Dick Clark’s American Bandstand premiered on this day in 1957. Rock ‘n’ roll had exploded into the mainstream the year before, with the stratospheric rise of Elvis Presley, culminating in three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the fall of 1956 and early winter of 1957. If Ed Sullivan allowed you on his show (even if he made the decision to have you filmed from the waist up, because God forbid your sexual wiggles came through the television screen), it meant that middle-class white-bread regular-old America was starting to come around. It was an announcement: “Here is what the youth of today is freaking out about. Let’s take a look.”
Context is important: People were terrified of Elvis, terrified of what he represented (to those who didn’t “get it”, he was a dumb lascivious grease-bomb with a hick-ish Southern accent and a Pentecostal background that made him even more “other”. The condescension from Yankee writers was breathtaking.) The outcry against him was ferocious and omnipresent. Not only was Elvis himself perceived as scary, the affect he had on girls was destabilizing to the entire world, pure and simple. If girls react like this, what’s next? Where did all these SCREAMS come from? Can we … stop it? Nobody freaked out when male G.I.s covered the walls of their barracks with Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth. But girls screaming and rioting about a singer got everyone’s attention. (The world, sadly, has not changed. Boys can do what they want, culturally, and obsess on what they want. And, except for video games and how they allegedly “cause” violence, the entire culture does not get worried and concern-trolly about the passions of boys. But whatever girls decide to be passionate about – en masse – is seen as everyone’s business. Let’s count the think-pieces about 50 Shades of Gray and what it means, shall we? Women like sex and have fantasies about it. If this is in any way NEWS to you, you have some serious issues.) There is very little insightful critical analysis written about Elvis in those first couple of years, because the journalists (“journalists”) came from the Northeast, mainly, asked rude questions about “Holy Rollers” and seemed mesmerized by the sight of girls going crazy and wanted to know if Elvis was MEANING to cause these unsightly and scary responses in girls. This is not an exaggeration. Nobody even cared to dig into WHAT Elvis was doing with his MUSIC because the “girls girls girls” issue took up all the oxygen. It’s truly bizarre and just an indication of how massive the upheaval really was.
(Kids, on the other hand, understood everything. They couldn’t have written a thesis about it, but they knew what was going on.)
Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show was a HUGE cultural deal, even more so than the Beatles’ first appearance almost a decade later. Because Elvis was the first. The doors busted down. Little Richard (and others, many others) said that Elvis going mainstream opened the doors for them. Before Elvis, they had been relegated to what were known as “race stations,” radio stations that only played black music, many of which were owned by black people, run by black people, with black DJs, and all the rest. After Elvis, the black musicians of the day moved onto mainstream radio. (This is one of the reasons why the “cultural appropriation” conversation can get annoying if it’s too prescriptive. All kinds of unofficial blending goes on in culture, a two/three/four-way current. Joyce Millman just addressed this, beautifully, in her essay about Amy Winehouse.) Besides, you cannot segregate the air waves, which is one of the most fascinating elements of black radio stations back in those days. There are many great articles about the advent of black-run radio stations, and what that meant, economically and culturally – not just to white kids, who tuned in overwhelmingly to listen to the music played – but to the black people who ran those businesses and were able to get their message out and connect their community to one another. Everything is political, even in something as seemingly benign as running a radio station. It was a platform, a place to be heard. And if white kids were tuning in to “race” radio stations, the opposite was true as well. Folks like Ray Charles grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and you can hear that influence in his music for sure, and the same is true for others of his generation. There was no money, and nothing much else to DO, especially in small towns, rural areas, so people sat around and listened to radio programs. Radio connected people of like-mindedness, but also connected people from different worlds, different regions, opening up space around what was happening, culturally, socially, politically. That growth process was already in place when Elvis entered the scene.
And in 1954/55/56, the classifications and separations started to collapse. And with that collapse came an infinite amount of space. As Lester Bangs wrote in his famous obituary for Elvis:
I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates.
The artists who came before Elvis, the ones who inspired him, knew all this. Had been doing this already, thrilling their own respective groups. But it took one singular figure to bring the message (“I heard the news! There’s a good rockin’ tonight!”) to the rest of us.
In 1957, the year after the roof blew off, television was already taking over – not replacing radio, but altering the whole conversation. Dick Clark started his American Bandstand out of Philadelphia, a show about popular music, with a live audience, “dance parties,” musical guests, and a playlist of jukebox favorites. He opened the first broadcast playing Jerry Lee Lewis’ monster hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”
Personal side note: Huey Lewis came out with an album called “Four Chords and Several Years Ago,” where he covered all the r&b songs that influenced him. One day in Chicago, my friend Ann Marie was driving home from work and heard a call from a local radio station for extras in a Huey Lewis video. She called me. “WE HAVE TO DO THIS.” My response: “COME PICK ME UP IMMEDIATELY.” Once at the radio station, we joined the throngs. The video was going to be a black-and-white tribute to American Bandstand, so they wanted all of us to look period-appropriate (that had been mentioned in the original radio call). So Ann Marie and I pulled out our pedal pushers and little striped tops – and then we were dragged into hair and makeup and given semi-beehives, etc. There were scaffolds set up around the stage, a la American Bandstand, and Huey played live. It was like an actual concert. We danced ALL DAY up on those scaffolds. It took some doing to not get exhausted, and Huey kept us all invigorated by playing many of his beloved hits. It was a great experience. Here’s the clip of the video. I have looked for us, but I can’t really see us. We were on the first level of the scaffold, directly to Huey’s left.
Dick Clark was no dummy: he made sure the show was aired in the afternoon, right when kids got home from school. It became Appointment Television for American teenagers. You could watch new music, hear new artists, see your favorites perform, and participate in the frenzy of rock ‘n’ roll, which was still exploding, outward and outward and outward, a Big Bang Theory of culture. Elvis had already moved on, his explosion was so powerful (Martin Sheen made the comment that Elvis reached the sun – what was it like up there? Who else knew but Elvis?), but many many more followed in his wake.
Here is Jerry Lee Lewis on American Bandstand in 1957, performing “Great Balls of Fire.”
The crazy had gone mainstream.