Goodness Gracious, There’s A Whole Lotta Drinkin’ Goin’ On

Many people who didn’t live through the 1960s, and who watch the popular TV show, Mad Men, ask whether the proliferation and excesses of drinking portrayed in the show is accurate. For those of us who lived through the decade, even though we were children ourselves, the answer has to be a resounding “Yes!”

In the 1950s and 1960s, drinking was an inherent part of the culture. Some might say it was the golden age of the cocktail, as images of a man coming home from work to find his wife greeting him at the door with a freshly-made mixed drink were prevalent. The earliest baby boomers wouldn’t reach the age of 21 until 1967, but advertising images, TV shows, movies and most important of all, personal observation, showed that virtually everyone of legal age was drinking something, and often. Like the show Mad Men illustrates today, drinking made its way onto TV and movie screens as well. It was, in a phrase, part of life.

When “Bond … James Bond” became an instantly recognizable fragment of the cultural landscape in the early 1960s, “shaken not stirred” entered the vernacular. He was the epitome of cool onscreen, imbibing vodka martinis, smoking incessantly and taking any woman he wanted, all the while saving the world. The vodka martinis never slowed him down, but rather seemed to be his own personal rocket fuel.

It was not unusual for comics to tell jokes about drunks, and for TV hosts to drink during their shows. Jackie Gleason had a running joke about his “coffee” on his variety show. Ricky Ricardo and Lucy, and Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were known to sip a few on screen, too. Then there were hosts like Dean Martin, whose very TV persona was built around a drinking ethos.

Drunks, so we were told, were funny. One comedian in particular formed the basis of his career around portraying a drunk man: Foster Brooks. Known as the “lovable lush,” he got his big break when Perry Como saw him perform, and asked him to be his opening act in 1969. In the ’70s he became a fixture on The Dean Martin Show (1965-’74). Can you imagine such skits being accepted on national TV today?

It may have been boomers who inadvertently had a hand in changing the cultural acceptance of excessive drinking. As the Vietnam War escalated in the late ’60s, early boomers were being drafted. A common refrain from drafted men was that they could be ordered to kill at age 18, yet could not vote or drink. Instead of seeing the peace message these men were trying to send, the societal response in the late ’60s and early ’70s was, in several states, to lower the drinking age to 18. The result was an increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths among young people. It took until 1984 for Congress to enact legislation that withheld federal funds for highway construction if the state had not adopted a minimum drinking age of 21. By 1988, all states had complied and raised the age back to 21.

In Mister Boomer’s home, there was always liquor, though you wouldn’t find cocktail shakers or a credenza to hold a tray of glasses and decanters. As a blue-collar household, beer was the number one drink of choice for Mister B’s father, but he wasn’t above having a shot of whiskey along with it. His mother would have a drink when company dropped over, whether friends, relatives or neighbors. Her drinks of choice were gin and Squirt (a grapefruit soda) or a highball (whiskey and 7-Up). By the time Mister Boomer bought his first drink in a bar, he was 21 and the drinking age in his state had already been raised back.

Despite the avalanche of drinking exhibited on screens and in homes, teenage and underage drinking in the 1960s was a fraction of what it is today. For example, in the 1960s, 7% of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 admitted to drinking, where today that figure is at 31%. The average age of teenage drinking has dropped from 18 in the 1960s to around 16 today.

So the question is, boomers, what was it that stopped us from drinking more — either at an early age or even once we came of legal age — when the culture practically glorified it at every turn? Some point to the fact that liquor was relatively more expensive then, and harder to procure. Others point to the widespread introduction of marijuana in the suburbs. Or could it be our generation’s desire to be whatever our parents weren’t?

Whatever the reasons, we made it to adulthood and beyond with, statistically speaking, lower percentages of abuse and excess than the generations that followed. Were we too lenient on our children because of what we observed, or is something else at work? Does this suggest that advertising and entertainment may not play a major role in whether a person will take a drink or does it mean the opposite?

We witnessed a whole lotta drinkin’ goin’ on in our formative boomer years among our friends, families, neighbors and relatives. What did drinking mean in your families in the 1960s, boomers, and what role does it have in your families today?

Many Boomer Influencers and Idols Passed On in 2012

As we begin another year, it’s worth noting the long list of illustrious personalities who crossed through our boomer lives in the worlds of science and technology; music and entertainment; politics and pop culture. Not all were boomers themselves, but all were admired by boomers for their contributions.

Music and Entertainment
Mister Boomer has argued during the history of this site that the world of entertainment — in particular, music — was so ingrained in our daily lives as to become as common to us as breathing. Music was everywhere, and we liked it that way. When a member of that community dies, there is no doubt that boomers feel it more deeply than others because of the emotional attachments that grew between us through their art.

Etta James (January 20, age 73)
Born Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta hit the scene in the boomer era when she released a blues-tinged single, Dance With Me, Henry, in 1954. Within a few years she would get signed by Chess Records, where she adopted a new stage name by separating her first name and transposing the syllables. In late 1960, Etta released At Last! an album that mixed jazz, blues, doo-wop and rhythm and blues to critical acclaim. In early 1961 she released the song from the album that was to be her signature for the rest of her life: At Last. There is probably not a boomer born before 1955 who doesn’t recall an early slow dance memory of dancing to that song. Mister B’s brother bought the 45, of course, and it remains in Mister B’s collection today. Etta James was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and the blues Hall of Fame in 2001.

Davy Jones (February 29, age 66)
What began as an experiment for TV become a cultural phenomenon when Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork became The Monkees in 1966. It didn’t matter much to boomers that the group was fabricated for TV. We liked the music and the comedy. And of course, in keeping with every popular group of the day, at least one of the band members had to be singled out as the heartthrob. For The Monkees, that was Davy Jones. See Mister B’s remarks on his passing at: Boomers Loved Their Teen Angels

Levon Helm (April 9, age 71)
Levon Helm entered the boomer realm as the drummer for The Band. He was recruited by Bob Dylan to bring his band, Levon and the Hawks, on tour at a time when Dylan wanted to “go electric.” History records how poorly received Dylan’s electric tour was (1965). Levon and his band moved to Woodstock, New York after the tour to regroup. Locals were so used to seeing them that they became known as “the band,” and the name stuck. Known for fusing early American music with rock, The Band’s best known hit was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (1972).

Dick Clark (April 18, age 82)
Could there have possibly been a more influential TV personality in the lives of boomers? Dick Clark gave us, via the new medium of TV, exactly what we were looking for: the cool and the current. Read Mister B’s memorial take on his passing in an earlier post: Dick Clark Made Boomer History

Robin Gibb (May 20, age 61)
Most people will recall that the Bee Gees (short for the brothers Gibb) were beyond famous when their soundtrack for the movie Saturday Night Fever was released in 1972. However, the group, of which Robin was primarily a backup singer, had several hits dating back to 1963. Robin took over lead vocals on many early hits like Massachusetts, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You and I Started a Joke.

Andy Griffith (July 3, age 86)
The Andy Griffith Show brought the mythical town of Mayberry to our TV screens throughout our early years (1960-’68). Andy’s Sheriff Andy Taylor character had a constant smile, friendly demeanor and fatherly wisdom that echoed 1950s TV programming. Andy got his start in movies and early TV in the mid-50s, and after quitting his TV show, re-emerged as the title character for the detective show, Matlock, in 1986. Perhaps because he himself was aging, or because our parents watched Andy Griffith all those years earlier, the show became a favorite among many parents of boomers, as well as grandparents.

Ginny Tyler (July 13, age 86)
Back when early boomers could recite the names of the Mouseketeers by heart, there was Ginny. She was the head Mouseketeer of The Mickey Mouse Club when the earlier shows were repackaged for syndication in 1963, introducing new segments that ran alongside older film. In addition, she did voiceovers for several Disney films, including singing the parts of the barnyard animals in Mary Poppins.

Jon Lord (July 16, age 71)
As the keyboardist and founder of Deep Purple, Jon transformed his Hammond organ sound to co-exist alongside the band’s guitars on tracks of the late sixties and early seventies that many say laid the groundwork for hard rock.

Hal David (September 1, age 91)
In the early 1960s, the airwaves were saturated with hits written by the Hal David. Teaming up with Burt Bacharach and dozens of stars of the day (especially Dionne Warwick), every boomer can sing at least some lyrics from a Hal David song: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, This Guy’s In Love With You, Don’t Make Me Over, Walk On By, What the World Needs Now Is Love … the list goes on and on. In addition, Mr. David teamed up with Burt Bacharach (composer) and Neil Simon (book), writing the lyrics to the Broadway musical Promises, Promises (1968).

Dave Brubeck (December 5, age 91)
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Dave Brubeck toured college campuses in an effort to expose more people to jazz. Though the kind of rock that boomers helped evolve always contained elements of jazz, it was Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album (1959) that many say changed the landscape of that all-American musical form, becoming the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. Take Five, the quintessential hit from that milestone album, was a crossover hit not only of musical genres but of generations, as boomers and their parents grooved to the instrumental beat.

Ravi Shankar (December 11, age 92)
Few people outside of India knew much about sitar music before Ravi Shankar entered the world stage in the late 1950s. When George Harrison of The Beatles went to study sitar with him in 1966, Ravi’s influence on popular music was secured for all time.

Ravi Shankar appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He also played at Woodstock in 1969.

Lee Dorman (December 22, age 70)
Many boomers would be hard-pressed to recall Lee Dorman as his was hardly a household name. Add that he was the bassist for Iron Butterfly and strains of that famous riff from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida will swirl through your boomer brain.

Science and Technology
Inventions, space travel, medical breakthroughs and more punctuated the boomer years. Now, many of those pioneers are passing on, but their contributions that have forever changed our world will always be remembered.

Eugene Polley (May 20, age 96)
The vast majority of us could not place a face or an accomplishment to the name of Eugene Polley, yet his invention paved the way for a generation of electronics that followed. Engineer Polley invented the Zenith Flash-Matic TV remote in 1955, the first wireless unit ever realized.

Sally Ride (July 23, age 61)
Herself a boomer, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space (1983). She was an educator and a physicist aside from being an astronaut, but became more than that as a symbol for the advancement of women everywhere.

Chalmers Loughridge (August 12, age 93)
Dr. Loughridge pioneered emergency medicine in Alexandria, Virginia the early 1960s. Many boomer lives are routinely saved in emergency rooms today because of the work done fifty years ago by Dr. Loughridge.

Neil Armstrong (August 25, age 82)
At least two-thirds of boomers were old enough to watch the entire Space Race unfold, launch by launch, on our TV screens. Though we watched in awe from the Gemini missions of the early 1960s through to the Apollo mission moon landings in the 1970s, it was Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong on board, that captured the world’s attention when he stepped on the surface of the moon. Read Mister B’s earlier tribute at: Boomers Say Good-Bye to High-Flying Hero

Politics and Popular Culture
In addition to TV and music, our popular culture was formed by the literary arts as well as politics and the news of the day. Some of the people who passed across our news bulletins have now passed on, triggering memories of days gone by.

Charles Colson (April 21, age 80)
Serving as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to ’73, Colson was sometimes referred to as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” He is forever known in history as one of Watergate Seven, having plead guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice for his role in attempting to defame Daniel Ellsberg when the military analyst released The Pentagon Papers. Colson became a born-again evangelical Christian while serving his prison sentence. After prison he devoted his life to his Prison Fellowship outreach program, which attempted to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system.

Ray Bradbury (June 5, age 91)
There may not be a boomer out there who did not read Fahrenheit 451 (1953) while attending high school or college. Mr. Bradbury created worlds of science fiction in books that both expanded our vision of what could be while sounding a warning about our possible future fate.

Helen Gurley Brown (August 13, age 90)
Ms. Brown became a political figure in her own right when she published Sex and the Single Girl in 1962. In 1965 she became the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, claiming women could “have it all” — meaning “love, sex and money.” As such, her name is often associated with the Sexual Revolution as she strived to give women positive role models and advocated for women’s sexual freedom.

George McGovern (October 21, age 90)
Other than Bobby Kennedy in 1968, there is perhaps no other political figure before Barack Obama who galvanized the youth vote at a grassroots level as well as George McGovern did when he ran for president as the Democratic nominee in 1972. Feelings about Vietnam had completely divided the nation, and Senator McGovern stood firmly against the war, giving the Peace Movement a figurehead behind which to rally. Despite the support of much of the youth of the day, he was handed one of the biggest defeats in presidential election history, as Richard Nixon easily won reelection. It would take another three years after Nixon’s inauguration before the war was ended. McGovern resumed his passionate opposition to the War in the Senate, as well as championing issues relating to agriculture, food, nutrition and hunger. He won reelection in 1974 and retired from Congress after losing a bid for reelection in 1980.

Of course, the list continues on and on. We boomers were fortunate to be the first generation to grow up with regular television and amazing technological advances, and the first generation to benefit from expanding educational opportunities. Together they helped present individuals on our stage, front and center, to state their case, entertain us, expand our imaginations and educate our minds. For this, we boomers will always be grateful as it has helped to make us the generation we are today.

Which members of the memorial roll call for 2012 influenced your lives, boomers?