Thanksgiving here in the States has come and gone. While still the holiday weekend, I am on my way to St. Louis - not because of what is happening in Ferguson; it is all work related, although somewhat tangential to what has transpired there. I did not say much in my last post about Ferguson, and I won't here, either. But it will be interesting if songs are written about the tragedy. Actually, those songs were written in the 60s, so why write more, right?
There was a tragic and historic event that went largely unnoticed this year due to the overshadowing of events in Ferguson. 51 years ago, right before Thanksgiving, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. We had lost other sitting presidents in the 20th Century, but not since the turn of the century was it due to an assassin's bullet. I remember this tragedy. I was in grade school, 10 years old, and learned about it as I boarded the school bus at the end of the day. I did not believe it until I got home to see my parents, glued to the TV, as Walter Cronkite described what had happened. A few days later I was watching when alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down by night club owner Jack Ruby, live on TV. While I am sure there were some who were happy about this, it prevented closure since we were deprived of the opportunity to see Oswald tried and probably convicted, and a better chance to see if he really acted alone. The country was devastated. Conspiracy theories quickly sprung forth. Was Russia involved? Organized crime? Castro? Was Ruby sent to silence Oswald? Whether you loved or hated Kennedy, it demonstrated the vulnerability of America. Our President could be killed and the reason was not even clear.
President Johnson pushed through and signed civil rights legislation into law as part of Kennedy's legacy. But later he escalated our involvement in Vietnam. As time went on, the country became more divided on both these issues. But for now, the country was united and depressed. We had lost a president. We were vulnerable. Could the USSR invade us? I learned early on in grade school to fear "the Reds". Thankfully, my parents did not succumb to this fear and kept a pretty level head, and I learned early to not believe everything I was told in school. But many did fear that we were open to invasion. And, indeed we were; but no one would have guessed that the invasion would be musical, and from the country we broke away from in 1776.
Beatlemania had already begun in Britain. As early as October, 1963, there had been talk of the phenomenon and the question was when would it spread to America. In fact, the very morning of the day Kennedy was killed, CBS television ran a story about Beatlemania. On December 10, Walter Cronkite ran the story again, in need of something positive to report. It was inevitable; the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand" became a hit in the US. And, on February 7, 1964, The Beatles arrived in the US. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9. The invasion had begun. And many more followed; Dusty Springfield hit the Billboard top 100 just a week after The Beatles, then came The Dave Clark Five and The Searchers. In the next year and a half, American television and rock n' roll charts were dominated by The Beatles and other British groups like The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Zombies, Freddie and The Dreamers, Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, Herman's Hermits, Manfred Mann, and a host of others. A new sound and a new look, positive, youthful, and rebellious, had been discovered by America's youth.
Looking back, I think this invasion was so successful partly because it was a way to escape the social and political depression America found itself in at the time, besides providing the music industry with "the next big thing". But was it really that new? Rock n' roll began in America, out of a synthesis of R&B and C&W. Indeed, as a side note, the term rock and roll was coined long before it's trademark sound, back in 1934, in the song "Rock and Roll" made popular by the American vocal group, the Boswell Sisters. But in the late 50s and early 60s, British artists were listening to the American music scene. The Beatles stated that their primary influences were Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry. British bands such as the Graham Bond Quartet, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, and Steampacket, dug deeper into the roots of American music, covering or reconstructing songs from old American blues artists, and influencing The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and later Cream and Led Zeppelin. So, was it really that big of a step from Elvis to The Beatles? Look at some of the American artists in this progression: the Everly Brothers, Dion and The Belmonts, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Each had a new sound. Then came the British invasion. It was a logical progression. Yet, The Beatles completely dominated - even more than Elvis in his time. The Beatles were the first to arrive. They came at a most opportune time - America needed their positive energy. The other British artists folllowed on their coattails, though some being just as talented and creative.
I often wonder about this early period in the British invasion. While it was inevitable, since music was progressing in new directions, as it always had and always will, would The Beatles have been as successful in America had Kennedy not been assassinated? It is interesting to ponder, but we will never know.
I was just 10 years old when it all began. But I certainly remember all of this. While the Beatles were invading, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Listen, becoming the new heavyweight boxing champion and conducted his own revolution in sports - to eventually be one of the most prolific and revered sportsmen, as well as the most well-known conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, changing his faith and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, and serving time in prison for his refusal to go to Vietnam when drafted. It was an interesting time, and it was just getting more interesting. As I entered my teens, we had an escalation of the Vietnam War, race riots and more civil rights legislation, more assassinations, LSD and psychedelia, the hippie movement, women's rights, the sexual revolution...all within a decade. What a time to come of age! And the music was interwoven within it all. For every "movement", "revolution", protest, and fad, there were songs reflecting it. It is difficult to determine if music was a catalyst for change, or if music reflected the change, or if there is simply a symbiotic relationship between music and societal change. It seems to me that it is a symbiosis. I don't have time right now, but I will write further on this symbiosis in future posts.
On the way to the hotel tonight, my shuttle went through Clayton - where Darren Wilson worked before going to the Ferguson PD. As we rode through, the radio played Christmas music - 60s Christmas music, including Elvis' "Here Comes Santa Claus" and Ray Conniff Singers' "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow". I remember these versions from my youth. Funny, The Beatles never issued the obligatory Christmas song or album until their breakup. They did release holiday records to their fan club members, but they were more like audio Christmas cards and were rarely heard on the radio. But in the spirit of The Beatles and the holiday season, Happy Crimble!