Sunday, July 29, 2001

The B side of teen idol Carl Dobkins Jr.

GE retiree looks back on his days touring and making hits like 'Lucky Devil'

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Used to be, there were screaming teen-agers. Limos. TV cameras. Concert tours with rock 'n' roll royalty.

        Used to be, Carl Dobkins Jr. was a teen idol.

        Today, he's a 60-year-old GE retiree, learning to be a house husband in his White Oak condo and waiting for wife Jan to retire from Procter & Gamble so they can spend some time traveling and doting on five grandchildren.

Carl Dobkins Jr.
        Quite a different picture from 1959, when the Cincinnati native (first Over-the-Rhine, then Mount Healthy) spent 13 weeks on the Billboard charts with “My Heart is an Open Book,” then eight more with “Lucky Devil” while wracking up 14 appearances on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

        “It was a funny, fast-paced time. The day after I graduated from Mount Healthy High School in 1959, I was on a plane to Philadelphia for Dick Clark's show.”

        So maybe there'll be more fast times. Mr. Dobkins, at the urging of son-in-law Dave White, has just released Carl Dobkins Jr.: Now and Then, re-recordings of 11 of his songs, including “Book” and “Devil.”

        “Basically I left the business in 1962. I was married, I had my first daughter, and I was on a bus somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I decided this was not the life for me.

        “The rock 'n' roll lifestyle was a cleaner, tamer lifestyle back then, we hardly even drank. Those were the days before drugs, when we ran on pure youth and energy. But still, on a bus touring all the time, I didn't even know what day of the week it was most of the time.

        “I decided it wasn't right for me. Besides, I had Jan back home, and I thought it was time to be a husband and father. So I left.”

        Not that he hasn't been making music in the 40 years since.

        • There was Donaufest, a giant oldies show in Austria in 1998 on an island in the middle of the Danube. “I was there on rockabilly night and was absolutely amazed. Half the people couldn't even speak English, but they were all singing along — 40,000 people. Maybe 50,000.”

        • Then there was American Graffiti — Rock 'n' Roll Reunion, where he joined 36 other early rockers at Opryland for a massive session that resulted in a four-video set.

        “I sang "Open Book,' but the really cool thing is I had Mary Wilson from the Supremes doing backup. The real fun of that one, though, was getting together and swapping stories.”

        That video sold extensively on the infomercial circuit for awhile and today is being used on PBS stations as a membership premium.

        • Next up is a vintage rock 'n' roll cruise he's hosting in January 2002. They're calling it Cruise with Carl Dobkins Jr. “I love cruises and this one sounds like too much fun. I have to do a couple shows, but mostly I just have to enjoy myself and meet people.

        “It's unbelievable to me, the loyalty of oldies fans and how popular the shows are. I have a theory about it.

        “The music by nature is primitive, sometimes even downright crude, and most songs contain only three or four chords. Songs were often hastily written by pimply-faced kids on a street corner and then recorded — in monaural — in what sounded like an amateur basement studio.

        “Yet after all these years, fans still flock to hear and see them performed live.”

        They do it, he thinks, because oldies shows are “memories for sale for the fans. Their real world may now be touched by the '90s and new millennium problems ... but for a brief and exhilarating time, they can forget all of these and in their minds at least journey back to carefree "Happy Days.' ”

        Once Mr. Dobkins' “Happy Days” drew to a close in '62, he went on to a string of jobs. Part-time radio at WCNW, then a dispatcher in a Greyhound Bus Terminal.

        “That should be a TV series, life in the lobby at Greyhound. Once or twice a week the police used to come in and wait for a bus to arrive so they could arrest some traveler.”

        Too much drama there, so he went to GE and worked as a procurement specialist until he retired in April of this year.

        “The Lord has truly blessed me. I've always had a job, I have a great wife, great kids, great grandchildren.

        “Now, I'm learning to run a house. Jan will retire in six months, so I'm learning to cook, not well, do laundry, so-so, and iron very badly. She won't let me touch her clothes.”

        And making music?

        “Very seldom. I hardly ever get my guitar down anymore, maybe at a family gathering now and then, but not often. Friends and old fans keep telling me to get back in it. You know, do some club dates. I'd love the money, but sitting in a bar pounding a guitar? I don't think so.”

        It was a little easier to talk him into the Then and Now CD. Son-in-law Mr. White began talking it up in '99, mostly to the tune of Mr. Dobkins hemming and hawing.

        “He wanted to take all the old songs and do them unplugged. Dave is an electrical engineer, but he's also a brilliant musician. He plays guitar, cello, violin, almost anything he picks up. He offered to do the arrangements and produce it. We got serious about it last year, and here it is.”

        Mr. Dobkins doesn't know what will come of the CD, whether it will make a bundle or lay an egg, but he's not worried: “I'd like to see us make our money back, but beyond that, we'll see what happens.”

        In the meantime, he intends to live his life according to a sign posted on his refrigerator: “I'm too busy. I have 10 years left to do what I should have been doing the last 60.”

        Mr. Dobkins' CD is available at Borders Books & Music, on or by calling (800)-847-1221.


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