Remembering the music of the '50s

After World War II American troops were deployed in Australasia spreading the sounds of gospel, ragtime, dixie and the blues, they would jump and jive to the swinging big band sound. With the introduction of transistor technology the concept of portability meant we could take our music anywhere with radios and record players.

With the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll the young people started a style of gymnastic dancing, but not all were enamoured by this new craze, a letter in the Melbourne Age stated: “Recently I attended a ball and was disgusted to find several men in sports suits and open necked shirts. Some women even wore tight skirts and sweaters. To make matters worse these types rock-n-rolled in the middle of the dance floor, leaving little room for others to dance comfortably. I think it is high time people who don’t dress and behave properly were banned from ballrooms.”

This split between young and old became known as the “generation gap”.

Television and rock ‘n’ roll arrived simultaneously in 1956, Festival Records acquired the Australian rights to ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley and his Comets and it became the biggest selling single ever at that time.

Copying the format of American Bandstand in 1958 Channel 9 successfully aired Bandstand targeting music for the young. This formula encouraged the ABC to come up with Six O-Clock Rock and in April 1959, Johnny O’Keefe (JOK) was installed as host along with his band The Dee Jays, this confirmed JOK as the leading rock ‘n’ roll artist in the country.

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Long Play records known as LP’s were introduced and in 1958 Melbourne band The Henri Bource All Stars issued Australia’s first rock ‘n’ roll LP titled Rock ‘n’ Roll Party.

Businessman Lee Gordon formed the promotions company The Big Show Pty Ltd and staged his biggest coup by bringing Frank Sinatra to Australia in January 1955 and followed with Johnny Ray. The Big Shows featured the seminal rock ‘n’ roll artists at the time, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis to the utter glee of the baby boomers.

In 1957 Lee Gordon arranged to bring Bill Haley and his Comets to Australia and for the first time a local band Johnny O’Keefe and the Dee Jays were offered a spot on the bottom of the bill. This opened the door of other local artists, Col Joye and the Joy Boys, The Delltones, Dig Richards and the R’Jays, and Johnny Devlin and the Devils, to open for international celebrities and be seen on stage in front of a national audience.

In Sydney musician Alan Dale, with previous big band experience decided on a ground breaking move to start his own wildly popular new scene and play only rock ‘n’ roll. Alan Dale and the Houserockers started on February 8, 1957 at Maroubra Town Hall and later in May the regular Wednesday night dance at Alexandria Town Hall was to be the benchmark for ’50s rock ‘n’ roll dances.

Lonnie Lee was Australia’s first rock-a-billy star and with his band The Leemen headed to Sydney from rural Rowena in New South Wales in 1956 and became regulars on Bandstand and Six O’Clock Rock.

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Another leading act in Sydney was The Delltones who went on the perform as backing vocalists for The Everly Brothers, Fabian, Crash Craddock, Conway Twitty, and Jimmie Rodgers as well as having their own spot on The Big Show. They signed for Leedon Records in 1959 beginning a career which has spanned over 50 years.

Col Joye and the Joy Boys were the first Aussie rock ‘n’ roll act to reach number one in Australia with ‘Bye Bye Baby’ and the first Aussies to reach the American Billboard charts.

Other major bands on the rock ‘n’ roll circuit were The Thunderbirds, The Planets, The Breakaways, The Saxons, The Fabulous Blue Jays, The Marksmen and The Playboys all from Melbourne. In Brisbane The Rockettes, The Hucklebucks, The Dominoes, The Worried Minds, The Pacifics, The Avengers, The Flamingoes and The Embers.

The Number One Hit Singles in the ’50s in Australia

1950: Lavender Blue, Dinah Shore and Burl Ives
1951: Bewitched, Doris Day
1952: Because Of You, Tony Bennett
1953: Half As Much, Rosemary Clooney
1954: Pretend, Nat “King” Cole
1955: Skokiaan, The Four Lads
1956: The Yellow Rose Of Texas, Mitch Miller
1957: Hey There, Rosemary Clooney
1958: April Love, Pat Boone
1959: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Platters

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Do you remember the music of the 1950s? Tell us about your favourite song.

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