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Rock and Roll and the Record and Broadcasting Industry

Author: Sandy O’Keefe


Rudolph Blankenburg School

Year: 2007

Seminar: American Capitalism

Keywords: African American Artists, Blues music, Music, Philadelphia, rhythm, rock and roll

School Subject(s): History, Music

This curriculum unit will spur an exploration of the record and broadcasting industry, specifically the rise of rhythm and blues music and its subsequent impact on Rock and Roll. The unit will explore the various artists that shaped Rock and Roll during the early 1950s and show their impact then and in later decades.

The unit will also discuss how soul music and the early Rock and Roll artists were popular in the African American music realm, but it was not until the music was whitened and had a “crossover” that this style of music was accepted more popularly by whites. The role of the recording and broadcasting industry in affecting this shift will be a key issue.

The broad topic of Rock and Roll will be narrowed to Philadelphia, and the place of American Bandstand and several local artists. This unit will allow students to study Rock and Roll as a genre of music and also appreciate Philadelphia’s role in shaping the music industry for the rest of the country.

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Full Unit Text

This curriculum unit will spur an exploration of the record and broadcasting industry, specifically the rise of rhythm and blues music and its subsequent impact on Rock and Roll. The unit will explore the various artists that shaped Rock and Roll during the early 1950s and show their impact then and in later decades.

The unit will also discuss how soul music and the early Rock and Roll artists were popular in the African American music realm, but it was not until the music was whitened and had a “crossover” that this style of music was accepted more popularly by whites. The role of the recording and broadcasting industry in affecting this shift will be a key issue.

The broad topic of Rock and Roll will be narrowed to Philadelphia, and the place of American Bandstand and several local artists. This unit will allow students to study Rock and Roll as a genre of music and also appreciate Philadelphia’s role in shaping the music industry for the rest of the country.


Eighth grade students in the Philadelphia School District are required to take a course in American history. Students learn about music and culture in particular time periods. The text glazes over the subjects briefly mentioning music and culture. Students are given generalizations about such topics. Textbooks need to deal in greater depth as students can gain greater appreciation of eras through the lens of music and culture.

Music has always been an important part of African American life. Students can learn about how African Americans shaped Rock and Roll. Therefore, the goal of this curriculum unit is for students to gain a specific and fuller appreciation of the role of African Americans in molding the music industry of the 1950s. Students will study the creation of this style of music and see how it has impacted music genres to the present.

Students will also look at Philadelphia’s role and see how it has shaped the music industry. This will help them to learn more about their city and the important role it has played in history. They will have to apply the learned information to meaningful classroom activities as well as research projects. A trip to the location of the popular television show “American Bandstand” is certainly in order.

Historical Context

Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues, which emerged distinctively from the musical traditions of African Americans, was formed with steady beats, hand clapping, and emphatic dance rhythms. Rhythm and blues “embodied the fervor of gospel music, the throbbing vigor of boogie woogie, the jump beat of swing, and the gutsiness and sexuality of life in the black ghetto.”1 Rhythm and blues, later coined soul music, is described in Webster’s New World Dictionary, as “a sense of racial pride and social and cultural solidarity, often with opposition to white, middle-class practices and values.”2 This style of music was identified essentially with blackness, and as blacks were seen as second class citizens during this time period, so was the music which they produced.3 Rhythm and blues was seen as “fundamentally black in both origin and nature” and thus, most white parents judged it as “bestial and subhuman.”4

The first generation of rhythm and blues and early Rock and Roll musicians who became popular during the early 1950s frightened most parents. Artists in this early classic rock generation, such as Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, played music rooted in blues or rhythm and blues with lyrics relating to sex, school, dancing and Rock and Roll itself. As this music was labeled as “black music,” the recording industry even substituted the terms rhythm and blues records with “race records,” describing recordings by black artists that were not gospel or jazz.5 The fact that most parents feared the repercussions of this style of music was a reflection of the underlying racism during this era.

Perhaps it was this racism that the older generation wanted to hold on to because as young white people began listening to rhythm and blues, one records producer suggests that some barriers were breaking down. Young people taking part in the rhythm and blues craze might have been protesting the “southern tradition of not having anything to do with colored people.”6 Most youth of the fifties viewed Rock and Roll as an expression of rebellion.7 Additionally, most parents declared the music of their teens as “a tool in conspiracy to ruin the morals of a generation of Americans.”8 Rock and Roll music “brewed in the hidden corners of black American cities…infected white Americans, seducing them,” just as parents feared.9

The unpopularity and unavailability of rhythm and blues for whites pushed many young fans to take intense measures. Some had to travel distances to purchase rhythm and blues records. Music stores in white neighborhoods did not have them and radio stations initially only played the music during early hours or late at night. Authorities often took extreme actions in response to the fears and views of parents. Police began to monitor Rock and Roll concerts closely. Whites were given spectator tickets to black nightclubs and restricted from dancing or sitting inside.10 Behaviors of fans that “cheered, shrieked, applauded, and jumped up and down” caused public officials to ban live Rock and Roll shows. 11

Due to the so called “riotous” behavior of teens at many live Rock and Roll concerts, even Bill Haley whom we will discuss later was banned from performing a concert in Roosevelt Stadium by the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey.12 There were other occasions in which behaviors of fans were not favorable in the eyes of authorities. One such occasion occurred when Fats Domino, another early Rock and Roller, was playing at a concert for marines and sailors at a naval base in Newport, Rhode Island. Both white and African Americans were in attendance, and someone decided to turn out the lights. What happened next was not blamed on racial friction, but rather the “frenzied tempo” of the music. Ten sailors were injured and nine were arrested all due to behaviors on the Rock and Roll dance floor.13 After this outburst, Rock and Roll was prohibited from the naval base.

Broadcasting and Television Industry

Despite the apparent disapproval, rhythm and blues fought its way onto the radio and into the record industry. Many fans believed the music promoted racial harmony, but it also provided opportunities for African Americans to achieve economically. After World War II in the 40s and early 50s, many new radio stations were opened with an intended urban African American audience. Rock and Roll provided a way for talented African Americans to achieve social mobility. Eighty percent of the teenage “doo-wop” groups who were in show business were African Americans and some experienced “rags to riches.”14 Yet, it was white entrepreneurs who started the majority of the independent radio stations.15 More than six hundred stations in thirty-nine states had shows airing under the description “Negro-slanted” shows, including WDAS in Philadelphia. Many African Americans did serve as disc jockeys for these shows. Also, during the growth in the popularity of radio, more portable and car radios became available—altogether numbering three times the amount of television sets in homes.16

As rhythm and blues began to find its place on the radio, many record producers began to establish labels. Some record producers only stuck with pop music, but others, almost all of whom were white, independent producers, invested in rhythm and blues and gained financially. The owners of the labels of the music that were considered to be an “authentic expression of black music and culture” were white.17 Sadly, more times than not, the businessmen, producers and radio stations would exploit the rhythm and blues artists. Furthermore, by 1955, white artists and musicians would adapt the sounds of rhythm and blues and would reap the commercial and economic rewards never seen before by black artists.18

Companies who had control of radio and television airwaves were in business. The radio and television shows served as major arbiters on what music became popular in the eyes and ears of the American public. Economic gain was critical in the process. The deejays who selected which records made it on the air were often paid money or given gifts and special treatment to select certain records, so-called “payola.”19 Payola for the disc jockeys also came in the form of drugs, prostitution, and “promotional” vacations.20 Dick Clark, one Philadelphian who impacted the music industry greatly and served as host of the famous television show American Bandstand, was labeled a “top dog for accepting bribes” by a congressman. Clark went on record saying that he never played a song or record in return for a payment in cash or other form.21 Still, he did admit that he had a “personal interest” in almost a quarter of the music played on his show, but he argued this music would have been played for its popularity anyway.22 This type of questionable exchange between the radio and television industry and the record industry may always exist.

Dick Clark developed white rock for white working-class Philadelphia, extending this new music from rhythm and blues. Clark created an empire mainly because he controlled what music was played on his television show. American Bandstand was the first to offer a show for teens and rock and roll. The show had a great impact on radio stations as to what music was played, as well as the record industry. Behind the shift in cultural tastes were powerful economic interests, musicians’ agents, record producers and distributors, and radio and television broadcast companies.

Early 1950s African American Artists and their Appeal During the early 1950s several popular African American artists shaped Rock and Roll, including Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Antoine “Fats” Domino began playing the piano at a young age. He earned the nickname “Fats” seeing as how he was five foot two and 224 pounds. By the early 1950s, Fats Domino had sold three million records and was one of the most popular recording stars in the United States. Ebony praised Domino as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”23 With his hit, “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Fats” became the first black Rock and Roll millionaire. Domino did appeal to a broad cross section of Americans, cutting through age and race barriers; he was seen in pictures with teenagers and elders alike. Despite this success, at three separate occasions in 1956, his concerts produced “mass hysteria,” leaving police to restore order.24

African Americans were proud to see their own music styles accepted and influencing the popular music of the nation—they thoroughly enjoyed that white pop singers rushed to produce songs in rhythm and blues. But with this enjoyment of popularity also came concern. Just as whites feared the outcome of this style of music, African Americans also felt the need to fight against the negative image that it often produced. Many did not support Rock and Roll and felt that it would undermine the family values and even the musical and cultural heritage of African Americans. Langston Hughes thought Rock and Roll to be “an unsophisticated musical genre” and Martin Luther King believed that Rock and Roll and Gospel music were “totally incompatible.”25 Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. He grew up singing in the church choir and later began working in local R & B clubs. Berry’s group called the Chuck Berry Trio auditioned and signed with Chess Records, who in turn were connected with Alan Freed, a disc jockey with influence to promote African American rock and rollers.26 Berry produced “Maybelline” and with the promotion of Freed, his song hit number one on the R & B charts and number five overall in 1955. Other popular hits included “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and many more.27 Many of the lyrics from these songs and others spoke to the teens of
the time—the lyrics related to what the kids were experiencing and dealt with cars, girls, school, rock music, and the problems growing up. Chuck Berry’s was scheduled to appear on Dick Clark’s America’s Bandstand. He was asked to lip sync, and originally did not want to do so, believing this was against his morals and better judgment. He reconsidered when he realized the publicity American Bandstand would provide. There was “economic wisdom” in complying. Again, the influence of profit is evident although Berry never truly modified his style to appeal to a broader “legitimate” pop audience.

“Little Richard,” born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, was third of twelve children. He was raised with sincere belief in God, but he met with conflict when he had to choose between sacred and secular music. He did early on release several gospel oriented R & B recordings.28 Richard pursued Bible College and wanted to become a preacher, but his life struggle included drugs, alcohol and homosexuality.29 He was egotistical, controversial, dynamic, original, and unpredictable.30 One of the most famous songs he recorded included “Tutti Frutti,” a rock and roll classic and one of the songs he recorded which made the Top 40s. His music style set the stage for many musicians to follow, and while he pursued a “comeback” he did not experience one.

Philadelphia’s Impact on Rock and Roll

Dick Clark, the owner and producer of American Bandstand, was a “force to be reckoned with” in Rock and Roll.31 Clark wanted those who appeared on his show to have role model behavior. He knew that many parents did not approve of Rock and Roll and believed it led to unfavorable behavior, whether it be in attitude or dance moves, in their children. American Bandstand was a weekday afternoon habit for millions of teenagers. The teens would tune in to watch the latest hit and heartthrob. Clark was connected to many famous artists across the country, and he also played a key role in helping to promote many artists in Philadelphia due to the national publicity that American Bandstand provided.32 Philadelphia’s famous artists included Fabian Forte, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydell, and Connie Francis, to mention a few.33

“Schlock rock,” as it was called, was for the white, middle class teens. The artists who performed this music mainly became popular with the teens due to their good looks. Fabian Forte was the popular hunk of this time for teen girls. He made the Top Ten in 1959 with his hit “Turn Me Loose,” and by the time he was done he had produced eight Top Forty hits.34 Frankie Avalon, another smooth young singer at age eighteen of Philadelphia, hit a number one with “Venus.” His music was specifically aimed at the young teens and it was closer to pop as opposed to Rock and Roll.35 “Schlock rock” was for whites mainly, but there was one popular black superstar who joined the rock music scene named Chubby Checker. His name was originally Ernest Evans, but he took the name Chubby Checker, as a play off from the singer Fats Domino.36 Chubby Checker invented the famous dance called “The Twist” and this became part of family entertainment in many homes due to the show American Bandstand.37

Some of the artists who produced in Philadelphia made a switch from the traditional Rock and Roll style to a softer rock or even pop. Bobby Darin produced “Splish Splash” in 1958 and this had the genuine rock sound, but then his style adapted. In the later songs produced such as “Clementine,” “Dream Lover” and “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey,” there was a swinging
pop style.38 Darin would later sign a contract with Atlantic Records, an independent company started by Ahmet Ertegun dedicated to the success of black music. Darin experienced “crossover” success by making a switch from hard music to soft music and this lead to major hits in the 1960s.39 Bobby Rydell of Philadelphia produced “Wild One,” “Swingin’ School,” and “Volare” all in 1960. Connie Francis, a rare female singer, achieved a great deal of success with her soft rock style, producing thirty-five Top 40 songs from 1958-1964. Her songs included upbeat titles such as “Stupid Cupid” and “Lipstick on Your Collar” to softer beats, “Who’s Sorry Now,” and even to pure pop. “Where the Boys Are.”40

Almost Integration

The musical groups and studio bands that produced rhythm and blues were integrated. Despite this, some of the genre’s greatest singers were virtually unknown to most white pop music fans. Still, there were several artists on the early scene that did well in bringing white and black music styles together. White performers did play in clubs in black sections, but this was not a normal practice across the nation.41 Bill Haley was one of the first white musicians to become popular at this.

A Few Enigmas

There were several prominent African American Rock and Roll artists who experienced great popularity within their own culture specifically, but failed to “crossover” to white audiences. James Brown, who called himself the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” had moves which were copied by many followers, including Michael Jackson. Brown may have been best known for his slide across the stage on one foot, 360 degree twirl and then drop into a split. These dance moves, performance characteristics and the musical and vocal aspects were already ingrained in the black community. And these moves may have kept Brown alienated from having “crossover success.”42 Brown had great financial success, owning a jet, hundreds of suits, a huge castle, and though he could sell records by the millions to the black public, he remained an “enigma to whites.”43

Sam Cooke and Otis Redding were two African American artists who have similar stories to James Brown. Both had their lives cut short; therefore, neither reached all the success they could have had. Cooke was shot fatally and Redding died in a plane crash. Both had a hunger for success which drove them and also cost them their lives. Cooke had established financial independence, had control of his own records and was on his way to creating a self-sufficient music business network. Since he was on the verge of great fame, many feel that he was killed by the mob. Otis Redding’s plane crashed on the way to a show in Madison, Wisconsin; he died at the age of twenty-six. Otis Redding never wanted to miss a show. Unfortunately, this drive of success and to be widely accepted cost him his life.

Motown and the “Crossover”

Many black artists faced continuing obstacles in crossing over into wider popularity with white audiences; out of the dilemma, Motown was created. As discussed, early Rock and Roll was controlled by white run record companies, but Motown was not. Motown was controlled by one record company which focused on finding talent from Detroit’s black musical community. The distinction was this musical community would be tailored to appeal to the white market. Artists worked together in Motown to produce music essentially for a white market, but the music was written and performed essentially by African Americans.

Motown was similar to the early rhythm and blues music in that it took aspects from gospel, R & B, vocals, studio bands and put it together to create a new sound, but this sound was “reframed.” It was “reframed in a way that made a lot of sense to white record buyers.”44 “Crossover music” had to be created, according to Berry Gordy, the leader of the Motown Record Company. “Crossover at that time meant that white people would buy your records,” states Motown legend Smokey Robinson.45

The talent of the Detroit’s black musical community had begun to whiten its music and style, “polishing the rough edges” in order to present it in a way that excited white America.46 This style of music still had its black musical roots, but it was now being designed to appeal to a broader and whiter industry.


The major objective for this curriculum unit is for students to take a topic such as Rock and Roll and use it to understand better post-World War II America, as well as the impact of the record and broadcasting industries.

Overall, students will understand the cultural barriers facing artists, mainly African American artists, due to underlying racism during the time. They will learn how African American artists crafted the style of rhythm and blues, but whites controlled most of the record labels.

We will look at the early Rock and Roll artists who played a big part in shaping the style and additionally study the local artists in Philadelphia who impacted Rock and Roll. Students will be able to identify prominent figures in the early Rock and Roll music industry and understand the implications for the African American artists who often had to “crossover” to appeal to white America.47

Lastly, students will be able to understand how the radio waves and television shows impacted the popularity of the songs and the economy. Specifically, the students will see how Philadelphia impacted the industry through the television show, American Bandstand. The history of their own city will then be highlighted for them.


In order to accomplish this unit, the teacher will use various strategies. The majority of lessons are designed for cooperative groups within a classroom. The lessons require that the students use listening skills, circle web organizers, group discussion skills, critical thinking skills, and creative and analytical writing skills. Each lesson is designed for an 8th grade classroom and a forty five minute class period. The unit plan can be adapted accordingly and used for grades 5th through 12th.

Classroom Activities

Lesson 1

Early 1950s Rock and Roll Musicians: Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard


(2 Day Lesson Plan) The students will be able to:

  1. Understand the first Rock and Roll generation and their style of music.
  2. Define rhythm and blues and trace its roots.
  3. Create a mini presentation on their assigned artist (see above list)
  4. Compare and contrast early Rock and Roll artists.

Create a bibliography worksheet for each above listed artist (see background information). Recorded songs of the above listed artists, as well as current R & B/gospel singers. Lyrics of the specific songs students will analyze with listening stations for four groups.


Introduce the early rhythm and blues genre and its concept and definition. Students take notes. Relate this music to today’s rhythm and blues (R & B) and gospel music by playing samples. Ask the question: How does this relate? Allow reflection and discussion time.

Day 1:

Students will be doing a project in four groups on the first Rock and Roll generation of artists. Distribute all students a short biography of each artist and a copy of lyrics for each song. Students work in groups to review their particular artist’s biography, songs and lyrics. They will use the songs, lyrics and biography to create a mini presentation on each artist.

Guidelines for the presentation:

  • Each group will have five-ten minutes to present.
  • Be memorable.
  • Give a brief history of the artist—where he was born, where he lived, etc.
  • Choose at least one song to play as a sample.
  • Explain the meaning and purpose behind the song.
  • Create a poster for display and worksheet for classmates to follow along.
  • Fellow classmates should take notes during presentations.

Each group should ask themselves and the class:

  1. Did you like the songs by your artist? (class vote)
  2. Do the song lyrics resonate with the modern times? Why or why not?
  3. Why did parents of this time period dislike early Rock and Roll music and the lyrics? Why was this so in your opinion?
  4. Ask if the music/lyrics are better or worse than music today. Also, explain why. *All students must take notes on presentations. They must write a summary paragraph detailing the information they have learned about each artist.
Day 2:

Begin Presentations. Remind students they will have to write paragraph summaries for each presentation. They should take notes and fill in the worksheets provided by the presenting group. In conclusion, give students time to write paragraphs about each presentation. Make sure listening stations are set up. If needed, students may review any songs necessary.

Extension Activity: Have students use the internet to research another artist we have not gone over in class. The artist chosen must be approved by the teacher first. Students should answer and explain the following:

  1. What was the artist’s impact on early Rock and Roll music?
  2. What type of music did the artist produce?
  3. How were they the same and/or different from the other artists we discussed?