This is my introduction to our 1996 book Classic Guitars Of The 50s (which we published again a little later with a new title, Echo And Twang).
The 50s created the teenager; the teenager demanded pop music; and pop music’s shiniest icon was the electric guitar. This book magnifies the links in that chain, and will plug you in to a decade of astonishing contrasts, blinding invention, and great, great music.
The world was changing rapidly in the 50s. World War II had ground to a bloody halt in 1945. It had shaken some countries to bits, reduced others to bankruptcy, given renewed confidence to a lucky few. Despite the ruins and the indelible marks of suffering, as the 40s gave way to the 50s, people were determined to enjoy themselves at last, to celebrate their survival and continuing existence. One obvious way was through music.
Sex was popular, too. “The abnormally high birth rate since 1940,” said a US financial report of 1950, “has continued through 1949 and has resulted in about 33 million births, which soon will have an important influence on school facilities, on housing, and on food requirements.” And, more crucially perhaps, on new trends in leisure and entertainment. “The great social revolution of the last 15 years,” wrote Colin MacInnes in 1958, “[may be] the one that’s given teenagers economic power … for let’s not forget their ‘spending money’ does not go on traditional necessities, but on the kinds of luxuries that modify the social pattern.”
The stage was set for change: many kids who grew up in the war were tougher and more independent than those who had gone before. They were ready for anything – and they wanted more. The new teenagers of the 50s – only later would they be called baby boomers – were greater in numbers than ever before compared to the overall population. Crucially, they had money in their pockets and a new-found freedom in which to spend it, more or less as they chose. A survey of American teenagers’ spending habits in 1958 revealed that they represented a buying power of no less than $9 billion. And, more often than not, at the top of their wish list was the latest rock’n’roll record.
Businessmen were not slow to appreciate the link between music listening and music making. The Harmony guitar company, for example, teamed up with Decca Records in 1955 for their Dance-O-Rama promotion where, as they described it, “Guitar players will be inspired to buy records and record fans will be encouraged to buy the instrument they like to hear.”
Not only did the 50s host the birth of rock’n’roll, but the new music led inevitably to a concentration on the guitar as one of the prime instruments at the heart of this musical revolution, aimed at and often created by teenagers (or, at least, by teenagers at heart). The United States was the site of this revolutionary melting pot, and the newly created mixtures were whisked rapidly around the world.
And yet these were far from idyllic times. Always close to the headlines in the 50s was the potential peril inherent in atomic or nuclear power. It seemed only a matter of time before someone would lift the lid of this Pandora’s box and finish everyone off for good. The threat of The Bomb was omnipresent – maybe it could resolve the Korean War, or sort out Suez? After all, it had finished a much bigger war just years earlier. Nuclear fallout shelters sprang up as a rather inappropriate defence. And in the quickly developing climate of the cold war, no-one in the West had much doubt as to who would be hurling the bombs at them.
Reactions to the Communist Threat of the dastardly Russians ranged from the typically unimaginative politician (Harry Truman: “Our lives, our nation, all the things we believe in, are in great danger, and this danger has been created by the rulers of the Soviet Union”) to the more subtle innuendo of the movie house, where the sci-fi-Shakespeare of Forbidden Planet starred an unstoppable terror that roamed a doomed world, killing everyone.
As if all this wasn’t enough, you just couldn’t trust anyone – spies were everywhere. No matter: J Edgar Hoover and the FBI would be the protectors of every true US citizen. Spy fever reached its terrifying climax when American couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, found guilty of running a nuclear-espionage ring that passed information to the USSR, were executed by electric chair in 1953 – the first Americans ever sentenced to death for spying, in war or peacetime.
For many people living through the period, the 50s were a peculiar mix. There were great leaps being made in science and technology, some of which were distant and hard to grasp, like rockets blasting into space, while others such as transistor radios or stereo records were closer to home and easy to appreciate. But underpinning all the innovation was a general unease, a feeling that the world was an unruly place that was spinning out of control. As Jack Kerouac, founder of the so-called Beat Generation, had one of the characters say in On The Road: “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
America had the new music, at least for the time being, and so America had the guitars. Meanwhile, Europe had it bad. In Britain, for example, there was one word that came up again and again to describe the mood. Austerity. Post-war austerity. Rationing lasted well into the 50s, bomb sites were everywhere, greyness and gloom prevailed, and thanks to a cash-strapped government the importing of musical instruments and gramophone records “from the dollar areas” was banned from 1951 to 1959. Rock’n’roll inventiveness necessarily lagged behind the American model, which was streaking ahead with tailfins glinting. Even politician Harold Macmillan’s famous line, “You’ve never had it so good,” delivered in 1957 when prospects had brightened, was taken from a US election slogan of five years earlier.
Relatively speaking, the United States had finished the 40s without the crippling expense and psychological fallout that so many European countries had suffered as a result of World War II. Of course, there were some financial burdens – and the US musical instrument industry, at least, endured a recession from the late 40s until about 1952. One can tell that there must have been a recession, because the contemporary press was flecked with articles insisting that there was no recession.
In fact, the guitar started the 50s at a disadvantage. A craze for the ukulele had begun at the end of the 40s in the US, where over three million of the irritating little things were sold up to 1953. Fashion hounds everywhere forced their fingers into cramped chord shapes. The lowly ukulele was even elevated in 1950 to the status of an instrument recognised by the musicians’ union in the New York area.
The accordion, too, was on the crest of a popular wave, buoyed up by bandleader and accordionist Lawrence Welk. His proto-MOR ‘champagne music’ was alone enough to make any self-respecting teenager seek musical alternatives. In jazz and early rock’n’roll it was the saxophone that dominated the instrumental frontline, and only in country, blues, and Les Paul’s multi-layered chart hits did the guitar start the decade with any kind of musical stronghold.
But by 1954, the guitar’s fortunes were changing. A report by the American Music Conference in that year, estimating the number of people playing musical instruments in the US, put the guitar at 1.7 million, ukulele at 1.6 million, and accordion at 950,000. The sax was lumped in with ‘others’ at 975,000.
Two years later, the dramatic rise of rock’n’roll underlined the guitar’s versatility and fundamental simplicity, nudging the instrument to a peak of popularity. Charles Rubovits of the Harmony guitar company of Chicago seized on the positive signs when he wrote in a guitar industry report of 1956: “More people have the growing desire to do things themselves rather than be spectators; more people have more leisure time; more people are more easily exposed to music through television, creating a desire for self-expression; and more people have and will have more money to buy the things they want. Desire for fame and fortune is another motivating influence working in our behalf. Although we know the heights are reached by only a few, those attempting to gain this goal are many, proving this sales factor to be a reality.”
Sidney Katz, president of the other big Chicago-based guitar manufacturer, Kay, told a trade gathering a few years later to overlook their own musical prejudices and chase the teenagers’ dollars. “No matter how you feel about rock’n’roll and Elvis Presley,” he said, “for business they have been great, and guitar sales have been rising steadily as a result. People are getting tired of sitting in front of a television set; they want to get together and entertain themselves – and there’s no better instrument than a guitar for building a convivial atmosphere,” Katz concluded. No doubt he had stressed exactly what his audience of businessmen wanted to hear: that big guitar sales would bring the American family closer together, singing wholesome songs together around the hearth. None of that rock’n’roll rubbish, that’s for sure.
Reactions among parents and the establishment of the 50s to Elvis and his brand of guitar-based jungle music ranged from the outraged to the morally indignant. “Rock’n’roll is the most brutal, ugly, vicious form of expression,” Frank Sinatra told the New York Post in 1957, describing it colourfully as “the martial music of every delinquent on the face of the earth”. A vicar in England told the Daily Mirror that the effect of rock’n’roll on youngsters was “to turn them into devil worshippers; to stimulate self-expression through sex; to provoke lawlessness, impair nervous stability, and destroy the sanctity of marriage.” With that kind of manifesto, most teenagers merely wanted to know where to sign up.
Musical snobbery was rife, too. Steve Race, a British big-band pianist – and Light Music Advisor to the ATV television company – wrote in Melody Maker in 1956: “After Presley, just about anything can happen. Intonation, tone, intelligibility, musicianship, taste, subtlety – even the decent limits of guitar amplification – no longer matter. I fear for the future of a music industry which allows itself to cater for one demented age-group, to the exclusion of the masses who still want to hear a tuneful song, tunefully sung.” It’s a pity that Race didn’t copyright that last bit, because it’s been used ever since by every generation who can’t help but criticise their kids’ worthless music.
Jazzmen of the 50s, too, were horrified by the inept noise and artless rhythms of the new music. Leading jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, used to his modestly amplified hollowbody electric guitar, but as a sessionman necessarily responsive to new sonic requirements, told a reporter in 1956: “I had to buy a special ‘ultra toppy’ guitar to get that horrible electric guitar sound that the cowboys and the rock’n’rollers want.” And that same year a writer to the letters page in the jazz musician’s chief magazine, Down Beat, was clearly affronted. “The epitome of this musical suicide is reached by persons of the ilk of Elvis Presley, who seems to have a talent for sneering, jumping up and down, crossing his legs, standing on his head, playing down to his audience – in fact, a talent for everything but music. What makes it worse is the fact that this guy is making out so well while more talented and deserving artists pick up the crumbs.”
During the pages that follow, we’ll analyse the decade’s guitars and place them in the context of the music of the time. The guitars themselves, photographed to reveal every detail, provide the chronological order of the book, while around and about them a team of the world’s top guitar writers bring their expertise to bear on the key elements in the story of the guitar-laden 50s.
We see Chet Atkins at work on his pop-country hybrid and Les Paul constructing his New Sound, widening the popularity and appeal of the electric guitar; we marvel at Tal Farlow pushing and reshaping the boundaries of jazz guitar playing; we hear the low-down twang of Duane Eddy’s hit records; watch Scotty Moore at work with Elvis Presley, and Frank Beecher behind Bill Haley; we investigate everything from the black R&B of Chuck Berry to the white pop of Buddy Holly; and we examine Stratocasters and Explorers, Duo-Trons and Byrdlands, Emperors and Clubs and Switchmasters. Classic Guitars Of The 50s for the first time explains how the electric guitar grew up and established itself during ten mesmerising years. This book tells it like it was.