You have heard the expression when referring to today’s youth, “What’s this world coming to?” If my parents were to select someone for corrupting the minds of the youth of yesterday and, perhaps, today, they would say it all started in the 1950’s and the culprit would be a person named Bill Haley. Although Bill Haley died 40 years ago at the young age of 51, his influence on young people never died. What was this world coming to?
Music did not play a big part in my life or in the lives of most teens until around 1955 when an east coast band by the name of Bill Haley and the Comets recorded a tune called “Rock Around The Clock.” This new kind of music grabbed the attention of teens like nothing else. It was so profound it shook their shoes off and sock hops became the norm throughout the country. Bemidji and every town in Minnesota joined the craze.
The birth of rock and roll opened a whole new world filled with jukeboxes, 45 rpm records, sock hops, malt shops, 50’s automobiles, going steady, poodle skirts, rolled up sleeves, engineer boots, smoking in the boys room, cruising main street, transistor radios and cherry cokes.
Rock and roll and all the things that came with it made lasting changes in my life and in the lives of teens in the 1950’s. Rock and roll allowed us to be ourselves. It was as if Bill Haley was saying to teens, “It’s OK to rock around the clock” and we did to the tune of “Rock Around The Clock.”
One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock
Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock
Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight.
What really worried parents was a young hip-swinging man by the name of Elvis Presley, who first appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1956. The show drew an audience of 60 million viewers, a record that remained until the Beatles’ performance eight years later, which attracted 73 million viewers.
Elvis opened his debut with a “very sad song”— his words. What followed was his million-dollar seller, “Hound Dog.” Parents should have realized they had nothing to worry about because when he finished performing he said, “I hope God blesses you just as he has blessed me.” Elvis died in 1977 at the young age of 42.
One person who really capitalized on what was occurring in the teen world was Dick Clark. In 1957 a TV program aired for the first time called American Bandstand. Its host was Dick Clark who told us that Clearasil could rid our face of acne and teens bought it by the gallon.
For one hour every afternoon at 4 p.m., Bemidji teens would hurry home from school to watch Philadelphia teens dance to the latest rock and roll hits. Many of those dancing teens became celebrities in the hearts and minds of American teenagers.
Some of you may remember Pat Moliatari, Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan. Dick Clark died at the age of 82 in 2012. He looked the same at 82 as he did at 32. The man never aged, nor did his music. Being around all of those teens for so many years inspired him to be forever young.
No Minnesota city escaped the influence of rock and roll. Sock hops became popular after football and basketball games and in local community centers. Garage bands began to appear. If there was not a live band to dance to, individual record collections were brought to the school and community center.
The dances were chaperoned by the high school teachers and in all of the many dances that were held at my school, I can’t recall that there was ever a bad incident other than maybe some kids caught smoking cigarettes in the boy’s room. The dances usually lasted until 10 o’clock. Afterward, the kids would get a ride home with their waiting parents or they would just walk home. Some kids were lucky and had their own car.
There would be the usual number of guys who would cruise Main Street watching girls go into the teen hang-outs. Kids would stop and have a coke, sit in the booths or on stools at the counter and talk and talk some more. Usually, the talk related to what was happening at school, a hit record, who was going with who, and "did you hear that so and so broke up with so and so?"
Every cafe had a jukebox and for a dime, you could hear your favorite song or if you had a quarter, you could hear three songs. Kids would be coming and going, visiting, giving friendly punches, telling stories, and maybe if the guys were lucky, they might find a girl to take home.
Many rock and roll artists appeared in the 50s and 60s that paved the way for the artists we have today. None were much bigger than a group called Danny and The Juniors who had two huge hits: “At The Hop” and “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay.”
Rock and roll did go down in history and it all started in the 1950s when kids took off their shoes and danced to Bill Haley, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, Danny and the Juniors and so many more.
Many of the rock and roll stars of the 50s have gone to the Bandstand in the sky. Yet, after 50 years I still get a chill up my spine when I hear Buddy Holly sing “That’ll Be The Day!” Well, that’ll be the day when rock and roll dies.
Did rock and roll corrupt the minds of youth? Not really, considering the fact that today’s grandparents turned out pretty well. I can personally vouch for that. Do Bill Haley and Elvis and Buddy deserve a thank you? For all of us old-time rock and rollers, we would say, “Yes!” Why?
“We're gonna rock around the clock tonight.”
Riddle: Why are these numbers in this order: 8, 4, 9, 1, 6, 10, 0. (Answer: They are in alphabetical order.) Did you know there is a high correlation between knowing music and knowing math? Here’s just one more reason to thank Elvis and Bill Haley.
Thanks to Rory Potter and Portable Welding Company of Cass Lake for being the latest to support our 100% graduation rate initiative.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.