Have you ever noticed that December is the only month of the year when most radio stations play music that wasn’t recorded recently? From January through November, be it country, rock or rap, it’s all four of the hits all the time, no matter the format (unless we’re talking about oldie formats, in which case it’s all four of theold hits all the time). But come December, a ray of sunshine is opened, as the old, familiar holiday songs that get trotted out every year join the rotation among the current stuff. Of course, that can be a bit of a drag in itself: how many times do we really need to hear, for example, one of a thousand renditions of “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”?
But somewhere in just about every big city, and maybe even in a buncha smaller ones too, there’s an enterprising disc jockey on a college or public station, usually on a weekly blues show or related format, who salutes the season with a special program of Christmas music from the dawn of rock ‘n roll. And he/she’s not just playing the obvious ones, like Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” (1956), but also music from artists long since forgotten, from an era hardly considered anymore, even after all the efforts of record companies to mine their libraries and back catalogues for every last scrap of potential “content” to “repurpose” into a new “revenue stream” (read: make more money off work that was done decades ago).
I can’t remember when I first fell hopelessly in love with the rhythm & blues of the 1950s. It was probably sometime after, as a teenager in the ‘70s, I discovered the first crossover heroes of rock Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and their peers and eventually got inspired to dig deeper into the recesses of time to hear the music of those who didn’t strike it rich. Perhaps the seeds of this incessant curiosity were sown while going through the stacks of 45 rpm singles (the little records with the big holes in the center) that my parents and older sister had accumulated over the years. There were unsung Motown singles from the earliest days of Berry Gordy’s enterprise, classic hits by Al Hibbler, Ike & Tina Turner, and many more, too many to name. All of them came from a time that was already fading into history before I was born.
A variety of social, artistic, and economic conditions formed the context for the development of R&B. World War II spelled the end of the big bands that held sway throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, as it became too expensive to tour 20-piece ensembles across the country during the war years. At the same time, post-war audiences wanted good-time music, now that the sacrifices of the war years were past and a new middle-class prosperity beckoned. Factories filled out shifts of work churning out automobiles, lawn mowers, and big-ticket consumer appliances, so working-class folks had good-paying jobs and a little money to blow on a good time Saturday night.
At the same time, jazz and blues musicians all over the USA New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere were modernizing the sounds of just a few years earlier, aided and abetted by the liberal use of the electric guitar as a lead and solo instrument. Downsized big bands became eight-piece combos, rooted in the same sense of blues and swing but with a tighter punch, primarily devoted to dancing and partying. As young jazz musicians followed the lead of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie into bebop, a music which took pride in its complexity and disregard for the dictates of simple amusement, another group, following the likes of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and others, went in the opposite direction.
There weren’t many radio stations playing this strange brew of frenzied sax solos and screaming blues belters, but those that did became legendary. Stations with strong signals could reach across time zones late at night, bringing R&B to teenagers listening under their bedsheets housed in newly created suburbs. For them, it was their first encounter with an American Other, a world not seen on this nascent thing called television. It would be the music that inspired Elvis Presley to abandon the ballads and gospel songs of his first recording sessions in favor of revved-up fare like his cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” (1954), and to go on to become . . . well, Elvis.
By that time Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed dubbed this music “rock & roll”, borrowing from a euphemism for sex that had floated through various blues lyrics since the ‘30s, the genie was out of the bottle—but not in its undiluted form. The big record companies of the day noted the popularity of this strange music, but weren’t about to unleash it upon a mass audience (read: white America) as it was. Instead, white performers became famous for their sanitized versions of tunes like “Ain’t That A Shame” (Pat Boone, 1956) and “Shake, Rattle & Roll” (Bill Haley & the Comets, 1955). But the true fans knew where the real deal could be found; smaller labels that had presented R&B for years to black audiences Modern, King, Specialty, Duke, Okeh, Chess, Atlantic, Savoy and many more enjoyed their biggest success in the mid-‘50s at the dawn of the rock explosion.
The reissue explosion of the digital era has made it possible for relative youngsters like me, born after musical styles had toned down considerably in the late ‘50s, to go back in time and discover what made this stuff so special. Right now on my boombox is disc eight of The Mercury Blues ‘N’ Rhythm Story 1945-1955 (Mercury, 1996), my big holiday splurge to myself. Mercury wasn’t one of the leading R&B labels of the day, but it recorded a wide variety of artists: legends like Professor Longhair and Johnny Otis, veteran stars like Memphis Slim and Jay McShann, and dozens of lesser lights that long ago faded into obscurity,
On this particular disc are some thumping sounds recorded in New York City, many backed by veterans from the harder-swinging big bands. There’s a lascivious little ditty, “New Blowtop Blues”, from Dinah Washington, the label’s biggest star. On “Hittin’ on Me”, Ella Johnson declares that the last man who beat her has “been dead since ‘43”. And there are five sides from Jay Hawkins, who was evidently pretty good at “Screamin’” well before 1956’s immortal “I Put a Spell on You”.
The appeal of this music for me goes way beyond rockin’ beats. This music is a window into another era of black American life. This was the sound of black life when Jackie Robinson charged into the history books, when the only black faces on TV were crude comic figures on Amos ‘n Andy , a time before Rosa Parks declared she was too tired to move to the back of the bus. This was music by black folks for black folks, and it was all but beyond the radar of the rest of America.
This music created and animated a social sphere in which black folks could be themselves, share jokes, and escape the stress of Jim Crow and other indignities. They could be sassy, sarcastic, or sweet, often all in the same song. This is not the music for pointed social activism per se: the Mercury box includes a 1951 Big Bill Broonzy tune, “Get Back (Black, Brown & White)” that was a bit too much for the label to release back in the day. Rather, mildly risqué tunes like Todd Rhoades’ “Rocket 69” (1952) were very much in vogue, inspiring moral outrage from the Bill O’Reillys of the day. Also popular were odes to Hadacol, a high-alcohol concoction marketed as cold medicine, cheatin’ two-timers and, in the Coasters’ “Run Red Run” (1956), a monkey who stole his keeper’s gun.
This is, essentially, good-time music, but it comes from a time when our good times weren’t widely documented or romanticized, as opposed to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The big book of history looks at mass movements, political developments, technological breakthroughs, great men and women, but it misses the flavor and fabric of everyday life. Specifically, it all but leaps over this period to get from Robinson to the 1954 US Supreme Court Brown decision and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s a shame. The first half of the’50s marked a critical transition in black America, and this music is our best available link to the era’s black pop culture.
The other aspects of black post-war pop culture are much harder to locate. Black print media from the era isn’t readily accessible outside of specialized collections in libraries and universities. Aside from the work of actress Dorothy Dandridge, very few films made by blacks, or with black performers, are out on DVD, let alone screened in repertory. On TV, we were still relegated to buffoonery and mammy roles. This music and we can only imagine how much is gone forever, even with all the reissues offers numerous hints into the life of the black post-war middle class, an understudied generation.
They were the men and women working in Northern factories, some men getting a foot in the door as a bus driver or government employee, some women tending to their employer’s household. They raised kids and saved up for a house of their own, many becoming the first to move into previously all-white neighborhoods. They wanted their children, the black baby boomers, to study hard and get good grades, so that they would be ready for entrée into the mainstream of American life. And they expected with pride that this time, after helping America and the Allies win the war, they would finally receive a measure of respect back home.
Those children would, as fate would have it, come of age in a vastly different world. Their parents’ beloved R&B sounded old and mournful, from some other place in time. By contrast, they were the footsoldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, and going through experiences a bit more serious than the scenarios depicted in their parents’ music. These youths came of age to Motown’s beat, with Stax and other southern outfits forging soul music from R&B and gospel, Curtis Mayfield in Chicago mixing social commentary into the endless stream of hits, and the urbane studio polish of the Drifters and Dionne Warwick. The new black pop was more aspirational than the older R&B, speaking with and to the urgency and fashion of the times. By the mid-‘60s, only the British Invasion bands seemed to care who Bo Diddley was. By the time James Brown himself a veteran of the R&B explosion changed music history with his hyper-charged funk later in the decade, the only turning back of the clock would happen on oldies tours.
Ever since then, ‘50s R&B has been a proud resident of our grand Pop Culture Attic, where all those wonderful things that get trampled by the new and exciting eventually end up. I guess that’s why it’s also a little exotic for me: for so many years, it was all but impossible to find. I remember scouting my old neighborhood for old 78 rpm records, which was how this music was initially released and consumed, and I think I actually ran across a couple of Bull Moose Jackson sides (sax player/bandleader best known for “Big Ten Inch Record”, 1948) on one such trip. But outside of that, there weren’t many books or records in print about this time until the CD reissue era. It was something I was always curious about, and when I could latch onto any little piece of this puzzle, I regarded it as part intrepid explorer, part kid in a candy store.
Today’s pop music, of course, bears only the slightest stylistic resemblance to these objects of my desire (curiously, one strain both the past and the present share is a tendency to name-drop brands as a sign of status: I drive a big car, therefore I am). Time marches on, of course, and all pop styles have their day and then mutate into the next big thing. But one thing I get from old R&B that I don’t get from today’s hip-hop is a sense of joie de vivre, a sense that life can be fun even when you’re up against it (and make no mistake, black folk in the ‘50s were up against it more often than not). Granted, much hip-hop music is an extension of the activist strain of pop music, a strain that didn’t exist back then, and speaks to hard times with a hard, unflinching edge (no one in the ‘50s could have foreseen crack, AIDS, rampant gun violence and all the other perils of modern-day life in the ‘hood). But there is a freedom, spontaneity, and sense of discovery in yesterday’s naked human wailing, stinging guitar solos, and wild piano runs that isn’t evident in most of today’s black pop, or that of any other era.
Maybe it’s just me, but for all of the creativity dripping from the likes of Kanye West and the Neptunes, as much as I might sing along with the words of a Rakim jam or swoon to an Alicia Keys ballad, there are moments when I get a bigger kick from, say, Roy Montrell’s “Every Time I Hear that Mellow Saxophone” (1956), or the “5” Royales’ “Think” (1956), or the Elmore James-Big Joe Turner collaboration “T.V. Mama” (1953), or more tunes than I could possibly fit into this space. Times were hard for black folk then, but times have always been hard for black folk. You might as well have a little fun when you get the chance.
So as the R&B Christmas novelty songs of the ‘50s, signposts from a day gone by, get their annual holiday airplay, count on me to get a little misty-eyed for more reasons than just nostalgia. And also count on me to crank up the volume.