Chuck Berry at the Crossroads of Teenage Rock & Roll Fanaticism and the Racial Powder Keg That Was 1950s America

Cleveland had plenty of nightclubs to accommodate rock and roll performers in the 1950s.  The Circle Theatre and Gleason’s Music Bar were two of the top spots for black rock and roll and rhythm and blues artists to perform for black audiences.  Bo Diddley, whom the black weekly newspaper the Call and Post referred to as “one of the foremost agents of Blues Rhythm  and of Rock ‘n Roll,” had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and Steve Allen’s Tonight Show by the time he performed at Gleason’s in January 1956.[1]  The Circle Theatre presented the Rock ‘N Roll Cavalcade in April, an event featuring Roy Brown, Little Willie John, and the Five Royales along with other acts in “the biggest parade of talent ever made across the Circle stage.”[2]  In May the Cleveland Arena hosted an “outstanding progressive Rock and Roll Show” which showcased an integrated cast of artists: LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Bill Haley and His Comets, Frankie Lymon and The Teen Agers, The Drifters and many more popular groups of 1956.[3]  These events and many others were advertised in the Call and Post, but few such concerts were given space in the Plain Dealer or Cleveland Press, which still preferred motion picture advertisements.  These “white” papers were not necessarily ignoring the new teen phenomenon, but it appeared they did not wish to take part in its promotion, at least not when many of the venues were in black parts of town.

 

Mainstream papers may have preferred to stay away from rock and roll in part because of its increasingly negative reputation nationally.  A religious group in Boston in 1956 instructed its members not to attend Alan Freed’s upcoming revue because they considered rock and roll “the devil’s music.”[4]  So-called riots were reported in various cities in the years following the first Moondog Coronation Ball, including “mass youth hysteria” at a New York City showing of the Freed film “Don’t Knock the Rock” in 1957.[5]  Similar incidents in other American cities and in Vancouver, London, and Australia contributed to rock and roll’s bad reputation.[6]  On Alan Freed’s Big Beat, which aired nationally on ABC television, black singer Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl from the studio audience.  This incident, which Freed likely did not notice, created a furor among ABC’s southern affiliates; the show’s sponsors demanded that only white performers appear from then on, and when Freed refused, the show was cancelled.[7]

The backlash against rock and roll was going strong in Cleveland as WERE’s Tommy Edwards experienced at a church dance.  He had intended to distribute thousands of free photos of Presley but was warned against it by church officials, and was also told not to play Presley’s music or to show five pictures of him in a slide show during intermission.  In January 1957 “the dumbest riot of teen-age kids” in one police officer’s career broke out at the downtown Hippodrome Theatre during a Sunday matinee of the Jayne Mansfield comedy The Girl Can’t Help It.  The film features a rock and roll soundtrack, and the Call and Post reported that the “disturbances” reached their peaks when black performers Fats Domino and Little Richard appeared onscreen.  A multiracial group of teenagers watched the movie together and about one hundred of them were involved in the riot.  Captain Arthur Roth, head of the Cleveland Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau, declared that the incident was not racially motivated in any way, as if one should assume otherwise.[8]  Alan Freed, as usual, stood up for the music—and for teenagers.  “No music is immoral,” he said in 1957.  “Rock ’n’ Roll doesn’t make kids delinquents.  It keeps them from delinquency.”[9]       

Alan Freed after leaving Cleveland for New York

 

Teenagers often cited the beat of the music as what they liked about it; the beat was what critics referred to as primitive and tribal, able to stir evil in the hearts of American youth.  The other thing that teens enjoyed and detractors attacked was the lyrical content.  Chuck Berry was one of the most celebrated rock stars in the music’s early days, and his lyrics in particular appealed to teens because they talked about experiences every young person could relate to.  His anthemic “School Days,” released in 1957, was Billboard’s number three Territorial Best Seller in Cleveland in April.  The lyrics describe a typical day in the life of the American teenager:[10]

 

Up in the mornin’ and out to school
     The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule
     American history and practical math
     You study ’em hard and hopin’ to pass
     Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
     And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone

     Ring ring goes the bell
     The cook in the lunchroom’s ready to sell
     You’re lucky if you can find a seat
     You’re fortunate if you have time to eat
     Back in the classroom open your books
     Gee but the teacher don’t know
     How mean she looks

     Soon as three o’clock rolls around
     You finally lay your burden down
     Close up your books, get out of your seat

     Down the halls and into the street
     Up to the corner and ’round the bend
     Right to the juke joint you go in

     Drop the coin right into the slot
     You gotta hear something that’s really hot

     With the one you love you’re makin’ romance
     All day long you been
     Wantin’ to dance
     Feelin’ the music from head to toe
     ‘Round and ’round and ’round you go

     Hail, hail rock’n’roll
     Deliver me from the days of old
     Long live rock’n’roll
     The beat of the drum is loud and bold
     Rock rock rock’n’roll
     The feelin’ is there, and soul[11]

The song was written from Berry’s own memories of school.  “The lyrics depict the way it was in my own time,” he writes in his 1987 autobiography.  “I had no idea what was going on in the classes during the time I composed it….”  Berry was a thirty-year-old man when “School Days” was climbing up the record charts, yet his own school experiences were easily relatable to a younger audience who understood precisely what he was singing about.  His 1958 song “Little Queenie” was also directed at “the teen market which had gone so well for me.”  It told the story of a young man noticing a young lady he is too shy to approach at a dance, another experience many teenagers shared.  “Such was the kind of product I was aiming for in most of my lyrics rather than a story that depicted a singular episode or incident that could only happen in the life of a few people,” Berry explains.[12] 

 

Hail, Hail, Chuck Berry!

Berry understood that his lyrics were universal, but he also realized that not everyone appreciated the way he and other rock performers related to young people, especially if they were white.  “…I don’t know any truths about racial matters but what I have seen,” Berry confesses.  That is all any human can know, but the experiences of a black recording star in 1950s America are certainly worth examining.  Berry performed with an all-black concert tour in 1955, and noticed no racial bigotry as they traveled throughout the North.  Having grown up in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry knew little about the South except what he had heard from his father, so the racism he encountered was quite strange to him once the tour reached Charleston, West Virginia.  It was in Jacksonville, Florida, however, that the overt racism of Jim Crow truly made an impression.  Band members were referred to as “boy” by stagehands, and the center aisle of the venue was roped off so that the white and black attendees, who were separated on either side of the room, could not mingle.  As the show ended, Berry remembers that twice as many white as black youth rushed the stage to join the performers.  Surprisingly, security forces did not react, and “could only stand there and watch young public opinion exercise its reaction to the boundaries they were up against.”  This incident made Berry realize that there had been some progress in race relations.[13] 

White audiences continued to react enthusiastically to him, though blacks in the same audience often responded more fervently when he played what they felt was straight rhythm and blues as opposed to watered-down rock and roll.  In Mobile, Alabama, whites applauded when he sang “Maybellene,” which reach number five on the Billboard Hot 100 popular music chart in 1955; the song also reached number one on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart, indicating that black music fans enjoyed the song as much, if not more than mainstream audiences.  Berry noticed that the black members of the audience were more excited to hear him play “Wee Wee Hours,” a rhythm and blues song which was the B-side of “Maybellene.”  “I knew I was getting next to them,” he writes, remembering “how beautifully the black side began to moan” while listening to “the pleading guitar passage of ‘Wee Wee Hours’,” a song that had not been “Anglopinionated,” as Berry describes songs that were considered to have been whitened for the pop charts.[14]  This was a common practice in rock and roll at the time, and Berry believes that black music fans understood it and often disapproved of it, even if it was a black performer playing their own music.  In this way, the music was not necessarily bringing together black and white fans as much as it was bringing white fans to black music in a style they could appreciate.

 


[1] “Bo-Diddly Leads Band into Gleason’s Mon.,” Call and Post, January 7, 1956.

[2] “Sell Advance Tickets for Circle Theatre’s Rock ‘n Roll Show,” Call and Post, April 7, 1956.

[3] “Rock and Roll Show At The Arena May 8,” Call and Post, April 28, 1956.

[4] New York Beat, Jet, July 14, 1955, 63.

[5] James McGlincy and James Donahue, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Madness, Mass Youth Hysteria at Paramount Theatre,” Daily Mirror, February 23, 1957.

[6] Ruth Banks Hoffman, “Rock ‘n Roll Wows B’way,” Call and Post, March 2, 1957.

[7] John A. Jackson, The Alan Freed Story: The Early Years of Rock & Roll (Narberth: Collectables Records Corp., 2005), 168.

[8] Marty Richardson, “It Wasn’t Racial! ‘Teen-Agers’ Moved by Rock & Roll Flicker,” Call and Post, January 26, 1957.

[9] Sidney Fields, “Only Human,” Alan Freed Easter Jubilee program, April 1957, 2.

[10] Territorial Best Sellers, Billboard, April 29, 1957, 46.

[11] Chuck Berry, “Lyrics: ‘School Days’,” The Official Site of Chuck Berry, http://www.chuckberry.com/music/lyrics/school.htm (accessed March 6, 2010).

[12] Chuck Berry, The Autobiography (New York: Fireside, 1987), 152,162.

[13] Berry, 121-24.

[14] Berry, 334, 125-126.

2 thoughts on “Chuck Berry at the Crossroads of Teenage Rock & Roll Fanaticism and the Racial Powder Keg That Was 1950s America

  1. Pingback: “Rock & Roll Music”, Chuck Berry « What I Like Is Sounds

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