The recent passing of Dick Clark reminded us of the early days of rock music—back when it was alternately called “rock and roll” and The End of Civilization.
Though we remember Clark as a perennially nice, inoffensive guy, he was a force for change in the ’50s. Not only did he play the teen music that parents disliked so much, he insisted on welcoming black teens into his studio audience, and traveling through the South in a racially mixed tour. His “Caravan of the Stars” bus was often denied service and even threatened by armed segregationists.
Just as significant, though, was his promoting of rock ‘n’ roll, which helped integrate black and white traditions and audiences.
When it emerged unexpected in the 1950s, many Americans were shocked and suspicious of this strange, energetic new sound.They were accustomed to “pop” music. But rock ‘n’ roll was, in fact, true “pop” music if the word is meant as an abbreviation of “popular.”
Up to that time, the musical tastes of Americans had been largely shaped by a big industry with a few record labels, which determined much of the music America heard.
As a 1959 article reported, however, the predominance of these companies fell when a few small, independent studios, with little budget and no advertising, produced enormous hit records.
Up until a few years ago there was a fairly orderly sequence that took place in the launching of a new “pop” record. Everything was done big. Whenever one of the major recording companies came across a catchy tune, the company assigned it to a big-name singer, backed him up with a big-name band, then unleashed a barrage of publicity.
Today the popular-record business… is dominated by the smalls and the unknowns.
Knowledgeable men in the field agree … the record revolution started on a hot day in 1953 when a slim high-school boy, with his hair nearly down to his shoulders, fidgeted with a beat-up guitar below the windows of the newly opened Sun Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
The boy, who had taken time off from his after-school job at the Crown Electric Company, spent an hour of indecision out on the sidewalk before he got his courage up and walked one flight up to the small one-room studio. When Sam Phillips, [Sun’s] owner, approached, the boy gulped and said, “Please, mister, I’d like to make a record for my mother.”
“Sure, buddy, just relax and we’ll give it a try,” Phillips said encouragingly.
Phillips was impressed, “the boy was just a raw kid with no training, but he had an interesting sound.” Phillips eventually found the “right song” for Presley —“Without Love.” As Phillips told the reporters, they “had to work hard to get the best out of his style”.
And even when we got something that sounded right, we had a terrible time getting any disc jockey to play it. The only place we got his records played at first was in the Negro sections of Chicago and Detroit and in California.”
But the sound eventually drifted into the hearing of America’s teenagers, where it struck a resounding chord.
After Presley’s overwhelming success [selling 35 million records by that year], unknown studios and artists were eager to try their luck, completely bypassing the big record labels.
Buddy Holly was another star-out-of-nowhere. Throwing together a few songs with a combo he’d assembled in Lubbock, Texas, he drove with his band—The Crickets—out to a tiny recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico—as far from the heart of the recording industry as you can get in the lower 48 states. By the time of his death, 30 months later, he had sold 6 million records—most of which had been recorded in the shadow of the big grain elevator in ‘downtown’ Clovis.
[Inspired by these successes,] youngsters with dreams of glory and gold pooled their talents. A singer would write his own song, hunt up a couple of instrumentalists, and they’d bang out tunes in rumpus rooms, living rooms or basements until they had something they thought was worth recording. Then they’d try to peddle their tapes. If a producer thought they had a “sound,” some unusual quality, either instrumental or vocal, that might drive the teen-agers wild, he’d take a gamble and make records.
This pattern, repeated over and over, revolutionized the popular-record field.
Today 70 to 80 per cent of the hits are being turned out by youngsters you never heard of a month or two ago, and who may disappear from the public scene just as abruptly as they came.
The major companies [are]… still turning out many records, but their hits don’t come as easily as they used to.
The biggest [obstacle] is the inflexibility of the major record companies. The independents are able to adapt quickly to any shift in teen-age tastes; the big organizations, saddled with protocol and chains of command, can’t move as fast.
Many record companies have found, too, that it’s a risky business to buy a new hit and re-record it with big-name singers and musicians. The teen-agers almost always prefer the original recording… [they] refuse to be impressed by the big-name approach.
As the early sounds of rock music poured out of teenager’s radios and record players, adults who were accustomed to ‘big name talent’ (Tony Martin, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr) created their own ‘new sound’: a strident, continual chorus of complaints about that ‘gawdawful music.’
As the Post authors noted, their criticism could actually ensure the survival of rock ‘n’ roll.
According to many teenagers, rock ‘n’ roll never would have got as popular as it is if their elders didn’t hate it so violently. It’s something to think about. The young parents of today compose the generation that went all out for swing against the noisy objections of their parents; and their parents used to get all giggly over ragtime. And so on and so on, back to the day some Neanderthal father listened in outrage as his son got off some hot licks with matched dinosaur-bone drumsticks on the family tom-tom. It must have seemed to that early man that the kids were going absolutely to the dogs.
Today the budding Elvis or Buddy doesn’t even need a small-town recording studio. They can put together their own hit in front of their computer, launch it on YouTube, then sit back and wait for the agents and record companies to show up.
The no-studio viral-marketing approach might have given us Justin Bieber, or any number of other rising artists you don’t like, but if the music industry was still controlled by a few record labels, we might still be listening to Frankie Laine and Rosemary Clooney.
The telegraph was considered a miracle when it was introduced in the 1840s. Not just a scientific breakthrough or a clever invention, but a true act of God. Even its inventor, Samuel Morse, identified it as something “God hath wrought.” The telephone, arriving 40 years later, was also astonishing, but there was less talk then about miracles in 1887. And when Thomas Edison demonstrated his talking machine later the same year, the sense of wonder was giving way to a sense of practicality.
In the century that followed, Americans eagerly embraced the steady stream of new inventions, but rarely were they content to used them as originally intended. The phonograph is a good example.
Like television, the record player was meant for serious business. TV was intended to be an educational tool and the phonograph was invented to take dictation. In fact, it captured the human voice remarkably well. It was far less efficient for capturing music. But it was music the public wanted, not dictation. Entrepreneurs soon set up the first nickelodeons in major cities, where Americans could pay to hear recordings through stethoscope-like headphones. What they listened to most often was not speeches, or vaudeville routines, but music — square dances, hymns, banjo virtuousos, and brass bands.
Suddenly Edison had several competitors who were eager to satisfy America’s musical hunger. They recorded all types of music, and sold it for less than Edison. They even dropped the price of record players into a range that middle-income Americans could afford. Record sales kept climbing until 1921, when they reached an annual total of 100 million records.
Then came radio. To insiders in the recording industry, it looked like certain doom. Record sales were already dropping. Who, they reasoned, would be foolish enough to buy music when he could hear it for free? Yet, the end was not quite nigh. As the Post observed:
By the late 1920’s, when all else flourished, the phonograph industry was given up for dead. Actually, it continued to sell records in the millions, if fewer and fewer machines. The low mark, reached in 1933, was equal to what had seemed a booming business in 1907. [“Comeback,” Jan. 28, 1939]
By 1939, it continued, the record companies were surprisingly spry and cheerful for being dead.
Last year, about 35,000,000 records were sold, equal to 1912, and all makers were far behind their orders. The three best-selling Christmas gifts nationally in December were records, motion-picture cameras and projectors, and electric razors, in that order. The fourth quarter’s business more than doubled the fourth quarter of 1937. The sales curve rose from 1933 through 1938 identically with the rising curve 1907-12.
Part of the reason for the resurgence was the arrival of portable phonographs and combination radio-phonograph. Another reason, though, was the phonograph’s arch enemy.
On the one hand, the radio created a wider appreciation of the best music. On the other, it roused a rebellion with its overlong and blatant commercials.
The Post also observed that Americans had created an additional market within the recording industry. Even as early as the 1930s, there was a booming business in record collecting. Not content to own a few records, collectors were hunting down and buying up obscure labels and forgotten artists. They were also sampling genres they’d never heard before — particularly classical music.
Neither Alexander Graham Bell nor Thomas A. Edison could foresee the fifty different kinds of record collectors who are the most picturesque proof of the way Americans have recently taken to the music that goes round and round on a platter. [“Meet the Platterbug,” May 27, 1939]
Any kind of collector is usually a mystery to the outsider, to whom the accumulation of stamps, ivory elephants, old dental tools or hourglasses necessarily pointless. The possessor of a fine lot of antique dueling pistols, for instance, can only purr over them — firing them off would be too risky. Although usually literate, the august bibliophile seldom reads his folio Shakespeare, and, unless books are to be read, what were they for? But the record collector does make a good deal of sense to the uninitiated because, with a few screwball exceptions, he actually plays as well as loves his crowds. Each playing wears an irreplaceable disk down a little father. But he puts it on the turntable anyway, because it isn’t he record as such that he wants; it’s the music on it.
It is more difficult to understand why record collecting should be largely a man’s activity. Women led in supporting music in America. Yet only three or four women are at all conspicuous in any department of the record mania. Perhaps that is because the collector’s favorite spot for his record racks is in clothes closets—and no woman could bring herself to spoil good closet space for any purpose whatever. In any case, this is undeniably a stag affair. High-hat record shops report that most of their sales are classical and, of classical disks sold, men buy 90 per cent.
From the business point of view, all this is just another symptom of the way records have boomed since the bottom of the depression. A hundred million discs were sold at the glorious high point in 1921, when popular radio was still little more than a gleam in the engineer’s eye. By 1933, after radio had gradually relegated the phonograph to cobweb gathering in the cellar, only 10,000,000 sold — a 90 per cent drop. Record and phonograph makers were bitterly asking themselves why they were staying in business. Now and again the sheriff raised the same question. But then the cure of record sales suddenly jerked skyward, doing 35,000,000 last year, well on the way to 55,000,000 this year. Still groggy with delight, the platter industry is going giddily to town, riding a huge wave of phonograph-consciousness of which collectors are the seething foam on top.
The paradoxical theory that radio produced this unexpected boom is pretty plausible. While smothering the phonograph with fresh, free entertainment, radio was also educating its public into listening to music, classical stuff as well as popular, and liking it more and more. A public that really like something presently begins to want what it wants when it wants it, and there the phonograph has the bulge.
Radio musical fare is necessarily table-d’hote, confining the listener to what program departments see fit to give him. To get his music a la carte, to hear Wagner or Bob Crosby or a ‘mother-o’-mine’ tenor when the mood is on him, the new music fan turned to records. Simultaneously, radio was encouraging him to do so by developing techniques that accomplished great improvements on both disks and phonographs— things like electrical recording and devices for playing records through the sensitive amplifying radio mechanism. Resulting combination radio-phonographs sold more than 200,000 last year at high prices, and those detachable turntables that make a phonograph out of any radio have swept the country.
Others trying to account for the record boom, point to the huge recent increase in nickel-in-the-slot phonographs in taverns and dog wagons, each steadily wearing out disks day and night, with the proprietor making a profit from the nickels and the record companies falling over themselves to supply up-to-the-minute replacements.
Others lay a lot of it to the swing-jitterbug craze… As new and frantic dances replaced the old bored attitude on the dance floor and reintroduced the vibrating chandelier to American life, the phonograph became the same necessity it was back in the days of the toddle and the camel walk. If you wanna cut a rug, you wanna cut a rug, and the radio gives out the appropriate swing only after midnight.
Radio, like the recording industry, has been slated for extinction several times, yet it, too, has missed every appointment. In the 1950s, television was going to kill radio, as well as motion pictures. The VCR, and then the DVD, was going to kill television. And now, the internet has come along, and it’s going to kill radio, television, newspapers, books, conversation, and all social life. It’s also going to finish off the recording industry. Again.