Rock-A-Teens founder retires from high school

At one of the last Rock-A-Teens shows of the year, students in the group made Joe Roth, the founder and sponsor of the program, this going-away card. Roth is retiring this week after almost a decade at McLean County High School.

After almost a decade at the high school and many more spent coaching and educating young minds, Joe Roth will retire from McLean County Public Schools on Friday.

Roth has been most recently known for his work founding and building the high school Rock-A-Teens, a mid-century rock ‘n’ roll entertainment and appreciation group at the high school.

Roth started Rock-A-Teens in 2008.

A rock ‘n’ roll historian, Roth retired as the executive director of the Cliff Hagan Boys and Girls Club in 2000. He also taught a rock ‘n’ roll history course at Owensboro Catholic High School, and served as a consultant for a similar class at Kentucky Wesleyan College.

When he started work at McLean County High School, Roth said, there weren’t all that many avenues for musically-inclined students

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to express their talents. Of course, the award-winning band was one option, he said, but Roth wanted to do more. Rock ‘n’ roll, he said, was the music of his generation. Sure it was fun and full of energy, but to him, and so many other young people in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was more than just that.

“The teens of the ‘50s really had a lot of freedom -- real freedom -- for the first time,” he said. “And it was teenagers who kept that music alive expressing that freedom. Those decades were a tremendous time of music development.”

Admittedly, he said, when he approached the idea of starting a music group at the high school, he chose classic rock ‘n’ roll because he enjoyed the music and artists of that time period. But as interest grew, it was clear that something about the genre of music struck a chord among the youth of today.

“I thought it would be a harder sell,” he said, laughing. “But the kids loved it. Their grandparents listened to it, and they had some exposure to it, which made it easier.”

The first show debuted in the spring of 2008 at the high school. It was a free show, featuring students at the high school singing along to classic tunes such as “I Walk The Line,” by Johnny Cash, and “Rave On,” by Buddy Holly. The show was a mix of classic entertainment and mid-century history — something that has carried on to the Rock-A-Teens shows of today, where crowds topping 1,000 have watched students in Owensboro and elsewhere perform.

In his first foreword at that 2008 performance, Roth wrote, “With this presentation, my challenge today will be to paint a clear, vivid lasting picture of this historical period that helped shape American pop music.”

And today, Roth says he has only drawn an outline.

Rock-A-Teens is the only appreciation group at a high school in Kentucky, and among few in the nation, but it has garnered a popularity and reputation that precedes itself. The group has been invited to open alongside big-name acts in the local circuit in Daviess, McLean and surrounding counties. Some students have gone on to record and start musical groups of their own -- something of which Roth said he is exceedingly proud.

“We’ve built our brand around pride, passion and purpose,” he said. “Then and now.”

Rockin’ Through the Decades shows at the high school have become fast-paced, high-energy, dazzling productions complete with audio-visual additives and professional-grade sound quality, all highlighting the people, places and events that defined an era in American history.

The Rock-A-Teens have averaged about five shows a year, but lately, even more, Roth said. During the 2011-12 school year, 1,100 students and faculty attended Rock-A-Teen productions. By this year, he said, that number had doubled.

About 25 to 30 high school and middle school students have learned to shed stage fright and shyness to put their talents on display for Rock-A-Teens and Roth said he’s confident the tradition will continue.

This will be Roth’s second retirement, so he has no big plans yet for his free time, he said, laughing.

For now, administrators at the high school are seeking a replacement to sponsor and direct the Rock-A-Teens program.

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