Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, Otis Williams And The Charms, Sam “The Man” Taylor and his Orch. Alan Freed – CBS Radio: Camel Rock n’ Roll Dance Party – August 7, 1956 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
As Rock n’ Roll made the breakthrough, from Race Music and Midnight Disc-jockey programs from low-power stations to mainstream radio and TV, thanks largely to the mass popularity of Elvis Presley, it didn’t take long for the major networks to try and cash in on what was becoming a national phenomenon. Aside from not wanting to be left out as independent radio stations were grabbing the audience in droves, the major Radio networks were losing listeners at an alarming rate, due to the popularity of Television and the general shift away by the audience to this new medium. So the networks needed something to grab this fledgling Youth Market, which was substantial and growing every day and keep them glued to the radio. So most all the networks dabbled in some form of Rock n’ Roll programming, some of it via local affiliates whose shows went national.
In 1956 the most popular on-air personality was Alan Freed – the self-appointed King Of Rock N’ Roll. He was at the zenith of his popularity and was gathering huge ratings via his local New York shows. So CBS Radio, and Camel Cigarettes decided it would be a great idea to have Freed host a radio program on the order of many of the variety shows of the day. A live audience, Freed, live bands and artists who were either on the charts or coming out with new material. And since Camel Cigarettes had a close association with the Youth Market via The Camel Caravan from the mid-1930s through 40s, which pretty much became synonymous with the Big Band era, transitioning over to Rock n’ Roll was a snap.
The Camel Rock n’ Roll Dance Party featured the most popular Rock n’ Roll/R&B artists of the day. With a house band fronted by Sam “The Man” Taylor and periodically featuring Count Basie and his band, The Dance Party was a half-hour program crammed to the hilt with music, and also crammed with Freed pushing Camel Cigarettes, seemingly between every song.
This episode, which featured the ever-present Taylor also featured Johnny Burnette, Otis Williams and The Charms and Gene Vincent and his Red Caps is from August of 1956. Kids loved it; parents, not so much.
Aside from pushing cigarettes to teenagers, you had liberal dollops of Rhythm & Blues, which most likely prompted some CBS Radio Affiliates in the South to think twice.
All in all, Alan Freed’s Rock n’ Roll Dance Party was the first of its kind and really stands as one of the few excellent examples of these artists in a live context. There were other programs showing up at the time, including one ABC Radio did, purportedly from The Apollo in Harlem as a strictly R&B live show. I’ve never heard it nor have I seen it other than a newspaper ad for it from the mid-1950s. One imagines things will continue to turn up, as these have.
Couple things – because it was live, or live-on-tape (it was offered as a live or a delayed broadcast program), the engineers had a hell of a time keeping things from going haywire. You hear a lot of microphone clipping because this was before limiters were used routinely and engineers had to “ride the knobs’ a lot to keep from heading into full-blown distortion.
The other thing – I know there are a LOT of people who are dead-against cigarette advertising – dead against cigarettes in general. But this is history and history is very often fraught with not-necessarily nice things – things we used to take for granted but touch off alarms now. Try and forward past those if they truly offend you. I apologize in advance, but I am not in the business of re-writing history – you get enough of that from other places anyway.
Otherwise, crank this one up and enjoy it to pieces.