Love Songs: The Hidden History

The following is an excerpt from Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia. Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2015 by Ted Gioia.


Some things never change in the history of love songs. In 20th-century industrialized societies, as in medieval communities, censors and others concerned with public morals continued to take an active interest in the songs of the day, and aimed to save impressionable youth, or even mature parents and grandparents, from exposure to sexualized content. Their decisions showed amazing inconsistency at times. For example, NBC Radio refused to mention the title of the 1930 song “Body and Soul” on air, fearing that the very word body hinted at too much.

Yet a few years later, the Columbia label allowed Count Basie to release a track titled “Upright Organ Blues”—you hardly need to know that only pianos, not organs, come in upright consoles to find something suggestive in that title. Yet a general tendency could be detected amid this confusion—namely, that black musicians and black audiences got a little more wiggle room. When Cole Porter faced a public backlash over the sinful implications of his song “Love for Sale,” featured in the 1930 Broadway musical The New Yorkers, he found the controversy abated somewhat after the song was assigned to Elizabeth Welch, a black singer, instead of white actress Kathryn Crawford.

To finish the makeover, the backdrop for the song changed from the façade of a Madison Avenue restaurant to the front of Harlem’s Cotton Club. With these alterations, a song about a prostitute no longer seemed quite so objectionable. When white vocalist Dottie O’Brien released “Four or Five Times” in 1951, many radio stations banned it, although black singers had been performing this song for many years without any outcry. At the dawn of the 1950s, Dean Martin enjoyed top-20 hits with “If ” and “I’ll Always Love You,” but when he released “Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am,” many broadcasters refused to play it, and the tune (unlike “Sixty-Minute Man,” issued at almost the same time) never even appeared on the Billboard chart.

The whole attempt to segregate the commercial music market into white and black segments proved impossible to enforce. Audience crossover had always taken place, even in the days of slavery and increasingly after the rise of ragtime, blues, and jazz. But in the mid-1950s, the obsession of white youngsters with black music took on a new degree of intensity. Around the same time the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending state-sponsored school segregation, American teens started to shake up the segregation of the music marketplace. They surprised radio deejays, jukebox operators, and record store owners with their interest in rhythm-and-blues.

Jukebox owners may have been the first to see the change coming. Tracking demand a dime at a time, these close observers of youth behavior quickly learned that even white neighborhoods needed access to the black R&B hits. Many retailers catering to white consumers had previously not carried these records in their inventory, but most now put them in stock in response to this rising demand. Influential radio deejays—Alan Freed in New York, Dewey Phillips in Memphis, Bill Randle in Cleveland, and many others—also recognized the changing landscape of American popular music, and helped accelerate the rise of the next new thing: white singers who took their inspiration from the most uninhibited exemplars of black R&B music. Phillips is credited as the first radio host to play an Elvis Presley record on the air, and Freed even claimed to have originated the term rock ’n’ roll. In the face of these ardent advocates with airwave access, no Supreme Court decision was necessary to integrate the popular music favored by American teens.

In hindsight, the decision of a whole generation of youngsters to embrace raucous, dance-oriented music, whether black rhythm-and-blues or white rock ’n’ roll, seems an inevitable response to the tepid pop music of the early 1950s. Yet this changing of the guard did not take place without a struggle and backlash— especially from those who feared the moral contagion of the new music. Thousands of citizens complained to elected officials, and Congress briefly considered a bill that would ban the shipment of obscene rock ’n’ roll records via the postal service. Police in some communities confiscated jukeboxes and imposed fines on their owners. Church groups put pressure on disk jockeys to keep objectionable records off the air, and some members of the music business suggested the creation of censorship committees or review boards. Records were burned. Concerts got canceled. But singer Pat Boone may have had the most ingenious solution to the problem at hand: he recorded cover versions of hot black R&B and rock ’n’ roll tunes, inserting squeaky-clean words in place of suggestive lyrics.

Some thought the problem might just go away on its own. An old hipster friend, who hung out with Kerouac and played jazz in the 1950s, once confided to me: “When this rock ’n’ roll sound took off, we all thought it was a passing fad. We figured it would disappear in a few months.” In 1955 and early 1956, rock ’n’ roll did seem like a novelty sound. Fans who tuned in to the radio inevitably heard Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” but they also encountered comparatively tame chart-topping singles such as Bill Hayes’s “The Ballad of Davey Crockett,” Mitch Miller’s “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” Then came Elvis Presley, who proved bigger than all of these artists combined, releasing hit after hit—“Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender,” “All Shook Up,” and many others. Between 1955 and 1958, Presley had 10 singles that topped the sales chart. And when he didn’t hold the number-one position, some other rock ’n’ roll song inevitably did.

The critics feared the erotic energy of these songs, yet the lyrics often had nothing to do with sex, or even romance. Often the words simply referred to dancing—“The Twist,” “Rock Around the Clock,” and “At the Hop” were among the most popular recordings of the era. Other chart-topping hits served up nonsensical lyrics, for example “The Purple People Eater” or “Tequila.” But who knew what meanings lurked behind cryptic phrases? The FBI scrutinized the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording of “Louie Louie” in search of obscenity, and eventually compiled a 100-page file on the tune—but their experts found the song unintelligible. The most interesting section of this FBI report, to my mind, is the sheet of paper confiscated by a junior high principal, which contains the words young males thought Kingsmen vocalist Jack Ely sang on the hit single. As in so many instances with early rock ’n’ roll, the musicians didn’t need to supply the dirty stuff; the receptive attitude of the audience ensured the sexualization of this music.

Who can be surprised that widespread rumors persisted, hinting at secret sexual messages hidden in the grooves of rock ’n’ roll records? Even when the words to a rock ’n’ roll song seemed innocent, the primal beats and pelvic thrusts of dancers spelled out S-E-X in big bold letters, at least for those inclined to fear for the morals of the younger generation. Over the course of a tumultuous decade, parents watched in dismay as a series of dance fads swept through the popular culture—the Twist, Watusi, Mashed Potato, Frug, Boogaloo, and others—dances that usually drew onlookers’ attention down below the waist. And if these movements could inspire lust in the observers, what desires did they spur in the teenage dancers themselves?

The turning point in this public debate arrived with Elvis Presley’s famous September 1956 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” This singer had the misfortune to possess an unusual first name that rhymed with “pelvis”; but no doubt his below-the-belt movements would have spurred jokes and scandal under any circumstances. Sullivan, for his part, had previously declared Presley’s prurient performances incompatible with the family values of his viewers, but changed his mind after his rival TV host Steve Allen enjoyed enormous ratings success with an Elvis appearance. Presley’s first visit to the Sullivan show proved far more popular than anyone had anticipated.

More than 80 percent of the U.S. television audience tuned in that evening to see the hot young singer. CBS gave viewers only a few glimpses of the famous pelvis, focusing on Presley’s upper body for most of the shots. But audiences at home could imagine, from the screams of the young ladies in attendance, what they were missing. The moralists may have won this small battle over camera angles, but they lost the war. When Presley sang “Hound Dog” on a return visit to Sullivan’s show four months later, the network allowed mainstream America a longer look at the singer’s gyrating hips. They liked what they saw.

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