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The Big Lookback: The Class Origins of ‘50s Rock and Roll
A presentation from the 2011 EMP Pop Conference.
As the belated‑by‑definition release of an all too willful new Rolling Stones album and the absolutely positively we‑mean‑it‑man last lost Beatles song have arisen to remind us just in case it’s slipped of our failing minds, the ‘60s—a decade now not even dimly recalled by anyone under 60, mind you—remain the historical locus of the music that fans of a certain age still refer to as rock and roll, “rock” for short. But those of us who were so knocked out by an unexpected flood of teen‑tailored hit singles that we started glueing ourselves to the radio circa 1956 or so—a radio that labeled everything from doowop to rockabilly rock and roll. Figure today’s cutoff age for onetime members of that brief but epochal musical generation as, oh, 79, hence 12 in 1956 (I’m 81 myself.) This is clearly not a demographic that packs much punch in the what’s‑hot department, so that beyond the late Elvis Presley himself its music has pretty much devolved from oldies‑but‑goodies, if you recognize that bygone cliche, into nostalgic esoterica.
For that reason it’s certain that few under 50 will recognize all the names cited in this week’s Big Lookback and some will be doing well to get down to Fats Domino, who I count as sixth‑ranked after Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Ray Charles, and barely rock‑eligible Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line” peaked at 17 in 1956, when I sure bought one). This piece of near‑scholarship began its life as a presentation at the 2011 EMP Pop Conference, held at UCLA rather than Seattle’s Experience Music Project as usual and bearing the title “Cash Rules Everything Around Me: Music and Money.” My presentation was called “Blue Monday: The Class Origins of ‘50s Rock and Roll” and summed up one of the hardest research jobs I’ve ever done, which was basically to find out what the parents of 31 luminaries of ‘50s rock and roll, which was regularly slotted casually as a “working‑class” music, did for a living. I spent many days at the New York Public Library’s entertainment division near Lincoln Center scanning the then‑available history‑of‑rock textbooks as well as biographies of individual artists that I didn’t have on my own bookshelves.
How I unearthed what history I unearthed I describe in the text. I’m sure if I had a month or so I could update this research. But I don’t—not only is life short, it gets shorter as you pass 80, and as my conclusions stand I think they're accurate, thorough, and interesting, hard work I’m proud to have made something of. Dare I say enjoy? Well, enjoy then.
The idea that ‘50s rock and roll was a working-class music is in a way a self-evident cliche—so self-evident, perhaps, that it’s beyond discussion. The economic straits of the music’s prime movers go unacknowledged in Charlie Gillett’s foundational The Sound of the City, Arnold Shaw’s this-pen-for-hire The Rockin’ ‘50s, and Ed Ward’s solidly researched and conceived ‘50s section of Rolling Stone’s Rock of Ages, and such major textbooks as David Szatmary’s Rockin’ in Time and Starr & Waterman’s American Popular Music. Even Friedlander & Miller’s Rock & Roll: A Social History is surprisingly equivocal or uninformative. The big exception is Reebee Garofalo’s Rockin’ Out, which in a section called “Cultural Diversity: The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll” quotes a passage from George Lipsitz that climaxes: “Rock and Roll music accelerated the interactions among ethnic groups, becoming the most visible expression of the increasing commonality of working‑class experience.”
Assuming it doesn’t tempt anyone to equate musical worth with class origin, there’s a lot to that thesis—but not so much that it tempts Garofalo to downplay more predictable aspects of “cultural diversity.” The conventional rock‑historical categories of race mixing and the teen market have a life of their own for good reason, which is that the many documentable black‑white crossovers and youth cultures that preceded the ‘50s were less widespread and momentous then those that have thrived since 1955. Still, questions of class are certainly worth pursuing. And so some research seemed in order.
In Lipsitz’s best‑known analysis, first published in 1982 and revamped for Rainbow at Midnight in 1994, the key players are Louis Jordan and Hank Williams, who are pre‑rock and roll; the major evidence from the music proper traces back to Little Richard’s 1968 Rolling Stone interview, in which he answers the question “How did you come to write ‘Tutti Frutti?’ as follows: “Oh my God, my God, let me tell the good news! I was working at the Greyhound bus station in Macon, Georgia, oh my Lord, back in 1955 . . . I couldn’t talk back to my boss man. He would bring all these pots for me to wash, and one day I said, ‘Awap bob a loo bob a wop bam boom, take ‘em out!’ and that’s what I meant at the time. And so I wrote ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ in the kitchen, I wrote ‘Long Tall Sally’ in that kitchen. . . . So I sent a tape to Specialty and they waited one year before they wrote me back. So I forgot about it, I just kept washing dishes.”
Now, this is a great story, and some of it may well be true—probably the awap bob a loo bop part, possibly the “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” parts. But Little Richard’s 1984 Charles White autobio and David Kirby’s 2009 “Tutti Frutti” book establish two things. One, “Tutti Frutti”’s actual lyric both preceded 1955, as the gay underground’s nasty ditty about ass‑fucking, and postdated it, as Dorothy LaBostrie’s nonsensical ditty about ice cream. Two, Little Richard didn’t just wash dishes while waiting five months, not a year, for Specialty Records to call. For most or all of that period, he was touring the chitlin circuit with his band. I don’t know why Lipsitz ignored these easily ascertainable facts, but the likelihood that they’d complicate a thesis I’d call simplistic must have played a role.
Some of the findings I’m about to sum up are no less porous than that Little Richard quote. Most come from biographies of varying quality, but in a few cases they’re based on unsigned encyclopedia entries and/or unsupported first‑person interviews. Nevertheless, I got a bead on a few basic facts about 31 prominent ‘50s rock and rollers: what their parents did for a living, what they themselves worked at besides music, how far they got in school, and whether there were musicians, preachers, or schoolteachers in their families. I investigated no one who didn’t go top 40 pop in the ‘50s, which cost me the Five Royales and late‑breaking James Brown; I rejected Fabian‑style teen idols as arrivistes, thus losing Neil Sedaka’s strange story, just as my decision to ignore most cover artists cost me Georgia Gibbs’s. Alphabetically, those who made the cut with fairly full info were: Chuck Berry, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Eddie Cochran, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin, Bo Diddley, Dion, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows, Carl Gardner of the Coasters, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Little Willie John, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Otis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Dave Somerville of the Diamonds, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent, and Jackie Wilson. Included with decent partial info were LaVern Baker, Ben E. King, and Arlene Smith of the Chantels. The holes I most regret are the Platters, the Del‑Vikings, and Duane Eddy. I probably should have done Connie Francis.
The nut of my findings is simple: these people grew up poor. Poor. Except for showbiz scion Ricky Nelson and the far more modest Pat Boone, all struggled, some more terribly than others—including showbiz scions the Everly Brothers. There was plenty of poverty in an ad hoc control group of 25 pre‑rock performers whose biographies I had on my shelves. But it was less extreme and universal. Rudy Vallee was a Yalie. Crosby and Sinatra came from lower‑middle class backgrounds about as comfortable as Boone’s, as did Doris Day. Woody Guthrie created his proletarian image from a downwardly mobile life that was solidly middle‑class till he was 10 or so. And though most of the African‑Americans were even harder up than their later counterparts, Louis Jordan was the son of a successful traveling entertainer, Bert Williams attended Stanford, and Miles Davis was a dentist’s son. Working‑class can be a slippery term. But emphasizing that rock and roll was working‑class makes sense.
Two factors raise the music’s poverty quotient. First, the Depression: nine of my sample were born 1930 or before, another 11 by 1935. Second, 12 grew up in the South and six more were born there, 18 compared to just nine total of my pre‑rock sample, and those nine pretty much the very poorest—although not Jordan, the only child of a minstrel‑show musician. And then recall that working‑class can be a slippery term. Only eight of the rock and roll parents ever had industrial jobs, including whatever Harvey Fuqua’s mom did at the paper mill, and half of these were short‑term; the only union members on record (though I bet there are others) are preacher‑steelworker Charles Cook, a shop steward, and UAW man Mertis John. Other parents’ lines of work included coal miner, log pond worker, railroad worker, soldier, sailor, naval base worker, mason, carpenter, mechanic, hatmaker, baker, cook, maintenance contractor, luncheonette proprietor, retail proprietor,retail clerk, nurse’s aide, truck driver, construction worker, bellboy, domestic, laundress, produce vendor, loader, laborer, groundsman, janitor, cotton picker, shit shoveler. All four preachers did other work. There were five farmers and two bootleggers. At least two did jail time. Pat Boone’s father was a trained architect who settled for contractor. Ike and Margaret Everly were professional musicians with a lot less to show for it than Ozzie Nelson: they never had a radio job that paid 100 bucks a week, and after live radio dried up worked as a barber and a beautician. Dion’s father was a puppeteer of limited renown who never paid his taxes and brought his son to Alexander’s to help cover his shoplifting. Only the consciously leftwing Johnny Otis acknowledges any family history of public assistance. But the Presleys lived in subsidized housing, Johnny Cash grew up on a New Deal co‑op, Ray Charles studied music at a state home for the blind, and let’s hope Chicagoans LaVern Baker and Bo Diddley scored some welfare, raised as they were by a single mother and a single first cousin once‑removed.
Baker and Diddley’s broken homes were the exception. The heroism of Ray Charles’s 15‑year‑old single mother is well‑known, Harvey Fuqua came from complicated trouble, Ritchie Valens and Jackie Wilson grew up with stepfathers, and Bobby Darin’s home life was a soap opera that only began with him thinking his mother was his sister. But seven out of 31 is pretty good—a divorce‑slash‑nonmarriage rate of 23 percent. Some of these marriages were better than others, and some must have been tougher than anyone’s saying—for sure a few of the fathers drank and a few took patriarchal privilege way too seriously. But most of rock and roll’s musical rebels came from families that were solid, secure, and supportive, which is why Friedlander and Miller’s social history, while acknowledging serious poverty when they find it, note the Haleys’ “reliable income,” the Berrys’ “relatively comfortable existence,” the Pennimans’ “home in the comfortable Pleasant Hill neighborhood,” the Hollys’ “stable nuclear family and economic environment.”
Working‑class and proud, these families dedicated their lives to getting their kids and maybe even themselves out of that class. In a few cases, there was history to buttress the dream. Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash had plantation owners with slaves to match in their heritage and powerful relatives closer by; Pat Boone believes himself a descendant of Daniel Boone although few who’ve looked into it agree; Darin’s grandmother‑he‑thought‑was‑his‑mother was a WASP blueblood before she was a showgirl and a junkie. And in many more families there was music, usually amateur or church although Ink Spot Charlie Fuqua was supposedly Harvey’s uncle, blues singer Merline Johnson was definitely Baker’s aunt, and Fats Domino had several working musicians among his myriad kin. All these families actively encouraged their talented kids to sing and play in the hope they could express themselves, find better work, or both.
Towering over the many sacrifices on record is Elmo Lewis mortgaging his house so eight‑year‑old Jerry Lee could have a piano. This was not merely indulgent parenting. Somehow Elmo, who was a bit mad, foresaw great things that lo came to pass—not exactly the way Elmo imagined them as he portaged boy and piano to fairgrounds in his pickup, but he knew that was part of the deal, as did his less visionary counterparts. Kids schooled in country or gospel, even classical or show tunes, turned their training to the ruder uses of rock and roll without meaningful resistance from their parents—because they loved their kids, because what can you do anyway, and because with paying gigs in the offing, a dim hope suddenly seemed a real and present way out of the working class.
Some of our rock and rollers, especially the older ones, had full and hard work lives before music turned into their work life: the dirt poor Carl Perkins at a dairy and then mattress and battery factories, the ever‑hustling Chuck Berry as a Fisher Body janitor not line worker as well as a super and a freelance carpenter although contrary to legend he was never a hairdresser, Fats Domino at many tough jobs topped off by a bed factory, Bill Haley in various industrial jobs before he started putting in 12‑hour days DJing at radio stations all over the Northeast, Dave Somerville supporting his family, ultimately as a CBC engineer, after booze ended his father’s career as an insurance salesman. Although self‑described workaholic Bo Diddley clocked coins as street musician when he was a kid, he also put in time as a grocer's helper, elevator operator, meat hanger, punchboard maker, printer, light‑heavyweight boxer, latrine cleaner, and, for five or six years, construction worker. “There’s no such thing as a chickenshit job or a flunkey’s job,” he told Charles White, but also: “I . . . became a little straw boss—which the old guys didn’t like because they’d been there all this time, but nobody was interested in tryin’ to become more than just a laborer. My ambition didn’t stop right at the goddamn job. If it had, I”d still be there.” Johnny Cash provided Patrick Carr a typically terse and eloquent summation: “My work life has been simple: cotton as a youth and music as an adult. In between I was an automobile factory worker in Michigan, a radio intercept operator for the United States Air Force in Germany, and a door‑to‑door appliance salesman for the Home Equipment Company of Memphis, Tennessee. I was a great radio operator and a terrible salesman. I hated the assembly line.”
It’s even more striking, however, how many of our musicians worked little if at all at anything else. Armed services hitches are the sole nonmusical occupations on record for Harvey Fuqua, Gene Vincent, and Coaster Carl Gardner, with only Fuqua completing his tour and Gardner later pursuing a side gig as a pimp, which he didn’t enjoy. Not counting Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard’s brief Bible school stints and Dave Somerville’s trade school, only Boone attended college. Some had teen jobs that they goddamn quit as music proved profitable: Sam Cooke at a Sears warehouse, Bobby Darin cleaning bathrooms and manufacturing munitions, Buddy Holly as a draftsman with an eye toward electrical engineering, Pat Boone as a laborer for his dad, Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King clerking for music publishers, Elvis Presley not just as a truck driver but as a movie usher and a furniture assembler, and a very young Frankie Lymon as both a grocer’s helper and a pimp, which he enjoyed more than Gardner. Presumably, other jobs have gone unnoted—maybe Little Richard was more than just a dishwasher. Still, my research suggests that 11 of these artists never had a job before music started paying: not just the Everly Brothers, Little Willie John, Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran, Arlene Smith, and Dion, youngsters who came up with rock and roll an established fact, but Johnny Otis, LaVern Baker, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Golden Gloves boxer Jackie Wilson.
Although two of the just‑named also had other careers, Smith as a teacher in New York and Baker helping run a nightclub in the Philippines, and Harvey Fuqua transitioned spectacularly into a&r, accruing his biggest credits with Marvin Gaye and Sylvester, all 31 artists remained performers for life, some with more travail than others. Music was a way out of the working class, with maybe a dozen getting rich and almost all better off economically than their parents. But there were personal costs—booze and drugs, a sky‑high divorce rate, and an appalling 12 out of 31 dead before they were 50, nine before they were 40. To quote Greil Marcus quoting Little Richard, they got what they wanted but they lost what they had.
And then we wonder just what they wanted, and insofar as we have a half‑articulated political agenda—which as a fireman’s son who’s both intensely grateful for how hard my dad worked for my future and well to his left ideologically, I sure do—get nervous about what we may find out. Otis is a left autodidact whose brother became a diplomat, hard‑drinking preacher’s son McPhatter was one of the few r&b artists to march against segregation, book‑crazy preacher’s son Cooke put his money where his racial principles were, bellboy’s son Gardner had a Malcolm X period, Bobby Darin was a vocal liberal with a protest‑singing period. And it’s safe to say that most of these performers, black and white, were strong and smart about racial issues. But politically, that’s about it. Whatever their awareness of what Lipsitz called “the increasing commonality of working‑class experience,” which was often considerable when it came to music, it did not translate into radical politics or collective action. Sam Cooke’s preacher and shop steward father saw his son’s switch from gospel to pop as “a simple matter of economics.” You could forget the Soul Stirrers as far as he was concerned. “Don’t worry about the other fellow,” he told Peter Guralnick. “You hold up for other folks, and they’ll take advantage of you.” And when Sam’s money started rolling in, Charles Cook was finally liberated from his life of toil.
Working‑class can be a slippery term. Excluding the military, not one of our rock and rollers or their parents ever had a government job. So does my fireman father qualify? Even if he moonlighted as a housepainter, a lathe operator, a bartender, and a Little League umpire? Only then what about the shop‑teacher job he nailed with his NYU‑at‑night B.A. in 1957? But 1957 was a different time, and not just because rock and roll was ascendant. When I said Ed Ward never referenced class in Rock of Ages, I ignored one thing: his assertion that the “youth culture” that reared its head in the ‘50s was “middle‑class.” Although “middle‑class” is an even slipperier term than “working‑class,” Ward’s not blowing smoke. A decade into the longest period of rising prosperity this nation has ever known—David Szatmary notes that the American GNP rose from 200 billion in 1940 to 360 billion in 1954—working people, let’s call them, were leaving the working class by many different routes, music a minor one. Kids from families that were solid, secure, and supportive were better off economically than their parents—way better off. As a result, the working class was both shrinking and changing. Emphasizing that rock and roll was working‑class makes sense. Pretending that it stayed that way does not.
Sorry, really. I believe in the primacy of economics—I do. But it sure seems clear to me that insofar as rock and roll was, in Lipsitz’s words, “the most visible expression of the increasing commonality of working‑class experience,” that that commonality was primarily cross‑racial. The reason is simple: cross‑ethnic motion was well underway by the ‘30s, with Bing Crosby its embodiment. It seems almost as clear to me that the key component of this commonality was aural not what Lipsitz just called “visible,” formal not social—the wealth of African‑derived musical usages we’ve all celebrated so many times. Those points granted, however, there was also crucial content involved. This time the reason is not so simple, but permit me to cram it into one unwieldy sentence: Ahem: the pursuit of fun that animates all pop music—at least all pop music that doesn’t prioritize sentiment—becomes more life‑or‑death when it contrasts so sharply with the death‑in‑life of your working hours, with the goddamn job. Rock and roll ran hard with that vision of fun as necessity, as liberating emotional relief, through many key transformations: by the predominantly middle‑class Americans and often working‑class Brits who created both folk‑rock and classic rock, by the prole‑identified hitter aesthetes who forged metal, by the class‑crossing boho aliens who spat out punk, by the improbable gay‑black‑Latino‑Italian amalgam that powered disco, by the N‑word‑flaunting ghetto centrists who turned disco into hip‑hop.
All of this is self‑evident, especially when you think about it for a month. But that hardly puts it beyond discussion. My hope here is to have started a few.