Home Of The Hard Rockin' Chicken Fried Steak
World War II took a reluctant nation, the United States, and made it a world power. Throughout the early 20th century, the U.S. sphere of influence had expanded but the nation was primarily concerned with minding its own business and letting the rest of the world hobble along on its own. Following the first World War, where the U.S. was a late and reluctant participant, President Woodrow Wilson attempted to carve a leadership role for the U.S. in the League of Nations (a forerunner of the United Nations). His efforts were summarily rejected. The U.S. wanted no part of a world organization.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a major naval instillation in the then territory of Hawaii, on December 7th, 1941 was a major turning point. The battle against the Japanese and Nazi Germany was an epic struggle that made the U.S. the leader of the free world.
America has always been riddled by contradictions. Freedom loving with a long history of suppression. Equal opportunity yet there’s segregation and racism. But there were other battles to deal with. The U.S., along with immeasurable help and sacrifice from allies, had won WWII. War had finally lifted the U.S. out of a depression that neither government or business could beat. Now safely home, the American Century was underway. It was felt it would take a century for the rest of the world, destroyed by war, to catch up. Surprisingly, it the world, or certain parts of it, were far quicker on the uptake. It hardly seemed fair. Once the evil Nazis were defeated, a new enemy, the Soviet Union, became the dread. To battle this “evil” Americans had to be vigilant.
The threat appeared very real. The Soviets occupied Eastern Europe - Poland, Hungry, Yugoslavia, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. But the first shots fired to contain were not in Europe but Asia. The Korean War started when the communist North invaded the democratic South. It was a miserable war (or police action) in a miserable place but it was the first bulwark in the battle against communism.
There was another partitioned nation in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, a former French colony, would explode with lethal consequences a decade later.
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” That question struck fear into the hearts of millions in the 1950s, even those who were never asked. Some three decades earlier, Russia’s collapse during the waning months of World War I began a social experiment, that was ultimately doomed to failure (though few suspected it at the time), called communism. Russia obliterated its czarist past, even changing the country’s name to the Soviet Union. But attempts to create a “worker’s paradise” only resulted in a repressive regime with Joseph Stalin at the helm. And though the Soviet Union sided with allies in the battle against Nazi Germany in World War II, their quick absorption of Eastern Europe, in part to create a buffer against any further invasion from the west, was rightly met with fear and suspicion. It looked as though the Soviets were out for world domination. Soon an epic, four decade long struggle ensued between the God-fearing defenders of freedom and democracy (otherwise known as the U.S., western Europe, Canada and Japan – to name a few) and the godless communists led by the Soviet Union and later the People’s Republic of China. While this was largely a cold war, it was not without its hot spots – most notably Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Though both sides built incredible arsenals of nuclear weapons they mercifully appeared reluctant to use them. The cost was too great. Still, that didn’t stop either side from using spies, spy planes, informers and other information seeking devices to keep track of the other side. Who would prevail? Looking on the balance sheet, things looked good for the U.S. It had a far more prosperous economic structure, a larger more effective military and, at the time, a good reputation globally. If the Soviets were looking for an advantage, and they were, how would they go about achieving it? Spies, agents, double agents and the like were great for novel but short on results. Besides the whole Cold War with its arms build up and infrastructure was an enormous cost. One nations fighting for survival, as the Soviets were, could ill afford. Still, back in those days there had to be at least one bright light in the Kremlin who advocated “do nothing.” Let the Americans destroy themselves. Given time, it looked as though that was exactly what they were going to do.
In post-war America, people had, for the first time in a long time, money to spend there were countless businesses with products ranging from necessary to frivolous who wanted to part the unsuspecting rubes from their dollars. This new thing called television looked like the perfect way to reach these people and tell them about all sorts of products and services. Unfortunately, few Americans, or anybody else, would sit in front of a T.V. and watch an uninterrupted stream of commercials. There had to be entertainment. Movie stars were rarified creatures who would hardly deign to appear weekly in people’s homes. So the call went out to radio stars. But with the exception of Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Burns & Allen and a few others, radio stars had a tough time making the transition from a verbal to visual medium. “Television is called a ‘medium’,” Fred Allen, radio star and T.V. flop, once famously quipped, “because nothing on it is well done.”
Television made stars out of struggling comedians (Milton Berle, Sid Caeser and Phil Slivers) and B-movie actors/actresses (Lucille Ball, Walter Brennan and Jackie Gleason). In those early days T.V. programming consisted of situation comedies (“I Love Lucy”), quiz shows (“You Bet Your Life”) and variety shows. The latter, lifted straight from the long gone vaudeville and the rawer, rougher burlesque, featured a master of ceremonies, often a comedian and a long list of acts doing everything imaginable to entertain the audience. These shows often ran for an hour or ninety minutes each week and burned through an enormous amount of talent.
But T.V. was not limited to fluff. In 1952, Senator Nixon, who had only been elected to Congress six years earlier was nominated by the Republican Party as Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower’s vice-president. Eisenhower, the allied commander in Europe during WWII was close to God in some people’s mind. By latching his star to someone so popular it look as though Nixon’s career was made. But then accusations emerged that Nixon had created a “slush fund” where campaign contributions were available for personal use. The controversy led to calls for Nixon to resign from the ticket, political suicide. Ike was of a mind to dump Nixon but gave the kid a chance. Nixon would go on T.V. and address the nation. If the American people accepted Nixon, Ike would too.
In prime time, Nixon spoke to the nation. Denying that he was living better than he should he claimed his wife Pat wore “a good Republican cloth (cheap) coat.” This was back in the day when Republicans were modest middle Americans. Toward the end of the speech, Nixon did finally admit that he did take one contribution for personal use. It seems a supporter had given his family a cocker spaniel named “Checkers” and this animal was the beloved pet of his daughter Tricia and Julie. Coming across humbled but not beaten, strong but not arrogant, Nixon won over the American people and saved his political hide. A few months later, he was vice-president of the United States. The “Checkers” speech was the best of Nixon’s career. Too bad, he could a couple more of those speeches during the political difficulties in endured over the next two decades.
If television could save, it could also destroy. The threat of communism had scared the nation and a little known Republican senator rode that fear to the hilt. Joe McCarthy from the relatively small state of Wisconsin was troubled by his lack of prestige and power. Unlike senators from states like the fast growing California or New York, McCarthy didn’t have the power to be a king maker or even a king himself. Calling himself “congress’ tail-gunner” (after his WWII service) McCarthy owned the anti-communist movement. He claimed to possess a list of communists and communist sympathizers in the U.S. State Department. The ever changing number of people on the list gave Americans the clear impression that communists, under control of the Soviet Union, had infiltrated the highest reaches of government. Truthfully, finding people who had once attended a communist meeting was not all that difficult. During the Great Depression, when capitalism ditched America, many looked for an alternative. Several of those who attended the communist meetings, became government witnesses to save themselves, and each was blessed with impeccable memory able to finger others. McCarthy conducted senate hearings ostensibly to root out communism but they actually served as a personal publicity platform. People lost their jobs, under a cloud of unproven accusations. Actors and writers were blacklisted, unable to find work while the newspapers faithfully reported the latest McCarthy charge. And despite the “witch hunt” many Americans supported McCarthy’s efforts.
McCarthy, having got just about all the milage he could out of defaming the State Department, moved on to the Army. The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. On camera McCarthy was revealed to be a mean spirited, nasty bully. In short order, public opinion turned against McCarthy’s crusade. So much so, that the senate finally got up the gumption to shut down McCarthy’s circus. Ruined, he ran out his term and died shortly thereafter. While both Nixon and McCarthy provided “high drama,” the pros at this sort of thing, Hollywood, was desperately trying to save itself.
Predictions were T.V. would kill the movies. The film studios weren’t about to let that happen. At least without a fight. They created expensive blockbusters that T.V. couldn’t afford to replicate. Nice idea, expect for one thing. Big expensive films could bomb, and in doing so, take the studio down with them. Hollywood’s next idea was to make films for a specific audience with themes that straight-laced T.V. wouldn’t touch. Marlon Brando played brutish thugs in “A Street Car Named Desire” and “On The Waterfront.” In between those films Brando had another defining role as the motorcycle gang leader in “The Wild One.” There is one scene where a local girl innocently asks “Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando cocks his head and replies “Whatta got?” In another scene, a rival gang leader, played by Lee Marvin, sarcastically welcomes Johnny back into the fold. Marvin’s character lists all the gangs, using their unconventional names, that have missed Johnny. Finally, he concludes by saying, “hey even the Beetles missed you.” Thousands of miles away from Hollywood, John Lennon sat in a movie theater and heard that line, logging away the name “the Beetles” for future use.
Brando, though a great actor, physically compelling and handsome, he didn’t look like a typical teen. Though popular, he didn’t rivet the teen audience. But James Dean did. In his debut film “Rebel Without A Cause” Dean played the troubled teen (a basically good kid who can’t catch a break) to perfection. The film made Dean a star and a heartthrob. In his next film, “East Of Eden,” Dean played another troubled youth. This time a young man fighting for his father’s recognition and love. “Giant” had Dean playing an opportunistic outsider.
Later in life, as his movie roles became crass and his waste expanded, Brando became something of a joke. Dean didn’t suffer such a fate – only something worse. Shortly after completing “Giant” Dean crashed his sports car and was killed, forever freezing his image in time. Fans threatened the studio telling them they shouldn’t cut one of Dean’s scenes from the film.
While creating films take played on teen angst and rebellion Hollywood hit the mark squarely with “Blackboard Jungle.” Starring Glenn Ford, Vic Morrow, and Sidney Portier, the film follows a teacher in a tough middle school filled with juvenile delinquents. But the big news was a song in the soundtrack “Rock Around The Clock.” The song was so wild, so crazy that it actually caused riots in movie theaters. One listen to “Rock Around The Clock” and it’s easy to realize that it didn’t take much to set people off in those days. Twenty years later, the song was used as the theme for the sitcom “Happy Days.” By then it had become safe nostalgia but back in the day it was crazy man, crazy.
Rock N’ Roll was an accidental vehicle for social change, throwing off the staid and stuffy cultural views and bridging a vast racial gap that would begin to bend, however reluctantly, toward respect and equality. Nobody could have planned it but there it was.
Or was Rock N’ Roll a really commie plot? Gnawing away at America core with this “jungle music.” Eating away at America’s values until it was ripe for the picking. If the commies were actually that smart they probably would have ruled the world. It turned out the commies hated, and were more fearful, of Rock than the west. In the end, those commies just weren’t that clever. But that didn’t stop people from suspecting they were. And here is where racism and communist fears collided.
In ‘54 the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of “separate but equal was unconstitutional.” A policy had developed, throughout the country but predominately in the South, whereby whites went to white schools and blacks went to blacks schools. And this was OK because the schools may be separate bu they were equal. Of course, they weren’t. And long after many thought it was overdue, the court saw through the racist facade. The ruling, though just, sent whites fleeing for the suburbs. Ramifications were going to be felt the next decade for sure.
Fearing that blacks, who were socially, economically and educationally disadvantaged, were susceptible to communist propaganda, many white racists organizations denounced Rock N’ Roll because they saw it as an extension of black culture, which they saw as far inferior to the mainstream God-fearing white culture. The White Citizen’s Council (the name says it all) went so far as to claim that “Rock N’ Roll was using Negro rhythms to denigrate American youth.”
An enterprising Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed promoted shows featuring this new hopped-up music. Searching for something to call this new music he came upon “Rock N’ Roll” a crude old Blues slang for sex. An aging Country crooner named Bill Haley (and his Comets) cemented the term with their worldwide hit “Rock Around The Clock.” But all that was a mere prelude to the next event, the arrival of Elvis Presley.
Americans were taught to live with moderation. The government financed films taught the great un-washed how to behave at home and in public. It was all very constraining, constricting and wholly unrealistic.
Meanwhile, wild-eyed southern boys, raised on Country, but deeply influenced by Gospel and R&B, began sharpening the beat, as a new sound took shape. On the other side of the tracks, R & B musicians were compressing the 12-bar Blues format into a tight, concise, undeniable frenzy. Uptempo Country and hopped up R&B were headed on a collision course. These two groups got to the same place from different directions, without reference to class or economic status - most were poor anyway - their music burst out of the South and became Rock 'N' Roll. The music was fun and liberating and America’s youth, much to their parent’s consternation, responded enthusiastically.
Elvis Presley kicked open the door and in his wake countless act followed. Sam Phillips thought he could “make a million” if he could find a white guy who could sing black. Today, if the thought that Elvis sounds black seems unfathomable, it wasn’t then. And it only goes to show how deep segregation cut.
Little Richard, who’d seen his songs turned into huge hits by the white, and slick, barely talented Pat Boone, now was hitting the pop charts on his own. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino, R&B staples, were now pop heros. Black music, if not acceptable was no tolerable. Presley also opened the door to a slew of white boys looking for a chance. They included Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
The first blast of Rock n' Roll lasted from 1955 to 1958. By then, Elvis was in the army, Little Richard had given up music to become a minister, Chuck Berry found himself in trouble with the law - and not for the last time, and Jerry Lee Lewis was ostracized for marrying his 13 year old cousin. All would return in the ‘60s. They were the lucky ones. Buddy Holly, died in a plane crash and Eddie Cochran in a car wreck. From the beginning, it was clear the Rock ‘n’ Roll road was a tough one.