Monday, May 7, 2012

The Music of the 1950s

My friend, Erran, recently bought his first MP3 player. He knows I’ve liked popular music my whole life, so he asked me to give him some recommendations for songs and albums starting around 1950. He wants to catch up on the popular music he missed when he was growing up. He wasn’t exposed to the popular music of the time, because his parents exclusively listened to classical, opera and folk music, which seems to me like a great musical base to start life out with, but man did he miss a lot of great music!

I’ve been waiting all my life for someone to ask me for my music recommendations, but I have to admit, I feel a little intimidated.  Music is such a personal thing. I enjoy all kinds of music, but being an early baby boomer, I consider rock & roll to be my music. In 1950 rock & roll did not exist yet. The ‘30s and ‘40s were dominated by the big bands, 15-20 musicians playing well orchestrated arrangements with very talented singers. In the late ‘40s the big bands all but died out. I always wondered why this great music was replaced by two guitars, a bass and a drum set. Comparatively, rock & roll musicians have very limited musical ability. Some early rockers played barely more than three chords and their singing ability was of a limited range.

Doing a little internet research, I discovered a few of the reasons for the big bands’ rapid demise. Big band music is essentially dance music. The bands traveled around the country from city to city playing in ballrooms where the young people showed up to dance. In 1946, when the war was over, the American culture was rapidly changing. The young people were settling into jobs and family life. They no longer went out dancing much anymore. Television was fast becoming their primary source of entertainment. And many of the band members themselves were tired of touring and life on the road. Unions were getting stronger and the band leaders were having trouble paying band members the new union scale.

From 1946 to 1956 big band music was rapidly replaced by pop vocalists. This pop vocalist phenomenon actually started in 1942 when Frank Sinatra quit being the front man for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra and went out on his own. He was booked at the Paramount Theater as a solo act. His audience was mainly young girls who continuously screamed and hollered. One account said that some even threw their underwear at him. This was probably the first time in US history that a singer was showered with ladies’ undergarments. Frank Sinatra was not the first American heart throb. There was Rudy Vallee in the ‘20s and ‘30s before him. But I think the mobs of “Flappers” kept their underwear on. The next guy to get ladies’ underwear flung at him would be Elvis in the next decade.

Rock & roll songs did not show up in any significant number on the Billboard pop charts until 1956. In the early ‘50s black people’s music, called “race music” was separate from white people’s music. Most white people did not listen to or even hear much of the black music. Some of the rhythm & blues songs of the time were direct precursors to later rock & roll, like the 1947 song by Wynonie Harris “Good Rockin’ Tonight” or Jimmy Preston’s 1949 song “Rock the Joint”.  In 1951 Sam Phillips of Sun Records recorded “Rocket 88” by Jimmy Brenston. Jimmy got credit for the song, but he was actually part of Ike Turner’s band. This record is thought to be the very first rock & roll song.

Phillips was searching for a white singer who could capture the sound and spirit of black rhythm and blues. He found his guy in 1954 when Elvis wandered over to the Sun Studio  for the second time to cut a demo record just to hear what he sounded like. Sam liked what he heard and signed Elvis that Spring.

The first white rock & roll band was Bill Haley and His Comets. Bill Haley also wanted to capture the sound of rhythm & blues. In 1953 he had a hit with “Crazy Man Crazy” and then in 1954 an R&B cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”. Haley changed much of  the lyrics from a sexually explicit bluesy song into a more palatable rock song for the white audience radio stations. But rock & roll did not begin to catch on across America until 1955 when Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” was featured in the movie “Blackboard Jungle”. The song became an anthem for rebellious youth.

There are very few musicians who single handedly change the course of popular music. Frank Sinatra was one of them and the next to come along was Elvis. Bill Haley had the rock & roll sound, but not the charisma. He was an older guy, sort of pudgy and balding. Elvis was good looking, had a great voice and used his entire body to express the music. He was the whole package. It was 1956 when he burst into the national airways. I was nine years old when I first heard him on the radio and its one of those vivid memories where I know exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was blown away.

In 1954 ”That’s Alright Mama” was on the charts, but didn’t get much national airplay. From January of 1956 until March of 1958, when Elvis went into the army, he totally dominated the rock & roll scene. No one who listened to popular music at the time would dispute his title, “King of Rock & Roll”. He was the first rock & roll star and he did it better than anyone.

Just before the rock & roll era began, popular music was dominated by white pop singers like, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, Doris Day and Perry Como. There were a few black pop singers also, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Junior, Lena Horne, and a few black R&B singers, Lavern Baker, Fats domino, Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. Doo Wop groups were gaining in popularity—like The Spaniels, The Platters, The Penguins and The Moonglows. In 1954 Bill Haley had a hit with “Shake Rattle & Roll” and there were a few R&B songs that were instrumental in the later development of rock like Ray Charles’ “I got a Woman” and Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”.

On the Billboard top 50 popular song chart of 1955, I count only two rock & roll songs, “Rock Around the Clock” and ChuckBerry’s “Maybelline”.  In  January of 1956 when Elvis’  Heartbreak Hotel” began playing on radios across the country, rock & roll took off.

I recommend any and all of Elvis’ music from 1956-58. He was the heart and soul of rock & roll at that time. His early music is raw and simple, but the fresh and alive quality still comes across. Most of the songs by the pop singers of the early to  mid 50s sound so corny and dated to me, like Muzak. Doo Wop and rhythm & Blues are the exception. Doo Wop was popular throughout the ‘50’s and into the ‘60s and  shaped the sound of rock and pop music. Ray Charles is a category unto himself and I recommend any and all of his music from the ‘50’s.

In the early ‘50s Frank Sinatra’s singing career died out for a couple years. In 1953 he signed with Capitol records and made a comeback. I think his best songs are from this period and I love the musical arrangements. There is a wonderful compilation album called “Frank Sinatra, The Best of the Capitol Years”.

More recommendations from the 1950s will be forthcoming in my next blog. Sorry Erran. You thought you were just going to get a few song recommendations and not the whole history of rock & roll.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Mike! This is great. I'll look up a bunch of those songs and musicians. The history makes it more interesting too.

    Yesterday a friend gave me a mixed CD of new singer-songwriter music, and I was surprised to find that I would rather listen to rock 'n roll! I love the old r&b, and since I've been doing all this new-age African tribal drumming, I can hear the ancient rhythms of west Africa in the electric guitar.