Segarini: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 2 – Rock and Roll
Part One can be found here.
We can all argue about what record was the first rock and roll song that broke through, but nit-picking aside, the clear and undeniable reason rock and roll consumed first radio, and then the world, was Elvis Presley.
A disc jockey in Memphis Tennessee named Dewey Phillips played Elvis on his “Red, Hot, and Blue” radio program in July of 1954, and within hours of spinning That’s All Right Mama and Blue Moon of Kentucky, couldn’t keep up with the phone calls and requests to hear them again.
Even surrounded by the music of country’s Hank Williams, blues musician Muddy Waters, jump artist Louis Jordan and Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, credited with what many consider to be the first rock and roll record, Rocket 88 (Although Brenston sang the vocal, the song was really done by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, of which he was a member, and was recorded at Sun Studios by Sam Phillips, no relation to Dewey, in March of 1951) Elvis stood out above them all as something new and unique, and thanks to his ears and the love of music that Dewey Phillips built his show around, this radio station was the only place you could hear him.
A local boy from Memphis with no management, PR firm, lawyers, or marketing plan. Just music. That was all he needed. The swiveling hips, hair, and sneer came to the fore later. The phones were ringing because of the sound, and nothing more.
Phillips’ discovery would travel quickly to other stations first in the South, and then rapidly after that to the rest of the U.S and abroad.
While this was going on in Memphis, another disc jockey in Cleveland Ohio who would later move to WABC in New York was bringing armloads of his own records to a station there. He was known as Moondog to his listeners, but his given name was Alan Freed.
Sadly, he is best remembered as the man whose career and life were destroyed because he took “payola”, a term coined to describe someone that demanded money to play a record, thereby assuring it would become a hit. Impossible, really, because no matter how many times you play a record, it is ultimately the audience who decides whether it is a hit or not, not the disc jockey. In the ‘50’s favours were thrust upon the jocks that played the music, but it is doubtful whether or not their endorsement made the records hits, in fact, if you champion a piece of crap too many times and you lose your credibility, instead of creating hit records, you lose your audience, and people will just look around until they find someone they can trust.
Whereas Dick Clark took as many favours as anyone else, even more, perhaps, it was Freed that took the bullet. He should be remembered more for this piece of information from Wikipedia…
“While Freed called himself the “father of rock and roll“, he was not the first to play it on the airwaves; however, he is credited with popularizing the term “rock and roll” to describe the style of music. While it had been in use in musical circles to describe a style of music (dating back to at least 1938 with Rock it for Me, written by Kay and Sue Werner and performed by Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald and Mildred Bailey), Freed introduced it to a much larger audience. Many of the top African-American performers of the 1950s have given public credit to Freed for pioneering racial integration among the youth of America at a time when adults were still promoting racial strife. Little Richard has given the credit to Freed that others have denied him. An example of Freed’s non-racist attitude is preserved in the motion pictures starring many of the leading African-American acts of the day in which he played a part as himself. For example, in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock, Freed, as himself, tells the audience that “rock and roll” is a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat.”
So here it is 1955, and something referred to as the Devil’s Music by unenlightened, morally hypocritical ‘upstanding citizens’, is creeping onto radio stations and into record stores, first in a trickle, then in a torrent, a flood of Biblical proportions, unstoppable because of a recent phenomenon, a side effect of the second world war. A social upheaval had started to form in 1946, but remained almost unnoticed for over a decade. But by 1958 it became impossible to ignore.
Prior to the Depression, young people usually went directly into the workforce from doing chores around the house and hopefully, learning how to read and write. There were no ‘teen oriented’ activities to speak of, though young people, (known at different times as Bobby Soxers or, Pains In the Ass), started being referred to as ‘teenagers’ by advertisers in the late ‘30’s, because of a major change in the education system in the United States. When the depression obliterated so many jobs, there were more than enough adults to fill the ranks and younger people simply had nowhere to go except stay home or get in trouble. President Roosevelt established the New Deal, part of which was called the NYA or National Youth Administration, which supplied money for text books, lunches, and other things for the mostly poor families all over America at the time, and made High School possible for everyone after grade school. Up until this point, high school was thought of as mostly an adult pursuit, but now it served as a place to keep teenagers out of the workforce and out of trouble.
With an ever expanding culture building up around them, teenagers started to create their own world. They started their own fashion trends, they took to big band ‘swing’ music and created dances to do to the music. They started buying records, visiting malt shops, going to dances, and spend whatever money they had on having fun, the social structure of high school affording them friends, their numbers affording them importance as consumers, and radio and record companies began to cater to their musical tastes and watched their fortunes grow.
When this generation of teenagers were just entering adulthood a madman with a bad haircut and worse mustache started a fight in Europe that turned into a nightmare, and 2 years later, another bully shoved the wrong kid, and that kid and his friends went to war. When they came home to peace, a booming economy, and their family, friends, fashion and music, they started to celebrate. They started to dance.
And any fundamentalist preacher can tell you what dancing leads to…
By 1957 I had been listening to KSTN and other stations I could pull in late at night, for a couple of years. My parents would buy me a Zenith transistor radio for my birthday the following year, and I would spend most of my time listening to it in my room under the covers after my folks went to bed. I am convinced that my father invented the phrase, “Turn that shit down!”, while my mother remained her usual, tolerant, self. So many great records, so many great singers and musicians, there just wasn’t enough time in a day to listen to it all. I had graduated from the accordion, to a ukulele, and would make the leap to guitar at Christmas, when my uncle Elbert would give me a Student Prince acoustic guitar, which I would take two strings off of so I could play the chords I had learned on the ukulele and start thinking about writing a song myself. I would write that song, “I’m a Juvenile”, in a classroom at school, in 1958.
But right now it was September, 1957, and today was the first day of the 7th grade and I was walking to school like I always did, except when I could talk my mom into giving me a ride, or an older kid in the neighborhood, Joe Bava, whose sister was in my class, would drop me off in his cherry ’55 Chevy. Being lazy, a condition that has served me well over the years, and the fact that it was already in the mid 80’s at 8:30 in the morning, I went a half a block out of my way to see if Joe would give me a lift. Walking up the driveway I heard an unfamiliar song wafting out of the open window in the Bava family’s breakfast nook.
Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the golden rule
American history and practical math
You studyin’ hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone
Ring, ring goes the bell
The cook in the lunch room’s ready to sell
You’re lucky if you can find a seat
You’re fortunate if you have time to eat
Back in the classroom, open your books
Keep up the teacher don’t know how mean she looks
Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat
Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and ’round the bend
Right to the juke joint, you go in
Drop the coin right into the slot
You’re gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul
Writer: Charles E. Berry ©Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music Inc.
Joe’s voice: “Hey, Segarini! What’s wrong with you?”
“What was that?” I asked in wonder.
“Guy named Chuck Berry. He put a whole bunch of songs on one record. That’s just the first one!”
“It’s called an album”, I replied, “a long playing record”, knowledge I had picked up years ago thanks to Glenn Miller, and then Elvis. Up until this very moment, I had never seen Joe show any interest in music. Chuck must have gotten to him.
“Can I get a ride?”, I asked.
“Sure”, Joe answered, “want to hear the rest of these songs first?”
And that’s how I was late for school on the first day of the 7th grade.
Within a week I had saved up the $2.99 an LP cost back then and headed off to buy Chuck Berry’s first album. Normally, I bought my rock and roll records at Freitas, but lately, because of the increasing popularity of the music, the record store that was closer to my home just might have it. They also had something else that I really liked.
Before I spent the money, I wanted to hear the other songs, and there was only one place I could do that without buying the record.
Sandy Sanderov’s Miracle Music on the Miracle Mile, a half a dozen blocks from my house. On my bike, about a 3 minute trip if I was in a hurry…and I was definitely in a hurry.
Miracle Music had listening booths.
I had been buying most of my records from Freitas, the little record store downtown and about a 30 minute pedal on the old Schwinn no-speed, mainly because his selection was unbeatable when it came to R&B, which was still my favourite kind of music, especially the singing groups. I had learned a lot shopping there. For example, there were labels, like some radio stations and artists that you trusted so much, you bought the releases unheard. I knew if I bought a record on Gee, or Roulette, or Federal, or King, it would be good. Other labels, not so much. Now that more and more artists were making albums, you needed to hear the ones you weren’t familiar with, and, except for “School Days”, Chuck Berry was a mystery to me, even though Joe had said he’d been around for a while.
The best way to describe Sandy Sanderov is to tell you he looks exactly like Hank Hill, except he sports a crew cut. Like old man Freitas and Jack Hanna, of Jack Hanna Music, (who at over 100 years of age, still plays once in a while), he loved music and he loved the kids that came into his shop. I knew Sandy because I’d been coming into his store for ages, first to pick out sheet music for the accordion and to buy kid records like “Hopalong Cassidy and the Square Dance Holdup”, “Bozo the Clown”, and “Howdy Doody and the Air O Doodle”, and then, when I was a little older, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme records, and later that first year in Stockton Jr. High, a cornet which I played until my music teacher, Mr. Rod Swearinger, almost took off my right ear with a mouthpiece he whipped at me for playing flat.
I was in luck. With School Days being all over the radio in Stockton, Sandy had Chuck Berry’s album in stock. He handed it to me and pointed me in the direction of an empty booth, one of six lining the wall along the side of the building that ran down Castle Street. I went in, put on the headphones and dropped the needle on the record. 30 minutes later I owned After School Session and was heading back into the booth with a stack of new singles.
Brilliant concept, don’t you think? Let people hear records and sample new releases, and chances are good they’ll buy more records. The same thing radio had been doing since the 30’s, and sheet music sellers armed with a singer and piano player had done since before that and through the ‘40’s, record stores, (and the labels), realized that the more people who heard their wares, the better the odds that they would buy what they liked and continue to look for more music that appealed to them.
Someone, somewhere also had a thought that other some ones, somewhere had had several times before. Why don’t we create our own stars, they thought. Why don’t we find more artists like the most popular ones, and groom them to be the next sensation, I mean, how hard can it be? If teenagers can do it, and musicians can do it, how hard would it be for us to do it?
For a while, as it turned out…not hard at all.
Next Sunday: When Radio and Records Ruled the World Part 3 – Covers, Copy Cats, and Teen Idols
Segarini’s column appears every Monday
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats and Dogs, andnominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late GreatMovies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now sadly gone), and now provides content for radiothatdoesntsuck.com with RadioZombie, The Iceage, and PsychShack. Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop, (who hosts and writes “I’ve Heard That Song Before” on RTDS), continues to write, make music, and record.