Styles & Forms | Fifties Pop
During the mid-1950s, the American and British pop scenes experienced a complete shake-up of the old order. Up until the decade’s halfway point, the airwaves, record stores and jukeboxes were filled with sentimental ballads, novelty songs and instrumentals that largely reflected the tastes of white adults.
American artists such as Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Guy Mitchell, The McGuire Sisters, Eddie Fisher, Al Martino, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and ‘Tennessee’ Ernie Ford dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, while the British also enjoyed an array of home grown acts, including pianist Winifred Atwell as well as singers such as Dickie Valentine, Ruby Murray, Alma Cogan, Anne Shelton, Jimmy Young and Vera Lynn. The one genuine teen heart-throb during this era was Johnnie Ray, a latter-day bobbysox idol whose early hits, ‘Cry’ and ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’, coupled with a bawling style of singing that had his female fans in floods of tears, led to him being dubbed the ‘Prince of Wails’ and, somewhat awkwardly, the ‘Nabob of Sob’. Still, neither Ray nor any of his white contemporaries performed material that spoke to youthful vitality or rebellion. With his 1955 covers of Otis Williams & The Charms’ ‘Two Hearts’ and Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’, Pat Boone commenced his highly profitable enterprise of taking R&B songs originated by black artists, cleaning up their earthier lyrics, and crooning them in a style that, in line with his wholesome smile and white buck shoes, was deemed more acceptable to ‘moral’ white audiences. Boone’s sanitized covers of material by Domino, Little Richard, Ivory Joe Hunter, The Flamingos and The El Dorados would help him sell more records during the 1950s than any artist except Elvis Presley, yet it is debatable whether he helped push open the door for these innovative black artists or simply ensured that they continued to be marginalized.
Shake, Rattle And Rock’n’Roll
In 1954, Bill Haley did much the same when he covered Big Joe Turner’s ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ and substituted many of composer Charles E. Calhoun’s racier lyrics – ‘Get outta that bed, wash your face and hands’ was transformed into ‘Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans’, although the less explicit but actually more risqué ‘I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store’ remained, despite Haley assuring a reporter that ‘We stay clear of anything suggestive.’
The previous year, blending country and western with R&B, Haley had introduced rock’n’roll to the charts by way of ‘Crazy Man Crazy’. But it was his energetic recording of a song originally conceived as a ‘novelty foxtrot’ by its veteran Tin Pan Alley composers that marked the first significant shift of power in the pop charts. ‘Rock Around The Clock’, tracked by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1954 and subsequently played over the title credits to juvenile delinquency film The Blackboard Jungle, displaced Pérez Prado’s...
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