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Unresolved questions in the history of live music 1953-64 – Colin Miller


Today’s post is by Colin Miller – a retired senior lecturer of Mathematics in the Faculty of Education at the University of the West of England and writer on the subject of local history. His books include Country Boy – Growing up in Norfolk 1940-1960,  The Fifties Replayed – A Norfolk Youth at Leisure and most recently, A Degree of Swing – Lessons in the  Facts of Life Leicester 1953 – 1964. He discusses here his musical memories from this latter period.

As the content of this blog is based upon my memories of the period 1953-64, a brief personal biography might prove useful. I was born on 5 August 1940 at Rollesby, a small Broadland village in the heart of rural Norfolk. My father was a bricklayer and my mother was a housewife and weekend cleaner for a boat hire business. I was educated initially at the village primary school and, after success in the 11+, at Great Yarmouth Grammar School and Leicester University, at a time when those institutions were controlled by staff from urban middle class backgrounds promoting middle class cultural values. Despite some input from school and university, my attitudes, values and practices were primarily working class in nature. For 38 years I taught mathematics to trainee teachers until I retired in 2002. I have since filled my time by recording my memories of life as a teenager and student at school and university during the 1950s and early 1960s, supported by reference to both primary and secondary sources. I am not a musician, I cannot read music and I have never made a living from any music-related occupation.

But music dominated my early life, especially live music. I became a teenager in 1953 when a latent interest in music was kindled. My preferred genre was the popular music of that time and I knew little of classical, operatic or ballet music. In my early teens I listened intently to romantic ballads and used the lyrics of Frankie Laine’s Answer me in love notes to unobtainable girls. None were ever sent. I cried over a failed romance while listening to Frankie Lymon sing Why do fools fall in love? I was 16 when the film Rock around the Clock caused a sensation and accelerated the formation of a teenage culture characterised by rock ‘n’ roll music, dancing, cinema-going and fashionable clothes. I listened avidly to Radio Luxembourg and never missed an edition of the Six-five Special. I was 22 and a student in my final year at university when the Beatles released From me to you, their first number one hit record. I heard live music almost every day from the radio and TV, the back seat of a coach on the return journey from an excursion, workers singing in the fields and market gardens of Rollesby, drinkers enjoying life at the public house; at dances and concert parties in the village hall, and at the band stands, dance halls and theatres of Great Yarmouth and Leicester. I played live music, as did most of my family members. My inability to read music prevented me from playing the piano and from taking part in musical activities at grammar school. But I managed to overcome this deficiency by devising alternative strategies for learning melodies and became proficient in playing the harmonica, ukulele-banjo and guitar, performing on my own, at family parties, in jam sessions with my friends and in public for fun or with various part-time groups and bands for a modest fee.

It is inevitable that unresolved questions have arisen from my memories of that time. I, therefore, intend to pose three hypotheses in this blog in the hope that they might be of interest and relevance to those who are engaged in researching the history of live music from 1953-64.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Most ‘histories’ of music from the 1950s and ‘60s use as evidence for their details and conclusions the records of organisations linked to the music industry, contemporary articles from the musical press and the biographies of successful musicians. I hypothesise that this (a) gives a distorted view of events and gives far too great a weight to the often over-exaggerated contributions of the successful few, and (b) omits to acknowledge the contribution to live music of unrecognised ordinary individuals and grass roots movements who leave no written record. For example no musical genre can succeed without a receptive audience. Did the link with the Teddy Boy movement facilitate the success of rock ‘n roll? How important were amateur musicians in promoting and popularising new songs in the early 1950s before the widespread appearance of record shops and Dansette record players? Did local musicians foster an interest in live music among their social group? As I later recorded:

in the late 1950s, I was occasionally invited by Aunt Doris Miller to join the coach trips that she organised for the Happy Rollers Club to entertain the senior citizens with my ukulele and guitar playing. On one memorable trip, the return journey involved a stop at a wayside public house where I was invited to play my ukulele.” “After I had sung my complete repertoire of George Formby songs, the landlord thanked me for my efforts and declared that it was now their turn to entertain. Immediately, an ancient weather-beaten man dressed in a khaki army greatcoat and brown floppy hat, produced a harmonica from his pocket and accompanied the landlord while he sang various traditional and local folk songs about fishing for herring and ploughing the soil. Eventually, he was replaced by a second man dressed in a striped shirt, brown trousers held up by a belt of binder twine, a red spotted handkerchief tied around his neck and black hobnailed boots, who danced jigs on a wooden board accompanied by the same harmonica player.   Fortified by numerous jugs of beer, everyone enthusiastically joined in a communal sing-song, supported by an inharmonious harmonica and ukulele accompaniment, until it was time to leave for home.[1]

My second hypothesis proposes that music can not only reflect the culture of its audience but actively facilitate changes in that culture. For instance, did the sexual revolution of the swinging sixties begin back in the late 1950s due to a growing interest of the young in black rhythm & blues music with its sexually explicit lyrics or did that interest simply reflect changes that were already underway? Did the protest folk music of Bob Dylan and his contemporaries inspire a political awareness in its listeners or did it merely reflect an already well-developed social consciousness among the young?

Finally, my experiences suggest that it is possible to postulate that it was the growing numbers of working class students admitted into British universities and institutes of higher education during the late 1950s that enabled the 1963 Beatles-led popular music revolution to take place. When I arrived at Leicester in 1959, musical entertainment at the university was exclusively classical music concerts, light orchestral music for ballroom dancing on a Saturday night and a Friday evening jazz club. There was no place at all for popular music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll. It was the music of the working class young and the university was considered by many to be the rightful domain of middle class intellectuals. I recollect that,

before leaving home I loaned my record player to my mother and divided my pop music collection between her and my cousin Stephanie, under the misguided impression that rock ‘n’ roll music was considered to be non-U for university students. I bade a sad goodbye to my favourite record purchases of that year – Marty Wilde’s recording of ‘Endless Sleep’, Ricky Nelson’s ‘Poor Little Fool’, ‘When’ by The Kalin Twins, Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’ and many others. On the other hand, my jazz records had been carefully packed in my trunk and accompanied me on my journey to Leicester. [2]

Most closet rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts with a performance background in skiffle joined the university’s folk club where the music was a curious combination of skiffle numbers, British folk songs, ballads, sea shanties and American folk, country and blues. Through the club, I met with Dave Cousins and Spencer Davis, two students who went on to follow successful careers in popular music. In 1961, along with four other similar minded students with a common musical background, we founded the university’s first rock ‘n’ roll band, Aztec & the Incas, not without some trepidation. The creation of a rock band at the university was met with enthusiasm by a few and a degree of resistance from the rest. I acknowledged that, at the time,

 many members of the university were quite disdainful of students, like me, who had little knowledge of classical music; to them, the Incas and our music were clearly ‘beyond the pale’. A preference for classical music was considered by some students to be an essential characteristic of the intellectual elite; those who preferred anything else were often branded as peasants. Despite such views, all forms of popular music were clearly gaining more followers, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists.[3]

It is my contention that it was the appearance of growing numbers of working class students in higher education as a consequence of the 1944 Education Act that not only expanded the musical landscape of universities but also laid the foundation for the British dominance in popular music during the 1960s. At the same time as the Incas were established at Leicester, similar rock ‘n’ roll bands were appearing in many universities and colleges of higher education, formed mostly by students from a working class background with a grounding in skiffle. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones fit into this classification. At the Leicester College of Art & Technology, Jimmy King formed the Farinas who, unlike the Incas, went on to have musical success under the stage name of Family.

[1] Colin Miller (2008) The Fifties Replayed; A Norfolk youth at leisure The History Press p144.

[2] Colin Miller (2012) A Degree of Swing; Lessons in the facts of life; Leicester 1958-64 Db Publishing p18

[3] Ibid; p115.

Colin Miller

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