October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley performed on “Toast of the Town,” a variety program hosted by Ed Sullivan. He opened with “Don’t Be Cruel,” then introduced the title song of his new movie, Love Me Tender . Later in the show Presley sang Little Richard’s hit “Reddy Teddy.” As he began to move and dance, the camera pulled in, so that the television audience saw him only from the waist up. The incident has become a legendary moment in the history of American culture, cited often as evidence of the dominance of sexual censors in the 1950s.
Their power has been vastly overrated. Elvis’s appearance in fact demonstrates that rock ’n’ roll had put the prudes on the defensive. Sullivan, who had said earlier that Elvis “is not my cup of tea,” booked him for the then astronomical fee of $50,000 when the popularity of the rock ’n’ roll singer soared. His investment paid off: The September 9 show got a Trendex rating of 43.7, which meant that 82.6 percent of the television audience had tuned in. Even from the waist up, Elvis retained his erotic appeal, especially when viewers heard eruptions of emotion from the studio audience each time the singer sneered, swayed, or sighed.
Jack Gould, the television critic for The New York Times , recognized what had happened. The overstimulation of the physical impulses of young boys and girls was “a national disgrace,” he wrote. On the Sullivan show, Presley had “injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful.” But the businessmen of television, Gould predicted, would continue to capitalize on the desire of a mass audience for “highly tempting yet forbidden fruit.” As Gould threw in the towel, Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, put an exclamation point on the episode by announcing that his client’s price for two guest appearances and an hourlong television special was now $300,000.
The repeal of reticence, then, was well under way. Thanks in no small measure to rock ’n’ roll, the sexual genie was climbing out of the bottle in the fifties, the decade of Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, a time when there was “a whole lotta shakin’ going on.”
Underrated Rock ’n’ roll got its name in the fall of 1954. Thomas Louis Hardin, a blind street musician, composer, and beggar, claimed that the disc jockey Alan Freed had stolen the name Moondog from him for a radio program, “Moondog House.” When it turned out that Freed had played Hardin’s recording “Moondog Symphony” on his show, Judge Carroll Walter awarded Hardin $5,700 and forbade Freed to use the moniker. Although initially “very angry and shocked,” Freed quickly changed the name of the show to “Rock ’n’ Roll Party.” A black euphemism for sexual intercourse, rock ’n’ roll appeared often in the lyrics of rhythm and blues music. The phrase caught on, encompassing a wide range of musical fare aimed at teenagers, and Freed and the radio station WINS secured a copyright for it. What’s in a name? As it entered popular discourse, rock ’n’ roll became a social construction as well as a musical conception, with complex and sometimes contradictory consequences for American culture.
The African-American performer Louis Jordan complained, with considerable justification, that “rock ’n’ roll was just a white imitation, a white adaptation of Negro rhythm and blues.” The new name obscured the contribution of blacks to the nation’s musical heritage. Black performers were exploited so often they came to call R & B “rip-offs and bullshit.”
Along with theft, however, there was love, and “rock ’n’ roll” vastly increased the audience for music indebted to rhythm and blues. Before 1954, as one observer put it, “you couldn’t make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely spoken, and phony to your toenails.” After rock ’n’ roll got its name, many R & B performers “crossed over” to the pop charts. Of the 730 Top Ten hits on the Billboard charts between 1957 and 1964, black artists recorded 204, the largest percentage they ever registered.
In a modest way, rock ’n’ roll also promoted integration. Salt and pepper mixed together in the audiences at concerts. Racial segregation began to break down as white and black kids danced to the music. Rock ’n’ roll surely did not do more for integration than Brown v. Board of Education , as Herbie Cox of the Cleftones claimed, but it helped create a climate supportive of civil rights for African-Americans.
In time rock ’n’ roll helped young people forge a collective identity that crossed, albeit imperfectly, boundaries of race, ethnicity, and class. The music became an arena as well for conflict between the generations. And it all began when rock ’n’ roll got its name.