Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Two More Giants of Boomer Music Are Gone

In the past two weeks, boomers have lost two greats from the world of music: Dennis Edwards and Hugh Masekela. Widely different in their approach to music, both musicians presented socially-conscious songs of the era along with other pop selections. Boomers were all the more appreciative for it, including Mister Boomer.

Dennis Edwards – February 2
Born in Alabama in 1943, Edwards grew up in Detroit. Like most of his musical contemporaries, he sang gospel and studied music as a teen. In the early sixties, he was a member of the Contours, best known for Do You Love Me (1962). After the Temptations fired David Ruffin in 1968, Edwards became the lead singer. His gritty vocal moved the band’s sound to a more bluesy, soulful direction, inspiring the group to pen more socially-conscious songs.

Edwards presided over some of the Temptations biggest hits, including Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack, Ball of Confusion, I Can’t Get Next to You and Papa was a Rollin’ Stone (Mister Boomer’s favorite). Edwards left the band in 1976 following their separation from the Motown label. During his tenure, every album the band released made it to the Top 40, with several entering the Top 10. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with the Temptations.

He released several albums on his own, but none crossed over from R&B to the pop charts. He rejoined the band when they returned to Motown in the early ’80s, then left, then came back for another year in 1986 for one album. Finally, he rejoined the band one more time from 1987 to 1989.

Hugh Masekela – January 23
Mr. Masekela began life in South Africa in 1939. At the age of fourteen, he showed a keen interest in music, but his family could not afford an instrument. A local minister, on tour in the U.S. promoting his book, mentioned Hugh’s predicament to a radio host. The man suggested he get in touch with Louis Armstrong. The minister did just that and Armstrong agreed to give him a trumpet to give the boy back in South Africa. From then on, Hugh Masekela was never separated from his music. By the 1950s, he began to develop his brand of Afro-Jazz. Years later he would be known as the Father of South African Jazz.

After criticizing the South African apartheid government with his music, he left for New York in 1960 for what would become a 30-year exile. In New York he enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music and was a big fan of the city’s jazz scene. He frequented the jazz clubs to see Miles Davis, John Coltraine, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Subsequently he became friends with Dizzy Gilespie and Louis Armstrong, who suggested he draw on his African experiences rather than rely on influences from American music.

Masekela’s debut album, Trumpet Africaine: The New Beat from South Africa, was released in 1963. In 1964 he married singer Miriam Makeba, but divorced two years later. By 1967 he was living in Los Angeles, having befriended David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young and others. His LA friends got him a slot in the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.

His biggest break came in 1968, with the release of Grazing in the Grass, an instrumental composed by Philemon Hou. The song reached number one on the Billboard charts, crossing all boundaries between rock, jazz and pop. Mister Boomer recalls his brother bringing the 45 RPM record home. It was a catchy tune that all members of the Boomer household could enjoy. Mister B has that 45 in his collection today.

One year later, Harry Elston of the band, The Friends of Distinction, wrote lyrics to the tune. Their cover of the song peaked at number three in the Billboard Top 100 in 1969. Lyrically a throwback to the vernacular of the time, the song featured such mind-blowing phrases such as, Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it. Mister B will stick with Masekela’s instrumental, thank you.

Hugh Masekela was a bandleader, composer, singer, trumpet player and flugelhornist. In 1977, He wrote Soweto Blues about the 1976 uprising in Soweto, South Africa, a song that his ex-wife went on to sing at the beginning of the Paul Simon Graceland tour in 1986. Masekela had been criticized for collaborating with Simon on the Graceland album, and the tour got a smattering of a few hundred protestors in London, because some people felt Simon’s work for the album in South Africa violated the United Nations cultural boycott against that country. Masekela insisted that Simon’s album did the opposite, bringing the plight of his beloved South Africans to the forefront of world discussion.

By the 1990s, Hugh Masekela had been married four times. His lack of success in marriages was countered by his musical prowess. He released over 40 albums, and worked with many of the top artists of the time, including Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, among others.

The passing of these two musical giants once again illustrates how musical genres criss-crossed among pop, rock, R&B and jazz in the sixties, especially on the radio; the same stations that played 1910 Fruitgum Company and Cream would also play Ray Charles and Hugo Montenegro. Consequently, boomers were exposed to artists and sounds from around the globe to build what became, in Mister Boomer’s opinion, the greatest decade of American music in history.

Did you have the chance to see Dennis Edwards or Hugh Masekela in concert, boomers? Which records do you cherish?

posted by Mister B in Music,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on Two More Giants of Boomer Music Are Gone

Boomers Liked Some Spiritual Messages Mixed in With Their Pop Music

Edwin Hawkins passed away last week at the age of 74. If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you are a boomer who recalls Hawkins’ one hit, Oh Happy Day, from 1969.
He wrote the song as part of an album intended to be sold as a fund-raiser for his church to attend a gospel competition. A local San Francisco radio station began playing the song and it got the attention of listeners. The song was re-released under the group’s new name, the Edwin Hawkins Singers. It sold more than seven million copies and won a Grammy Award for best soul gospel performance. Though it was the group’s only Top 10 hit, they toured, sang gospel and in 1970, backed up Melanie on her hit, Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).

Rock music was always an amalgam of gospel, rhythm & blues and jazz from the start. Many of rock’s earliest stars — including Elvis Presley — got their start singing gospel in their churches. The country had self-identified as predominantly Christian for a few decades before the Boomer Generation. According to a Gallup poll published in 2005, the U.S. Christian population peaked in the mid-50s at around 92 percent. So it should come as no surprise that gospel-tinged tunes found their way into the charts during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Here are a few of the many that got the attention of boomers listening to their transistor radios and 45 RPM records:

Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)
Written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s, it was first released on an album by the Limeliters in 1962, then by Seeger himself, then the Byrds had a Number One hit with it in 1965. The lyrics were adapted from the English version of the first eight verses of the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. No boomer collection of Byrds tunes would be complete without it.

People Get Ready
Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions recorded this tune in 1965. The soul and gospel-tinged song has an overtly Christian religious theme but Mayfield himself said he wrote it as a response to what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement after he attended the March on Washington, heard Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, and the subsequent church bombings in Alabama. Ultimately, it was a song about redemption and triumph over evil. Mister Boomer always enjoyed the melody and Mayfield’s soulful voice.

Sympathy for the Devil
The Rolling Stones released this rock classic in 1968. Mick Jagger sang as the devil in this song about temptation. The lyric content took a back seat to an incredibly danceable beat.

Spirit in the Sky
It was the infectious and memorable fuzz-guitar theme that propelled Norman Greenbaum’s one-hit wonder to the charts for sixteen weeks spanning the two decades between 1969 and ’70. It sold over two million copies. Mister Boomer’s sister bought the 45 RPM, and it is now in Mister Boomer’s collection.

Put Your Hand in the Hand
Written by Gene MacLellan, it was first recorded by Canadian artist Anne Murray for her third album, Honey, Wheat and Laughter in 1970. It became a hit for fellow Canadian band, Ocean, in 1971. A slew of popular recording artists released their version of the song in the years that followed, including Bing Crosby, Joan Baez and Loretta Lynn, to name a few.

Jesus Is Just Alright
The Byrds released the tune in 1969, but most boomers will remember the re-recorded 1975 version by the Doobie Brothers. As with all of the spiritually-themed music of the era, it was the music and not the lyric content that caught the ear of boomers. Catchy tunes climbed the charts, regardless of whether they had any spiritual message.

There were dozens of other songs that mentioned God or the Christian religion in some way, by almost all of the popular recording artists of the day. As the stream of these tunes on the charts started to fade in the late sixties, some say the excesses of “free love” and “turn on, tune in, drop out” culminated with the rock musical Hair in 1968. That counterculture was then countered itself with more religious-themed rock of the 1970s. As art imitates life, it brought us the Broadway musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 and Godspell in 1972. Anne Murray’s version of the title song Jesus Christ Superstar was on the charts in 1971 and then was followed by covers by several people. I Don’t Know How to Love Him from JC Superstar was also on the charts in 1971 and the Broadway cast performance of Day by Day from Godspell hit Billboard’s #13 in 1972.

The numbers of almost all religious denominations has been steady falling since the end of the Boomer Generation. The number of people in the U.S. identifying as Christian has dropped to around 70 percent as more people are checking the “no religious affiliation” box these days. It is Mister Boomer’s contention that it was always the criteria that kids used on American Bandstand to rate records that indicated which songs made it to the Top 10: is it a catchy tune and can you dance to it? Nonetheless, you’ll find predominantly Christian religious-tinged tunes still hitting the Top 10 from time to time, on the Rock, Rhythm & Blues and Country charts.

Do you own any of the religious-themed records from the fifties, sixties or seventies, boomers? Did you buy them for the music or religious content?

posted by Mister B in Music,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)

Boomers Say Good-bye to More Generational Influencers

Boomers will remember 2017 for many things, not the least of which is the collection of notable deaths of movers and shakers that helped to form the cultural, political and technological landscape that was the Boomer Years.

Jeremy Stone (January 1, age 81)
A scientist, his pro-arms control and human rights advocacy landed him on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” in 1973. He authored two books in the 1960s: Containing the Arms Race: Some Specific Proposals (1966) and Strategic Persuasion: Arms Control Through Dialogue (1967). Stone served as president of the Federation of American Scientists from 1970 to 2000, contributing to policy debates on the nuclear arms race for more than 30 years.

Dick Gautier (January 13, age 85)
Boomers will best recall him as Hymie the Robot in the Get Smart TV series.

Mary Tyler Moore (January 25, age 80)
Boomers will always remember her on The Dick Van Dyke Show and of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was definitely a mover and shaker of the cultural zeitgeist. Mister B feels other sources can do far better justice to her importance than he can on this list.

Irwin Corey (February 6, age 102)
This comic was known to boomers as “Professor” Irwin Corey. Malapropisms, double-speak and mangled language defined his comedy on The Steve Allen Show and subsequent appearances on numerous variety shows throughout the 50s, ’60s and ’70s. Mister Boomer enjoyed his antics.

Chuck Berry (March 18, age 90)
Boomers first heard Berry when Maybellene was released by Chess Records in1955. He wrote and recorded Johnny B. Goode in 1958, a genuine rock classic. It was chosen to be on the Golden Record that contained sounds of human achievement and went out with the Voyager I spacecraft launched in 1977. Chuck Berry was the first inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Hundreds of musicians, including The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, said they were greatly influenced by his music. Stars of the boomer era don’t get much bigger than Chuck Berry.

Sylvia Moy (April 15, age 78)
Boomers probably don’t know her name, but they know her music. She was a producer for Motown and wrote many hit songs, including Uptight (Everything’s Alright), I Was Made to Love Her and My Cherie Amour, all of which were hits for Stevie Wonder.

Victor Gorbatko (May 17, age 82)
While the U.S. had their original group of seven astronauts, the Soviet Union had their cosmonauts. Major General Gorbatko was one the original group of cosmonauts. He began his training in 1960, but didn’t make it into space until 1967. He went back into space, as a research engineer, in 1977 and 1980. Without our Soviet counterparts, there would have been no Space Race, and arguably, no moon landing to finish the 1960s.

Sheila Michaels (June 22, age 78)
A member of the Congress of Racial Equality, Sheila Michaels began using the title “Ms.” in 1961. When she was introducing the term on a New York radio station in 1969, Gloria Steinem heard the broadcast and named her magazine Ms., in 1972.

George Romero (July 16, age 77)
Boomers knew Romero as the film director who made scary movies. He is known as the Father of the Zombie Film after releasing Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Mister Boomer recalls the film as one of the scariest he ever experienced in that time.

June Foray (July 26, age 99)
Ms. Foray’s death struck a personal chord with Mister Boomer when news broke. See Boomers Lose a Giant Voice of Their Cartoon Youth.

Jerry Lewis (August 20, age 91)
Love him or hate him, Jerry Lewis became a part of the comedic fabric that formed in the boomer years. Mister Boomer, for the most part, hated his comedy. The only thing Mister Boomer liked him in was The Nutty Professor (1963).

Joe Bailon (September 25, age 94)
Born in 1923, Bailon is one of those people who worked behind the scenes, though his name was well known to boomer custom car enthusiasts. It was Bailon who was credited with creating Candy Apple Red, the quintessential hot rod color of the 1950s and ’60s. The shimmering, metallic look was achieved with a three-coat process of a base coat, color coat and clear coat. Joe Baillon went on to create a series of metallic colors. The boys in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood talked admiringly about Candy Apple Red cars they saw, and how they would use the Testor’s paint version on the model cars they were building.

Hugh Hefner (September 27, age 91)
Boomers everywhere remember Hefner as the publisher of Playboy magazine. For many boomer boys (not Mister Boomer, however), the centerfolds of their father’s Playboys were their first glimpse at the unclothed female form, thus the beginning of their sex education. For many boomer girls, the magazine and Hefner’s Playboy Clubs exploited women and propagated the notion of male dominance in the society.

Fats Domino (October 24, age 89)
A giant star who helped to break color barriers in the early days of rock ‘n roll, Fats Domino gave the world hits such as Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame in his own New Orleans-inspired style. An influencer of the nth degree to early rock and first-decade boomers, he had the first rock record to sell more than 1 million copies (The Fat Man, 1949).

Robert Blakeley (October 25, age 95)
Another man whose name was hardly a household word, but his work was known by every boomer. Blakeley was given the task of designing the first Fallout Shelter sign. He suggested the image of the three upside-down equilateral triangles and the orange-yellow and black color scheme in 1961. The signs would be painted in reflective paint so that they could be seen in subdued light with only a flick of a lighter.
Recently, New York City announced it would be removing most of the Fallout Shelter signs in public spaces, because their rusted and deteriorated condition now presents a hazard in themselves, and the info they intended to relay was misleading and incorrect from the start. (See Mister Boomer’s post: Signs of the Times: Fallout Shelter Signs Were A Common Sight for Boomers)

Charles Manson (November 19, age 83)
The horrific murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969 brought Manson to the boomer public. His cult-control over his followers turned them into cold-blooded killers. Manson and many of his followers were convicted and jailed, and Manson given a life sentence.

Warren “Pete” Moore (November 19, age 79)
A singer with The Miracles, Mr. Moore was the composer of Tracks of My Tears, Ooo Baby Baby, Going to a Go-Go, I’ll be Doggone and Ain’t That Peculiar, all boomer and Motown classics, among many more. He was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (with the Miracles, 2001), Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame (2015) and retroactively into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) after a Special Committee reported the entire group of the Miracles should have been inducted when Smokey Robinson was inducted in 1987. He died on his birthday.

Jack Boyle (December 12, age 83)
A rock promoter who has been described as one of the architects of the modern concert industry, Boyle turned a small venue called The Cellar Door, in Washington, DC into a premier club for performers in the mid-60s. Among the acts he booked at the club were Miles Davis, Neil Young, the Mamas and the Papas, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, B.B. King, Rick Nelson, Carole King, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and many more. After selling the club in 1981, he went on to form Cellar Door Productions to produce blockbuster rock tours that included The Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd and dozens of other boomer favorites.

Of course there were many, many more, including fellow boomer Tom Petty, Jim Neighbors, David Cassidy, Monty Hall, Dick Gregory, Glen Campbell, Adam West, Martin Landau, Gregg Allman (also the band’s drummer Butch Trucks), Roger Moore, Don Rickles, Al Jarreau, Barbara Hale, Heather Menzies-Urich (played Louissa Von Trapp in Sound of Music, 1965), Chuck Barris, astronauts Eugene Cernan (last man to walk on the moon), Paul Weitz (commander of the first Space Shuttle) and Richard Gordon (flew on Gemini 11, 1966; walked in space twice; flew around the moon in Apollo 12, 1969), to name but a few of the those who influenced our boomer landscape.

Which people who left us in 2017 will you remember, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History and have Comments (2)

Boomers Know Real Christmas Music Classics

Recently, Mister Boomer came across a seasonal article comparing the “Christmas Divas,” Mariah Carey and Gwen Stefani. While Ms. Stefani has released her first Christmas album this year, Ms. Carey has connected her brand with Christmas music since her smash seasonal hit, All I Want for Christmas is You, twenty-three years ago in 1994. Mister B recalls hearing it somewhere through the years, probably in a retail setting somewhere around Halloween. That song, according to the article, is now considered a classic. A classic? Mister Boomer has socks older than that song.

That got Mister Boomer thinking about the Christmas music classics that we heard as kids, and occasionally hear today. The market for Christmas music, like so many things, grew exponentially after WWII as boomer families got their first record player or phonograph/TV console.

While stars of earlier decades — such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Dean Martin — dominated Christmas music into the boomer years, Mister B, like so many boomers, considered them old fogeys. As far as classic Christmas music of the boomer years is concerned, Mister B points to Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1949. It was timed right for the Boomer Generation, and got an extra boost thanks to the classic stop-action animated TV special of the same name in 1964.

The 1950s added to the roster of classic Christmas music with titles that are sure to jingle nostalgic bells for boomers:
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Jimmy Boyd (1952)
Santa Baby, Eartha Kitt (1953)
Nuttin’ for Christmas, Art Mooney (1955)
Jingle Bell Rock, Jimmy Boyd (1957) [Brenda Lee’s version was released in 1964]
Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me, Elvis (1957)
Run Rudolph Run, Chuck Berry (1958)
Christmas Don’t Be Late, Alvin and the Chipmunks (1958)

Nestled in that list is Elvis Presley, with songs from his Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957). A multitude of songs from the album are classics in anyone’s book, including Blue Christmas and Elvis’ interpretation of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It is the best-selling Christmas album of all time. When it was released, Elvis’ rock-and-blues version of White Christmas so irked Irving Berlin that he tried to have it banned from radio airplay. Instead, the song went to the top of the charts, and between 1957 and 1969, boomer families bought three million copies of the album. It was reissued in 1970, and together with various reissues since then, the record has sold more than 20 million copies. How is that for a classic?

Mister Boomer’s father gravitated toward Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but his mother loved Elvis’ Christmas Album. She would ask Mister B to play it on “the Victrola,” which is what she called the family record player that sat in the living room.

The 1960s saw an explosion of current groups recording Christmas music, as record companies saw potential dollar signs dancing in their heads. Consequently, practically every popular group released 45 RPMs or Christmas albums. The Everly Brothers got into the holiday spirit with Christmas with the Everly Brothers in 1962 while The Beach Boys Christmas Album was released in 1964. The 4 Seasons’ Christmas Album hit in 1966 and in 1968, Otis Redding released Merry Christmas, Baby.

No mention of 1960s classic Christmas music would be complete without naming Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. The album had the unfortunate circumstance of being released the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated — November 22, 1963 — and was not well-received right away. As time went on, the album gained in popularity as people discovered the songs by The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, Ronnie Spector and of course, Darlene Love.

Already a classic song by a classic performer, David Letterman so enjoyed Darlene Love’s performance of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on The Late Show in 1986 that he asked her to come back and sing it every year until the show ended in 2014. Take that, Christmas divas!

By the time the 1970s arrived, it looked like the creative burst of popular Christmas music had run its course. The Temptations Christmas Card, released in 1970, rehashed some old chestnuts to little fanfare. As far as Mister Boomer is concerned, the nail in the coffin of classic Christmas music came with two songs released in the 1970s: Jingle Bells by the Singing Dogs and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer, by Elmo ‘n’ Patsy in 1979. Like an ice bucket challenge gone awry, Christmas music has all but been the fruitcake gift for boomers ever since. Is it any wonder why so many people dislike Christmas music these days? If only they were there when we were, they’d see that classic Christmas music was more than a holiday novelty, it was good music.

What’s your take on classic Christmas music, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Holidays,Music,Pop Culture History,Seasons and have Comment (1)

Boomers Made a List for Sibling Gifts

If your family was anything like Mister Boomer’s, you had brothers and sisters. Between 1950 and 1960, the U.S. population grew 19 percent to pass 179 million. In 1960, the average family had two children, and 60 percent of U.S. households had children under the age of 18. In Mister Boomer’s experience, almost every house on his block had at least three children, and often, more. Growing up with brothers and sisters posed lots of challenges, and one of them that surfaced annually was what gifts to get them for Christmas.

Once Mister Boomer’s younger sister hit the preteen stage, the Boomer children got together and decided to solve the dilemma by giving each other suggested gift lists, with a promise to adhere to the written word. This would ensure that no one got the gift they did not want. Mister B does not recall which of his siblings suggested the list, but all were enthusiastic about the prospect of avoiding the dreaded dud present.

In the earliest days, Boomer Sister would ask for board games, card games and View-Master slides. As she crossed into early teendom, Barbie dominated the lists. It was a welcome addition for Mister Boomer, since she would spell out exactly which ensembles to purchase, and since the cost was within his hard-earned budget, he managed to gift two on occasion.

Brother Boomer enjoyed building things, so model cars and Testor’s paint were often a safe bet for his lists. As he reached high school age, music was right up there on his lists. He would often buy 45 RPMs himself, but Christmas afforded the opportunity to ask for albums.

Mister Boomer always felt funny about asking for gifts, but also wanted to avoid receiving things that were unacceptable. His early lists might include model cars and planes, or building sets. In his late teens, music — albums and 8-tracks — made the list. Almost never would Mister B, Brother Boomer or Boomer Sister put clothing on the lists, but if they did, correct sizes and colors were a must.

As far as Mister B’s parents, they would go their own way in buying gifts for the kids, regardless of whether the kids gave them a list or not. Of course, that didn’t stop Mister B and his siblings from pointing out a commercial or two during Saturday morning cartoons. It was a given for the Boomer children that there would be socks and underwear. And long johns were a must in Midwest winters, so if the kids had outgrown the pair from the year before, Christmas gifting was the clothing staging center for the impending coldest winter months.

Mister Boomer’s father was always a big kid himself, so he enjoyed buying toys for his children. Though Mister B was always aware the family was on a tight budget, his father saw to it that each kid got one “big” gift every year. For the boys, it might be a football, ice skates or hockey sticks; and for his sister, Easy-Bake ovens, Creepy Crawlers and Operation. Every child had their own sled as well.

The idea of exchanging gift lists continued with Mister B’s brother and sister until one year, when all three children lived in different states and both his brother and sister had children of their own. It was agreed that they had exchanged enough gifts and sibling presents could stop; then the lists that circulated were for their children.

How did you treat gift buying with your siblings, boomers? Did you exchange suggested gift lists?

posted by Mister B in Holidays,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comments Off on Boomers Made a List for Sibling Gifts

Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1950s (Part 1)

World War II ended and by 1947, television caught on in a big way as individual stations appeared in the largest cities. Within four years, a couple of dozen stations had grown to hundreds. The adaptation of TV by the public is still on record as the quickest rise of any technology — faster than indoor plumbing, home electricity, radio, the telephone and even the smartphone. There were just over 100,000 TV sets in the country by 1947, but by 1950, 8 million sets had been purchased — a rise from less than one percent to 88 percent of homes owning a TV.

Of course, the correlation to the Baby Boom was no accident as more couples were married, started families, bought homes and moved to the suburbs. As TV stations began to broadcast 20 hours per day, the race was on to capture the most viewers, especially in the post-dinner hours, the prime time when parents and their children might gather around the household TV.

Networks and local stations turned to Vaudeville traditions for programming inspiration. Vaudeville was a form of live variety entertainment that began in the 1880s. Vaudeville shows mixed singing, dancing, comedy, magic, acrobatics and sketch performances live on stage. By the 1930s, it saw a precipitous decline in attendance due to the Depression, the spread of movies and widespread embrace of radio in the home. As the public taste for entertainment shifted, many Vaudeville performers made the transition first to radio programs, then on to TV.

The first hour-long musical variety show broadcast regularly on network TV was Hour Glass, airing from 1947 to 1948. It pioneered the live commercial that became the standard for variety shows that followed. The show featured performers — many of whom had been Vaudeville performers — that included Dennis Day, Bert Lahr and Peggy Lee, among others. It also marked the first time a radio performer — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — appeared on TV.

It seemed like various forces were all in alignment for variety shows on TV: expanding audience, at-the-ready supply of performers and willing sponsors. Yet there was another important factor to the explosion of TV variety shows in the late 1940s and into the ’50s, and that was: the music. The American Federation of Musicians controlled the market for live musicians, and TV was a live performance venue in the early days. At the dawn of television broadcasting, the question of what and how to pay performers was brought to the forefront, as it had when silent movies transitioned into “talkies.” Various music unions had contracts in place for film appearances of musicians, but TV was a whole new — and potentially lucrative — landscape. Consequently, as music publishers sought license fees for their music and musicians, the AFM banned live music on TV until 1948. The TV industry acquiesced to the demands of the music unions as ASCAP, the company known for managing music licensing fees, charged three times the fee for a TV appearance than was charged for a film appearance.

There were other ways the TV industry struggled with how to present music. The burgeoning industry was struggling with what role it should play in the culture at large, a debate that was very much in the public realm and even on the minds of Congressional legislators. As a result, operas and classical concerts were broadcast in the 1940s and early ’50s. Variety shows took their cue from these early broadcasts, and regularly included operatic and classical music stars in their programming, alongside pop music and jazz. To further control the “live” appearance of singers, lip-synching was heavily employed to avoid any variations in the performance of a singer from the expectations of the audience. At the same time, if a show could avoid paying for live musicians, all the better for their bottom line.

Here are a few of the influential variety shows that appeared along with the Baby Boom:

Toast of the Town / The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The longest-running variety show in the history of television, Toast of the Town was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in its ninth season. Initially, Ed Sullivan was not the show’s host as guest hosts acted as emcee, and introduced the acts. The first show was hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

There is probably not a boomer who was over the age of 7 by the early ’60s who doesn’t remember The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. The man had an uncanny knack for picking acts that were on the verge of breaking out. Famous (or infamous) icons of the Boomer Era who appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show included Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Righteous Brothers, Peter and Gordon, The Byrds, The Mama and the Papas, The Doors, James Brown, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, The Jackson 5 and many, many more.

Unlike a lot of the variety shows on TV, Sullivan wanted his musical acts to perform live, not just lip-synch. That led to some interesting disagreements with lyrics deemed questionable for TV when the Rolling Stones and The Doors appeared, as most boomers recall. Sullivan also featured classical music, opera, jazz, dance, jugglers, comedians and a crazy little puppet mouse, Topo Gigio, that was a favorite of Mister Boomer’s grandmother … And that is the story of The Ed Sullivan Show in a nutshell, that the show was popular with every member of the family because Sullivan booked acts that could please everyone.

Texaco Star Theater (1948-56)
This comedy-variety show started out as a radio show in 1938. Like Ed Sullivan, the show had a series of guest hosts, but when Milton Berle hosted, the show’s ratings skyrocketed and he was made the permanent emcee. Texaco Star Theater is best remembered as the show that earned Berle his “Mr. Television” nickname.

The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55)
A show with “comedy” in its name should have the best comedians of the day, and this show did. Hosts included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, among others. As a musical-variety show, hosts also included Donald O’Conner, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and a bevy of stars our parents remember better than boomers do. Like Texaco Star Theater, a single sponsor — Colgate — commanded the commercials throughout the program. Commercials were performed live like other shows, often by the stars themselves.

Your Show of Shows (1950-54)
More than just another variety show, some say this one was the most influential of them all. Featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the show had a writing pool of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. It was the first show to feature an ongoing comedy sketch, “The Hickenloopers.” Some say every comedy show that followed owed a debt to Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner stated that The Dick Van Dyke Show was inspired by the show.

The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57)
Featuring the first African-American TV series host, the show aired without a sponsor. Advertisers feared they would upset their customers in the South, so NBC aired it anyway, footing the bill. Nat King Cole was an immensely popular singer, but 1950s white America wasn’t at all sure they wanted to see a black man host a TV show. The star ended the show himself in its second season, when no sponsor could be found.

Mister Boomer remembers his family tuning in as Mr. Cole opened each show at his piano, singing a song.

Of course, there were many other variety shows aired in the first complete decade of the Baby Boom. Families gathered around the TV each week to laugh, be entertained and maybe get a little highbrow culture as the flickering black and white images of our boomer youth appeared on a tiny screen.

Were you old enough to watch variety shows in the 1950s, boomers? Which were your family’s favorites?

Next up: Variety Shows in the 1960s

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comment (1)