by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
Looking back from today, it is hard to get a feel for the cultural environment at the time rock-&-roll was being invented. The social significance of the music of the 1950s and 1960s was as important as the artistic significance.
The salient feature of rock-&-roll was rebellion. That sentiment has remained a constant current in the development of music since, but it was especially controversial with the new music that sprang into American consciousness over 60 years ago.
The most important issue in American history is race. Everything is somehow connected to race, and music is no exception. Rock-&-roll grew out of an amalgam of blues and country music, with residue from the jazz and show music of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The inventors of rock-&-roll had grown up on show tunes and the like, because that was what constituted popular music then. For years, show tunes were part of the R&R repertoire. For example, “Blue Moon” was originally written by Broadway songwriters Rodgers and Hart for a 1933 movie, Hollywood Party, but it is best known as a Number One hit for the Marcels, an African-American group, in 1961.
Image credit: mrhistorian.blogspot.com
Jerome Kern, a celebrated Broadway composer, joined with lyricist Otto Harbach to write “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” for the 1933 musical Roberta. It went to Number One on the pop music charts 25 years later when recorded by the Platters, another all-black group. Kern’s widow considered legal action to stop the release of the recording (I would guess she changed her mind when the royalty checks started rolling in).
Why would such a recording provoke such a strong reaction from someone like Mrs. Kern? What was the problem? The problem was not only that racial prejudice and discrimination were strongly held views among many Americans, but also that it was acceptable to express those views openly. Rock-&-roll was originally called “race music,” because its first practitioners were African-American. The earliest R&R recording might be “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” by Wynonie Harris, released in 1948. Another contender for the title of “first” came in late 1949, when Fats Domino recorded “The Fat Man.” The genre was more clearly defined fifteen months later by another recording often cited as the first of R&R, “Rocket 88,” recorded at Sun Records in Memphis. It was attributed to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats,” but was actually performed by Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm (of which Brenston was a member).
Through the early 1950s, as R&R became more popular, it was almost exclusively performed by Black artists. Not only was segregation the law in South, it was the custom in most other places. As a result, white-owned radio stations did not play “race music.” But young people were secretly tuning in to Black stations to hear rock-&-roll.
Parents, school boards, churches, and civic leaders in the white community were concerned. They were sure that listening to “race music” would corrupt young whites and make them think and behave as African-Americans did. Families forbade their teenagers from listening to or singing “race music.” It was de rigueur for social commentators and politicians, particularly – but not exclusively – in the South, to warn that this new music was going to lead to the dreaded “race-mixing” (which they considered a hallmark of Communism) and “drag our white children down to the level of the Negro.”
Nevertheless, seeing the money-making potential, record producers looked for an acceptable way to bring Black music to young white audiences. Seeking a “white singer with a Black sound,” Sun Records signed Elvis Presley to a recording contract. At the time, radio and record audiences could not distinguish black R&R artists from white ones. Dewey Phillips, an interviewer on a Memphis station, came up with a way to explain to a radio audience that Presley was not African-American without just blatantly asking, “So, Elvis, are you white or what?” Phillips asked a seemingly unrelated question that would get that message out, “What high school did you go to, Elvis?” Memphis schools were, of course, segregated then, so when Presley replied that he had attended Humes High, it was clear that he was white.
Elvis had a huge hit with a less-raunchy version of the sexually suggestive “Hound Dog,” which the prolific and legendary white songwriters Leiber and Stoller had written for Black blues artist Big Mama Thornton. Another white artist, the squeaky-clean Pat Boone, had success with sanitized versions of songs such as Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.” Ed Sullivan, always a prescient judge of pop-music trends, brought Fats Domino onto his widely-watched variety show on November 18, 1956. Sullivan muted the potential blowback from having a stage full of African-American rock-&-rollers by keeping Domino’s band hidden behind a curtain, leaving just the man and his piano visible. Then, at Sullivan’s direction, Domino sang the last few bars of “Blueberry Hill” standing up and turned toward the audience and camera so that his rotund figure would be apparent, thus making him seem less threatening.
In the 1956-57 television season, the all-American Nelson family of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet finally made rock-&-roll at least moderately acceptable. First, an episode featured a conversation between Harriet and younger son Ricky suggesting that “this rock-and-roll music” might be all right after all. When Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch did not immediately turn off the Nelsons, the producers allowed Ricky to begin singing on the show. His first televised song was Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” and thereafter Ricky’s performances were a regular part of the program.
There was still extensive concern that white kids would be corrupted by rock-&-roll, however. As well-portrayed in the little-known but sharply accurate film American Hot Wax (loosely based on the career of radio disc jockey and rock-&-roll pioneer Alan “Moondog” Freed), concerts were raided and shut down, the “payola” scandal was devised to justify attacks on rock-&-roll, race riots were blamed on the music, and certain artists (e.g., Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard) were subjected to systematic attacks rooted in fears of sexual misbehavior. For example, when it was revealed that Lewis, a 21-year-old divorced man, had married his 13-year-old cousin, the explosion of opprobrium canceled his European tour, banned his records, and crashed his fee for a concert from ten thousand dollars to two hundred. To be fair, it should be pointed out that although Mrs. Lewis was indeed only 13 (all parties claimed she was 15, but still …), she was not a blood relative but a second or third cousin once removed by marriage, so, while kinky, it wasn’t that kinky.
The scare tactic of race-mixing influences never went away, either. When Chubby Checker stormed the world with his version of “The Twist,” it and the accompanying dance of the same name were derided in Time magazine as a product “straight out of the African bush.” Rock-&-roll had “the beat,” and that beat meant only one thing – the stirring up of sexual passion. Preachers railed against this devilish music, pointing out, for example, that pregnant teenage girls almost invariably became pregnant while listening to rock-&-roll. The very term “rock and roll,” in fact, had been a slang term meaning “have sex.” Of course, the same thing could have been said about the term “jazz,” and that music eventually became acceptable – even somewhat highbrow.
Through the Disco Era of the 1970s and into the early years of rap and hip-hop, the specter of race still haunted popular music, and underneath that was the age-old (and unfounded) fear of Black men taking white women. Disco came to music through two marginalized groups – Black people and gay people – and was thus doubly denigrated. The infamous “Disco Demolition” promotion at a Chicago White Sox game in 1979 has been shown to have had racist underpinnings. Interestingly, the anti-disco (and by implication, anti-Black-music) fervor unleashed was in favor of rock music, which had by then been co-opted and taken over by white performers and audiences.
At about that time, out of disco and by way of social dissatisfaction grew rap music. It quickly became an insightful recognition and calling-out of sociological conflicts. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” brought a searing reflection of the realities of urban street life. But by the 1990s, rap had lost most of its social commentary and political edge, and was perceived much as it is today, as a vehicle for the promotion of lawlessness and the sexual denigration of women.
Race is a part of everything in America. We need to accept that and deal with it. Few things are more powerful in any culture than its popular music, and in America the racial component of music has never been absent. Not in 1950 and not now.