Most of us didn’t have a care in the world. Our future, at least back then, was no further away than what we had planned for tomorrow.
I reckon it was that way for most of us, who became teenagers in the 1950s. We’d all heard the stories our parents told of living through The Great Depression. World War II, even though it had ended in 1945, was still a topic of conversation among the “old folks” who gathered at homes of friends and relatives for coffee, sometimes dinners (we called it “supper,” though – “dinner” was what we ate at noon) and always conversation.
Invariably those evening and weekend adult conversations involved things that didn’t interest most of my generation. Those things would become concerns for us soon enough.
In the late 1950s, however, my generation was more deeply involved with things that affected our lives on a personal level … things like collecting baseball cards, sipping a malted with a favorite girl, or, more often, just hanging out with friends. Our favored gathering spots were various diners around the area.
Of course, we’d gather in booths and, without fail, one of the “gang” would dig into a pocket, fetch a nickel and drop it in the slot of an ever-present juke box. Voila, as the music blared in the diner, we’d sing along, sometimes a few of the braver ones would actually get out on the floor and dance to those Rock ‘n Roll dances of the era, girls’ flaring skirts swinging as they moved about the diner, suddenly transformed into a dance floor.
Music favored by the younger set in the 1950s, naturally, was whatever new hit was sweeping the country. Of course, Elvis was still “king” and teenage heartthrobs included singers like Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Paul Anka and, of course, Ricky Nelson.
However, there was one early Rock n’ Roll singer who didn’t really fit the mold of the teenage idol, at least in rural Iowa. Yet, there were often more of his songs on the juke boxes than any one, except, of course, Elvis Presley.
I can’t imagine a teen in the late 1950s who had never grabbed a girl, raced out on the dance floor and rocked to “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Johnnie B. Goode.” We also favored songs like “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Nadine,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Little Queenie.”
They were all great dance tunes.
Of course, they were all hit songs released by Chuck Berry, one of the pioneers of the music so enjoyed by teenagers of the 1950s. Chuck Berry was from a different background than many singers of that day – he was an African American from St. Louis, Mo. It took a long, long time, at least in many parts of this country, before music by “black” artists was played on radio stations that catered to white teenagers. Many of the early hits by African American artists were “covered” by white singers. Shoot, even some of what our parents’ generation thought offensive by white singers was “covered” by singers whose squeaky-clean image – like Pat Boone and Tab Hunter – was more palatable for our parents.
But, we survived. Rock n’ Roll survived, much to the chagrin of many of our elders.
And, Chuck Berry survived. More importantly, his music survived.
Chuck Berry lived a very long life. He died over the past weekend at the ripe old age of 90. He’d found a way to stay an important part of the music scene for much of his life. When many of the 1950s singers had been forgotten, Chuck Berry was still releasing music for a long time after that. His song “Johnnie B. Goode” became an anthem in the teenage movie “Back to the Future.” His song, “Sweet Little Sixteen” was used as the music by The Beach Boys, when they burst on the scene in the early 1960s with a hit song that had everyone gyrating on the dance floor once again, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Many Rock n’ Roll stars moved around on the stage in ways that became iconic. Elvis, of course, had the swivel hips that drove teenage girls wild and their parents up a wall. Mick Jagger has an air of swagger as he walks back and forth on the stage.
And, Chuck Berry?
We’ll never forget him, bended knee, skipping across the stage while playing the guitar swung low at his side. I think the biggest thing I’ll remember about Chuck Berry, though, is the many times I found a nickel in my pocket, or a dime, sometimes a quarter. Always, I’d put those coins in the slot of a nearby juke box and always I’d find a Chuck Berry tune that filled the room with Rock n’ Roll music.