When The Music Mattered : The Parallel Universe©2008JCMarion

It was the beginning of 1946, the first time in four long years that the country was not at war with foreign enemies from across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was a great time to be alive and a young American. It was to be a wonderous decade for the country because much of the planet’s infra structure was destroyed by the worldwide conflict that had recently reached its conclusion. This artificially created economic shortfall helped the United States become the production engine of much of the world. Life was good again and had unlimited possibilities for so many. But – not all of our citizens were the beneficiaries of this positive outlook. Black Americans having helped bring down despotic rule that would have enslaved a large portion of the population returned home to find themselves deprived of the very freedoms they fought to bring to foreigners. The heroes of the Tuskegee Airmen, of The Red Ball Express, and other segregated military units proved themselves the equal of all others in bravery and valor in combat. And yet on returning home it was the same old story – a life lived as a second class member of society in a separate but unequal existence.

These returning servicemen returned to a time when there existed a “parallel universe” for those Americans of color. They had their own neighborhoods of course, night clubs for Blacks only (unlike the Harlem clubs owned by gangsters which featured Black musicians but an all White clientele), and Black-specific entertainment. There was Black cinema featuring motion pictures with an all Black cast which featured singer Herb Jeffries (known as “The Bronze Buckaroo”) in a string of western movies. The Black counterpart to Bogart was Ralph Cooper who soon would produce a number of movies on his own. They were shown in theaters in Black areas or on “special” nights in other neighborhoods.

In radio there were a number of Black oriented stations and programs throughout the country. In a strange set of circumstances, many of the prominent programs aimed at a Black listening audience were in fact featuring White personalities playing what was then called “race music”. Soon this music was given the genre title of “Rhythm & Blues” to take the blatant racial stigma away from the songs. Some of the many White programmers of this music in the late forties to the early fifties were “Jumpin George” Oxford in San Francisco, Dick “Huggie Boy” Hugg and Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles, Clarence “Poppa Stoppa” Hammon in New Orleans, Zenas “Daddy” Sears in Atlanta, Dewey Phillips in Memphis, Gene Nobles, John “R” Richbourg, and Bill “Hoss” Allen in Nashville, and Alan “Moondog” Freed in Cleveland. Some stations that programmed heavily to the Black audience were WMRY in New Orleans, WDIA in Memphis, WHAT in Philadelphia, WJLB in Detroit, WFPR in Savannah, WGES in Chicago, WJOB in Gary, Indiana, WHOM, WLIB, and WWRL in New York, WOOK in Washington, D.C., KOWL in L.A., among others. In January of 1951 WERD in Atlanta became the first Black owned radio station in the country when purchased by J.B. Blayton Sr. the state’s only Black CPA.

The music during these years was also a product of the parallel universe. It was by Black performers directed at Black listeners. These tunes percolated along on their own, spreading out just slightly when the very few “crossover” artists such as Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstine, or The King Cole Trio would have success in the mainstream. It wasn’t until the early fifties that the first cracks in this wall of separation began to appear. White teenagers liked to dance. It became popular during the swing era, but by the post war time seemed to back track a bit perhaps because of the cold war fears. Records like “Cruising Down The River”, “Doggie In The Window”, “Shrimp Boats”, and “Slow Poke” (just to name a few) which were big time sellers just did not lend themselves to teenaged dancers. So they began looking in other places. What they found was the music that up until then was hidden from them in the parallel universe. The historic discovery was made by Leo Mintz the owner of Cleveland’s Record Rendezvous, a leading record seller in that city. White teens were buying these R & B records in ever increasing numbers, and so the amazed shop owner told an acquaintance at WJW radio named Alan Freed about his situation. Freed thought about this situation and soon exploited it for all it was worth. The rest as they say is history.

As the word began to spread across the country, the attendance at reviews featuring this style of music started to include more and more White patrons who had their first exposure to Rhythm & Blues performers. Freed’s first “Coronation Ball” in Cleveland in 1951 which ended just as it had begun was the clarion call for a seismic shift in the musical tastes of the country. Soon it would totally change the way the music business itself was operated. It would provide the emphasis to move to make the 45 rpm single the standard recording format. It would be proven that teenagers (especially girls) were the largest segment of those purchasing single records and the market would shift accordingly. All this from a musical form and style that had been a part of the parallel universe, hidden from a vast majority of the populace until it proved too powerful a voice to be quieted. It certainly played a part in the musical education of a young White truck driver for Crown Electric in Memphis, as he listened to WDIA radio in that city. Elvis had discovered his future.

By the time the tidal wave had begun in late 1954, things began to change in the country and there was no going back. Besides the Alan Freed shows in Ohio which drew a large number of White fans, a show in Brooklyn, NY, in September of 1954 starring some of the top names in R & B also drew a goodly number of White teenagers which was a harbinger of things to come in that same theater where Freed would have so much success in coming years. Soon young would be singers of all backgrounds began to hit notes and harmonize wherever they had the 'right" sound, be it a tenement hallway, school bathroom, or nearby subway station. They all wanted to sound like the music they heard on the radio every night that would soon be "their own". The once hidden and sheltered musical form was now becoming mainstream, and would still be the dominant form more than a half century later. The parallel universe is mostly gone for good, but the memories linger on, both good and bad. History should be remembered but not repeated.

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