As radio programming became more local after World War II and, thus, more particular and regional in its aim, ironically, it became more influential and began to break down boundaries. We already noticed the effect of the ASCAP radio boycott and that it forced a greater openness to the regional “hillbilly” music of the South in national network radio shows of the early 1940’s. Beginning in the early 1950’s, however, local radio stations emerged which catered to the local black community with what was termed “rhythm and blues.” This term was invented in 1948 by Jerry Wexler of Billboard Magazine to replace the term “race music.” (Most major record companies in those days had a division devoted to popular music for black people – which was called “race music.”)
At any rate, radio waves cannot be segregated. As it turned out, white teenagers began to be attracted to rhythm and blues music, particularly as promoted by such local white disk jockeys as Cleveland’s Alan Freed in his “Moondog House” radio show on station WJW. He promoted what he termed “Rock and Roll” – and sometimes “Big Beat” – music. This music was soon to break into the Billboard Top Ten: “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts came in at number 4 in 1954, and Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” came in at number 2 in 1955.
That this was a definite trend received strong confirmation with the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956 securing spots numbers one, two and eight with “Heartbreak Hotel, “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Hound Dog” on the Billboard Top Ten.
Elvis’ 1956 hit was a cover of a 1952 recording by the black rhythm and blues singer, Big Mama Thornton.
To get an idea of how mixed-up things were becoming, the song “Hound Dog” was written for Big Mama Thornton by two young Jewish men, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When they first brought the song to her, she started “crooning ‘Hound Dog’ like Frank Sinatra would sing ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.'” Stoller then told this 300-pound, salty black woman that she wasn’t singing it right. After a rather testy exchange, he demonstrated to her how to sing it in a more ‘black’ way, which she proceeded to do.
As Ben Yagoda says, “[t[he arrival of rock and roll coincided with and was connected to some profound long-term changes in popular music, including a new primacy of record labels over publishers and performers over writers, and a centrifugal decentralization of the industry, away from New York. But the music itself wasn’t monolithic, and the dominance that rock (broadly defined) would eventually have over pop wasn’t anything close to immediate. The same kinds of songs that had done so well in the early fifties – sentimental, soothing, homespun, novel, or possessing some combination of those qualities – continued to be written, recorded and purchased.”
In fact, the same year that Elvis was introduced to the general public (1956), Doris Day reached the top ten with “Que Sera, Sera,” as did Dean Martin with “Memories are Made of This.” This, indeed, was the beginning of a “generation gap” in popular music which was to last, arguably, into the 1970’s in which there was “adult pop” and “kiddie pop,” with the “adult pop” putting up a valiant, but ultimately, losing battle.
Finally, Rock comes of age by coming to Broadway in 1967 with the hit musical “Hair.”