Images courtesy Bill Shapiro

Rock ‘n’ Roll was the anthem of a seismic social shift the reverberations of which continue to shake our world.  It began in the very middle of the 20th Century in post war America spearheaded by the first generation of Americans duly dubbed “teenagers.” Blessed with more freedom than any preceding generation, American teens in the 1950s were rising up against suppression not repression – if a revolution could be subtle, this one surely qualified, even the participants were unaware that anything of real import was afoot.  In its earliest stages the “battle cry” was – “it’s got a good beat, we can dance to it.”

It didn’t take long, however, before the message became “hear me, see me, listen to me” – I have a voice and a vision of the world that just doesn’t jibe with that of my parents, pastors or teachers, the so-called adult world. It didn’t take too long for the more conservative defenders of the status quo to take notice. Voices from the pulpits and elsewhere began to condemn the new “noise” asserting that it was a forerunner to sexual indiscretion and “a mixing of the races” in what was then a highly overt and covert segregated America. The fact that a black, former hairdresser from St. Louis, Chuck Berry, the true architect of Rock, was demanding that Beethoven “roll over,” but did not inspire a lot of enthusiasm within the establishment.

By 1955, Rock had clearly established a foothold in the world of pop music, Chuck’s Maybellene broke into the Top Ten on Your Hit Parade, the hugely popular Saturday night radio show that let us know what white Americans were listening to. For teenagers, the seductive street corner harmonies of DooWop were rapidly replacing the major label music by committee which had dominated the pop charts since the mid-1940s.

But it wasn’t until January 28, 1956 when all hell broke loose – when the preachers’ fears came pounding into America’s living rooms.  At 6:30 p.m. on that Saturday night on the Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey Bandstand TV show, Jimmy stepped to the microphone and said “I’d like to introduce you to a young man from Memphis Tennessee who’s creating quite a stir down there; his name is Elvis Presley.”

I was a 19-year-old serious jazz aficionado sitting alone in a friend’s living room in University City, Mo. watching that program. In less than three black and white minutes, That’s Alright Mama changed my life.  Elvis was the incarnation of my personal world and the world of much of America’s youth, one that was vastly different from that of our parents and our own very private reality.  He was the tangible precursor of the dreams of a post war generation, one with more affluence and free time than any prior generation.  For many it was the birth of the ethos that made the 1960s the most turbulent decade of the 20th Century – a moment of momentous change and all that was to follow.

Bill Shapiro

Bill Shapiro is the creator and host of "Cyprus Avenue" which premiered on KCUR-FM in October of 1978. The weekly radio show has aired on over 50 stations in the United States. He is the author of "The CD Rock and Roll Library," 1988, and "The Rock and Roll Review" 1991, both published by Andrews & McMeel. Bill is a native of Kansas City, Missouri, and a tax and estate planner since 1962. He received his law degree from the University of Michigan.

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