Oh happy day! August 5, 1957 was pivotal in music and Baby Boomer history. Making its national debut, broadcast on ABC-TV, live from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 3:30 in the afternoon; fifty-seven years ago, American Bandstand launched our youth culture movement. Hosted and led by perennial teenager Dick Clark, Philadelphia’s high school kids stepped off the studio’s bleachers, took to the dance floor, and rocked right into our living rooms with their youth, energy, rhythm, and romance, taking the cool factor to brand new levels. It was exhilarating.
Besides setting the standard for how American youth would dance, we were privileged to watch the show’s teens evaluate every latest song with scoring that ranged from 35 to 98; critiquing the music with comments about the beat and how easy it was dancing to it. There were times we did not know how good a song was until the Rate-a-Record part of the show, and then it became clear one would be totally square if the song was not embraced whole-heartedly. We were easily swayed; if the kids on Bandstand said it was good, then the song was good.
And they danced. How they danced. Fast, slow, boys with girls, girls with girls; it was a crowded dance floor, and everyone appeared to vie for spots closest to the cameras. In watching old films, it was funny how the boys consistently faced the cameras, while their female partners did not. It was the manner in which they all danced, everyday; so, there had to be a purpose in directing the kids to address the cameras this way. Having watched the films several times, I have my own theory. I believe the shows directors believed girls’ backsides were more appealing to the viewing audience than boys’ backsides would have been.
There was a reprieve to this camera protocol when everyone lined up in two separate queues to do the Stroll. I loved watching that particular dance, and was the one who taught my fifth grade class to do it. Since I could not cause my feet to dance the Bop, no matter how hard I tried, this willingness to teach was to be my redeeming dancing experience at school.
Slow dancing provided fairly equal camera time for both boys and girls, and dancing while doing the Hand Jive also seemed to give both equal face time. They all turned, twirled, and maneuvered around the dance floor, seemingly oblivious to the cameras; yet, there was no doubt to those of us at home that there was not one person in the studio who did not want to be right in front. Potential stars, every single one of them.
In celebration of that first show, let’s remember Dick Clark, the Philadelphia teens, an hour and a half of dancing, and the guests of the day, Billy Williams who sang I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter, and the Chordettes who sang Just Between You and Me. Well, they did not actually sing their songs. No, lip synching was how they performed their pre-recorded songs. But, they did sit and visit with Dick Clark for a brief interview, and discussed music and what their next projects would be.
It has been a long time since that show aired. We have put away our saddle oxfords, bobby sox, and poodle skirts; watched and listened as music and dance have evolved over the years; said good-bye to so many of those who originated the rock and roll phenomenon; and remember with profound fondness where and how it all began.
From the days of watching American Bandstand on TV, to nights when I listened to my transistor radio instead of sleeping, I always have loved the music. It is deeply rooted in blues, jazz, gospel, and country; African-American sounds meeting up with white country, drawing on city jazz, combining rhythm, and blues, all moving into and creating this genre we call rock and roll.
Through the years I have had favorite songs and artists, reflecting times and seasons of my life. But since 1973, there has been one song that best tells my story, my relationship with rock and roll. In the spirit of today’s anniversary, I would like to offer as a tribute a few lines from that song, and if you are reminded of something, someone, or someplace special, give a thanks to Dobie Gray. It would be better if we tuned our guitars and sang this together, but in the absence of that, here are some of the lyrics:
…Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away. Won’t you take me away.
And when my mind is free, you know your melody can move me. And when I’m feelin’ blue the guitars come through to soothe me.
Thanks for the joy you’ve given me. I want you to know I believe in your song and rhythm, and rhyme, and harmony. You’ve helped me along, you’re makin’ me strong.
Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away. Won’t you take me away…