Remembering the beginning of R&R
Willis Webb

R&R. No, not the military’s Rest and Relaxation leave, but Rock and Roll, the leave-your-senses rage that began in the 1950s.

Being a teenager is always challenging, but being one in the early 1950s in a small city where the new pastor of the town’s largest church railed against the evil of dancing, was inhibiting to teens to say the least.

Here we were about to have the junior-senior prom and 20 of us were taking “ballroom dancing” classes after school. Rock & Roll had just taken hold of our generation and we’d seen some teens from a neighboring town doing the “dirty bop.” Describing the dirty bop would be difficult in print but we knew we weren’t going to be able to do that at the prom where there would be (gasp!) adult chaperones.

An enterprising music teacher advertised dance classes. Most folks figured she did so to take advantage of the upcoming prom and a dearth of dance knowledge among the town’s teens. S o, a bunch of us signed up for dance classes which advertised that we’d not only learn the two-step but a thing the dance instructor called the Frisco. Turns out the Frisco was what teens of my era called the Jitterbug.

It was really hip to tune in, after midnight, to Randy’s Record Shop on a Gallatin, Tennessee clear channel radio station. They played R& R for several hours — Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holley, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and the Big Bopper, among many.

Fifties teens were so into rock and roll. Riding around on country roads, listening to Randy’s, mesmerized us. It wasn’t unusual to be cruising and when a favorite hit tune blared from the car radio, we’d stop, get out of the car and jitterbug on the road. Don’t tell me today’s teens are wild and crazy. It’s a natural phenomenon of the age.

R&R soon invaded television in the form of Dick Clark and his American Bandstand, an afternoon program that was live from Philadelphia and featured teenagers dancing. Naturally they did the two-step to those slow numbers but it was real cool jitterbugging to the “new” rock and roll music. Clark was a glorified disc jockey (deejay) who played records, watched the teens dance and conducted interviews .

I thought Clark was great and it wasn’t until decades later that I learned the most famous DJ on television and radio was someone named Alan Freed (the Moondoggie), who started in Cleveland (that’s Ohio, not Texas) and, of course, climbed to the top in New York. I never saw him.

Rock and roll has survived and grown because it incorporated parts of other musical genres — blues, country, jazz, gospel and folk — and it was and is danceable. R&R borrowed basic chord progressions from blues, dominant string sounds from country plus white pop and Tin Pan Alley style music for dance adaptability. There’s also a jazz influence for beat, gospel for vocalizing and the social concerns expressed by folk, all wrapped up in rock and roll and it became a lasting music.

As Chuck Berry sang, “It’s gotta be rock and roll music...”

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT—A recent column about unusual names made reference to Rusty Nail, the head football coach at Class A State Champion Mart. I alluded to a Bill Nail(l), who once worked for me who had a son named Rusty. They’re not the same. Mart’s Nail is with one “l.” The Bill and Rusty Naill I knew spelled the name with two “l’s.”

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2011-02-03 digital edition

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