Witnessing the birth of and the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll
By Bruce Frassinelli
My friends and I were sandwiched into that age group that was part of the birth of and the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll. It was 1954. We were freshmen. When we went to the weekly dance at the school gym, we slow-danced to the top hits of the day — Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches,” Doris Day’s “Secret Love,” Eddie Fisher’s “Oh! My Papa” and Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean A Lot.”
But from late July until October of that year, the hottest record going was “Sh-Boom” (“Life Could Be A Dream”). The big hit was sung by a white quartet, The Crew Cuts, but another earlier version was cut by a black group, The Chords, which we liked better. At the Friday night dances, we jitterbugged to “Sh-Boom,” but the priest in charge of the dance would allow only the Crew Cuts’ rendition. At the time, I didn’t know why.
It became clear when my friend, Tommy, told me that when he bought a copy of The Chords’ version of “Sh-Boom,” he rushed home and played it on his 45 record player. His father yanked the record off the spindle and bent it until it snapped in two. (The 45s were supposed to be unbreakable, but only if they fell on the floor.)
“Why the heck did he do that?” I asked Tommy. He said his dad yelled, “We ain’t gonna have no n—- singing in this house.”
There is no question that race was a big factor in our community and in the rock ‘n’ roll world. In the fall of 1955, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” soared to No. 1 on the Billboard top 100 chart, and rock ‘n’ roll was on its way. Until I saw Haley and his group, the Comets, on Bandstand, I thought they were black performers. The same was true of the Diamonds, who sang the big hit, “Little Darlin.” I didn’t know it at the time, but “Little Darlin” was a white cover record of the same song originally sung by a black group, The Gladiolas, and written by Maurice Williams (of The Zodiacs fame).
Other famous cover records of that era included: “Tweedle Dee,” sung by La Vern Baker and covered by (her Nibs, Miss) Georgia Gibbs (1954), “Tutti Frutti,” sung by Little Richard and covered by Pat Boone (1955), “Ain’t That A Shame,” sung by Fats Domino, also covered by Boone (1955), “Good Night, My Love,” sung by Jesse Belvin and covered by the McGuire Sisters (1956), and “I’m Walkin,” sung by Fats Domino, and covered by Ricky Nelson (1957). Nelson sang the song on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” show, a sitcom about life in the Nelson family, and the recording became an overnight sensation.
At a Fats Domino concert, Domino showed off an enormous diamond ring he was wearing. He invited Nelson on stage and thanked him for helping make the ring possible. Since Domino wrote the song, he received handsome royalties from the Nelson recording, in addition to his own.
It was no accident that the white singers who covered the black artists’ versions of these songs were clean-cut, all-America types. Boone, with his strong Christian values and white buck shoes, was the quintessential boy-next-door whom dad wanted for his chaste daughter. Nelson’s boyish good looks sent teen-age girls into frenzied hysteria, a 1950s version of a young Justin Bieber or a skinny Frank Sinatra.
With few exceptions — The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’” and the McGuire Sisters’ cover of the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” — the cover records were dreadful compared to the black artists’ originals.
“Black artists with more talent but less pull were muscled aside by an industry playing to the bland taste of the casual mainstream,” said David Hinckley in a 2011 column for the New York Daily News.
Although Elvis Presley had had modest success on the Sun label, “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first recording with RCA Victor in 1956, made him a star. Later that year, the Elvis phenomenon took off like a meteor when his double-sided hit — “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” — dominated the airwaves for weeks.
As teenagers, we found rock ‘n’ roll as our rebellious outlet. Our parents branded this new music as “degenerate noise,” which made us play it all the louder to annoy them. Who could ever forget when “The Pelvis” first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? He was not shown from the waist down, because his gyrating hips were “too obscene.” Ah, the good old days!
Radio stations were pressured not to play Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and other big stars of the era because critics said they promoted “sex and delinquency.” They targeted these talented performers for censorship or ridicule.
Christian fundamentalists burned piles of rock ‘n’ roll records in an effort to rid society of this “devil-inspired evil.” There was grave concern, particularly in the South, that the music would promote a mixing of the races.
‘It is inexplicable to me why I can’t remember where I put my keys five minutes ago, but I can remember my favorite songs from 57 years ago.’
Rock ‘n’ roll spoke to us and the growing-up experiences we were having during the difficult teen years. When Paul Anka crooned “Lonely Boy,” girls may have wept for the chance to comfort him, but he spoke to my awkwardness in dealing with girls.
When I was going steady, and my girl and I had a major fight, Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love” made me feel as if someone understood the crushing pain I was feeling.
Certain songs marked milestones in my life. My steady girl and I always waited for “our song,‘’ The Platters’ “That Magic Touch” when we went parking under a bright August moon and listened to Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow) on WABC, radio 77 in New York.
Then, there were my goofy moments, when I would walk around campus as a college sophomore singing, “Ooo eee, ooo ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang. Ooo ee, ooo ah ah, ting tang walla walla, bang bang.” (“The Witch Doctor” by David Seville (1958).
My date and I jitterbugged frantically to “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors (1958), but when we snuggled outside her dorm hall for a good night kiss, she was more likely to respond to “All I Have to Do is Dream” by the Everly Brothers (1958).
It is inexplicable to me why I can’t remember where I put my keys five minutes ago, but I can remember that one of my favorite songs from 57 years ago, “It Was I,” was sung by Skip and Flip, and was released on Brent Records, which had a red label with white lettering. Go figure!