Teenagers in the Segregated South

White America was just discovering what Black America knew about for years. But there was that thing called Segregation.

Alan Freed’s Rock n’ Roll Dance Party – Count Basie – The Penguins – 1956 – Past Daily Weekend Pop Chronicles

Teenagers in the Segregated South
White America was just discovering what Black America knew about for years. But there was that thing called Segregation.

Alan Freed’s Camel Rock n’ Roll Dance Party – June 9, 1956 – CBS Radio – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –

They tried. Alan Freed, generally known as The King Of Rock n’ Roll was, for the most part, the biggest proponent for the cause of Rock n’ Roll in the early-mid 1950s. It was catching on and catching on fast. Elvis was dominating the Pop charts – radio was losing its preeminence as the entertainment medium American families were relying on – having lost out to Television for some time. Top-40 was creeping in and radio formats were changing. So it was only natural network radio tried to adapt to this new younger demographic. Since Alan Freed was diving heavily into Rhythm and Blues from his earliest days as a disc-jockey in Cleveland he was given more or less free reign to bring audiences the music that his die-hard fans already knew about and were scouring record stores to buy. Benchmarking the show with Count Basie, who was a regular fixture from the Big Band days and who had broad appeal to both a younger and older audience. It seemed like a sure winner.

But there was that little problem called Segregation, especially in the South. CBS Radio stations below the Mason-Dixon line refused to run it, or if they did run it, they would pre-record it to run in the middle of the night. Part of it was resistance to Rock n’ Roll, at least on the surface, but the reality was, stations in the South were just as segregated as the music they played.

So the experiment lasted a little over a year before CBS pulled the plug – even though the sponsor of the show was Camel Cigarettes, who had deep pockets and played no favorites, network radio was just ill-equipped to dive into Rock n’ Roll in 1956.

Eventually things would change, but segregation in radio was only one of the many aspects to a mindset whose time was past. Some were easier than others – in comparison, the barriers in radio were easy to negotiate compared to other parts of the Civil Rights movement.

But ultimately, it was about the music – and even though the music itself may seem tame and even quaint, it was potent and it brought people together in 1956.

Have a listen as it was broadcast on June 9, 1956.




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