Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Life As Music, Part I: 1954-1960

In 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President and  the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere nine years earlier were fresher then in American's memories than the events of 9/11 are today.  I was born that year on the exact same day as the late Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears. Four years later, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth, Chelsea Light Moving) was born on that same day.  But these are mere coincidences and not the point of this post.

In the year 1954, the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision overturned the policy of "separate but equal" conditions for different races.  Although the ruling turned out to be extremely difficult to enforce in the Southern United States, the civil rights movement had entered a new phase after Brown. 

Before I was born, R&B artists such as Fats Domino and Johnny Otis were creating exciting new music by speeding up the tempos and emphasizing the backbeat, but their music was not allowed to be played on many white-owned radio stations. However, artists and producers quickly recognized the commercial potential of the new music, and white performers were soon appropriating black music, a trend that still continues to this day (e.g., tUnE-yArDs and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis).

Bill Haley & His Comets are generally considered the earliest group of white musicians to bring the new music to the attention of white America.  In addition to the Brown decision, 1954 was also the year that Haley broke free from his former country-and-western style and recorded Chattanooga Choo Choo and Shake, Rattle and Roll, and more importantly, Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town), the latter featuring a now-more-famous B-side called (We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock, widely regarded as the world's first rock 'n' roll recording. Not that there's any agreement on exactly what was the first rock 'n' roll song, nor will there likely ever be, but from late 1954 to late 1956, the first two years of my life, the group had nine singles in the Top 20, an accomplishment generally considered to be the birth of rock 'n' roll.

But the stand-out performer of the 1950s was not Bill Haley, but The King, Elvis Presley.  What people tend to forget, though, is that most of Elvis' early hits were covers of black R&B or blues songs, like That's All Right (a countrified arrangement of a blues number), Baby Let's Play House, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and most notably Hound Dog, Presley's 1956 hit cover of an earlier (1952) recording by Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton.

Elvis' version now ranks No. 19 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  My young parents bought a copy of Hound Dog sometime on the late '50s, and it is the earliest recording that I can recall hearing, even though my parents didn't consider it appropriate entertainment for young children.  They were pleased that whenever the song came on, I would bay like a hound in protest, and to this day  whenever I hear the song, I still hear a howling voice somewhere in the back of my mind.  Nevertheless, I remember hearing my father sing along with the record late at night to my mother's amusement.  Hound Dog clearly excited my parents, but at my young age I didn't recognize the sexual nature of that excitement, although in retrospect I now note that my two sisters weren't conceived until after Hound Dog had been purchased. 

That excitement on the part of young white audiences over African-American music and rhythms inevitably provoked racist reactions in the 1950s, but before we judge that earlier generation too harshly, I saw the same thing happen again in the 1970s with racist and homophobic reactions to the advent of disco, and in the 1990s with racist reactions to the emergence of hip-hop.

Thus was the world into which I was born.  Segregation, a despicable vestige of even more abhorrent slavery, was formally outlawed, and rock 'n' roll, a new form of music created by white musicians appropriating black styles, started becoming popular.  I never lived in a time without rock 'n' roll music, and I never lived in a time of  legal apartheid in America. To put it another way (and I know how this sounds), neither rock 'n' roll nor racial integration in America ever existed without me in the world.

But periods of musical innovation tend not to last very long.  For example, by the time most people heard the psychedelic music that was coming out of Haight-Ashbury in 1967, the Summer of Love had long since been over.  Same with the first punk-rock explosion in New York in the 1970s and the indie-rock renaissance in the late 2000s.  By the time I entered kindergarten in September 1959, Elvis had joined the army and Little Richard had retired from performing to become a preacher.  Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens all died in a February 1959 plane crash on the infamous "Day The Music Died."  Jerry Lee Lewis became entangled in a scandal surrounding his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, and Chuck Berry had been arrested on allegations concerning a 14-year-old Apache girl.  The Payola scandal implicated major music-industry figures in bribery and corruption charges and gave a sense that rock 'n' roll music was coming to an end.  The charts were soon dominated by syrupy love ballads, usually aimed at teenage girls. 

But all was not without hope.  On January 2, 1960, a charismatic young Senator, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, initiated his campaign for President of the United States.  There was an excitement in the early '60s air, a sense of possibility that anything was possible and that the best was yet to come.  There was talk of a "New Camelot," surf music began to emerge from California, and dances crazes like the Twist and the Watusi embodied the excitement everybody was feeling.

With a vigorous young leader like Kennedy as President, we wondered, what could possibly go wrong?

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