An Elvis Guitar From Woolworth's

Whether you lived in London, Glasgow, Cardiff or even Wolverhampton, to be young in the mid-1950's usually meant that you consumed almost anything that had 'made in America' attached to it. This was especially true of the films, particularly the Westerns starring the heroes of the Saturday morning matinee. Men like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, all wearing their white ten-gallon hats of righteousness, were worshipped by their adoring juvenile audiences who would leave the cinema and re-enact the proceedings on some waste ground around one or other of the newer housing estates like Warstones, Underhill or Ashmore Park or in the backstreets of other local areas.

Meanwhile, older brothers were modelling themselves on the new cult heroes of Hollywood like Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. The anti-social behaviour as depicted by such young men was most vigorously reflected by the British phenomenon of the Teddy boys who emerged onto the mid-50's scene with their 'uniform' of drainpipe trousers, drape Edwardian jackets with velvet collars, string-ties or slim-jims, BC's (brothel creepers), DA (duck's arse) haircuts and sideburns.

Teddy Boys. To many parents they represented the anti-Christ. To many teenage lads they were everything you wanted to be but did not dare. (Express & Star)
The mere presence of 'Teds' was sufficient to virtually empty dance-halls before the 'trouble' started, but some dance-halls became closely associated in people's minds with Teddy boys. In Wolverhampton it was principally the Dorchester in Temple Street that was regarded as the 'Teds' hang-out' but no dance, be it in the local Youth Club shack, church or neighbouring village hall, was totally safe from a violent incursion by these young men who became some of the original juvenile delinquents.

While Teddy boys were very much a minority within British society, they had a fairly widespread influence on other male teenagers, especially in terms of fashion and appearance.

The width of trouser bottoms, ties, soles of shoes, the style and length of hair became very important issues for both young men and their parents to 'negotiate'. The significance of wearing trousers which had bottoms less than 15 inches was lost on most parents but within many male street-corner social groups it was of monumental importance.

It became common-place for newly purchased trousers to be 'smuggled' into the neighbouring homes of amenable tailoresses to taper to the required measurement, or for new pairs of jeans to be baptised in the bath in an attempt to shrink them and make them tighter, as recalled by these Wulfrunians:

"My mother bought my clothes but they were never right as far as I was concerned, especially the trousers. Every pair of trousers she bought I would take around to a mate's mother to taper. It never seemed to dawn on my mom that I had had them altered. "

"If you wore trousers which were wider than 15 inches you soon became a laughing stock among our gang and so it was necessary to get them tapered as quickly as possible after you bought them. I tapered one or two pairs myself on my mom s old Singer sewing machine. I didn't make too good a job of them but having tight trousers was what mattered."

"I went to the Grammar School down Compton Road and the uniform was really important but I still wore as tight a pair of trousers as possible and I used to iron my tie down the middle just to make it look narrow. "

"I used to secretly idolise Teddy boys and their style but there was no way my parents would accept or allow me to dress like them. I had to make my own small attempts to mimic them. I would take trousers to be tapered, learn to tie my tie with a Windsor knot and spend hours trying to get a quiff in the front of my hair." 

"I used to buy all my clothes from Rosenshine's in the Central Arcade because they had a great selection of tight trousers and jeans. I remember buying one pair of jeans which had a zip at the bottom of the legs because they were so tight you had to unzip the bottoms to get them on. With those jeans on, I felt the bee s knees. "

"I used to practise walking with my shoulders hunched and my hands in my pockets because to me that was how James Dean walked and he was the ultimate as far as I was concerned. Now I realise that I must have looked really stupid."

"One of my greatest ambitions when I was a teenager was to go to Maison Haselock's and get my hair cut in a DA. I never did achieve it because I was too frightened of my parents and their reaction."

"I used to take a comb everywhere with me and would peer into any window or shiny surface to check my hair was right. If it seemed to be out of place I would stop and comb it, wherever or whenever. Getting the front of the hair and sideburns just right was the all important thing."

"I used to get into all sorts of bother at school because of the width of my trousers and the style of my hair but I never really minded because things like that were all important to us at that time. I particularly remember getting in deep trouble when I was in about the fourth year at Secondary school because of a red waistcoat that I wore. It was confiscated until the end of the term."

The anti-hero worship of so many teenage Wulfrunians, reflected in their style of dress and demeanour, was typical of the general way of things throughout much of the country during the middle years of the 50's. However, the emergence of the Hollywood anti-heroes was not yet reflected in the music of the time.

In 1955, the year which saw the first published 'Hit Parade' by the Record Mirror, ballads and balladeers were still very much the order of the day, the only real exception in terms of style was probably the American artist Johnny Ray, the 'Nabob of Sob' as he was known to the tabloid press.

He had a quite distinctive stage presence and act, wearing a very obvious hearing aid because of his partial deafness and collapsing in tears during the delivery of some of his best known numbers like Cry, Little White Cloud That Cried or Such A Night.

Huddled around the Juke-Box. The latest records could seldom he afforded by teenagers so the juke-box became the answer to your prayers.
His performances in the April and May of the year became legendary in Britain because of the hysteria he caused among the female members of his audiences. It was probably the first time that this country witnessed genuine fan hysteria, something that would become quite commonplace during the next decade. Many observers would argue that the hysteria caused by Johnny Ray was more excessive even than the 'Beatlemania' of the 60's. Some musical memories include:

"I went to see Johnny Ray at the London Palladium because we lived in London during the 50s. There was an amazing amount of noise. Most of the women in the auditorium seemed to be screaming or crying. I was about 20 at the time and I suppose I was as bad as any of them."

"My sister was mad on Johnny Ray. She collected any snippet of information about him and had a photograph of him in her bedroom. You just imagine what it would have been like for Johnny Ray if he had been a big star in the 60s or in the years since then."

While Johnny Ray was every bit as extravagant in his presentation as any of the rock 'n' rollers of the next few years, his repertoire was not really that much different from the other more staid balladeers of the time, notably Frankie Laine. He had achieved a number of hits during the earlier years of the decade, including the massive selling I Believe in 1951 and he was still successful in 1955. He entered the charts with six records during that year including the big seller Cool Water. Other successful American artists of the period included Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tony Martin amongst the males and Rosemary Clooney amongst the females. Britain's most successful performers were Dickie Valentine, David Whitfield, Jimmy Young and Ruby Murray.

"Dickie Valentine was the nearest we had to offer as a rival to any of the Yanks. He had that same relaxed way about him and he could certainly sell a song, especially something like the Finger Of Suspicion. He was probably one of the first British singers to be a genuine sex symbol."

"David Whitfield always came over as a real man. He was well built and sounded masculine. I loved his voice and we used to buy all of his records from places like Cliff & Halifax or the Voltic in the Queen's Arcade. The vast majority of those records were on 78, not 45."

"Cara Mia by David Whitfield was and still is my very favourite record. It still sends shivers down my spine."

"Ruby Murray had the strangest voice. It was almost as if she had lost her voice and was just starting to get it back. Still, it made very little difference to her success, although very few of us could understand how she came to sell so many records."

Very few of the British stars, let alone the American performers when they were on tour, ever ventured far out of London. They might visit some of the larger cities but a town like Wolverhampton had little chance of witnessing the talents of any of the chart-toppers. As a result, most youngsters in the town during the mid-50's were forced to wait until a Saturday evening before they got the opportunity to go ballroom dancing to one or other of the local dance bands. Bands like Dave Cadman, Johnny Neenan, Mac Thomas, Stan Fielding, Col Marshall or Reg Bartlam provided the music for those dances and in most cases the repertoire was almost entirely foxtrots, quick steps, waltzes or one of the newer Latin American dances.

While many young people attended the Civic or Wulfrun Halls, Bilston Town Hall, the Palais (Regent Dance Club), the Dorchester, St. Paul's Hall and countless other halls and clubs, so did many older people and as a result much of the music was determined by older tastes, especially as many of the instrumentalists were older as well. Many bands were still playing tunes which had been hits years before but which were still very popular with the clientele. The music of people like Glenn Miller was still extremely popular and so bands continued to play it and people danced to it:

"One of the most amazing things was everybody in the hall could dance. Whatever the dance step, it seemed everyone knew how to do it. Even the younger people there had been taught to dance at school or by their parents."

"Wolverhampton had a fair selection of dance bands during the 50s. Most of them were of a very good standard and included really good instrumentalists who had often played in bigger and more famous bands."

"The number of professional musicians about was staggering. Even the amateur fellers were excellent. It seemed that the bands could play virtually anything and always play it very well."

"I think my favourite of the local bands was Reg Bartlam. He played at many of the bigger dances which were held in the town at that time. You would get dances organised by some of the bigger firms which existed in those days, companies like Boulton & Paul, Ever Ready, Guys, Jenks & Cattell, Rubery Owen, Bayliss's. Most of those bigger dances were at the Civic and Wulfrun Halls and would have more than one band on."

"While I went to many of the dances which were held in the town during those years, I much preferred it when some of the bigger and more famous bands came to the town. It was not too often but it was worth waiting for. I remember seeing bands like Eric Delaney, Ted Heath and Ken Mackintosh and thinking how brilliant those blokes were."

"My dad would often go on about the good old days when the 'proper dance bands' were playing. He thought that you could never get better bands than Harry Roy, Jack Payne, Roy Fox etc. as well as the great American bands, but I reckon there were a lot of bands around in the 50s, and that includes local bands, which were every bit as good."

"I'm not really knocking the bands which were around at that time but none of them really played the sort of music which most of us teenagers were beginning to want. When I was 15 in 1955 it was just when musical tastes were beginning to change and that was definitely not reflected by the dance bands which were playing at local venues."

"I remember a couple of blokes getting chucked out of the Regent in Temple Street when they demanded that the band start playing some up-tempo stuff. They were not Teddy boys, so it was not a case of coming along to wreck things, they just wanted to hear music which was more to their liking and geared towards teenagers."

The demand by many British teenagers, especially Teddy boys and their girls, for music which was more to their taste and better reflected their general dissatisfaction with parental controls and their hero-worship for the antiestablishment figures who were to be seen on celluloid, began to get some definite responses during the second half of 1955. It was during the month of June that the film Blackboard Jungle which used the Bill Haley recording of Rock Around The Clock over the credits was released in America and resulted in that record reaching the top of the American charts. During the next few months rumours began to circulate about this new music, its accompanying wild dance and its general 'outrageousness' which reportedly led to juvenile delinquency.

The arrival of Rock 'n' Roll and especially the early records of Bill Haley and the Comets had a very important and long lasting effect on many young people throughout the Western world, so it is not surprising that Wulfrunians who were teenagers in the mid 1950s still remember many of the effects of that music on them and their contemporaries:

"I don't remember when I first heard the expression Rock 'n' Roll but it must have been towards the end of 1955 I suppose. I do remember seeing a photograph of Bill Haley in one of the popular newspapers, probably the Daily Mirror or the Daily Sketch. He looked quite comical with his kiss curl but no-one could match him for his music. Those early records of Bill Haley must rank amongst the most influential records of all time."

"I've still got a copy of Shake, Rattle And Roll by Bill Haley which I bought in January 1955, shortly after it was first released in this country. Most people think it was Rock Around The Clock which was Bill Haley s first record but it wasn't. I cannot remember where I bought it from, although I bought most of my records from Cliff & Halifax which was located near where C&A is nowadays."

"Bill Haley had a tremendous effect on me and my mates. We suddenly felt that we had a musical style which was designed specifically for us and was not a style which our parents would like. This was reinforced when we went to see the Comets at the Gaumont in 1957."

Bill Haley & the Comets. This was what Rock 'n' Roll was really about.

"Bill Haley has not been given the degree of credit he deserves for starting Rock 'n' Roll. Most people look back and see Elvis because he was young and looked the part but it was Bill Haley who really first got us up and dancing. I remember dancing in the aisles when the film Rock Around The Clock was on the cinema." 

"I used to go the Questers Youth Club and I remember one of the members bringing in a copy of Shake, Rattle And Roll. Several of the members were frightened to admit just how much they liked the music because they thought the leader of the Club would not approve. I thought it was superb, I still do."

"Kids heard the sound of Bill Haley and were blown away by it. There has never been a record like Rock Around The Clock for pulling almost a whole generation together. It was like a revolution in music. Once that record came out, nothing would be the same again. It provided kids with the tools to set themselves apart from the older generation."

"Bill Haley may not have looked the part and he certainly was not young but he sounded great to us at that time. He produced a musical sound which made us all want to get up and just dance. Jiving was a form of dancing which expressed all the pent-up feelings inside many young people at that time. When I saw him on his tour I was even more of a fan."

"I still believe that of all the musical forms which have come out over the past 50 years none of them has the same power as Rock 'n' Roll. It became the basis for virtually everything afterwards. Bill Haley was not the best, but he was the first as far as we were concerned and therefore he deserves the credit."

"Once I'd heard Bill Haley and especially that saxophone sound I was hooked on Rock 'n' Roll. I was only about 10 at the time but it made no difference I wanted to hear nothing else and I'm still mad on what I call 'original' Rock 'n' Roll."

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