History in context is a whole lot more interesting—and messy—than history as told by the history books. History books will tell you that the rock era began around 1955, and that the kids’ music ruled the world from that time forward. But take a look at the chart from KXYZ in Houston dated June 24, 1957. Does it look like rock ‘n’ roll is in charge to you? It might have felt that way to listeners at the time: the Everly Brothers, Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Pat Boone were part of the first wave of rock stars, and many adults would have found their music obnoxious, even though it seems pretty tame now. But in 1957, there were far fewer radio stations than there are now, and stations playing music frequently went for mass appeal. So in addition to playing the latest rock ‘n’ roll hits, KXYZ programmed a great deal of “adult” music—much of which was just as popular with the kids as rock ‘n’ roll. Some examples:
2. “So Rare”/Jimmy Dorsey. Jimmy and his brother Tommy led two of the most popular bands of the big-band era, with hits going back into the 1930s. Between 1954 and 1956, they hosted Stage Show, a variety series on CBS-TV remembered now for featuring Elvis’ first national TV appearances. “So Rare” features Dorsey himself honkin’ rock-style on alto sax. He died while the record was running the charts, only a couple of weeks before this chart was issued.
7. “Send for Me”/Nat King Cole. If Nat King Cole had been alive to witness his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, he’d have found it a dubious honor. Despite the success of “Send for Me,” he was not a fan of rock songs or rock singers. In 1960, he made his feelings clear in his nightclub act, with a song called “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock and Roll.” (I strongly recommend you click the latter link. It’s great.)
10. “Old Cape Cod”/Patti Page. Like Nat and others of their ilk, Patti Page’s chart success was diminished by rock’s rise. Her music lacks the timeless quality of Cole’s ballads, but some of the songs from her early-50s heyday remain shiveringly gorgeous, “Old Cape Cod” chief among them, but also the classic “Tennessee Waltz,” one of the top singles of all time. Also recommended: “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte,” from the Bette Davis psycho-killer flick of the same name. The song was in the Billboard Top 10 this week in 1965—right between the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” and “Ticket to Ride.”
12. “Whispering Bells” and 19. “Come Go With Me”/Del-Vikings. A group of Air Force soldiers stationed in Pittsburgh became the first racially mixed group to score a rock ‘n’ roll hit. They weren’t racially mixed at their formation, however—only after they’d won a worldwide Air Force talent contest with “Come Go With Me” did they add a white member, and on “Whispering Bells,” they have two. The Del-Vikings were everywhere in 1957, with various labels releasing various versions of various songs by various lineups with various spellings, either “Del-Vikings” or “Dell-Vikings,” and often with pictures on the cover that did not reflect the actual lineup on the records within. Much more here.
31. “Talkin’ to the Blues”/Jim Lowe. Lowe had come to New York as an aspiring singer and songwriter, and had bagged a left-field Number One hit in 1956 with “The Green Door.” He eventually became a successful DJ, hosting segments of NBC’s Monitor and doing a couple of different stretches on New York’s WNEW-AM. serving as program director during the 1980s. All the while, he continued to pursue a career in music, and has done so since his retirement in 1992.
It’s worth remembering, because we so often don’t, that history is far from a settled thing. That doesn’t mean we can make up our own facts—only that we need to be careful about how we interpret the facts can we agree on. So while 1957 looks to some people like the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s just as appropriate to see it as a transitional era, in a world rock had yet to conquer.