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I Don't Sound like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America

Albin J. Zak III

(University of Michigan Press; US: Dec 2010)

All the old models are crashing.  Technology has transformed how people make, distribute and consume music.  A new generation of artists and entrepreneurs is leading the charge.  They’re nimbler, hungrier and better able to take advantage of the emerging opportunities.  The old guard, accustomed to having its way, now has to contend with audiences that are moving away from the conventional offerings and m.o., and deeper into this wild new frontier of sound.


Relax, Internet.  I’m talking about the ‘50s.


Close study of the recording industry’s history virtually defines the canard “the past is prologue”.  What we’re living through now – the whole file sharing/death of record labels/new economic models for musicians thing – we’ve seen at two other critical junctures. In the late ‘10s and early ‘20s, small companies with big dreams were able to enter the business, and capitalize on styles the major labels of the day ignored – that’s essentially how the blues and country music industries were born.  The same thing happened after World War II, only on a larger scale, establishing what became the groundwork for the pop music industry of the last 50 years.  In both of those instances, just as we’ve seen the last ten years, perfect storms of technological breakthroughs, shifting consumer tastes, and people with the requisite hustle and drive created seismic disruptions to the industry’s status quo.


It might have been illuminating had Albin J. Zak III teased some of that out in this counter-intuitive history of the birth of the modern music industry.  But he doesn’t much have to, because the parallels all but scream from every page.  The period from 1945 to 1955 was marked by the birth of modern pop, R&B and country, and how those movements and more joined hands to give rise to what became rock ‘n’ roll.  But Zak is less interested in the music itself than in the economic and technological forces that allowed the new sounds to enter consumers’ consciousness, and eventually the entertainment mainstream.


Zak identifies the vehicle of that entrée as the record, not the singer or the song. He starts his consideration in a location most rock writers never consider: Bing Crosby as pop innovator.  The popular ‘30s singing star wanted to pre-record his radio variety shows – producing them in advance for maximum artistic control and entertainment impact – instead of performing them live each week, but ran into resistance from the radio industry and musicians’ unions.  Zak’s unpacking of the backstory goes even further into the past, reviewing the legal battles between music and radio of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  All music was performed live by studio orchestras back then, and musicians’ unions fought bitterly against the advent of playing pre-recorded music on the radio, fearing the loss of employment opportunities. Past-Is-Prologue Alert: the courts waded in on the issue, artists got a little more freedom (and eventually Crosby got to pre-record his shows), and the industry figured out how to deal with the new business model.


Not surprisingly, there were some unforeseen consequences.  One was the expansion of the marketplace, in this case to include audiences for black music.  Post-World War II indie start-ups began recording new black acts, mostly departures from the prevailing swing and pop models.  Freed to play records (and now serviced by an infrastructure of industry figures supplying those records), radio stations used the new sounds to fill airtime, with black and white disc jockeys (the term no longer a pejorative) creating larger-than-life personas as the hep shamans with the hot sounds.  This meant that listeners didn’t have to venture into an unfamiliar ‘hood to hear the latest cutting-edge jams.  They could do it from the comfort of their own bedrooms, and then send off to places like Randy’s Record Shop in Nashville (or some other similar establishment, which often sponsored the broadcasts) to mail order the hits if they couldn’t find them locally.  From those roots sprang the modern black pop music industry.


But most comprehensive rock histories tell that story to one extent or another.  Zak continues on to a second unforeseen consequence, again with a central figure usually considered far afield from rock & roll: Mitch Miller, the in-house producer of pop records at Columbia in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.  His output, a long string of hits for a gamut of white-bread singers including Frankie Laine, Kay Starr and a young Tony Bennett, came to define bland, disposable “middle-of-the-road” music.  But Zak argues that Miller was the first studio producer as auteur: it was his choices of material, his often-gimmicky arrangements and his work with the singers that defined the records he made.  There was criticism aplenty of Miller’s approach (Frank Sinatra was especially dismissive), but not only did it move a ton of product, it created a way to consider records as concrete works of art in and of themselves, above and beyond the actual song being performed.


Zak follows that thread throughout the rest of the ‘50s, exploring how performers from Les Paul to Buddy Holly used the studio to become, well, Les Paul and Buddy Holly (his mini-profiles of Holly and Bill Haley are especially helpful for understanding how they fit into the music’s development).  At the same time, the explosion of r&b set off ripple effects all over the place, with black artists becoming overnight stars, white artists covering their hits, and (another past-is-prologue alert!) issues of cultural authenticity being played out in the marketplace.  The end result, Zak writes, is that the musical landscape of the ‘50s was anything but static.  Nor did the rise of rock present as abrupt a cultural shift as rock historians like to claim.  Rather, the tastes of the marketplace evolved over time, as did performance styles and choices of songs to sing.  All that change created an incredibly diverse musical landscape, one in which artists and record companies often found themselves trying to catch up to their audiences, and (past-is-prologue alert!) throwing some spaghetti at the same spot on the wall where the last strand stuck.


Zak’s premise is counter-intuitive in that it departs from the Great Man and Big Bang theories of rock’s birth.  As espoused by rock critic-historians, they hold that various strands all came together in the epiphanies laid down in 1955-57 by rock’s Mount Rushmore: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Broader perspectives on the creation myth give greater emphasis to the crazyquilt network of upstart labels, radio stations, recording studios, producers and performers from which these stars arose. Zak deviates from that line of reasoning to argue that rock and roll evolved more than it spontaneously erupted, with much of what came to be associated almost exclusively with rock having roots in music that, on the surface at least, had nothing to do with rock.


Zak’s reading of the pop music landscape in the early ‘60s - an era rock critics regard with disdain for its lack of Great Man-type figures dominating the scene - reflects his appreciation for the marketplace’s diversity.  Even as the seeds for the artistic breakthroughs mid-decade were being sown in seemingly innocuous (some would say bland) pop concoctions, Zak indicates that they reflected the advances and approaches that had taken hold in the previous decade. Championing the hitmaking likes of the Brill Building songwriters, girl groups and others, Zak’s analysis of that period of rock’s history would seem to square with (past-is-prologue alert!) the popism side of the rockism-v.-popism debate that was all the rage among certain music writers a few years back.


I Don’t Sound Like Nobody prompts a reconsideration of its central subject, as any solid music history book ought to do. But in this case, Zak’s central subject isn’t the music itself, but how it came to be. As it happened, the broader music industry eventually found a way to bring the upstart entrepreneurs and performers into the fold, and the business model continued more-or-less apace even as the artistic models shifted virtually with the tides. The major labels of the late ‘40s and ‘50s found a way to adapt to the new developments and keep dominating the market.  Today, the Big 4 labels account for roughly 80 percent of all music sales, Internet-driven market dispersion, the growth of indie genres and labels, and brick-and-mortar shrinkage be damned.  The past is prologue, indeed.

Rating:

Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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