Race in History of Rock & Roll
Not So Easy-Listening
The white youth of the 1950s weren't all that crazy about the safe, easy-listening, buttoned-up pop music their parents enjoyed. Balladeers like Perry Como who sang, "And I love you so / The people ask me how / How I've lived 'til now / I tell them I don't know," did little to arouse excitement. Teens perceived pop hits like Eileen Barton's "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked A Cake (Howdya do, howdya do, howdya do?)" as saccharine, and crooners like Patti Page who asked "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" left teenagers bored, seeking something far more titillating. Jimmy Boyd's holiday smash, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," might have had potential had the song not really been about a naïve child catching his parents in a Christmas-themed embrace. Fifties pop spoke to adults, and in some cases, young children—not quite the stuff teens wanted to hear at school dances or listen to in their cars or in soda shop and other after-school hang-outs.
Black popular music—everything from jazz and blues to boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues—stood at odds to the white pop songs and artists that epitomized post-war conservatism. By comparison, black pop was raunchy, unrestrained, rowdy, and even revolutionary. What was categorized by the record industry as "race music" stood as a powerful cultural alternative to the tight-lipped, conformist values that marked the first decade of the Cold War.
With the post-war economic boom came a new era in radio broadcasting. With greater competition, national radio networks gave way to a horde of new independent, locally based stations hosting a variety of entertainment programs. Many of these were black owned and operated, or at least hired black disc jockeys to meet local demand for shows featuring "race music." And audiences—primarily black—couldn't get enough. The discriminating tastes of blacks in cities and towns throughout the country helped determine what many local radio disc jockeys offered up.
Learning the Swagger
White teens turning the dial on their radios came across tunes that sounded nothing at all like their parents' records. What they heard thrilled their senses and aroused their imaginations. Chuck Berry begged and pleaded on "Maybelline," howling along with his ferocious guitar licks, "Why can't you be true / You done started doing the things you use to do." On their steamy song "Seventeen," Boyd Bennett and His Rockets hollered the lines, "Seventeen, seventeen / Cool and solid seventeen / Young enough to dance and sing / Old enough to get that swing." To a fast-paced, syncopated beat, Bill Haley sang, "We're gonna rock around the clock tonight." And a sultry singer named Elvis Presley oozed sex appeal on a bluesy number called, "That's All Right Mama." These energetic, spontaneous, and sexy singers spoke to the young generation in ways that no squeaky-clean pop music could have. It offered them unique rhythms, cutting edge styles, and modern attitudes to enjoy and, ultimately, to emulate.
Black pop music also reflected major social and cultural changes brought on by postwar urbanization, including youthful rebellion. By contrast, white pop music had ignored or watered down these transformations. Cold War youth, inspired by nonconformist icons like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Natalie Wood, naturally gravitated toward the more edgy black tunes, songs they felt spoke to their frustrations. These young whites made black music their own by learning the dances, memorizing the slang, and copying the cool swagger of African-American boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues artists. They claimed as their own a genre scorned by most whites born before World War II (and by some middle- and upper-class blacks) as "jungle music" for its sexually aggressive lyrics that seemed to encourage wild, disgraceful dancing, excessive drinking, and violent behavior.
Rockin' and Rollin'
What had been, in black pop music, slang for having sex, became the name for a new, salacious musical genre. Innovation in audio technology, new instruments, fresh talent, business savvy record producers, and a young population of new consumers created by post-war economic prosperity helped turn "race music" into "rock and roll."8