Rock 'n' Roll
In the early 1950s, when TV was still a novelty, the lucky few with sets would call the neighbors to gather around for "Your Hit Parade," appointment viewing on NBC. Each week, in a format lifted from radio, a cast of singers accompanied by the Hit Parade Orchestra would warble the top tunes of the day - songs like "Hernando's Hideaway" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" as interpreted by regulars Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, Gisele MacKenzie and others.
But in 1955, trouble famously struck. Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," boosted by the movie "Blackboard Jungle," soared to No. 1 and wouldn't budge. Week after week, singers accustomed to performing Nat "King" Cole hits were called on to rock, rock, rock till broad daylight.
Television, born from radio and, before that, vaudeville, was suspicious of this new thing called rock 'n' roll - Lawrence Welk and Perry Como were what audiences wanted, right? But for better or worse, TV and rock have been bedfellows for half a century now, boosting and benefiting each other in ever-evolving ways.
At first, the teens fueling the rock 'n' roll explosion just wanted to see their favorites perform. Dick Clark, whose "Bandstand" had been getting young Philadelphians up and dancing since 1952, made that happen; and, in 1957, ABC took the show national as "American Bandstand." "American Bandstand" was one of the first network shows aimed primarily at the teenage audience. Originally broadcast daily from Philadelphia, the dance series became one of the longest running, most successful television shows in the history of the medium.
Originally hosted by former radio disc jockey Bob Horn, the series premiered in 1952 as "Bandstand," a local sensation telecast over Philadelphia station WFIL. When Horn left the series in 1956, he was re placed by a handsome 21-year-old newcomer to television named Dick Clark, whose cheery, well-rounded charm would make him a part of the American rock scene for nearly four decades. The show, featuring records, local music celebrities, and dancing teenagers, eventually attracted nationwide attention as it became the highest-rated daily program in the Philadelphia area.
In 1957 the series was distributed coast to coast in both 60- and 90-minute formats over 67 ABC affiliated stations. It was not long before the show became the highest-rated afternoon show across the United States. This great success led to an additional prime-time version that ran for several months beginning in October 1957. Both programs gave performers both old and new the opportunity to sing their hit recordings. And in a move similar to one by "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-71) (considered unusual at the time), black records, performers, and teenagers were integrated on the program, in the midst of the historic struggle for civil rights.
Throughout the show's many years, almost every star in the music industry has appeared on the program at one time or another, some more frequently than others. Near the close of the show's first year on the net work, Clark introduced two teenagers from New York City who called themselves Tom and Jerry. Less than ten years later the duo reappeared on the program singing their newest hit single, "Sounds of Silence," this time using their real names, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. In 1961 Philadelphian Chubby Checker created a national dance craze on the program after performing his new hit record "The Twist." And in July 1963, Clark introduced to the world a blind 12-year-old singer from Detroit, Michigan, called Little Stevie Wonder, performing the song "Fingertips," a tune that became a major hit in the very early years of the Motown record company.
One popular continuing segment of the program was the rating of new records by a boy and girl who were chosen from the dance floor to give their opinion of a new recording artist. In January 1964, during a Saturday morning telecast, two teenagers rated a new single titled "I Want to Hold Your Hand," by a British group from Liverpool called the Beatles. "I gave it a 90," one replied, "because it had a good beat and was easy to dance to." Despite the various guest performers, it was the young audiences themselves who were the real stars. They were responsible for teaching American young people dance steps, from the pony and the swim, to the jerk and the hustle.
In the fall of 1963 "American Bandstand" was shown on Saturday afternoons, surviving with little change in format today through a series of slot changes and occasional preemptions to allow for the airing of sporting events and children's educational programs. In 1964 "American Bandstand" was broadcast from the Los Angeles area, where programs were often taped several weeks in advance.
Tom McCourt and Nabeel Zuberi in an essay for the Museum of Broadcast Communications write "By 1958, TV had become second only to radio as a means of promoting music." Rock 'n' roll stars were also elbowing their way into the elders' TV shows, not just Elvis Presley (whose "Hound Dog" also bedeviled the "Hit Parade" folks) on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 but Sam Cooke on "Arthur Murray's Dance Party" and Bobby Rydell with Milton Berle. It turned out, however, that TV didn't just have to play hits; TV could make hits. Situation comedies sensing even the slightest musical talent in their young stars crafted singles for them, which were then showcased on the programs.
From "The Donna Reed Show," Shelley Fabares went gold in 1962 with "Johnny Angel," and co-star Paul Peterson had several hits, including "She Can't Find Her Keys." Patty Duke - on her "Patty Duke Show," she was all-American Patty Lane, who loved to rock 'n' roll, as well as identical cousin Cathy, who enjoyed a nice minuet - hit the charts in 1965 with "Don't Just Stand There." The Monkees (I'm a Believer , Valleri ), created for a 1966 sitcom, surprised even their creators by developing a solid recording career.
But the biggest music star to emerge from a sitcom was Ricky Nelson, who with brother David starred with their parents in "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." In 1957, at 16, Ricky released his first single, which was incorporated into the show; he went on to legitimate musical stardom with a string of hits including Hello, Mary Lou and "Travelin' Man." Performers also turned to sitcoms to boost their own profiles. On "Donna Reed," when Jeff Stone tried to sell a song to Lesley "It's My Party" Gore, she played herself. Frankie Avalon did the same on "Patty Duke."
Ironically, the heyday of early rock 'n' roll on television, which may have peaked with the rival rock shows "Shindig" on ABC and "Hullabaloo" on NBC in the mid-1960s - came at a time when TV sets' tiny, tinny speakers made the sound horrendous. With the British invasion and the Woodstock era, rock 'n' roll evolved away from mainstream TV, with "Hee Haw" and variety shows providing prime-time tunes in the 1970s and rock fans left to search out late-night shows such as ABC's "In Concert" and, notably, NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
Broadway - long a prime source of songs destined for the pop charts - didn't take rock 'n' roll too seriously at first. The 1960 hit "Bye Bye Birdie" spoofed the "music fad" with its story of an Elvis-style rock star and his fans. "Birdie" includes not only a novelty rock number, "One Last Kiss," but the scene in which the star's manager composes the brand-new hit. It must take all of two minutes. It's a comedy, but the scene probably paints a pretty fair picture of how Broadway artists and fans looked at rock at the time. Compared to the intricate lyrics and rich, well-orchestrated melodies of musical theater, rock songs sounded positively childish. Increasingly, however, kids had their fingers on the radio dial.
Over the next few years, the musical generation gap widened. In 1964, the year of the British Invasion, the best musical Tony went to "Hello, Dolly!," a show so flamboyantly old-fashioned that its heroine is dolled up like Mae West. Other big '60s musicals - "Oliver!," "Applause," the groundbreaking "Company" - were shows for parents, not teens. No one you could trust bought theater tickets. But when "Hair" moved to Broadway in 1969, it marked a drastic shift. Even by the uncommonly loose standards of the acid-rock era, "Hair" couldn't claim to have a rock sound, but nobody cared. Its issues, its style and its energy drew from the same river of rock that was irrigating all of American culture. "Hair" even contributed a Top 40 hit, the Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In." It didn't rock out, but it broke barriers and put Broadway back in touch with the most powerful forces in pop culture.
Hair inspired a clever spoof called "Grease," a warm salute to the cars, coiffures and customs of 1950s teens. By the time the show hit New York in 1972, there was already something nostalgic about it. The sound that "Grease" celebrates in "Those Magic Changes" - a song that describes guitar chords while alluding to adolescence - poses no threat to Cole Porter. But compared to the complex influences that were shaping rock's future, its past seemed straightforward, welcoming - and rich in stage potential. Although "Grease" has acquired a horde of fans too young to remember the 1950s, its appeal is essentially the appeal of an oldies' station - an appeal also exploited by shows like "Dreamgirls" and "Hairspray."
The catchy sound of vintage rock turns out to suit stage performance in ways that Broadway artists of the "Bye Bye Birdie" era didn't appreciate: The Top 40 sound gives you something to go out humming, the way that Golden Age musicals do. Songs like that may be even more important than plot, just as they were in the featherweight musicals of that dominated Broadway before the Golden Age.
Truly plotless shows like "Smoky Joe's Cafe," a revue of songs by Brill Building giants Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Love Potion #9," "Stand by Me," on and on), and virtually plotless shows, like ABBA's "Mamma Mia!," revived the old Broadway tradition of airy musicals built around good numbers.
Like a generation-gap Godzilla, rock 'n' roll was born while Hollywood was sleeping, and it threatened to level the town. In 1955, a film industry that had grown flabby tried to jump aboard the youth-culture bandwagon with "The Blackboard Jungle," but it ended up only feeding the beast. The title sequence of that juvenile-delinquency drama featured an obscure song called "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets. It had been culled from the singles collection of young Peter Ford, son of the movie's star, Glenn Ford. The movie was a hit, but the song itself became a phenomenon, climbing to No. 1 on the pop charts and staying there for months.
The industry rushed to capitalize on a trend that seemed as transitory as 3-D or Davy Crockett hats. Haley's band was enlisted for a romp called "Rock Around the Clock," one of several movies that also featured Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed, the putative inventor of the term "rock 'n' roll." These concert movies, including "Don't Knock the Rock," "Rock, Rock, Rock" and "Mr. Rock and Roll," were laudable for acknowledging that black rhythm-and-blues performers such as the Platters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were instrumental in creating this hybrid music. But because Haley himself was balding and pudgy, Hollywood sought a charismatic white performer whose coattails it could ride.
That performer arrived in solid-gold gift wrap when Elvis Presley exploded out of the music scene in Memphis. Thinking him a regional novelty, Hollywood first cast Presley in a supporting role in the 1956 Civil War drama "Love Me Tender," in which he sang the nonrock title track. But soon Presley was starring in tailor-made vehicles, including the semibiographical "Loving You" and the estimable "King Creole." Although Presley consciously modeled his persona on Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," his subsequent movies were not only bad films, they were larded with upbeat tunes that weakened whatever status rock 'n' roll had acquired as a nonconformist idiom.
In the early '60s, the moribund music was a mere lotion ladled onto beach-party flicks. The salvation of the rock 'n' roll movie arrived from across the sea. In substance, the Beatles were no more threatening to American morals than Frankie Avalon, but they inspired a near-sexual frenzy among their female fans around the world, and like many performers before them, the moptops were cast in a movie. In 1964's "A Hard Day's Night," director Richard Lester adapted the jump cuts and naturalistic cinematography of the French New Wave to the rhythms of rock and the infectious personalities of the foursome. In the daft musical sequences, Lester created the prototype for the rock video.
The next milestone was the 1967 counter-culture comedy "The Graduate." For an industry accustomed to inserting musical interludes and performance footage as filler, such Simon and Garfunkel tunes as "The Sounds of Silence" and "Mrs. Robinson" were proof that substantive pop music could add emotional shadings to a film. But it was a lesson that was lost on the major studios, who continued to woo the youth culture (and their parents) with flower-power pabulum.
Meanwhile, "Easy Rider" (1969) made a fortune with independent distribution and name-brand acid-rock performers on the soundtrack. The rock subculture developed its own network for film production and distribution, which reaped the harvest from college-town screenings of such concert documentaries as "Monterey Pop," "Gimme Shelter" and "Woodstock."
In the post-Watergate malaise, Hollywood offered the nation a pick-me-up with the disco-themed "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and the retro "Grease" (1978). Both movies sold millions of soundtrack albums, and, for the next decade, cross-marketing of music and movies was the hallmark of American popular entertainment.
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