Freddie Bell, the frontman of a Las Vegas showband, seemed an unlikely candidate for rock'n'roll stardom but in 1956, almost by chance, he captured the spirit of the moment with "Giddy-Up-A Ding Dong". Despite their childish lyrics, songs of the time such as Bill Haley's "See You Later Alligator", Tommy Steele's "Rock With the Caveman" and "Giddy-Up-A Ding Dong" heralded important social change that meant teenage life would never be the same again.
Bell was born Ferdinando Dominick Bello, the son of a grocer, in south Philadelphia in 1931. A few years later, the family moved to New Jersey and Bell studied bass and trombone, sang and did impressions. Aged 16, he joined a band led by Ernie Ventura, then left to join the forces but after failing the medical formed his own trio. In 1951, he began fronting a showband. "We were looking for names," Bell told me in 1997, "and in those days everybody was naming themselves after birds – the Orioles, the Penguins and all of that. I was in a restaurant and someone said, 'Why don't you call yourselves the Bellboys?'"
Freddie Bell and the Bellboys accepted work at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas where another group, the Treniers, nicknamed Bell "ding dong". In 1953, with his friend Pep Lattanzi, he wrote "Giddy-Up-A Ding Dong", a novelty song designed to showcase the band's clowning. Their first single was a cover version of Big Mama Thornton's blues success, "Hound Dog"; Bell had removed any sexual innuendo from the lyrics to make it more acceptable for radio.
When Bill Haley and his Comets had an international success with "Rock Around the Clock" in 1955, the producer Sam Katzman wanted to make a film which would exploit the new music. He had seen the Bellboys and asked them to contribute, even though they were hardly rock'*'rollers. Bell realised that "Giddy-Up-A Ding Dong" would be ideal if given a rock'*'roll beat, and he and Lattanzi also wrote "(We're Gonna) Teach You to Rock".
Although the film Rock Around the Clock was made in only 13 days, it became a worldwide success. Although it seems tame today, at the time it caused riots. The Bellboys dance in line and their long, skinny pianist, Russ Conti, plays the piano one-handed while dancing for the camera. Jackie Kane plays two saxophones at once. Bell takes the lead vocal on "Giddy-Up-A Ding Dong" and plays trombone during the instrumental break.
After his success with "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956, Elvis Presley went to Vegas for appearances at the New Frontier. The young singer became friendly with Bell and was entranced by the way he had adapted "Hound Dog". Presley was inspired to record his own version, which sold several million copies. "I didn't feel bad about that at all," said Bell, "and in fact, I encouraged him to record it. He was an extraordinary talent but he didn't know how to sell rock'n'roll in Vegas. We had choreography, while Elvis just stood and sang."
Strangely, "Giddy-Up-A Ding Dong" was not a hit in the United States, but it was popular in Australia, France and the UK, where it climbed to number four in the charts. The publicity for the single said, "If these sides don't move you, see a doctor – you're dead." The British publicist Ken Pitt, who had seen Bell in Las Vegas, recommended his show in the New Musical Express: "They've got it all at their fingertips, right down to the last honkin' semi-quaver."
But getting Bell to the UK was complicated, as exchange deals had to be agreed with the Musicians' Union. Bell and the Bellboys finally arrived in May 1957 for dates with Britain's rock'*'roll sensation Tommy Steele. This show, the first beat package to tour the UK, played weeks in Liverpool, Cardiff, London and Glasgow. Steele and Bell enjoyed playing practical jokes on each other: Bell once filled Steele's make-up sponge with ink, while Steele doused Bell with water as he talked to fans. Although the tour was highly successful, the group's new single, "Get the First Train Out of Town", failed to chart and their moment of glory was over.
The group appeared in the 1964 film Get Yourself a College Girl, but split up shortly afterwards. Bell continued to perform in Vegas and had long residencies at the Sands, the Riviera and the Sahara. From time to time, he took an extended vacation in Europe and played rock'n'roll festivals.
Ferdinando Dominick Bello (Freddie Bell), bandleader and singer: born Philadelphia 29 July 1931; four times married (two sons, four daughters, one stepson); died Las Vegas 10 February 2008.