Boomers Were the First Diet Soda Generation

The news this week that Coca-Cola is retiring its Tab brand of diet soda at the end of the year came as a surprise to many boomers, who remember when it was introduced in 1963. Diet soft drinks had been around since the 1920s, in various regional brands, marketed mainly to diabetic consumers. However, the story of diet sodas is yet another product that got a major boost during the boomer years.

The boomer-era path leading up to Tab was accelerated in 1952, when Hyman Kirsch sold his No-Cal Ginger Ale locally in New York. He made the product with calcium cyclamate, an artificial sweetener. The diet drink became so popular that he branched out into eleven different flavors. Another regional product, Diet Rite Cola, was introduced in the Chicago area in 1958 by The Royal Crown Company. The sweeteners used were a mix of cyclamates and saccharin. It was sold nationally in 1962, having the distinction of being the first nationally distributed diet soda.

Other beverage companies wanted in on the action, and over the next few years, Canada Dry introduced their diet brand, as did Dr. Pepper. Pepsi entered the diet soda ring in 1963 under the name Patio, the same year as Tab hit the stores, and soon followed it with a line of flavored diet drinks. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi were worried about diluting their core brand trademark, which is why neither called their first foray into the diet soda realm “Diet Coke” or “Diet Pepsi.” In fact, the cola flavor of Patio evolved into Diet Pepsi in 1964, but Diet Coke did not appear until 1982.

It seemed like smooth sailing for Tab and the Coca-Cola Company as it competed well in the marketplace with more than a dozen other diet soda brands. Then, in 1969, a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that a cyclamate caused cancer in laboratory rats. The experiment was repeated by Abbott Labs, the manufacturer of cyclamates, and the results were confirmed. In 1970, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of cyclamates as a sweetener. Overnight, the diet soda market collapsed as consumers fled from the products and manufacturers scrambled to find another sweetener. Coca-Cola settled on the old stand-by, saccharin, for Tab, as did several other companies. Saccharin had been around since 1897, and there had been questions about its health effects from the start. It was briefly banned for use as a sweetener in 1912, but the ban was reversed during World War 1, when it was widely used as a substitute during sugar rationing. In 1977, saccharin was implicated as causing cancer in lab rats. There was a moratorium on its sale by the FDA, but it was lifted in 1991 after further review. Meanwhile, Tab and a host of other diet sodas had to improvise. The sweetener called Aspertame was billed as the logical next step on the list of artificial sweeteners in 1974, but initial test results caused the FDA to hold off approval until 1981.

Mister Boomer’s one and only encounter with Tab came when he was dating a woman in college who drank the stuff. Visiting her house one day, and curious about this elixir, he asked for a sample. She poured him a sip into a glass, and it was the last sip of Tab he ever took. According to Mister B, it had a medicinal taste that was not cola-adjacent at all.

How about you, boomers? Did you drink Tab then? Do you drink Tab now? Will you miss it when it’s gone?

Boomers Liked Teen-Idol Ricky Nelson

After a casual dinner at the Mister Boomer homestead, Mister B settled in for a couple of hours of mindless television. Suddenly, there on his screen, appeared a commercial for Campbell’s Soup. From the initial frame the soundtrack was immediately identifiable. Mister B inched forward on the sofa and proclaimed, “That’s Ricky Nelson! Campbell’s Soup is using a Ricky Nelson song to sell chicken noodle soup!” The song was, of course, Never Be Anyone Else (1959).

We don’t hear much about Ricky Nelson these days. Yet, though he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985, no matter what part of the boomer years you were born in, you are aware of Ricky and his music. Ricky was a big deal. Whether through radio-listening osmosis or retro sources, Mister B feels the vast majority of boomers know his music once they hear a reminder.

Ricky was born into a showbiz family. His father, Ozzie Nelson, was a bandleader who turned his family life into a make-believe radio show in 1944, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — a forerunner of today’s reality TV. The parts of Ricky and his older brother, David, were played by actors until David was 12 and Ricky, eight. The year was 1948, and the show was so popular that Ozzie thought it would transfer to television, but could not find a backer. Instead, the family made, Here Come the Nelsons, a full-length motion picture that was released in theaters in 1952. The success of the film convinced TV producers of the viability of the program, and the first TV episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on October 3, 1952. The show ran through 1966.

Ricky sang covers of popular songs on several episodes and in TV guest spots, including I’m Walkin’ by Fats Domino. His ability and profile (and a savvy manager-father) got him guest star spots on several TV variety shows, becoming among the first teen idols to use TV as a way to promote a musical career. Consequently, his first single, Be-Bop Baby (1957), sold over a million copies and hit number one on the charts. One year later, Poor Little Fool, debuted at number one in the newly minted Billboard Top 100.

Between 1958 and 1959, Ricky had 12 hit songs on the charts; by contrast, in the same time frame, Elvis had 11. This time overlapped Ricky’s military service, when he was drafted and served between 1958-1960. Among Ricky’s hits were:

Poor Little Fool (1958) – the first number one hit on Billboard’s Hot 100
Never Been Anyone Else (1959) – number 6
Travelin’ Man (1961) – number 1
Hello Mary Lou (1961) – number 9
Garden Party (1972) – number 6

Many boomers may also have forgotten that Ricky appeared in many high-profile movies, including:

Rio Bravo (1952), with John Wayne and Dean Martin
The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960), co-starring with Jack Lemmon
Over-the-Hill Gang (1960), with Walter Brennan and Edgar Buchanan

… and appeared in many more movies and guest appearances on TV.

Ricky was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Mister B does not recall exactly when he first heard a Ricky Nelson song. More than likely it was on his transistor radio in the early 1960s. Neither Mister B or Brother Boomer purchased one of Ricky’s singles or albums, so he is not represented in the Mister Boomer collection. Nonetheless, it is fun to hear his tunes from way back when.

How about you, boomers? How did you come to know Ricky Nelson?