(This post should have run last week, but I ran out of time to get it written—something that may happen again around here over the next couple of weeks.)
It was not uncommon for people to wave from snowbound farmsteads as the snowplow passed by, but it was a little unusual for anyone to come out and flag the driver down. But one farmer in rural Wisconsin did just that on a day shortly after Christmas 1959. He wanted the snowplow driver to know that it was very important that the road be kept clear, since his wife was pregnant and they might need to get to the hospital in town, four miles away. The driver didn’t know that the farmer’s wife was only seven months along. If he had, he might have wondered (as we might today when reading the story) why the farmer felt he had to do this. But the farmer was a first-time father, and he was leaving nothing to chance.
If the farm couple had a radio on during that snowy week—and they certainly would have—neither one of them would have heard much resembling rock and roll. And in fact, rock and roll was under assault during the winter of 1959-60, thanks to the payola scandals. Disc jockeys across the country were accused of taking payments and other gratuities in exchange for airplay. The scale of the payments made some commentators wonder if rock and roll has really been popular, or whether its presence on American radio over the last five years had been bought and paid for. But a look at the record chart reveals that if label and promoter payments had sparked the first wave of rock’s popularity—the one that birthed Elvis and Buddy Holly and Fats Domino and the like—the labels weren’t paying for that sort of thing anymore. The last chart of 1959 is dominated by MOR acts doing the sort of inoffensive music that has always proliferated on American radio—and that was considered a positive development by some. A week hence, a Los Angeles reporter would write, “The most important development of 1959, I feel, was the return of good music and the diminution of that terrible musical cancer known as rock ‘n’ roll.” A representative example of what radio sounded like as the 1950s turned to the 1960s is the chart from WKBW in Buffalo, New York, dated December 25, 1959:
1. “Why”/Frankie Avalon (up from 2). Although Avalon and fellow Top-10 mates Fabian, Freddy Cannon, and Connie Francis had millions of teenage fans who also dug Elvis, Holly, and Domino, a record like “Why” had precious little to do with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “That’ll Be the Day,” or “Blueberry Hill.” By 1959, the record industry had figured out how to create convincing simulations. Avalon and Francis were inoffensive enough to appeal to adults; Fabian and Cannon were more raucous, but no more authentically rockin’.
11. “Mack the Knife”/Bobby Darin (holding at 11). Darin would still have been considered a rocker of a sort at this moment in history, with “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” not far in the rear-view mirror. “Mack the Knife” pointed the way to his Vegas-style transformation, and future hits like “Beyond the Sea” and “You’re the Reason I’m Living,” but those lyrics—Lotte Lenya, Lucy Brown, and that cement bag just a-droopin’ on down—make it as inscrutable as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and about as cool.
15. “Smokie (Part 2)/Bill Black’s Combo (up from 28). Black, with guitarist Scotty Moore, famously backed Elvis until 1957, then became the top instrumentalist in the country with a string of singles on the Hi label from Memphis. They’ve got a particularly unique sound, although they haven’t endured like other hits from the early 60s. Black himself didn’t, either, dying of a brain tumor in 1965, aged 39.
20. “Teenage Hayride”/Tender Slim (up from 26). Billboard described “Teenage Hayride” in November thusly: “. . . a cheerful instrumental that is accented with sound of crowd noises. Tune is a rocker that mounts in sound and excitement. It should find favor.” It did in Buffalo, where WKBW’s competitor, WBNY, charted it at Number One in December, although it made only Number 93 on the Hot 100.
27. “Down by the Station”/Four Preps (debut). A vocal quartet formed at Hollywood High School during the early 50s, the Preps came along at almost the same moment rock and roll rendered their sound out-of-date, although they managed to score a couple of sizable hits in the late 50s, “Twenty-Six Miles” and “Big Man,” in addition to “Down by the Station.” Their influence persisted, however, as their harmonies are said to have inspired Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The members went on to prosperous careers in television and music as producers, songwriters, and/or sound engineers. Ed Cobb, for example, produced and/or wrote songs ranging from the Standells’ “Dirty Water” to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”
I am not a good-enough writer to hide the fact that the expectant farm couple of 50 years ago was my parents, and the blessed event they were awaiting was me. I know that the radio was an important part of their lives, so I like to think I was exposed to radio from the womb. It would explain a lot.