I’m on vacation this week, so while I’m on the beach, I thought I’d entertain you and push my most recent book, From Zero to Puberty and Other Life Stories. It’s a fun look back at baby boomers and our journey through the fifties, sixties, and beyond. Enjoy this excerpt about the music of our time:
The invention of the solid body electric guitar by Les Paul in 1950 with the first being sold by the Gibson Guitar Company in 1952 ranks right up there with the electric can opener. It brought about an immediate renewed interest in the instrument. Young musical enthusiasts began experimenting, and found many ways to make completely new sounding musical tones come bursting forth from their amplifiers. The world took note in 1954 when Bill Haley and his Comets recorded “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” on Decca Records. It shot straight to number one in sales after a movie showed the musical group playing the song to a bunch of unsuspecting partiers in evening clothes. The band got the dancers to move on the floor in a way not associated with any ballroom dance training, but in a way that perfectly fit the spirit of the fast paced, solid beat. The hypnotic sound started a revolution in music that has not waned or wavered one iota in the sixty-plus years since Haley and his group hit the top of the charts.
Rock and roll had been creeping up on teenage listeners for a few years. There had been some rhythm and blues crossover hits by black artists before Haley’s song. “Rock Around the Clock” may not have been the first rock and roll song, but it became the first clarion call of the youth rebellion that lay ahead.
1956 was the year Elvis Presley hit the jackpot and took the country by storm– first giving the masses a sample of his gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Sunday night television variety show. Elvis then produced a string of hit tunes, sold millions of 45rpm records, and made musical movies that packed the theaters. Teens heard his songs pouring out of jukeboxes in malt shops across the country and cemented the genre into pop culture. Presley has been huge ever since.
Shortly after Elvis, Pat Boone came along in one last attempt to rescue both puritanical thinking and pop music from becoming obsolete due to rock and roll. As menacing and evil as Elvis was portrayed to be, Pat Boone was angelic. He baptized people in his swimming pool and would not kiss a girl in any of his movies. He married young and quickly his children, both girls, came along forming a perfect family. He was a grandfather by the time he turned forty. Boone had hit songs too. He did a slightly watered-down cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruti” by knocking the sharp corners off the old R&B song. Then he recorded what could easily have been a rocker, “Ain’t That a Shame”, in an attempt to woo some rock converts back to pop. However, he showed his disdain for the edgier genre by wanting to change the title that was reprised in the song to the more proper, “Isn’t That a Shame.” After a clash with his recording studio, he caved in and sang the incorrect English, original version. But, the gauntlet had been thrown down.
Boys nearly exclusively sided with Elvis. Teen girls, however, divided into two camps. THOSE girls were over the top for Elvis, and the girls who did not have to squirm in church pews on Sunday screamed at the sight of Boone.
I remember my cousin Carla, four years my senior, being over the moon for Pat Boone. She read magazine articles about him and had his photos cut out and hanging in her room as well as buying his records. I sided with Elvis. His recording of “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” was the first record I ever bought–for 68¢. Pat Boone, idolized as he was as teen savior from rock and roll, may have won a battle or two with his hit songs and movies, but lost the war.
Around 1959 another teen idol, Ricky Nelson, who was already a household name due to starring with his parents and brother on an eponymous television show, came along strumming his guitar and made girls swoon. A cache of others soon followed. They all looked pretty like Pat Boone, but they all sang like Elvis.
Rock and roll music both defined and reflected the spirit and mood of the times. The beat was considered scandalous. Both the dance and performance movements were deemed sexually charged, and the lyrics beyond comprehension to the generation past. The Sixties can be best understood by a thorough study of Rock and Roll music. The most complete and accurate reading of history from 1954 to 1974 would be reading the poetry of the lyrics to the top 100 songs of my expanded calendar.
I am such a firm believer in the value and quality of the music of that era, I have fabricated in my somewhat wobbly mind, a mythical society of which I am not only the chief executive officer, chief financial wizard, and sergeant-of-arms, I am also, to date, the only member. The reason for this society’s existence is to promote the notion that there has been no music of any consequence written since 1972.
Don’t get me wrong, there has been some terrific music recorded by some wonderful artists and groups since then, but they have all been covers of tunes written pre-Watergate.
Mail in five dollars and I’ll send you a whistle ring that plays “Born to be Wild” and an 8”x10” glossy membership card with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back about the club.