Decade Profile: the 1950s

Decade profile starts with the Rock and Roll Era, the 1950s. However, to get a sense of what really happened, I need someone who was there. Alright, so I didn’t get a rock and roll star, but I went to the only person who I knew lived through that time…

Hello Granny. What do you remember of the music scene of the early 1950s?

Early in the 1950’s it was just the same as the 1940’s, swing bands and American music.

Did you go to a lot of swing bands?

Yes. Your granddad was in a swing band. Every hall had a swing band and ballroom dancing.

What changed in the 1950’s?

From America, Rock and Roll. Bill Hayley with Rock Around the Clock.

When was that?

I saw the film in 1955 and for the first time even young people slashed the seats in Long Easton, never been done before, but rock around the clock drove them into a frenzy.

So what other artists were around?

We had many English ones around. Number one in 1952 was Al Martino singing Here in My Heart, 1953 America Frankie Lane he had to change the words to his song Answer Me because his words were not consider suitable. Instead of Answer Me Lord Above in this country, he had to rerecord it Answer Me O My Love.

What other styles of music were around?

Pianist Winifred Atwell in 1954, we call it dumbing down these days if a classically trained pianist took to pub songs and the old Honky Tonk [E.G. Fats Domino], that is exactly what she did and it was number one.

Then in 1955 one of our best Crooner, but you could call it a Ballard Dickie Valentine had with two number ones and three other top ten hits Christmas Alphabet marked the first time in the UK that a song created for the Christmas market had hit number one

What were crooners?

American examples were Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

So like the rat pack?

Yes, the whole rat pack.

Did they survive in the 1950’s?

Oh Yes, people still liked them they seemed to carry and dwindled out in the end because you had people like Dikie Valentine and Johnnie Ray became very famous with Walking in the Rain. 1956 was the year of Rock and Roll that it was Johnnie Ray accompanied by Ukuleles and a Whistler that reigned on Two Way Family Favourites, simultaneously broadcast from Hamburg, London, to the British troops. With the anti soviet revolution in Hungry and was overseas the war was playing a large part in the psyche again. Then the great Harry Belafonte appeared in 1957 with Marys Boy Child he was very famous he made some lovely stuff. 1958 Conway Twitty was big he was number one with Make Believe. Comedians joked about his name but in the year bubble cars appeared the first British motorway was, opened parking metres were introduced with the intention to relieve congestion.

In 1969 Emile Ford and the Checkmates came from America. Then Cliff Richard appeared in 1960 with I love you.

So what was the difference between British and American music and how did it cross over?

We still have the swing bands, we been to dances where the swing bands were on half the time and Rock and Roll the other half. They used to be real fun, really great, but that died out. You could dance away and do your Rock and Roll so you would have two bands on.

So did rock and roll take over the centre stage?

It took over absolutely. Young people really demanded Rock and Roll. Swing band with all their instrumentals I do not know what they did. Your granddad started working a lot more and have a family, but the younger ones I do not know, some of the clarinettist they were amazing.

Your granddad did play a lot of double bass in the swing bands.

Was it quite popular for people to be in swing bands?

Yes, no end of people was in bands that were really big. Your granddad played in one that was a ten piece but there were much larger ones Pally Smith in London has thousands they had a massive one.

Was Skiffle quite popular.

Yes, it was popular.

What was Skilffle?

It is hard to describe but it was strong here. Lonnie Donegan was very famous. People like the two fats, [Fats Domino and Fats Walla] was superb I still think they still are.

That was the American type of jazz.

Yes, it was lovely. And they played the piano both of them. Fats, magical fingers [ Miles Davis who released Kind of Blue in 1959, a completely different kind of jazz to Fats, which some say is the greatest Jazz album ever!]

I remember listening to the old tapes [Blueberry Hill].

We had an English singer Ronnie Hilton he was famous too. I sang to you The Windmill in old Amsterdam.

Was it all popular?

Very popular. Some people liked everything like I did, some people only went for one type. The classical scene, the German was very popular You are my hearts delight [Oscar Peterson Trio] that type of song.

Where do you think the term Rock and Roll come from?

America different types of music and the American young people like it, the older people did think it was very good. And it did well over here especially whtn the American G.I’s came over during hte war and could they dance, but it wasn’t quite rock and roll but jazzy swing. And there was English folk music which you never hear of now hardly ever.

What kind of folk bands were there?

There were lots. Canned Heat was a later version [1970’s] but.

1960’s music was a little more defined.

We called it adult music and the 1970’s was very adult.

You can say the origins of Rock and Roll was Bill Hayley, Rock Around the Clock particularly and See You Later Alligator also.

Shake Rattle and Roll.

In 1955 the thing that struck me was Guy Mitchell Singing the Blues. Poeple were absolutely wild with the American Guy Mitchell, poor man he drank himself to death. It was so big in this country there were whole shows competing singing the blues. I was bowled over by him. That was a kind of Rock and Roll.

Then you have the really famous people who broke through in the 1950’s like Nat King Cole and Elvis.

Nat King Cole was very famous and in the 1940’s I do not know what date but your granddad sister a the end of the war loved him. But actually not that many people went for Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra I think that was more in the 1930’s, and Sinatra was a decade older. Michael Holliday was fantastic he died committed suicide.

And obviously, you have to mention Buddy Holly.

Oh Buddy Holly, he came to prominence in 1956 the same year as Elvis, but Elvis was around before but he didn’t make his hit that made him really famous. Was it Blue Suede Shoes?

Yeah, I think that was a cover song.

They actually met on stage.

There is a picture of Elvis and Bill Hayley [we are looking at in the paper]. What was there that made Rock and Roll so popular, was there Vinyl back then?

We had records made of baker light, they were easy to smash though and it was used in the kitchen as well. Started in the 1920 even earlier in America. Some people had old grammar phones with old records that you had to wind up.

Vinyl came in after the second world war, because all these plastics were made for planes and they found this vinyl I think this was about 1950’s.

Ronnie Hilton you never hear of him now, and Windmill in Old Amsterdam it Is about mice living in an old windmill [sings her rendition of the song] they had a lovely voice.

What was the advantage of vinyl?

It did not smash so easily. Very rigid.

And of course you have, Judy Garland every since the wizard of Oz, every since she was 16.

Did actors and singers cross over?

Perry Como was very famous, we liked him. Ballard type songs very nice. I used to sing it to you. Carl Perkins Blue Sued Shows. Swing bands fizzled away young people did not want them. Teenagers wanted their Rock and Roll. So in this country you had some bands that go to venues, and it was announced on radio where it would be. Glen Miller he and his band were still going round. He disappeared over the English Channel never found that plane. And Michael Holiday sang better than Bing Crosby, but he committed suicide because his wife left him. Dickie Valentine crashed into a tree.

Did you have a radio back in the 1950’s?

We had a radio back in the war, but in those days houses were either D/C or A/C and we moved to a different one we were on and we couldn’t get t working so we lived throughout the war. But most people had it, money was tight in those days. We got £3 a week and it was gone and food and other things.

Was it free to go to these dance bands?

Half a crown [25pence] but that was a lot of money those days. A loaf of bread was 2 and a half pence.

The BBC was just setting up and you had the introduction the radio in the 1950’s, did you listen to it?

All the time. They generally played most stuff. If they thought, some songs were rude they did not play them and I don’t remember hearing Elvis on the radio I think he was considered a bit near the knuckle. His films were my first introduction in 1957 when your mum was born he was in the chart with Wooden Heart, I loved that. Harry Belafonte was famous that year. Elvis made Wooden heart and Are you Lonesome Tonight.

There was a lot of Gospel and Country music.

Yes but it did not catch on over here. You had the Bible belt over there and they loved them. And the person I liked Buddy Holly made gospel and we never had it here, in this country we are very anti religion.

I saw the biopic Walk the Line with Jonny Cash.

He was quite religion actually, we watched his thing the other week. They have a stronger emphasis on religion it is not pushed on us here.

Is gospel music mostly black music?

The Bible belt is largely white people they built these huge churches and everyone has to give money and they seat thousands of people, and programs I have seen on television isn’t just black people. A lot of money seems to be involved to me.

So as a decade how would you sum it up? Was it known as the Rock and Roll era?

I found it quite good. I was a married woman by that time and had kids, so I didn’t listen to it quite as much. But I could still switch our radio on and listen to swing bands. When I listen to the comedy show, they have some wonderful ones. Tony Hancock and various people, which probably did not catch on in America. Then there was folk music a lot based in Manchester. There is only Elise McCarthy nowadays and her dad was a folk singer.

How did it set up the 60’s

You have these very new amazing kinds of songs, sophisticated. Then the 70’s was even more sophisticated. Buddy Holly sounded a lovely person from his biography.

It kept on getting stronger throughout the 60’s

Yes, it did but they it fizzled out by the end of the 60’s I suppose it had its decade, and you got people saying what is rock and roll and then you got people liking disco.

Skiffle did not last long really, a guess of 5 years, rock and roll seemed so much stronger and it was good. Joe Brown had a wonderful band in this country and his was Skiffle.

– Chris Jones


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