“I've been playing music since 1956. That's when I started getting paid for it, y'know?” Victor Mizelle says, settling down into a booth at the Village CafAc, only a short distance from his apartment on West Grace Street.
Even before you hear his story, you can sense that the sad-eyed 75-year-old man has endured much in his life. “I was only 14 years old when I was entered into Eastern State,” he says of the Williamsburg facility for mental patients. “Before that I was in a place called Tucker Sanitarium.” As a youngster growing up in Portsmouth, he was prone to spontaneous fits of barking and profanity and was seemingly unable to control himself. It got worse when his family moved to Richmond.
Mizelle, who answers to Vic, tells a grim tale of a childhood spent institutionalized, including a lost year at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he was given shock treatments and recommended for a frontal lobotomy. “My parents wouldn't do it, plus it cost $5,000, which we didn't have,” he says. “I'd be a vegetable today if they had done it.”
One thing saved him: music. “When I was in Eastern State, my father brought me a guitar. ... he taught me chords. It was 1950, I think I was 16 years old.” He noticed that when he sang or played, his symptoms seemed to disappear. Music helped him kill time, attracted girls and calmed his fits. Music later became a vocation when Mizelle became the ringleader of the Rock-A-Teens, a band that caused quite a stir in the waning hours of rock 'n' roll's golden age.
Five decades since the release of the band's song “Woo-Hoo,” after it hit the national pop charts, it remains in the public consciousness as a pop-culture phenomenon. It's been featured prominently in the films of Quentin Tarantino and John Waters, covered by Scottish punk rock groups, French rockabilly revivalists and dance music DJs, served as an advertising jingle for Vonage, Chevrolet, and — in the United Kingdom — Carling Beer. The unpretentious rave-up has become aural shorthand for reckless abandon, a yodeling blast of joyous noise that knows no age or time.
Not a bad piece of work for a group from Oregon Hill with members who could barely play, a band fronted by a local celebrity who flew in on a lark, a teenage combo kick-started by a 26-year-old bandleader not long from the mental hospital.
WHEN Mizelle left Eastern State in 1956, he put his newfound musical skills to use playing bass for a group called Nod McKinney and the Rockateers. The group appeared once on WRVA's Old Dominion Barn Dance, which broadcast live from Richmond's Lyric Theater (formerly at Ninth and Broad streets). “It was just like the Grand Ole Opry,” Mizelle says — “every Friday and Saturday it was packed.”
The youngster was fascinated by singer Janis Martin. Known as the Female Elvis, she was signed to RCA, Presley's own label. “Everything on the Barn Dance was usually country,” Mizelle says. “But when she got up there she didn't do country, she did rockabilly. She was one of my idols.” Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, from Norfolk, became another inspiration. Like Janis Martin, they performed a synthesis of country music and rhythm and blues, a sound that would later be termed “rockabilly.”
Mizelle got to work putting his own group together.
“Boo Walke was the first one I met. ... at Gene's Barber Shop where everybody used to hang out,” he says. “Boo was 14 and he played lead guitar.” Mizelle and Milton “Boo” Walke started a band called the Rockets. When it fizzled out in early 1958, they decided to find other players. Mizelle wanted to sing in wild Gene Vincent mode, so he turned bass duties over to his friend Paul Dixon, a 21-year-old who couldn't play but could get an amp and instrument, no small feat. Another youngster, Billy Cook, was passable on rhythm guitar and willing to work hard. Now the most solid of all the components was needed: a rock-steady drummer. That was Billy Smith.
Smith recalls with awe the day he met Elvis Presley at the Mosque, got his autograph, shook his hand and witnessed the King's June 30, 1956, performance. He was inspired enough to start beating time on an old electric heater until his folks broke down and bought him some real drums. The Smiths lived in Oregon Hill on the 200 block of Laurel, right across from the fire station. “I would bring my drum set out on the front porch and play along with my 45 record player as it blasted through the window,” Smith says. “Fats Domino … Little Richard. The neighbors didn't seem to mind.”
One autumn afternoon in 1958, he recalls: “I seen this convertible go by with these two guys in it. I was in my zone, my rock 'n' roll world, having a blast and so they came around again, came around a third time. This time they park.” It was Mizelle and Dixon, older guys. They asked Smith if he wanted to be in a band, maybe make a record. “Can you imagine asking a 16-year-old that?” the drummer says, laughing. Smith brought in Eddie Robinson, a sax-playing chum from John Marshall High School who lived in the Fan, a limited improviser who could read music.
The winter of 1958-'59 saw much wood shedding. The spring campaign began with a plan: Seek out the guidance of the most prominent local record man they knew of.
JESS Duboy's is the voice that has sold a million Toyotas, Pontiacs and late model Chevrolets. As owner of his own ad agency, he's been a constant media presence along the East Coast for his decades of delivering voice-over advertising spots on radio and late-night television.
Among his many accomplishments, including forays into self-published fiction, Duboy was the first to pioneer the concept of automobile dealerships buying block time on television to run “Sell-a-Thons.” At one time, more than 60 car dealers across the United States were using him as their spokesman. The maverick surprised many in the 1980s by publicly committing to God in a long-running series of commercials that were not unlike his automobile ads. “It was my way of giving back,” he says.
Duboy's voice is recognizable for another reason, too. He's responsible for some famous hoots.
“I was under contract to somebody else [Decca/Brunswick Records] when we recorded ‘Woo-Hoo,' so I couldn't have released it under my own name.” Duboy says from his office in a Henrico County business park. “If I had, it probably wouldn't have happened the way that it did. Little did I know that the only big hit I would ever have would be ...”
And at this point, he breaks out into a high-pitched falsetto that reverberates around his desk:
When Duboy hooked up with the Rock-A-Teens, he was not long out of his teens himself. But he was already a recording veteran. He was also working his first serious radio job, as a popular afternoon disc jockey and program director for Richmond's WEZL 1590 Radio [now WGOE]. “I had been there at the station about two years,” he says. “One day, I get a call from Vic Mizelle. … he wanted me to listen to his band and help them out.
“‘Jess, you got connections,' he said. I told him that I barely had connections for my own self.”
Mizelle wouldn't give up. He called back.
“He asked me, ‘Well, how did you get your first record?'” Duboy says. “And I told him. And he said, ‘A guy mentored you and helped you, didn't he? This Carl Stutz guy?'”
Indeed. Duboy had gotten his showbiz break by doing what Mizelle was doing. He'd called up WRVA announcer Stutz, a successful songwriter who had scored a No. 1 pop hit with “Little Things Mean a Lot” by Kitty Kallen, and boldly asked if he would listen to his doo-wop vocal group, Jess Duboy and the Hitch-Hikers.
Stutz ended up hiring Duboy's band to make demos of his new song copyrights. One of these, “Beautiful Love,” eventually was released on the national ABC-Paramount label in 1957 and scored as a big regional hit. Jess and the Hitch-Hikers embarked on an unusual tour to support the disc, thumbing to gigs across America.
It was this local popularity as a singer that got Duboy — an Arkansas native from a Navy family who was taking drama classes at Richmond Professional Institute [now Virginia Commonwealth University] — his first broadcasting job at WEZL. A call to Stutz had been the catalyst.
“Yep. You got me there, Vic. OK,” Duboy recalls saying.
The band arrived with its equipment after WEZL signed off the next evening. “I was sitting [behind] the glass and they were in that other, bigger studio,” Duboy says. “I could talk to them through the speakers. I said, ‘OK, give it a go.'”
The band plowed through its song and Duboy was anything but impressed. “It was terrible,” he says. “It was a knockoff of [Tommy Dorsey's] ‘T.D.'s Boogie.' Nothing more. They got finished and I said, ‘Guys, I can't do anything with that. You've stolen ‘T.D.'s Boogie,' you can't do that. ... Do you have anything else?”
After listening to it again, Duboy concocted an arrangement. “I told them, ‘Look, here's what we're gonna do, we're going to make a few changes. Change your [guitar] lick just a little bit. You can't copy ‘T.D.'s Boogie' exactly like it is, so you try that. What I want you to do is play that part and then don't play that anymore, play some counter licks if you want to but lay off. ...”
After an hour of practicing the new setup, Duboy says: “I'm liking some of what I'm hearing but then I sit there and say, ‘We've tried. I've got to go. My wife is going to kill me.' So I tell the guys, ‘Look, I don't think we have it.' Vic said, ‘Can't you think of something? Don't give up on us now.' Because, you see, they were loving the way it was sounding.”
The DJ was desperate to leave. “I told the guitarist ‘Boo' Walke, ‘OK, on this measure, don't play and on this one, don't play. I'm going to make some noise.”
Make some noise he did — a joyous noise. “Right off the bat, we started getting into that thing: Dunna-nunna-nunna ...WOO-HOO, WOO-HOO-HOO, WOO-HOO, WOO-HOO-HOO ... and when I finished, we went to the rhythm guitar, WOO-HOO again, and then we went to the drums, WOO-HOO again with the rhythm guitar, and we wrapped it all up with Vic Mizelle saying ... AAAAhhh….”
“And, really, right there — that was the record.”
WHAT happened from that point is a matter of some dispute. A lot of dispute.
Duboy says that a DJ out of Salem named Don McGraw had called him a few days before he met the Rock-A-Teens. “McGraw said, ‘Look Jess, if you come across any new music, any new sounds, send them my way.'” So Duboy mailed him the demo of “Woo-Hoo” he'd recorded for the Rock-A-Teens.
Mizelle has a different story. He says that he had heard about Cavalier, a record company in Roanoke that was looking for artists to record. So, lifting a page right out of the Hitch-Hikers' handbook, he and Cook took the demo and thumbed to Roanoke where they learned Cavalier was no more. But there was George Donald McGraw and his Record Mart in neighboring Salem. “Cuzzin Don” had a recording facility, record shop, and distribution network on Main Street; he was a large man with a limp and a myriad of health concerns who nonetheless had the stamina to handle an energetic hillbilly radio show twice a day on WBLU, all while keeping up with the recording of bands and performers in the back of his record store.
Bob Carroll, who was in a popular Roanoke band called Don Day & the Knights when he recorded with McGraw, says that the producer and DJ had an outsized personality. “He was just full of exuberance and yahoos and yippees and ‘Hideeho,'” Carroll says. “He really came across on the radio. But when you talked with him alone, away from the radio [it was different]. I recall sitting in his office talking to him. I don't know what kind of disease he had but you'd be in the middle of a sentence and he'd nod off and go to sleep. Which was kinda strange. But he'd rouse up and go ahead. …
“My feeling about Don was that he, like the rest of us at that time, was on the fringe of the music business and he wanted to do something and really go places with it.”
McGraw quickly recognized that he could go places with “Woo-Hoo.” After hearing the demo, he scheduled a session in July 1959. How everyone got to Salem is also cloudy. Mizelle recalls that Duboy didn't drive with the rest, electing to fly to the session. Jess doesn't remember this.
What is known is that the six Rock-a-Teens and Duboy made it to the Record Mart. “It was just a small room in the back of a record shop,” Duboy says. Smith recalls, “It was about 25 foot or so wide and a hundred feet long.” With no isolation booths and only a blanket hanging in front of the drum kit, the guys began plowing through the song.
Mizelle says they cut 100 takes before McGraw was satisfied with the results; Duboy maintains that it was more like 30. (Eddie Robinson recalls that McGraw used take 21). Whichever take, it sounded fresh. “Woo-Hoo” was not an instrumental, not a vocal — at least as far as real words go — but it was a punchy nuclear boogie with a wild drum solo and an unusual arrangement. “It was raw,” Smith says.
The B-side was a tune called “Untrue” that Duboy calls “the worst song in the history of the world.” Mizelle says McGraw instructed the band to “do the other side bad.” The idea was to force the DJs to spin the side with “Woo-Hoo.”
It worked. McGraw released a 45 of the session in August 1959 on his Doran record label (with the Rock-A-Teens listed in the writing credits), and before summer was over the disc had reportedly sold 5,000 copies across Virginia and the Carolinas — stellar sales at that time. Pat's Record Shop, on Eighth and Broad streets in Richmond, sold out of the disc several times.
Then one day, McGraw came to Richmond's Byrd Hotel and summoned the boys. He had bad news.
“He told us that Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith was about to sue us,” Mizelle says. McGraw claimed that “Woo-Hoo” was similar to one of Smith's boogie tunes and offered to pay the group $100 each to sign the song over to him in full.
Scared and more than a little intimidated, they agreed to the offer. “We were so naive back in the '50s,” Mizelle says, with a sniff. (A few months later, the band played a show with “Guitar Boogie” Smith. He didn't know anything about a lawsuit, and reminded the lads that boogie music had been around since the turn of the 20th century.)
Duboy wasn't consulted about the deal. And he says he never heard from McGraw again. “That's because McGraw sold the song, for X amount of dollars, to Roulette Records,” Duboy says.
In September, “Woo-Hoo” was rereleased on the New York-based Roulette label, which had national distribution. G.D. McGraw was credited as solo writer. Nightclub owner Morris Levy was president of the company, and his connections to certain behind-the-scenes underworld forces enabled him to push a record in a far different fashion then that of McGraw.
At home, “Woo-Hoo” made the group an instant hit. “We got Jess to be our manager,” Smith says. In addition to gigs at local playgrounds, members cut the ribbon at the opening of Southside Plaza, performed at the State Fair and appeared on WRVA TV's popular jukebox show, “Teen Age Party.” Onstage, Mizelle handled the “Woo-Hoo” vocals.
When the Roulette record made the charts, the Rock-A-Teens soon were booked onto Dick Clark's “American Bandstand,” a television show taking the nation's bustling teenage population by storm. But it's a bittersweet memory. The rising stars were broke. Mizelle's father loaned the boys $200 to get them to Philadelphia for their appearance. On Sept. 25, 1959, teens across the nation turned on the TV to see the Rock-A-Teens perform “Woo-Hoo.” A week later, The Richmond Times-Dispatch published an article on the band that noted the No. 72 placement of “Woo-Hoo” on the Billboard charts. “We signed away, ‘legally,' a large hunk of our interest in the recording,” Mizelle groused to the unsigned T-D correspondent.
Duboy chaperoned the boys to New York for the taping of the nighttime version of “American Bandstand” called “The Dick Clark Beechnut Hour” on Oct. 24. They joined Jan and Dean, Jack Scott and the Royal Teens in performing — actually, lip-synching — before a prime-time audience. “I met Dick Clark and he asked, ‘What are your ideas to present them?'” Duboy says. “Somehow he knew that I had produced them and sang on it.” Mizelle had his own run-in with Clark. One of his nervous fits overcame him during rehearsal and Clark angrily inquired, “Who is that barking like a dog?” Embarrassed, Mizelle ducked into the wings.
“Woo-Hoo” enjoyed a 12-week run on Billboard's pop charts that eventually topped out at No. 16. With Elvis in the Army and safer teen idol music on the rise, the song came as something of a last hoot for unbridled rock 'n' roll at the end of the decade. The band signed with General Artists Corp., one of the biggest touring agencies in the country, and hit the road with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars. Mizelle and Smith estimate that the members split $1,500 a week among them on tour — the only real money they made. They played with everyone from R&B legend Jackie Wilson to the Everly Brothers. One of the wildest gigs was with Jerry Lee Lewis in West Virginia, when Lewis set his piano on fire and pushed it off the stage.
As the end of the year approached, Duboy heard from an executive at Roulette Records. “He said, ‘Jess, we want to do an album. Can you get the group together … and come up to New York on such and such a date?' And it was about three weeks away.” Duboy told the group he was writing a follow-up to “Woo-Hoo” — “in the same genre” — and arranged to meet them at his father's house in Washington to rehearse it.
But the rehearsal never happened. “Only Eddie Robinson came, and Billy Cook,” Duboy says. “The other guys went straight up to New York.” Duboy says he told the duo to inform the rest of the Teens that their association with him was done: “I'm finished with you, with the band. Don't call me again. It's all over.”
“We missed the whole thing,” Smith says today about the breakup. “Jess was very disappointed because someway the instructions got lost or there was a misunderstanding.”
The full-length album that the Rock-A-Teens recorded at the state-of-the-art Bell Sound in New York, sans the voice behind their big hit, is considered something of a raw classic in some quarters today. A mixture of cover songs and group originals, one of the highlights of the record was a song called “Janis Will Rock,” a stomping homage to the Female Elvis written by Mizelle. There was also a cover of Gene Vincent's “Dance to the Bop.” Roulette released a second Rock-A-Teens single, a follow-up to “Woo-Hoo.” It flopped.
And that was it. The Rock-A-Teens went their separate ways in the middle of 1960. The wild ride had lasted all of 18 months. “Boo” Walke married young and became a truck driver, Paul Dixon operated his own auto parts business, Robinson went back to school, dabbled in music management and eventually worked for DuPont. “I got my GED and stayed with the railroad for 40 years,” says Smith, who still plays music and releases his own CDs. Mizelle kept performing. He put together Vic & the Versatiles, an R&B show band that had some success throughout the '60s. “I stayed on the road playing in different groups for about 25 years,” the bassist says. “I went to Nashville and learned the number system. I consider myself a professional musician.” One night he found himself backing up his idol, the Female Elvis, Janis Martin. “Janis gave me a kiss for writing ‘Janis Will Rock,'” Mizelle says proudly.
Out of the blue, in 1975, he got a letter from his former psychiatrist at Eastern State. “He contacted me to tell me that I had something called Tourette's syndrome. They finally figured it out.” It's a disease that has been known for more than a hundred years, he says. “What took them so long?”
THROUGH the years, the Richmond origins of the Rock-A-Teens, and their brief rise to the top, got blurred and eventually faded away. In 1992, most of the original band, except Cook, who'd died in 1971 in a motorcycle accident, played a Rock-A-Teens reunion show at a Southside flea market. Mizelle is selling a CD, “Rock-A-Teens Reunion,” of sessions recorded around the time. “Boo” Walke died not long after this last hurrah and Dixon died in 2007.
“Woo-Hoo” has been revived numerous times in the past 50 years, on golden oldies packages, as commercial jingles, on film soundtracks. Spinner.com named it one of “Quentin Tarantino's 10 Best Music Moments” for including female Japanese garage band The 5,6,7,8's version of “Woo-Hoo” in his gory film, “Kill Bill Vol. 1.” Duboy says he could barely watch the film because of the intense violence.
The song has generated considerable revenue — just not for the Rock-A-Teens. It was only when Rhino Records purchased the Roulette catalog in 1989 that the band members — or their heirs — finally received performer's royalties. It was a tidy sum, with each member receiving close to the low end of five figures. But it pales in comparison to the money that “Woo-Hoo” has amassed over the years.
Duboy never spoke about his involvement with “Woo-Hoo,” except to the odd Ruritan Club audience, and he never attempted to collect past due royalties from McGraw's estate (he passed away in 1967). But with the Rock-A-Teens, receiving long-lost money is a more pressing concern. Robinson has terminal cancer and could not be interviewed for this article. The most recent legal challenge was being prepared by “Boo” Walke's family but Walke's wife, Joyce, died in August, leaving the suit in limbo. The surviving Teens — Mizelle, Smith and Robinson — hope to revive it, and finally get the writers' royalties they feel are due them.
There are wounds that won't heal. Duboy still seems hurt that the boys left him cold in Northern Virginia 50 years ago. And in an extensive cover story in the British music magazine, “Now Dig This!” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Woo-Hoo,” the three Teens express some bitterness toward Duboy for not protecting them back in the old days.
“Jess told me one time that he didn't need the money,” Mizelle says. “But we do.”
“I knew it wouldn't do any good to sue. My name wasn't on it.” Duboy says, looking back. “And I wasn't in it for that.”
About the Writers
Style Weekly Arts and Culture Editor Don Harrison and Brent Hosier were the researchers for “Virginia Rocks,” a two-CD anthology of '50's and '60s rockabilly from the Old Dominion produced by the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College. An accompanying museum exhibit will open at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard, in August. For information visit blueridgeinstitute.org.