Hopefully, in our sheltering, we've rediscovered more than old movies and television shows. Music, for instance.
Hopefully, in our sheltering, we’ve rediscovered more than old movies and television shows. Music, for instance.
Recently a number of my younger friends—well older, but younger than me—have been posting on Facebook pictures of albums that meant something to them, typically without comment.
I’d would’ve liked to see some comment: What did this album really mean for you? How did it connect to your life?
In other words, make the series more than just a posting of album covers that people “Like” or ignore; make it sort of a memoir, telling us who you were back then.
I also wondered if they connected to the whole album, or just one special song.
I wondered that because when I was a teen—in the 1950s--, it was all about singles, not albums. In fact, in the time of 78s, an album was truly an album: a series of bound sleeves with 6-8 records, with a song on each side. “Peter and the Wolf,” “Mickey and the Bean Stalk” were two albums of 78s (with pictures) I grew up with. Then the era of 45s, the 1950s, featuring smaller, more durable records with a big hole in the middle—stack them on a special player and you had a party!
SO, I decided to post a series of ten SINGLES, including early 78s, that I bought, all of which I played repeatedly because they meant something to me. I speculated backwards on why they engaged my junior-high and high-school self.
First, necessary notes: While we loved the sounds of these records, particularly Rock ‘n’ Roll, we usually did not know what the performers looked like. Their pictures did not appear on the singles, and you had to hunt to find them on television or film. Elvis had exposure on the Milton Berle Show and later Ed Sullivan; Little Richard and Fats Domino could be seen in the Jayne Mansfield film, “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Especially, the black performers did not appear on the many dance shows, modelled on Dick Clark’s Bandstand format--even when their records were played for the all-white dancers. (“Hairspray” is set in this period.). On the popular “Your Hit Parade,” their hits were covered by white performers. Often, white performers, such as Pat Boone, recorded covers that were preferred on pop AM stations.
This lack of exposure to their filmed performances or to their photographs sometimes led to more than covers—impersonations. Did my college fraternity hire Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the real group? We’ll never know. They sang the Annie songs and we were happy.
A recent article in the Smithsonian magazine documented the short career of a Virginia gospel singer whose unscrupulous manager forced her to sing as Aretha Franklin in the 1960s. Because she had such a big voice, she succeeded in those concerts, until Aretha herself happened to be touring the same state. (She was let off with a warning; the manager went to jail.) But it worked for a time because few people had ever seen Aretha perform on television or in a film.
So, for us in the 1950s, it was the sound, not the videos. To hear the originals, I would fiddle with the dial of my AM radio at night. In my second floor Virginia bedroom, I might pick up “The Hound” from Buffalo, NY or “Randy’s Record Shop” from Middle Tennessee or a Cincinnati station playing the real stuff, courtesy of the AM beam-skip factor (which I never understood). And I could take the bus to Clarendon in Arlington County or even to black-owned record stores in D.C. and buy the 45s. It was all monaural, to be stacked and played loud on our primitive phonograph speakers.
OK, enough ancient history; what were some of the records that meant the most to me in the 1950s, growing up in the white suburbs of Washington, D.C.?
NOVELTY SONGS: Especially in my pre-teen years, I had a questionable taste for novelty or joke songs. From “I Said My Pajamas” to anything by Spike Jones to “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus. Later, “The Monster Mash” and “Zombie Jamboree.” Songs that broke away from the standard pop formulas, sometimes parodying them. Songs that didn’t take themselves seriously. Check out Spike Jones’ “Cocktails For Two.” Wonderful smash-up of a pop ballad.
The silly song that wiggles most in my mind is “Ain’t Got No Home“ by Clarence “Frogman” Henry. He could “sing like a girl and…sing like a frog.” The multi-voicing, of course, appealed: regular voice, falsetto (standard in R&B group songs), and the frog. As a pre-teen, you might glom onto the voices, to imitate, to impress someone or other. As a teen, the falsetto or frog voice separated your music from normal pop. And the lyrics signified how alienated and misunderstood you might feel, even if you had a (comfortable) home! You might even have a “sista” or “bruddah” you wished you didn’t have. You could dance to this one, try to sing along.
ROCKIN’ POP: “Music, Music, Music’ (1949) by a very young Teresa Brewer and “This Old House” (1954) by Rosemary Clooney. I list dates because these were two songs we could learn to dance to before Rock ‘N’ Roll and R & B stole our hearts in 1955.
Not to shock my Baptist friends, but in my little Virginia suburb, many of us took dance lessons at the local studio to learn how to jitterbug, fox trot, waltz, and even rumba. Thus began my demise.
Let’s note a “Rockin’” element in the barrel-house piano that is featured in both songs. For awhile, it appeared that the piano, boogie woogie style, would become a featured instrument in “Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Think Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Googie Rene, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Piano and saxophone -–“Night Train” or “Honky Tonk”--were going to be featured until Elvis, Gene Vincent and others foregrounded the guitar.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL arrives in ‘55, announced by Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” packaged as the opening music for the film “Blackboard Jungle.” It starts behind the credits and continues as new teacher Glenn Ford approaches an urban vocational school. The boys have the music in their heads, dancing to it, nodding to the beat. Ford is walking into an alien landscape, with JDs (juvenile delinquents) who care nothing about jazz or pop (or school). Not that I and other middle-class teens identified with the greasers, but we recognized a music we could dance to, a music that separated us from our parents and teachers. Interesting subtext too in showing integrated classrooms, rare in many parts of the country in 1955.
Elvis arrived too, with “Heartbreak Hotel,” but I preferred the more upbeat cover of an old blues song in “Mystery Train.” Very credible guitar work (Chet Atkins?). Good dance music, even while the lyrics mourned a lost love. Familiar Irony: Good rockin’ out from bad experiences. Like many, I got off the Elvis Train after Col. Parker turned him into a pop crooner.
Chuck Berry drove into 1955 too, with “Maybellene.” It’s either or both about his girl riding in a Cadillac he’s trying to catch or/and his Ford that wouldn’t “do no more.” Sure, aspiring lead guitarists preferred “Johnny B. Good” for those opening licks, but this one got a bunch of us to pay attention to Berry’s teen narratives. Later there would be “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day” and others. Stories we could connect to our lives.
Of course, that dynamo, the late Little Richard, arrived in 1955 with “Tutti-Frutti,” with its nonsense opening that only a teen could love. But I always preferred “Lucille.” A man-child howling from the rooftops for his lost love. Could she resist his call if she heard? This was “Stella!” for my generation. Would that we could have such a love, even if we lost her! Nice saxophone solo. His voice, one of the wonders of Rock, grated on the ears of our parents and the Righteous. His records were certainly burned along with Elvis’s.
I remember using Little Richard records as a defense against my next-door friend, who had found a Jesus I didn’t recognize and wanted to convert me to his fundamentalism. Luckily, when he was converted, he sold me his Richard records for a nickel apiece. If I spotted him leaving his home to have another go at me, I played “Lucille” or “Roll Over…” LOUD. Usually turned him back before he knocked. Thanks to Little Richard, I was saved.
DOO-WOP was certainly a factor in those days. In spite of our youth, we couldn’t exactly fast dance the whole night away. “Earth Angel,” “The Great Pretender,” “Twilight Time,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Book of Love,“ “You’re So Fine.” Got to have that slow song to catch your breath, hope your deodorant holds on as you get close to your date, wondering whether it would be romantic to sing softly into her ear.
“In the Still of the Night” (1956) was THE slow dance-romance song for the 1950s (released 1956). A languid fox trot or you could just stand there and hug, then do a graceful dip and hold at the end. One of those rare songs where you dream as you dance. The song magically suggests that the dance, this moment, won’t last, at the same time extoling a time when time seemed to stand still. Yes, I can still tear up.
CONSUMATE ARTIST of the 1950s: Ray Charles. The composer, the performer, the band that could rock or do jazz equally well, and the Raelettes, those sublime backup singers. I liked him from his early R & B songs, when he was converting gospel to love songs—“Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “Drown In My Own Tears,” “I’ve Got A Woman.” Then the fireworks, best heard from live performances—“What’d I Say,” “Night Time” and “Tell the Truth.” The latter two ignite a kind of vocal duel between Ray and Margie Hendricks, when each has a solo. Some would say, Margie outdoes Ray in gospel/orgasmic peaks in “Night Time.” You might dance to this one, but what you really wanted to do is just listen, drink it in. Then in “Tell the Truth” Ray gets his own back, howls that wrap around and elevate the next lines.
I attended the ‘50s Newport Jazz Festival when it invited Ray—over the objections of the purists—and excited fans broke through the fencing to get to the concert. Probably during “What’d I Say.” Town went under martial law the day after. Whatta show.
Most of the tunes I’ve listed can be heard on YouTube. And I apologize to the fans of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, the Coasters, Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly and many more who made the 1950s a great time to be alive.
Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.