WHAT YOU DONT NEED TO KNOW ABOUT rock'n roll
The other day we asked our Miss Moon to find out all about the latest musical craze.
Here is her somewhat confused report
"It works on man's emotions like the music of the heathen in Africa"
NOT LONG AGO a Toronto eighteen-ycarold was fined fifty dollars for riding his motorcycle with his hands in the air. “A car radio was playing a real gone rock 'n roll song,” he defended himself, ‘i just had to keep time to that sound.”
“That sound” is the latest teen-age craze. And in the two years since it became epidemic rock ‘n roll has been responsible for more than mere careless driving. It has, for example:
4 Packed the biggest available arenas in the biggest cities of the continent for some ol the biggest gross revenues in entertainment history. 4 Pitchforked a raucous-voiced hillbilly named Elvis Presley into overnight stardom.
4 Stimulated snake dances, cop-baiting and outbursts of vandalism and mayhem in many centres. (Teen-agers in Brooklyn tore up a subway car after a rock 'n roll jamboree; in Min-
neapolis they pelted police with empty beer tins.)
4 Caused Variety to call it “the most explosive show biz phenomenon of the decade." I he trade journal of the entertainment world added ponderously, “It may be getting too hot to handle.”
4 Induced amnesia in many adults: their alarm is such that they forget all inconvenient earlier parallels for the fad.
4 Saturated the continent with songs whose hitparade ratings vary according to their decibel ratings. One deafening litany, called Blue Suede Shoes, invites the hearer to knock the singer down, step in his face, slander his name, burn his house, steal his car and drink his liquor as long as he, the hearer, stays olí his, the singer's, blue suede shoes. Ten thousand copies of Shoes were sold in one month in Ontario alone.
For such reasons as these I was assigned recently to investigate the phenomenon for Maclean's. “What is it and why is it?” the editors wanted to know.
Casting around for a ground scent I put in a call to Elwood Glover, a CBC disk jockey in Toronto who is supposed to be abreast of such movements.
“What exactly.” I said, “is rock 'n roll?”
“Oh dear, oh dear.” said Glover. He paused, then offered, “All 1 can say is it's the most exhibitionisme form of music today. It removes all inhibitions. Amazing thing."
This vagueness was excusable, I discovered, after learning that Elvis Presley himself is quoted as saying: “It's somethin' a lotta people like, somethin' that just gets into yuh. I can't rightly tell yuh any better than that . . .” I went next to a teen-ager 1 know. He described rock n roll as “music with a beat.” What kind of beat? “If you feel it you don't need to describe it,” he said scornfully.
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I headed for a record store. The clerks didn’t know what rock 'n roll was, but they seemed to know which. Among the items so classified were a rock 'n roll waltz, a rock ’n roll mambo, a rock 'n roll polka and several rock ’n roll versions of Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Almost every performer except Helen Träubel '.eemed to have recorded something in the field. Vaughn Monroe, for instance, is currently conducting his thematic race with the moon on a Rock 'n Roll Express.
1 have to report that I could find no common denominator in my samplings. In subject matter they ranged from cowboy ballads to blues. In style they ranged from Rock Around the Clock, which is a pep rally backed by a whole jazz band, to The Great Pretender, which is a tortuous lament tamped down by a single incessant piano chord.
I did. however, make five more or less unrelated observations:
1. Few rock n roll records are purely instrumental; almost all have some sort of accompanying chant.
2. Most of these chants are crude, in the sense of wanting finish. Almost the entire burden of Tutti Frutti, for instance. consists of the curious phrase ' tutti frutti, all rooty."
3. Many of the lyrics are crude in the
other sense. One exhibit: Somebody
Touched Me in the Dark Last Night.
4. A lot of vocalists seem able to get from one syllable to the next only by a series of shunts, as in "hi luh-huh-huhhuv you-hou."
5. 1 had played Rock-A-Beat-in-Boogie. and See You Later, Alligator was on the turntable when 1 discovered I was beating out a solid background on my notebook with my pencil.
Armed with these impressions 1 tackled El wood Glover, the disk jockey, again. "What about the beat?” I said.
Glover said it was the thunderous beat that created the mass hysteria. He said, “If you listen to it alone it sounds ridiculous. But in the presence of hundreds of people who are mesmerized like you arc, if you feel like clapping your hands, you do — just like at the old revival meetings.”
To this Rev. W. G. McPherson, minister of the Evangel Temple. Toronto, snorts: “It isn’t like the old revivalist music where people were moved upon by the spirit of the Lord. This music works on a man’s emotions like the music of the heathen in Africa.”
Glover also said: “It's not just an auditory thing; it’s visual, too. There’s a choreography that goes with it. Look at Presley’s antics.”
Presley, who has the Marlon Brandotype face — mean —and an unabashed voice, handles his guitar as though he snatched at it just as he was sinking out of sight in quicksand. He helps with his hips. It was this uninhibited technique that helped catapult Presley, a twentyone-year-old ex-truck driver from Mississippi, into a contract with RCA Victor that's expected to net him a quarter million dollars this year. (A canny publicrecording-booth manager recognized him as a genuine earth-shaker when Presley strayed in one day two years ago to try cutting a record for his mother.)
Rock 'n roll was beginning, by now, to sound like a mystical experience. I decided the next step in my discipline was
a dancing lesson. An impeccably helpful young person at the Arthur Murray Studios agreed, for ten dollars, to initiate me into rock 'n roll and forthwith taught me the “magic step" that would enable me to dance to anything. How'ever, his attempts to coax from me the pelvic embroideries that transformed this into
rock 'n roll were a failure. Beyond garnering an impression that "rock” meant an unspecific bob to the rear and "roll” a highly specific sideways wiggle. 1 departed as baffled as 1 came.
In this moment of stalemate I got a break. It was announced that the Biggest Rock 'n Roll Show of '56 would soon arrive in Toronto. This was a mammoth touring package show presented by Super Attractions and starring Bill Haley, the man who wrote Rock Around the Clock, Shake, Rattle and Roll. See You
Later, Alligator, and Crazy, Man. Crazy.
Sales of each of these recordings have passed a million. Haley, now twentyeight, is a soft-voiced Detroit-born guitarist who's been a musician since he w'as fourteen. He and his group, called the Comets, star in a full-length Columbia film, called Rock Around the Clock, crammed with such inflammatory musical goodies that theatre managers are refusing to book it or. if they book it. call in extra police protection.
To prepare for the Haley show, which would undoubtedly pierce the final veil of the mystery, I redoubled my research efforts and realized anew that rock 'n roll rites could not be taken lightly. For instance Frank Tumpane. a Toronto Telegram columnist who had started an Elvis Suppresley club for rock n roll anti-fans, said he was convinced the craze had a strong sexual basis. He also complained that he'd been flooded with a lot of abusive mail from Presley fans. His correspondents. it seemed, had called him "an old-fashioned classical music lover,” as well as "a dried-up toad."
A newspaper story reported that Presley fans in the U. S. like to carve his name into their forearms with pocket knives. Presley fans in Toronto haven't gone that far yet. but one of them wrote him a poem that read:
Elvis Presley—what a doll!
Six foot two. boy he's tall;
Dreamy eyes, wavy hair.
I’m tel I in' you. lie's all there.
I heard that Jack Wasserman, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. had offered a Frank Sinatra long-play recording for the best letter that completed, in fifty words or less, the following sentence: "I hate Elvis Presley because . . ." One typical letter went: "Presley's appeal is sensuous, directed toward a generation of juvenile automatons who respond to only two things, lust and the whip." Another more practical letter read: "I do not like Elvis Presley because I want to win the Frank Sinatra album."
Halifax radio station C JC'H banned Presley's records as being a "bad influence.” In Alabama, the official magazine of the North Alabama Citizens' Councils linked rock 'n roll with sin. degradation, anti-segregation and communism.
Jane Scott, a Toronto Telegram religious columnist, was roused to address a possible teen-age audience thus: "1 havemet a lot of young people, and older people too. who have learned the three Rs—Rock. Roll and Regret . . . Have you ever felt that way after a session of rock 'n roll? When you tried to get to sleep, you couldn't because deep down in your heart you felt that the whole business of pleasure-seeking and self-indulgence was a mockery and a sham . . . Sorry, young reader. I can't promise you that there is any easy way out of this situation."
Carrying Miss Scott’s column as a counter-charm for sin. sensuality, knifesculpture and communism I finally presented myself at Maple Leaf Gardens for the mammoth rally.
There were twelve acts, twenty extra policemen on duty and 12.764 young people in attendance. They seemed to be a cross-section, everything from blackleather windbreakers to Harris tweeds and from tight jeans to tulle frocks. Proceedings began at 8.30 and took two and a half hours with a truce at halftime to remove the wounded. The smattering of adults included a skinny grey-mustached man sitting beside me with a young girl.
My notes on the first part of the show are confused. A succession of Negro quartets, quintets and solos replaced other Negro quartets, quintets and solos. The men wore jackets buttoned so low and so loosely that when they bent forward you could count the pleats at the top of their drape pants. They bent forward frequently. They also shuffled in lockstep or boxed the compass with their shoulders or rolled their knees as if they had ball bearings. Red Prysock and his Rock 'n Roll Orchestra provided the accompaniment. There were frequent screams—if a singer hiccoughed, or wiggled, or swooped, or paused deliberately—but my own feeling was that the audience was forcing it a bit. so far.
In the constant groundswell of noise I could distinguish nothing except a muffled thump-thumping in 4-4 time, as if
someone in an upstairs apartment were playing a monstrous phonograph.
Just before intermission I recognized snatches of one number. Why Do Fools Fall in Love? It was sung by a quintet fronted by a slight, grinning boy with a high idiot tenor. I noticed that the middleaged man beside me was clapping in a restrained sort of way. He caught my eye and grinned sheepishly.
At intermission I struggled out to a guard, gave him my credentials and got him to conduct me backstage. There was no sign of Haley, the star of the show', but I finally pinned down a dusky girl with a springy, brick-red coiffure, who introduced herself as Zola Taylor, of the Platters. The Platters were featured in the Rock Around the Clock film and are responsible for a hit rock ’n roll record. The Magic Touch. 1 asked her for a definition of rock 'n roll. She said pertly, "Rock n roll is boogie with voices.” and winked at a male Platter. I hen she said. "Rock 'n roll is good dance music.” and smiled vivaciously; then she tossed her head and said. "Rock 'n roll is good exercise for the children.”
A big Louis Armstrong of a singer was already onstage when I got back to my seat. He sang like Armstrong too: gutbucket. The crowd had already picked up the beat with feet and hands. He sang longer than the earlier acts, and by the time he'd finished a whole row of youngsters in front of me had linked arms .and were swaying heavily from side to side.
The air in the Gardens seemed to havewarmed and thickened. I here was a continuous roar from all over the hall, very like the blast from a furnace . . . spontaneous bursts of screaming . . . the pounding of thousands of feet.
Two youths near the stage slid to their knees in the aisle and began devotions of some sort. Guards touched them on the arms and they returned quietly to their seats.
Five minutes later the Platters appeared and sang The Great Pretender. I hey were greeted by a crescendo of screams.
One section started shouting, “Go, Go, Go. Go!” The whole hall took it up. It was like being in the dark throbbing hold of a liner.
Bill Haley and his Comets bounded on next in pink drape jackets and dark drape pants. The "Go. Go!” chant, which had carried right through, was ruptured by frenzied shrieks which, in turn, became a pile-driver cantata: When the Saints go Rockin' In. It was Haley's first number and the whole hall knew the words.
The skinny middle-aged man beside me had sweat on his forehead and was bawling the words as Haley and his group played and sang.
Then I noticed a couple rocking and rolling in the middle aisle. Guards started toward them.
1 was suddenly aware that everyone in the hall was watching. Haley chopped off Rock Around the Clock. He had played only one chorus.
Now everyone was on his feet, up on the seats, in the aisles, milling about. Haley played a chorus of See You Later, Alligator. There was no room to dance, so everyone stood around and chanted it. Then the Comets bowed, grinned, ducked, kissed their hands and bounded off.
The show was over.
With the house lights on the air seemed thinner and cooler. Backstage, Bill Haley had traded his pink jacket for a sober grey sack suit and proved to have a boyish, egg-shaped face, lank blond hair and an engaging air of practicality.
“I’m sitting on a powder keg”
Haley told me he was the one who'd invented rock 'n roll. He'd done it on purpose, he said. After the postwar passing of the big-name bands the teen-agers had no music of their own to dance to. (You can't dance to progressive jazz.) So Haley took an informal poll of Pittsburgh high-school assemblies and found that teen-agers liked (1) hillbilly music, (2) hot licks, (3) Dixieland. (4) Negro blues. (5) anything with a good noisy beat. When he put them all together they spelled R-O-C-K (a hit number Haley performed in Rock Around the Clock).
1 asked if Presley's recordings were true rock 'n roll.
“Presley?” said Haley. “This is a hillbilly. He’s not in the same field. But he's playing it with a beat. So it's being called rock 'n roll.
1 asked him about riots attributed to rock "n roll. “These kids aren't juvenile delinquents,” Haley said. "This is the music they asked for and they love it. no matter what you or 1 think of it. But I know I'm sitting on a powder keg. You're bound to when you play to this many people, no matter who they are.”
"I have a little trick,” he added. "I can’t see what’s going on beyond the footlights, but I watch the cops. If 1 see them start moving 1 cut it off just like that." He snapped his fingers crisply.
Then he reflected. “Two years ago they were calling rock n roll a flash-in-thepan. So now it's a national menace?”
"Is rock 'n roll a national menace?" 1 asked several psychiatrists, including Dr. Angus Hood, of the Toronto Mental Health Clinic, and Michael Humphries, of the University of Toronto department of psychology. All of them said the music wouldn't disturb youngsters if the youngsters weren't already disturbed. Dr. Louis Gilbert, a psychiatrist on the staff of the New York Roosevelt Hospital, said: "1 don't think parents need be more alarmed about rock 'n roll than they were about jazz and swing.”
Gilbert's remark sent me to the history books. And there I found a chronicle of
recurrent musical crazes that might well discomfit the most fiery member of the Elvis Suppresley club. Here, for forgetful adults, is a partial list of early precedents for every facet of the rock ’n roll phenomenon.
Public alarm: At the turn of the century the U. S. went mad for a dance called Salomé. A dancer named Miss Deyo did a Salomé in Pittsburgh and the WCTU passed a resolution calling on all its members to pray for her soul for a solid week. Hiccoughing vocals: In 1891 a minstrel called Eddie Leonard had a style that
Variety calls “wah-wah singing”—"One morn-orn-ing whan-an the morn-orning wahah break-ahn-ing.” His boss told him to cut it out because it “sounded foolish,” but the audiences loved it.
Double-talk: The year 1909 produced a musical exercise titled Whoop Daddy Ooden Dooden Day.
Risqué lyrics: In 1910 Chicago courts had to ban Her Name was Mary Wood But Mary Wouldn't, and a Sophie Tucker special known as Angle Worm Wiggle. Suggestive gestures: The Shimmy Shewabble, a craze in New York in 1918,
was so indecent that the Police Department threatened to revoke the license of any dance hall that permitted it. Impossibility of definition: An expert witness in a music plagiarism court case (1916) was asked: "What are blues?” “Blues are blues,” he said, “that's what blues are. See?”
Which reminds me: last week 1 ran into Elwood Glover, the disk jockey, on the street. Just as he got past he called back with a pitying grin, "Say. did you ever find out what rock 'n roll was?”
Well no, Mr. Glover, not exactly. ★