And now…back to the story…
In 1956 I was 9 years old. I may of have been quite young but I was into rock and roll from the beginning of its popularity. I saw Elvis Presley’s first TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dorsey Brothers Show, and The Milton Berle Show. I may have missed Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show because it was on at the same time on Sunday nights as The Ed Sullivan Show which was a staple in the house I grew up in.
I often watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand program after school at around 4 p.m. I had no idea at the time that the young talents Clark had on his program were lip syncing. Over a period of time some of the teenagers who danced on the program became familiar faces to me.
Radio was where the biggest access to rock and roll was but growing up in Montreal there were only certain stations that played that kind of music and only at particular times of the day, usually in the late afternoons and evenings. What totally blew me away as a kid was that there was always something new happening in rock and roll music.
Radio always made people use their imaginations. I remember hearing Freddy Cannon sing a song called Way Down Yonder In New Orleans. I pictured Freddy as some blonde haired guy from the American South only to find out later that he was an Italian guy from Massachusetts.
There are some that look at the music of the later 1950s and early 1960s as corny and simplistic. In some ways it was but so was a lot of other music we listened to in the decades that followed. There are things that may seem corny today but back in the day when we were in the moment there were thoughts a lot of us had about what we were listening to that stirred our emotions. We were too young to be cynical.
I’m pretty sure that a lot of younger people today think that teenagers in the 50s and 60s listened to nothing but rock and roll. First of all even the term “rock and roll” is a pretty loose description of a type of music. Does it include doo-whop? Does it include ballads?
What we were actually listening to on the radio back then was “popular music”. That might sound kind of dull but it wasn’t. It was like one continuous variety show. It didn’t really matter what area of music a tune came from as long as the song was catchy.
Starting in the 1930s there were two magazines that tracked the popularity of songs based upon record sales. One was called Billboard and the other was called The Hit Parade. From the late 30s through the mid-1950s most popular music was performed by big bands and crooners. The big names in popular music in the early 50s that catered to younger people were singers like Johnny Ray, Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney. Joining them at the top of the charts were white singing groups like The Four Lads, The Crewcuts, The Ames Brothers, and The Four Aces.
|Dean Martin and Perry Como|
To get an understanding of where popular music was for the first half of the 1950s one has to understand the times in the US. Eisenhower was the president and The Cold War with the USSR was going on. The US economy was booming. The middle class was becoming larger. There was still racial segregation in the US South. America was a conservative country at the time. Families that had experienced The Great Depression and WW2 were often satisfied with the status quo. Things were good now. They didn’t want to see the boat rocked. Often things that were considered to be different were thought to be a threat. There was an image that many middle class American families wanted to project that included patriotism, hard work, and solid morals. Years later this would be called “family values”.
Musically in the early 1950s there wasn’t any “rocking the boat” in popular music. Songs lke How Much Is That Doggy In The Window, Cross Over The Bridge, Hernando’s Hideaway, and Stranger In Paradise were hardly threats to the moral fiber of America’s young people.
The same couldn’t be said for the movies. Marlon Brando and James Dean became big stars in the early 1950s. In the 1953 movie The Wild One Brando played a rebellious motorcycle gang leader and leather motorcycle jackets became popular with a segment of America’s youth. In his short movie career Dean played a confused teenager angry at being told what to do by his parents. In real life Dean would forever be 24 years of age after dying in car crash while driving his Porshe on a California highway.
Around 1952 something was starting to percolate in music. A number of radio stations, particularly smaller ones, realized that they were going to have a really tough time of it competing with television which had just become the number one source for family entertainment. A number of smaller radio stations converted their entertainment format to include a type of music called rhythm and blues (R & B). This type of music was almost entirely played by black people. The lyrics could often be on the risqué side but because most of the radio audience was black nobody in authority was paying much attention.
Some white guys, particularly in the South, started listening to black R & B and fell in love with the music. A number of these guys had backgrounds in country music and made attempts at combining R & B and country music. Drums became an important part of this new style of music with a heavy back beat. This new music style is sometimes called Rockabilly. It wouldn’t be called rock and roll until several years later. A Rockabilly band usually consisted of a lead and rhythm guitar player, a stand-up bass player, and a drummer. Some bands added a piano player or a saxophonist.
The first rock and roll song to reach the charts was probably Bill Haley and the Comet’s Crazy Man Crazy which came out in 1953. The first really big rock and roll hit was probably Bill Haley’s cover of black R & B singer Big Joe Turner’s song Shake, Rattle and Roll in 1954. Haley’s version had the lyrics “Get out of that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans.” Turner’s version was more like he was kicking some gal out of bed to make him breakfast. Not the kind of stuff that conservative America wanted their kids to be listening to.
In 1955 a movie came out called Blackboard Jungle. It starred Glenn Ford as a teacher at an inner city school trying to manage some unruly students including a young Sidney Poitier. The movie also introduced the song Rock Around The Clock also done by Bill Haley and the Comets. Blackboard Jungle brought in 10 times the investment it cost to make the movie and kind of set a pattern for youthful rebelliousness and fast paced music with a heavy drum beat.
During his career Bill Haley and his Comets sold over 25 million records. He wasn’t ugly but he also wasn’t handsome. He had a kind of doughy face and “kiss Curl” hung from his forehead. Although he was only about 27 at the time he looked older and not the kind of guy teenaged girls could identify with. It wouldn’t be long before a young man who was the complete package would turn American popular music on its head.
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. His family was poor and his father once spent 8 months in jail for cheque forgery. One day when Elvis was about 18 he walked into Sun Records in Memphis and made his first recording. He said he made the record for his mother who he was very close to but some others thought he wanted to impress the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips.
Elvis’s first public appearances happened in 1954 and he was backed by a drummer and a guitarist.. In 1955 he became a regular on the Saturday night country and western radio program Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport Louisiana. The Louisiana Hayride was broadcast to close to 200 stations in 28 States. It might have been nervousness that made Elvis shake his legs while singing. The shaking became part of his act and it drove a lot of female teenagers wild.
By late 1955 Elvis had acquired a new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was Elvis’s manager for the rest of the colonel’s life. Parker bought Elvis’s contract from Sam Phillips and got Elvis signed to the RCA Records label for 40 thousand dollars. Parker was very effective at managing Elvis but he was a bit of a mystery man. His title, colonel, was an honourary one. It was questionable whether or not Parker was actually an American citizen. He was born in The Netherlands and it has been said that he jumped ship to stay in America. Parker’s background before he met Elvis was working at carnivals and he was experienced at the con and the hustle. In Elvis’s career the only other country he performed in other than the US was a few dates in Canada. This may have had something to do with Parker not having a passport.
Whatever Parker was he was good at his job. He got Elvis major exposure on a number of the biggest variety TV shows at the time including The Ed Sullivan Show. Right from the start Elvis’s hip swiveling and leg shaking drove conservative American parents crazy. They looked at Elvis as a juvenile delinquent type who was going to be a bad influence on their kids. The TV cameras started filming Elvis only from the waist up.
Elvis became a sensation to millions of younger Americans. With his dark dyed black hair and sideburns he looked different. He didn’t look anything like previous teen heartthrobs like Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher. He was good looking, had a unique voice, and brought excitement to all his appearances. He had a kind of humbleness that girls and some parents liked.
Elvis was the right person at the right time. In 1956 he had a number of major hits including Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, Heartbreak Hotel, and Love Me Tender. His first movie Love Me Tender was released in November of 1956.
The wild Elvis with the swinging hips fairly quickly became a cleaned up Elvis. Tom Parker realized that in order to capture the hearts and minds of conservative America Elvis would have to become more clean cut. It wasn’t that long before the sideburns disappeared. In the movies Elvis always played the good guy who was honest and trustworthy. The ladies chased him more than he did them. There was never an Elvis movie plot that included Elvis getting laid.
Elvis didn’t put rock and roll on the map all by himself. He had a lot of help. 3 black guys, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry had a lot to do with the success of this new music. A year or so after Elvis found fame Jerry Lee Lewis would put an exclamation mark on rock and roll.
Out of the 4 of these other guys Fats Domino was by far the tamest. His hits in 1956 alone included My Blue Heaven, Blueberry Hill, and Blue Monday. Fats Domino sang and played a kind of rolling style on his piano. His background in music was R & B and he started playing piano in the late 1940s.
If Fats Domino was non-threatening, the same couldn’t be said for Chuck Berry. He scared the living shit out of conservative America, For starters he looked a lot older than the teenagers he played in front of and he had a pencil thin mustache. Berry’s signature move on stage was bending his knees and strutting across the stage while playing his guitar. It wouldn’t be a big stretch to say Berry was sexually suggestive. He waved his guitar around like it was his penis. You knew that the women he got involved with personally or sang about were a lot looser than the typical teenager of the time.. Chuck Berry had a whole string of hits that became rock and roll standards including Roll Over Beethoven, Rock And Roll Music, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen, and Maybelline. In the early 60s he had a few more hits including You Never Can Tell and No Particular Place To Go. Berry wrote a lot of the songs he sung.
Richard Penniman was Little Richard’s real name. His background in music before getting into rock and roll was church gospel music. Little Richard transferred the wild frenzy and exuberance he had witnessed in gospel churches to rock and roll. He often screamed the lyrics to his songs in a high pitched voice. Elvis was pretty tame next to Little Richard’s flamboyancy. Little Richard was the first rock and roller to challenge the boundaries of male sexuality. He may have picked this up from a garish wrestler at the time, Gorgeous George. Richard wore eye makeup and sometimes had a feather boa around his neck. Among his hits in the 1950s were Tutti Fruiti, Lucille, Jenny, Jenny, and Keep A-Knockin’.
1956 was also the year that Pat Boone had his first hit songs. Some people may not know that in 1956, and for a few years after, Pat Boone was just about as popular as Elvis was. He was what a lot of American conservative parents wanted their kids to have as a role model. He was clean cut, photogenic, and had a great voice. He got married when he was 18 to the daughter of country music legend Red Foley. Being married didn’t seem to affect his popularity.
Pat Boone and his management were notorious for taking a black R & B tune and homogenizing it. Among the songs originally recorded by black artists that Pat Boone covered were Ain’t That A Shame by Fats Domino, Tutti Fruiti by Little Richard, Don’t Forbid Me by Charles Singleton, and I Almost Lost My Mind by Ivory Joe Hunter. Other hits Boone had in the middle to late 50s were Bernadine, April Love, Friendly Persuasion, and Love Letters In The Sand.
Like Elvis, Pat Boone starting making movies in 1956. For a while he had his own TV show. For a brief period the white bucks shoes Boone wore were a bit of a craze with some American teens. Many years later Pat Boone’s Christian faith became more evident and as he got older he turned into a right wing crackpot.
A black singing group that consisted of 4 guys and a girl and called The Platters had 3 hits in 1956, My Prayer, The Great Pretender, and Magic Touch. The Platters sold more records than anyone else in the 1950s other than Elvis and Pat Boone. Two cross over hits from country music that year were Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons and Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line. Carl Perkins had his one big hit with Blue Suede Shoes.
Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps had their only major hit in 1956, Be-Bop-A-Lula. Vincent’s music was of the Rockabilly style. He had trouble in coming up with another hit and spent a number of years performing in the UK. He died at the young age of 35 due to health problems brought on by alcoholism.
One of the most popular black singing groups in 56 was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Lymon’s song, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, would symbolize early rock and roll as much as any other song.
1957 was as big a year in rock and roll as 1956 was. There was a lot of new talent that had their first hits in 1957. Elvis picked up where he left off in 1956 and had a number of more hits with songs like Jailhouse Rock, All Shook Up and Loving You.
It seemed like there was something in the water in the US South.
One of these Southerners was a guy named Jerry Lee Lewis. He was pure high energy and could really put on a show. He had unruly blonde hair that flew about as he worked himself into a frenzie while playing his piano. Sometimes he would get up on top of his piano. He even played his piano with his feet. Jerry Lee Lewis pumped out hit after hit starting in 1957. His songs included Great Balls Of Fire, A Whole Lot A Shakin Going On, Breathless, and High School Confidential. You might say the Jerry Lee was the first white bad ass in rock and roll.
|Jerry Lee Lewis|
In May of 1957 Buddy Holly and the Crickets had their first hit with a song called That’ll Be The Day. Holly was from Lubbock, Texas and looked like a bit of a geek with his black rimmed thick glasses. The group spent a week in 1957 playing the Apollo Theatre in New York City which was like a shrine for black entertainers. Buddy Holly’s musical career was short, lasting only about two years, but he introduced a number of rock and roll standards in that time including Rave On, Peggy Sue, Not Fade Away, and True Love Ways.
|Buddy Holly and the Crickets|
The Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, moved around a lot when they were kids and lived in Kentucky and Tennessee. They looked a lot alike although they were 2 years apart in age. Their Dad Ike was a country singer and had his own show on radio in the 1940s. Don and Phil grew up singing country music with their parents. Their first big hit was in 1957 with Bye Bye Love. They went on to have a long career in rock and roll. Some of their bigger hits were All I have To Do Is Dream, Cathy’s Clown, I Kissed You, Bird Dog, Wake Up Little Suzie, and Walk Right Back.
|The Everly Brothers|
In 1957 many Americans would tune in a TV program called Ozzie and Harriet once a week. It was kind of a light family sitcom. Nobody ever seemed to know what the dad Ozzie did for a living but they knew he liked ice cream. The younger of the two sons on the program was Ricky Nelson. Both of his parents had been in the music business. Ozzie had led a big band in the 1930s and 40s and Harriet had been a big band singer. Ricky started singing to impress a girl at his high school. Soon after he was singing on the TV show and he got a lot of national exposure. He was one good looking dude with a pleasant singing voice. Teenaged girls couldn’t get enough of him. His first hit in 1957 was a song called A Teenager’s Romance which was followed by Be-Bop Baby. His biggest hit was in 1958 with Poor Little Fool.
A couple of male black singers were starting to make a name for themselves in 1957. Soul Music was still a few years away but Sam Cooke gave a hint of what was to come with his song You Send Me. Back in 1957 if a vote was taken among American teenagers and they were asked whose music they would prefer playing in the background while they were making out on the couch, Johnny Mathis’s name would likely come up. Almost all his songs were slow ones. He had two hits in 1957 with Chances Are and It’s Not For Me To Say.
Another black guy who started ripping it up in 57 was Jackie Wilson with his song Reete Petite. The song Reete Petite was partly written by future Motown founder Berry Gordy. Jackie Wilson was like a 50s version of James Brown. Wilson was known for his high energy and his moves on stage which included collapsing to his knees. Some of his biggest hits were Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher And Higher, Baby Workout, Lonely Tear Drops and That Is Why. Jackie Wilson’s cousin was Levi Stubbs who later became the lead singer for The Four Tops. Wilson had a heart attack on stage while singing when he was 40 and died 9 years later.
One of the biggest female singing stars of the late 1950s was Connie Francis. Her big hit in 1957 was Whose Sorry Now. She would have a number of hits in the ensuing years including Stupid Cupid, Lipstick On Your Collar, and Where The Boys are. Connie Francis briefly dated Bobby Darin in the late 50s. Her dad ran Darin off at gunpoint and she has said not marrying Darin was the biggest regret of her life. In 1974 Connie Francis was raped after performing at The Westbury Music Fair in New York. In 1981 her brother was shot and killed by a mafia hit man. This woman had more than her fair share of bad luck in life.
Two of the biggest country music crossover hits for the year were Bobby Helms’s My Special and Sonny James’s Young Love. A young Canadian teenager from Ottawa, Paul Anka, had his first hit with a song called Diana. Other big tunes in 57 include The Del-Vikings Come Go With Me, The Rays’ Silhouettes, The Diamonds’ Little Darlin, Guy Mitchell’s Singing The Blues, and Buddy Knox’s Party Doll.
The most popular tune in America in 1958 was a song called Volare and it wasn’t rock and roll. Originally the song came out in Italian and was sung by Domenico Modugno. He was pretty well never seen or heard from again in America after his one big hit. Volare was covered later on by Bobby Rydell, Dean Martin and many years later still by The Gypsy Kings.
Two novelty songs that got a lot of air play in 1958 were Shep Wooley’s Purple People Eater and David Seville’s My Friend The Witch Doctor. Seville’s real claim to fame was inventing the cartoon characters The Chipmunks and doing their voices.
Danny and the Juniors had a hit in 58 with At The Hop. Do-whop music which was all about 3 and 4 part harmony was becoming more and more popular with teenage America.
Bobby Darin had his first big hit with Splish Splash in 58. Over his career Darin would have hit songs in a number of different forms of music. 18 Yellow Roses was country. If I Were A Carpenter was folk. Dream Lover was rock and roll and Mack The Knife and Beyond The Sea were crooning songs backed up by big bands. Bobby Darin was 22 when he discovered that who he thought was his sister was actually his mother. He was sickly a good part of his life and died at the young age of 37 after open heart surgery.
In 1958 J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) had his lone big hit with Chantilly. A young guy from Philadelphia, Frankie Avalon, found himself on the charts for the first time with his songs Dede Dinah and I’ll Wait For You. Duane Eddy had one of the first rock and roll instrumental hits with Rebel Rouser.
Sometimes forgotten in the history of rock and roll was a young Canadian guy from Windsor, Ontario named Jack Scott (originally Giovanni Scafone Jr.). He lived in Canada until was 10 when the family moved across the river to Detroit. He had a deep singing voice with a bit of a country twang. In 1958 he had a double sided hit with My True Love and Leroy.
By 1958 black singers and black singing groups were all over the charts. They may have had to enter through the side door at the hotel they were staying at and not allowed to mix with their audience when travelling in the US South but when it came to having their songs played on the radio, race didn’t matter as long as the tune was catchy. Little Anthony and the Imperials had a hit with Tears On My Pillow and The Monotones had a hit with Book Of Love.
The first rock instrumental to reach #1 on the pop charts was The Champs tune Tequila. Glen Campbell and folkies Seals and Crofts later played with The Champs.
Once in a while a folk song would make it onto the charts in the 1950s. In 1958 the Kingston Trio had a hit with a song called Tom Dooley. 4 or 5 years later folk music would become very popular with a lot of college types in the US.
In 1958 a 13 year old girl introduced a song that would become a Christmas standard. Her name was Brenda Lee and the song was Rockin Around The Christmas Tree. She had a very distinctive voice and often seemed to be pleading when singing. Among her hits over the years were I’m Sorry, As Usual, All Alone Am I, and Break It To Me Gently.
Another often forgotten name from early rock and roll is Eddie Cochran. In 1958 he had a big hit with Summertime Blues. He died in a car accident in the UK in 1960 at the age of 21. He may have been the first of a number of rock and rollers to die young.
Here’s a list of some of the other big songs on the Hit Parade in 1958. It’s All In The Game by Tommy Edwards, Little Star by The Elegants, Yakety Yak by The Coasters, Rockin’ Robin by Bobby Day, Short Shorts by The Royal Teens, When by The Kalin Twins, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine by Jimmy Rogers, 26 Miles by The Four Preps, Born Too Late by The Poni Tails, and Chanson D’Amour by Art and Dottie Todd.
Among the country crossover hits of 1958 were Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me, Marty Robbin’s The Story Of My Life, and Conway Twitty’s It’s Only Make Believe.
1959 was a landmark year in rock and roll. On February 3rd a plane carrying Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, a young Mexican American singer named Richie Valens, and a 21 year old pilot, Roger Peterson, crashed in a corn field near Clear Lake, Iowa. It was a small plane and all four passengers died. That day would later be immortalized in Don MacLean’s song American Pie which came out in 1971. “The day the music died.”
Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts, and Ritchie Valens were in the middle of a tour (called The Winter Dance Party) of one night stands across the mid-west States. Buddy Holly was the veteran of the group. About a year earlier he had parted company with his manager and his band The Crickets and replaced The Crickets with some other musicians including Waylon Jennings. The Big Bopper was the oldest of those that died. He was 28 and had one big hit, Chantilly Lace. Dion the Belmonts were a doo whop group who also only had one big hit at the time, I Wonder Why. Richie Valens had 3 big hits before he died, Come On, Let’s go and the double sided record hits La Bamba and Donna.
|Dion and the Belmonts|
|The Big Bopper|
The group had been traveling by bus in the middle of the winter. The heater on the bus packed it in and one of the back-up musicians got frostbite in his toes. The bus was replaced by a school bus but by then a number of the crew had come down with the flu including The Big Bopper. It was Buddy Holly who decided he wanted to fly ahead of the tour, partially because he wanted to get some laundry done. Dion took a pass on the plane ride because he thought the $35.00 fare was too much money. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to the sick with the flu Big Bopper. Ritchie Valens won a coin toss with another musician to secure his seat.
After the crash and the death of the three young rock and rollers the tour resumed with Bobby Vee taking the place of Buddy Holly. That the tour continued at all is a sad comment on the business behind rock and roll. 2 months after the crash, in May of 1959, Dion and the Belmonts had one of their biggest hits with A Teenager In Love.
From the beginning of rock and roll touring smaller cities was part of the deal of being a rock and roll star. The promoters always got most of the money. Las Vegas was where the money was for big name entertainers but promoters there weren’t much interested in young rock and roll stars because teenagers were too young to drink or gamble. Elvis was about the only rock and roll star who could fill big stadiums in big cities but Tom Parker didn’t want Elvis to be over exposed.
Rock and Roll didn’t die in 1959 but for the most part it had been tamed. Elvis was in the military from 1958 to 1960. His image had been cleaned up for some time so that he was more suitable for “white bread” audiences. Jerry Lee Lewis was shunned by both the American public and promoters when it was discovered that he had married his 13 year old cousin once removed. Little Richard rediscovered religion and became an evangelical. In December of 1959 Chuck Berry was arrested under The Mann Act for having sexual relations with a 14 year old. After a number of trials and appeals he ended up spending 1-1/2 years in prison.
A lot of the raw grittiness of rock and roll disappeared. Not totally but to a large extent. Rock and roll was becoming more and more manufactured by the people behind the scenes. Just find a good looking guy and teach him how to sing and watch the money come rolling in was one way of doing it. This is exactly what happened to a singer called Fabian (Fabian Forte). He couldn’t carry a tune to save his life and still he became a big star. So what if he couldn’t sing they probably thought, the movies were always looking for handsome young guys. When Fabian was drafted into the army he got a deferment when he claimed that being around a lot of men might stir up his homosexual tendencies.
New rock and roll stars were starting to come more from the north eastern area of the US, from places like Philadelphia and New York. People like Bobby Rydell and and Frankie Avalon. Up until 1959 most big names in rock and roll had come from the US South.
The biggest song on the Hit Parade in 1959 was Johnny Horton’s The Battle Of New Orleans. He later had other hits with Sink The Bismark and North To Alaska. Horton died in a car crash on a highway bridge in Texas in 1960.
A trio from Washington State that consisted of 2 girls and a guy and called The Driftwoods had 2 big hits in 1959, Come Softly To Me and Mr. Blue. Santo and Johnny had a big hit with an instrumental called Sleepwalk. Black singer Lloyd Price had 2 hits that year with Stagger Lee and Personality. Ray Charles had his first hit with What I Say.
Black singing groups had a lot of hit tunes in 1959 including The Coasters’ Poison Ivy and Along Came Jones and The Flamingo’s I Only Have Eyes For You.
Other big songs from 1959 include The Skyliners’s Since I Don't Have You, The Bell Notes’s I’ve Had It, Frankie Avalon’s Venus, Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, Ritchie Valen’s Donna, The Crests’s 16 Candles, and Jerry Wallace’s Primrose Lane.
Reg Owen’s Manhattan Spiritual and Dave “Baby” Cortez’s Happy Organ were two of the biggest instrumental hits of the year.
Once again country based tunes also were on the charts including The Brown’s The Three Bells, Stonewall Jackson’s Waterloo, Billy Grammer’s Gotta Travel On, and Jerry Wallace’s Primrose Lane.
“Payola” was a word that was created around 1960 to describe the receiving of cash from record promoters that was given to disc jockeys to play certain records. The theory the record companies had was that teenagers weren’t that bright and if they heard a record on the radio enough they would go out and buy it whether or not they really liked the song.
The US congress started to investigate Payola in 1959 and in 1960 they had hearings. A number of people were called as witnesses including Alan Freed, the disk jockey who coined the term “rock and roll " and TV’s Dick Clark who hosted the afternoon teenage music show American Bandstand. Freed has been credited for introducing black R &B music to white America.
When all was said and done Alan Freed’s career as an influential disc jockey was over. Taking money for playing certain records became illegal. Alan Freed had been involved with rock and roll from the very beginning. His radio show was one of the first to promote rock and roll music and he had a huge following. His radio name was “Moondog”. Starting in 1956 Freed produced a number of rock and roll movies. He also promoted a number of rock & roll tours in the US.
Freed had a short temper and could get in anyone’s face who criticized rock and roll. He was the prime target in the US congressional heariings. Squeaky clean Dick Clark, on the other hand, got off Scott free. At one time Dick Clark had investments in something like 33 record labels. One of those record labels was called Jamie Records that made guitarist Duane Eddy famous. Clark made over 31 thousand dollars on his initial investment of 125 dollars in Jamie Reords.
Over a period of time Clark had an interest in around 150 pop songs. He often received royalties for being one of the song’s writers when he wasn’t. Today there are some old videos around on YouTube showing Clark on American Bandstand with teenagers back in the 50s and asking them to rate some new songs that were just being introduced. It is more than obvious that a number of the songs the teenagers were asked to rate were absolutely terrible.
Dick Clark certainly knew all of the greats in rock and roll in their heydays. Never the less he really wasn’t anything more than a slick huckster. After he died several years ago it seems that the baton has been passed to Ryan Seacrest.
1960 was the year that Chubby Checker introduced The Twist. It was a pretty big hit but the Twist sensation didn’t really take off until about a year later when Chubby recorded Lets Twist Again.
1960 was also the year that a man with one of the most beautiful voices in rock and roll had his first big hit. His name was Roy Orbison and the song was Only The Lonely. Orbison wasn’t much to look at but he could sing a song like nobody else. He also wrote his own songs. Among the hits he had in his career were Crying, In Dreams, Up Town, Running Scared, Oh Pretty Woman, Dream Baby, Blue Bayou, It’s Over, Love Hurts, and Mean Women Blues. The man was prolific. Orbison had bad eyesight all of life and wore sunglasses on stage. He also had a lot of tragedy in his life, losing his first wife in a motorcycle accident and two of his kids who died in a house fire when he was out on tour. In the late 1980s Orbison became part of The Travelling Willburys along with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne from ELO. Roy Orbison died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 52.
Among the songs that crossed over from country music to the Hit Parade were Jim Reeve’s He’ll Have To Go, Johnny Preston’s Running Bear, Hank Locklin’s Please Help Me I’m Falling, Johnny Burnette’s Dreamin’, and Bob Luman’s Lets Think About Living. Most songs back then were a little over 2 minutes. Marty Robbin’s El Paso was just over 4 minutes long.
Jimmy Jones sung the first version of Handy Man. It would later become a big hit for Del Shannon. The Ventures had an instrumental hit with Walk Don’t Run and updated the tune and reintroduced the song as few years later as Walk Don’t Run 64.
Other big songs in 64’ were Maurice Williams’s Stay, Freddy Cannon’s Way Down Yonder In New Orleans, The Hollywood Argyles-s Alley Oop, and Bobby Vee’s Devil Or Angel.
Elvis was out of the army and his big song in 1960 was It’s Now Or Never.
Rock and roll was evolving. Singers were always looking for new songs that were catchy. Some of the best songwriters worked out of The Brill Building in New York. A song writer and record producer named Phil Spector was writing or co-writing a number of hit tunes including Ben E. King’s Spanish Harlem and the first version of Twist And Shout. Spector played guitar on The Drifters’s On Broadway. Later on he would create “the wall of sound”.
In 1961 black girl singing groups became quite popular. The Shirelles had 3 big hits that year with Dedicated To The One I love, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and Mama Said. Ben. E. King had a big hit with Stand By Me. Ray Charles sang Hit The Road Jack. Gary US Bonds recorded a song called A Quarter To Three and it sounded like a party was going on.
The Twist and Chubby Checker were back in 61’. This time around the Twist swept America. Adults learned how to do the dance and they could be seen everywhere from country clubs to nightclubs moving their legs around. Former US president Eisenhower condemned the Twist as a sign of the moral decay happening in America. Joey Dee and the Starlighters had a hit with The Peppermint Twist.
It wasn’t uncommon for singers and groups to dig out old songs from the 1930s and forties, speed up the tempo, and add a few gimmicks to the tune. One of those songs was The Marcels’s Blue Moon which was written by Rogers and Hart in 1934.
In 1962 The Four Seasons had their first hit with a song called Sherry. Folk music became very popular. For a while there was a TV program that was broadcasted from various college campuses called Hootenanny. Peter, Paul, and Mary had a hit with If I had A Hammer. Trini Lopez too. The Brothers Four sang Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Dee Dee Sharp did Mash Potato Time and Little Eva did The Loco-motion.
|Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons|
Other big songs of 1962 include Bryan Hyland’s Sealed With A Kiss, Bruce Channel’s Hey Baby, Bobby Vinton’s Roses are Red, Gene Chandler’s Duke Of Earl, Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, Mary Wells’s You Beat Me To The Punch, and Gene Pitney’s A Town Without Pity.
In 1962 a gal named Toni Fisher had a big hit with a song called West Of The Wall. The song was about two lovers who were divided because of the Berlin Wall.
1962 would also see the first appearance of a west coast group called The Beach Boys. Their hit in 62 was Surfin’ Safari.
A lot of the music in 1963 was about surfing on the west coast and singing groups from northern places in the US like Detroit, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.
Jan and Dean had a hit with Surf City. 2 surfing instrumental tunes, The Chantays’s Pipeline and The Safaris’s Wipe Out made it to the top of the charts. The Beach Boys had a whole string of hits in 1963 including Surfer Girl, Catch A Wave, In My Room, Surfin’ USA, Little Deuce Coupe, Shut Down, Things We Did Last Summer, and Little Surfer Girl. Only one of The Beach Boys knew how to surf.
|The Beach Boys|
If girl singers and girl singing groups were kind of left out of the earlier years of rock and roll they were certainly making up for lost time in 1963. They were all over the charts with songs like Easier Said Than Done by the Essex, Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis, Be My Baby by The Ronettes, The Doo Ron Ron by The Crystals, One Fine Day by the Chiffons, and Just One look by Doris Troy.
The Miracles with Smokey Robinson had a hit with You Really Got A hold On Me and Marvin Gaye had a hit with Pride And Joy. These were the early years of the Motown sound.
Jimmy Soul had a great party song in 63, If You Want To Be Happy. Some disc jockeys wouldn’t play the song because the lyrics included a reference to ugly women. The original Jersey Boys The Four Seasons had hits in 63 with Walk Like A Man and Candy Girl.
Towards the end of 1963, on November 23 in Dallas, Texas President John Kennedy was shot and killed. Time kind of stood still for a few months.
In February of 1964 The Beatles turned up on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not much later The Dave Clark Five made their first visit to America. It was the beginning of The British Invasion. Popular music would change forever. What was considered rock and roll would still be around but it wouldn’t be quite the same. The old tunes became part of nostalgia and although a lot of the originators of rock and roll had been ripped off by agents and record companies many of the them could still make a buck many years later by performing their old tunes. Every once in a while PBS has them on TV. It won’t be that long before all of the entertainers from early rock won’t be around anymore.
It was a blast while it lasted!
Some Of My Personal Picks
Best rock and roll song ever. Don’t Be Cruel by Elvis Presley.
Best rock and roll instrumental. Last Night by The Mar-Keys.
Most underated female singer. Timi Yuro and her song I’m So Hurt.
Most prolific rock and roll songwriter. Roy Orbison.
Best white guy hand moves on stage. Len Barry of the Dovells.
Wildest white guy moves including a somersault off of the stage. Roy Head.
Best falsetto voices. Frankie Valli, Lou Christie, Del Shannon.
Best falsetto voices. Frankie Valli, Lou Christie, Del Shannon.
Happiest rock and roller on stage. Fats Domino.
Best foreign song to make The Hit Parade. Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakimoto.
Best Rockabilly tune. Heartbeat by Buddy Holly.
Best imagery in a song. On Broadway by The Drifters.
Best black male singing voice. Sam Cooke singing You Send Me.
Most under rated black female singer. Barbara Lewis. Hello Stranger and Baby I’m Yours.
Closest to sounding like Elvis. Terry Stafford singing Suspicion.
Thanks for coming out.Goodnight and drive safely and don’t forget if you have a bit extra cash Radio Free Europe can use it.