The Golden Age of Rock Music

A dramatic new musical form stormed America in the 1950s, arriving simultaneously on Pat Boone’s white bucks and Elvis’s jittery left leg. Teenagers loved it, adults couldn’t imagine it would last. It came upon us fast, a sudden toe-tapping force, at the height of the Cold War. In spite of its raucous (some said irreverent) intrusion into American life, the beat would last. Nearly fifty years after Bill Haley introduced the new musical age by inviting us to "Rock Around the Clock," we acknowledge that no phenomenon has so intrigued us as the culture of the fifties, and nothing so represents the fifties as its music.

The beginning of the new music era is dated July 9th, 1955, when "Rock Around the Clock" replaced "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" as the nation’s number-one song. During the next 30 months, tunes rocketed to the top of the record charts which have never been equaled in popularity; not by the Beatles, nor by Michael Jackson or any other vocalist or group. After 30 years, when Billboard magazine compiled the statistics for three decades of pop music, we discovered:

•Half of America’s 40 all-time most popular songs hit the charts between the summer of 1955 and the end of 1957.

•Six of the 10 all-time most popular hits were from those months (including the top four).

•Ten of the 20 longest-running hits were from the same period.

No single reason accounts for the musical magic of those days, but the nation, recovering from World War II, was ripe for change. During the middle fifties the first baby boomers hit their teens, the insolvent Beat Generation shuffled onto and off of the scene, and outlandish fins evolved from the rear fenders of automobiles.

During those days everything seemed to be so important. Senator Joseph McCarthy, representing the peak of Cold War hysteria, pursued communists with relentless vigor. The nation watched in shock as a medical man–osteopathic surgeon Dr. Sam Sheppard–was convicted for the murder of his wife. In April of 1955, General Nathan F. Twining, Air Force Chief of Staff, said the Russians were producing long-range jet bombers "aimed squarely in our direction." That same month Churchill resigned after describing the world condition as "a balance of terror." As "Cherry Pink" died, so did Einstein.

In October of 1957 Sputnik I demonstrated that the Soviets had the technology to lob nuclear weapons over the North Pole into America’s heartland. Perhaps in response to the international chill, young people with a penchant for ducktail haircuts and a fascination for ‘49 Fords were shaking themselves to the beat of Elvis’ guitar. Perhaps they were hoping to shake off their sense of uncertainty. Perhaps it was a last, good-natured fling before settling down to the Serious Sixties. Maybe the psychologist who talked cryptically of the "shadow of the atomic bomb" had something. Whatever the psychological niceties, for three years America experienced the Golden Age of popular music.

However, the new musical energy was not welcomed by everyone. Life magazine complained:

Basically, rock ‘n’ roll–which has little musical eloquence–is a singer’s highly personal way of shouting or moaning lyrics accompanied by guitar or hoarse-honked tenor saxophone.

The same article, however, admitted that rock ‘n’ roll was "more than a flash in the piano," partly because "anyone–anyone–could record and press 5,000 records for $1,200!"

Look magazine, in an article entitled, "Elvis Presley... He Can’t Be But He Is!" called Elvis "a wild troubadour who wails...flails...and wriggles like a peep-show dancer...whose sullen sweetness, ducktail haircut and long sideburns send girls (and women) into hysterics." Look said Elvis was a "nightmare of bad taste."

(He) never took a lesson on his guitar, cannot read music (and) paid $4 to make his first record...On stage, his gyrations, his nose wiping, his leers are vulgar. When asked about sex elements in his act, he answers without blinking his big brown eyes: "Ah don’t see anything wrong with it. Ah just act the way Ah feel." But Elvis will also grin and say, "Without mah left leg, Ah’d be dead."

In spite of media protestations, the change in popular music was not so much a frenzied departure as it was a smooth crescendo from swing and blues. Pop music grew out of the "Broadway" (more of a genre than a location) traveling musical groups. Musicians played nightclubs, bars and opera houses, bringing Tin Pan Alley songs from New York to the nation. They included soloists, minstrel groups, bands and vaudeville acts in pre-radio/phonograph days.

With the advent of radio, 78 rpm recordings and jukeboxes, performers could capture national attention. Jazz, blues and country performers beat their way into the heartland. Touring swing bands packed ballrooms and high school gyms.

By the early forties, genuine recording stars had risen: musicians like Harry James and vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. The bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Count Basie filled the airwaves. By the late forties, country performers like Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, and Tennessee Ernie Ford were crossing over into pop mainstream. The 1951 top song, "The Tennessee Waltz" by Patti Page, not only helped make country music legitimate, but introduced the new "multi-track" technology which allowed Page to sing both the melody and harmony parts.

Rolling Stone writer Ed Ward comments on the history of pop music. He says by 1952 the groundwork for the rock ‘n’ roll revolution was complete. "The industry could sustain new forms by then. Support for new artists was in place. Now it was time to tell the teenagers!"

Rock ‘n’ roll introduced unity in diversity: For every ‘‘Jailhouse Rock," there was a "Sincerely"; for every "Hound Dog," there was a "Love is a Many Splendored Thing." And for every Elvis, there was a Pat Boone. Boone’s "April Love," "Love Letters in the Sand" and "Ain’t That a Shame" were welcomed by young and old alike. He mixed a wholesome baritone croon that fluttered motherly hearts with a beat that turned girlish heads. Collier’s magazine, in a trend which would continue throughout the fifties, compared Boone and Elvis in its October, 1956, issue:

...Elvis scorns marriage as a waste of time, Pat has been married for more than three years.. .Presley quit his education with high school, Boone will receive a B. A. Degree from Columbia University.. .Elvis has been widely criticized for the emphasis his style places on ‘‘the roll,’’ but Pat’s reputation is solid as a rock.

"Rock Around the Clock" was followed in 1955–the year of transition–by number-one tunes like "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," by The Four Aces, and "Autumn Leaves," by Roger Williams.

In the Golden Age, dynamic voices budded and blossomed in the time it took to publish another weekly edition of Billboard magazine. Kay Starr’s "Rock and Roll Waltz," Buddy Holly’s "Peggy Sue," Paul Anka’s "Diana," The Platters’ "Only You" and the "Great Pretender," and The Everly Brothers’ "Wake Up Little Suzie" all rocketed to the top of the charts.

One of the warmest vocal styles of the era belonged to Gogi Grant. Grant, a young art student, knocked Elvis’ first big hit, ‘‘Heartbreak Hotel," out of the number one chart position on June 16, 1956, with a haunting melody called "The Wayward Wind."

"The Wayward Wind" had been written by Herb Newman, the president of Era Records, when he was a college student at UCLA. Newman wrote it with a male vocalist in mind, but Gogi recorded it during a 15-minute session and watched it go to number one nearly overnight. Gogi’s crystal-clear voice was a perfect match to the song’s poignant refrain:

Oh the wayward wind
Is a restless wind
A restless wind
That yearns to wander
And he was born the next of kin
The next of kin to the wayward wind.

"The Wayward Wind" remains number 14 among the all-time top hits, two positions above Elvis’s "Heartbreak Hotel."

Twenty-year-old Melvin Endsley wrote a snappy tune in 1954. Endsley’s song, "Singing the Blues," was first recorded in 1954 by Marty Robbins. Another recording artist, Guy Mitchell, heard Robbins’ version and, in December of 1956, took the song to number one, where it stayed for 10 weeks. No other male singer has done that since, although Debbie Boone’s "You Light Up My Life" and Olivia Newton-John’s "Physical" both have had 11-week runs.

Guy Mitchell had a string of hits including "Heartaches by the Number." He enjoyed a movie career and recorded popular show tunes like "Chicka Boom" from "Those Redheads from Seattle" and "A Dime and a Dollar" from "Red Garters." Guy, extremely popular in England, eventually moved there and worked the nightclub circuit, earning money to buy a retirement estate in Ireland. Guy’s clean style and the melodic rhythm of "Singing the Blues" made it the fourth most popular tune ever recorded.

Well I never felt more like singin’ the blues
Cause I never thought
That I’d ever lose
Your love, dear,
You got me singin’ the blues.

Another unique voice of the fifties belonged to Jimmie Rodgers, a balladeer from Camas, Washington. Rodgers was a college music student when his life was interrupted by a four-year stint in the Air Force during the Korean War. In Seoul he purchased a beat-up guitar and learned to play.

When the Air Force transferred him to Nashville he did a gig at the Unique club, where he heard another performer singing "Honeycomb." Rearranging it to his own style, Rodgers later sang it in a nightclub in Vancouver, Washington. "Honeycomb" caught the ear of another performer connected with a New York recording company, Roulette Records. Roulette auditioned Rodgers and sent him home.

In Camas, Rodgers married his childhood sweetheart. At the end of his marriage ceremony, he was handed a telegram from Roulette asking him to come to New York to record "Honeycomb." It went to number one on September 30, 1957, the first of a run of hits which included "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,""Oh Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again," "Bimbombey," and "Secretly."

Wish we didn’t have to meet secretly
Wish we didn’t have to kiss secretly…

Tragedy struck Rodgers in 1967. On the way home from a party, he was pulled over by an off-duty police officer. What happened has never been clear. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office claims he fell and struck his head. Rodgers claims he was assaulted. He remained hospitalized in a coma, underwent numerous head surgeries and wound up with 23 inches of steel implanted in his head.

A comeback attempt in 1969 fizzled.

On October 4, 1957, while "Honeycomb" was still number one, Sputnik projected us into the space age. Almost as suddenly, the temperature and sensitivity of the music changed. 1958 was characterized by a halfhearted attempt to prolong the Golden Age, but the inspiration was missing. That year the number-one slot included songs like: "Witch Doctor, "Purple People Eater," "Yakety Yak" and "The Chipmunk Song." The Golden Age ended as abruptly as it had begun. Only one song during the sixties and only one during the seventies would hit the all-time top ten chart. Two songs would make it from the eighties.

It is still possible for a song to capture the national heart, but it has to be as good as those from the Golden Age. Only occasionally does such a song come along. It happened in 1977 when Debby Boone followed her father into musical history with "You Light Up My Life." Debby’s rendition riveted national attention as powerfully as any of the Golden Age tunes. It was on everyone’s lips for months and captured the number six all-time slot.

Why was music so alive during the Golden Age? What social forces made us open to the new era? We may never know, but whatever was blowin’ in the wind was no passing fancy. Elvis and Guy and Gogi and Jimmie and Pat opened the door to a new world and forever changed the way Americans hear music. Although the Beatles would bring their own genius to the next decade, even they would not generate the broad based appeal of the music of the mid-fifties. Indeed, only one Beatles’ song, "Hey Jude," would make the all-time top ten chart.

Today’s rock themes reflect their golden roots. Rock expressions are broad and varied: Classical composers weave them into modern orchestral music, dedicated young people take their Bibles to "Christian rock concerts," and the extreme "acid rock" fringe has pushed electronic music to the limits. Meanwhile, young and old alike still tap their toes, wondrously, to the music of the fifties.

The fifties are as far from us as the oak-shaded streets of America’s small-town past. Technology has hedged us in on every side with stainless steel and plastic. Ironically, what so many people thought was the beginning of the end–fifties pop music–has become the one sane connection with our past. Pressed into celluloid disks forty years ago, "Autumn Leaves" and "Green Doors" still rustle and swing in our memories. Youth are still "Singing the Blues" and looking for a "Young Love" like "Tammy" or "Honeycomb." No young lover has said it better than Pat Boone did when "on a day like today, he passed the time away, writing love letters in the sand." "You Send Me" still sends us, on saccharin-sweet wings, back to the "dear hearts and gentle people who lived and loved in our home towns."

It is poetically just that Elvis now bridges the generation gap he was accused of helping to create. In some families, the best communication between generations is in what might be called the "American Graffiti" connection. As modern young people hear the music from pop’s Golden Age, they recognize a common heartbeat. The young vocalists and song writers of the early fifties still project hope, as they did to an America on the brink of the Space Age.

The wayward wind is still restless but when Gogi Grant loaded it’s breath with an intriguing name and beguiling melody, she helped us keep our heads in whirlwind times. Gogi with the other voices who documented our awakening into a new era spoke to something in our common humanity.

At the height of the Cold War when the Berlin Wall reminded us of all that is frightening and degrading in humanity, John Kennedy praise our poets. He said:

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

Something memorable and undeniable was evoked by the fifties’ poets who came together in a blaze of destiny when America was yet unjaded, during the years when the music lived.