By Tom Rodriguez
This story of memories is the result of a conversation I had with my two daughters, Alexis, age 26, and Lyla, age 19, after they asked me what it was like when I was a teenager. I told them that my teen years were from 1955 to 1960 and that it was a wonderful, exciting time to be alive. We talked for about two hours about the music, movies, dances, cars, and friends. Days afterwards, I sat down and wrote this story about those remarkable years.
The five years from 1955 to 1960 were extraordinary in terms of the great range of events that occurred in the lives of young people in my hometown of Topeka, Kansas, and across America. It seemed as if overnight the lifestyle of America’s youth changed dramatically, and forever. Out of that five year period there emerged a new generation of young Americans, a generation that broke away from the traditions of our parents and defined ourselves through our clothing, music, dances, movies, slang, and hairstyles. That youth revolution was highly stressful to our parents, who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II and who could not understand how we could have so little regard for the traditions that guided their lives.
In hindsight, it is clear that there was not too much that our parents could have done to stop the changes that were taking place. In years past when young people earned money, which during the Great Depression and war years was not very much, their earnings went to help support their families. In comparison, starting in the mid-1950’s a more materialistic class of young Americans emerged. We were called “Teenagers.”
That brief but remarkable period in American history was also characterized by an unprecedented proliferation of new technology. In the second half of 1950’s new products came on to the American market that revolutionized life for young people. Some of those products included portable radios, portable record players, small easy to handle 45 rpm records, long playing 33 1/3 records, and television. Those products created new entertainment businesses that were financed by millions of teenagers with money in their pockets.
Beginning in 1955, teenagers emerged as a significant force in the American economy. Teenagers became consumers as never before in this country’s history. American teenagers began spending millions of dollars on entertainment. And to help free them from their money, new and old businesses devised new ways for teenagers to spend more and more of their money.
In addition, for the first time in the history of this country, large numbers of teenagers had their own cars, which presented them with a new kind of freedom. That access to cars played a significant role in redefining sexual attitudes among young people. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, only a few young people owned or had access to automobiles. In comparison, in the last half of the 1950’s, nearly every teenager either had or could get the use of a car. As a result, no generation of teenagers ever had more opportunities to be alone with each other., a phenomenon that in many ways made their fellow teenagers more important as influencers than their parents.
The Music: Rock ‘N’ Roll
Looking back, the one thing that best characterized the years from 1955 to 1960 was the music. More than anything else, it was the music that was central to the lifestyle of America’s teenagers. Everything revolved around it. It was everywhere and teenagers listened to their music on small transistor radios, portable record players, car radios, at home, in their cars, parties, picnics, dances and on television. Rock ‘N’ Roll music was the engine that drove the Teenage Revolution.
Prior to 1955, most of the music played on the top radio stations in Topeka and across the nation were the pop standards of the day sung by artists like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray, Frankie Laine, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Doris Day and others of that musical genre. Starting in 1955, however, a group of new entertainers playing a new kind of music burst on to the national scene. The music was called Rock ‘N’ Roll.
In 1955, Bill Haley and the Comets released what would become the first rock ‘n’ roll mega hit. It was called “Rock Around The Clock.” Coinciding with the release of the record was the hit movie, Blackboard Jungle, that opened with a blaring, sensual soundtrack of “Rock Around The Clock.” The movie told the story of a inner city high school in New York City and the teenagers and teen gang members who attended the school. Glenn Ford played the idealistic teacher who tried to get through to the teenagers played by newcomers, Sidney Pointier, Vic Morrow, Jamie Farr, and Rafael Campos. The movie was so popular with teenagers in my neighborhood that many of us memorized entire passages of dialogue from the movie.
Other rock and roll performers who burst on to the national scene in 1955 and quickly became teen favorites were Chuck Berry, a Negro with a prison record who wrote and recorded the huge hit, “Maybellene,” and became the “Father of Rock ‘N’ Roll” and Little Richard, another Negro who performed in flashy clothes, wore a large pompadour, and sang with an intensity and frenzy unparalleled up to that time. Little Richard’s first hit, “Tutti Fruitti” was so successful that it was redone by the squeaky clean White teen idol, Pat Boone, whose rendition was embarrassingly bad but nevertheless became a hit with white teenagers. Another rock and roller who hit it big in 1955 was Antoine “Fats” Domino, a Negro from New Orleans who recorded “Ain’t That A Shame” and “All By Myself,” both of which sold over a million records. That remarkable year also produced the mega hit “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Lymon, then only sixteen years old, went on to become the first Negro teenage pop star.
Those Negro performers were soon followed by a large group of White rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly., Eddie Cochran, and Danny and the Juniors,. In addition to those hard rockers, there were more mainstream white teen idols like Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers. Other teen favorites of that era were Ritchie Valens, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Shirley and Lee, and Roy Hamilton. Some other well known performers from that period were the “do-woppers” like Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Flamingos, the Moonglows, the Impressions, the Cadillacs, and the Platters. Some of the more successful rhythm and blues artists were Ray Charles, B. B. King, Bo Diddley, Big Mama Thornton, and Muddy Waters. Several of the more notable female groups were the Chantels, The Teen Queens, The Bobettes, The Shirelles and The Vandellas.
Helping to promote the rock and roll artists, and capitalizing financially on their success, were Alan Freed, a nationally syndicated disc jockey who put together rock and roll concerts that toured the country featuring numerous top teen idols in one show, and Dick Clark, a television entrepreneur who in 1957 started “American Bandstand” that was watched daily by millions of teenagers anxious to learn the latest dance steps and see their favorite recording idols performing their hit songs. Ed Sullivan, whose Sunday night variety show, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” was watched by millions, also played a big role in helping to promote rock and roll during the late 1950’s.
The year 1955 also marked the emergence of a performer who would come to personify the heart and soul of rock and roll, and the one person who was most responsible for popularizing a new era in American music. That person’s name was Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
In 1955, Elvis Presley exploded on to the national scene and quickly captured the hearts and minds of America’s teenagers. Elvis Presley was handsome, wore pegged pants, had long hair, and moved his body in a new and exciting hip-swinging way that excited female fans and impressed male teenagers. Elvis Presley, however, was feared and condemned by many older white establishment leaders who threatened to have him arrested if he set foot in their towns. Those actions, of course, only served to make Elvis more popular with teenagers across the country.
Teenagers in Topeka, Kansas, were not immune to the Elvis phenomenon, in fact, among Mexican-American teenagers in Topeka, Elvis quickly became a hero and role model. Mexican-American male teenagers strongly identified with Elvis because he wore pegged pants, loud colored jackets, and had long “duck tailed” hair just like we did. Topeka, Kansas, was also one of Elvis’ early gigs when he played a concert in Topeka on May 21, 1956, at the Municipal Auditorium. In attendance in the large crowd were myself and three of my Mexican-American teenage friends.
For whatever reasons very few white male teenagers in Topeka dressed like Elvis, but they definitely loved his music. In fact, it was hard to find a teenager that didn’t like Elvis’ music. In retrospect, that was probably the most remarkable thing about Elvis Presley, that all young people liked him. It didn’t matter whether they were White, Negro, Mexican-American or Asian. To all of us, Elvis was the undisputed “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
Teen Themed Movies from the 1950’s
Two of the classic teen oriented movies made in 1955 starred James Dean, then a relatively unknown actor who was cast as the star of Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden. With the release of those two movies, James Dean became one of America’s most popular actors. Dean’s moody, sensual, and strong portrayal of a teenager going through his troubled teen years in Rebel Without A Cause, struck a deep chord with all teenagers, including me and my friends. After seeing Rebel Without A Cause, teenagers like myself tried to emulate Dean by acting moody and “cool.” I even went out and bought a red jacket similar to the one Dean wore in the movie. Rebel Without A Cause also had a large influence on teenage girls, who identified strongly with Natalie Wood, the teenage love interest of James Dean in the movie.
The huge success of Rebel Without A Cause and Blackboard Jungle in 1955, served to convince Hollywood that there was big money to be made by making movies targeted to America’s teenagers. Some of the teen movies produced in the period from 1955 to 1960 included High School Confidential, Don’t Knock The Rock, Teenage Rebel, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole with Elvis Presley, Young Sinners, Rock, Rock, Rock, Reform School Girl, and A Summer Place with Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Regrettably, it would be a long time before teen movies of the dramatic caliber of Rebel Without A Cause, East Of Eden, and Blackboard Jungle would again appear on the movie screen.
Remembrances of the Fifties
For me and for so many other teenagers in Topeka, Kansas, and across America, the five years from 1955 to 1960 were characterized by a rebellion against established societal norms, sexual experimentations, alcohol and drug experimentation, some gang affiliation, and an immersion into Rock ‘N’ Roll music. When the period started I was a somewhat innocent, optimistic, inexperienced fourteen year old. When it ended in 1960, I was a street-wise nineteen year old, sexually experienced, alcohol drinking, former gang member, and high school graduate getting ready to serve in the U. S. Army. Even today, sixty-one years later, those times are forever burned into my memory. It was all about being young, of being a part of a social revolution, being exposed to great new music, learning about girls, buying my first car, and experiencing all of it with my friends and the young people who lived in my hometown of Topeka, Kansas. It was an exciting, unforgettable period in America. It was the best of times that I will remember always!