Below is Chapter 15 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.
Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.
To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/
Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s
CHAPTER 15: ‘Rock and Roll is Here to Stay’
By KEITH BLACK
“It’s The Happy Gang!”
“Well, c’monnnnn in.”
Cue up the snappy jingle. “It’s the Happy Gang with the boys and Kay Stokes. We hope you like our music and our songs and our jokes.”
The Happy Gang, with Bert Pearl, Bob Farnon, Blaine Mathé, and Kay Stokes, was a radio program that ran from 1937 to 1959 and had, on some days, more than two million listeners when the population of the country was about 14 million. I never actually heard the program; it was on at 1:15 in the afternoon when I was getting ready to go back to school after lunch. But I just had to wait to hear the opening of the Happy Gang before leaving home.
It is a bit difficult now to comprehend how “big” radio really was. The parents of the Boomers grew up with it, became good friends of its leading personalities, learned from it, were entertained by it and cheered and cried when they were informed by it. They invited the denizens of the radio, real and imagined, into their homes and shared much of their time with them. The residents of the radio became members of the family and the radio was always on.
We got our first television in late 1952 but it never really supplanted the radio. We never connected with the inhabitants of the TV the way that we did with those of radio with a few sparse exceptions. All of our friends on radio were introduced at the beginning of their programs, but I don’t know why; we knew who they were as soon as they began to speak; Wally Crouter, Jack Dennett, Wes McKnight, Allan McFee, Max Ferguson, and Elwood Glover and so many others.
Television required that you look and listen and sit still. Radio only required that you listen and you didn’t even have to do that thoroughly.
Our mothers could clean the house, cook a meal, talk on the phone or mend clothing while the radio carried on. You could ignore it if you wished; it was never offended. It was just there; a friend. We children of the Fifties grew up with it as well; we played games or talked to pals or entertained ourselves with the radio providing ever-present background assurance; an audio security blanket.
Some of my earliest memories are of songs that I heard on the radio as far back as 1950 when I was three years old, songs that, for whatever reason, I liked.
There was Goodnight Irene by the Weavers and Rag Mop by The Ames Brothers of that year, Come on-a My House by Rosemary Clooney and How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1951, Blue Tango by Leroy Anderson and Jambalaya by Jo Stafford in 1952, Patti Page’s (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window, and another by The Ames Brothers, You, You, You in 1953, and in 1954 there was Sh-Boom by the Crew-Cuts and Rosemary Clooney’s This Old House and many more.
I still like all of those songs with the exception of that thing about the yappy dog.
There were times, however, when mother would drop what she was doing and, if I was home for some reason, she would tell me to behave myself and be quiet for a while; one of her favourite shows was coming on and required her attention. This was not good news; I couldn’t fathom why she enjoyed listening to these things; they were terribly boring. The name that made me cringe more than any other was, without doubt, Kate Aitken.
Kate Aitken had a radio show from 1934 to 1957 during which she talked about cooking, homemaking, and etiquette. What could possibly be more boring? But my mother liked her.
It was years later that I learned that Mrs. A, as she was known, was quite remarkable. At times she had as many as three million listeners, received up to 75,000 pieces of mail about each one of her programs which were answered by 15 secretaries, was involved in the publishing of about 50 cookbooks, for a while was director of women’s activities at the Canadian National Exhibition, worked for UNICEF, was a panelist on the television show Fighting Words, wrote a column for the Globe & Mail and ultimately completed 9,500 radio shows.
She also travelled the world and met with King George VI, Franklin Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. It is not clear if she discussed etiquette with them, particularly the latter two. When she retired from radio, she joined the board of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. That’s quite a resume. But, I still remember her as being boring.
John Bradshaw wrote many best-selling gardening books and had a regular radio show during which he dispensed home gardening advice. He also broadcast a farm report. My mother liked his shows and listened to them regularly. We lived in an apartment! My grandmother liked him too. She lived in a smaller apartment than ours!
Each spring my mother would set out two window boxes of pansies on the outside sills of our living room windows. That’s it! They were nice pansies but I don’t think it was necessary to enlist the aid of Mr. Bradshaw. I can’t say that I enjoyed his broadcasts, but I must add that I remember that he had a nice voice.
And then there were the soap operas; Helen Trent, The Guiding Light, Our Gal Sunday, and Ma Perkins. Most of these shows were only 15 minutes long so they were easy to miss, but if my mother missed one, there was no problem; she simply called her mother to get an update. Their clear favourite was Ma Perkins which was on the air from 1933 to 1960. I didn’t have a favourite; I hated them all equally.
Ma Perkins was about a kind and trusting elderly widow with a big heart who was famous for offering common sense advice. She was played by an actress, Virginia Payne, who was actually only 23 years old when she was first heard in the role in 1933 and she never missed an episode in the next 27 years. There were more than 7,000 of them. I am pleased to say that, unlike Ms. Payne, I missed most of them.
There were many stars of radio who would graduate and go into television and some of them were personal friends of mine and of others my age. The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok would eventually make the move but, before they did, they entertained us regularly on the radio. When their shows came on, my brother and I would settle close to the receiver and listen intently. While we were listening we were allowing our imaginations to visualize each scene. There was no right way or wrong way to picture what was happening; there was my way and his way and her way and hundreds of thousands of ways to paint the canvas. That was the beauty of radio.
Something happened in the summer of 1955 that sent a small, almost imperceptible tremor through the airwaves. The hit songs being played that year ranged from Les Baxter’s rendition of Unchained Melody, to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons, along with some more up-tempo items such as the Chordettes’ Mr. Sandman and The Ames Brothers’ The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane. The number one song that year was a mambo, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Cuban band leader Perez Prado.
But the number two hit was recorded by a fellow named William John Clifton Haley. Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets was loved by some and truly hated by others; there was no middle ground. But, it was just one song. For the record, let me state that I liked all of the numbers named above, especially the one about the naughty lady.
And then in 1956, the tremor became an earthquake. The number one and two songs of the year, Heartbreak Hotel and Don’t Be Cruel, were by a 21 year old truck driver, Elvis Presley. In fact, he had five songs in the top 50. But in addition to Elvis, there was Carl Perkins with Blue Suede Shoes, Gene Vincent with Be-Bop-A-Lula, Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally, and Bill Haley again with See You Later Alligator. Rock and Roll was here to stay.
Radio stations had a decision to make. Most elected to downplay the new music in the hope that it would quietly (quietly is definitely the wrong word here) fade away. But one station decided to totally embrace Rock and Roll.
CHUM at 1050 on the AM radio dial was very much like most other stations at the time with some popular music, some news and sports and a few shows during the day aimed at women. Like most stations, they went silent overnight. And then, at six o’clock in the morning of May 27, 1957, the station became a 24-hour operation featuring Rock and Roll.
The first record played that morning was All Shook Up by Elvis Presley. Good morning! The owner and president of CHUM, Allan Waters, was told by many of his friends that he was making a big mistake. They were wrong; they had underestimated the appeal of Rock and Roll and Mr. Waters’ promotional talents.
One other development assisted CHUM radio and all of the other stations like it in North America, that being the availability of portable music. The transistor radio first appeared in 1954 but the cost was high and the quality was poor. In 1957, Sony created their model TR-63 which was the first truly mass produced transistor radio and it was available at a reasonable price. Ultimately, over seven million of these would be sold.
Other manufacturers quickly followed. And who was it who wanted portable music? Who was it who wanted Rock and Roll? Kids like me. And in CHUM we found a radio station that spoke to us. It was said that they targeted us but that’s alright. I didn’t mind. Kate Aitken targeted my mother and she was fine with that.
One summer afternoon in 1958 or 1959, a bunch of my friends and I were spending time at the beach doing what it was that we usually did but occasionally we would glance skyward. We had been told that one of the CHUM announcers, Al Boliska, would be taking the controls of a skywriting airplane and try his hand at it by writing the simplest word he could think of: MOO. Of course we didn’t really believe that our clownish friend, Al, would actually be flying the plane but we watched anyway. Sure enough, a plane appeared and wrote one giant word in the sky: OMO. We all laughed; Al Boliska couldn’t spell. It was one massive promotion for CHUM radio. It was also a huge promotion announcing the introduction of Omo, a new laundry detergent by Lever Brothers. That was Allan Waters. But I have to ask the question; whatever became of skywriting and planes towing long advertising banners?
They bowled in charity tournaments, they raced in soap box derbies, they ran a dancethon at Honest Ed’s, they rode in convertibles in parades, they walked in charity walkathons, they wore various costumes and appeared at the Sportsman Show and other similar venues; they were young, they were fun, they were energetic, they were personable, and they were seen everywhere: Al Boliska, Mike Darow, Dave Johnson, John Sprague and Bob Laine, our friends at CHUM.
Al Boliska complained about the condition of the city’s streets and very publicly drove around and filled potholes. He also entered the ring and took on the British Empire Wrestling Champion. He lost.
When a Johnny Horton hit, The Battle of New Orleans, a song about an American victory over the British soared to Number 1, Mike Darow recorded a parody, The Battle of Queenston Heights which reached Number 18.
They appeared at one event accompanied by the station’s music librarian, pretty Millie Moriak, who appeared to be wearing only a barrel. She wasn’t. CHUM had portable booths and they would broadcast from locations throughout the city and draw crowds to the opening of shopping plazas or to car dealerships or to charity events. Each year they would park their modern and distinctive broadcast trailer just inside the Prince’s Gates at the Canadian National Exhibition and it would be continuously surrounded by thousands of fans. I was one of them.
Each week I would pick up a copy of the Chum Chart to see how my favourites were doing on the Top 50 list and check out the latest contest. For the first few years of the “new” CHUM, popular music was going through a transition and that is evident by reading the old charts. In addition to Elvis, there were a multitude of new young artists including The Everly Brothers, Conway Twitty, Paul Anka, Gerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Danny & the Juniors, Duane Eddy, Jack Scott, Bobby Darin and Dion & the Belmonts.
But sharing the same list we find Patti Page, Jane Morgan, Mitch Miller, Eydie Gorme, and Dean Martin. And then there were the songs that were put out to make us laugh. The Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley made us laugh….and buy. It was the 12th best-selling single of the entire year in 1958. Later in the same year, a tune unbelievably reached Number 11 on the Chum Chart and it was a polka; Liechtensteiner Polka by Will Glahe and his orchestra. I have a copy of it. Perhaps you’d like to buy it?
Yes, radio was big in the Fifties and, starting in 1957, we had our very own radio station, music, contests, features and friends.
On Feb. 4, 1959, I awoke to the news that the previous evening Roger Peterson, a pilot, had lost control of his airplane in windy and snowy conditions and had crashed in a cornfield in Iowa. On board with him were the musicians Buddy Holly, who was one of my favourites, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson who was known as The Big Bopper. They all died instantly. It was the only topic of conversation at school that day.
A few years later, Don McLean wrote and performed a song called American Pie in which he referred to that day, Feb. 3, 1959, as “the day the music died”. It was a great song but I have to disagree with him; it didn’t die.
Remember, Rock and Roll is here to stay.
To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:
To read Chapter Two, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Three, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Four, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Five, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Six, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 10, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/15/chapter-10-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 11, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/22/chapter-11-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
To read Chapter 12, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/29/chapter-12-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/
Tor read Chapter 13, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/06/chapter-13-of-boom-tells-how-the-garden-gate-became-the-goof/