Music did much to bridge cultures

Published 5:42 pm Tuesday, January 15, 2019

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Whether we were listening to an early transistor radio or a one-at-a-time record player, teenagers of the 1950s and 1960s were tuned in to music of the day.

What we didn’t understand at the time was that we were also listening to a social revolution in the making, one that would positively affect the entire nation as the years went by.

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Most of us were listening to the early days of rock and roll back in the mid 1950s, locally finding it on WGH, located in Newport News. Dick Lamb, Bob Calvert and Gene Loving, among others, kept the discs turning.

The local black teenagers of that still-segregated era were listening to WRAP out of Norfolk, where Jack “Big Daddy” Holmes and Jay Dee Jackson spun R&B as well as rock and roll and where they could hear black college football games as well as religious shows.

Many of us were still pre-teens when the first truly big wave of the revolution hit in 1956. That was the year that a long-haired kid from Tennessee stepped onto the national music scene with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Popular music would never be the same after that. During the next three years, Elvis Presley recorded 10 Number One hit songs, including “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” That was more than double what anyone else had accomplished.

Others stepped out at that time, many of them recording at tiny Sun Records in Nashville. Among them were Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The second big revolution was the British Invasion in 1964, when the Beatles put their signature on rock and roll and drew crowds that even outshined Elvis.

And yet, despite their success and undeniable influence on popular music, both the rock and roll giants of the 1950s, led by Presley, and the Beatles after them stood on the shoulders of others.

To back up, the early country music legends on one track and the blues singers on another brought together elements that were then used to build rock and roll. Blues, in particular, had a huge influence on what happened. B.B. King, Muddy Waters and a lot more blues and gospel singers, many that you never heard of, directly influenced Elvis, and the Beatles would later give credit to the same roots for their music.

And, while white kids were listening to Elvis and other early great white performers, they were also finding their thrill on “Blueberry Hill” with Fats Domino and dancing to “Johnny Be Good” with Chuck Berry.

Then, in the late 1950s, in a nation still racially segregated, a tiny recording company was founded up in Detroit. Motown records quickly brought us the Marvelettes, singing “Please Mr. Postman.” And a bit later, the Supremes gave us “Baby Love” and The Four Tops recorded “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”

And that, in many ways, was the true social revolution in music because, even in a still-segregated South, kids both black and white were listening to these recording artists of both races, and enjoying the heck out of the music.

Each summer for more than three decades, this newspaper and the Isle of Wight Arts League have presented community concerts on the newspaper’s front lawn. One of our primary goals has always been to bring the community together by offering music of numerous genres. In recent years, the effort has begun to pay off as a more and more diverse audience come to listen to blues, jazz, America, big band and country performers.

All of us — the performers as well as the audience — owe a huge debt to these early musicians for beginning to bring America together. I don’t think it goes too far out on a limb to say that the U.S. Military, school integration and the popular music world did more to bring our diverse culture together than any just about anything else.