or, How The Great American Songbook Survived the Onslaught Of Rock & Roll
In the middle of the 1950s the monolithic music industry, centered in New York, got a rude awakening with the coming of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and their legion of rude rockers, creatures from the hinterlands and South, hitherto only recognized by Tin Pan Alley in songs concerning Mammy and Alabammy.
On top of this black urban R&B conjoined with hillbilly music to create the phenomenon of Rock & Roll. Abandoned were internal rhymes and literary references, together with impressionist harmonies and jazz precision.
Now it was songs like "Peggy Sue" that repeated her name 18 times, songs full of false rhymes set to no more than three chords. The music publishers, men of paper rather than shellac or vinyl, cried conspiracy by the new breed of disc jockeys and BMI, the radio-formed agency that licensed this new music. Could the Soviets be lurking too, eager to crush American freedom of choice?
Sub-committees were formed, hearings were held, old-time songwriters and Southern governors testified. Sinatra opined to the press that R&R was music for the switchblade set; Crosby smelled something fishy. In 1959 the Payola Investigations nailed two hundred DJs. And rock sailed on, to complete its conquest in the Swinging Sixties.
In retrospect this looks like a cultural war rather than musical one. The outcry from the Broadway and Alley establishment was a cry from the heart not the pocket book—a threat by the blue-jeaned to the civilized life of cocktails for two in a small hotel in Manhattan.
For, as it turned out, in the Billboard Top Ten of the Rocking Fifties there wasn’t a single rocker song. Instead there were revivals of ballads from the 1920s (“Who’s Sorry Now?” and 1930s (“Love Letters In The Sand” and even a German revue number (Mack The Knife) And riding high through all this commotion were the bestselling LPs of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra celebrating and preserving the Great American Songbook.