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Rock 'N' Roll Defined Teen Culture
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Leonie Pompa and Irene Martinez
Parents hated it. Clergy condemned it. Teenagers craved it. Despite the criticism, rock 'n' roll during the 1950s drastically changed popular music and became an influential element in teenage culture across the nation - and in El Paso.
Drawing by Tony Barron
The popular music of the 1940s was dominated by tender love ballads sung by solo vocalists such as Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher and Tony Bennett. This style continued into the early '50s, but rhythm and blues music was slowly developing in some of the songs produced during the late '40s.
Rhythm and blues, developed and performed mainly by black musicians, combined blues and jazz. The sound of the music was jarring to the public because it was so different from the easy listening music of the 1940s. Some adults found vague sexual references in the lyrics and branded the music as suggestive.
The attitudes and desires of teens in the early '50s were different from those of the parents' generation. Young people were creating their own culture. They were defiant, seeking excitement and something new from the customary music of the '40s and they found it in dance and blues music.
By the early 1950s, radio stations were paying attention to the popularity of rhythm and blues. One of the most important disc jockeys to promote the new music nationally was Alan Freed, who worked for WJW in Cleveland. In 1951, he convinced his manager to give him a nightly rhythm and blues show. Ezra Bowen, editor of the series of books entitled This Fabulous Century, says Freed called the music he played "Rock 'n' Roll."
The popularity of rock 'n' roll was making its recording artists instant stars: Bill Haley and The Comets became a hit with their song "Rock Around the Clock" when it was used in the movie "Blackboard Jungle" in 1955. Elvis Presley gained stardom with his release "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956. According to Arnold Shaw, author of The Rockin' 50's, this song achieved No. 1 status on the pop charts. Shaw also cites Fats Domino, originally a rhythm and blues singer, who established himself in popular music with "Blueberry Hill." He had a bright and youthful voice which made him irresistible to young listeners and the transition to singing rock 'n' roll was easy.
By the middle of the decade, record companies realized the commercial power among their listeners was much different from that of the previous decade. Because the decade of the 1950s was one of relatively affluence and prosperity, Americans acquired more possessions than ever before, and a new consumer culture evolved. And for the first time, young people directly affected the economy. Teens began buying a tremendous number of rock 'n' roll records. Parents fought with their teenagers about the music which threatened every part of the older, conservative generation. They said the male singers sounded immature and their exhaling grunts were offensive. Some despised everything about the music -- the chaotic rhythm, its howling and screaming.
Even more scandalous were lyrics such as these from "Chantilly Lace," by the Big Bopper: "Make me real loose, like a long-necked goose. Oh, Baby, that's a what I like." Other songs related the pain of young love and other teen concerns. Cultural historian Charles Panati says that to some parents the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley was disturbing, frenzied and sexual.
Parents and clergy believed that rock 'n' roll was the cause of the nation's social ills and youthful rebellion. By the middle of the decade, rock 'n' roll concerts were adding fuel to the controversy.
In 1956, there were several incidents across the nation where the mixture of youth and the music incited lawlessness. A Timemagazine article reported that the Mayor of Asbury Park, New Jersey, issued a ban on rock 'n' roll in area dance halls after a riot at the city's Convention Hall sent 25 teens to the hospital. The same article carried an account of a ban on rock 'n' roll from swimming pool jukeboxes in San Antonio, Texas. The city council blamed the rowdy beat for attracting "undesirables" who danced in their bathing suits.
Parents continued to fight against rock music as its appeal spread among young listeners. But the musicians mesmerized the teenagers with songs that created a sense of unrestrained freedom which was daring for the fifties. Shaw says that after recording their hit "At the Hop," Danny and the Juniors rebutted adult opposition by releasing their next hit titled "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay." In El Paso, young listeners were just as enthusiastic about the music. In a recent interview, Steve Crosno, local disc jockey, said: "The kids loved it and the parents kinda secretly liked it… but the narrow- minded ones were saying rock 'n' roll was going to ruin the country."
As the music progressed and the criticism continued, the music industry tried to clean up its image by introducing artists who rejected the harshness associated with rock 'n' roll. Bobby Darin, Dion, Paul Anka and Pat Boone were some acceptable to adults.
Crosno says, " Almost every time Little Richard would have a hit, Pat Boone would put out the same song. Okay, who are you gonna listen to - "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard or "Tutti Frutti by Pat Boone? One of them is so much gutsier. Not that Pat Boone hasn't got talent. He can do other kinds of music." Pat Boone's clean-cut appearance and status as a family man, along with his calmer manner of singing, were accepted by a new group of listeners, including many adults. However, most teenagers felt he had abandoned the excitement that attracted them to the music.
As television became more accessible, rock music found its niche there, too. "American Bandstand" presented the latest hit songs, new dances and fashion trends to teenagers. Besides listening to their favorite rock 'n' roll songs, teenagers learned the latest dances such as the Bunny Hop, the Bop, the Stroll and the Walk. The show attempted to temper the furor rock 'n' roll had created in other places and to appease adults to some extent.
The show's host, Dick Clark, dressed conservatively in a coat and a tie, as did most of the male rock groups and soloists in the early years. Studio guests also had a dress code: boys had to wear coat and a tie and girls wore dresses or skirts, no jeans. Bruce Duffy in a 1992 Lifearticle quotes Clark regarding rock's critics: "The thinking behind it was that if we looked presentable, 'normal,' the way 'they think we ought to look, 'they'll' leave us alone."
Teenagers began to create their own fads and clothing styles to go with the music. Boys began wearing sideburns like those of Elvis Presley. The color pink became popular among men's fashions, most often worn with charcoal gray or black slacks and accessories. Boys also wore baggy pegged pants, sometimes with a white stripe down the side, and suede shoes.
Girls wore gathered skirts with wide hems and matching or contrasting blouses with a waist-narrowing broad belt or slim skirts with matching sweater sets. Flat shoes and silk scarf ties around the neck completed the ensemble.
El Paso teenagers looked forward to the weekends to listen to rock 'n' roll music and to dance. Ernest Pompa, a teenager in El Paso in the '50s says, "We used to go to parties at people's houses or rent basements in Central El Paso. We danced to rhythm and blues and swing. The place for rock 'n' roll in downtown El Paso was the Green Frog.
Steve Crosno adds, "There was the Blue Goose down in the Valley. We had one called Spotlight and another called Skateland and all these did very well."
No question about it, rock 'n' roll's lyrics today are much more blatant than those of the fifties. But today we still hear songs which tell of social problems and adolescent insecurities. Rap songs affirm the violence in our society. Since the '50s, rock 'n' roll has continued to reflect the attitudes, desires and changes of the younger generation. And there will always be people who will find reason to oppose it.
- Bobby Fuller, El Paso rock artist, life and mysterious death in El Paso Times series of 3 articles