FEATURE: Life Before The Beatles Exploded: Why It Is Worth Investigating Music of the 1950s and Early-1960s




Life Before The Beatles Exploded


IN THIS IMAGE: Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock was released in 1957/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

 Why It Is Worth Investigating Music of the 1950s and Early-1960s


ALTHOUGH this is the second-consecutive feature where...


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles chilling out in 1963/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I mention The Beatles, I am not really focusing on them. I am a bit but I use them as a benchmark really. For me, my musical tastes stretch before The Beatles but I do not spend as much time look back as I should. I wonder whether enough of us are broad when it comes to decades and investigating deep. Many assume music was a bit boring and naff before the 1960s and there is not a lot of greatness to be discovered. I agree the best albums and most popular artists started life in the 1960s but it is not the case anything before, say, 1962 is not worth a thing. Something definitely happened when The Beatles ignited popular music and took it in new directions. The band themselves were inspired by music of the past and, whilst that doesn’t mean those artists were great, it is wonderful listening back further at a time when music was a lot punchier and tighter. When I was growing up, I was raised on a lot of different stuff but I was being fed music from the 1950s and 1960s. This is when my parents were born/young and, as such, the sort of stuff they were listening to. I recall as a child getting the critically-slated Jive Bunny: The Album and playing that to death! Its charm was that it has a modern sound (this was 1989) and there were some great samples in there.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Little Richard in the 1950s/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The fact this was the same year that saw American Hip-Hop groups like De La Soul and Beastie Boys take sampling to a new height did not bode well for the Rotherham novelty act who, let’s be fair, were not in their league! Say what you want about that album and its validity but the fact was children my age got to hear music from our parent’s generation. Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again and Glenn Miller’s In the Mood were sat alongside The Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie, Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up on the track, Swing the Mood. Copyright and legal issues meant re-recorded version of the songs had to be included – the critics did not like this – but it still meant I got to experience this new world! Elsewhere on the album, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode and Runaround Sue (Dion) were included. There was all this great Rock & Roll, Doo-Wop and Swing that, whilst replaced and evolved by the 1960s, did help compel the next generation and influence a lot of the best albums of the time. I think, even if children go back and look at music from the past, they will not get far past the 1960s. Maybe The Beatles is their limit and that is going back far enough.

I love so much music from the 1950s and early-1960s. From Del Shannon’s Runaway (1961) through to the early work by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Throw in great stuff from The Drifters and Fats Domino through to The Platters and you have some fantastic songs. I think a lot of these artists can inspire the new generation because, to me, that era is defined by a sense of joy and chirpiness. There were some sombre songs but there was a lot of sunshine, catchy tracks and effortless bliss. How many of us can say the music scene is like that today?! I will look at a few songs that really inspired me as a child but, in terms of the 1950s and the Rock & Roll movement, there was this epic scene that helped kick-start the 1960s and is still working through the marrows of modern music. Not only did the 1950s Rock & Roll movement help bring about social change, the sounds that were being produced had this sense of freedom and real innovation. Rolling Stone, when investigating the music of the music of the 1950s, made some interesting observations:

First, it was the only form of popular music that specifically addressed and was tailored to teenagers — there had been adult records and kiddie records, but nothing for that burgeoning bulge of the baby-boom population caught between childhood and adulthood. Second, rock & roll enabled “marginal” Americans — poor white sharecroppers, black ghetto youths and, not coincidentally, storefront record-label operators in out-of-the-way places like Memphis — the opportunity to express themselves freely, not as purveyors of R&B and C&W, whose audiences were limited, but as a dominant force in the popular marketplace. Elvis was transformed from hick truck driver to idol of millions in less than a year. Suddenly, it seemed, the sky was the limit, if there was a limit at all...


The coming of rock & roll in the mid-Fifties was not merely a musical revolution but a social and generational upheaval of vast and unpredicatable scope. It also represented a major reversal in the business of popular music. There were no pre-rock & roll counterparts to Sam Phillips, who parlayed a tiny Memphis label with a staff of one into a company whose artists sold millions of records throughout the world. In record-business terms, rock & roll meant that small, formerly specialized labels like Sun, Chess and Specialty were invading the upper reaches of the pop charts, long the exclusive domain of the major corporate record labels and old-line Tin Pan Alley music-publishing interests.

Much has been made of Sixties rock as a vehicle for revolutionary social and cultural change, but it was mid-Fifties rock & roll that blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of centuries. What could be more outrageous, more threatening to the social and sexual order subsumed by the ingenuous phrase traditional American values, than a full-tilt Little Richard show? There he was, camping it up androgynously one minute, then ripping off his clothes to display for a packed house of screaming teenage white girls his finely muscled black body.

If Fifties rock & roll failed to realize the creative and social aspirations it so eloquently expressed, on a purely cultural level it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams anyone could have entertained at the time. Not only has it proved more than a passing fad or an episode of youthful folly, it has provided the model, the template, the jumping-off point for virtually every subsequent wave of pop-music innovation. The best of Fifties rock & roll may have promised a utopia that was not to be, but as long as the music survives, the dream will live on”.

The 1950s and start of the 1960s is worth fond study because of the way it changed society, especially in the U.S.A., and how it led to revolution in the 1960s. Lesser genres of the time – a fairly disposable Pop scene, Doo-Wop and the like – are interesting in themselves but, again, it is the simplicity and sheer catchiness of the music that gets to me. I feel so many artists today are too safe and produce songs that tend to ramble – you would be hard-pressed to find a song from the 1950s that strayed past five minutes! To me, there are these evocative and timeless songs that are being skipped by the new generation. Two tracks that came out in 1958 – Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me and Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite – were big favourites of mine. The former seemed to be playing a lot and I love how passionate Simone’s performance is. The production at the time was modern but I think, looking back sixty-plus years later, it is almost groundbreaking in terms of its basicness. The fact Reet Petite was given a Claymation music video in 1986 opened my eyes and gave this exceptional song a new life. Wilson’s performance is sensational and one cannot help but sing along and groove to the track. Although Pop music heightened and evolved in the 1960s, the sounds of the 1950s were cooler than you think.

This article highlights why Pop of the 1950s is worth another look:

Studio experimentation was central to much 1950s pop. Finding a fresh sound was paramount. The well-funded masters like Sam Phillips created networks of rooms wired to serve as reverb chambers. Many others behaved like mad scientists, such as the producers of “The Big Hurt” by Toni Fisher, who plastered the entire mix with a flanging effect (think the middle section of “Black Water” byThe Doobie Brothers, which is phase-shifted to similar effect).

“Cathy’s Clown” by The Everly Brothers, I would argue, has almost all the elements of some great early Beatles singles. The drum part is certainly as inventive and new as “Ticket to Ride” was at its time. The vocals use a trick identical to that in “Please Please Me,” wherein one singer stays on a note over multiple syllables while the other descends. The lyric presents a clever and very specific point of view about being cheated on, and reminds me of “Not a Second Time” by Lennon, only better”.

I often think of the 1950s and early-1960s and imagine very bright street, colourful shops and this rather stylish and wonderful look. Look back at photos from the time and the nostalgia and beauty tends to take the breath. I can see why songwriters were inspired but, at the same time, there were social issues and tensions that led to Rock & Roll creating emancipation.

I have sort of stopped at the 1950s but there is some great Swing and Blues from the 1940s and 1930s that is worth listening to. Many write the 1950s off and assume the 1960s kicked into life in around about 1963. I guess The Beatles did herald in a new movements and exciting time for modern music. I find myself heading back in time when it comes to emotional release and discovering some joy. There is some to be found in modern music but I can guarantee a smile and sense of cheer when I get to grips with the 1950s. So much was happening at the times and its pioneers – like Little Richard and Elvis Presley – paved the way for what was to happen in following decade. You do not have to be of a certain age to love the music or be alive when it was released. There is something timeless and effortless about the music that means you can pick it up in 2019 and love it. There are so many who avoid the 1950s and introduction to the 1960s because they feel it is pretty lightweight and one of a single sound. You will find, when you dig deep, that period offers songs that will get into the heart and…


STAY in the mind.