Criticism of “The Devil’s Music” (Rock & Roll)

David Halberstam, in his best-selling history of the times, The Fifties, referring to rock & roll observed, “A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music. There was nothing the parents could do: This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it.” (Halberstam at 473) Adults believed rock & roll was born from a spirit of rebellion that questioned authority and the traditional morality of the Christian church. And for many Christian leaders, it was clear that rock music paved the way to damnation. To them, “everything about Rock & Roll clearly spoke of the “Devil’s Music” – from its roots in African-American culture to its hip-shimmying rhythms and less-than-pious lyrics. Many saw rock music as a sign of cultural and moral decline, and some even believed to hear hidden satanic messages in its lyrics. But, even as fundamentalist preachers waged war against Rock & Roll, the young generation was raising rock music to a new religion. Church pews emptied, and nightclubs and concert venues filled.” (Id.)

People from the traditional music world had the same kind of negative reactions to Rock & Roll as did parents and preachers. Pablo Casals, the world famous cellist, said that “Rock and Roll was poison put to sound.” Mitch Miller, head of Artists & Repertoire for Columbia Records, who single-handedly kept rock off the label for 11 years, called Rock & Roll “the comic books of music.” He told a disc-jockey convention in 1958, “Adults all over the land are yearning for a pause in the day’s cacophony…. I, too, believe that youth must be served, but how about some music for the rest of us?” Frank Sinatra lambasted Rock & Roll as “[T]he most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear…. It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic retardation and sly, lewd dirty lyrics. It manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” (Glenn C. Altschuler, “All Shook Up: How Rock ‘N’ Roll Changed America,” Quoted in p. 10 of doctoral treatise.)

For grown-ups, Rock & Roll was linked to almost every social problem imaginable. The Rock & Roll scare focused on teenage violence, drinking, outlandish behavior, sex, and other forms of delinquent conduct. The name they gave to the behavior caused by the new music was “juvenile delinquency.” “Juvenile delinquency” was a national topic of discussion, even attracting the attention of the U.S. Congress. There was proposed legislation in Congress in 1957 that song lyrics be screened and altered by a review committee before being broadcast or offered for sale. That legislation, which implicated free speech concerns, never became law, but it was a sign of the times and part of the broader cultural concern then revolving around gangs and juvenile delinquency. Some charged that the new music was sent to America by communists as part of their plot to conquer the United States. In 1955, Houston’s Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Commission banned more than 30 songs, many by black artists.

Rock & Roll lyrics (called “leerics” by critics) often contained sexual connotation. This suggestive choice of words made the teens want to listen to it more because their parents did not approve and teens felt like they had something to belong to. Many parents at the time gave their children ultimatums to stop listening to the music, but it was unsuccessful. Parents feared that their children would start to act and dress like these musicians. So, parents tried to ban Rock & Roll music from many radio stations at the time. Bruce Tucker author of “Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Postmodernism, Popular Culture, and the Emergence of Rock and Roll” says in his journal “Urging juke box operators to purge “immoral” records…brings out animalism and vulgarity” (40-41).

In response to violence at Rock & Roll shows many public officials started banning rock shows in cities all across America. One example took place in San Jose, California, when the town fathers refused to give permits to concerts in public buildings. In Jersey City, New Jersey, the city council refused to give a permit for a Bill Haley and the Comets concert. Soon laws went beyond just restricting concerts. In San Antonio, Texas, rock music was prohibited from jukeboxes at municipal swimming pools. Time magazine reported: “In San Antonio, rock ‘n ‘roll was banned from city swimming pool jukeboxes because, said the city council, its primitive beat attracted ‘undesirable elements’ given to practicing their spastic gyrations in abbreviated bathing suits.” The attacks against Rock & Roll continued to mount in the print news media. Time warned its readers about the allegiance of teenagers to rock performers concerts that “bear passing resemblance to Hitler’s mass meetings.” In the New York Times, psychiatrist Francis Braceland called Rock & Roll a “communicable disease.”

Santa Cruz, CA captured national attention for its response to the so-called Rock & Roll crisis. On June 3, 1956, reacting to a dance party the previous evening where some 200 teenagers had packed the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium to dance to the music of Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra, the city council of Santa Cruz announced a total ban on Rock & Roll at public gatherings, calling the music “Detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.” Santa Cruz police had entered the auditorium just past midnight to check on the event, and what they found, according to Lieutenant Richard Overton, was a crowd “engaged in suggestive, stimulating and tantalizing motions induced by the provocative rhythms of an all-negro band.” Two weeks later in its June 18, 1956 issue, Time magazine reported on a similar ban enacted in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where the city council’s fear of “undesirable elements” echoed the not-so-thinly-veiled concerns of Santa Cruz authorities over the racially integrated nature of the event.

Rock & Roll was also banned in Boston and five other Northeast cities in 1958 after an alleged riot broke out following the Big Beat Show hosted by Alan Freed. On May 3, 1958, The Big Beat Show, starring Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Chuck Berry, Jo-Anne Campbell and Jerry Lee Lewis, took over the stage at the Boston Arena. Jerry Lee Lewis and his band had the kids dancing in the aisles, but the police forced Freed to stop the show and make the audience sit down. Then, Chuck Berry came on stage to close the show. Again, the kids danced in the aisles. Again, the police forced Freed to make them sit down. The police officers refused to dim the houselights. At that point, fighting broke out and kids started throwing chairs at each other. Freed got blamed for inciting the melee. Boston Mayor John B. Hynes announced: “These so-called musical programs are a disgrace and must be stopped. As far as I’m concerned, Boston has seen the last of them.” The News Journal reported about the “raucous, undulating rhythms that teen-agers call cool.” New Britain, Conn. banned rock & roll, too. Troy, N.Y., and Newark, N.J., cancelled shows and Providence’s mayor said he’d only allow Alan Freed to hold a scheduled concert under severe restrictions.

Much of this anti-rock & roll sentiment was fueled by overt racism and fears of miscegenation. As Deena Weinstein concludes “… white adolescents were adopting black cultural styles and black heroes [which meant] … miscegenation, racial mixing, and was seen as a rebellious act against the dominant group.” (Weinstein at 95.) Asa Carter, leader of the white supremacist North Alabama Citizens Council, garnered attention from national news media for his campaign to ban Rock & Roll, which he described as an NAACP plot to “mongrelize America.” In 1956, the North Alabama White Citizens Council declared that bebop and Rock & Roll and other “negro music” appealed to “the base in man and brought out animalism and vulgarity.” Members of Carter’s North Alabama Citizens Council jumped on stage and attacked Nat King Cole at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama in 1956 and also picketed a concert featuring the Platters, LaVern Baker, Bo Diddley, and Bill Haley, with signs reading, “NAACP says integration, rock & roll, rock & roll,” “Jungle music promotes integration,” and “Jungle music aids delinquency.”

While Carter and his White Citizens’ Council received the most attention, segregationists across the South picketed Rock & Roll concerts, and city officials in Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia passed regulations prohibiting interracial concerts and dances. In the West, a white supremacist group in Inglewood, California published fliers with pictures of young black men and white women dancing, with captions reading, “Boy meets girl…be-bop style” and “Total Mongrelization.” As the Rock & Roll controversy escalated, radio stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, Lubbock, and Cincinnati refused to play Rock & Roll. These protests received national coverage in magazines like Time, Newsweek, Life, and Look, as well as major newspapers like the New York Times. Elsewhere in the U.S., the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) was encouraging bans on Rock & Roll among its members. A poster by the Citizens Counsel of Greater New Orleans Inc. read “NOTICE! STOP! Help Save the Youth of America, Don’t Buy Negro Records (If you don’t want to serve negroes in your place of business, then do not have negro music on your jukebox or listen to negro records on the radio.) The screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of the white youth in America….”

An editorial in Billboard Magazine in September 1954 alerted readers to the suggestive “leerics” and a backlash mounted. Radio stations in Memphis (Tennessee), Mobile (Alabama), Shenandoah (Iowa), and throughout the country escalated their censorship. Six Boston radio stations, meeting with local journalists and religious leaders, formed their own review board. Disc jockeys from throughout the country vowed to play none of the suspect records, generally by black performers on independent labels. Radio stations banned some records and the police in Memphis confiscated jukeboxes and fined the operators. Billboard, followed by the other trade paper, Variety, continued the onslaught, reinforced by the Music Publishers’ Protective Association (MPPA), representing the major publishing companies, which condemned “dirty” songs. The specific attack on “leerics” peaked in 1955, however, as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and other black performers broke into the white market and demonstrated the commercial reach of Rock & Roll.

For the rest of the decade the attack broadened, to encompass a whole host of fears and concerns. In 1957, Chicago’s Cardinal Stritch banned popular music from all Catholic schools due to concerns about the effects of the “hedonistic, tribal rhythms” of Rock & Roll music. (Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands and Censored Songs, Peter Blecha, Hal Leonard Corporation, pg. 26.) The television and radio networks, except for ABC, tried to restrict much of the music including songs by Bobby Darin, the Coasters, even Elvis. The dominant record companies shied away from suggestive, rowdy songs, often by black performers, but they were increasingly challenged by the independent labels, such as Apollo, Savoy, Atlantic, Vee-Jay, which had no such qualms. The establishment tried to close ranks, which became progressively difficult as both white and black adolescents, in cities and suburbs, small towns and rural areas, patronized the radio programs and music stores that featured the new sounds.

The following songs are examples of songs that were the subject of societal censorship during the Fifties. They provide examples of the extent of critical reach of the establishment at that time.

“Splish Splash” – Bobby Darin (1958)

This was a whimsical nonsense song. The singer was “relaxing in the tub” at his apartment when he suddenly heard music coming from the other room. He hops out of the water to check things out, “I wrapped a towel around me and I opened the door,” only to discover a party going on. And to make things even more scandalous, he joins the party wearing only a towel wrapped around him! In the second verse, he does eventually put on his dancin’ shoes and join the celebration. But he never mentions the rest of his clothes! The image that was conjured up in the minds of the critics was enough to get some radio stations to stop playing the catchy teen tune.

“Rumble” – Link Wray (1958)

This song was banned because of its title alone. This was an instrumental tune that didn’t even have lyrics! The title alone was enough to ban this rockabilly staple, as “Rumble” was thought to incite violence and “juvenile delinquency. One story has it that the title “Rumble” was adopted because the song reminded the music producer’s daughter of West Side Story, a popular stage play about rival New York street gangs. West Side Story had debuted on Broadway in 1957 and “rumble” was then the popular slang term for “gang fight.” After its release in 1958, several radio markets in the U.S., including Boston and New York banned the song from airwaves. Worried that the song glorified gangs and juvenile delinquency, the stations opted not to air it. Even Dick Clark of American Bandstand, the popular TV dance show out of Philadelphia, was careful to avoid mentioning the song’s title when he introduced the band as guests in May 1958. The song became a huge hit, rising to No. 16 in May 1958 and remaining in the Top 40 for 10 weeks.

“Wake Up Little Susie” – The Everly Brothers (1955)

This song is explicitly about how innocent actions could be misconstrued as improper behavior in the stiff 1950s. The lyrics describe a teenage couple who wake up frantically at 4:00 a.m. after innocently falling asleep following their movie date. The song was banned on radio stations in the entire Boston area. Maybe they didn’t really listen to the lyrics or maybe they were like the teenage couple’s friends and said, “Oo la la!” at the thought of the pair dozing off at the movie theatre.

“Great Balls Of Fire” – Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)

“Great Balls of Fire” was a song that turned an apocalyptic biblical phrase into a sexually charged teen love song that was banned by many radio stations, but nevertheless climbed to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1957.

Honey Love” – The Drifters 1954

“Honey Love” was released by The Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter in 1954. It was not only banned from the radio, it actually instigated several police raids in Memphis. Memphis police thought it had overly suggestive lyrics. More specifically, they weren’t sure what the word “it” referred to in the song (“I need it, I need it when the moon is bright. I need it, I need it when you hold me tight”). As a result, the tune was banned from jukeboxes throughout the city and cops actually confiscated copies of the record.

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” – The Shirelles (1960)

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” made history by becoming the first No. 1 track on the Billboard Hot 100 by a black female musical group. Released in 1960, the song was about the day after a woman was out with a man the night prior. Considering the times, the lyrics were seen as salacious and the song was banned by radio stations, yet still managing to sell over 1 million copies.

“Charlie Brown” – The Coasters (1957)

This popular song performed by The Coasters was banned by the BBC for an interesting reason. The BBC banned this song because it talked about all of Charlie Brown’s bad behavior … though, the particular lyric that caused the problem might surprise you. It wasn’t about smoking (“I smell smoke in the auditorium”) or vandalization (“Who’s always writing on the walls”). No, the word that tipped the scales for this song was “spitball.” The BBC explained that they didn’t want to encourage school children to partake in this most offensive of behaviors. The ban didn’t last long, but still … interesting to see where the BBC stands on spitballs!