Rock 'n Roll: The Beginnings
by Donald J. Mabry
Rock 'n roll 1 became the
dominant musical genre in the United States in the 1950s because young people between the ages of 13 and 19 listened to the
radio, bought rock 'n roll records, and watched
American Bandstand on national television in the afternoon and movies which
featured rock ' roll music. Without a combination of circumstances peculiar to
the period, none of this would have happened. These circumstances included the
antics of the American Society of
Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP), the post-Word War II economic boom,
advances in recording technology, television's rise to dominance as the national
entertainment source, teenagers having discretionary income, and the
entrepreneurship of the owners of small, independent record companies.2
Although exceptional teenagers, such as the seventeen-year-old Joan of Arc and
the eighteen-year-old Charles XII of Sweden (who conquered much of central
Europe in the early 18th century), had influenced history, this was the first time
teenagers were such a force in human history. What they started in the 1950s,
the years of the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, would become a multi-billion
dollar business, so important that the U.S. government would choose one of Chuck Berry's
songs in the early 1980s as one of two songs in its
attempts to contact possible alien life forms. It was extraordinary that people
born in the late 1930s and early 1940s have had such an impact on the
United States and, ultimately, the world. Much is made of the Baby Boomer
generation's impact on US culture and rightfully so, but it was this earlier
group that began the massive social change.
Had parents not indulged their children with money, the rock 'n roll revolution would never have occurred.
Teenagers had to have the money from allowances or, less commonly, working, else
they could not have bought the records, seen the movies, and, in some stances,
attended concerts that featured rock 'n roll. Without their participation, rock
'n roll would have remained music enjoyed by a small portion of the population.
It was their money, or more commonly, their parents' money, that fueled the rock
'n roll revolution. Obviously, parents had to have discretionary income—income
that they didn't have to use for food, shelter, clothing, and medical expenses—to fund the desires of their progeny. Had the American standard of
living improved during WWII and then boomed after WWII, they could not afforded
to do so. Enough of them could afford to indulge their children that the
latter were able to choose music more appropriate their, as opposed to their,
Indulging teenagers was fairly new in human history.
Adolescence had only been invented in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries when the society was becoming rich enough to keep out of the labor
force where they contributed more than their own upkeep. More and more parents
were able to keep their children in school. By1918, they had to keep them in
elementary school. In 1900, only 10% of teenagers aged 14 to 17 went to high
school. After 1910 the percentage of people attending grades 9-12
grew quickly. By the 1950s, most American teens were in high school instead of
working. Women had been encouraged to leave the work force after World War
II so that returning veterans, 80% of whom had been drafted into the military,
could have their jobs again in civilian life. They were told that it was their
civic duty to stay home and birth and raise children. Theirs was the
responsibility of making sure that children chose the right side in the
ideological conflict known as the Cold War. They and their husbands used their
new-found prosperity to educate their children and indulge their
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Besides cars and clothes, teenage fancies in those days, were concerned with relationships—friendship, love,
an innocent sexuality—and having a good time not politics, social
protest, and such illicit substances as marijuana, heroin, acid, peyote,
cocaine, and other psychotropic drugs. Although the music was full
of double entendres most teenagers understood only the most blatant. It was a
more innocent age; sex in the movies, when it existed, was subtle. It was uncommon, however. In both movies and television, married couples slept in
separate beds. Looking back (hearing the music fifty years later), one finally
understands why some of the lyrics upset parents and other adults so much. They
understood what was being said. Today, twelve year olds would understand as
teenagers of the 1950s desegregated popular music but not consciously. Teenagers just liked the sounds. They didn't think much about the fact that so many
rock 'n roll singers were black. When we saw
the rock 'n roll movies like "Don't Knock the Rock" (1956),"Go,
Johnny, Go," and "The
Girl Can't Help It" (perhaps the guys were too focused on the endowments of
Jayne Mansfield to notice the singers!) , we saw blacks but thought little of
it except that we were glad to hear singers we liked. Some of us were surprised
to learn that Bobby Day who sang "Rockin' Robin" and Wilbert
Harrison who sang "Kansas City" in a rockabilly style were black.
Everyone that Nat King Cole and the Mills Brothers were black; they had been
appearing in "white" venues for years; they were a
part of our childhood. We also knew that Johnny Mathis was, perhaps because his
beautiful ballads made him acceptable to adults as well as teenagers. The
music we liked existed independently of society as far as we were concerned. Even the teenagers I knew who were
furious about the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka [Kansas] (1954) decision didn't make disparaging
remarks about "black" performers.
from newspapers, magazines, and film clips that some white were deeply disturbed
by how readily "white" teenagers accepted music performed by
"blacks." One can easily buy documentary videos which contain
film clips showing white racists, some from the Ku Klux Klan, some from the
White Citizens Council, opposing the music, blaming it on a supposed conspiracy
of blacks, Communists, and Jews. Other vocal opponents, shown on such videos,
were city officials. No doubt there was widespread opposition to
"white" kids listening to rock 'n roll by all sorts of people but
teenagers tended to resist authority.
Although the US was more prosperous and teenagers shared this
prosperity, many could not afford a record player even though the 45 RPM model was much
cheaper than machines which played
33⅓ RPM or 78 RPM records. But one's friends might have one. The 45 RPM record cost 89 cents to a
dollar but that meant more than 54 minutes of work for someone with a minimum wage
job . Its 2004 equivalent price would be $4.64. Jobs for adolescents were not as plentiful as they
are today and only jobs clearly involved in interstate commerce were covered by
the federal minimum wage law. Restaurant and hotel jobs were not.
So radios were very important and jukeboxes (one could hear the music when
others played the jukebox and many school organizations rented juke boxes for
It might be easy to get the impression that teenagers only listened to or were
interested in rock 'n roll. Nothing could be further from the truth. Broadway
show tunes, Tin Pan Alley music as sung by Perry Como, Bing Crosby, the
Four Freshmen, Frank Sinatra, and many other were popular. In 1955, Joan
Weber, "Let Me Go Lover," the McGuire Sisters, "Sincerely,"
Perez Prado, "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," Frank Sinatra,
Learnin' The Blues," Mitch Miller, "The Yellow Rose of Texas,"
The Four Aces, "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing," and Roger
Williams, Autumn Leaves" made number one in the Billboard charts. Three
years later, when rock 'n roll or, at least, teenage music, was dominating the
charts, the following songs also reached number one:
- "Sugartime" by the McGuire Sisters
- "Tequila" by the Champs
- "Catch a Falling Star" by Perry Como
- "He's Got The Whole World in His Hands" by Laurie London
- "Twilight Time" by the Platters
- "Patricia" by Perez Prado
- "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)" by Domenico Modugno
- "Little Star" by the Elegants
- "Tom Dooley" by the Kingston Trio
- "The Chipmunk Song" by the Chipmunks
one sense, adolescents
had a broader taste in popular music than did their parents and other adults. They enjoyed
"adult" music as well as "teenage" music. The gap between them
was not as great as it would become by the late 1960s when one slogan of baby
boomers was "don't trust anyone over 30" and Roger Daltrey of The
Who could sing "I hope I die before I get old."3 Daltrey
was 60 in 2004. Although James Dean and his parents were at odds in the movie "Rebel
Without A Cause," his situation did not seem universal and no one argued
for the death of parents as they would at the end of the 1960s. Marlon Brando
with his black letter jacket and motorcycle was an intriguing bad boy not a
role model. Teenagers understood that guys like that were capable of beating
someone up just for the fun of it, that they weren't "nice." They weren't the Fonz of "Happy
Days," a lovable character who wouldn't hurt a fly.
one factor is accounting for this taste was that the performers were usually
teenagers or young adults in their 20s. When they sang about love or sex
relationships—the theme of most popular music. They didn't even have to sing about adolescent
concerns such as school, teenagers identified with them. The music was simple,
usually a three chord progression, and did not require training. It seemed to
be something that a teenager might be able to do.
No one knows when rock 'n roll began. The advent of a musical style is not
a discrete event. Did it begin in the late 1940s with such songs as Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight"
Was Bill Haley and the Comets' "Crazy Man Crazy" (1951) the first rock 'n roll
record? How does on characterize "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner on piano, recorded
in the Sun Studios in Memphis and
released by Chess Records in 1951? What about Fats Domino's "The Fat Man"
in 1949; he never
changed his style—New Orleans Dance Blues—and few dispute that "Ain't
That A Shame" and his rendition of "Blueberry Hill", among
others, were rock 'n roll hits. Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the
Clock" was recorded in 1954 but did not "hit" until it was the
theme song for the movie "Blackboard Jungle." The movie resonated with
teenagers, partly because Sidney Poitier was very appealing. partly because it
spoke of justice. Many consider it the first rock 'n roll record; others assert
that it was in the Western swing tradition. Did rock 'n roll have to be songs
sung by black people such as "Earth Angels" by the Penguins (1954) or
Chuck Berry, "Maybellene"(1955) or Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti? What about Carl Perkins' "Blue
Suede Shoes"? We know that Elvis Presley didn't begin rock 'n roll.
What is rock 'n roll? Part of the difficulty is that there were
at least five distinct
types of rock 'n roll. Charlie Gillette in The Sound of the City: The Rise
of Rock and Roll 4 argues that the music can be subdivided into the following
categories: Northern Band, New Orleans Dance Blues, Memphis Country Rock (Rockabilly), Chicago Rhythm and Blues, Vocal Groups. Bill Haley and the Comets are a good example of northern band rock 'n roll.
Northern Band rock 'n roll never achieved the popularity of the other styles. New Orleans Dance
Blues records sounded very similar because they so often used the same musicians
and recorded in Cosimo Matassa's studio but that doesn't mean that Fats Domino, Little Richard, and
Huey "Piano" Smith sounded alike. Pat Boone, who sold more records in the 1950s than
anyone but Elvis Presley, successfully covered many Domino and Little Richard
records, possible because DJs preferred a white Southerner. It's difficult to
define his renditions as rock 'n roll. The early Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry
Lee Lewis, and Gene Vincent were rockabillies. Roy Orbison was a blend of rockabilly and crooning
and had a distinctive delivery. Chuck Berry is the most famous
musician from the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Many blues musicians had
migrated from Mississippi and played in venues catering to a black clientele.
They soon amplified their guitars because the night clubs and "juke
joints" could get noisy. Berry and Bo Diddley were two of the Chicago
guitar men who became famous because they managed to appeal to a broader
audience. Berry, of course, became the archetypical guitar hero who wrote clever
lyrics which appealed to teenagers. Berry bordered on being a rockabilly even
though he was a Midwestern black man. Chess Records was the company who brought
these blue and Rhythm & Blues musicians to fame. Vocal groups abounded. The
Spaniels, the Penguins, the Diamonds, the Crew Cuts, the Platters, and many
more. The Everly Brothers, a brotherly duo, were a vocal harmony group but
they were also in the rockabilly tradition. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers
were more typical.
Some historians assert that rock 'n roll was just a more
polite term for rhythm & blues albeit stripped of its sexual connotations.
The double entendre aspect of "rocking," "rock you," and
"rock and roll" was obvious if one listened to a number of rhythm
& blues songs but most whites didn't. Alan Freed certainly
popularized the terms "rock 'n roll" and "rock and
roll" among all kinds of people but he was not trying to be risqué; he was
just trying to use a term which didn't seem "black." In fast dances,
people often did rock.. The terms began to refer to the dancing although some
teenagers could also interpret the term in sexual terms. Bill Haley and the Comets "Rock
Around the Clock" certainly sanitized the terms. They began to refer to the
dances, similar to the jitterbug, that teenagers did and not what two of them
might do in the backseat of a car.
The music would not have become popular had its not caught
the fancy of the American adolescent. It had to be heard, however, and most
American teenagers were white and had little or no access to rhythm & blues
through the usual means open to whites during desegregation. In much of the
United States, not just the South, blacks and whites didn't socialize together. Although juke boxes were ubiquitous, juke box owners loaded them with different
records depending upon where they were placed. The combination of records in a
juke joint frequented exclusively by African Americans would be quite
different from the collection of records stocked to appeal to an all-white
It was radio where we first heard the music. The phenomenal success of television between 1947 and 1957 forced most radio
stations to shift to an all-music format in order to draw audiences, thus increasing the
demand for any kind of recorded music. Live musical broadcasts, dramas, and comedy
shows were soon replaced by recorded music as television network owners began
moving their capital into the much more profitable television business. They lost interest
in radio program content and became concerned with little more than a station's
profitability. Small, independently-owned radio stations had pioneered the use of
recorded music, for they could rarely afford to pay live musicians. Nevertheless, the
total recording industry's 1955 sales of $189 million were substantially less than the
previous 1947 peak of $224 million.
Television and the national record market were
targeted at the same consumers, who preferred watching television to listening to the
Radio stations could and did provide markets for minority music. In 1955, there
were 2,732 AM radio stations in the nation (FM radio was insignificant at this
time). 6 .Radio gave record companies a cheap way to advertise their merchandise and increase
sales, for it was the hearing of a song that made people want to buy it. The
invention of the transistor made it possible to build small, portable, and
relatively cheap radios—the very kind that teenagers could afford to have in
the bedrooms where they could choose to what they would listen. No longer were
they dependent upon their parents' big console and, therefore, musical tastes. Radio was democratic;
anyone could listen to it.
And the radio station didn't have to be local for, at night,
radio signals for AM radio can go long distances, especially when the air
is cold or across water (one could hear a Boston station in Jacksonville,
Florida). In the South, many listened to the AM radio station WLAC in
Nashville. At night, disk jockeys such as John Richburg played music white kids
didn't hear elsewhere. They liked some of it. Randy's Record Mart sold these
records by mail order. Besides different music, we also hear ads for such items as Royal Crown Hair
Dressing, exotic to white teenagers. Other stations, the 50,000 or 100,000 watt
stations in the United States and Mexico, spread blues, rhythm & blues, and
rockabilly across the USA. One did not have to be in a city to hear it just
willing to listen at night.
Before the music went national in the majority white market,
there were stations which played "black" music some
or all of the day such as WOBS in Jacksonville, Florida, WDIA, WHBQ and WHHM
(Memphis, Tennessee), WSBC (Chicago, Illinois), WJTL and WERD (Atlanta,
Georgia), WEDR (Birmingham, Alabama), WCHB (Inkster, Michigan), WLAC
(Nashville, Tennessee), George Lorenz at WKBW, and Hunter Hancock
at KGFJ. WDAS (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), WWDC (Washington, D.C.),
WEFC (Miami, Florida), WLOU (Louisville, Kentucky), WLOK (New Orleans), WINS
(New York, New York), (WNJR, Newark, New Jersey), WKBW (Buffalo, New York, which
meant that it reached into Canada), and WBMS (Boston, Massachusetts) to mention
a few east of the Mississippi River. St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri were
hotbeds of blue, rhythm & blue, and jazz and radio stations which broadcast
them. Radio stations in California and elsewhere
in the West played the music. Many white teenagers listened to these stations
and then some bought the records, going into stores few whites frequented.
The key to
selling records was convincing disk jockeys (DJs) on one or two dominant radio stations
in the regional market to play a record and to play it as often as possible. Other stations
would then also play the record. If one could "breakout" in one key city, stations in other
cities would be more likely to play the record as well. If enough played it, the record
became a national hit. Disk jockeys at some of the 50,000 watt radio stations in the
United States or the 100,000 watt stations on the northern border of Mexico used their
late-night programs to broadcast non-traditional popular music, that is, blues, rhythm
and blues, and country & western. Some of the listeners subsequently bought the
records they heard, but these listeners themselves were out of the mainstream.
Powerful and popular regional radio stations influenced the smaller stations in the
region, for there were a number of regional record markets but no national market.
Thus, these musical styles remained highly regional, for there was no national
communication or distribution system which would allow persons in Painted Post, New
York to be aware of and listen to music originating in Boron, California or Indianola,
Mississippi or any number of other places.
To promote a record into hit status, record companies concentrated on relatively
few locales. In 1958, New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan
accounted for 51% of all record sales, with New York and California together accounting
In practice, this meant trying to get airplay in New York City, Los Angeles,
Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit. Seven other cities were also important
record markets: New Orleans, Dallas, St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Miami, and Charlotte.
Small, independent record companies were
the catalysts of the rock 'n roll revolution in the music business of the 1950s. These
companies developed the national market for rhythm and blues (R&B) and rock 'n roll.
They democratized the music business by bringing heretofore neglected songwriters,
musicians, ethnic groups, and regional groups into the national record market. In the
process, they dramatically increased the dollar volume of record sales. The music
establishment fought these changes through publicity campaigns, lawsuits, and
congressional hearings and lost. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, the large
record corporations were recording rock 'n roll, often toning it down its rawness and
energy with a standardized and "whiter" sound, or were buying off the stars of the
independent companies or the companies themselves. Few of these independents
survived this exercise of corporate muscle. Nevertheless, they played an important role
in the history of the phonograph record business.
Six major record companies (Columbia, RCA, Decca, Capitol, MGM, and
Mercury) dominated the record business in the late 1940s and the early 1950s.
largest two, Columbia and RCA, which sold 25% of all records, promoted their records
over CBS and NBC, their radio and television broadcasting networks. These majors, so
defined because they had their own recording studios and distribution system, produced
for whites who could afford home entertainment and who were also the cultural heroes
of the post-World War II era. Both the majors and their ally, the American Society of
Composers, Artists, and Publishers (ASCAP), represented the economic and cultural
interests of the white, middle- and upper-class, urban elites. These elites valued the
European secular and religious musical traditions. Early in the twentieth century, they
had condemned jazz for its African and Afro-American origins and, after Jewish
composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Ira Gershwin began
incorporating jazz into popular songs, as being Jewish.
In time, however, this new
music became traditional as show tunes and white jazz gained popularity and the
popular music establishment defended this new orthodoxy against the perceived threats
of "hillbilly," blues, R&B, and rock 'n roll music.
Neither ASCAP nor the major record companies had much interest in music
created and performed by ordinary people, especially that which could be identified with
an unpopular ethnic or regional group. Southern music (blues, R&B, rock 'n roll,
rockabilly, and country music) was considered too primitive and inappropriate. This was
also true of the urban blues (electric guitar blues such as that of Chicago or rhythm and
blues) which had its origins in the South. It was true of Hispanic-American music.
Cultural elitism, with its paternalistic nature, was the ruling variable. These gatekeepers
were keeping the "riffraff" out, and, in their view, preserving the integrity of what they
believed to be the "proper" American culture. Billy Rose, an ASCAP member, eloquently
expressed the attitudes of many members of his organization in testimony before a
congressional investigating committee:
Not only are most of the BMI songs junk, but on many cases they are obscene
junk pretty much on the level with dirty comic magazines.... It is the current
climate on radio and TV which makes Elvis Presley and his animal posturings
possible... When ASCAP's songwriters were permitted to be heard, Al Jolson,
Nora Bayes, and Eddie Cantor were all big salesmen of songs. Today it is a set
of untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely due to the zootsuiter
and the juvenile delinquent. 8
Both rural Southern whites and blacks (rural and urban) were treated as marginal
groups. Because these two groups did buy some records, the majors had subsidiary
record labels for rural Southern whites ("hillbilly music") and for blacks ("race" music
until 1948 when it was renamed "rhythm and blues" in order to be less offensive), but
this market was too small to draw much corporate attention. When shellac shortages
occurred during World War II, the majors abandoned these minority markets in order to
concentrate on the more profitable white, middle-class market. The independents filled
these gaps, aided by the social and technological changes produced by the war.
By 1950, the music establishment had yielded some on country music but not at
all on black music. Southern white outmigration from the South into northern and
western industrial cities spread the geographical scope of country music. During World
War II, country music was so popular with U.S. soldiers, regardless of regional origin,
that the majors released a limited number of country songs but often converting them
into the mainstream style. As white music, it was relatively easy for ASCAP to accept a
few country music songwriters into its ranks. Blues and R&B were usually excluded.
Although jazz had become respectable, the genre had little mass appeal. The
"acceptable" black singers such as Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers, and Sarah Vaughn
sang in a white style.
A self-defeating act by ASCAP in 1940-41 created unusual opportunities for
independent record companies. Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) was created by radio
station owners in 1940 to license music that ASCAP would not license. Both licensed
songs for airplay, collected royalties, and then distributed them to the copyright owners.
Unlike ASCAP, BMI was willing to let any songwriter or publisher join, thus opening the
gates to the musicians rejected by ASCAP. BMI grew in importance when ASCAP, in a
gambit to increase royalty rates dramatically, boycotted radio stations for most of 1941;
BMI songs replaced ASCAP songs. 9
ASCAP favored long-established songwriters and publishers, for it only
distributed 20% of the royalties in a given year to the persons who songs created those
royalties; the remainder were distributed to persons whose songs were popular in the
past but no longer. Such a system made it very difficult for a new songwriter or
publisher to survive on royalties but provided a steady income for those who had been
long-standing members of the "club."
ASCAP controlled the bulk of American popular music between its founding in
1912/14 and the 1940s. ASCAP decided who could belong to the organization. Each
music publisher had one vote for each $500 in royalties earned by the publisher in the
preceding year. By 1958, three music publishing companies controlled 51% of the
publisher's vote. Writers got one vote for each $20 in royalties earned in the preceding
year; in 1958, less than 5% of the writers controlled 51% of the writers' vote.10
writers depended upon music publishers, the latter held the power.
lawsuits and congressional hearings in an unsuccessful effort to weaken BMI and, in the
process, beat back the rise of rhythm and blues and rock 'n roll. That seems to be the
primary motivation of the payola hearings of 1960, for the argument throughout the
hearings was that R&B and rock 'n roll would never be played on radio (and thus records
sold) were it not for bribery on the part of the independents.
Technological changes enabled small companies to enter the market and,
ultimately, to revolutionize the music business. The majors had controlled the market
because they had the capital necessary to own and operate the requisite and expensive
studios with their disk recording and cutting equipment. Performers were recorded
directly onto master disks. Without access to such machines (and few could afford
them), one could not make records. One result of World War II, however, was the
acquisition of tape recording technology from the Germans in 1945. Small
businessmen could afford tape recorders; portable machines meant that one could
record anywhere. 11
One's "recording studio" could be and often was a storefront office.
Mastering and pressing plants rarely operated at full capacity and liked the little jobs
which took up some of the slack.
In the late 1940s, recording industry engineers discovered how to overcome the
limitations of the 78 RPM disk, the standard until the early 1950s; in doing so, they
inadvertently helped the small companies. The 78 RPM record was fragile, low fidelity,
and limited to ten minutes playing time on each side. To listen to a classical work, a
Broadway show, or a movie soundtrack, the kind of music the majors and ASCAP liked,
meant tolerating poor quality sound and frequent interruptions. Peter Goldmark of
Columbia solved these problems by inventing the microgroove plastic record which
produced high fidelity sound. Goldmark's team also had to invent better microphones
and loudspeakers to match the higher quality sound. Columbia created the
Long Playing (LP) record. To compete with Columbia's new LPs, RCA developed the 45
RPM plastic record which produced even better fidelity than the LP. To market this new
record, RCA sold the necessary record changers or record players below cost or used
them as promotional prizes, virtually giving them away in order to sell the records.
Since the 45 RPM record played for only a few minutes and thus required frequent
changes for a long piece of music, it was more suited for the popular music market,
where prompt release is critical.
Another reason why the minority record market had been small was because
many blacks and rural Southern whites could not afford to buy phonographs and
records; World War II changed that. War mobilization clustered them, whether as part
of the sixteen million persons who passed through the armed forces or as part of the
millions who got jobs in defense plants in such cities as Detroit, Chicago, and Los
Angeles. They began losing their prewar isolation and learned that they had similar
musical tastes. Rural Southern music, black and white, was carried into urban
neighborhoods throughout the United States, creating small but definable markets.
Wartime jobs gave these Southerners more discretionary income. Job discrimination
barriers fell in many industries outside the South and wages were high in those jobs;
and overtime guaranteed plenty of money. At first, they had to rely upon the jukebox to
hear their music. Few radio stations played it. Those fortunate enough to own a
phonograph often had to buy used records or exchange an old record for a new one
because of the wartime shellac shortage. 12
Independent record companies filled the gaps created by the neglect of minority
music during and after World War II and the increased demand for records when
television hit full stride. With a small amount of capital, one could create a record
company and sell in a local or even regional market. One needed a magnetic tape
recorder, some performers, and credit with pressing plants and printers. Ward and
Gillett, citing a May 23, 1951 Billboard article, assert that new record labels were
appearing on the order of two or three a week even though R&B records constituted
only 5.7% of total record sales. Gillett asserts that, by 1952, there were over 100
independent record companies. Between 1945-55, Los Angeles, had the largest
number of successful independent record companies in R&B, including Specialty,
Aladdin, Modern, Swingtime, and Imperial.
Neither the black nor the "hillbilly" market could sustain this many record
companies nor could either create many national hits, but white adolescents could.
They had been empowered culturally and financially by the postwar devotion to
They had discretionary income to spend on records and phonographs. They
had lots of energy and an intense interest in sex, a common subject of R&B. They were
natural risk-takers, willing to challenge the cultural consensus. They tended to want
immediate self-gratification and also had short attention spans. For record companies,
they were ideal consumers because they would buy and use a product, tire of it, and
then quickly buy another.
The successful independent record company owners came to understand this
combination of factors and exploited it. They often shared information about what was
selling and why or rented their studios to each other in the early days since many of
them only sold in a regional market and were not competitors. This informal network
was important because it enabled them to overcome the shortcomings inherent in a
storefront operation. Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, Art Rupe of Specialty
Records, Lew Chudd of Imperial Records, and the Bihari brothers of Modern Records,
all in Los Angeles, the Chess brothers of Chess Records in Chicago, Don Robey of
Peacock/Duke Records in Houston, Johnny Vincent of Jackson and New Orleans, and
many others knew each other well. Eventually, they became fierce competitors, raiding
each other's talent and suing over copyright infringement. To some extent, they were all
hustlers in a very competitive business.
Record companies bombarded disk jockeys, especially those working for the
major stations in the key markets, with thousands of records, hoping that the DJ would
like and play the record. The first challenge for a record promoter, therefore, was simply
convincing a DJ to listen to a record. DJs played hit records automatically, of course,
and monitored records sales by distributors and retail stores, the playlists of competitors
and of smaller radio stations, and listener requests to determine which were the hits.
DJs also wanted to be the first to play what would become a hit, to have the power that
it brought, for being a trend spotter meant higher salaries, payola, and fame. Allen
Freed was such a DJ. To sort out the potential hits from the "stiffs," a DJ often relied
not just upon listening to records himself but also upon the advice (or salesmanship) of
the record company representative, the reputation of the label, and the fame of the
Probably most record companies promoted records through payola, the then
legal practice of trying to influence DJs to play a company's records. The practice
existed in the late nineteenth century when songwriters and music publishers paid band
leaders to play their songs in order to promote the sale of sheet music. When recorded
music replaced sheet music, the practice continued except that the record companies
became the payees and DJs and record distributors became the recipients. The
practice was widespread in the music business because DJs could listen to only a few
of the hundreds of records released each week. No record could become a hit unless it
was played on radio. People bought records they heard. Record companies showered
DJS with gifts of money, merchandise, partial or total ownership of song copyrights, the
loan of recording stars for DJ record hops, meals, drinks, or anything else the DJ might
want. Influential DJs in major markets reaped most of the payola.
Many record companies, particularly the small independents, payola as a promotion technique, but to what extent is not possible to
know. Vincent of Ace Records, in an interview with the author, said that he took DJs to dinner, gave
them gifts, and sent artists, at Ace's expense, to DJs record hops. Regarding Allen
Freed, Vincent said:
Freed wouldn't take but you could give all day long. Shit, man, if you'd just pay
for one of his damned nighttimes on the town [it was] gonna cost you $2,000.
Shit, he goes into a joint; he drinks all night; he sets everybody up; the damned
tab's gonna be four or five hundred dollars. Hell, back in those days, four or five
hundred dollars was like a $10,000 tab now.
Vincent gave part of the copyright to "Don't You Just Know It" to Kincord Corporation,
one of Dick Clark's publishing companies, and sent Clark a royalty check for $2,000.
Ace was one of the companies cited for payola during the 1959-60 payola investigation
of the Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight of the House Committee on
Interstate and Foreign Commerce.13
The payola investigation and hearings hurt the independent record companies,
which seems to be on intention of the major companies and ASCAP. A close reading of
the sixteen hundred pages of testimony certainly suggests this conclusion. Scattered
throughout the testimony from major record company officials and ASCAP members are
admissions that payola was a long-standing common practice by virtually all record
companies. The thrust of the hearings, however, was the argument that R&B and
rock 'n roll (both usually licensed by BMI) would never be played by radio stations if DJs
were not bribed to do it and that payola had driven good music off the airways. Put
another way, the independent record companies and BMI had conspired to corrupt the
United States by inundating the airways with bad music, full of sex and disrespect for
authority. Although none of this was true, Congress outlawed payola in 1960 and radio
stations hired program directors to police song selection. Independents lost the
opportunity to persuade friendly DJs to test the marketability of a record by playing it on
the air. The new law helped kill many of the companies that had fostered rock 'n roll.
Johnny Vincent of Ace Records agreed with this assessment, but he
was also convinced that the hearings
were targeted at Dick Clark, host of the highly influential national television program,
"American Bandstand." Clark's show was the only national program featuring R&B and
rock 'n roll and, more important, was broadcast over the nation's most powerful medium,
television. Although playing a record repeatedly on the show would not make it a hit, as
critics contended even though Clark proved them wrong, playing it so greatly enhanced
its possibilities that Clark was wooed by record companies and did take some gifts.
Much of the hearing focused on Clark as the subcommittee spent days hearing
testimony from DJs, record company owners, Clark's associates, and, finally, Clark
himself. The subcommittee flew Vincent to Washington to testify, but his testimony has
never been released to the public. Vincent asserted that he told the subcommittee that
Clark was honest. Vincent believed that he was instrumental in turning the tide in favor
of Clark. Regardless of who was responsible, the subcommittee exonerated Clark of all
charges at the end of the hearings.14
Payola or no payola, the record business involved many risks for both the
company and the performer. Performers are expected to pay their recording expenses
and their personal expenses out of future royalties. All the royalties, if they exist, are
not collected immediately. In the meantime, the company loans the performer money in
the form of cash, clothing, equipment, automobiles, or whatever else the performer
wants. If the record sells enough, the performer receives cash income after her or his
loans are repaid. Hit records meant live performances, on which no royalties have to be
paid. Performers often forgot that these advances are loans, not salary, that they are
venture capitalists, not employees. If the record fails to sell, the record company
absorbs the loss and hopes that some future record by that performer will generate
enough income to pay the debts. At least 90% and perhaps 95% of records lost money
in the 1950s, so the probability of never recovering the losses was real. The record
company risks existing capital or uses credit for manufacturing and promotion.
Performers had to be supported until their records earned enough royalties, if ever, to
repay recording, manufacturing, promotional, and living costs. The company also had to
hire lawyers to enforce contracts and stop copyright infringements. Finally, collecting
from distributors was not always possible. 15
Atlantic Records, originally a New York-based
independent, enjoyed the rare reputation of paying its performers their
The number of records one had to sell to have a "hit" is not clear. Some writers
on rock music history assert that 40,000 copies constituted a hit and 100,000
constituted a big hit. Citing an unidentified Billboard study, they argue that fewer than
10% of the records released became hits (selling between 100,000 and one million
copies) and that the true number was closer to 5%. Further, 60% of releases sold
between 2,000 and 3,000 copies; 20% sold up to 25,000; and only 10% in excess
50,000. Moreover, 80% of the records released caused losses for the record companies
and the distributors. Vincent, in an interview with this author, asserted that to be in the
Top 50, one had to sell 200,000 records.
Ace, with 19 hits out of 190 releases, at least
reached the industry average and, perhaps, did better. 17
Distribution was always a serious problem for independent records companies. The major recording companies had their own distribution system and the
power to encourage other distributors to stock their product. The scores of independent
record companies, however, had to build a national network of distributors if they
wanted to have national hits. Distributors only wanted records that sold. Since records
produced by the independent record companies were often of unknown marketability,
distributors demanded concessions before they would stock the records. Records were
sent to distributors on consignment. Distributors had ninety days to pay for the records
or return unsold ones for full credit. These distributors stocked the records of many
different labels. For example, Ace Records gave distributors 300 copies of the first 1000 copies the distributor
took on consignment from the company. The distributor could always sell those records,
even when the record was a "stiff," a record that could not be sold in the general
market. Determining how many records were actually sold presented a problem.
Distributors ordered records from the nearest pressing plant with which the record
company had a contract, with copies of these orders going to the record company.
Distributorships also kept the accounts on how many copies they sold. That is, the
record company could never be sure how many of its records had actually been sold.
The number of records pressed did not automatically mean the number of records sold.
The company often had to wait ninety days to begin to determine the initial net sale of a
record. Although distributors were to pay within ninety days of receipt of a record
shipment, they often did not do so. The biggest problem was always with distributors.
Distributors (who were also waiting for payment by their customers) were slow to pay or
refused to pay. Ace Records, at its height, placed its records with at least thirty-six and perhaps
forty distributors throughout the United States but had to give these distributors a
Independents prospered because they had developed a market in
which the majors had little interest, but, once the majors recognized how lucrative that
market could be and moved into it, the independents began to go under or sell off their
assets. The majors had the financial resources to buy artists and catalogs from
independents or lease songs from them. Moreover, they also had extensive distribution
systems. Aladdin folded in the late 1950s. Specialty had effectively quit releasing new
records by 1960, about the same time that Rupe first began leasing his masters and not
long before he sold his catalog. Sam Phillips of Sun and Phillips, switched his attention
to the newly-founded Holiday Inn motel chain after his major artists such as Jerry Lee
Lewis and Johnny Cash either switched labels or temporarily retired from recording.
Atlantic, perhaps the strongest of the independents, survived until 1967, when it was
purchased by Warner Brothers.
Giant corporations took over American culture by the late
1950s and created the "Sixties." It
is difficult to overemphasize the impact of television and its ads on American
culture. When once businesses, big and small, spent their advertising dollars on
radio ads in an effort to persuade people to act a certain way, that is, buy
their products, They shifted to television which was even more effective because
they could implant visual images in minds of consumers. Brand identification
became much easier when the consumer could see the product. Big business, which
had huge advertising budgets, reshaped US culture. Subliminal advertising became
more prevalent. Television became the means not only to sell soap and cigarettes
but also politicians and political ideas. Color television was even more
effective than black and white TV. It was more realistic. The color range also
provided the means of color manipulation to do perception manipulation.
Let me repeat and emphasize the point. Most of the cultural changes of the 1950s and 1960s were brought about by American big
business. Its television advertising sent clever messages which established
cultural norms. Since advertising supported television programs, both
entertainment and news, big corporations usually had a veto over content. A
threat to withdraw advertising brought television stations and networks to heel.
Moreover, television was dominated by three large corporations—CBS, NBC,
and ABC [Note: ABC didn't come into its own until the 1960s]. In the music
business, the six major producers controlled popular music until rock 'n roll and
then major producers (although a somewhat different group) regained control in
the 1960s. Conservative institutions created the "60s" as they
manipulated the culture to make a profit.
Few understood the consequences of giving teenagers so much
discretionary income, of making them the world's most privileged class. Few
understood that they, with the help of big business, would change American
culture to one of instant gratification. Eventually even these adolescent values
would mutate to the point that Americans would not like instant gratification
because it takers too long.
1. Historians distinguish among rock 'n roll, rock and roll, and rock. They occurred in that sequence. Rock and roll began about 1959, "the day
the music died" according to "American Pie," as record companies turned to better production techniques, backup singers, and
teen idols (usually male). The music lost much of its spontaneity. Both rock 'n roll and rock and roll songs were primarily about
love or sex (the subject of most popular music). Peculiarly teenage problems, such as school, were topics as well. Rock, on the other
hand, included politics, illicit drugs, and social commentary as topics.
2. My "The Rise and Fall of Ace Records: A Case Study in the
Independent Record Business," Business History Review (Autumn, 1990),
411-450 is one of the few scholarly studies of a small company.
3. "My Generation” (1965),
4. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1970.
5 Steve Chapple and Reebee
Garofalo, Rock'n'Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music
Industry (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979), 13-15.
and Garofalo, Rock 'n Roll, 15.]
7. Interview with John Angle, Sales and Distribution Manager of Ace
Records, 1958-62, with Donald J. Mabry, November 22, 1985, in Jackson,
Mississippi; John Angle, The Complete Changing of A Musical Era (Jackson,
MS: Johnny Angle Publishing Company, 1985), an audio cassette; and Interview
with John Vincent Imbragulio, Founder and Owner, Ace Records, October 17, 1987
in Jackson, Mississippi. From 1985 through 1987, I talked with Vincent numerous
times in Jackson, Mississippi and took notes, but it was not until October 17,
1987 that I taped an interview. Citations will be to the taped interview.
8. As cited in Ian Whitcomb, After
the Ball (London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 1972), 209.
9. Chapple and Garofalo, Rock 'n Roll, 64.
10 United States. House. Select Committee on Small Business. Policies of the
American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Hearings Before
Subcommittee No. 5 of the Select Committee on Small Business, House of
Representatives, 85th Congress, Second Session. (Washington: Government Printing
Office, 1958), 89. Hereafter cited as Policies of ASCAP.
11 Peter Grendysa,
"Origins of the Species: the Microgroove Revolution, Goldmine,
January 17, 1986, 50.
C. Malone, Southern Music, American Music (Lexington: University of
Kentucky Press, 1979).
interview, October 17, 1987. On Ace and the payola hearings, see United States.
House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Special Subcommittee on
Legislative Oversight. Responsibilities of Broadcasting Licensees and Station
Personnel. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and
Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, 86th Cong., Second Session on Payola
and Other Deceptive Practices in the Broadcasting Field (Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1960), pp. 668, 1479.
interview, October 17, 1987. House Subcommittee, Responsibilities. See
also Dick Clark and Richard Robinson, Rock, Roll, and Remember (New York:
Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1976), pp. 193-225, for Clark's comments on the
incident. More than once in talking with me, Vincent said that Clark was not so
clean but he never said it on the record, that is, so I could quote him and prove he said it.
15 Many of those who performed blues, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n roll in the
1950s knew or cared little about the business side of recording; many of them
were also adolescents, inexperienced in the ways of the world or overconfident
in the future. The glitter and fame of having a hit record was often sufficient
motivation to get them into a recording studio. Vincent asserts that he always
paid his performers all of their royalties and often more than they ever
actually earned but that other independents often did not. See Vincent-Mabry
interview, October 17, 1987.
16 See Charlie Gillett, Making Tracks: Atlantic Records and the
Growth of a Multi-billion Dollar Industry (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974).
17 Ward, et al., Rock of Ages, 86, 188; Vincent-Mabry interview, October