How The Great American

Songbook Survived The Onslaught Of Rock & Roll.

by Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to


In the mid-1950s the monolithic music industry, centered snugly (and a little too smugly) in New York, got an electric shock worse than an earthquake with the coming of Bill Haley & His  Comets, followed by Elvis Presley & his pelvic gyrations. After that there came a romping, stomping legion of rude, crude rockers, strange creatures emanating from the hinterlands and the Deep South, foreign regions hitherto only recognized by Tin Pan Alley and Broadway in songs concerning Mammy and Alabammy.

       Mixed in with all this mayhem (and dangerously close to home, to civilized New York) came urban Rhythm & Blues, conjoining with the above hillbilly music to create the phenomenon glorified as Rock & Roll by renegade disc jockey Alan Freed, a jazz lover and one-time spinner of classical music, a man who ought to have known better.  Gloria Parker, who had her own disc (“Stars & Stripes Forever Meringue”) competing in the Hit Parade stakes with these upstart rockers, was to later state at a congressional hearing into the sinister background of the new music: “This rock and roll is a funeral parlor for the music of Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin”.

       Abandoned were internal rhymes and literary references, together with lush impressionist harmonies such as Gershwin and Porter and Hart had used. And where was the immaculate jazz of Duke Ellington and his confreres, a precision that had taken decades to craft from the messy beginnings of jazz way back when?

       The current radio airwaves were being polluted by songs like Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”, which repeated her name 18 times, plus other atrocities riddled with false rhymes and set to no more than three chords. The entrenched music publishers, men of paper rather than shellac or vinyl, cried conspiracy—a devilish alliance of the new breed of disc jockey with Broadcast Music Inc, (BMI), the radio-formed newish agency that licensed this crazed craze. Could the Soviets be lurking somewhere, eager to crush All-American freedom of choice?

       Immediate action must be taken, demanded BMI’s venerable rival the American Society of Composers, Authors, and

Publishers (ASCAP), a closed guild representing all that was good and decent in American music.

        No hillbillies, no blues shouters and certainly no rock & rollers were admitted into this exclusive country club, a rarified region ruled by the men who alone claimed they had created Great American Music, artists & craftsmen who had been working hard since the turn of the century. Many had started as poor East European immigrants with nothing but rags and strange accents. Now they sported tweeds and cravats and had fine paintings on the walls of their Manhattan townhouses and first edition classics adorning their bookshelves.

        What a shock, then, after all this assimilation and good taste training to be assaulted on disc and airwave by a motley crew of blue-jeaned sharecroppers and whining blacks from threatening inner city ghettoes!

        In 1956 at an investigation by the Anti-Trust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, instigated by ASCAP in its ongoing war against BMI, the following statement was made by veteran songwriter Billy (“You’ve Got To See Momma Every Night”, “I Got A Code Id By Nose”) Rose:

       ”Not only are most of the BMI Songs junk, but in many cases they are obscene junk pretty much on a level with dirty comic magazines.. It is the current climate of radio and TV which makes Elvis Presley and his animal posturings possible… When ASCAP’s songwriters were permitted to be heard, Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor were all big salesmen of song. Today it is a set of untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely to the zootsuiter and the juvenile delinquent”.

       Frank Sinatra jumped into the fray, complaining of record and movie companies foisting on the public ”the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” He summed up rock & roll as “a rancid aphrodisiac” sung by “cretinous goons”.

       And so the battle raged on…


       In the summer of 1959, in a quiet and leafy suburb of London, not far from Wimbledon where tennis balls were being whacked in a friendly manner, I lay at rest on my bed in the family flat. Exams were overI had done my best to sum up the causes of the French Revolution and now I was putting my mind and soul to work on matters that really engaged me. Matters of pop music past and present. I had discovered something new and exciting and yet at the same time old and mellow.  I had discovered Frank Sinatra via his LP “Songs For Swingin’ Lovers”.

       Since the early 1950s I had been following pop music in local weeklies  “Melody Maker” and “New Musical Express”, reading about new belters like Johnnie Ray and Frankie Laine, keenly listening to the latest American imports on the radio, and buying records such as “Shotgun Boogie” by the glamorously-named “Tennessee” Ernie Ford. Excitement came brightly packaged from America, land of the free, lawless and sexy: the riders in the sky, the cry of the wild goose, the crack of the whip on the mule train.

        And one night after lights-out in my boarding school dormitory one of my pals lit upon the renegade Radio Luxembourg, a station that broadcast the latest new sounds, raw stuff spurned by the BBC.

        Out of the hissing shortwave portable radio came roaring a honking, rattling train of sound clickety-clacking across the sky bringing the good news: Bill Haley & His Comets telling the jaded old world to “Shake Rattle & Roll!”  From now on, we knew that there’d be no stopping the rock & roll train, a train mercifully free of the sociological baggage of US history—no jazzmen, bluesmen, lynch victims, no complications.

       That night I snuck out of the dorm and wrote in the snow on the front lawn: “ROCK & ROLL”. Magic spell words summoning more heroes to come.

       And come they did: Elvis with his churning and twisting hips, his panting and busting up of lyrics; Little Richard with his evangelical whoops and wicked rolling eyes; Jerry Lee Lewis with his kicking away of the piano stool and wild raking of the keyboard. I loved it all and longed to be in the crazy country of origin.

       So what was I doing four years later lying on my bed letting the wash and occasional hard surf of Frank Sinatra and his swinging band enrapture me?

       I’ll tell you what:  I loved the command of this man--like a hard-crooning colonel and yet laid-back as the band strode along easy but speedy, canopied by clouds of violins and sudden bomb attacks from the brass, tempered by the sweet chiming of an instrument sounding like a childhood toy, a celesta. And, oddly, marching along to tunes that I remembered from my mother’s collection of 78 rpm records from the 1920s and 30s—“It   Happened In Monterey”, ”Pennies From Heaven”, “Makin’ Whoopee”—now transformed into something gorgeous and on the move.


       In 1953, while we were celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II, over in Los Angeles the career of Frank Sinatra, one-time king of croon, was slowly rising from the mud of ground zero. For various reasons, laid out in countless books, Sinatra had over the last few years nose-dived in all aspects of his life. No record company would touch him; he was reduced to playing odd gigs in small nightclubs. He was dead broke.

       Then Alan Livingston of Capitol Records took a chance and signed up the humble, humiliated singer. Sinatra still called the tune though, insisting on having his trusted arranger Axel Stordahl for the initial releases. But if they flop, said Livingston, then give our Nelson Riddle a chance—he’s scored a string of hits for Nat King Cole. A quiet schooled musician, a man who knows both jazz and serious music. A sensitive underscorer.

       The Stordhal releases did flop and soon, surreptitiously, Riddle was working with Sinatra—and a beautiful relationship began: the hatted singer standing in the middle of the sonically-superb Capitol studio surrounded by specially selected jazzers on their best behavior reading the Riddle ink under the Riddle baton as behind them acres of symphonic strings bathed the swinging four-four tempos in ethereal sweetness. Somewhere lurked a flute or two, and, of course, the beloved celesta…

       A winning combo—Sinatra & Riddle—perfect for the new medium of the high fidelity long playing disc with its artwork and liner notes. “Songs For Swingin’ Lovers”—a concept album, a good basis for an evening of romance.

       Yes, the songs swung and were soon selling to bachelors for use in their pads. Gone were the bobbysoxer screaming of the 1940s and the curses of their jealous menfolk. Now Sinatra was a man’s man and the perfect purveyor of seductive sounds as lights were dimmed and martinis set aside: “Only The Lonely”, “In The Wee Small Hours”, “Close To You”, “Nice ‘N’ Easy”.

       The Rat Pack ring-a-ding years were just around the corner. A new Sinatra, macho yet laid-back, hot and modern yet singing songs of old, songs from the 1920s and 30s by the now-classic songwriters of Broadway and Hollywood.

       As Sinatra’s concept albums—and Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook series—sold nicely so the demon rock & roll continued to din up the airwaves, cause a few riots, and mess up the cinema screens. But, in the scheme of things, there appeared to be room for the young and restless as well as for the mature and calm.

        Indeed light shone for the old guard of Tin Pan Alley in 1959 when the payola investigations ended with Congress passing a law banning the practice. The result was that radio management took over the making of record playlists and thus the days of the sudden impulse disc jockeys, those who might slap a new disc on their turntable and broadcast a wild unknown rocker, were over.

       On top of this there was an attrition of rock stars: Elvis went into the army, Little Richard went into the church, and Buddy Holly (together with The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens) died in a plane crash). Real rock & roll was dead.

        As it turned out the 1950s were not all rocking by any means: the Billboard Top Ten of the decade contains not a single rocker. At the top is a German revue song from the 1920s (“Mack The Knife”) followed by a turn-of-the-century waltz (“Melody Of Love”), a Civil War ballad (“Love Me Tender”) and lastly a revival of a 1930s ballad (“Love Letters In The Sand”).


       The BMI/ASCAP war, then, was a cultural one. After the smoke cleared and the shouting ceased the Great American Songbook went on to survive and thrive, sailing above the silly psychedelic 60s, the factory beat of the Disco 70s, the New Wave of the 80s, and the never-ending thudding cant of Hip Hop and Rap. Now it rests in a safe haven where it is the bible of cabaret performers from coast to coast as well as the lifeblood of aging rockers like Rod Stewart.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to