Ducktails, Drive-ins & Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at '50s Music

Ducktails, Drive-ins & Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at '50s Music

By Guest Contributor Date: June 01, 2023

Guest post by Hank Davis

There's a lot more to '50s music than the two-dimensional images from the Happy Days TV show. The era was a cataclysm in American culture. It started off in the quiet and conservative Eisenhower era. Then it went through the seismic changes accompanying the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. It nearly drove the generations apart in a way never before witnessed. Perry Como and Eddie Fisher gave way to Elvis Presley and Little Richard. By the end of the decade there was widespread fear that rock ‘n’ roll might destroy Western Civilization, and the music had to be toned down. “Sweetened” was the term they used back then, just like in the title of this book.

Ducktails, Drive-Ins and Broken Hearts takes a deep look at the record business and the artists it produced. Sure, Elvis is here, but his presence is like a shadow hovering over almost everything. You'll know some of these names like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, but many you won't know. Their stories and behind the scenes adventures are no less fascinating. They'll tell you more about the '50s decade than a dozen episodes of Happy Days.

What really happened back then in the record business? What kind of stuff got swept under the carpet? What were “cover records” and did they represent the worst of racism? How did such a conservative decade in American history give rise to so much politically incorrect music? What were the most influential records of the decade and was there such a thing as the first rock and roll record? We try to answer all those questions and more.

Imagine what it’s like to write a book like this. How do you track down singers who left nothing but a reel of tape in a record company vault 70 years ago? Do these people even want to be found? Are they embarrassed by what they did way back then? Do they all have regrets?

Music archeology is a fascinating pursuit. The people you meet often have stories that go beyond what you expected to hear. If there's any rule for this kind of investigative reporting it's that you go where the stories take you. Expect the unexpected. There are more untold backstories than you can imagine. As an interviewer, there's nothing sweeter than hearing “Nobody's ever asked me that before” or “I haven't thought about that in 60 years.” That's when the story often comes alive.

I was one of thousands of Elvis wannabes in that magic decade. I made a few records in the late '50s and saw them reissued by European collector labels in the '70s and '80s. I've been interviewed for magazine articles and know what it's like to be on that side of the microphone. But I've spent far more time on the other side - being the interviewer and trying to weave together a story to appear on the back of an album jacket or in a CD booklet. A lot of the chapters in this book come from those interviews with people who were there, trying to make hit records in the 1950s. Nothing is sugar-coated. Nor should it be.

Sometimes it's not about the singers themselves, but their songs. Here are a couple of examples. You've probably heard that old folk song, Delia's Gone. It seems that everybody from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash has recorded it. But who was Delia? Was she a real person? Did she look like Kate Moss, who plays Delia in the famous Johnny Cash music video? The quick answer is no, she was nothing like Kate Moss. She was a 14-year old Black girl who lived in Charleston, South Carolina about a hundred years ago, who got shot at a party for standing up to her trash-talking boyfriend.

Here's another '50s story that appears in the chapter called "Unchained Melody: a Pre-Ghost Story." Suffice it to say that the original record is not by the Righteous Brothers, and the whole story began nearly 40 years before that wonderful 1990s movie with Whoopi Goldberg. "Unchained Melody" appeared in a god-awful, low budget 1954 movie called Unchained. The song was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to a big budget Hollywood extravaganza you may recall, called Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. That song disappeared into the mists of time, whereas "Unchained Melody" continues to be one of the most recorded and performed songs in the history of popular music.

Ducktails, Drive-Ins and Broken Hearts is full of surprises. We’ve barely scratched the surface here. In the words of one of the book’s reviewers, “No matter what your perception of '50s music, be prepared to have it challenged.”

Hank Davis is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada. He has produced and annotated many boxed reissue sets for Bear Family Records and other European record companies, including the award-winning Sun Blues Box and the critically acclaimed Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records.