The American Music Influences of the 50’s
Written by MarkCarney on 26th May 2016
Rock and roll
Rock and roll dominated popular music in the later half during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and quickly spread to much of the rest of the world. Its immediate origins lay in a mixing together of various black musical genres of the time, including rhythm and blues and gospel music; with country and western and Pop. In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed began playing rhythm and blues music for a multi-racial audience, and is credited with first using the phrase “rock and roll” to describe the music.
The 1950s saw the growth in popularity of the electric guitar (developed and popularized by Les Paul). Paul’s hit records like “How High the Moon”, and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”, helped lead to the development of a specifically rock and roll style of playing of such exponents as Chuck Berry, Link Wray, and Scotty Moore. Chuck Berry, who is considered to be one of the pioneers of Rock and roll music, refined and developed the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, focusing on teen life and introducing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.
Artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Big Joe Turner, and Gene Vincent released the initial rhythm and blues-influenced early rock and roll hits. Rock and roll forerunners in the popular music field included Johnnie Ray, The Crew-Cuts, The Fontane Sisters, and Les Paul and Mary Ford. The Rock and Roll Era is generally dated from 25 March 1955 premiere of the motion picture, “The Blackboard Jungle”. This film’s use of Bill Haley and His Comets’ “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits, caused a national sensation when teenagers started dancing in the aisles.
Pat Boone became one of the most successful artists of the 50s with his heavily Pop-influenced “covers” of R&B hits like “Two Hearts, Two Kisses (Make One Love)”, “Ain’t That a Shame”, and “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)”. Boone’s traditional pop approach to rock and roll, coupled with his All-American, clean-cut image helped bring the new sound to a much wider audience. Elvis Presley, who began his career in the mid-1950s, soon became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll with a series of network television appearances, motion pictures, and chart-topping records. His energized interpretations of songs, many from African American sources, and his uninhibited performance style made him enormously popular—and controversial during that period. Boone and Presley’s styles/images represented opposite ends of the burgeoning musical form, which competed with one another throughout the remainder of the decade.
In 1957, a popular television show featuring rock and roll performers, American Bandstand, went national. Hosted by Dick Clark, the program helped to popularize the more clean-cut, All-American brand of rock and roll. By the end of the decade, teen idols like Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Rydell, Connie Francis, and Fabian Forte were topping the charts. Some commentators have perceived this as the decline of rock and roll; citing the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens in a tragic plane crash in 1959 and the departure of Elvis for the army as causes.
On the other side of the spectrum, R&B-influenced acts like The Crows, The Penguins, The El Dorados and The Turbans all scored major hits, and groups like The Platters, with songs including “The Great Pretender” (1955), and The Coasters with humorous songs like “Yakety Yak” (1958), ranked among the most successful rock and roll acts of the period.
Rock and roll has also been seen as leading to a number of distinct subgenres, including rockabilly (see below) in the 1950s, combining rock and roll with “hillbilly” country music, which was usually played and recorded in the mid-1950s by white singers such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and with the greatest commercial success, Elvis Presley. Another subgenre, Doo Wop, entered the pop charts in the 1950s . Its popularity soon spawns the parody “Who Put the Bomp”.
Novelty songs, long a music industry staple, continued their popularity in the Rock and Roll medium with hits such as “Beep Beep”.
Popular music dominated the charts for the first half of the decade. Vocal-driven classic pop replaced big band/swing at the end of World War II, although it often used orchestras to back the vocalists. 1940s style Crooners vied with a new generation of big voiced singers, many drawing on Italian Canto Bella traditions. Mitch Miller, A&R man at the era’s most successful label, Columbia Records, set the tone for the development of popular music well into the middle of the decade. Miller integrated country, Western, rhythm & blues, and folk music into the musical mainstream, by having many of his label’s biggest artists record them in a style that corresponded to Pop traditions. Miller often employed novel and ear-catching arrangements featuring classical instruments (whooping french horns, harpsichord), or sound effects (whip cracks). He approached each record as a miniature story, often “casting” the vocalist according to type.
(Mitch) Miller and the producers who followed his model were creating a new sort of pop record. Instead of capturing the sound of live groups, they were making three-minute musicals, matching singers to songs in the same way that movie producers matched stars to film roles. As Miller told “Time” magazine in 1951, “Every singer has certain sounds he makes better than others. Frankie Laine is sweat and hard words—he’s a guy beating the pillow, a purveyor of basic emotions. Guy Mitchell is better with happy-go-lucky songs; he’s a virile young singer, gives people a vicarious lift. Rosemary Clooney is a barrelhouse dame, a hillbilly at heart.” It was a way of thinking perfectly suited to the new market in which vocalists were creating unique identities and hit songs were performed as television skits.
Whereas big band/swing music placed the primary emphasis on the orchestration, post-war/early 1950s era Pop focused on the song’s story and/or the emotion being expressed. By the early 1950s, emotional delivery had reached its apex in the miniature psycho-drama songs of writer-singer Johnnie Ray. Known as “The Cry Guy” and “The Prince of Wails”, Ray’s on-stage emotion wrought “breakdowns” provided a release for the pent-up angst of his predominantly teenage fans. As Ray described it, “I make them feel, I exhaust them, I destroy them.” It was during this period that the fan hysteria, which began with Frank Sinatra during the Second World War, really began to take hold.
Although often ignored by musical historians, Pop music played a significant role in the development of rock ‘n’ roll as well:
Miller also conceived of the idea of the pop record “sound” per se: not so much an arrangement or a tune, but an aural texture (usually replete with extramusical gimmicks) that could be created in the studio and then replicated in live performance, instead of the other way around. Miller was hardly a rock ‘n’ roller, yet without these ideas there could never have been rock ‘n’ roll. “Mule Train”, Miller’s first major hit (for Frankie Laine) and the foundation of his career, set the pattern for virtually the entire first decade of rock. The similarities between it and, say, “Leader of the Pack,” need hardly be outlined here.
Patti Page kicked things off with what would become the decade’s biggest hit, “Tennessee Waltz”. Her other hits from this period included: “Mister and Mississippi”, “Mockin’ Bird Hill”, “Detour”, “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window”, and “Old Cape Cod”. Frankie Laine’s 1949 hits, “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)” and “Mule Train”, were still riding high on the charts when the decade began. He continued to score with such hits as: “Georgia on My Mind”, “Cry of the Wild Goose”, “Jezebel”, “Rose, Rose, I Love You”, “Jealousy (Jalousie)”, “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)”, “I Believe”, “Granada”, “Moonlight Gambler”, and “Rawhide”. Johnnie Ray had a long run of hits in the early half of the decade, often backed by The Four Lads, including: “Cry”, “The Little White Cloud That Cried”, “Walking My Baby Back Home”, “Please, Mr. Sun”, and “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”. The Four Lads racked up some hits on their own with “Who Needs You”, “No, Not Much”, “Standin’ on the Corner”, and “Moments to Remember”. Nat “King” Cole dominated the charts throughout the decade with such timeless classics as “Unforgettable”, “Mona Lisa”, “Too Young”, “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup”, “Pretend”, “Smile”, and “A Blossom Fell”. Perry Como was another frequent visitor to the charts with hits like: “If”, “Round and Round”, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”, “Tina Marie”, “Papa Loves Mambo”, and “Catch a Falling Star”.
Other major stars in the early 1950s included Frank Sinatra (“Young at Heart”, “Three Coins in the Fountain”, “Witchcraft”), Tony Bennett (“Cold, Cold Heart”, “Because of You”, “Rags to Riches”), Kay Starr (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “Rock and Roll Waltz”), Rosemary Clooney (“Come On-a My House”, “Mambo Italiano”, “Half as Much”, “This Ole House”), Dean Martin (“That’s Amore”, “Return to Me”, “Sway”), Georgia Gibbs (“Kiss of Fire”, “Dance With Me, Henry”, “Tweedle Dee”), Eddie Fisher (“Anytime”, “Wish You Were Here”, “Thinking of You”, “I’m Walking Behind You”, “Oh! My Pa-Pa”, “Fanny”), Teresa Brewer (“Music! Music! Music!”, “Till I Waltz Again With You”, “Ricochet(Rick-O-Shay)”), Doris Day (“Secret Love”, “Whatever Will Be Will Be (Que Sera Sera)”, “Teacher’s Pet”), Guy Mitchell (“My Heart Cries for You”, “The Roving Kind”, “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”, “Singing the Blues”), Bing Crosby (“Play a Simple Melody with son Gary Crosby, “True Love with Grace Kelly), Dinah Shore (“Lavender Blue”), Kitty Kallen (“Little Things Mean a Lot”), Joni James (“Have You Heard”, “Wishing Ring”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”), Peggy Lee (“Lover”, “Fever”), Julie London (“Cry Me a River”), Toni Arden (“Padre”), June Valli (“Why Don’t You Believe Me”), Arthur Godfrey (“Slowpoke”), Tennessee Ernie Ford (“Sixteen Tons”), Les Paul and Mary Ford (“Vaya Con Dios”, “Tiger Rag”), and vocal groups like The Mills Brothers (“Glow Worm”), The Weavers “(Goodnight Irene”), The Four Aces (“Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”, “(It’s No) Sin”), The Chordettes (“Mister Sandman”), Fontane Sisters (“Hearts of Stone”), The Hilltoppers (“Trying”, “P.S. I Love You”), The McGuire Sisters (“Sincerely”, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite”, “Sugartime”) and The Ames Brothers (“Ragmop” “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane”).
Classic pop declined in popularity as Rock and roll entered the mainstream and became a major force in American record sales. Crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, who had dominated the first half of the decade, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed by the decade’s end. However, new Pop vocalists continued to rise to prominence throughout the decade, many of whom started out singing Rock ‘n’ Roll. These include: Pat Boone (“Don’t Forbid Me”, “April Love”, “Love Letters in the Sand”), Connie Francis (“Who’s Sorry Now”, “Among My Souvenirs”, “My Happiness”), Gogi Grant (“Suddenly There’s a Valley”, “The Wayward Wind”), Bobby Darin (“Dream Lover”, “Beyond the Sea”, “Mack the Knife”), and Andy Williams (“Canadian Sunset”, “Butterfly”, “Hawaiian Wedding Song”). Even Rock ‘n’ Roll icon Elvis Presley spent the rest of his career alternating between Pop and Rock (“Love Me Tender”, “Loving You”, “I Love You Because”). Pop would resurface on the charts in the mid-1960s as “Adult Contemporary”.
In 1951, Little Richard Penniman began recording for RCA Records in the late-1940s jump blues style of Joe Brown and Billy Wright. However, it wasn’t until he prepared a demo in 1954, that caught the attention of Specialty Records, that the world would start to hear his new, uptempo, funky rhythm and blues that would catapult him to fame in 1955 and help define the sound of rock and roll. A rapid succession of rhythm-and-blues hits followed, beginning with “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”, which would influence performers such as James Brown, Elvis Presley, and Otis Redding.
At the urging of Leonard Chess at Chess Records, Chuck Berry had reworked a country fiddle tune with a long history, entitled “Ida Red”. The resulting “Maybellene” was not only a #3 hit on the R&B charts in 1955, but also reached into the top 30 on the pop charts.
Stax Records was founded in 1957 as Satellite Records. The label was a major factor in the creation of the Southern soul and Memphis soul styles.
In 1959, two black-owned record labels, one of which would become hugely successful, made their debut: Sam Cooke’s Sar, and Berry Gordy’s Motown Records.
Blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music in the 1950s with the enthusiastic playing styles of popular musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, departed from the melancholy aspects of blues and influenced Rock and roll music.
Ray Charles and Fats Domino help bring blues into the popular music scene. Domino provides a boogie-woogie style that heavily influences rock ‘n’ roll.
Big Mama Thornton records the original versions of “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain”.
Country music stars in the early 1950s included Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Jim Reeves, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Chet Atkins and Kitty Wells.
Wells’ 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” became the first single by a solo female artist to top the U.S. country charts. “It Wasn’t God … ” was a landmark single in several ways; it began a trend of “answer” songs, or songs written and recorded in response to (or to counterpoint) a previously popular song – in this case, “The Wild Side of Life” by Hank Thompson – and for Wells, began a trend of female singers who defied the typical stereotype of being submissive to men and putting up with their oft-infidel ways, both in their personal lives and in their songs.
Early in the decade, the honky-tonk style dominated country music, with songs of heartbreak, loneliness, alcoholism and despair the overriding themes. Long regarded the master of these themes was Hank Williams, whose critically acclaimed songwriting resulted in a string of legendary hits and songs, such as “Cold, Cold Heart”, “Your Cheating Heart”, “Why Don’t You Love Me” and many more titles. Williams also lived hard, and on January 1, 1953, died. His legacy, however, would live on in country music for decades to come, and be vastly influential to new stars including a young Saratoga, Texas native named George Jones.
Jones, just 23 when he had his first national hit — “Why Baby Why” — would go on to become one of country music’s most iconic figures for the next 55-plus years. Although some of his early songs included rockabilly (usually recorded under the pseudonym Thumper Jones), he stayed true to the honky-tonk style for most of his career. In addition to “Why Baby Why,” his biggest 1950s hits included “What Am I Worth”, “Treasure of Love”, “Just One More” and his first No. 1 hit, “White Lightning”, and by the end of the 1990s, that number would increase to more than 100 hit songs.
Besides Williams and Jones, the most popular honky tonk-styled singers included Lefty Frizzell, Carl Smith and Webb Pierce.
In 1955, Ozark Jubilee nearly began a nearly six-year run on ABC-TV, the first national TV show to feature country’s biggest stars.
By the late 1950s, the Nashville sound became country music’s response to continued encroachment of genre by rock artists. This new style emphasized string sections, background vocals and crooning lead vocals in the vein of mainstream popular music, but utilizing production styles and themes seen in country music. Artists like Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves, both whom had been well established earlier in the decade, were early pioneers in this style, which went on to see its greatest success in the 1960s. One of the first major Nashville Sound hits was “Oh, Lonesome Me” by Don Gibson. Also popular was the “saga song”, often a song with a historical background or having themes of violence, adultery and so forth. Songs by artists such as Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans” and “When It’s Springtime in Alaska”), Stonewall Jackson (“Waterloo”), Marty Robbins (“El Paso”) and Lefty Frizzell (“Long Black Veil”) dominated the charts starting in 1959 and continuing into the early 1960s.
The late 1950s saw the emergence of the Lubbock sound, but by the end of the decade, backlash as well as traditional country music artists such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton began to shift the industry away from the rock n’ roll influences of the mid-1950s.
Rockabilly emerged in the early 1950s as a fusion of rock and roll and country music. Rockabilly was most popular with country fans in the 1950s. The music was propelled by catchy beats, an electric guitar and an acoustic bass which was played using the slap-back technique. Rockabilly is generally considered to have begun in the early 1950s, when musicians like Bill Haley began mixing jump blues and electric country. In 1954, however, Elvis Presley truly began the popularization of the genre with a series of recordings for Sun Records. “Rock Around the Clock” (1955, Bill Haley) was the breakthrough success for the style, and it launched the careers of several rockabilly entertainers.
During this period Elvis Presley converted over to country music. He played a huge role in the music industry during this time. The number two, three and four songs on Billboard’s charts for that year were Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel;” Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line;” and Carl Perkins, “Blue Suede Shoes”. Cash and Presley placed songs in the top 5 in 1958 with No. 3 “Guess Things Happen That Way/Come In, Stranger” by Cash, and No. 5 by Presley “Don’t/I Beg Of You”. Presley acknowledged the influence of rhythm and blues artists and his style, saying “The coloured folk been singin’ and playin’ it just the way I’m doin’ it now, man for more years than I know.” But he also said, “My stuff is just hopped-up country.” By 1958, many rockabilly musicians returned to a more mainstream style or had defined their own unique style and rockabilly had largely disappeared from popular music, although its influences would remain into the future.
Bebop, Hard bop, Cool jazz and the Blues gained popularity during the 1950s while prominent Jazz musicians who came into prominence in these genres included Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, Max Roach, the Miles Davis Quintet, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday.
In 1956 the American musician of Jamaican descent Harry Belafonte popularized the Calypso music Caribbean musical style which became a worldwide craze with the release of his rendition traditional Jamaican folk song “Banana Boat Song” from his 1956 album Calypso. The album later became the first full-length record to sell more than a million copies, and Belafonte was dubbed the “King of Calypso”.
Music of the United Kingdom (1950s)
Music of the United Kingdom began to develop in the 1950s; from largely insular and derivative forms to become one of the leading centres of popular music in the modern world. By 1950 indigenous forms of British popular music, including folk music, brass and silver bands, music hall and dance bands, were already giving way to the influence of American forms of music including jazz, swing and traditional pop, mediated through film and records.
The significant change of the mid-1950s was the impact of American rock and roll, which provided a new model for performance and recording, based on a youth market. Initially this was dominated by American acts, or re-creations of American forms of music, but soon distinctly British forms began to appear, first in the uniquely British take on American folk music in the skiffle craze of the 1950s with artists such as Lonnie Donegan, then in the beginnings of a folk revival that came to place an emphasis on national traditions and then in early attempts to produce British rock and roll such as Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ Move It, often cited at the first British rock and roll record.
Jazz reached Britain from America through recordings and performers who visited the country while it was a relatively new genre, soon after the end of the First World War. Jazz began to be played by British musicians from the 1930s and on a widespread basis in the 1940s, often within dance bands. From the late 1950s British “modern jazz”, highly influenced by American bebop, began to emerge, led by figures such as John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott, while Ken Colyer, George Webb and Humphrey Lyttelton emphasised New Orleans, trad jazz. Scott’s Soho club became a focal point of British jazz, seeing the best of British and international acts. From the 1960s British Jazz began to develop more individual characteristics, absorbing a variety of influences, including free jazz, British blues, as well as European and world music.
In the early 1950s sales of American records dominated British popular music. In the first full year of the charts in 1953 major artists were Perry Como, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine largely with orchestrated sentimental ballads, beside novelty records such as “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” re-recorded by British artist Lita Roza. Some established British wartime stars such as Vera Lynn were still able to chart into the mid-1950s, but successful new British acts such as Jimmy Young who had two number one hits in 1955, did so with re-recorded versions of American songs “Unchained Melody” and “The Man from Laramie” or Alma Cogan with “Dreamboat”. Many successful songs were the product of films, including number ones for Doris Day in 1954 with “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane and for Frank Sinatra with the title song from Three Coins in the Fountain, underlining the dominance of American culture in both film and music at this time, and arguably providing a mechanism for the transference of rock and roll.
Skiffle is a type of folk music with jazz, blues and country influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments, which had originated as a term in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. It became popular again in Britain in the 1950s, where it was associated with musician Lonnie Donegan, whose high-tempo version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” was a major hit in 1956, spending eight months in the Top 20, peaking at No. 6 (and No. 8 in the U.S.). It was the first début record to go gold in Britain, selling over a million copies worldwide. The resulting short-lived skiffle craze led to a profusion of British performers and played a major part in beginning the careers of later eminent jazz, pop, blues, folk and rock musicians, including early British rock performers Tommy Steele, the Shadows and the Beatles.
Folk music and roots revival
The second British folk revival followed a similar American folk music revival, to which it was connected by individuals such as Alan Lomax, who had moved to Britain in the era of McCarthyism and who worked in England and Scotland. Like the American revival, it was often overtly left wing in its politics and the leading figures, Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd, were both involved in trade unionism and socialist politics. In Scotland the key figures were Hamish Henderson and Calum McLean who collected songs and popularised acts including Jeannie Robertson, John Strachan, Flora Macneill and Jimmy MacBeath. In Wales the key figure was Dafydd Iwan, who founded the Sain record label in 1969. The revival began to gain momentum in the 1950s with the establishment of a network of folk clubs, such as the Blues and Ballads Club in London in 1953 and a number of festivals, such as that at Sidmouth from 1955.
British rock and roll
The emergence of American rock and roll as a major international force in popular music in the mid-1950s led to its emulation in Britain, which shared a common language and many cultural connections. The British product has generally been considered inferior to the American version of the genre, and made very little international or lasting impact. However, it was important in establishing British youth and popular music culture and was a key factor in subsequent developments that led to the ‘British Invasion’ of the mid-1960s. Since the 1960s some stars of the genre, most notably Cliff Richard, have managed to sustain very successful careers and there have been periodic revivals of this form of music.