Alan Freed’s Rock n’ Roll Dance Party – May 5, 1956 – CBS Radio Network – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Alan Freed’s Rock n’ Roll Dance Party, as it was broadcast over CBS Radio on May 5, 1956. Just one of the few examples of Network radio diving into Pop Culture in the 1950s so as not to be lost in the stampede toward youth and the dawn of the Youth Market that would later explode in the 1960s.
So here we are; 1956 will turn out to be a pivotal year for Rock n’ Roll. Already bubbling underground and not sure on the parts of mainstream media what to make of it, Radio would take tacit steps around this time. Elvis Presley was creating a huge stir, ever since his first appearance on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show in January that year – also on CBS. This was a time Radio was definitely losing out to Television in audience popularity and much of what were considered “sure things”, like daytime soap operas, would soon be relegated to obsolescence in favor of grabbing a new audience – in this case, the audience under the age of 25.
Ironically, one of the first sponsors to take a chance on this somewhat risky endeavor was one that always seemed to gravitate towards youth, while not actually touting a youth-oriented product. Cigarettes were a staple in some very popular parts of youth culture; sports and music, along with beer. Although it was emphatically stated that neither vice could be appreciated by anyone under 21 (or 18 in some states), the underlying intention had a certain “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” aspect to it.
So Camel Cigarettes became synonymous with Rock n’ Roll, at least for a time. And since Alan Freed was deeply involved in early Rock and R&B via his stint as a disc-jockey, he was a natural to be associated with this show while CBS Radio made a bid to corner the Youth Market.
This episode is typical of the series makeup – Count Basie, whose appeal stretched across a wide swath of the audience demographic, was the mainstay of each broadcast. It was Basie who saw the evolution of Jazz from Big Band to the small group setting and the gradual introduction of Blues into the Jazz idiom, hence the introduction of Jump-Blues which would eventually morph into R&B and offshoot into Rock n’ Roll. Basie shepherded the whole thing along. On the coattails of The Count were vocal groups and important figures in the area of R&B – Joe Williams, Sam “the man” Taylor and others. Some of the vocal groups were cringe-worthy, like The Nilsson Twins whose place in the pantheon of Rock is a little dubious. But more often than not, groups like The Flairs, who were very much part of the L.A. R&B scene, played an important role and did more to promote Rock n’ Roll as a serious genre than the mainstream was doing at the time.
Sadly, the show didn’t succeed on a few levels. For one thing, the audience for Network radio was older than this show was aiming for – and they weren’t going for it. The other, and probably most telling, was more along racial lines. R&B was just starting to climb out of the “race” pigeonhole, but that didn’t mean radio became integrated to any appreciable degree. From various reports, CBS Radio network affiliates in the South were refusing to run the show, and several others around the country pre-taped the show to run at later, more obscure hours. In 1956 Rock n’ Roll was far from being met with open arms and network radio, for all its attempts at being cutting edge, still had their remaining audience to appeal to.
But this is one of the more notable attempts at breaking ground. Aside from ABC Radio (who briefly ran a program live from The Apollo Theatre in Harlem), network radio stayed pretty much out of the youth market for a long time.
There were shining examples of what could have been though – and this was one of them.