Thursday, 29 March 2012

So; What Were White People Listening To Before Rock & Roll Anyway?

Recently a number of musical figures from the fifties died who can answer the question; What did white people listened to in the pre-Rock and Roll post WW2 era of the late forties and early fifties (obviously black Americans already had a variety of good Blues, Jazz, R&B, Doo Wop and Gospel)...well if you were cool and lived in a big city then you listened to Jazz. Especially the Cool Jazz of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. If you were a bit older and weren't worried about drugs then there were still a few BeBop fans, if you were even older then there was still some swing hanging around. If you were young and political you listened to Folk like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers and the Kingston Trio. If you were young but not political there were the collegiate type vocal quartets like the Four Freshmen, Four Lads, Four Preps, Crewcuts and The Lettermen. Whose names all imply their College Frat roots. And if you were working class and living in the south or west you listened to Honkytonk Country, Western Swing, Bluegrass or White Gospel. But not everything that happened in the 1950's was cool you know.

( Note; Very few white people, no matter how cool, listened to the blues or black gospel in the 1940's and 50's other than a few young folk musicians and critics, by the end of the decade that would change as the Folk Revival discovered the likes of John Lee Hoooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Rev Gary Davis and a legion of other survivors from the 1920's & 30's and introduced them to a new generation)

Speaking of bluegrass; Earl Scruggs, one of the classic bluegrass pickers just died at 86.


Bluegrass great Earl Scruggs, who played banjo with the classic Bill Monroe and his Blue Sky Boys band from 1945 till 1948 when after a tiff with the notoriously hard assed Monroe he left with fiddle player Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Monroe never forgave them. Flatt and Scruggs would become his only real rivals for classic bluegrass and even today Scruggs pioneering three fingered style is still considered the only legit way to play for bluegrass pickers. The Foggy Mountain Boys would breakup in 1969 with most of the band staying with Flatt and and Scruggs would go on to a long respected solo career. In the film "Oh Brother where are thou" the band formed by Clooney and co. is called The Soggy Bottom Boys by way of tribute. Flatt died in 1979.


Also dying recently is Everett Lily, one of the Lily Brothers & Don Stover, an important Bluegrass band of the late fifties.

Short Doc about the Lily Brothers & Don Stover;

Another bluegrass picker; Doug Dillard, played with The Dillards and later with Gene Clark and The Byrds;

The Dillards on the Andy Griffith show;

Or if you were Celtic there was The Dubliners, one of the classic Irish folk groups from 1962 on, along with the even older Chieftains. Which is not technically pre Rock and Roll. However for most people on Ireland, Newfoundland, Cape Breton Isle of Man or the Scottish Highlands it might as well have been. The old ways still held firm there for a while yet. Founding member "Banjo Barney" McKenna, who sang and played banjo and mandolin, and who had previously been in the Chieftains, died this week at age 72.

The Dubliners ~ "Whiskey in the jar";

OK that's all well and good but what if you weren't cool enough to be listening to jazz, political enough to be listening to folk or white trash enough to be listening to country or white gospel? Well then the pickings get pretty slim indeed. There is always classical music of course, if you were an educated snob. Then there is the world of whiter-than-white post war pop best exemplified by these four who also just died;


Dorothy McQuire ~ Singer with 1940's & 50's Pop Vocal group The McQuire Sisters. (aged 84) The McQuire Sisters were the most successful female vocal group of the Fifties. Starting off while still children singing in a church where their mother was a minister by the end of the forties they had moved into secular entertainment taking inspiration from the biggest singing group of the forties, the Andrews Sisters. Although they were already seasoned performers with a record deal they appeared on the top-rated TV show "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" in 1952 where he gave them a residency that lasted seven years and gave them the exposure to score a few dozen top forty hits throughout the decade. Besides the usual syrupy fifties pop fare as the Rock & Roll Era took over they became one of the pop acts including the likes of Pat Boone, Guy Mitchell and the Crewcuts, to adapt to the times by recording bland versions of R&B hits like "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight", "Sincerly", "Tears On My Pillow" and "Rhythm 'n Blues" which show a serious lack of either rhythm or blues but plenty of wholesome perky bounce.


These records, which are clearly inferior to the originals would be deeply resented by black artists and become much loathed by rock historians as exhibit A in illustrating the concept of Cultural Appropriation and are laughable today but they did play a role in bringing Doo Wop to a larger audience.


The era of the super white cover versions only lasted a few years and was over before the fifties was even done but the McGuire Sisters were popular enough to continue on TV and Vegas until the end of the sixties when Phylis McGuire went solo and the others essentially retired aside from occasional reunions. Phyllis would become better known in the sxties for her relationship with gangster Sam Giancana.


Marion Marlowe ~ (aged 83) Pop singer who scored some hits in the early fifties and was another regular on the Arthur Godfrey Show. After she was dropped by her record label she was fired by Godfrey in 1955, later moving to Broadway

Marion Marlowe "Lover";

Russell Arms ~ (aged 92) Early 1950's pre-R&R pop singer, appeared as a regular on the TV show "Your Hit Parade" which featured weekly covers of top 40 hits, he managed to parlay this gig into a fairly successful recording career of his own as well as appearing in western musicals. Once R&R hit this sort of approach became impossible and "Your Hit Parade" was edged out by shows with actual R&R singers hosted by Alan Feed, Dewey Phillps and Dick Clark (aged 92)

Russell Arms covers "Standing On The Corner" (hit version done by Toronto vocal group The Four Lads);

Russell Arms ~ "Papa Loves Mambo" (originally by Perry Como);

Nick Noble (real name Nick Valkan); Another one of the pre-rock white pop singers who would be put out of work when rock hit. Noble actually manged to have a few more hits though as an easy listening and country singer (aged 85)


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