If you walked into a family living room in 1950 you would probably find the family gathered around the radio listening to “Fibber McGee & Molly” or “My Friend Irma.” By 1955 they’d be gathered around the television watching “I Love Lucy” or “Dragnet.” If you found some music to listen to on the car radio in 1950 you might be treated to “The Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page with full orchestral accompaniment. By the summer of 1955 dad might be quickly changing the dial as “Rock Around the Clock” and Danny Cedrone’s guitar solo blasted from the speakers. Disc Jockeys like Alan Freed were promoting a new sound he called “rock and roll” and playing “race records” like “Money Honey” by Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters. While the adults of the early 50’s continued to buy the records of Perry Como and Teresa Brewer the teens were trying to find “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles. The records themselves were changing as it became more likely a person would walk out of a store with a 45 rpm record than the larger 78 rpm versions. And much more often those records would be published by a minor or independent label. There had also been a major population shift with blacks moving out of the south and into northern urban centers, taking r&b and country music with them. Pop music was slowly evolving into something new in the early ‘50’s. By 1955 rock and roll was trickling into the main stream of American music. In 1956 that trickle would become a torrent that would transform not just the music, but American culture as a whole.
The post WWII era of popular music was driven by two important changes in radio broadcasting. The first was the result of the increased availability of television to American households. In 1950 there were about 3 million Americans who owned televisions. By the end of the decade there were 55 million. Radio stations which had lost the audience for drama and variety shows to television turned to music programming and made their product more economical by switching from live performances to records. Secondly, radio stations adopted a “top forty” format which had been pioneered by Todd Storz on station KOWH in Omaha, Nebraska. Storz bought the station in 1949 when it was doing average at best in the local radio market, but he had noticed that people using juke boxes tended to play mostly the same songs over and over. His radio station began playing the thirty most popular records (later expanded to forty) in a repetitive playlist. By 1956 KOWH was the number one station in Omaha and the “top forty” format was being copied all over the nation.
By the early 1950’s the electric guitar had become a prominent instrument for recording artists. Acoustic guitars had always been limited in use due to their low volume. As advancements were made with solid body electric guitars, they gained wider acceptance. Rock and roll was a style of music that required volume. It was born out of the country juke joints and urban bars where musicians had to play loud to be heard. Many claim that “Rocket 88” was the first “rock and roll” record. It was recorded by Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm in 1951 at Sun Records. But when it was released, lead singer Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats were credited on the Sun label. It featured one of the first examples of the use of distortion, or a fuzz guitar sound. By 1955 the “Les Paul” Gibson and the Fender “Stratocaster” had been introduced and recordings featuring guitar players were becoming more common. In 1955 Bo Diddley with “Bo Diddley” was number one on the r&b chart and Chuck Berry crossed over to the pop chart with “Maybelline,” both examples of guitar led rock and roll.
In the early ‘50’s disc jockeys became more important to the radio business as they provided cheap programming by playing records (less expensive than live performers) and selling merchandise. Some of these jockeys became local celebrities as they exposed their audiences to their personal preferences in music. As the decade progressed these jockeys became more controlled by the “top forty” format, but still provided on-air personalities. Most famous of these jockeys was Alan Freed. Freed got his start in Cleveland, Ohio at WJW (850 AM) and was playing classical and big band music when he met Leo Mintz owner of a record shop, “Record Rendezvous.” Through his association with Mintz he became aware that there was an audience among white teenagers for the R&B records Mintz was selling in his store. With suggestions from Mintz, Freed began playing those “race records” on his show. The show itself was transformed as Freed assumed the persona of “Moondog” and the show became “The Moondog House.” In March of 1952 Freed presented “The Moondog Coronation Ball” in Cleveland, believed to be the first rock and roll concert. Freed was hired away from WJW by WINS of New York where he continued to promote the music, sharing the original recordings of such songs as “Sincerely” by The Moonglows rather than covers like The McGuire Sister’s version. Freed called the music “rock and roll” and by 1955 he and other disc jockeys were attracting a larger and larger audience.
Prior to the 1950’s records were produced on 10 inch shellac discs that played at 78 rpm. In 1949 RCA introduced a vinyl 45 rpm record and Columbia introduced a vinyl 33 1/3 rpm disc. The 45 would increasingly become the preferred format for single records while the 33 1/3 would be used for albums. In 1950 most consumers preferred the old 78 format because the new 45’s required a new phonograph. The development of the 45 rpm record aided the advance of rock and roll as they were more portable and thus appealed to teenagers who would carry them back and forth to dance parties. The vinyl discs were more durable and could be “stacked” on a changer – the 78 shellac discs were too brittle. The lighter weight of the 45 also made it easier for the record companies to quickly produce and transport the records – an advantage as record companies would want to be able to capitalize on the surprise big hit from an independent company which became more common in the rock and roll age. By 1955, the sale of 45 records surpassed the 78’s and by the end of the decade most record companies ceased production of 78 rpm records.
In the early 1950’s there were two performance rights organizations in the music industry, the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcasters Music, Inc. (BMI). These companies collected and distributed royalties for use of copyrighted music. ASCAP had been around since 1914, while BMI had begun in 1940 when radio stations balked at the increased rates being imposed by ASCAP and started their own organization. ASCAP had always represented the main stream of popular music, favoring well established, older, and predominantly white artists. BMI came to represent performers from the r&b and country genres that ASCAP deemed inferior and less profitable. As those genres gained popularity in the early ‘50’s BMI was there to represent the small, independent record labels that were willing to record them. Labels such as Chess in Chicago and Sun in Memphis profited from their willingness to experiment with new artists such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. As teenagers in 1955 started demanding more of the new sound of rock and roll, it was the independent labels and BMI that provided most of the artists.
African American Migration
From 1900 to 1950 there was a major population shift of the black population in the U.S. In 1900 a third of the population in the South was African American. By 1960 it was down to a about a fifth. Meanwhile in the Northeast and the Midwest black population increased from less than 2% to nearly 7%. In the West the black population increased from less than 1% to nearly 3%. Economic opportunities and the prevalence of Jim Crow laws in the South spurred this migration. The new immigrants to the cities brought with them r&b and country music. This led to the growth of black owned radio stations and record labels. In 1950, Leonard and Phil Chess established the Chess record company in Chicago and began producing r&b records. The black population of Chicago had grown from 8.2% in 1940 to 13.6% in 1950 and would be 22.9% by 1960. And there was another demographic shift. From 1946 to 1960, the number of high school teenagers ballooned from 5.6 million to 11.8 million in the U.S. A northern white teenager in 1940 might have had little opportunity to hear country or r&b music. By 1955 it would be much easier for those teenagers to seek out Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and discover that Pat Boone’s version being played on the main stream white stations wasn’t quite the same.
In the early 1950’s the most popular songs would most likely come from the major labels and feature a white vocalist with full orchestral background. But a combination of forces was pushing the music in a new direction. While record labels and radio stations were most likely to be targeting adult audiences, some perceptive entrepreneurs were recognizing a new youth market. The adults of 1955 might be watching The Hit Parade on NBC as Gisele McKenzie sang her version of The Fontane Sisters’ “Hearts of Stone.” Meanwhile, the teenager of the house was carefully moving the radio dial to pick up that obscure station that was playing the same song, but the R&B version by The Charms. Country music, R&B, and the fledgling rock and roll records could be found on the pop charts, but only marginally. There was a younger audience, searching for a new sound and they often found it on stations such as WBEE-AM in Chicago which was the first full-time black-oriented station in the area playing an R&B format. As Paul Simon would later reflect, “They danced by the light of the moon; To the Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles, and The Five Satins; the deep forbidden music they’d been longing for.” (“Renee and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”)