The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The 1960s: A Folk Boom, a British Invasion, the Soul Years, and the Legacy of an Era
Like everything else in post-war Britain, popular music was controlled by an ineffective establishment. Rationing of consumer goods went on for many years after the Second World War, as the British desperately tried to be polite to one another rather than allowing the market to do its work. This contributed to a continuing British drabness while the Germans and the Japanese were well on the way to recovery.
Which musics would make money in Britain was decided by this establishment through the BBC; as a result, popular music was a mixture inherited from the British variety tradition of music hall.
Pianist Winifred Atwell, whose cheerful keyboard hits from 1952 included 'Britannia Rag', 'Coronation Rag', 'Let's Have a Party' and 'Let's Have Another Party', was perhaps typical of this. Venezuelan-born drummer Edmundo Ros had recorded with Fats Waller in London in 1938; his Latin dance band, said to be one of Princess Margaret's favourites, had a hit in the USA in 1950 with 'The Wedding Samba'. In 1952 Vera Lynn, the most popular British vocalist during the war, reached number one in the USA with her British top ten hit 'Auf Wiederseh'n'. Arranger-conductor Frank Chacksfield's lush instrumentals 'Limelight' and 'Ebb Tide' were hits in 1953, and David Whitfield's operatic voice reached the USA top ten with 'Cara Mia' in 1954, backed by Mantovani. All of these were on the London label in America, aided by excellent sound, but in general British pop music was not exported; Alma Cogan had her own UK television show, but she is remembered as much for her gowns as for her voice. American stars like Johnnie Ray, Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine, Perry Como and the rest were so popular in Britain that it was noteworthy when British vocalist Dickie Valentine sold out the London Palladium.
The big band of trombonist Ted Heath, formed in 1944 and one of the best of the post-war era, at various times boasted such fine musicians as drummer Jack Parnell, trombonist Don Lusher, trumpeter Kenny Baker and tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott. Valentine was the band's vocalist, and later a solo success: among his biggest hits was a cover of Frankie Avalon's 'Venus'. Heath's band had a few hit singles in the early 1950s, but in general the Big Band Era was over in Britain as it was in the USA.
British jazz fans had a hard time of it, because until 1956 the British musicians' union would not allow American musicians to perform in Britain unless there was a reciprocal opportunity in the USA for British musicians. Visiting American stars might have made news and generated enthusiasm for the music in general, while home-grown British jazz musicians did not have much work anyway, and wanted to see their heroes in action and perhaps get a chance to play with them. But when Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and others toured Europe, they could not work in Britain, for the government let the unions call the shots. It was only in instrumental music that this discrimination was practiced; as in the USA during the musicians' union strikes, pop singers came and went freely.
As rhythm and blues began to have its influence in the USA, it was not heard on the radio in Britain, and few American blacks toured there at first, except for a small number of bluesmen who were seen as folk artists. The British Isles are rich in folk heritages, but unlike the rural musics of America, British folk forms never became urbanized and commercial. This is part of the reason why American country music has always had as big a following in Britain as the indigenous folk music, if not bigger. While Americans sold their popular culture down the river, Britain stood at the opposite extreme: if there was any hint of payola on the BBC, the artist and the song publisher would be banned for a year. But musical conservatism caused pressure to build up. British kids were fascinated by rock'n'roll, but they had to hear it on Radio Luxembourg or on pirate radio.
In the early 1960s the BBC offered the Home Service (chat, public service and cosiness), the Light Programme (entertainment) and the Third Programme, which was not just classical music, like Radio 3 today: it was the BBC's finest hour, a showcase of all aspects of European high culture, a sort of university of the air. The widest knowledge of American trends was found in seaports such as Liverpool, where merchant seamen often brought home records that were not played on the BBC, or in London, where a few shops had imported records.
Then on Easter Sunday in 1964 Radio Caroline opened up. Caroline (named after President Kennedy's daughter by its operator, Ronan O'Rahilly) and her sister ship, Mi Amigo, were anchored in the Channel at opposite ends of Britain, and had an audience of 22 million on Sunday mornings. 'They took the music that only London hipsters were listening to,' remembered one old fan, 'all those rare, imported records, and put them where spotty little bozos like me could have their minds twisted.'
The Marine Offences Bill of 1967 made advertising on pirate radio illegal, but by then BBC Radio had transformed itself into Radio 1 for pop-rock, 2 mainly for chat and drama, 3 for classical and 4 for news and chat, some drama and very little music. (There were later also thirty-nine local BBC stations in England, which play some music, and then Radio 5, which in the 1990s was floundering.) Caroline's more popular DJs found work on the BBC; Caroline reopened in 1973 and limped along until 1989, but its work had been done. Meanwhile it is hard for an American who grew up within range of Dick Biondi on Chicago's WLS to imagine how frustrating radio was to a British kid in the early 1960s, and this goes some way towards explaining the hysteria that eventually occurred.
Jazz in Britain was based on the style of the Swing Era until a New Orleans revival began during the Second World War; George Webb's Dixielanders trained trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, who later went more modern. In the 1950s the revival was watered down (as in America) to become 'trad', which had a considerable following. Lyttelton's musical integrity, gigs and recordings with visiting Americans such as Buck Clayton and Buddy Tate have ensured his influence; his only hit single, 'Bad Penny Blues' (1956), however, is inane, repetitious and unrepresentative of his work. Knowing how popular trad was in Britain in those years, one is surprised to learn that there were so few hit singles. It remained a cult until around 1960; American-born film director Richard Lester later became famous directing the Beatles, but his first feature was It's Trad, Dad! in 1961. The Temperance Seven had a number one hit that year with 'You're Driving Me Crazy' from 1930 (their trombone player was John R.T. Davies, also a transfer engineer who has been responsible for an uncountable number of excellent transfers to modern master tape of old 78s). Trumpeter Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen had fourteen hits from 1961, perhaps because he led one of the worst trad bands; 'Midnight in Moscow', a Russian tune, was also a success in the USA. Trombonist Chris Barber and his Jazz Band had a big transatlantic hit with 'Petite Fleur', written by Sidney Bechet in 1952, a pretty record, mostly a solo by clarinettist Monty Sunshine, who seemed to imitate Bechet's vibrato but actually sounded more like Boyd Senter, an American dance band leader of the 1920s.
Trad never became a force in British pop, but soon gave rise to another genre that did. Anthony Donegan, from Glasgow, changed his name to Lonnie in homage to bluesman Lonnie Johnson; he played guitar or banjo in trad bands, and began appearing on stage between sets playing what came to be called skiffle. The cheap Spanish guitar, the washboard and the bass made out of a tea-chest and a broom-handle created a do-it-yourself movement, causing countless British schoolboys to take up the guitar.
The word 'skiffle' had already been used in the USA to describe music played by those who were too poor to buy musical instruments and used washboards, jugs and so on instead; 'Hometown Skiffle' (on Paramount, 1929), one of the first samplers, included the Hokum Boys and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like rock'n'roll in the USA, skiffle was a novelty at first, but it is impossible to overestimate its importance. As one British writer put it, 'A strange bedlam was taking over which had nothing to do with anything we had previously known.' This would not be a bad description of the impact of rock'n'roll in the USA. One of the skiffle hits was a portent of things to come: both Donegan and the Vipers Skiffle Group had hits with 'Don't You Rock Me Daddy-o', written by members of the Vipers, some of whom later turned to electric guitars and became the Shadows, the best-known British rock band of the early 1960s.
Another skiffle hit, with an indefinably sweet sound, was 'Freight Train', by the Charles McDevitt Skiffle Group and singer Nancy Whiskey. It reached the UK top five in 1957 on the Oriole label, an independent soon purchased by CBS to form the basis of CBS UK, and also entered the top 40 in the USA. The song had been written by Elizabeth Cotton as a child; Libba was a protégée of the Seeger family. But Donegan was the first and most successful skiffler; in early 1956 his 'Rock Island Line' beat Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' to the British charts by several months. The popular British jazz singer Beryl Bryden played washboard on that record.
Skiffle was easy to satirize. 'Rock Island Line' was also a hit in the USA, where it was sent up by Stan Freberg; in the UK Jim Dale recorded 'Piccadilly Line'. The genre plundered the American folksongs of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, some of which had antecedents in Britain to begin with. Donegan's over 30 UK hits included 'Lost John', 'Stewball', 'Cumberland Gap' and 'Grand Coolie Dam', but also his own quintessentially British 'My Old Man's a Dustman' (or 'garbageman', as we say in the USA), and the 1924 hit 'Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight'. Donegan was another beneficiary of Decca/London's excellent sound, which all through the 1950s was a light-year ahead of RCA's. When he recorded the music hall material, he was accused by folk purists of selling out.
'Freight Train' had been introduced to Britain by Peggy Seeger, whose husband, Ewan MacColl, was born James Miller, of Scottish parents, in the English town of Salford, and grew up there at a time when the social attitude of 'us and them' was the only realistic one to take. He learned proletarian songs from his parents, and took the name of an obscure Scottish poet. In those days what is still called the working class in Britain was inclined to try to better itself; MacColl spent much time reading in public libraries, joined the communist party and spent the rest of his life making a case for the proletariat. With his first wife, Joan Littlewood, he formed a theatre workshop in London in 1945, and became a highly regarded playwright. He later turned to folk music with Seeger, his third wife; he wrote some fine songs, among them 'Dirty Old Town', based on his memories of Salford, which was covered by Rod Stewart, and 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', a love song for Seeger, which was a number one hit in the USA for Roberta Flack in 1972 and has become a cabaret standard (partly because it was included in Clint Eastwood's film Play Misty for Me). Through all his various activities and workshops, including documentaries on radio about the working class and its music, MacColl had become one of the most important British folkies.MacColl and Seeger were delighted with skiffle. Young people making their own music could be influenced by the songs of their ancestors, and indeed a folk revival seemed to be happening, in the USA as well as in the UK. Alan Lomax, son of the pioneering folklorist John Lomax, lived in Britain during the 1950s, and gave some encouragement. Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a singing cowboy from Brooklyn and Woody Guthrie acolyte, spent most of the 1950s in Europe, especially England, where his guitar playing influenced folk music. And in the 1950s some Americans still followed the peripatetic fortunes of the Weavers.
Children always love folksongs, which are easy to remember, easy to sing and seem to be about things that matter. Such musicians as Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy and Win Stracke ('Chicago's Minstrel') often worked for and with children. Some of these artists were not taken in by the cranks in the American communist party: Ives testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the party's attempts to co-opt folk music for its own ends; Canadian-born Brand refused to testify and was not subpoenaed. MacColl was chairman of the Pete Seeger Committee in London in 1961 during the period when Seeger was being persecuted. It is a nasty paradox for those who love both music and freedom that while the USSR devoted resources to researching and preserving its multitude of folk styles before they disappeared, the Library of Congress's archive needed private donations, and Pete Seeger, collecting songs around the world, was blacklisted.
Folkish sounds had occasionally been heard in U.S. pop during the 1950s. Harry Belafonte's cabaret-style calypso was very successful; his 1956 album, which was number one for 31 weeks, included 'Banana Boat (Day-o)', of which there were half a dozen hit versions. Since an increasing number of people from the Caribbean were settling in Britain, and especially London, real calypso could be heard there. One of the most attractive U.S. hits of the period was 'Summertime, Summertime', by the Jamies, a quartet led by Tom Janison, who wrote the song; its combination of bounce and almost medieval harmony made the top 40 twice. Around 1960 Continental Cafe on Chicago's Channel 9 regularly presented international folk dancers and singers, among them the young Judy Collins.
Folk music goes in and out of fashion; by the late 1980s it was in fashion once again, included in 'roots' music. When folk music is not in fashion, it is always there on obscure labels in specialist shops for those who want it, and those who do not want it are people who have no souls. In October 1990 on a BBC TV programme about MacColl, a year after his death, Peggy Seeger, accompanied by her own autoharp and a discreet background guitar, sang 'Thoughts of Time': it was one of the most frankly and directly beautiful musical moments I have ever seen on television.
The folk act that made the biggest stir in the late 1950s was the Kingston Trio, three California boys who deflected the left-wing taint attached in America to folksingers by wearing matching shortsleeved shirts and short haircuts. Their whole act was so slick that purists dismissed them, but their intent was honest enough; their first and biggest hit, in 1958, was a real folk-song, 'Tom Dooley', about a man who was hanged for murder in 1866. When Dave Guard, who wrote 'Scotch and Soda', later a cabaret staple, left the group and formed the Whiskey Hill Singers with Judy Henske, he was replaced by John Stewart, who remained a much-loved singer-songwriter until his death in 2008. The Kingston Trio eventually had six alumni, 17 Hot 100 singles and over 30 albums. They inspired the Brothers Four, the Highwaymen and other such groups, including perhaps the Limeliters: Glen Yarbrough, Lou Gottlieb and Alex Hassilev were good singers with an amusing cabaret act who had only one minor hit single, but ten chart albums in four years from 1961. Clearly there was a market hungry for folk, even if it was urban folk.
In 1959 the Kingston Trio were booked for the first Newport Folk Festival, where they were outclassed by the likes of Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, John Jacob Niles, Jean Ritchie, Brand and McCurdy. Niles, one of the patriarchs of folk music, presented old songs in a formal style rather than as early hillbilly music. Jean Ritchie was born in a Kentucky family of fourteen. Her parents collected songs, and were visited by English folklorist Cecil Sharpe in 1922, five years before Jean was born; in the 1930s the family was recorded by John and Alan Lomax. Later Jean was on the board of directors of the original Newport Folk Festival.
The sensation at Newport in 1959 and 1960, however, must have been Joan Baez, whose first albums on Vanguard, made in 1960-61, reached high in the Billboard chart, and were followed by live concert sets which did even better. Born in 1941, Baez was a revelation for her own generation, playing acoustic guitar and singing in a silvery soprano straight unfussy versions of Child ballads (collected by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century) and similar material, such as the Scottish border song 'Mary Hamilton' and 'House Carpenter' (from the 'daemon lover' genre). 'Wildwood Flower' was a Carter Family song, the melody of which Woody Guthrie had used for his 'Reuben James' (about a disaster at sea). Baez's contemporaries also knew that the compilers of blacklists had had their day: she sang Guthrie's 'Pretty Boy Floyd', and Malvina Reynolds's 'What Have They Done to the Rain?' Thus in popular music the new decade began with chart success for Motown on the one hand, as black pop was coming of age, and folk music which was not preserved in aspic on the other.
After fighting for democracy during the war, Seeger had started People's Songs, Inc., to publish songs, which was taken seriously by the FBI. In May 1947 the United States Army's Weekly Domestic Intelligence Summary listed PSI as a communist front. In September its tiny staff was joined by Irwin Silber, a left-wing college kid who was sounder on radical theory than on compassion. When Leadbelly died in 1949 he was on welfare, but Silber complained about Seeger misusing Leadbelly's music when the Weavers had their hit with 'Goodnight Irene' in 1950; Leadbelly's widow was taking in laundry, and no doubt did not misuse the money. (Review the story of Seeger and the Weavers in Chapter 12.) The American far left had long been dominated by people like Silber. With the American communist party marginalized, its membership and its ties with the unions shrinking, Seeger drifted away, hoping that the fundamental democracy implicit in folk music would seep through to the people. This did not prevent him from being victimized by paranoia on both left and right; while he was building a house with his own hands during this period, living through the first winter in New York State without any heat and feeding his family on beans, his former comrades and others kept a rumour going that he had a lavish estate on the Hudson. But his aim was to get America singing, and during the 1950s he flitted from one meeting hall or college campus to another, often coming and going before the local patriots could organize themselves to keep him out. Whatever his views on communism, his musical instinct was correct: when the Weavers sang 'Rock Island Line', the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated them for sedition; when Lonnie Donegan had a hit with the same song a few years later, the only result was the Freberg send-up. The USA had survived a non-existent internal communist menace, and also a tendency towards Stalinist show trials.
The songbook Sing Out! was edited by Silber from 1951 to 1967. When Seeger visited England in 1961, he was impressed with the number of topical songs being written; he went home and formed Broadside. During that decade the coffee houses nurtured scores of folk-oriented singer-songwriters: Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Rush and Eric Andersen were from Cambridge, Massachusetts; Tom Paxton and Dave Van Ronk in New York City were joined by Phil Ochs, David Blue, Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie and many others; Bob Dylan, John Prine and Steve Goodman blew in from the Midwest; Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ian and Sylvia came from Canada, Judy Collins from Colorado through Chicago; and there were more all over the country. Some of these had songs published in Sing Out! or Broadside.
The greatest of all these was Dylan, who was introduced by Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.
Like almost everyone else of his generation, Dylan had grown up cut off from the pre-war history of popular music, but began catching up at an early age. He listened to Little Richard and Buddy Holly; maybe he really did play piano with Bobby Vee. He certainly valued Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie; he made his way to New York and joined the folk boom while still a teenager. The only category he could fit into was the category of people who come from nowhere; his home town of Hibbing, Minnesota, had no 'other side of the tracks'. The mainstream music business that had tried to ignore Elvis Presley meant nothing to him at first; he went to the East Coast because that was where Woody Guthrie was.
Some people thought that Dylan had the solution to the banal hypocrisy of the post-war era. He had a relatively small number of fans; of about thirty albums in the twenty-five years from 1962, only two were certified as million-sellers. But crazies picked through his garbage, urban terrorists named themselves after a phrase in a Dylan lyric, college professors lectured on Dylan's words, and they all missed the point. One of Dylan's intellectual predecessors was a radical union leader early in the century, Eugene V. Debs, who told a cheering crowd of railway workers that if they needed him to lead them into the promised land, somebody else would lead them right back out again. Dylan never intended to tell anyone what to think; the only thing he understood was that there is nothing to be understood, that there are no rules and no answers except those that come from within us as individuals. That is what freedom ultimately means; but this was not convenient for a generation who became consumers in the end, like every generation, and wanted their politics off the shelf, like breakfast food.
Dylan was ignored by Folkways, Vanguard and Elektra, the primary folk labels of the early 1960s, but was signed to Columbia by John Hammond. His first album in early 1962 was a straight folk album (described by a Columbia salesman visiting a record shop in Chicago as a 'piece of shit'). It should have included 'Talking John Birch Society Blues', but Columbia would not allow it. The second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, was completely different, and a bombshell, consisting almost entirely of originals: 'Blowin' in the Wind', 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall' and a few others made him a 'protest ' singer, though in retrospect were merely pithy observations. Everybody was writing anti-war songs, like Dylan's 'Masters of War', or 'Talkin' World War III Blues'. 'The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,' Dylan wrote, and it still is. He changed nothing, but he never said he would.
Dylan did what Cole Porter had done in a very different decade, and for a very different audience. He combined cadences and catchphrases from everyday speech in such a way that they re-entered the language, but instead of promoting escapism into a world of penthouses and evening clothes, Dylan offered solace to a generation living on a moral desolation row. We had grown up in an era when many of America's friends were butchers, all breeding chickens which would come home to roost, from Trujillo, Batista and Samoza in our own back yard to generals and potentates in the Middle East and Asia; the threat of nuclear war was becoming tiresome and the Cold War merely good for business. We were tired of it, but could only keep on keepin' on, in spite of the blood on the tracks.
Dylan continued to accompany himself on harmonica and acoustic guitar. His third and fourth albums contained much rich material, and then Bringing It All Back Home (1965) included a whole side that seemed to top off Dylan's acoustic era: 'Mr Tambourine Man', 'Gates of Eden', 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' and 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' were all masterpieces. But on side one of the album he was backed by an electric rock band. Rock'n'roll came of age with Dylan, just as its element of folk music had been revived.
At a Newport Folk Festival in that period the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was loud and electric, and nobody was bothered, because few in the audience knew anything about the blues anyway. But when Dylan's electric set began, fans as well as the Seegers and the MacColls were outraged, perhaps because they knew that their time was over. Their best songs would live, but their politics had been rendered absurd by history; we may not be able to keep our politicians under control, but we don't have to work on Maggie's farm if we don't want to. Irritated by criticism of his new music, Dylan said, 'Folk music is a bunch of fat people.' Some of the controversy was caused by the endemic problem of electric rock that it is nearly always unnecessarily loud; but for better or worse, among the influences on Dylan were skifflers from Liverpool who spearheaded the British Invasion of 1964.
The Quarrymen, one of countless British schoolboy groups inspired by skiffle and/or rock'n'roll, was formed in Liverpool in 1956 by John Lennon, who named it after his school. Lennon sang and played rhythm guitar; Paul McCartney on rhythm guitar and George Harrison on lead were added in 1957. In 1958 Lennon's close friend from art school joined; Stuart Sutcliffe could not play at first, but he had money from the sale of a painting which he was willing to spend on a bass guitar. As they evolved from skiffle to rock'n'roll, the group's name changed to Johnny and the Moondogs; for the next incarnation Sutcliffe suggested Beetles, after Buddy Holly's Crickets, and Lennon's predilection for puns finally made them the Beatles. Their first regular drummer was Pete Best, whose broody good looks made him a heart-throb among Liverpool fans.
Like many overnight sensations they served a long apprenticeship, playing in tough seaside clubs in Hamburg, Germany, for prostitutes, drunks and slumming tourists while honing their stagecraft. Like a good number of show business folk, they took amphetamines and other drugs to keep going; the squeaky-clean Beatles of a few years later had little to do with the rough-and-ready English rock'n'roll band that played covers of American hits. They also began writing songs of their own.
In between their Hamburg tours they played hundreds of gigs at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, thereby building up a substantial local following. They had recorded in Germany (produced by bandleader Bert Kaempfert), backing UK pop singer Tony Sheridan on a few tracks which did nothing, but their fans in Liverpool began asking for the imported record. Brian Epstein, manager of the record department of his parents' furniture emporium, was intrigued to learn that they were a local band. He was a middle-class Jewish boy and an unhappy homosexual (at a time when it was still illegal in Britain to be a practicing homosexual) and he preferred classical music, but he literally fell in love with the Beatles, and became their manager. The orthodoxy is that Epstein was a poor businessman, but that can only be said with hindsight; nobody predicted the extent of Beatlemania, and, as Lennon put it after Epstein's death from an accidental drug overdose, they never would have made it without him.
Sutcliffe was not a good musician and did not get along with McCartney, who wanted to play bass. He left in 1961 to settle in Hamburg with his German girlfriend, photographer Astrid Kirchherr; he died of a brain tumour. Kirchherr had influenced the group's sartorial style, including their haircuts, which though seen as traditional English 'pudding bowl' cuts, were modelled on what upper-class German boys had worn for decades. Kirchherr's photographs represent the beginning of the importance of visual style, which would carry more weight in pop than the music. Her then boyfriend, Klaus Voorman, was also impressed by the group, and became an influential designer of record covers. Epstein forced the boys to sharpen up their act, nagging them about deportment and reliability, and building their image on what Kirchherr had started; then he began trying to get them a recording contract. Decca, among others, turned them down, a mistake that lives in history. Then came an audition with George Martin.
Martin became one of the most famous producers in history, and was known as the fifth Beatle. He had attended the Guildhall School of Music and worked in the BBC music library before joining Parlophone as an assistant. Parlophone had been an internationally famous record label; in the 1920s it issued records by pianist Claudio Arrau, for example, and was the main British source of jazz records in its Parlophone Rhythm Style series (which included issues of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five) . But by the 1960s it had become EMI's repository for material that did not belong anywhere else. Martin produced a Scottish dance band led by Jimmy Shand, and the hit novelty 'Experiments with Mice' (1956) by Johnny Dankworth, in which the British saxophonist led a group playing 'Three Blind Mice' in the styles of Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton and others. Martin made comedy records by Peter Ustinov and Peter Sellers, as well as skiffle hits.
The Beatles recorded 'Love Me Do' at an audition, and Martin, seeing something in their raw energy, advised Epstein that Pete Best was not good enough. Best seemed to be the odd man out anyway, unimpressed as he was by Kirchherr's ideas, so the group recruited Richard Starkey, alias Ringo Starr, from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, another Liverpool group which had shared the Hamburg gigs. A recording of 'Love Me Do' by the new quartet reached the top 20 of the British charts in October 1962. 'Please Please Me', number two early the next year, was followed by three number ones; the Beatles could not go anywhere in public without being mobbed, and popular music would never be the same again: rock'n'roll began to change to rock, which was no longer a fad, and in the decade of the 1960s the music business was altered beyond recognition.
Philip Norman, in his Shout! The Story of The Beatles (1981), described what Kirchherr had captured in her photographs as their 'would-be toughness and undisguisable, all-protecting innocence'. For all Lennon's cynicism, a blanket of self-protection that came from his background as an orphan, and for all the high-jinks they had got up to in Hamburg's Reeperbahn, they were still Liverpool lads who could not believe their luck. They were greater than the sum of their parts; Lennon and McCartney wrote the songs, Lennon's acerbity balancing McCartney's tendency to sweetness, and their native cheekiness was a sort of genuine bravado. The music of the British Invasion represented a climax of a decade of pop jingles. It was British variety influenced by the first wave of rock'n'roll, which was already over in the USA. The Beatles did it better than anyone else, and should have been the end of it, instead of inspiring generations of imitators. As long as the baby boom lasted, there was an inexhaustible supply of children who wanted either to be pop stars or to worship pop stars, so the business accommodated itself to raking in increasing amounts of money, and there was no reason to change anything, except that more accountants were required. Meanwhile, Bing Crosby, American cinema and Broadway songs had invaded and conquered Britain for decades, so now the British reversed the flow for a time.
'Love Me Do' was a sort of bouncy white blues which had the virtue of simplicity, and there was something pleasant about their essentially folkish harmony. 'She Loves You' was unremarkable, its 'Yeah, yeah yeah' chorus typical of the trashiness of pop. 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' was worse: one of the most irritating aspects of pop was the growing tendency not to bother writing a song at all; and the seven notes on the word 'hand' was a good example of the use of a cheap white imitation of melisma to disguise the paucity of the lyrics. This was a warning of the triumph of style over substance that was already taking place in pop, but in the Beatles' case better work was to come. They were tempted to follow Ringo around with pencil and paper because of the way he talked: 'That was a hard day's night,' he said after one gig, which gave them the name of a song and of their first film.
Capitol Records had been sold to EMI in 1955 for £3 million. Joseph Lockwood was criticized for paying so much, but by the end of the decade the label of Frank Sinatra, Nat 'King' Cole, the Kingston Trio and others was said to be worth £85 million. The UK came up with rock'n'roll stars such as Tommy Hicks (renamed Tommy Steele) who were pale imitations of the U.S. product, until they found Cliff Richard, who in thirty years had only 19 hit singles in the USA, but a hundred in the UK. (Steele, not so incidentally, became an all-round entertainer in the end, in the music hall rather than the Presley tradition.) Billboard published an annual list of the world's best-selling artists based on charts in 34 countries, and suddenly in 1963 the top four were Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley, the Shadows (Cliff's backing band) and Frank Ifield, an Australian-born pop singer who specialized in old songs. All except Presley shared the same label (EMI-Columbia), producer (Norrie Paramor), manager and agent. Number seven on the list were the Beatles, also EMI artists, who the following year went to the top. Capitol in the USA passed on all of them, quite understandably; neither Richard nor Ifield became superstars in the USA, while the Ventures, a guitar band from Seattle, were already the homegrown equivalent of the Shadows. And who could have expected four kids from Liverpool to become the biggest act of a new era?
Frank Ifield's 'I Remember You' (a top ten hit by Jimmy Dorsey in 1944) was a top five U.S. hit in 1963 on Vee-Jay, the black-owned Chicago label which also picked up the Beatles. After Motown in Detroit and Duke/Peacock in Houston (which remained strictly R&B and gospel), Vee-Jay was the most important black-owned label in the USA. It had been formed in 1953 by Vivian Carter Bracken and James Bracken, who were joined by Vivian's brother Calvin Carter. Their biggest act was the guitarist and singer Jimmy Reed, who also wrote songs and played a harmonica fixed on a wire bracket around his neck, as street singers had done and as Dylan did later. Reed's blues had a sweetness that took the edge off the usual Chicago passion; he began crossing over to the pop chart in 1957. Soul balladeer Jerry Butler had fourteen Vee-Jay hits between 1960 and 1966, nearly all of which dented the white chart; the Spaniels, the Dells and the El Dorados were vocal groups who crossed over. Frankie Valli was lead singer and Bob Gaudio (formerly of the Royal Teens) keyboard player and tunesmith in the Four Seasons, a white group which had three number ones in the pop chart in 1962 and 1963 on Vee-Jay before moving to Philips. There were many more Vee-Jay hits by Dee Clark, Rosco Gordon, John Lee Hooker and others; Gene Chandler's 'Duke of Earl' was a number one in both the white and black charts in 1962.
Ifield's hit came from left field to make a little money for Vee-Jay in 1963, more than a year after it had been more successful in England. The label had also taken a chance on 'Please Please Me' and 'From Me to You' back to back, the Beatles' second and third UK hits from early 1963, but they made no mark in the USA at first. Vee-Jay lost interest, and 'She Loves You' came out on Swan in the USA; 'Twist and Shout' / 'There's a Place' and 'Love Me Do' / 'P.S. I Love You' were issued in the USA on a Tollie label. But Capitol was prodded into action by their head office in London. As the Beatles flew to New York in January 1964 with an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show lined up, 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' backed with 'I Saw Her Standing There' was screaming up the USA pop chart, narrowly beating the Swan and Vee-Jay singles to the top. Vee-Jay had released the first Beatles album in the USA in July 1963, and it suddenly reached only number two in February 1964, because a Capitol album was already at number one: hip fans sought out the imported Parlophone editions, because they had seven songs on each side instead of six, owing to different methods of calculating song royalties on albums. Adding further to the confusion, two of the Tollie tracks appeared on the first pressing of the Vee-Jay album, and had to be changed in later editions. And this success was the beginning of the end for Vee-Jay.
Having suddenly to buy truckloads of pressings of Beatle records meant that Vee-Jay was short of cash, because distributors sat for up to ninety days on money needed to pay for new pressings. But that was not the whole story; a label that had already achieved so much in a decade should have been in a better position. When Vee-Jay collapsed in 1965, there were recriminations about financial dishonesty, but the truth was probably more prosaic. Nelson George quotes an anonymous participant at a Vee-Jay party for a dozen Chicago DJs that took place in Las Vegas in the early 1960s: they were asked what they wanted, and they did not want free poker chips, they wanted women, so the company flew a dozen tall blondes from Oslo across the North Pole for the weekend, spending a good deal of money that would have come in handy a couple of years later. Vee-Jay might have been as big as Motown, but it did not have Berry Gordy watching the bottom line.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered in November 1963; in early 1964 the Beatles helped cheer up the nation. Music lovers had to withhold judgement until hearing the records: the screaming on Sullivan's show in February was insane. If you went to the shopping mall to buy a Beatles album and they were sold out, you could buy the Dave Clark Five instead; this was another EMI act on which Capitol had passed, a beat group formed in London to benefit a football club. All they could do was thump, but they sold records.
Between 1963 and 1965, the height of the British Invasion (so dubbed by Billboard), fifteen EMI acts reached the chart in the USA, only six of which eventually appeared on Capitol. Capitol mopped up what was left of Vee-Jay and rode the gravy train for a few years: Nat Cole, whose Capitol albums are also still selling decades later, telephoned one day to be greeted by a cheerful 'Capitol Records, Home of the Beatles!' After the Fab Four broke up in 1970, Capitol found itself with a rack-jobbing distributorship, a mail-order record club and a bloated staff of hangers-on and their girlfriends, all losing money. The once great label formed by Johnny Mercer and his friends was managed no better than Vee-Jay.
Years later Bob Dylan (in Anthony Scaduto's 1971 biography) remembered driving across country in 1964 with the Beatles all over the radio dial. 'Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid. You could only do that with other musicians ... I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go.' They were certainly pointing the direction in which rock would go, and gave Dylan the excuse to do it his way.
Another result of British interest in American roots music was a blues boom. Guitarist and vocalist Alexis Korner and banjoist turned harmonica player Cyril Davies had been members of Chris Barber's Jazz Band, which they left in 1961 to form Blues Incorporated. Despite visits from such bluesmen as Big Bill Broonzy, playing the blues was not an economic proposition. Caught between British imitation rock'n'roll and trad jazz, Korner and Davies played once a week or so in any club that would have them, ending up at the Marquee in London's Wardour Street. Davies left in 1962 to form his own All Stars, taking over Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages, in which Nicky Hopkins played piano. When Davies died of leukaemia, vocalist Long John Baldry stepped in and formed the Hoochie Koochie Men, which included vocalist Rod Stewart. Baldry and Stewart went to Brian Auger's Steampacket, an interesting group that did not succeed; Baldry took over Bluesology, whose keyboard player was Reg Dwight (who later became Elton John). David Sutch was a rocker who never had much commercial success; he imitated Screaming Jay Hawkins and Jack the Ripper on stage, and later stood for Parliament for the Raving Monster Loony Party. Hopkins played piano with most of the rock greats, while Baldry eventually took his big voice to ballads, where he won some acclaim.
The British blues boom was destined to be eclipsed by rock when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met on a train. They had been close friends when they were small, and they recognized each other and found something new in common: Jagger had been sending away to the USA for Chess albums, and had a bunch of them under his arm. They began to get together for private jams with Dick Taylor, who later formed the Pretty Things, a band which 'resembled nothing so much as Spitting Image puppets of the early Rolling Stones', according to English writer Charles Shaar Murray. When Jagger and Richards went to a gig at the Marquee, they heard a guest who sounded like Elmore James on slide guitar: Brian Jones. After adding older men Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums, they began performing.
'Can you imagine a British-composed R&B song? It just wouldn't make it,' said Jagger in 1963, before somebody told him how much money the Beatles were making with their own songs. But Jagger was right; British R&B was and is a contradiction in terms. The first Stones album included songs by Rufus Thomas, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Slim Harpo and even Motown artists (Holland-Dozier-Holland). They had their first UK chart entry in mid-1963; an American edition of their first album reached number eleven in the Billboard album chart in 1964, but many Americans could not figure out why they should listen to white English kids singing Chuck Berry when they could listen to Chuck Berry. Giorgio Gomelsky, manager of London's Crawdaddy Club, was the first manager of the Stones; the bluesmen visiting London used to get together at his home. He recalled, in Dixon's autobiography:
In fact, a song called 'Little Red Rooster' had been an R&B hit by someone called Margie Day in 1951, and Wolf had already recorded it. 'Little Red Rooster' was the first number one UK hit for the Stones, in November 1964. But songs like that, when performed by blacks for blacks in Chicago, were celebrations of the joy of sexuality; sung by spotty ex-schoolboys in Britain, they conjured up only sweaty palms. Whether that is fair or not is beside the point; there are social and economic as well as rhythmic reasons for this. Songs such as Muddy Waters's 'Rock Me' are pleas for comfort, for sanctuary in a cruel world. When they were taken over by the rock generation, they came to be about the domination of women, leading to the heavy metal threat to 'nail your ass to the floor'.
On the one hand, the Stones were one of the few groups who gave proper credit and paid royalties to the composer. As Jagger put in his letter to Melody Maker in 1964, 'These legendary characters wouldn't mean a light commercially today if groups were not going round Britain doing their numbers.' In the early 1960s the U.S. music industry was not admitting Willie Dixon to any Hall of Fame. On the other hand, the Stones were being promoted as opposite numbers to the Beatles: the Mop Tops were cute (however outrageous their behaviour behind closed doors); the Stones were arrested for urinating in public in 1965 and they refused to wave bye-bye with the other stars at the end of a television pop show. The dirtier and more surly the Stones were, the better. The credit 'Nanker Phelge' began to appear on their songs; a 'nankie', said Brian Jones, is a little man who thinks he represents authority; but it is an appropriate rock joke that 'nanker' rhymes with 'wanker', one who practises the solitary vice.
In any case, once the Stones were convinced they could write songs, 'Stupid Girl' may have been about a female who subscribed to social shibboleths which seemed to be going out of date, whether we liked it or not; 'Mother's Little Helper' was about the drugs housewives took to get them through the day, while the press screamed about marijuana; 'Sittin' on the Fence' was about bitter-sweet reluctance to join a new generation of baby-boomers, helping the economy by tying themselves up in knots with mortgages and a new generation of babies. 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' was their first number one in the USA in 1965. Jagger couldn't swing, and his execrable accent and phrasing should have been a drawback, but his narcissistic image was useful, and the band could swing. Watts was a jazz drummer who played well behind the beat, Richards and Jones were very good musicians indeed, and the band set Jagger off perfectly. Later, after Jones had left, Jagger seemed to be the nominal leader, but their manager Andrew Loog Oldham recalled years later:
Mick may have thought he was running the show, but Keith was always in charge of the music. When I was remastering one of the tracks for CD I came across something I had not noticed at the time. There was a song where the key was easy for Keith's voice, but had caused Mick trouble and he could hardly sing it.
In 1964 the Stones paid their respects in Chicago, where they made the EP 4 x 5 at the Chess studios; but they had eschewed the purism of the blues and soon garnered the title 'The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band', and deserved it. The decade of the 1960s cannot be understood without their albums Beggar's Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969); the horrors of assassinations and war in Vietnam told us all too much about our 'Sympathy for the Devil'.
After the Beatles and the Stones, the two most successful British groups were the Who and the Kinks; both remained bigger in the UK but had cult followings in the USA. Pete Townshend's 'My Generation' (for the Who) typified the blatant self-indulgence of the era; their act made a fetish out of smashing their instruments, and they graduated to the grandiose 'rock opera' (Tommy). Drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 of an overdose of a drug he was taking to combat his alcoholism, and the survivors later realized they should have quit.
The Kinks' first hit was 'You Really Got Me' (1964), which resembled the Dave Clark Five's thumpers, but Ray Davies went on to create English music of his own. Even more than the Beatles' work, his was in the music hall tradition, and also grieved for a disappearing England. The caustic weariness of his 'Tired of Waiting for You' (1965) was followed by social commentary in 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' and 'A Well Respected Man', and vignettes such as 'Sunny Afternoon' and 'Waterloo Sunset'. Davies was too bright to turn to drugs like others of the era, and understood the nature of the music business. (He went to the House of Lords to get himself out of a terrible management contract.) His concept albums in the 1970s were among the least grandiose of that genre, and the Kinks outlasted everybody except the Stones.
The British Invasion carried with it harmless pop and measures of fraud. The Small Faces had a fresh sound, and recorded on Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label. in 1969 they re-formed as the Faces, from which Rod Stewart emerged to become a generation's favourite Jack the Lad. The first three singles by Gerry and the Pacemakers, another Liverpool group produced by Martin, made history by all reaching number one in the UK. Billy J. Kramer's success was due to Martin's production and songs lent by the Beatles. Peter and Gordon were a preppy duo; Gordon Waller later imitated Elvis in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Peter Asher became a prominent record producer. Some groups were successful in the USA because they were British, and remained virtually unknown at home, but the Strangeloves, Myles, Gyles and Nyles, pulled off the best joke: putting on accents and pretending to be British by way of Australia, they had hits in the mid-1960s, but they were actually American music insiders Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer.
The Strangeloves supported the Beach Boys on tour, who were in on the joke. The Beach Boys were an American act whose popularity was unaffected by the British; Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson and cousins Mike Love and Al Jardine had over 50 hit singles from 1962. They stole some of their tunes from Chuck Berry, but their harmony was different; their clean-cut sound owed much to decades of pop from Glenn Miller's Modernaires to the Four Freshmen and the Hi-lo's. Dennis was full of alcohol when he drowned in 1983, while Brian, the most talented of the group, had addled his brain with drugs; yet what could be more innocent than their concern with surfing, cars and pretty girls? The apparent divorce of their hedonism from its consequences is a paradigm of their Californian lotus-land, and of rock itself.
There are many reasons why the 1960s still look like a golden age compared with the following decades. It had already been several years since the successful use of obviously black material by Elvis Presley, and the explosion of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard into the pop chart; the girl groups were mostly black, and the Motown hit factory's formula clearly appealed equally to black and white fans. Furthermore, the civil rights era was well under way: Americans were making a collective decision that second-class citizenship for a large minority was no longer acceptable, if only because they did not want to see southern police chiefs using dogs and firehoses against black schoolchildren on television. Between 30 November 1963 and 23 January 1965 there was no R&B chart in Billboard: for the first time in the history of popular music black and white fans were following the same music to such an extent that separate charts did not seem to be necessary, because rhythm and blues had triumphed in the form of soul music.
Ray Charles had left the Atlantic label for ABC-Paramount, where he made an unprecedented deal for a black entertainer, retaining ownership of his own recordings. His version of Hoagy Carmichael's lovely 'Georgia on My Mind' was a huge hit in both charts. He had already had a hit with Hank Snow's 'I'm Movin' On' on Atlantic in 1959; for ABC he made two albums of country songs, and his version of Don Gibson's 'I Can't Stop Loving You' was even bigger than 'Georgia'.
Ray Charles was born in Georgia but soon moved to Florida, where he went blind as a child. He performed in the mid-1940s in Florida, playing piano with a white country band, among others, and then went as far away as he could within the USA, to Seattle, Washington. There he led a trio in a style similar to that of Nat Cole, and had hits including 'Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand' in the style of the West Coast R&B crooner Charles Brown. On his very first recordings, made at the age of seventeen on a friend's wire recorder in Florida, although he was using the Nat Cole and Charles Brown trio style, his honest moaning was that of a seasoned sufferer. (His mother had recently died and he was extremely poor.) In 1951 he went on the road with guitarist and vocalist Lowell Fulson, filling the shoes of Lloyd Glenn, one of the most successful pianists in R&B. Jack Lauderdale's West Coast Swing Time R&B label was going out of business, and Atlantic snapped up Ray Charles.
The guitar turned out to be of the greatest importance -- indeed it has been played to death by countless white soundalike 'guitar heroes' in the last twenty years. Aaron Thibeaux 'T-Bone' Walker was the prime mover behind rock guitar, sharing the same teacher and influences as Charlie Christian and doing for the instrument in R&B what Christian did for it in jazz: he brought his intimate baritone and his guitar playing to a huge number of tracks, nearly all of which were blues but usually had a jazz-flavoured backing that reveals much about the origins of R&B, and which must have been a big influence on the young Ray Charles. The slide guitar of Elmore James and his somewhat rougher country blues style derived from Robert Johnson. The four Kings, B.B., Albert, Earl and Freddie, all unrelated, all played guitar and had black hits. Riley 'Blues Boy' King is the first of these in more ways than one, having become one of the world's best-loved entertainers after decades of working the chitlin' circuit, without changing himself or his act.
An extremely rich stew of rhythm and blues had been bubbling in the early 1950s. Ray Charles arranged and played piano on Guitar Slim's 'The Things That I Used to Do', a number one black hit for fourteen weeks in early 1954. (He was the best known of several entertainers to use the name Guitar Slim and one of the first to use a long lead on his electric guitar, so he could move around the stage.) Ray Charles then brought to black pop one of its most important ingredients: the music of the black church. In the late 1950s he finally crossed over to the white chart, but by then he was already a national institution; one of Bill Cosby's comedy routines had Columbus sailing to America so he could discover Ray Charles.
At his first Atlantic recording session Charles allegedly wanted to stick to his Brown-style crooning, but the label soon helped him change his mind. Tired of using pick-up musicians, he was now successful enough to form his own band. His first Atlantic hit was 'It Should've Been Me', a ghetto comedy which owed something to Louis Jordan and was the sort of thing that might have influenced Leiber and Stoller's work with the Coasters. In later hits he became completely himself, bringing the passion of religion to the aches and pains of the secular world, and even using the melodies of gospel music: 'Talkin' 'Bout Jesus' became 'Talkin' 'Bout You'; Clara Ward's 'This Little Light of Mine' became 'This Little Girl of Mine'; 'How Jesus Died' became 'Lonely Avenue'; and 'I've Got a Savior' became 'I Got a Woman', his first number one in the black chart, which shortly after was covered by Elvis Presley, who brought rockabilly urgency to it. Charles added a preaching, commentating female trio to his act, the Raelettes (sometimes spelled Raylettes), and there was even a touch of feminism: black women are not famous for taking a lot of nonsense, and the Raelettes carried 'What Kind of Man are You?' by themselves. Later, on Percy Mayfield's 'Hit the Road, Jack', Charles adds a man's patronizing puzzlement to the Raelettes' lead: 'Well, I guess if you say so / I'll have to pack my bags and go ... You can't mean it!'
Religious blacks were scandalized when one of their stars changed to secular music. Popular as Sam Cooke had been with the Soul Stirrers, he was booed when he turned up at a gospel meeting after having pop hits. Of Ray Charles, Big Bill Broonzy said, 'He's mixing the blues with the spirituals. I know that's wrong ... He should be singing in a church.' The relationship between the blues and the church was already well known to aficionados, and the gospel recordings of Blind Willie Johnson (1927-30) and Rev. Gary Davis (from 1935) were highly prized. Black gospel music, though a thriving market, was not widely known in the white community; nevertheless, such fine singers as Claude Jeter (with the Swan Silvertones) and Archie Brownlee (with the Five Blind Boys) had a profound indirect influence on popular music.
In the early 1950s Mahalia Jackson, an artist of the stature of Bessie Smith who refused to record secular material, became known throughout the white community. While Ray Charles was still registering only in the black chart, Little Richard's sanctified screaming and Sam Cooke's beautiful gospel melisma reached the white charts. The Staple Singers' gospel recordings for Vee-Jay in the 1950s included 'This Could be the Last Time', later covered by the Rolling Stones, with the lyrics adapted. Charles's first top ten hit in the white chart, and one of his last singles on Atlantic, was 'What'd I Say', which came as a considerable revelation in 1969 because of its driving passion and call-and-response moaning.
His 1961 album with members of the Basie band was called Genius + Soul = Jazz. The word 'soul' was already in wide use in black culture: soul food, soul music; one of Charles Mingus's best-known tunes is 'Better Git It in Your Soul'. The addition of the feeling of the church to R&B was immediately called soul. As the soul is the essence of a human being, so soul in music, like swing, is self-expression.
The gift of soul to America at last began to bear fruit during the civil rights era, which unexpectedly, perhaps, seemed to begin with Louis Armstrong. Louis had given up leading big bands after a sensationally successful Town Hall concert in New York in 1947 by a small integrated band including Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko (clarinet), Dick Cary (piano), Bob Haggart (bass) and Sid Catlett (drums). He toured for the rest of his life with his All Stars. In 1955 a European tour was so successful (more so than an East-West summit of politicians in Switzerland at the same time) that it made headlines all over the world; an album of live recordings was issued as Ambassador Satch, on which Edmond Hall plays clarinet and Trummy Young trombone. The State Department then decided to sponsor tours by one of America's most popular exports.
Louis was never noted for racial controversy; some regarded him as an Uncle Tom, but others knew better: as Billie Holiday put it, 'Pops toms from the heart.' Music transcended race. But in May 1957 the United States Supreme Court struck down the pernicious 'separate but equal' doctrine that had ensured second-rate educational facilities for black children, ruling that the states must end segregation in the schools; on 3 September at Little Rock, Arkansas, the state's National Guard was used to prevent black students from entering Central High School; and on the 18th, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Armstrong was watching live coverage on television as a howling mob of white trash confronted a handful of frightened black children. A local reporter, Larry Lubenow, got the scoop of his life when a furious Armstrong gave him a tirade laced with language that no newspaper could have printed; Armstrong and Lubenow collaborated on a printable version: President Eisenhower had 'no guts', allowing a 'plowboy' like Governor Orville Faubus to run the country, and 'the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.' America's best-loved entertainer had made headlines in spite of himself. Two days later a federal court ordered Faubus to stop using the National Guard to defy the law, and on 23 September Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to prevent mob rule. After nearly a century of de facto second-class citizenship for blacks, the civil rights era was under way.
The Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the desegregation of bus and rail terminals. A new Civil Rights Bill was to be introduced by the Kennedy administration when he was murdered (and one of my co-workers in a car factory muttered, 'It's about time somebody got that nigger-lover'). A few days later the Billboard R&B chart was abolished. Up to that date both black and white acts such as Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, Jackie Wilson, the Chiffons, Mary Wells, Leslie Gore, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs had had hits riding high in both the black and white pop charts. But the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion dominated the pop chart from early 1964; the Billboard R&B chart reappeared a year later, and no Beatles record ever appeared in it, despite their love for black pop. It was not until August 1969, when classic soul had peaked, that the name of the chart was changed to 'Best Selling Soul Singles'.
James Brown was unique, as important a progenitor of soul as Ray Charles. He came from poverty and prison for teenage offences to put together a soul revue made up of elements of gospel, black vaudeville and the influence of R&B pioneers such as Jordan (who thought of himself first and last as an entertainer). Singer, songwriter, producer and bandleader James Brown maintained absolute control over every aspect of his show, riding his band so hard that they would leave him, forcing him to re-form more than once; also the best in the business, they were called the Famous Flames, and later the JBs. He was known as the Godfather of Soul, Mr Dynamite and the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. His first hit, 'Please, Please, Please' (on Federal), was nothing but a passionately incantatory plea -- Syd Nathan at King did not understand it, but Ralph Bass talked Nathan into it, and it was a top five in the black chart in 1956.
Brown's next hit, 'Try Me' (1958), crossed over to the pop chart. Again and again Brown was ahead of the label. When King would not record his dance hit '(Do the) Mashed Potatoes', he recorded it in Florida under his drummer's name (Nat Kendricks and the Swans, with vocal shouts by Miami DJ 'King' Coleman), and it was a 1960 hit on both charts. When King didn't think a live album would be worth doing, Brown paid for the recording himself, and had a number two hit in the Billboard pop album chart in mid-1963 with Live at the Apollo, still regarded as one of the most exciting live albums ever made. In 20 years he had nearly one hundred hits in the pop chart, and well over 100 in the black. Not only were 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' (1965) and 'Say It Loud -- I'm Black and Proud' (1968) number one black hits and top tens in the white chart, but their titles entered the language. His hits slowed down when he was eclipsed by mechanical disco music and hip-hop, both of which owed nearly everything to him.
Clyde McPhatter was essentially a soul singer; with the various editions of the Drifters, the voice of Ben E. King and all its other assets, and the perfection of its sound, thanks to engineer Tommy Dowd, and its backbeat, thanks to arranger Jesse Stone, Atlantic might have been the most important soul factory all by itself. When Mercury covered LaVern Baker's 'Tweedle-dee' with Georgia Gibbs, they hired the musicians who had played on the Baker record and they wanted Dowd as well, but he would not take the job. And the importance of Stone cannot be overestimated.
Stone's territory band, the Blues Serenaders, recorded for Okeh in 1927, and 'Starvation Blues' is described thus by Gunther Schuller in his Early Jazz:
In fact, in 1927 jazz could as yet offer very little that matched the depth of feeling that Stone's orchestra purveyed ... This expressivity was achieved in terms of (or perhaps despite) written-out arrangements, and very advanced, sophisticated ones at that. For Jesse Stone was a well-trained musician, a composer and arranger.
Stone played piano for George E. Lee (Julia Lee's bandleader brother), and for that band wrote 'Paseo Strut', of which a lovely recording was made in Kansas City in 1929. He wrote arrangements for the Kansas City Skyrockets in 1934, and later for Jimmie Lunceford, Harlan Leonard and Earl Hines. Then he replaced Eddie Durham as music director of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a very good all-girl mixed-race band that had run away from an orphanage. (It played for big crowds and appeared in films during the 1940s, but never had a good recording contract.) Stone's compositions included 'Idaho' for one of Roy Rogers's films, a hit for the bands of Alvino Rey and Benny Goodman, and 'Sorghum Switch' for Doc Wheeler, covered for a hit by Jimmy Dorsey (both 1942); retitled 'Cole Slaw', the latter was a hit for saxophonists Frank Culley and Louis Jordan in 1949.
In 1950 Stone experimented at Atlantic, working on Ruth Brown's recordings, and rehearsing and recording the vocal groups. He was not the only arranger at Atlantic, but the most important. When the Chords brought in 'Sh-boom', Stone recorded it for Atlantic's subsidiary Cat, and was thus responsible for one of the first big hits of the rock'n'roll era (albeit in the nasty copycat version by the Crew-Cuts). He arranged 'Chains of Love' and 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' (taking composer credit as Charles Calhoun) for Joe Turner and wrote 'Money Honey', the first recording by the Drifters and their first big hit; it was number one in the black chart for eleven weeks in 1953, and later covered by Elvis Presley. Stone was one of those who helped persuade Ray Charles to let his hair down when he came to Atlantic. He took a break in 1954 to be A&R director at Lamp, an East Coast subsidiary of Aladdin which failed, but one of its groups, the Cookies, became Ray Charles's Raelettes.
It was at Atlantic that Stone had an unsung influence on the music of ensuing decades. Atlantic's recordings were more polished than those of other R&B labels, as though they were intended to be hits, rather than just slung into the market to see what happened; yet they also swung, because people like Stone brought the skills and values of decades of black music with them.
As the golden age of soul approached, Atlantic received a massive boost from a historical accident. Satellite Records was formed in 1960 in Memphis, Tennessee, by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, to record local talent. A local white R&B group called the Royal Spades became the house band, and had a national hit with 'Last Night' on Satellite, but shortly after the name of the label was changed to Stax, because there was already a Satellite label on the West Coast. In the band were guitarist Steve Cropper and bass player Donald 'Duck' Dunn; it soon mutated into Booker T. and the MGs (for 'Memphis Group'), which had Booker T. Jones on keyboards and Al Jackson on drums. The Memphis Horns originally included Charles 'Packy' Axton on tenor saxophone, Don Nix on baritone and Wayne Jackson on trumpet. Thus a bunch of country boys, both white and black, working for an amateur record company, laid down their own tracks as well as backing some of the most beautiful black voices of the decade, and together polished one of the great facets of American music at a time when they could not eat together at a local lunch counter.
Fame Studios was started in Muscle Shoals, a town built on reclaimed land across the river from Florence, Alabama, with producers Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill (who was later a leading producer in Nashville country music). Bellboy Arthur Alexander wrote songs and worked with Hall, and Fame leased his hits to Dot: 'Anna (Go to Him)' was a top ten black hit in 1962, and was covered by the Beatles. Otis Redding was the greatest Stax discovery; he died in a plane crash just as he had hit the big time, but still had about 30 hit singles in six years. Stax had made a distribution agreement with Atlantic, and that label's Jerry Wexler sent Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Ben E. King, Joe Tex and others to Memphis and/or Alabama to record.
With the success of Redding, Jerry Wexler assigned Sam and Dave to Stax; Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote songs for them. Wexler dispatched Tommy Dowd to Memphis to bring Stax's technology into the modern era, and Stax and Atlantic began copying each other. The Memphis black and white soul fusion, Wexler saw, was something that no money could buy, yet his influence inevitably helped to ruin it, by changing it. There would always have been a danger that Atlantic's polish would be overdone (and in fact the label soon turned to slickly produced white pop), but Memphis had been a return to head arrangements and to a house rhythm section. The amateurish management and racially charged atmosphere was available for classic recording until Stax made the mistake of asking itself how it had done what it did in the first place: personalities intruded and the magic was lost. But not right away.
Wilson Pickett, who was not an easy man to get along with, went to Stax after two flop singles to record with Booker T. and the MGs. This resulted in 'In the Midnight Hour' (co-written with Steve Cropper) and '634-5789' (by Cropper and Eddie Floyd), Pickett's first two black-chart number ones, in 1966. After three sessions at Stax Pickett never came back and neither did Wexler; but Pickett recorded at Fame.
Aretha Franklin was the daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a famous gospel artist; she sang in his Detroit Baptist church and was contracted to Columbia between 1961 and 1966, when she made worthy recordings which didn't sell, and then changed to Atlantic. She made only one recording session in Muscle Shoals. Alcohol was flowing and hostility broke out between her husband and one of the locals, but 'I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)' was recorded, and a start made at the flip side, 'Do Right Woman -- Do Right Man'; this was a mess that nobody liked, a demonstration tape with Dan Penn's voice on it. The first became a pop top ten and was number one in the black chart for seven weeks in 1967; the second was turned into another soul classic at Atlantic, with Aretha's piano and her sisters singing back-up. Wexler and Hall had quarrelled, so Wexler hired Oldham and others to come to New York to work on a King Curtis album and, without telling Hall, also used them on the rest of Aretha's first Atlantic album, named after the first hit. It was number three in the Billboard album chart, and included her first number one pop hit, which was also number one (for eight weeks) in the black chart: she made Otis Redding's 'Respect' for ever her own. Nobody who listened to the radio at all could be ignorant of soul, once the Queen arrived; but Wexler had soon broken with everybody.
By this time psychedelia and the drug culture were well under way. In New York the Velvet Underground, including vocalist-songwriter Lou Reed, made albums of understated songs about heroin and masochism which recorded the underbelly of urban culture without celebrating it: their feeling of doom was real, not schoolboy self-indulgence. Their influence did not become evident until after they had split up. To some extent it was pressure from the counterculture that stopped Lyndon Johnson from running again in 1968, and it was a victory of sorts when Chicago policemen stupidly rioted outside the Democratic national convention that year, for Mayor Richard J. Daley was several decades out of touch. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and others were basically very loud West Coast folk bands. The Beatles and George Martin had produced their music hall masterpiece, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and at the end of that year the Rolling Stones, who were hopelessly unsuited to psychedelia, released Their Satanic Majesties Request, a failure, and then went on to do their best work. Jim Morrison ('Death and my cock are the world') and the Doors had seven top ten albums from 1967 to 1971. The Woodstock Festival in August 1969 was a sodden disaster in a muddy field, but felt like the triumph of peace. Black San Francisco DJ and sometime producer Sylvester Stewart, as Sly Stone, put together Sly and the Family Stone, an integrated 'psychedelic soul' outfit, which experimentally pulled together several of the era's strands to make joyous music that made dancing shoes twitch.
Janis Joplin, from Port Arthur, Texas, seemed to have an exciting voice for a white girl because she was willing to throw it away for the sake of a good time tonight, and forget tomorrow. She was an unhappy, insecure girl who took to drugs and alcohol; appearing at a Stax/Volt Christmas party at the end of 1968, she strolled on after her band had spent fifteen minutes setting up, carrying her bottle of Southern Comfort, and could not understand why people started to leave; they had watched some of the classiest professional acts in the business, including all the Stax stars and Mr James Brown himself, acts that prided themselves on their professionalism and their respect for their audience. They were insulted by Janis Joplin.
The black guitarist Jimi Hendrix had been fired from job after job on the R&B circuit. He was unpunctual, he wore funny clothes that looked like they had been slept in, and indulged in his own funny business on the stand, distracting the audience from the attraction, whether it was a nobody MC like 'Gorgeous' George Odell or a star like Little Richard. Black entertainers who had worked themselves out of poverty by putting on a professional show did not need a weird black hippie like Hendrix to spoil it; he would not have lasted five minutes with James Brown. Nevertheless, let it be said that 'I Don't Know What You've Got (But It's Got Me)', a Don Covay song recorded by Little Richard in 1965 with Hendrix on guitar, is described by Peter Guralnick as 'the Mount Rushmore of Soul'.
In any case, Hendrix was nothing like as confused as Joplin. He knew exactly what he was doing; it was just that his guitar was everything, and the rest didn't matter. He had absorbed the Delta blues, the R&B of the chitlin' circuit and the lessons of soul. He became the complete master of the electric guitar at a time when its technology was still relatively primitive, and he knew his jazz too: when he went to 'swinging' London to set it on its ear, he carried with him his favourite album by Roland Kirk, a blind saxophonist who could play three horns at once. Joplin was a mess, the Beatles were prisoners of their own fame and some of the biggest white pop stars of the era were vain monsters. But Hendrix was the best musician of them all, and the only black to become a superstar on the same level as the rest. He returned to the USA a conquering hero.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a trio, included Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, both of whom were basically jazz-oriented English musicians. They had hit singles in England and the USA and made hit albums, but Hendrix was hassled by money problems (because of a contract he had signed in New York with a music business shark named Ed Chalpin), by racial politics (certain people thought he should be using black sidemen) and by his own propensity for hedonism. But he was composing unique material, with lyrics as allusive as Dylan's, and there were signs that he was pulling his act together: Hendrix might have made a fusion of black and white musics to be getting on with.
The legendary decade of the 1960s really began only in 1964, when the Beatles swept the USA, or perhaps even later, when the hippie phenomenon was celebrated in Time magazine, at about the time Hendrix returned to the USA. By then the psychedelic influence in design (posters, record albums, clothes) seemed ubiquitous, and use of marijuana was becoming common among middle-class youth. And there was the foolish disaster of the war in Vietnam to protest about. Only a bit more than two years had passed between the first Monterey Pop Festival, where the Hendrix Experience made its U.S. debut, and Woodstock, which in retrospect was the beginning of the end. But it all seemed to have happened rather suddenly, and it did seem like the counterculture was taking over.
It has become commonplace to speak of the 1960s as being dominated by the narcissism of the baby boom, but the fact that that generation had enough leisure and prosperity to allow introspection was not in itself a bad thing, in fact, it is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for the creation of art. Furthermore, that generation had to make its own popular culture, including its music, out of the influences that it found available, and unlike previous generations, it had been largely cut off from many of its own cultural roots, yet it was a large enough generation to sustain some artists of integrity. It is clear with hindsight that it was the singer-songwriters, the troubadours, rather than the pop groups and rock bands, who recorded the 1960s with humour and style.
The most important trend in the broader popular music of the last two decades has been that rock'n'roll and its best songwriting have gone back to the prairies and the gin mills whence they came. Country music, with its strings and choirs, was overproduced during the 1960s, and came to be called 'countrypolitan', leading to the reaction described in Jan Reid's book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (1974). But this is not so surprising. The folk-rock and country rock of the fab decade, with elements of the singer-songwriter phenomenon mixed in, soon retired from the charts, but the best rock was always a fusion of several genres.
It was not necessary to pay much attention to pop in the 1960s unless you were a card-carrying member of the counterculture; if any of it was any good, it would be around long enough to seep into the consciousness. We knew from the history of popular music that if we liked something that turned out to be a cover, the original would be worth investigating: many people had discovered black music through white covers in the 1950s, and, similarly, some discovered Bob Dylan through the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary. Meanwhile, we danced with each other's wives, for example in a basement joint in Kenosha called Mr Z's. (We were so much older then; we're younger than that now.) We heard numerous touring rock'n'roll bands in the period when the music was coming to be called rock; those of us in backwaters like Kenosha didn't mind that we had never heard of any of the bands, and anyhow some of them were pretty good. One of them was probably the Hawks.
They were a quintet of Canadians, except for the drummer, who was from Arkansas. They were called the Hawks because they had started out backing an Arkansas rockabilly called Ronnie Hawkins. Then they backed blues singer John Hammond, son of Columbia's A&R man, and, in 1966, Dylan, on a controversial tour. After much screaming and cat-calling from outraged folkies, for example at the Albert Hall in London, guitarist Robbie Robertson later said, 'We'd go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of the show and think, shit, that's not so bad. Why is everybody so upset?' The folkies did not know that rock'n'roll is folk music. Maybe they should have danced at Mr Z's with other people's wives.
When the Hawks wanted a new name, they decided on The Band, because that was what they had always called themselves. They made the famous bootleg 'basement tapes' with Dylan near Woodstock, New York, later released commercially; their own first album, released in 1968, was called Big Pink, after the house with the famous basement. They had learned how to do what they did by playing in bars, back rooms and dance halls back and forth across North America, so that shortly after they began making their own albums they were described as the only band that could have warmed up the crowd for Abraham Lincoln. They played 'Long Black Veil', a country hit in 1959 which had been covered by Joan Baez, and which sounds like a copyrighted folksong. They sang Dylan songs and songs co-written with Dylan, such as 'Tears of Rage' and 'This Wheel's on Fire', as well as Robertson's 'The Weight', 'Up on Cripple Creek' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' (which was a hit for Baez, who would have done better in the late 1960s if she could have found more such good songs). They quit, after sixteen years on the road, so as not to end up parodying themselves. On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 The Band had a party in San Francisco, with an audience and many musical guests, which was recorded and filmed as The Last Waltz.
Another good band was Little Feat, whose albums Dixie Chicken and Feats Don't Fail Me Now carried the same fusion of rock'n'roll, country, blues and folk, and the singing and slide guitar of Lowell George, who was to die of a drug-related heart attack in 1979. Essentially, the Hawks and Little Feat were two of the best and most successful bar bands, of which there were plenty, especially in the South-west, just as in the 1920s, when they were called territory bands. In the 1960s, Doug Sahm (born in San Antonio in 1941) had a few hits with a Tex-Mex flavour as the Sir Douglas Quintet (either muscling in on or sending up the British Invasion); his later career marked the tip of a valuable sub-genre called swamp rock. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rockin' Jimmy and the Brothers of the Night made two albums in the early 1980s and then gave up, because vocalist and songwriter Jimmy Byfield did not want to go on the road: the albums are still great fun.
The Byrds, whose pretty harmony came by way of bluegrass, and Gram Parsons, who had various groups, are credited with inventing country rock. Parsons was a member of the Byrds when they recorded their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), which is regarded as a rock classic and a signpost to the fusion, but true rock'n'roll already had a good deal of country in it. Ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and Parsons formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, who were less self-consciously pop: Burrito Deluxe (1970) was a better classic in its own quiet way, some tracks using an accordion for a touch of Tex-Mex. Parsons was not yet twenty-seven when he died of the effects of too much drink and drugs in a motel in California, in 1973; meanwhile, Hillman and Parsons had discovered Emmylou Harris, a would-be folksinger who made one terrible album in 1969.
Having found her true musical nature singing harmony with Parsons, she became the Queen of Country Rock and easily one of the most valuable American recording artists of the era. Her proper debut album Pieces of the Sky (1975) included 'From Boulder to Birmingham', her tribute to Parsons; before long she had formed her aptly named Hot Band, with such good musicians as the British-born guitarist Albert Lee, multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, soon a country star himself, and James Burton, sometime sideman with Rick Nelson and Presley and one of the best American guitarists of all. Although she seems basically to be a country artist, every Harris album reaches high in the pop chart; she writes songs herself, but has enough taste and good sense to draw her material from wherever she likes -- R&B, classic country, even Hollywood -- making it all her own. Each track is respectably skillful in production terms, yet the band sounds like a bunch of friends having a good time. Her guest appearance in the film The Last Waltz, singing Robertson's 'Evangeline', was one of its high points.
Kitty Wells had staked out territory in the country market that would for ever belong to the women. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and several more have been highly regarded; even if the production of some of their albums had been too smooth in Nashville's countrypolitan era, their professionalism, good songs, down-home values and no-nonsense attitudes defined them as people who could be trusted. There are too many fine songs and songwriters to list here, but Harlan Howard's hits, for example, many for girl singers, include 'Pick Me Up on Your Way Down', 'Heartaches by the Number', 'Too Many Rivers', 'I Fall to Pieces', 'Busted' (for Ray Charles); the total is said to include sixty number ones in a chart where success still meant something besides money. Dolly Parton came from a television and recording partnership with country star Porter Wagoner to be one of the greatest of all. Her own excellent songs, such as 'Coat of Many Colors' and 'Jolene', show a degree of integrity that so many women in music have known how to retain; she branched out into the cinema and the chat-show circuit and then seemed to have left songwriting, but not before she reminded us how important good songs are.
Linda Ronstadt, originally in a folk-rock group called the Stone Poneys, came to be widely popular in the 1970s. Her albums, produced by Peter Asher, were too slick, and when she tried to do Frank Sinatra's type of songs, she was utterly unable to phrase them as required. But there was no doubting her lovely voice and her skill with more suitable material. Harris, Parton and Ronstadt made an album called Trio in 1987 which in several ways capped all their careers: singing solo and in various combinations, they demonstrated many of the strengths always to be found in what we now call Americana, especially beauty.
Bonnie Raitt, daughter of John Raitt (Broadway star of Carousel in 1945, The Pajama Game in 1954 and others), was a good guitarist with a distinctive voice and emotionally mature beyond her years. She performed a selection of material that could have been called white blues or country rock, but added up to what rock'n'roll should always have been. Most of her albums made the pop chart without setting any sales records; in the mid-to-late 1980s a couple of them suffered from the endemic pop problem of overproduction, ridiculously stiff rhythm sections and bad songs. She came back in 1990 with the well-named Nick of Time, which won four Grammys and single-handedly almost restored some honour to the whole idea of music awards. Guitarist and singer Ry Cooder was a well-known sideman on many record dates, including some with the Rolling Stones. He began making a series of albums celebrating the whole history of American post-war pop, from R&B and rock'n'roll to Tex-Mex and much else; although they are still selling, he was never rewarded in chart terms, and concentrated for a while on atmospheric film music. Then in the 1990s he branched out even further, making duet albums with 'world music' guitarists such as the Indian Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and the West African bluesman Ali Farka Touré, then dropped down to Cuba and discovered the Buena Vista Social Club, gathering kudos all over again.
Singer-songwriters contributed a viable commercial genre for a while, and among the best of the confessionalist type was James Taylor, who came through much self-indulgence and a marriage to Carly Simon, which was destructive to both their careers, to retain a large following. Two confessing narcissists in one household may have been too many, but Simon herself, from the publishing family of Simon and Schuster, was a valuable commentator; her best-known song was 'You're So Vain', which might have been about any of the world's most visible boyfriends, but was also a flash of insight into her own generation. Jackson Browne, despite the critical wiseguy label of 'chilled white whine', has done some good work. Carole King's Tapestry in 1971 matched Sgt Pepper in the U.S. charts.
Joni Mitchell was a Canadian whose singing, writing, guitar playing, painting and photography were all of a piece. She examined herself and her emotions with the detachment of an artist, and wrote such songs as 'Big Yellow Taxi', 'Both Sides Now' and 'The Circle Game', which were unusual in her generation (but not in her genre) in that they were good enough to be widely covered.
One of the greatest of all was Van Morrison, from Northern Ireland, an unlikely pop star who hates the music business and rarely gives interviews. His father's record collection included Hank Williams and Leadbelly; he began in a pop group called Them, made one solo album in 1967, which he later disowned, then threw the dice. Stranded in New York when his producer Bert Berns died of a heart attack, he signed a solo deal and made Astral Weeks in 48 hours, embarking on a career that combined the blues, biographical yearning and Celtic mysticism. He became a giant, one of the few troubadours to compare with Bob Dylan.
Many of these people have done their best work. Several of Mitchell's later albums suffered from the studio-bound production of her husband; some people complain that Van the Man is repeating himself. Some of the chroniclers of their times did not survive: Phil Ochs was a powerful songwriter whose work was tied up with his politics, and killed himself when it was evident that music could not change the world. David Blue died of a heart attack while jogging. Tim Hardin died of drugs, his own haunting version of his folk-blues 'If I Were a Carpenter' showing up any number of polished hit covers. The much loved Jim Croce ('I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song') was killed in a airplane crash. Tim Buckley died of drugs (and in the 1990s his son Jeff became flavour of the month, perhaps a great young talent, only to die in a foolish drowning accident.)
But there are dozens, probably hundreds more still at it: Jack Elliott, Loudon Wainwright, John D. Loudermilk, Tom Paxton (whose other love is baseball), John Prine, Janis Ian, Laura Nyro, Ian Tyson, to name just a few. Mitch Miller made a wisecrack about Nyro, talking about the music of the era: 'Where is Laura Nyro now?' But she had left music for a few years, which was her business, and when she came back, the singer-songwriter had been overtaken by the kind of commercial rubbish that Miller had pioneered, while those who were enchanted by her albums are still enchanted today. Her delivery of her songs may have been highly wrought, but the songs were good enough to be covered by the likes of Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, Thelma Houston, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, as well as umpty pop groups.
When John Stewart left the Cumberland Three to join the Kingston Trio, unable to turn down such a lucrative offer, he knew that he could not bring his best instincts to their act; he later worked for Bobby Kennedy, who had a tin ear but understood the importance of music, and (some feel) may have been our greatest political loss in a bloody decade. Ian Tyson was successful with his then wife Sylvia Fricker in the Canadian folk duo in the 1960s, and is now a rancher, still writing good songs.
Some of the Byrds stayed in country rock or went back to the neo-bluegrass they started out with: there are all kinds of lovely records on tiny labels by people like Chris Hillman, groups called Old And In The Way and others who never found it necessary to pretend to be progressive. Buffalo Springfield was a pop band, for whom Steven Stills wrote 'For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey, What's That Sound)' after a police riot in Los Angeles; the song was a hit in 1967 and remains a potent artefact. Crosby (from the Byrds), Stills and Young (from Buffalo Springfield) and Nash (from the British group the Hollies) formed a vocal supergroup; they sang pretty, but reunions didn't work. Canadian-born Young carried on; a great many albums of varying quality have now been in the chart. His earliest ones, with a group of friends called Crazy Horse, are essential, and another in 1990 was a reunion with them; rock critics gave it high marks with obvious feelings of relief.
In England such folk-rock bands as Steeleye Span, Pentangle and Fairport Convention mutated into new groups, or have reunions. The number of good musicians who have passed through them and sing and play together in various combinations is very high: any gig with Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Dave Swarbrick or Ralph McTell must be worth attending, while singer, songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson was described as England's best-kept secret. Among the younger generation of eclectic folk-popsters, the Pogues were always interesting. The Men They Couldn't Hang was a British folk-rock band that has already gone: their label, MCA, released the single the boys wanted to put out, but did not bother to promote it. Why did they sign them in the first place? And since the market is already there, why cannot broadcasters make more room for it at the expense of pre-teen music? The way the business makes its decisions remains a mystery.
There were occasionally new singer-songwriters, of whom one of the best was Joan Armatrading, who released her first solo album in 1975. Her love songs were literate, and had the detachment that is necessary for a useful appraisal of anything, qualities which seem to be lacking in later, younger confessors.
There can be no doubt that today many of the best troubadours and balladeers come from the prairies, a psychological and metaphysical area the geographical centre of which is Texas. Jerry Jeff Walker is a folkie turned country rocker who had a couple of chart entries decades ago and has long been an adopted Texan. His music, like all the music in this genre, is full of smiles; he introduced a live album by saying 'Howdy, buckaroos', both sending up and celebrating himself, his music and his audience. His generous CD selection of his own songs, Gypsy Songman (1987), is a joy: no intrusive production, just guitars, fiddles, love songs, story songs and jump tunes.
J.J.'s earlier album tracks include 'Standing at the Big Hotel', and one of his Hot 100 entries was called 'L.A. Freeway'. Among the joys of country rock is that the songs are real songs, worth covering; consequently it is again fun and rewarding to look at the name of the composer under the name of the song on the label: 'Standing at the Big Hotel' is by Butch Hancock, and 'L.A. Freeway' is by Guy Clark.
Hancock's first set, around 1978, was a solo effort called West Texas Waltzes and Dust Blown Tractor Tunes, and obviously influenced by Bob Dylan. His words are worth listening to, like Dylan's, but this is shit-kicking music, in the best sense: his family have survived farming in that tough country for decades, and no Hancock needs a major-label deal to make music. He has more energy, more positive directness and more humour in his music than Dylan. Firewater Seeks Its Own Level (1981) was recorded live in the Alamo Lounge in Austin, with Butch, a bass, an electric guitar and a fiddle: no drums, no production to speak of (no room behind the bar), just a great deal of fun. A.P. Carter's gospel blues 'There's No Hiding Place Down Here' swings like anything and has hot solos, and the title song is one of Butch's best:
You got drunk last night,
The verses are too long to quote here, but they excoriate the self-pity of the loved and lost, with rough humour and sympathy. The song's structure, interestingly, seems to recover and turn on its head those Tin Pan Alley story songs of around 1910, but it is done artlessly, adding the swing and vernacular values that that genre lacked; and the long verses are not one word too long.
Guy Clark's songs have been covered by David Allan Coe (a jailbird whose own 'Would You Lay With Me in a Field of Stone' and 'Take This Job and Shove It' are classics in the genre), as well as by Walker, Skaggs, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare and others. Some of his songs are the ones against which all others should be measured: like all good songs, they are for people who have to try to live in the real world. 'L.A. Freeway' is for anybody who wonders what he or she is doing stuck in a traffic jam; 'Home Grown Tomatoes' should make you want to go out and plant some seeds; 'Texas 1947' is about the day the steam locomotive was replaced by the diesel-electric: a small, dusty town turns out to watch the silver streamliner go by, and it doesn't even stop, but nothing will ever be the same again. 'Desperados Waiting For A Train' is about a bunch of old men playing dominoes, beer stains on their shirts, waiting for death, one of whom is a grandfather figure: 'To me he's one of the heroes of this country / So why's he all dressed up like them old men?' If 'Virginia's Reel' and 'New Cut Road' don't make you feel good, if 'Fool in the Mirror' doesn't make you laugh, you may as well lie down; you must be dead.
There is Willie Nelson, godfather of all the redneck rockers, whose 'Hello Walls' and 'Night Life' became country classics in the 1960s, by Faron Young and Ray Price respectively. His annual outdoor Fourth of July party, held near Austin for eight years during the 1970s, pushed along the movement. He began to become a star after years of doing it his way, and his old labels had to scrabble in their vaults, so that in 1976 he had eight singles in the country chart on three labels. RCA released an album called Wanted: The Outlaws that year, with tracks by Nelson, Tompall Glaser, Jesse Colter and Colter's husband, Waylon Jennings (perhaps the original outlaw, who had played bass for Buddy Holly, and just missed going along on Holly's last ride); it was the first country album to sell a million copies. Willie and Waylon made three albums of duets and became the biggest-grossing country act in the USA. In 1983, with Merle Haggard, Nelson recorded Townes Van Zandt's 'Poncho and Lefty', because he knew his friend Townes was a great songwriter who needed the money: it was a number one hit. He has recorded Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael, and he has everybody foxed -- my mother bought his records, and she would not have been caught dead listening to country music a few years earlier. I saw Willie on PBS a few years ago, and he was not even singing, just picking: there were three guitars, a bass and a fiddle, the same instrumentation as the pre-war Django Reinhardt Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and the music made you feel good in the same way.
Richard Dobson's albums on his own label are showcases for his songs. His Save the World in 1982 offered mostly songs about work, including 'The Ballad of Robin Wintersmith', which was covered by Nanci Griffith, who calls it his 'lifestyle justification song'. Based on a true story, it's about a guy who jumps over cars on a motorcycle, and gets killed. Dobson understands why he does it: we each have to do whatever we can do for a living. Terry Allen is a sculptor and an art teacher; his two-disc Lubbock On Everything is a funny, moving memoir, with much in it to touch the heart of any baby-boomer, such as 'The Pink and Black Song', an affectionate send-up of the late 1950s. Allen thought he had left Lubbock, but producer Lloyd Maines convinced him he did not have to stay away; his Smoking the Dummy truly smokes. When it comes to rock, Dobson's backing on Save the World and Allen's Panhandle Mystery Band are the best there is. Joe Ely made a reputation in his native Texas, and then struggled with MCA to make the music he wants to make; a tiny English label collected together all Ely's covers of Hancock's songs on one LP.
And they keep coming out of the woods: Jimmie Dale Gilmore (erstwhile sidekick of Hancock and Ely -- Richard Dobson's first CD was a set of Gilmore's songs in 1993), Lyle Lovett, Darden Smith, Wes McGhee (from Texas by way of London), Steven Fromholz, David Halley (from the Lubbock axis), Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle (with the accent on rock, but his 'Hillbilly Highway' is as country as they come). They are not all from Texas, they are not all hillbillies and they are not all men: there are Griffith, k.d. lang, K.T. Oslin, Kathy Mattea, Reba McIntyre, the Forester Sisters; from Ireland, Mary Coughlan; from Canada, Mary Margaret O'Hara and the French-Canadian McGarrigle Sisters. Some of them are not so young, because by the time you and I have heard of them they already know a lot of songs and how to put them across. Such is the legacy of the legendary decade: good songs, good friends and good times, if you know where to look. Some of the older songwriters, storytellers and country rockers had chart success once upon a while ago, but most of them have long since retired to their valuable subculture; Jerry Jeff is fond of saying to his audiences that the music business is so awful he is glad he is not part of it, a rueful joke on more than one level. For there is another legacy of the 1960s.
At the end of the decade it had all gone wrong. Stax changed hands, and Jim Stewart found to his surprise that Atlantic owned its classic soul hits. In April 1968 Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis; the mood in black neighbourhoods all over the USA was immediately hostile, and the staff at Stax could not even go to work. In August 1968, just a year after Otis Redding's joyous party in Atlanta for all his friends at the convention for the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers, the thirteenth annual convention in Miami was haunted by gun-toting scum who wanted something for nothing: an effigy of Wexler was hanged, New Orleans R&B entrepreneur Marshall Sehorn was pistol-whipped in a toilet and Phil Walden, a champion of black music, was frightened out of it entirely and switched to white rock.
Brian Jones had become a victim of alcohol, drugs and his own lack of confidence; eased out of the Rolling Stones, he drowned in his swimming pool in July 1969. In December the Stones put on a free concert at a disused racetrack in California, and Altamont was a shambles, just a few months after Woodstock: a young black man (stupidly waving a pistol) was kicked and stabbed to death by some Hell's Angels, who had been hired as security. The Beatles could not stand each other any more and broke up in April of 1970. Hendrix accidentally killed himself with a cocktail of alcohol and drugs in September and Joplin did the same thing in October. (Her version of Kris Kristofferson's lovely 'Me and Bobby McGee', probably the best record she ever made, became her only number one single, indeed her only top forty hit: 'Freedom's just another word / For nothing more to lose'.) Jim Morrison, self-appointed poet of the counterculture and the original monster of narcissism, died from the effects of drugs in July of 1971. Sly Stone, who had as much influence as any of them, slid away in a haze of drugs and unreliability.
Rock'n'roll had seemed to be over in 1960. A decade or so later rock should have been mercifully allowed to retire to the roadhouses of Austin and Lubbock. But by then there was far too much invested in it; the younger generations knew nothing else, and neither did the greedy music business. The pop charts of the following decades were dominated by the toys of technology and the sound of money talking.