this record label. You ought to get to know them. It seems like a great subject for a film.' Within a couple of weeks, I had lunch with Burt and Ray. They were very receptive to the idea."
During the next two years, Kruse met with Schneider and Lindstrom several times, along with others who helped make the record label a reality. ZOOM! Tucson's Late-'50s Rock 'n' Roll Record Label was completed in August 2012. It is an Official Selection of the 2013 Arizona International Film Festival.
The 33-minute film offers a glimpse into late-1950s culture. "I was born in 1952 in the rock 'n' roll era. I had two older brothers, five years older and nine years older. One would be listening to one thing, and one would be listening to the other. As a little kid in the '50s, I was surrounded by rock 'n' roll," says Kruse. In the film, a Catalina High School grad from 1959 remembers everyone going outside after class to turn on their radios. They were most likely tuned in to AM station KTKT.
"It's an image I can relate to in high school," says Kruse, who grew up in St. Louis. "Everyone would be tuned to the (same) radio station. AM radio was so huge."
Schneider and Lindstrom had no qualms about riding over to the KTKT studio to ask the DJ to play their records. KTKT often got 55 to 75 percent of the audience. "KTKT was this powerhouse radio station," says Kruse. "Today there is so much media ... getting 50 or 60 percent of the audience is completely unheard of."
Schneider and Lindstrom even sent their records to Billboard Magazine to be reviewed, earning three stars for some of their songs.
"They had no agent, no representation and wrote their own contract," says Kruse. "Everything happened because of their chutzpah. They really approached this as entrepreneurs and ... they did a great job."