NOTE: The end of this post includes a number of songs. You might want to scroll down, get the music started, and come back to the top to begin reading. Then you’ll have a multimedia extravaganza!
Louie Armstrong once said, “There’s good music and there’s bad music; I like good music.” When I was growing up, that was probably the biggest distinction. Good music was played on the radio; bad music wasn’t. Prior to the “Payola” scandal, the decisions determining which was good and which was bad were left up to the disc jockeys and program managers.
For the uninitiated, the “Payola” scandal broke when some reporter learned that record companies were paying disk jockeys and program managers to play the records of specific artists. I don’t know that the stations in Pittsburgh were involved or not.
As I recall, Pittsburgh had very few stations in the 40’s and 50’s. KDKA was the most well known. It had been the very first commercial radio station and broadcast election results in the 1920 Presidential election. That’s where it gained its fame and soon many other stations discovered there was money to be made.
KQV was designated ‘commercial’ shortly thereafter. According to their website, “In January 1921 the experimental station 8ZAE became known as KQV, which stood for King of the Quaker Valley. Doubleday-Hill began using the station on November 19, 1919 to sell a new technology called “radio.” The station even set up one of broadcastings’ first “request lines.” When a dealer wanted to demonstrate a wireless radio set they would call – and 8ZAE would broadcast a recording.”
Although KQV was designated as a commercial station, the company’s vice-president, G. Brown Hill, didn’t believe that radio should be a commercial enterprise. Therefore, the company did not begin selling ads until 1925.
Note that the call letters of the two stations named thus far begin with the letter K. Sometime in the 1930’s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that station call letters beginning with K would be reserved for stations west of the Mississippi River. All stations to the east of the river would use W as the first letter. However, since KDKA, KQV, and a few other stations across the country had become well known by this time, they were allowed to stay with the letters they’d been using.
Sometime in the intervening years before I became a regular listener, Pittsburgh added WCAE, WJAS, and WWSW. (“Oh, the sounds of the night when the owl takes flight and the old dog bays at the moon” is a tune I remember well from WWSW.)
As I recall, WCAE often times broadcast educational programs. I vaguely remember teachers rolling huge radios into the classroom so we could listen to something important. Of course, I long ago forgot what it was we listened to.
Back then, all of the stations played music during the day. Some continued with the music in the evening while others switched over to network programming. The network programming included Jack Benny, Fibber McGee, the Shadow, the Green Hornet, and many other classic programs.
The thing I loved the most about radio back then was that every station played every style of music… with one major exception I’ll address shortly. It was years later before stations began to specialize in country & western, rock & roll, classical, etc. (Make that two exceptions – classical music didn’t hit the airwaves until FM radios started showing up in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices.)
To demonstrate what I’m saying about musical styles being intermingled, the following is a list of the top ten songs for 1955:
- Rock Around the Clock, Bill Haley
- Ballad of Davy Crockett, Bill Hayes
- Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Perez Prado
- Melody of Love, Billy Vaughn
- Yellow Rose of Texas, Mitch Miller
- Ain’t That a Shame, Pat Boone
- Sincerely, The McGuire Sisters
- Unchained Melody, Les Baxter
- Crazy Otto Rag, Crazy Otto
- Mister Sandman, The Chordettes
The list for 1956 shows the same variety.
- Don’t be Cruel, Elvis Presley
- Great Pretender, The Platters
- My Prayer, The Platters
- Wayward Wind, Gogi Grant
- Whatever Will Be, Will Be, Doris Day
- Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley
- Lisbon Antigua, Nelson Riddle
- Canadian Sunset, Hugo Winterhalter
- Moonglow/Theme from “Picnic”, Morris Stoloff
- Honky Tonk, Bill Doggett
The merging of a wide variety of music, both vocal and instrumental, seemed quite natural. Thus, my early listening years began with the Big Band songs and progressed through soloists who had struck out on their own after getting their starts with the likes of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and other bandleaders. There were numerous musical quartets – both male and female – and a sprinkling of folk music prior to the advent of rock & roll.
That brings me to the exception mentioned above. In the late forties and early fifties, the only way a person of color could have his or her music played on the ‘acceptable’ radio stations was to ‘sound’ white, or at least have songs styled according to the standards of the day. Thus, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and a few others were able to get past the barricades and become well known artists.
Most experts will tell you that rock & roll began as ‘colored people’s’ music. I assure you, the label I just gave it may not be politically correct, but it is much less coarse than the terminology used at the time.
Before rock & roll could slip into the mainstream, the songs had to be recorded by white musicians. Slowly but surely, things changed. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, and many others soon made the line invisible. The teenagers of the time (myself included) never stopped to ask themselves the color of the artists. We simply loved the music.
To demonstrate the diversity of the music of our time, I’ve located the following hodge-podge of hits from the past. If you are around my age, the songs should bring back some memories. If you’re younger or older than me, I still think you’ll enjoy the music. Of course, I’m assuming that, to you, it’s good music. I’m also assuming that you’re like Louie Armstrong and me; you like good music!
We’ll begin with some Big Band music.
Next, we’ll listen to one of the top male quartets of the time.
The Hit Parade was a weekly radio show that successfully moved to television.
The McGuire sisters, a trio, were very popular when I was growing up.
Tony Bennett was a young sensation back in the early 1950’s.
Peter Paul & Mary introduced many of us to folk music.
Cozy Cole, a drummer in the mold of Gene Krupa, provided a different sort of music with his Topsy and Turvey.
Danny & the Juniors gave us this hit that may have been an important step toward rock & roll.
My bride chastised me for omitting the King. So, let me correct the error in my ways.
Coming soon! The turbulent sixties and how I slept through them.