If I Had a Girl

In 1959 RCA Victor was flush with the success of Elvis Presley, but his career was on hold temporarily while he finished his two-year Army stint. In the meantime, competing record companies were dominating the music industry with teen idols, those younger, less daring but red-hot alternatives to Elvis like Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian. Nipper's label needed a teenage girl-magnet, and they found a candidate in 15-year-old Johnny Restivo, whose single "The Shape I'm In" was promoted that fall but received a disappointing reception. Then the label stumbled across a singer they felt even more strongly about. This kid had the goods to get them back on top of the teen game, at least until the King was a civilian again. He had the looks of Fabian, the brooding, reserved personality of James Dean and a smooth vocal style like Johnny Mathis. RCA Victor presented Rod Lauren to the world late in 1959, and soon, they reasoned, he would be the greatest teen idol of them all!

Born Roger Strunk, he was a quiet, introverted child growing up in Tracy, California. At the age of six his grandmother offered him five dollars to stand up and sing for the family, but Roger was much too shy and refused. This characteristic, though, would work in his favor when he was older. He played trombone in his high school marching band and later joined a group called The Buddies, working small nightclubs in a few nearby Central California cities. RCA Victor scouts spotted him singing with the band in a club in Fresno and were impressed by his looks and sound, which they felt was smoother than most of the teen-appeal singers gaining popularity at the time. The label signed him to a two-year contract for 75,000 dollars (more than twice what it had paid Sun Records for Presley's contract just four years earlier), changed his name to Rod Lauren, and began a promotional blitz designed to make him a household name. Steve Sholes and the RCA brass used similar tactics to the ones that had put Presley on top...yet Rod was destined to a life of frustrating, even conceivably horrific, twists and turns.

The young sensation-in-waiting made his television debut on Perry Como's variety series in November 1959, followed a few weeks later by an appearance on the Bob Hope holiday special. The first single was "If I Had a Girl," an appealing performance of a catchy ballad written by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett. RCA pulled out all the stops, offering 25,000 free copies of the record to retailers (or 25 to each of the first one thousand who took them up on it). At the end of the year he was sent on a 15-week tour of radio stations, meeting disc jockeys from coast to coast, appearing at local teenage dances, hampered at first by his shyness but gradually adapting when he saw the effect he had on the fans, particularly the girls, in each city. Hitting the charts just before Christmas in '59, the single gradually gained in airplay as he traveled from city to city, peaking respectably in the top 40 at the end of January, yet much lower than RCA's expectations. Still, it was a start, and by this time he had added guest shots on the Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan shows, and top movie producer Hal Wallis (who'd already produced two of Elvis's films) arranged for a screen test. Already Hollywood was beckoning...a major film career was in the offing!

"If I Had a Girl," by the way, was the only release by Lauren to hit the charts. There were no further appearances on the big national shows after 1960. The follow-up single, "Listen My Love," without his presence at every radio station to turn on that shy charm, went nowhere. The big starring film roles didn't materialize, although he auditioned for, and won, a few television appearances, including a part in a February 1962 installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At the end of his contract with RCA Victor, he signed with Chancellor Records, the label that had been so successful with Avalon and Fabian. Singles like "I Wanna Know About Love" kept him stuck in teen mode and disappeared. A return to performing in small clubs soon vaporized as well.

Not to worry! By 1963 he had transitioned from small parts on TV series to that movie career he'd hoped for, starting with a couple of low-budget horror films, Terrified and Black Zoo, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Denver Pyle and Elisha Cook, Jr. Then came a western, The Gun Hawk with Rory Calhoun, followed by the creme de la creme, The Crawling Hand, which today holds a revered place as a cult classic of bad '60s horror. His fifth film released in 1963 was a musical teen romp, The Young Swingers, co-starring singer Molly Bee and early-'60s hitmaker Gene McDaniels. More TV work came his way in the mid-'60s, including appearances on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Combat! and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The John Derek-directed film Once Before I Die (starring Ursula Andress) and Childish Things (directed by Derek with Ricky's brother David Nelson!) rounded out Rod's resumé. During the location shoot in the Philippines for Once Before I Die in 1966, he met actress Nida Blanca. A star for fifteen years prior (since the age of 13), she and Rod had a lengthy relationship and he eventually moved to Manila. By the time they married in 1979, she was a major celebrity in her home country, having starred in more than a hundred films (with dozens more to come) and several TV series, including the long-running hit John and Marsha.

In November 2001, Blanca was stabbed multiple times in a parking garage and Strunk (having long since abandoned the entertainment business and the Rod Lauren name) was a chief suspect in the murder. Another suspect, Philip Medel, confessed to the crime, saying Lauren had hired him to do the job. Insufficient evidence resulted in Lauren's return to the States, where he cared for his ailing mother in Tracy, California until her death a few years later. He claimed to be deeply saddened by the passing of his wife; the authorities weren't completely buying it, but nevertheless allowed him to leave the country. The Philippine government later proposed extraditing him to stand trial, but there just wasn't enough of a case, yet the whole mess hung over his head for years afterward. In July 2007, at age 63, Roger Strunk, hereafter to be remembered affectionately by his fans as Rod Lauren, fell from the second-story balcony of a room at the Tracy Inn. Local police found evidence to suggest he jumped; coroners agreed, and his death was ruled a suicide. The murder of Nida Blanca remains a mystery as do the reasons why her widowed husband died directly below a hotel balcony less than six years later.

- Michael Jack Kirby


If I Had a Girl