Category: 50's Music


French chanson music may seem very alien to ears weaned on pop music, and it may not seem to bear much relation to what we think of as rock and roll, but if rock stardom can be seen as a state of being; if self-destruction, dysfunction, and bad luck are among the defining characteristics of what it means to be a rock star; if tragic, larger than life glamour is what we look for in a rock star; then Edith Piaf was on of the first and greatest rock stars. Piaf had an outstandingly shitty life, marked by tragic loss and physical suffering. She was the daughter of a street acrobat, abandoned by both parents, raised in a brothel by her madam grandmother, discovered busking in the streets of Paris, lost her only child and the love of her life, went through a series of lousy relationships, descended into morphine addiction after a near fatal car accident – if her life was a movie (which it has been made into) you’d think it was farfetched. Like Billie Holiday, she was one of those people who, despite all their success, couldn’t seem to catch a break. And like Holiday, she poured the pain from all of her bad breaks into her music. Her music remains alive and compelling and her legend still holds, and if she’d enjoyed a happier life, that probably would not be the case.


Chuck Berry is a huge fan of ladies’ makeup products, and that’s why he wrote a song shilling for the Maybellene cosmetic company. The end. No. Chuck Berry was such a huge fan of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys that he just had to rip off their song Ida Red. Because if there’s one problem with American pop culture, it’s black people always stealing ideas from men who wear cowboy hats. *sarcasm* Actually, it’s a little bit of both. Berry was inspired by Wills’ tune. He often covered it in concert, and even wanted to record his own version, until Chess Records’ Leonard Chess dismissed it as ‘too rural’. It was Chess who had the idea to market “a hillbilly song sung by a black man.” Thus Berry’s signature sound was born; designed to crib from the blues for black appeal, and ‘hillbilly’ country for white appeal. And, yes, he totally lifted the name Maybellene from the cosmetics manufacturer, if you were wondering which came first.

Lullaby of Birdland

Here is a rare video of Ella Fitzgerald performing live, in what appears to be a rather large venue full of white people. The sound quality could be better, but overall it’s a very good glimpse of the star. Unfortunately, any such clip is a rarity, concerts not being frequently documented in those days. The shortage of video footage of greats like Ella is painful, especially for young fans raised in the age of minute-by-minute updates, but it does make you appreciate what we do have. I’m sure that seeing Ella Fitzgerald in her nightclub days was something else, but those are moments remembered only by eyewitnesses, and glimpsed only in still photos today.

Love Me

The eternally fashionable Buddy Holly. The man just continues to be an icon, decades after his short career ended in tragedy. You’ll want to remember this song for future reference. It’s one of those deceptively simple tunes that you can trace so much back down to.  You almost can’t even call it evolution, because people are still copying the same basic structure without having to add too much. Some pretty famous people have used the formula with near-plagiarism faithfulness. But why mess with a perfect thing? There’s a reason why sharks and crocodiles haven’t changed in hundreds of millions of years; they’re  already perfect, and so it is with the two-minute pop song as envisioned by Buddy Holly.

Love and Marriage

This song is corny and stupid on so many levels, yet I can’t help liking it. It’s so chipper it makes me forgive everything that’s wrong with it. Also, Frank Sinatra makes everything classy. You may well remember this as the theme song of Married…with Children, which should be enough to acid-burn away every last trace of classiness – but yet. (If you don’t remember that, good for you, because Married…with Children was a truly terrible sitcom back from when I was a kid.) And, of course, the song is incredibly stupid on just the most basic level of having absolutely the worst lyrics ever. Mother Goose would be ashamed of those rhymes. Not to mention that marriage and love have historically had about as much to do with one another as higher business management and love, or banking and love, or selling cars and love, or any other purely financial transaction has to do with love. Since society has in the last century or so undergone such changes that the institution of marriage is no longer a survival necessity, there’s been a drive to romanticize it enough that people would still want to engage in it despite its obsolescence. Therefore, songs like this one, hammering the misguided point home with zero subtlety. The concept that the institution of marriage, which still grants a number of purely legal benefits but serves no truly necessary purpose, is somehow entwined with matters of romance and personal fulfillment is, I believe, one of the great fallacies of our time and needs to be thoroughly eradicated posthaste. How are we going to achieve a state of equality and a non-gender biased social structure if society is still hellbent on brainwashing women into willingly pursuing the instruments of their own oppression? I don’t see anyone openly telling African-Americans that maybe they’d be more fulfilled if they’d only go pick some cotton*. You know why? Because that is an incredibly shitty and offensive thing to insinuate, and I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s alright to suggest to women that we are expected to seek out and enjoy the institutions that have historically been an instrument of  our bondage.

On a side note, as we are entering a long block of songs about love, be forewarned, I am really not in a good mindframe right now regarding the subject. If the timing were just a little bit different I would be approaching it either with happy enthusiasm or benign indifference, but as it happens I’m in a state of rage, frustration and pain that makes it hard for me to even tackle the topic. But, since my therapist did suggest that perhaps writing out my feelings would be helpful for me, I may just use this forum for a little therapeutic venting. Hopefully, no one with a vested interest in my personal life will be paying attention.

*Yes, society most certainly still does insinuate that, but not openly and not in so many words. I’m not sure if that counts as progress.

Laundromat Blues

“Well, I woke up this morning, ain’t got me no clean socks/Said, I woke up this morning, and I ain’t got me no clean socks” Sorry, those aren’t the actual lyrics. It’s just that blues songs are so easy and fun to parody. You can jampack almost anything into the format. In reality, the content of this song is very different from what you’d imagine. Very, very different. The “5” Royales are best known for R’N’B hits like Think and Dedicated to the One I Love but they also mastered the fine art of the dirty blues. Dirty blues, in the days of heavy censorship, was any music –  be it blues, soul, R’n’B, swing, etc – that used creative metaphors to barely disguise their true, filthy meaning. Bull Moose Jackson’s Big Ten-Inch Record, Jesse Powell’s Walkin’ Blues, and Cousin Joe’s Wedding Day Blues are all fine examples of the bait-and-switch method, in which the singer sounds like he’s about to say something dirty and then substitutes something funny and innocuous instead. Others, like Wynonie Harris’s Keep On Churnin’ or Julia Lee’s Don’t Come Too Soon, barely pretend to be anything but blatantly sexual. In their effort to talk dirty without getting in trouble with the decency police, singers often got wildly imaginative with their metaphors. This one has to be one of the very best in terms of creativity. Whilst the true meaning is veiled very thinly, the veil itself is highly unusual. Not everyone would immediately think to associate a washing machine with sexual innuendo, but now that you know that this guy’s woman has the best one in town, how could you not? Lots of bonus points to the “5” Royales for not going with the usual tired food metaphors when it comes to rhapsodizing the glories of their girl’s vagina.

Lady Sings the Blues

Classic Billie Holiday to soothe your troubled soul. Billie Holiday was a troubled soul herself, with a lifetime of sorrows on her shoulders. She just straight-up had a bad life. She was one of those people who was born into eternal night, and no amount of fame or money could set her free. So how is it, with all the heartbreak and pain she had to pour into it, that her music should be so soothing? I can’t say it’s uplifting; that pain is in there, after all. But there’s something in her voice that’s like a salve, easing the spirit. Did she sing to soothe herself too? Possibly – a lot of people do. Despite all her personal demons, she had the gift of making other people feel better.

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine

Merry Christmas and here for you is the inimitable Marlene Dietrich with one of her signature slightly naughty chansons. It’s lovely and romantic this time, which should cheer your heart on this most joyous of holidays.

(Photo by Milton H. Greene)

Johnny B. Goode

This song is so classic it’s like one of those primordial sea creatures that every branch of life evolved from. Only with rock’n’roll and the evolution only took a few years. People – a lot of ’em – have built entire careers out of mimicking Chuck Berry’s riffs. Then younger people mimicked those people, and then the next generation mimicked them, to the point where half of them don’t even know what they’re mimicking anymore. How many young ‘uns don’t even realize that the basic structure of a rock’n’roll song hasn’t just always existed in the ether, that it came from somewhere and that somewhere was Chuck Berry’s noggin? Meanwhile, old Chuck keeps a’rockin’ and he’s outlived a fair number of his acolytes. It’s unfortunate that apparently the legend is not a very nice guy in real life, so much so, that even his Number One Fan Keith Richards can’t pen a blurb for Rolling Stone magazine without lamenting what an asshole the dude turned out to be. Bummer. The old perv got busted for having surveillance cameras in the ladies’ room of his restaurant, for Pete’s sake! Not that being a creep in real life should discourage anyone from enjoying his music or anything, but if that makes you somewhat lose respect for Chuck Berry, I don’t blame you. For myself, in this particular instance, I honestly prefer listening to Peter Tosh’s version of Johnny B. Goode.

Big Ten-Inch Record

Going for the opposite of new, how about some good ol’ dirty blues? Courtesy of Bull Moose Jackson and his Buffalo Bearcats. (Among all the other great things about bluesmen, they sure did know how to name themselves!) In the 40’s Jackson was one of the most popular R’n’B singers and sold one of the first to sell a million records, an unusual achievement at the time. Whatever else he may have done, this is the song he’ll go down in history for, for the unfortunate reason that it was once covered by Aerosmith. While that was actually less awful than you would imagine, it would be nice for people to know the song for its own original virtue. The problem with its being known as an Aerosmith track isn’t so much Aerosmith, although they’ve never came remotely within eyesight of resembling anything like genuine R’n’B. The problem is that in 1975 it was no big deal for anyone to sing about a ten-inch anything – sexual innuendo had become the norm, and you could brag about the size of your penis right out in the open. The real delight of this song, although it is clever enough in any context, is the thought of how raunchy it was for its time. This was the fifties, an age when the word ‘pregnancy’ was too suggestive for television. Meanwhile, under the radar, dirty blues flourished and absurd euphemisms became an art form. I would imagine that the one somewhat bright side of the existence of segregated ‘race charts’ was that black artists could quietly get away with being a whole lot naughtier than white artists. Blues music has always been very sexual, and sometimes just straight up openly filthy, and got away with it because white people barely knew that it existed. Which in no way validates the argument that horrific injustice is in the slightest bit justified by the great art that springs from the experiences of the oppressed. But I guess the dirty blues records were a little “fuck you, we’re gonna have some fun in spite of you” towards white society. By this standard what sounds like silly novelty songs take on a whole new level of meaning. They become socially significant in light of the larger historical context.