COLUMN: A Malat Musing: Celebrating Early 'Rock'
“Rock N’ Roll will stand, man!” Wolfman Jack
A plane crashed on February 3, 1959 in a desolate farm field on the outskirts of Mason City, Iowa.
The crash killed “Rock N’ Rollers” Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
Fifty-four years later, the tragic day will again be memorialized in a musical celebration at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa – a celebration which began in 1979.
For 34 years this unique phenomenon has drawn worldwide early rock fans to this small Iowa town in the dead of winter. Reliving “The Winter Dance Party” tour provides a wonderfully rare opportunity. It recaptures a special era by celebrating and enjoying the music that so defined that era. But it is more than that. For this yearly celebration also serves to remind us of the historical and cultural significance of early rock.
It began on July 11, 1951 at WJW in Cleveland Ohio. Alan Freed aired the first musical program strictly devoted to rhythm and blues (R & B). Freed later coined the moniker “Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
Freed, along with the determination and commitment of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, in Memphis, Tennessee and the incredible, mesmerizing talent of Elvis Presley, brought “Rock ‘N’ Roll” to fruition.
By 1956, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard started a movement that could not be halted. Their creativity and vitality gave rise to a second wave of “Rock N’ Rollers;” Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dion and the Belmonts, Richie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly.
But there would be a price to pay for all that creativity and vitality.
From its inception early rock was targeted for destruction. Racial hatred ran rampant in America in the 1950’s. The racists along with many mainstream Americas were horrified that this previously banned black music had successfully found its way into mainstream America. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, stated publicly that next to Communism early rock was the single biggest threat to America. They were determined to stop it. 1959 had become the pivotal year for their assault.
Elvis was tucked neatly away in Germany serving Uncle Sam. Little Richard had dedicated his life to the Lord and was absent from the music scene. Chuck Berry’s credibility took serious hits when he was tagged with a jail bird image; Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13 year old cousin; Carl Perkins was recovering from an auto accident and a plane carrying Richie Valens, “The Big Bopper” and Buddy Holly crashed killing them all.
In addition, by 1959 an onslaught of demolition charges designed to disgrace the music and everyone involved with it had been strategically placed. All that was needed was a push on the plunger of the detonator. That came in the form of a racially motivated payola scandal spearheaded by the federal government.
Payola, up to this point, was like jay walking. It was prevalent but of no real concern. As Mel Karmazin, the former head of infinity Broadcasting and CBS noted, “every radio comes equipped with an on/off switch” clearly intimating that nobody in their right mind was going to play a lame record just because they were paid.
Nevertheless, Alan Freed was arrested, pleaded guilty, was blacklisted from broadcasting and died broke in 1965. In Chicago Phil Lind received death threats and needed police protection. Les Paul and Bobby Darin had to defend themselves against baseless charges. Dick Clark barely avoided prosecution by demonstrating that every song he played was based on popularity while divesting himself of interests in various record companies. Many other disc jockeys were fired while others quit before the long arm of racism could reach them.
Gradually and thoroughly the passion and raw sound, the hard edges, the strong regional accents, that defined early rock were clubbed into submission. By the early sixties the music had died.
Don McLean’s 1972 hit recording “American Pie” laments not just the loss of the rock stars, but the loss of the music. McLean longs for the happiness and security of those sweet, humble days of our youth. It is a simple melancholy, a lament, that the “music wouldn't play” anymore.
While the vitality and creativity of early rock were short-lived, its impact has endured. Early rock continues to inspire musicians and composers while leaving an indelible mark on our culture and society. For early rock’s true legacy extends way beyond the music. It is a legacy of commitment fueled by courage and character that aided in a cultural awakening – an awakening that provided greater access for blacks into mainstream American society. Clear Lake, in its truest essence, represents this legacy…a legacy that should be forever celebrated and for which we should be eternally grateful.
Phil Malat is a columnist for KSTP.com.