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Book offers fascinating visit to 1950s

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As the turn of the century nears, there's a lot of looking back at the 20th century going on. One is a series by Time-Life Books, Our American Century. I came upon one in the series called "Rock and Roll Generation: Teen Life in America in the '50s." So fascinated was I that I twice read it cover to cover.

The 1950s is a decade that marked my coming of age. I began the '50s as a high school student, and was a high school teacher as it ended. In between, I paid my civic dues by serving four years in the Navy, got married, started a family and graduated from college.

The person I was to become during the rest of my life became etched in stone in the '50s. Likewise, what was to happen to the country for the remainder of the century and beyond took root in the '50s.

Franchised fast food restaurants, the move to the suburbs, an affluent middle class, interstate highways and franchised roadside motels, mass airline travel, network television, the civil rights movement and, yes, rock 'n' roll all began in the '50s. Those weary of Depression and war created lives for their children that were better than they had experienced.

The result was an unparalleled demand for life-easing consumer goods, which, in turn, fueled an economy that brought about a standard of living unknown to any other nation before or since. Of interest to me, the editors of the book managed to find the yearbook photographs of famous Americans who, like me, came of age in the 1950s.

These people destined to dance in the nation's spotlight looked like ordinary teenagers of the era. I didn't know that Carol Burnett graduated from high school the same year as I. So, too, did Sam Donaldson his real hair wasn't much of an improvement over his toupee along with Larry King and Carl Sagan.

Since their names are under the graduation photos, I could recognize them all; however, I never would have recognized Tina Turner, class of '58, if her name didn't appear. I would have recognized Janet Reno, class of '56, and Martha Stewart, class of '59, even without being identified. It's reassuring to know that these famous people looked as goofy as I did in their yearbook photos.

My only complaint about this otherwise excellent book is that readers too young to remember the '50s would assume that rock 'n' roll ruled the entire decade. Not so.

Elvis Presley's first recordings weren't released until 1956. "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," and four other of his hits were on the charts during that year. The rock 'n' roll frenzy didn't overtake the nation's youth until the second half of the decade.

For the most part, music in the first half was dominated by ballad singers like Frankie Laine, Eddie Fisher, Nat "King" Cole, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney (George's aunt), Patti Page and, of course, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. So, the rockers, who are well-documented in this book, dominated only the latter part of the decade.

Speaking of '50s rock 'n' roll, the book does cover the one rock group (before it was called rock) with several pre-Elvis hits. A lot of credit is given to Bill Haley and the Comets for fusing black rhythm and blues and white country music into what became rock 'n' roll long before anyone had ever heard of Elvis.

Originally a country music band, Bill Haley and the Comets began to hit the charts in 1952. Its recording of "Shake Rattle and Roll" shared top 10 status with the ballad singers. In what the book refers to as "Rock's National Anthem," the group recorded "Rock around the Clock" in 1955 for the movie "Blackboard Jungle."

Elvis is given credit for being the daddy of the blues-country sound called rock 'n' roll, but Haley's lyrics of "One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock rock ... we're gonna rock around the clock tonight ..." was its granddaddy.

Later, Bill Haley expressed bitterness at being forgotten when the music he had pioneered made it big time. The book gives him his due, along with credit to rocker Chuck Berry, rightly so, calling him The Poet Laureate of Rock 'n' Roll. Every rock singer since has been influenced by Chuck Berry.

The 1950s were exciting times. I'm happy that I and Carol Burnett, Sam Donaldson, Larry King, Carl Sagan, you know, all of us in the class of '51 who grew up to become famous experienced them.

(Joe McAdoo is former chairman of the communication department at Drury College and a Springfield public relations consultant.)

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