Monday, December 12, 2011


Syracuse, New York circa 1950. A typical Syracuse teenager returns home from Grant Junior High and flicks on his radio. Turning from one end to the other, he hears WSYR with the Jim Deline Band playing Perry Como, he them goes to WNDR, Mr Sunshine (Carl Swanson) playing Hank Williams. Turning to WFBL, he hears the Arthur Godfrey Show, and then moving on to WAGE (later changed to WHEN) he hears Eddie Fisher. As a last resort, he dials to WOLF 1490 AM...the Sandman Serenade request show. He kind of digs the sound, but finally turns his radio off in disgust, silently thinking how a city with 12,000 teenagers could be toe tapping to the most languid, non danceable, dull ditties ever imaginable.

Syracuse circa 1950 was a middle sized industrial city of 220,000 people. Nearly 40% were employed by New Process Gear, Carrier, Crouse Hinds and other industrial factories. The average wage earner took home about $2,700 a year. It was a city with a rich historical background, and the music heard in high schools and jukeboxes were described as "healthy, clean and white." An apt description considering that the only music listed in any historical accounts of the city was the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.

Syracuse didn't realize at the time, but a so called underground music scene was also happening. While white music was being dominated by love ballads, black music was undergoing phenomenal changes. The old country blues, raw and ragged, had been increasingly replaced by "Big City Blues." Electric guitars, tenor sax and bass created more noise and more excitement. The beat came in and somewhere along the line the new style became known as rhythm and blues ('R&B'').

It was good-time danceable music and somehow it began to filter through to the white teenagers and they loved it. In 1951, the owner of Cleveland Ohio's largest record store, Lou Mantz informed popular Disc Jockey Alan Freed of the R &B songs, which were becoming increasingly popular. Based on this information. Freed (a white DJ) decided to feature "R&B' on his program. To avoid, in Freed's words the "racial stigma" of the old classification, Freed decided to give this music a new name, Rock n' Roll. Within a few months Alan Freed promoted his first Rock n' Roll show at the Cleveland Arena to a turn away racially mixed crowd of 30,000. These shows featured black artists, but drew a predominately white audience.

Sales of R&B records doubled in the next year. It was evident that this music was starting to become the music of a much larger segment of young people.

Right through the early 50's white owned radio stations persisted in keeping R&B records off the airwaves. Black hits songs such as "Sincerely" (The Moonglows) and "Ain't That A Shame" (Fats Domino) were usually covered for the white market by artists like the McGuire Sisters, Pat Boone and others. White pop and R&B were still miles apart, but there was also throughout the South a large market for County & Western Music. Each of these three styles had its own "Hit Parade "of popular songs, and were the ingredients that made Rock happen. Together they produced a major craze in America. But there was even more to it than that, it was upheaval of the whole adult middle class lifestyle.

What finally turned "Rock n" Roll" into a musical and social revolution? Basically, the teens of the 50"s were looking for an identity. They had no music, no clothes, no club that were exclusively theirs. They lived a life that was merely an extension of their parents, a life that was becoming increasing affluent.  Foremost, it all came down to the fact that the teenagers now had money and nothing to do with it. With this money, life became easier and predictably teens bought just about anything put on the market, from motorcycles to hair cream. Most of all they bought music.

In 1954, R&B songs appeared on the populat "Hit Parade" for the first time. The large record companies had no idea what the teenagers really wanted, and most of the R&B hits were still being covered by their white pop artits. It wasn't long before the smaller independent labels struck gold with black artist as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and various "doo wop" groups.

Then a little known county & western singer named Bill Haley recorded the song "Rock Around The Clock" for Decca Records in 1954. Within twelve months it became a tremendous hit all over the world, and remained on the Billboard Pop Music Chart for over a year. Rock n' Roll was here to stay! Among other places it found a home in Syracuse, New York.

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