Senior Year, 1961: Rock 'n' Roll Ain't Dead, Let's Go Hair-Hopping
by Chuck Eddy | February 26, 2013
So who knows whether anybody even believes this anymore, but the party line always used to be that rock 'n' roll rolled over and played dead in the late '50s and early '60s, and didn't wake back up until The Beatles invaded. Idea was, all the '50s heroes were dropping like flies: Elvis drafted into the Army from 1958 to 1960; Jerry Lee Lewis blacklisted in 1958 for marrying his 13-year-old cousin; Chuck Berry arrested under the Mann Act in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, then eventually imprisoned; Gene Vincent gone to England in 1959 in the wake of tax problems; Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper dead in 1959 (on February 3, the Day the Music Died!); Eddie Cochran dead in 1960. All that, and payola hearings that shook up the biz in 1960, ending the radio career of Alan Freed and almost the TV career of Dick Clark.
Meanwhile, theoretically, Clark's American Bandstand hanging in there assured the continued dominance of prefab, squeaky-clean teen idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis. Rock had been born in gritty juke joints and honky-tonks of the South, the story goes, but pop music's new center was in the well-scrubbed TV studios of Philly and songwriting factories of New York. Rock 'n' roll was now the province of Oldies But Goodies LPs (four of which went Top 20 between 1959 and 1962) and AM-radio oldies weekends, like the one circa 1962 that would later provide the aural setting for the movie American Graffiti.
To a certain extent, that's probably accurate. But somehow, tons of genuine rock 'n' roll managed to break through anyway. Or at least music that sounded like it, and sounded a lot more like it than just about anything that's broken through in the past couple decades, truth be told. In 1988, John Waters made a movie about "hair-hoppers" -- white Baltimore teenagers with impressively ratted and teased bouffants who loved dancing to fast, crazed, rhythmic, foot-stomping music. As Waters himself put it in the soundtrack album's liner notes, the songs were "obscure hits that remind you of the scariest kids in high school; the boys who got high on cough medicine, the girls with giant hairdos and mosquito bites on their ankles who quit school and ran off with carnival workers."
Hairspray, like American Graffiti, was technically set in 1962. But the airwaves, and presumably teen parties, had already hosted no lack of such hot and smoking grooves in 1961 and late 1960. Hence, this playlist of rock 'n' roll from a time when it supposedly didn't exist: dance crazes (the Watusi, Madison, pony, roach, peppermint twist, Bristol stomp); no-holds-barred heart-attack spare-rib rhythm 'n' blues that would've been labeled "race music" if it had come out a decade or two before (The Flares, Gary U.S. Bonds, Bobby Lewis, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike & Tina Turner, their backup trio The Ikettes, Buster Brown actually reviving a 1944 Louis Jordan jump blues); New Orleans Mardi Gras gumbo (Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Barbara George, Chris Kenner, The Showmen promising that "rock 'n' roll forever will stand"); and late-in-the-game doo-wop from The Marcels, The Stereos, The Edsels, the Regents and the Jarmels, not to mention The Belmonts, ex-street-corner mates of Italian American Bronx badass Dion, who broke the bank in '61 with both "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue." Del Shannon gets a pair of picks, too: his two earliest (and biggest) hits. Like fellow white boys Rick Nelson and Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon, Del might have looked like a teen idol, but he hadn't forgotten what it meant to rock your bobby socks off.
There's also early girl-group stuff (The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Marvelettes, The Paris Sisters, Rosie and the Originals -- well, Rosie was a girl, anyway); early surf and hot rod instrumental stuff (Sandy Nelson, Dick Dale, The Ventures, Duals, Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann with his hip-hop-inspiring "Apache"; '50s relics who managed to sneak one in there (The Coasters ogling an exotic dancer, Elvis back out of uniform and remembering how to rockabilly, Ray Charles topping the pop chart with "Hit the Road Jack," Jerry Lee somehow managing his only '60s Top 40 with a cover of Ray's "What'd I Say"); and even a handful of soulful slower ones to induce romance (Sam Cooke's "Cupid" aiming its arrow at your heart, Curtis Mayfield's Impressions and Ben E. King exploring Spanish syncopation from sultry climes, lonely operatic emo progenitor Gene Pitney.)
Amazing thing is, the 50 hits here all add up to barely a minute over two hours' worth of music! No beating around the bush in those days -- these numbers get wild, get gone and leave you sweating. Now, if only four shaggy moptops from England didn't show up to spoil everything …