3/5/13 - elvis presley and portable radios

In today's selection -- the rock and roll revolution rode in on the rails of technology. Disapproving parents in the 1950s might have been in control of the family record player, but they couldn't control a brand new marvel of technology, the portable transistor radio, which enterprising manufacturers would sell to the newly prosperous postwar teens for $1 down and $1 a month. Portable record players were not far behind. In fact, the average teen had almost as much disposable income as entire families had had only fifteen years earlier:

"[Elvis] Presley's [career] timing was nearly perfect. The [rock and roll] crossover, led by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, was in full force. Parents might disapprove of the beat and of their children listening to what they knew was black music. But their disapproval only added to Presley's popularity and made him more of a hero among the young. Local ministers might get up in their churches (almost always well covered by local newspapers) and attack demon rock as jungle music and threaten to lead a crusade to have this Presley boy arrested if he dared set foot in their community (generally, there was no problem, their towns were too small for him to play). It did not matter: Elvis Presley and rock music were happening.

"A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music. There was nothing the parents could do: This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it. This was the new, wealthier America. Elvis Presley began to make it in 1955, after ten years of rare broad-based middle-class prosperity. Among the principal beneficiaries of that prosperity were the teenagers. They had almost no memory of a Depression and the great war that followed it. There was no instinct on their part to save money. In the past when American teenagers had made money, their earnings, more often than not, had gone to help support their parents or had been saved for one treasured and long-desired purchase, like a baseball glove or a bike, or it had been set aside for college.

"But now, as the new middle class emerged in the country, it was creating as a byproduct a brand-new consuming class: the young. Scholastic magazine's Institute of Student Opinion showed that by early 1956 there were 13 million teenagers in the country, with a total income of $7 billion a year, which was 26 percent more than only three years earlier. The average teenager, the magazine said, had an income of $10.55 a week. That figure seemed remarkable at the time; it was close to what the average American family had had in dispos­able income, after all essential bills were paid, fifteen years earlier.

"In addition, technology favored the young. The only possible family control was over a home's one radio or record player. There, parental rule and edicts could still be exercised. But the young no longer needed to depend on the family's appliances. In the early fifties a series of technological breakthroughs brought small transis­torized radios that sold for $25 to $50. Soon an Elvis Presley model record player was selling for $47.95. Teenagers were asked to put $1 down and pay only $1 a week. Credit buying had reached the young. By the late fifties, American companies sold 10 million portable record players a year.

"In this new subculture of rock and roll the important figures of authority were no longer mayors and selectmen or parents; they were disc jockeys, who reaffirmed the right to youthful independence and guided teenagers to their new rock heroes. The young formed their own community. For the first time in American life they were becoming a separate, defined part of the culture: As they had money, they were a market, and as they were a market they were listened to and catered to. Elvis was the first beneficiary. In effect, he was entering millions of American homes on the sly ..."


David Halberstam


The Fifties


The Random House Publishing Group


Copyright 1993 by The Amateurs Limited


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