By the end of the ’40s, Big Band and Swing were pretty much over and it was all about crooners like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
This trend continued into the early ’50s, with singers like Eddie Fisher, Perry Como and Patti Paige, who dominated the airwaves for the first half of the decade.
Gone was the focus on orchestration, replaced by a focus on emotion. The king of this genre was singer/songrwriter Johnnie Ray, whose “Cry” is said to have influenced Elvis himself and who Tony Bennett has called the “real father of Rock’n’Roll.”
Speaking of which, you can’t talk about the ’50s without talking about Rock’n’Roll. Rock began to evolve in the late ’40s from jazz, rhythm and blues and gospel with a little country/western and pop thrown in. Cleveland DJ Alan Freed is credited with coining the term “rock’n’roll.”
Early pioneers include Chuck Berry, who refined the elements of the style and introduced the focus on guitar solos and showmanship, and Les Paul, who was known for his innovations and work with the electric guitar, which made the genre possible.
Other important early rockers include Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly.
Pat Boone became the first teen rock idol in 1955 after releasing a number of pop-influenced R&B cover songs that introduced the genre to a wider audience.
The mid-’50s also gave us Elvis, the Memphis-born heartthrob who conquered radio, movies and the increasingly available TV.
in 1957, Dick Clark took over as host of American Bandstand, helping bring rock to the mainstream by embracing a new generation that was gaining influence: the teenager.
By the end of the ’50s, teen idols like Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, and Connie Francis were topping the charts. In 1959, a plane crashed killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens.
The incident was memorialized in Don McClean’s 1971 hit “American Pie,” as “the day the music died,” and the crash, plus Elvis’ stint in the army are thought by critics to have begun the end of the genre’s golden age, although rock will remain popular for at least the next 30 years.
During the ’50s, the booming post-war economy gave the rising middle class more time for leisure. Marry that with the advent of car culture and the drive-in became king, with over 4,000 outdoor theaters across the country by the late ’50s.
’50s culture was beginning to cater to teens who were looking for an antidote to the dull conformity that was hallmark of the era. Seeking to assert their independence, they turned to movies like Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, movies that showed society’s gritty underbelly, far from the safety of their suburban, split-level ease. Actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando arrived on the scene, portraying tortured, anguished and moody anti-heroes.
The ’50s also gave us Marilyn, no last name needed.
Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles, CA in 1926. She began her career as a pinup model and played minor roles in B movies until her 1953 breakout in film noir thriller Niagara. That year she also starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, one of her greatest box office successes.
She would go on to star in The Seven Year Itch (1955), Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like it Hot (1959), as well as many others. In 1999, Playboy named her Number One Sex Star of the 20th Century and People voted her Sexiest Woman of the Century. She continues to be an enduring sex symbol and beauty icon.
The ’50s were also marked by an underlying fear of communism and nuclear war and these influences are evident in the sci-fi and horror films of the decade. The early ’50s mark the rise of the Monster Movies, like Them! about giant radiation-mutated ants or Invasion of the Body Snatchers about alien pod people invading earth.
Although formulaic and campy, the movies play on common fears of the era, like infiltration or the threat of nuclear war. Movies like Gojira, which introduced our friend Godzilla, are seen as warnings about the effects of atomic tests and the dropping of the A bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.
So friends, there you have some entertainment highlights of the ’50s. There are way more of course, and if you’d like to learn more, check out the sites below.
See you on April 22 at The Triad!