Boomers grew up in a time when underage marriage was allowed in all 48 (and later, all 50) states, at the very least with parental consent. Marriage laws were (and are) a state matter, not a federal one. Yet more than that, the dating of young girls below the age of 18 by men 10 or 20 years older — if not more — was both vilified and treated with indifference, depending on the state and the persons involved. There are many stories of bluesmen, in the decades before boomers arrived, taking advantage of younger women, and now rock ‘n roll, coming out of that tradition, which seemed to bring the subject out in the open. The developing rock ‘n roll culture of the late ’40s and early ’50s did nothing but shine a light on the arguments on both sides.
In 1958, when a 23-year old Jerry Lee Lewis married Myra Gale Brown, the 13-year old daughter of his cousin, he was riding the wave of world popularity. He had a world tour scheduled that year, beginning with England. His plan was to have his bride by his side, but the British tabloids would have none of it. Forced with the choice of either leaving Myra at home, or lying about their marriage, his European tour was cancelled. In the U.S., many venues in various states refused to book him. His career took a nosedive from which he never fully recovered.
In 1959, Elvis Presley was serving the remainder of his Army stint in Germany when he met 14-year old Priscila Beaulieu, the daughter of an Air Force captain. They spent the next six months dating. After Elvis left the Army in 1960, he kept in touch with Priscilla, inviting her to visit him at Graceland. She convinced her parents to let her go for a visit in 1963, under their provision that the entire visit was chaperoned. Within three months, she begged her parents to let her live with Elvis at Graceland. They relented when Elvis promised to marry her, send her to an all-girls Catholic High School and that she would live away from Graceland with Elvis’ stepfather and mother. The couple married in 1967 when Priscilla was 20, despite persistant rumors linking Elvis to many of the leading ladies of his movies through the years, including Ann-Margaret and Nancy Sinatra.
Chuck Berry had a checkered past when it came to young girls. In 1958, he wrote and recorded Sweet Little Sixteen, which on the surface seems a harmless enough tune. On closer inspection, the song can be interpreted as Berry watching 16-year old groupies from various locales heading to the rock shows and gathering autographs, from
… rockin’ in Boston
In Pittsburgh, PA
Deep in the heart of Texas
And round the Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
And down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen
Berry sings this “girl” has collected About a half a million … autographs. The song reached Number 2 on the charts. The Beatles recorded a cover version in 1963.
Two years later, in 1960, Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act, which made illegal the “transporting of minors across state lines for immoral purposes.” In Berry’s case, the girl was 14 years old. Berry claimed he met her in Juarez, Mexico, and offered her a job in his St. Louis nightclub. She accepted the job as a hatcheck girl, and after she was fired from the club, she went to the police.
After his first conviction, Berry appealed the decision, and a retrial was ordered. He was convicted on the retrial in 1961 and served 20 months in prison on a five-year sentence.
Johnny Burnette was 26 when he sang You’re Sixteen (1960) to the Top Ten on the charts. For coming-of-age boomers, You come on like a dream, peaches and cream/ Lips like strawberry wine/ You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine was teenage love. To guys the age of Johhny Burnette, it was, in the parlance of the age, “robbing the cradle.” It wasn’t any less creepy when a thirty-something Ringo Starr recorded a cover version in 1973.
By the mid-60s, though, songs about young girls took a somewhat hesitant stance in their lyrics. In Younger Girl (1965), John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful sung that:
A younger girl keeps a-rolling ‘cross my mind
No matter how much I try, I can’t seem to leave her memory behind
… but ultimately he concludes …
And should I hang around, acting like her brother
In a few more years, they’d call us right for each other
Bobby Vee and the Strangers sang Come Back When You Grow Up Girl in 1967. Here Bobby admits his attraction to this young girl:
I want you girl but your wide-eyed innocence
Has really messed up my mind, yeah, yeah
I’d rather you get your very first heartbreak
Somewhere else along the line
Ultimately but reluctantly, his reason takes over as the song concludes:
Come back when you grow up, girl
You’re still livin’ in a paper-doll world
Some day you’ll be a woman ready to love
Come back, baby, when you grow up
Gary Puckett & the Union Gap entered the genre with Young Girl in 1969. Gary wants the young girl to go away so he’s not tempted:
Young girl get out of my mind
My love for you is way outta line
Better run girl
You’re much too young girl
He doesn’t blame his own actions, but says that she misled him:
You led me to believe you’re old enough
To give me love
And now it hurts to know the truth
Boomers liked it enough that it spent three weeks as Number 2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart; the first week it was just behind behind Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay, and the next two weeks it was bested by Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey.
Just when we think that these situations celebrated in song during the Boomer Era couldn’t be recorded or happen now, we not only get the rise of the Me Too Movement, but the reappraisal of child marriage laws in many states. Delaware became the first state to completely ban marriage under the age of eighteen in May of 2018. That’s correct. THIS YEAR. New Jersey followed suit in June. Several other states have revised their laws, though all the rest allow it at least under some circumstances.
Meanwhile, it is estimated that more than 100,000 children age 12 to 16 were forced to marry in the last decade in the U.S., usually due to pre-arranged marriages through religious beliefs, or due to pregnancy. Worldwide, the United Nations has set a goal of eliminating child marriage by the year 2030. Is that something rock ‘n roll will sing about, and will they be catchy enough tunes that people will propel these songs to the Top Ten?
Did you listen to and buy “young girl” songs, boomers?