Senior Year, 1959: Greasers & Sophisticates Mix It Up
by Nick Dedina | April 7, 2011
Today, when people talk about pop music they usually mean diva dance pop or that special mix the The Black Eyed Peas brew together. But back in 1959, the Fairview student class helped cram the sales charts and AM radio with every style of music imaginable just the fact that a single made it in the music market turned it into pop.
When the '59 prom was just getting started and the boys and girls were still on separate sides of the room, the boys got up some courage by singing along to Bertolt Brecht's revolutionary lyrics to "Mack the Knife" (the year's biggest seller). For their part, the girls glanced nervously over to the other side of the room when The Flamingos' recasting of the chestnut "I Only Have Eyes for You" had them secretly swooning.
After the slow stuff, Ray Charles filled the dancefloor with his still-remarkable "What'd I Say," and even the toughest boys started moving to the beat of rock hits by Elvis, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens (whose "La Bamba" made the grateful Spanish teacher the most popular faculty member on campus). This senior class would be defined by The Day the Music Died: February 3, 1959, when Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash.
Doowop was still all the rage in 59, with the Fairview Glee Club taking on the hits of vocal groups like The Coasters, The Drifters, and Dion & The Belmonts. Likewise, R&B powerhouses like Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson and Lloyd Price joined such a large group of black performers crossing over with general audiences that "race records" were suddenly just pop. As influential as Ray Charles in this regard was Sam Cooke (who was secretly writing and producing his hits), who blueprinted a sophisticated soul sound that would greatly influence Berry Gordy's Motown style in the next decade. Jazz was also having its last gasp as pop music, with Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" astounding kids all over the nation with its distinctive time signature. Henry Mancini earned his first hit with his TV theme to Peter Gunn (a cool private-eye show that featured a jazz performance each week).
When the prom slowed down and the real dancing began, the Fairview senior class didn't just go for moody instrumentals like "Sleepwalk" (which is so dreamy that it could almost join Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" in the exotica genre); they gave some time over to the adult hit-makers like Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra, since everyone knew where adult love took you married with children in the 1960s.