The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Abdication of a Generation
We moved in less than half a lifetime from a scene in which live music was still ubiquitous to a time when Top of the Pops, the major British television pop show, celebrated not music, but children prancing in funny clothes; while a factory-made tape unreels in the background, they do not even pretend they can play or sing. On the USA's MTV the music no longer competed with the jingles, but had become the advertising. In the later 1950s the confusion and hypocrisy in the music business seemed to grow. This was an illusion -- the business had always been stupid and greedy -- but new factors were ever increasing amounts of money, and runaway technology.
In about 1953 I attended a stage show at a theatre in Chicago. I forget whether the main attraction was Patti Page or Kay Starr, but I was startled to hear not a multi-tracked voice, but just a singer: it had not occurred to me when I was a child that the studio trick I heard on the radio could not then be reproduced on stage. A quarter of a century later, in London, I saw Joan Armatrading in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, and was impressed that the slightest shimmer of echo on a single cymbal sound could be reproduced accurately, just as it was on the album. Armatrading's songs and her honest delivery of them were a welcome oasis in the popular music of the late 1970s, but she was reproducing her album on stage: impressive technically, but why not just stay at home and listen to the record? Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz told the story of a performance at which the electricity failed, whereupon he rediscovered the pleasure of making entirely acoustic music. Afterwards, a young fan came up to him and gushed about his tone, which was flattering at first, until Getz realized that what had astonished the fan was the sound of the reed instrument, without microphone or amplification. The young fan had never heard it before.
Technology and money have reigned supreme for so long that the manufacture, marketing and distribution of the product has long since become more important than its content, while an uncountable number of tiny record labels around the world who care about music cannot get their records into the shops or on the air. The confusion of values in the music business and the beginning of the complete abandonment of musical considerations are illustrated by the appearances of Elvis Presley on television variety shows in 1956.
In 1984 RCA issued a five-record set called Elvis 50th Anniversary, collecting together tracks from the Sun vault (including the infamous, dismal 'Harbor Lights'), live performances from the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair and Dairy Show in September 1956, and informal tracks made while filming a TV show in June 1968. For years these last had been rumoured to be the most exciting recordings Presley had made since early 1956, but they are a terrible let-down. To our purpose, however, are the appearances on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show and the Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan programmes, between early 1956 and early 1957. Berle's Tuesday night comedy and variety show was the hottest thing on U.S. television in 1948, but it was limping in the ratings by 1956. It was Presley's appearance on Steve Allen's show on a Sunday evening in July that reduced Sullivan's ratings, and led to three Sullivan spots. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were two of the best white musicians in popular music. They had each led one of the most popular bands of the Swing Era, and worked together on a film biography in 1947; then Jimmy joined Tommy's band, and their television variety show in 1954 (a summer substitute for the Jackie Gleason show) was so successful that it was given its own spot, and continued until Tommy died in November 1956.
The Dorseys, their sidemen, music directors and arrangers must have been among the most experienced of studio players; they probably considered themselves jazzmen, or at least jazz-oriented musicians. Yet they threw away Elvis Presley. I was there watching, nearly thirty-five years ago; something was wrong, but I was too young to know what it was. In retrospect, it is obvious. I had listened to country music, to rhythm and blues and to Tommy Dorsey; Elvis Presley was exciting, but it was not as if he had come from Mars. These would-be jazzmen, their music directors and arrangers, however, apparently had no idea what was going on. Presley came on and did his thing, just as he did at a great many country fairs, while the band sat on its hands as though none of them had ever heard of the blues.
It doesn't matter whether you regard Elvis Presley plunked down in front of the Dorsey band as a weed in a flower-bed or a pearl in a pigsty; it is the deliberate abdication of everyone involved that is interesting. On the six appearances with the Dorseys' band, it plays the same brief, corny fanfare it must have played for every performer, then sits quietly for Presley, and at the end of each song plays a single, blaring brass chord, perhaps to let us know the song has ended. Thirty-three tracks were recorded on the total of twelve television spots, including several of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. (One or two of these are better than the commercial record; they take the tune at a slightly slower tempo and have no piano, and Scotty Moore's guitar is either less tinny or absent.) But the first version, from March 1956, is the only one of these thirty-three opportunities on which television tried to do anything with the new show business sensation.
There is an appropriate introduction from the brass section; the band's drummer starts out playing the backbeat too softly, and thereafter overdoes it; there are brass punctuations at the end of each phrase in the chorus, where Scotty Moore's guitar usually clangs. At the end of the first verse and as the next one begins, the reed section rises with a smooth moan out of the background, sliding downwards in a glissando at the end of the verse to meet the beat, and it sounds like they are doing something appropriate with this music. But then in the middle of the simple arrangement there is a trumpet solo, not particularly thoughtful to start with and soon dissolving in confusion, as though the trumpeter suddenly woke up and didn't know where he was; after that Presley screws up the beat and the whole thing turns into a shambles. Presley's amateurish guitar strumming is occasionally heard throughout.
This was the same kid who, years later, put on professional shows in Las Vegas, and some of his television tracks are already better than the studio tracks: the showman was there somewhere. Was there no money for a rehearsal for this band, whose co-leaders had already been show business legends for the best part of thirty years? And on the other thirty-two television tracks there is nothing except, towards the end of the sequence, the familiar banality of the Jordanaires. No wonder Presley let Tom Parker tell him what to do; nobody else was doing it.
We know that Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong made a lovely recording together in 1929. On the Tiffany transcriptions made by Bob Wills's band in 1946, there is nothing bashful or inappropriate about hot solos from Fred Kelso's piano, or from Alex Brashear's muted trumpet, sometimes behind Tommy Duncan's vocals: they fit right in with the fiddle and the electric guitar. T-Bone Walker, the most influential of all guitarists and blues singers, made 144 tracks between 1940 and 1954, and many of them feature felicitous touches of reed writing, and saxophone and trumpet solos. Buddy Morrow's big-band R&B covers in 1952 were full of the right spirit. Why could the Dorseys not do it?
I do not believe that there was nobody in New York in 1956 who knew what was going on. I think they did not want to know. If Elvis Presley became the God of show business basically because all the white trash in the country could identify with him, the other side of the coin is that the music industry abandoned the Presleys to the Tom Parkers by pretending that white trash had no business being anything but a fluke, a novelty. The same white liberals who had made a fuss over Leadbelly in cafe society could not credit a Mississippi redneck singing the blues. New York studio musicians who were spending their working lives playing a jazz-oriented style were good readers of music, but not so good at reading the writing on the wall; and the power-brokers in the music industry were so helpless that they could not even find the wall.
There was a time when the music business, when it had to present a novelty act or cover a country song, would at least go through the motions of pretending that everybody was working in the same industry. But there had been a complete change in the way it all worked since the music publishers gambled on the songs, promising to make this or that their number one plug if so-and-so would record it. By the early 1950s the record labels' artist and repertory executives did the choosing, and by the late 1950s it was the disc jockeys.
Among the industry giants who abdicated at the threat of rock'n'roll was Mitch Miller, the most successful A&R man in the history of the business. Miller was only about six years younger than Tommy Dorsey. He began his career as a virtuoso on the oboe and the cor anglais and toured with an orchestra accompanying George Gershwin on piano; it was conducted on various occasions by Joe Reisman or Charles Previn (André's father). He played with the Budapest String Quartet, and with such conductors as Fritz Reiner and Sir Thomas Beecham; he was hand-picked by Leopold Stokowski for recording sessions in 1947, and may be heard on classic versions of Sibelius's 'Swan of Tuonela' and Dvorák's Symphony 'From the New World', which contain two of the most famous cor anglais [English horn] solos in music. In short, before he became a record company executive, he was an accomplished musician and recording artist.
In the late 1940s he was involved with the Little Golden Records for children; they were unbreakable plastic 78s to begin with and sold millions of copies. He was asked by John Hammond to produce some classical recording sessions for Keynote, which was taken over by Mercury, where Miller helped with the first multi-tracked recordings, as well as developing the careers of Vic Damone and Frankie Laine, who later followed him to Columbia. He played on and helped to produce the album Charlie Parker with Strings. When interviewer Ted Fox asked Miller in 1985 if it had not been a big change moving from classical to pop, Miller replied that he was always surprised when asked that:
I never compartmentalised it in my own mind. And the same rules apply ... taste, musicianship, get the best out of the artist. Many times the artist doesn't know what his best characteristics are, and you're there to remind them. You can't put in what isn't there, but you can remind them of what they have and they're not using.
Alec Wilder, Goddard Lieberson and Miller had all been classmates at the Eastman School. When Mannie Sachs left Columbia to go to RCA, Lieberson, a composer, Renaissance man and CBS employee since before the war, hired Miller to replace him. Columbia's hit rate shot up by 60 per cent or more, and the label dominated popular music in the USA for the rest of the decade. Miller reported to Jimmy Conkling, who at thirty-five was the youngest major-label chief in the industry until he was succeeded in 1956 by Lieberson. (Conkling had come from Capitol, and went on to Warner Brothers.) They all believed that the label was there to have hits and to make money, but also to preserve the best of popular culture, so that, for example, Columbia recorded Duke Ellington during one of the least commercial periods of that great career.
During the 1950s Miller selected or passed on most of the company's singles output, overseeing more than seventy-five hit singles in the pop charts, of which at least a third reached the top ten -- a much higher percentage of hits to releases than any other label could boast. At first, nobody could cover a hit faster than Miller, such as 'Tzena Tzena Tzena', with a chorus, under his own name, and 'Goodnight Irene', with Sinatra (both 1950). But he soon made his own hits for others to chase. Sinatra refused to record the pseudo-folksongs that Miller was bringing in, so he gave them to a singer named Al Cernick, who became Guy Mitchell, and they were all huge hits. It was Miller who first made pop hits out of Hank Williams's songs, and the themes from Bridge on the River Kwai and High Noon. The lyrics of the latter were rewritten at Miller's insistence.
All A&R men were pestered by songwriters, but Miller had his pick of the songs and got his way because he was so successful, and because when he made a deal, he kept his word. It was Miller's idea to change around Percy Faith's arrangement of 'On the Street Where You Live' for Vic Damone, so that it began with the bridge -- 'Oh, that towering feeling...' -- making the record a grabber, and a top five hit.
George Avakian discovered Johnny Mathis, who was young and derivative. His first records flopped, but Miller waited until the right songs came along: 'Wonderful! Wonderful!', 'It's Not for Me to Say', 'Chances Are' and 'The Twelfth of Never' (all 1957) made a star of Mathis. (The second and third of these were written by Stillman and Allen, who had written hits for the Four Lads; the fourth was an adaptation of a folksong.)
During Miller's time countless classic country hits were made, by Carl Smith, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins and many others. These were honest recordings, not overproduced, though it was Art Satherley and Don Law who were in charge of country music. It was under Miller that more country songs crossed over such as 'Just Walkin' in the Rain', by Johnnie Ray. In 1956 Miller came as close to rockabilly as he ever did, with 'Singing the Blues', a huge hit which was the best and biggest hit of Guy Mitchell's career. Robbins had an equally big country hit with that song, whereupon Robbins crossed over with his next, 'A White Sport Coat'. Mahalia Jackson recorded classic gospel music on Columbia from the early 1950s; Miller gave gospel songs to Rosemary Clooney and Johnnie Ray.
Miller had too much power and not enough taste. We do not know how much he had to do with the Charlie Parker with Strings album back at Mercury, but arranger Jimmy Carroll's charts were unimaginative; he had no idea what to do with strings. Miller was as responsible as anyone for turning pop music into jingles, and it was on his watch that pop records began to sound like self-conscious productions rather than straight recordings of musical events. He had a penchant for unusual sounds, and it was probably his idea to amplify a harpsichord for Faith's 'Delicado' and for Clooney's biggest hits. One of his bad ideas was putting bagpipes on a recording by Dinah Shore; DJs took the record off and broke it on the air. The relentless snare drum on 'Yellow Rose Of Texas' (1955) was an ideal target for one of Stan Freberg's satirical covers. Still, live pop music seemed to be dead by Miller's time and, as jingles went, Miller's jolly records had more personality than most. His own instrumental 'Oriental Polka' was a wacky twittering tune for woodwinds doubled by a marimba. Percy Faith's 'Funny Fellow' was a slowish, cock-eyed samba with a cheerful, noisy rhythm section and a piccolo carrying the tune, to test the speaker on your 'hi-fi' record player; in the middle of the arrangement the band laid out and the tune was carried by a solo bassoon, and the band's 'funny fellow' made you chuckle. On the other side of the record was 'Amorada' (actually 'Brasileirinho', by Waldir Azevedo, the same bandleader who wrote 'Delicado'); this was a Latin frenzy, on which Artie Ryerson played an electric guitar solo that most of today's rockers could not even attempt.
None of these reached the chart; perhaps they were too much better than the jingles, but they were what Miller called 'turntable hits': you enjoy it, but you don't go out to buy it. They were all musical fun.
A typical Miller coup was 'Let Me Go, Lover'. The producer of CBS TV's Studio One, a top-rated drama showcase, needed a song, so Miller dusted off a temperance plea called 'Let Me Go, Devil', which had flopped on another label, and had new lyrics written. A slow country waltz, the song was just right, because it did not get in the way of the play's action. He used an unknown girl singer, since he did not want a star's distraction either: 21-year-old Joan Weber's record was number one for four weeks at the end of 1955, but she never had another hit.
It was no secret that Miller was not crazy about rock'n'roll, but neither did he join in the pulpit crusade against it, declaring that there was no such thing as an 'immoral' music. But he also did not like the way the music business was changing, and was unwilling to do what you had to do in the later 1950s to get your records played on the radio. In those days Columbia kept its hands clean. At first it did not own a music publishing company, so that Miller could not have cut a DJ in on a song if he had wanted to; and the company would not buy radio spots, which should have been perfectly legal, except that CBS was also a radio network, and afraid of an anti-trust suit. Record labels and promotion men have always paid to get records played; part of the problem was that many DJs were not paid much in the way of a salary, but they played Columbia records because they liked them. When the business began to get dirtier and the money got bigger, fewer Columbia singles were heard on the radio. Miller was always working hard, making a hundred decisions a day, flying back and forth between coasts and selling truckloads of product. He was also an opinionated man, whose tough attitude was justified by his track record, and he occasionally stepped on toes; but why should he bribe DJs?
The most important change in the business was demographic. The largest group of young Americans in history would also have more spending money in its pockets than any earlier American generation, and already in the 1950s they were spending it on rock'n'roll records. Soon some of them were even going out on the road and playing the stuff, generating more easy money, and by then it was not just kids who were buying rock'n'roll records. At the first annual Pop Music Disk Jockey Festival in March 1958 Miller complained in a famous speech called 'The Great Abdication':
You carefully built yourselves into the monarchs of radio and abdicated your programming to the corner record shop, to the eight to 14-year-olds, to the preshave crowds that make up 12 per cent of the country's population and zero per cent of its buying power. It must be more than a coincidence that single record buying went into a decline at the very time the number of stations that programme Top 40 climbed to a new high.
But the coincidence was that grown-ups were using their purchasing power to buy LPs, not singles. Two years earlier RCA had released an unprecedented six singles at once by Elvis Presley (they even had sequential catalogue numbers), as well as 'Heartbreak Hotel', making Presley's Sun material and some of his February 1956 classics available nationwide. The singles were selling twelve thousand copies a day, representing two-thirds of RCA's singles sales, and for the first time the company had to use outside pressing facilities; Presley's first album broke sales records set by Mario Lanza's The Student Prince and the soundtrack from The Glenn Miller Story. If rock'n'roll fans had zero buying power, who was buying all those records?
Nevertheless, the issue concerned not solely Elvis Presley. A lot of pop music was junk and everybody knew it. Miller's main point was that adults had more buying power than their children, the albums they bought moved fewer units but made up 65 per cent of the record industry's volume and a much higher portion of its profits, and the adults were listening to less and less radio. The convention gave Miller its only ovation, but the Storz broadcasting chain, which was sponsoring the convention, banned Columbia records.
Miller didn't care. Power had long since gone to his head. He had talked Lieberson into putting him in charge of albums as well as singles, and one of the first things he did was fire Paul Weston in California, who had been making beautiful albums for grown-ups for a decade. (Weston was immediately snapped up by a television network.) Les and Larry Elgart co-led a polite dance band on Columbia; according to one story, Larry said to drummer Karl Kiffe, 'When the band starts to swing, I want you to play the ride cymbal', and Kiffe replied, 'When the band starts to swing, will you please raise your hand?' Miller suggested that trombonist Ray Conniff should rearrange his old Artie Shaw material to include male and female choruses. These records amounted to superior Muzak, but never mind; grown-ups could dance to them, and they made pots of money. It was Miller's idea to do the first greatest hits album, by Mathis, which cost the company nothing and sold in the millions. A few months after that DJ convention, in July 1958, Sing Along With Mitch was the number one album in the USA for eight weeks. Fourteen later male chorus singalong albums, helped by Miller's television show, reached the top ten albums; twenty-two million were sold, and people stopped buying them only because there were so many of them in the shops that they could not remember which ones they already had. The singing on them was rhythmically uninformed, shall we say, so stiff that the style turned up on Stan Freberg's comedy singles, satirizing pop music.
But it was Miller and his generation who had abdicated. He cannot be blamed for not wanting to get his hands dirty, and he must have thought, as many people did, that rock'n'roll and an increasingly cutthroat music business were passing fads. But the singalong albums are of no importance to the history of music. It is interesting to speculate about what would have happened if Miller had put up the $20,000 that Sam Phillips was asking for Presley in 1955; Presley probably would have ended up in Las Vegas anyway, but at least Miller might have been a match for Tom Parker. But Presley went to RCA, as did Leiber and Stoller, in 1958. All the offices at RCA were identical cubicles; Jerry Leiber could not find his. They told Ted Fox:
By the time you filled out a requisition for something, the idea was stale ... We produced seven records in the first four months we were there, and had six Picks of the Week in Cashbox ... But they never sold any of those records. Meanwhile we made one record for Atlantic during that period and it was a smash ... The records [at RCA] were being sold by people who sold refrigerators.
Maybe RCA did not want to bribe DJs either, but, on the other hand, post-war RCA never had a hand at the helm as firm as Miller's. That once great label was coasting, and never recovered; and meanwhile broadcasting was going down the drain.
Robert 'Todd' Storz bought a radio station in Omaha, Nebraska, for $60,000 in 1949; in 1953 he added a station in New Orleans. Most radio stations were soon relying on music, news and jingles, and Storz's new Mid-Continent Broadcasting Corporation was no exception. Storz had grown up listening to Your Hit Parade, which just performed the top ten hits live each week. (The music publishers had never liked it, because the constant plugging of hits kept new songs from getting exposure.) Storz was not going to allow DJs or anybody else to deflect him from his purpose of making money; at the same time, neither was he the type to pay DJs enough money to keep them straight: Miller thought that Storz's DJs were among those on the take, whether Storz knew it or not. The twenty-four-hour format of hits Storz invented, varied with a few white covers of R&B or country hit songs, did not require any talent or musical knowledge, and therefore demanded of a DJ only the ability to cut a ribbon at a new supermarket. In 1956 Storz's corporation sold $3.5 million worth of advertising, and his method was being copied by others, including the Plough group, which bought Chicago's WLS and turned it into the most popular station in the Midwest. In 1957 Storz sold the Omaha station to William F. Buckley, then becoming America's leading conservative pundit, for $800,000; Buckley, of course, preserved the deadening format. (In America, 'conservative' rhymes with 'easy money'.)
Somewhere along the way Storz and his programme manager were having a beer in a nearby tavern when they noticed that the other patrons kept playing a small number of hit tunes over and over again on the jukebox, and not only that, but the barmaids or waitresses would then use some of their tip money to play the same tunes. The 'hit parade' formula was tightened up still further, and the Top 40 programming format was born. By the late 1950s a Plough station had a playlist of only one hundred records, concentrating on forty of them and playing them so as to vary the tempo to keep listeners from falling asleep. This meant that whatever was already a hit got constant airplay. It meant that novelties, such as David Seville's 'Witch Doctor' and Sheb Wooley's 'Flying Purple People Eater', which sold quickly anyway, oozed up the charts like castor oil through a pig. And it meant that country music was confined even more to its ghetto, that black hits had less chance of getting wider exposure and that jazz, folk music, Sinatra albums, polka bands and all the rest might as well not even exist. Storz and his imitators bought and sold American airwaves for cash, and nobody cared.
The better music is, the more dangerous it seems. Millions of Americans grumbled that the Swing Era was over, but they did nothing to make it possible for big bands to survive in the 1950s, while every country in Europe still has radio big bands today (though how much longer the BBC's will last is a moot point). It is tempting to suggest that Americans are afraid of swing, in the broadest sense of the term. We have seen that for most of the nineteenth century American songs were regarded by the biggest publishers as not worth publishing, while European music was 'good' music. The fact that American publishers did not pay royalties on European music until 1891, so that there was several hundred per cent profit on each piece of sheet music was of course irrelevant.
In 1899 the Musical Courier complained, 'A wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cakewalk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures ... our children ... are continually exposed to ... this vulgarising music.' The owner of the magazine also hated Victor Herbert, to the point where Herbert finally sued him for libel, and won. Coincidentally, Witmark, Herbert's publisher and also the biggest publisher of ragtime songs, had long refused to buy advertising in the Musical Courier. Naturally there was no connection.
It was black bandleader James Reese Europe's advice to dancer Vernon Castle to make his moves to the backbeat, in the style of black music, which led to the two-step, the foxtrot and the fad for dancing that swept the country before 1920 and was regarded as corrupting the morals of youth. Come to think of it, while in minstrelsy the blacks remained comic darkies, and were therefore not threatening, from ragtime to rock'n'roll it was music with a black element that was found most objectionable. In mid-1956 local members of the White Citizens Council beat up Nat Cole at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, in front of an all-white audience, because they disliked 'nigger music', at a time when Elvis Presley was selling more records in black neighbourhoods than Cole.
There is no such thing as a dangerous music; Americans just like being paranoid. Speaking of paranoia, many people wondered why Presley's local draft board, made up like all draft boards of solid respectable citizens, happened to choose him to drive tanks in Germany. And why was the pilot of the chartered plane carrying Holly, who was not qualified to fly on instruments, not informed that only a few thousand yards from the airfield the weather was turning very bad? And when Chuck Berry's first trial had been thrown out as blatantly racist, would the law not have earned more respect, in the case of a violation of the outmoded Mann Act, which was widely regarded as a joke anyway, by dismissing it? But there was another trial, just to make sure that Berry was sent to prison. We did not have to be paranoid; the decision-makers were probably only stupid, but one way or another, they really were after us.
Since any business can be manipulated, rock'n'roll was soon taken over by banal (but less dangerous) teen-love songs, or by jingles with a pseudo rock'n'roll beat. Typical of early rock acts were Johnny and the Hurricanes, an organ-led trio whose hit 'Red River Rock' was a nervously fast shuffle on 'Red River Valley', a folksong dating from 1896 and itself based on earlier songs. Somehow it was copyrighted in 1959 as a new song (by a BMI company, let us admit), and was followed by rock versions of the bugle call 'Reveille', 'Blue Tail Fly' and others. Then there was 'The Happy Organ', by Dave 'Baby' Cortez, which was number one for seven weeks in 1959. This was the kind of trash that was being played by hopefuls in a great many bars across the USA, while the nation's best white musicians, and some of the black ones, made a living in the studios, their names unknown to the public. No wonder many of them hated rock'n'roll.
Rock'n'roll may have been taken over, but the charts were not. What were some of the other number one hits of the era? In 1958: 'It's Only Make Believe', a country ballad by Conway Twitty; 'Tom Dooley', a slicked-up folksong by the Kingston Trio; 'It's All in the Game', a ballad by Tommy Edwards, whose Tin Pan Alley words were set to a melody composed in 1912 by General Charles Gates Dawes, later vice-president of the United States (how respectable can you get?); 'Volare', by Domenico Modugno, an Italian cabaret song; 'All I Have to Do is Dream', another country ballad, by the Everly Brothers; 'Twilight Time', from 1944, by the Platters. In 1959: 'Mack the Knife', sung in his new Sinatra style by Bobby Darin; 'The Three Bells', a French folksong sung by the Browns, a country trio; 'The Battle of New Orleans', by Johnny Horton, and 'El Paso', by Marty Robbins, a pair of country story songs; 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes', by the Platters, from 1933, one of Jerome Kern's greatest songs (which rock writer Dave Marsh thinks was a 'Tin Pan Alley trifle').
All these were number one, along with some Chipmunk novelties and a sprinkling of rock'n'roll. (Presley's 1924 front-porch ballad, 'Are You Lonesome To-night?', doesn't count as rock'n'roll either.) Top 40 radio saw to it that a hit stayed a hit, because it was all you heard, which is why 'Volare' nearly drove us nuts. So what was the music business afraid of? The truth is that America was floundering; the most powerful nation in the history of the world was frightened of that responsibility, because there were no cultural or political values at the top. Hence the paranoia about rock'n'roll, among other things, even as the USA was selling its own popular culture down the river.
'It was general knowledge in the industry in 1955 that payola flourished,' wrote Russell Sanjek, a retired BMI executive. He meant specifically the bribing of DJs to play records, but, of course, bribery had been endemic in the music industry from the beginning, and for that matter can be found in any industry in any country. (The Soviet economy depended on it until not even bribery could keep it going.) Perhaps payola began with short-changing the creator. In Britain for generations composers depended for their living upon selling music outright and then writing and selling new music; they offered whatever inducements they could to get it performed. When top bananas from Al Jolson to Elvis Presley sang a song in exchange for a co-writing credit, they were demanding payola. The term itself was invented (like much other entertainment terminology) by Variety, which in 1938 carried the headline 'Plug Payola Purplexed': maybe that was the case of the two West Coast bandleaders who were listed as co-writers of a song neither of them had yet seen. In 1953 Time carried a story about 'cut-ins' (performance shares of a song) and 'hot stoves' (outright bribery).
'Videola' was already a less well-known aspect of the business. Guests on quiz and variety shows were introduced with a drum roll or a simple fanfare, until television producers realized that if they could lock up the copyrights on recognizable pieces of music they could make extra money. It is an irony that the corny and inappropriate fanfare with which Elvis Presley was greeted on the Dorsey Brothers' program may have been worth a fat weekly sum to whoever owned it. By 1958 $6 million was being paid annually by ASCAP just for theme songs and background music chosen not by the public but by television producers.
It was no accident that the theme tunes of radio soap operas, usually played in the studio by an organist, used music that was out of copyright: the big tune from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony for Road of Life, the old Italian pop song 'Funiculi Funicula' for Lorenzo Jones, and so on. The FBI in Peace and War used the march from Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges. (I don't know whether royalties were paid on that, but the interesting question is did J. Edgar Hoover know that the FBI was being promoted by a Soviet composer?)
But radio themes soon disappeared. In 1954 there was panic in the radio industry when advertising investment suddenly fell. Daytime radio drama is still a strong and very special genre in Britain, thanks to the BBC, but it died decades ago in the USA, where the mass audience, having turned to television, used radio only as aural wallpaper while they worked, or in their cars, and minority audiences of any kind did not matter.
Top DJs in big cities earned as much as $35,000 a year, a lot of money in the mid-1950s. Men like Bill Randle in Cleveland and Howard Miller in Chicago had recognizable personalities, but most DJs were staff announcers with a talent for talking about anything that came into their heads, and as long as they didn't stop talking between records, it was assumed that they had some taste in music. They had long been courted by special interests with drinks, meals and complimentary adverts in trade magazines. But in the mid-1950s the stakes went up; radio drama had been heard mainly on the networks, and the sudden death of it made many more poorly paid local DJs available to circling record industry promo sharks. With Top 40 radio, Storz, whether his DJs were on the take or not, had helped create a situation in which they were worth bribing. Martin Block, who had pioneered the DJ format in 1935, retired in 1960; he was frank, describing the $10 that came with a new record as the equivalent of a head waiter's tip for a good table in a nightclub. Alan Freed never denied accepting gifts, but denied taking them in advance: 'If I've helped somebody, I'll accept a nice gift, but I wouldn't take a dime to plug a record ... I'd be giving up control of my program.' Besides, it was Freed who had discovered the popularity of R&B among white kids and popularized the term 'rock'n'roll' when it was a daring thing to do and before there was much money in it, and who almost went to jail when early rock concerts turned into mini-riots. Later he bragged that he could name rooms in his house after record companies; he said that Atlantic had paid for his swimming pool, but also that when Atlantic reminded him of the pool because they wanted a favour, he told them that when they sent him some records he liked, he would play them. He was believed when he said that he had never played a record that he didn't like, and the truth seemed to be that payola was not against the law anyway. But Freed's flamboyance and lack of political awareness made him the most prominent victim of the payola 'scandal'.
Howard Miller said he could name people who took money, or paid it, but that it would be unfair to put a few on the rack for a practice that was so widespread. Willie Dixon, a power in Chicago R&B at Chess Records, was open in his autobiography I Am the Blues (written with Don Snowden, 1989). It was necessary to give free records to jukebox operators and to distributors; they were supposed to be promotional copies, but everybody knew they were sold. Furthermore:
no disc jockey was going to play your record then without you paying him and that was the truth ... They would play 'em two weeks, three times a day and that was it unless you came up with more money ... Some of the disc jockeys would play all of one company's records and there wasn't a whole lot of radio stations like there are now.
Joe Smith began as a DJ at Yale. In the 1950s he wanted to play Nat Cole records.
Frankly, I didn't understand Elvis Presley. I had no background to understand Elvis Presley. But I could instantly sense the impact the guy was having, so I figured I'd better play his records. The record companies ... took care of you, you never picked up a tab anywhere. Some guys gave you $100 or $200 a month.
Some years after Freed was ruined, Smith became president of Capitol Records, but he still finds time to write letters. Gene Lees is a former editor of down beat, and contributed to Stereo Review and High Fidelity for many years. A successful lyricist, he has published English words to music by bossa nova composers, Charles Aznavour, pianist Bill Evans and others. Since launching his own monthly Jazzletter in 1981 he has regularly chastised the music business. Smith wrote to him in January 1989 to say that he had never heard of him: 'Just who are you and what credentials do you possess to wrap up this industry with that kind of rhetoric? ... When lessons in honesty, ethics and principle are given, I wouldn't be looking to enroll in your class.' Smith had no doubt been careful to pay taxes on the money he took 50 years ago.
In 1959 it was big news that television quiz shows such as Twenty One, The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge were rigged, often at the request of the sponsors, in order to keep the most popular contestants on week after week. Congressional Representative Oren Harris of Arkansas, chairman of a Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, decided to dig deeper, hoping to find more scandal to keep the subcommittee in the public eye. This was good for votes: the House Un-American Activities Committee, populated by alcoholics and bounders, had kept themselves in office for many years by getting some of the most valuable people in the State Department sacked, and by encouraging blacklists in the entertainment industry. That blacklists themselves were against the law was not important; and as for the name of Harris's subcommittee, if it is not against the law to bribe a DJ, that must be a Legislative Oversight.
Burton Lane, president of the American Guild of Authors and Composers, wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging it to require owners of broadcasting licences to divest themselves of conflicting business interests, such as music publishing companies. Payola was only a symptom of the disease, wrote Lane, which was 'the involvement of the entire broadcasting industry, networks and local stations, in a deliberate and successful distortion of music programming for their own financial gain'. This was fine as far as it went, but Congress was not going to do much about the state of broadcasting; there was more publicity in going after disc jockeys. And Lane did not mention videola, because that put money in his members' pockets.
After a riot at a concert in Boston in 1958, Freed was indicted on a charge of inciting to destroy public property, which was later dropped. Some stations banned rock'n'roll. Freed moved from the most popular station in New York, the independent WINS, to an ABC affiliate, where he had an evening show, but he was already being eclipsed in the fame stakes: on television Freed had to make do with a local independent station, because ABC-TV already had Dick Clark.
Clark had begun as a newsreader at WFIL in Philadelphia at the age of 23; he replaced Bob Horn (who'd been fired for being convicted of drunken driving) on the station's Philadelpbia Bandstand in 1956. The show had kids dancing, guest artists miming their records and not much talk. It was broadcast five days a week after school, rather than in more expensive prime time, and teenagers rushed home to watch it. Clark's low-key, squeaky-clean personality helped make it a success. In 1957 it was networked for ninety minutes a day as American Bandstand, and by 1959 it was shown on over one hundred affiliates and had twenty million fans, or 60 per cent of the audience. Imitations of the show included Chicago's Bandstand Matinee, and the dancing kids on the show themselves became mini-stars.
Clark used local television time, before the network part of the show, to test new records, and once played the wrong version of 'Tequila' for weeks before his studio audience let him know. On network time he nearly always played records that were already hits, but the record companies and distributors pushed him as the most influential DJ in the country. They must have done this hoping for favours, so it was a sort of pre-payola. By 1959 Clark had investments in the music business, of which he divested himself on ABC's advice.
Despite occasional reactions against rock'n'roll, Top 40 continued to grow. National advertisers took over the printing of tip sheets, which were plug sheets for new records, and were displayed in record shops. Record companies stepped up releases to around a hundred a week, so that more records had less chance of being heard, thus raising the stakes still further. On the first day of 1959 the CBS radio network cut back programming again, leaving affiliates with twenty more hours a week to fill with music. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission both started investigations, but they were not investigating the basic causes of the degradation of American radio broadcasting. Soon Representative Emanuel Celler was gunning for BMI, seeing public unrest about 'dirty songs' as a ticket to a seat in the Senate. It was clear that complainants were often connected with ASCAP, using unease about rock'n'roll as a stick with which to beat BMI; but if it was a conflict of interest that some broadcasters had holdings in BMI, ASCAP itself had brought this about in the first place with its strike against the broadcasters in 1940.
The hearings revealed the usual special pleading and hypocrisy. One witness stated that a record company had paid to have its recording of a Tchaikovsky symphony favoured over another, whereupon it was observed that the committee was interested only in corruption as it applied to 'bad' music. Burton Lane ranted about BMI's influence, but had to admit that ownership of radio stations by such members of his organization as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone might also represent a conflict of interest. ASCAP's general counsel Herman Finkelstein stated that the 'artificial ratings' for BMI songs would be substantially reduced if Congress acted, claiming that ASCAP hits were successful on 'sheer merit'; but he also did not know how top ten tunes were chosen, so he could not be more specific. (The headline in Variety was 'Put Up or Shut Up'.) Sydney Kaye of BMI refuted much of this: the percentage of BMI records in broadcaster-DJ charts was lower than that in retail record sales, and the performance rate of BMI music had been lower in 1958 than in 1957. Kaye also brought up the subject of videola, pointing out that a snatch of an old song accompanying the closing of a door in a melodrama brought in just as much money as if an artist sang the whole song on a musical programme; and it was noted that in 1957 more than 42 per cent of all ASCAP's payments came from television networks. Kaye said that if BMI was held in greater esteem by broadcasters than ASCAP, it was because BMI did not habitually vilify them.
Celler proposed a bill which would have prohibited DJs' interviews with recording artists from leading to a playing of the artist's new record, or a 'Salute to ASCAP' on Ed Sullivan's show from involving appearances by member songwriters whose songs would then be used. It would have required radio stations to buy all their records, playing free ones only if it was announced on the air that they were free. This was silly, because of the way the economics of the industry had changed. When so much airtime had to be filled with recorded music, buying new releases would have cost a lot of money which the smaller ones could not afford, and would have made it even harder for an independent label or a new artist to be heard at all.
Dick Clark and Alan Freed were heard in closed as well as open session. Clark's lawyers testified that he had earned $500,000 in twenty-seven months from music publishing, record pressing and distribution and talent management, but that he had disposed of these interests. Freed said that he had been paid $40,000 a year by WABC-AM, but that he had paid $30,000 of it back to the station in exchange for advertising of his rock'n'roll concerts. Representative John Moss said that Freed was 'one of the few completely truthful men we've had before us'. Three hundred and thirty-five DJs admitted having received $263,245 for being 'consultants' in recent years. The sheer abundance of product had taken the control of hit-making away from song pluggers and publishers and given it to radio; a station or a DJ in a major market might receive one thousand LPs and five thousand singles in a year, which would give rise to payola, because there was no way twenty thousand or so tracks could each get an equal hearing.
The result was an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 outlawing play-for-pay, but committee lawyer Bernard Schwartz had wanted a more wide-ranging investigation. He wrote in the New York Post that improprieties other than those of DJs remained buried in Harris's subcommittee's files: 'Those fully aware of the material involved know we are really deceiving ourselves to believe that the Congressmen carried out anything like the really thorough investigation of the federal agencies that is so urgently needed.' To make sure Schwartz remained an obscure voice, he was fired in early 1959.
In the middle of the unsuccessful war on rock'n'roll came news of the international popularity of it. In the Soviet Union rock'n'roll records were being bootlegged on exposed X-ray film, while other bootlegs on 7-inch 78s made from short-wave broadcasts were being sold by the GUM department store in Moscow. As far as anyone knew, there was no related bribing of DJs in the Soviet Union.
Freed had earlier suffered severe internal injuries in a car crash. He was a heavy drinker; his son said years later that he had never seen him drunk, but Freed was not supposed to drink at all. He was an enthusiastic man who enjoyed life; in refusing throughout his career to play white covers of black hits he had made enemies, and it seemed he could not stay out of trouble. He was fired from WABC in late 1959 for refusing to sign an affidavit to the effect that he had never accepted payola; his combination of honesty and naivety resulted in twenty-six charges of commercial bribery. He escaped with fines and a suspended jail sentence, but his career was over and his health was failing; he died a broken man in 1965, facing charges of income tax evasion. Cashbox wrote that 'he suffered the most ... for alleged wrongs that had become a way of life for many others', and which for the most part were not against the law when he committed them; but the hypocrites had got their scapegoat.
Both Freed and Clark did their bit to break down racism. Clark's dance party program integrated a live network show in 1957, allowing black teenaged couples to join the whites without any fanfare, not knowing if they would get away with it. He later said that the first time he talked to a black kid on the air he was frightened to death, but there was not one single complaining letter out of fifteen thousand a week. (To put this in context, it was not until well into the 1960s that Duke Ellington's granddaughter became the first black in a mixed group of professional dancers on television.)
Clark was seen by some as a goody-goody who was let off lightly while Freed was ruined, but Clark was simply better at public relations. He told the hearings that he felt as though he had been convicted of something before he had even testified, and years later was still bitter, describing politicians as pimps. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1989 he observed that the whole thing had been about headlines: congressmen left the hearings early to make the evening television news. One was a drunk who did not even know who Clark was; the most insulting interrogating lawyer would afterwards ask Clark for an autograph and to pose for a snapshot. The government finally sent Clark back to work with a pat on the head, but they had broken into his home and tapped his phone: he was twenty-seven years old and he was shocked. It is worth remembering that those were the Eisenhower years, before assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate; most people still hoped that the government was on the up and up, but Clark learned early that the lawyers in Congress are worse than the rest. According to Rolling Stone, he is even more scathing off the record; what he learned from the payola hearings was 'Protect your ass at all times.'
So far as his image is concerned, he also points out that his suit-and-tie style deflected criticism of rock'n'roll, and that most of the people who have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made their television debuts on American Bandstand. He had all the wild ones on his programme that parents hated most, such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, though not Elvis. (It was a low-budget show, and Tom Parker would not allow his boy to appear for a low fee, while others who demanded big money from Perry Como and Ed Sullivan did American Bandstand for scale.) When Hank Ballard didn't turn up to record 'The Twist', Clark gave the job to a former chicken-plucker named Ernest Evans, and Clark's wife changed his name to Chubby Checker. There was also Clark's Caravan of Stars: an integrated group of big-name entertainers toured the USA, including the Deep South, on a bus for sixty or ninety days.
All Clark did was 'stock the store with what the public wanted', but inevitably, given the association with Philadelphia, where so much cheap pop came from, he was linked with music as poor as anything before or since. About a recording artist such as Fabian, Clark observes that he was a sign of the times; the fans went for his looks, not his singing. The uncomfortable question remains: did Alan Freed play Fabian's records?
One of the first teen-pop stars was Ricky Nelson. Bandleader Ozzie Nelson had married his vocalist, Harriet Hilliard, and, with their sons David and Ricky, their Ozzie and Harriet was a top-rated sitcom on radio and then television, and is still typical of American television in its idealization of family life (not necessarily intended as a put-down). Ricky Nelson's first hit was part of a plot: Elvis Presley was big, and Ricky wanted to impress a girlfriend. 'A Teenager's Romance' (on Verve) was pretty lame, but it was a hit, and it is interesting that he covered a Fats Domino hit on the flip side rather than imitating Presley: 'I'm Walkin' ' also entered the chart, around Ricky's 17th birthday in May 1957. Having plugged his first record on a top-rated national showcase, he was snapped up by Imperial, Domino's label, where he stayed well into the 1960s. He improved as a vocalist; produced by Jimmy Haskell with Ozzie meddling, he achieved several gold records in a row, and they were not bad pop records. The best of his later work falls into the country rock category; his Stone Canyon Band in 1969 used excellent sidemen, such as James Burton. He had many fans when he was killed in a plane crash in 1985.
In July of 1957 Canadian Paul Anka, almost a year older than Nelson, reached number one with 'Diana'. A successful songwriter as well as a vocalist, Anka turned out to have staying power, and had over fifty hits in the Billboard chart in the 1970s. He had his own television show in 1973 and was long popular in Las Vegas. His best-known accomplishment is the English lyric he wrote to a French song, 'Comme d'habitude', which became 'My Way' and was sung by Frank Sinatra in 1967. It is hard to argue with success, but 'Diana' was trash, a brash bellowing of a teenage heartache, to say nothing of the banal harshness of the sound of the record. Any girl responding to 'Put Your Head on My Shoulder' (1959) must have used earplugs as a precaution. His expertise was not in rock'n'roll but in parting teens from their money.
But much worse was to come. Frankie Avalon, born Francis Avallone in Philadelphia, was more than a year younger than Nelson; he played trumpet as a child on radio and television with Paul Whiteman. He was seventeen when he reached the top ten with 'Dede Dinah' in 1958, and he then had twenty-four hits up to 1962, of which the only one I remember is 'Venus', an inescapable number one for five weeks in 1959. He sounded like a kid who had been inveigled into singing at a high-school dance, having no idea that he was making a fool of himself; in only six years we had come from 'Doggie in the Window' to 'Venus'. It mattered to me, deeply mattered, that he could not sing at all; already a lifelong music fan, the same age as Avalon, I could not figure out where this junk was coming from, and I was ashamed for my generation. Then came Fabian, also from Philadelphia, who was barely fifteen in early 1959, when he had the first of ten hits in two years. These two oafs were the real beginning of what is remembered as the 'teen idol' era.
They were both on the same label, Chancellor, which was formed in 1958 by Peter de Angelis. The promoter was Bob Marcucci, who was consultant to the well-made film The Idolmaker (1980), based on the period. The promoter in the film is a frustrated performer and songwriter himself, and makes a star out of a nasty Italian-American kid he knows from local cabaret; the payola is graphically illustrated. The promoter (played well by Ray Sharkey) is betrayed by his star, and sets out to find another good-looking boy (a waiter in the film) who has no experience or discernible talent, but whom he can mould. Most of the music in the film is infinitely better than the Philadelphia hits of 1958 to 1960; written by Jeff Barry and sung by Jessie Frederick (dubbing for actor Paul Land), the cabaret rock gives no idea at all of the awfulness of the stuff of the period. At the end the film asks whether the waiter has any real talent, but we already know the answer. The period was sent up by Stan Freberg, whose character Clyde Ankle is discovered on his front porch. I quote from memory:
'Hey, kid, ya wanna be a star?'
The Cameo and Parkway labels were formed by songwriters Karl Mann and Bernie Lowe; they issued recordings by Charlie Gracie, also from Philadelphia, a good guitarist with a rockabilly vocal style who had only three hits, all in 1957, including 'Butterfly'. Bobby Rydell (born Ridarelli, in Philadelphia) had played drums in 1956 in a group with Avalon, but was a much better singer. His forgettable material did not keep him from having thirty chart hits from 1959 to 1965. Parkway was also Chubby Checker's label. Freddy Cannon (born Picariello, in Massachusetts) had a hit on the Swan label in 1959, 'Tallahassee Lassie', which was written by his mother; Dickie Doo and the Don'ts (Philadelphia) also recorded 'Click-clack' and 'Nee Nee Na Na Na Na Nu Nu' on Swan. In case teenagers did not have enough trouble with puppy love and pimples, the death song arrived and became a genre all its own; the Los Angeles Demon label offered Jody Reynolds on 'Endless Sleep', a top five hit.
Not all the hits were totally devoid of merit, and some had interesting aspects. Jimmy Clanton, from Louisiana, recorded 'Just a Dream', a rockaballad, in New Orleans, with a band that included Huey Smith on piano, Earl King on guitar and Lee Allen on tenor saxophone. But his later hits included 'Venus in Blue Jeans', written by Neil Sedaka. Bobby Vee came to fame because he knew the words to Buddy Holly's songs; his newly formed band replaced Holly in Fargo, North Dakota, when Holly did not make the gig. Among Vee's hits were 'Take Good Care of My Baby', 'Run to Him', 'The Night Has a Thousand Eyes' and 'Rubber Ball', the last co-written with Gene Pitney, whose biggest hit was 'It Hurts To Be In Love'. Then there was Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who recorded for Disney. Avalon and Funicello were still making beach party movies as late as 1965, but nobody will admit to having seen them.
Most of this material either had an irritatingly monotonous shuffle beat or was saccharine, banal and obvious in its sentiment, or both. As a body of songs it is beneath consideration and has nothing to do with R&B or rock'n'roll. Yet some of it is now regarded as classic early rock in some quarters, principally because no distinction is made between nostalgia and art. Around 1957 composer Virgil Thomson, one of the most highly respected music critics in American history, spoke at New York's Yale Club:
[A] society must have some vulgarity if it is to have vigor and energy. As for Presley ... he has never missed an engagement, or given a bad show, and that is the mark of a responsible workman. Twenty years ago, Frank Sinatra created a scandal as Presley does today. Frank Sinatra was at the time a first-class artist-workman and so is Presley.
Rock'n'roll was not the problem. The taste-makers of earlier times were musicians (mainly bandleaders), then the DJs, who played records because they liked them. By 1960 they had been sidelined and a generation of corporate record men had abdicated; broadcasting had sold its soul to a youth market which was encouraged to think that people with talent were kids just like them. What we now call pop music (defined as what we hear on the radio, and including a large amount of 'rock') was invented in the late 1950s in an artistic and commercial vacuum. Layers of this lucrative, faddish rubbish have been accumulating ever since.