I Don't Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America


The 1950s marked a radical transformation in American popular music, as the nation drifted away from its love affair with big band swing to embrace the unschooled and unruly new sounds of rock 'n'


The sudden flood of records from the margins of the music industry left impressions on the pop soundscape that would eventually reshape long-established listening habits and expectations, as well as conventions of songwriting, ...

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The 1950s marked a radical transformation in American popular music, as the nation drifted away from its love affair with big band swing to embrace the unschooled and unruly new sounds of rock 'n'


The sudden flood of records from the margins of the music industry left impressions on the pop soundscape that would eventually reshape long-established listening habits and expectations, as well as conventions of songwriting, performance, and recording. When Elvis Presley claimed, "I don't sound like nobody," a year before he made his first commercial record, he was unwittingly articulating a musical Zeitgeist.


The central story line of I Don't Sound Like Nobody is change itself. The book's characters include not just performers but engineers, producers, songwriters, label owners, and radio personalities---all of them key players in the decade's musical transformation.


Written in engaging, accessible prose, Albin Zak's I Don't Sound Like Nobody is the first book to approach musical and historical issues of the 1950s through the lens of recordings and to fashion a compelling story of the birth of a new musical language. The book belongs on the shelf of every modern music aficionado and every scholar of rock 'n' roll.


Albin J. Zak III is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Music at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the editor of The Velvet Underground Companion and the author of The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records, a groundbreaking study of rock music production. Zak is also a recording engineer, record producer, songwriter, singer, and guitarist.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Mr. Zak brings a record hound's passion and expertise to his study  . . . For aficionados of American popular music, this is an engrossing work of scholarship full of fresh insights.”
---Wall Street Journal

American Music - Travis D. Stimeling
"This research should serve as a catalyst for a critical reevaluation of the current narratives of postwar American popular music history and will likely exert an influence on the field for many years to come."
—Travis D. Stimeling, American Music
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472116379
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 8/26/2010
  • Series: Tracking Pop Series
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Albin J. Zak III is Professor of Music at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the editor of The Velvet Underground Companion and the author of The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records, a groundbreaking study of rock music production. Zak is also a record producer, songwriter, singer, and guitarist.
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Table of Contents


Introduction 1

1 Records on the Radio 9

2 Shifting Currents in the Mainstream 43

3 Hustlers and Amateurs 76

4 Crossing Over 110

5 Surface Noise 143

6 "Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll" 170

7 New Traditions 204

Epilogue 238

Notes 243

Bibliography 265

Records Cited 275

Index 287

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First Chapter

I Don't Sound Like Nobody

By Albin J. Zak III

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 Albin J. Zak III
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11637-9

Chapter One

Records on the Radio It amuses me to recall that when we first started spinning disks on the air the record companies were almost unanimous in their opposition to this new medium of entertainment. -MARTIN BLOCK


In the cultural churning of postwar America, radio, the nation's great public medium, was in the midst of big changes. When wartime restrictions were lifted in 1946, applications for broadcast licenses soared and new broadcast outlets sprang up across the country. By decade's end, the number of licensed stations had more than doubled, from 943 to over 2,000. At the same time, the national radio networks and advertising agencies, which for nearly two decades had substantially controlled programming nationwide by linking stations and feeding programs coast-to-coast over telephone lines, were turning their attention to television, as were the stars who had made radio such a successful entertainment medium. In 1949, network advertising revenues began what would prove an irreversible decline. The increased numbers of stations coinciding with dwindling network programming caused a splintering that saw individual stations, much as in radio's pre-network infancy, forced into greater self-reliance. With fewer network feeds of big-budget, live drama and music productions, along with the ads from their large corporate sponsors, programmers renewed their focus on the local markets lying within range of their signals.

As station directors worked to attract audiences, which, in turn, attracted the spot advertisements for local products, recordings of popular music proved invaluable. The discs were plentiful, they were relatively cheap to acquire, and they were popular with the public. (Immediately following the war, record sales exploded, with Columbia reporting a sales increase of 850 percent from 1945 to 1946 and all of the other large companies registering profit increases of at least 100 percent.) Moreover, records offered flexibility to programmers seeking to build and hold an audience. It was a simple matter to add or remove a record from a station's playlist. Attuned to local tastes and trends, and free of network scheduling and strictures, radio stations became more nimbly responsive. Using records, they could tailor their offerings to create a particular station identity or quickly respond to listeners' requests. Further, the boom in record sales led to dozens of start-up record companies specializing in regional or ethnic styles that broadened and enriched programming possibilities. With programmers, record hustlers, and the listening public joined in what one radio historian has described as a headlong dash "into the wide-open field of electronic entertainment and salesmanship," the public soundscape took on a dynamic effervescence.

While the years of network-dominated radio, the so-called Golden Age, had produced a certain coast-to-coast consistency in programming at the most powerful and prestigious stations, the airwaves had always had the potential for exuberant eclecticism, the sort of dizzying mix the Radio Act of 1927 sought to contain. In radio's earliest days, the medium was both a maverick's paradise and a marketing free-for-all. Another historian tells us that in Texas alone, between 1921 and 1927, "dozens of radio stations were established by individuals on their back porches, newspapers wanting to increase circulation, universities as experiments in classes, churches to spread their messages, electronic and department stores to sell receivers and give buyers something to which to listen, hotels for publicity, entertainment parks and movie theaters for publicity, and many others, including, interestingly enough, automobile repair shops." Once the government began imposing regulations and networks assumed a veneer of corporate decorum, some broadcasters set up shop in Mexico, beaming their signals back across the border with high-powered transmitters five times more powerful than the strongest U.S. signals. Beyond regulatory control, stations such as XERF and XERB broadcast their programming as far as Washington, Michigan, and New York with 250,000-watt transmitters. In the signal were the voices of faith healers, astrologers, preachers, cowboy singers, and various snake oil merchants, all mixing it up in a surreal potpourri of disembodied sound.

In the postwar era, with the waning of the large networks' power and influence, American radio entered a period of decentralization that saw a resurgence of some of the local color that had characterized its early years. With at least a hundred records released each week, there was a vast pool to draw from, with musical styles and idioms to appeal to nearly every taste. There was, of course, the great pop mainstream. But there were also record labels specializing in gospel music, Yiddish music, Mexican music, blues, hillbilly, polka, and more. Whatever demographic the station and its sponsors catered to, there were records to fill the bill. The radio dial provided access to an abundance of cultural expression that made the airwaves a pluralistic cornucopia. In the hands of a free spirit such as Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips-whose show ranged from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Hank Williams-records enabled the kind of cultural blend that America promised yet rarely delivered. Radio freed listeners from the social constraints associated with live music making. One need not go to a strange or forbidden neighborhood to hear its music or to come up with an admission fee. The radio could take a listener to musical worlds of wholly unfamiliar yet fascinating sounds, jostling one another as they perched side by side on the dial. Choosing one station or another was entirely at the discretion of individual listeners.

But in its Golden Age, radio would have been in a position neither to foster nor to capitalize on this kind of grassroots dynamism. Recordings, both the medium and the fuel for the emerging upheaval, had been consigned to specific functions, secondary to and far less prestigious than live programming. As a matter both of economic self-interest and opinions about what constituted quality entertainment, the New York-based networks had consistently upheld the view that the live broadcast was radio's gold standard and records were a poor, second-rate programming choice. Moreover, networks were not alone in opposing broadcast recordings. Although it would come to seem as though radio and records were made for one another, the marriage initially faced widespread resistance.


In 1946, Bing Crosby, coming off "a long, fat decade" as the era's biggest musical star, was ready for a change. In addition to his unsurpassed success as a recording artist and his popularity as a film star, his radio show, Kraft Music Hall, was the preeminent variety show of its time, offering a mixture of music, comedy, and chummy conversation between Crosby and a who's who roster of celebrity guests. But Crosby was tired of the rigid schedule of weekly live shows. Why, he wondered, couldn't the show be recorded, "transcribed," and broadcast from disc? As things stood, Crosby was tied to the studio in New York, and the performances had to be repeated to accommodate East and West Coast time zones. Recording several shows at once, and holding them for later broadcast, would free up his time. More important, he insisted, the show could be made better. Recording more material than was necessary to fill the half-hour time slot, the production team could cull the best "jokes, gags, or situations ... the solid stuff that played big." Songs could be recorded before the show and again in front of the studio audience. The best take could be edited, "dubbed," into the final transcription. The show would also benefit from a freer use of improvisation, which would add a feeling of spontaneity, while retaining editorial control. Any of the ad-libs that didn't work could simply be cut out of the final product.

Both the show's sponsor, Kraft Foods, and the NBC radio network that aired it were dead set against Crosby's idea; in their view, recordings were simply no substitute for the real thing. Recordings did not sound as good as a live broadcast, they argued, and lacked the sense of unique occasion. The network had vast resources in equipment, performers, engineers, studios, and sponsor revenue that individual radio stations could not match, and its ability to offer big stars in real time set network programming apart from locally produced fare and certainly from recordings. A recording of the show would put the network in the position of being little more than a middleman between the advertisers and the radio stations, with little to distinguish it from the transcription services that sold packages of recorded material. The slippery slope could only lead to disaster, a prospect neatly summarized in a brief New York Times announcement: "If Mr. Crosby's transcription arrangement works out in practice ... it may set a trend for other stars to seek similar arrangements. ... Needless to say, some quarters in radio do not relish the prospect, since the 'live' program ... is the heart of the network's raison d'être."

The network's long-standing policy against broadcasting recorded sound had its roots in attitudes that arose in the 1920s, when the epithet "canned music" was used, as one radio man has phrased it, "to imply all the shabby elements of third-rate broadcasting." In the early 1920s, as the federal government struggled to come up with policies governing radio broadcast frequencies, the use of phonograph records as program material was prohibited for stations seeking a Class B license, which allowed a station significant power and a spot in the prime frequency range. There was no value to the public in cluttering the limited airwaves with sounds that could be obtained in other ways. "Phonograph records ... had no real value as entertainment or instruction," wrote David B. Carson, in a memo dated January 27, 1922, to the assistant secretary of commerce. Carson, who was commissioner of the Bureau of Navigation, which administered the Radio Act of 1912, further claimed that broadcasting records "threatened to ... interfere with the higher classes of service." Later that year the office of the secretary of commerce (at the time Herbert Hoover) announced first that "mechanically operated musical instruments [phonographs, piano rolls, and music boxes] may be used only in an emergency and during intermission periods in regular programs." Soon thereafter, the rule was further tightened to stipulate that "the use of mechanically operated instruments is prohibited." Stations seeking Class B licenses, which included most large stations that would eventually comprise the infrastructure of the networks, already relied to a great extent on live talent. With the new rules in place, they stopped playing records altogether.

The issue was far from settled. The Radio Act of 1927 created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), which continued to tussle with the problem, its evolving rules reflecting the sense of treading unfamiliar new territory. While the commission recognized the complexity of the issue-the fact, for example, that stations in "smaller towns and farming communities" had less access to live "program resources"-it was concerned above all "that the limited facilities for broadcasting should not be shared with stations which give the sort of service which is readily available to the public in another form." Furthermore, in the commission's view, "the real purpose of the use of phonograph records in most communities is to provide a cheaper method of advertising for advertisers who are thereby saved the expense of providing an original program." The prospect of allowing stations to use records to constrain advertising rates, thus keeping "some other stations ... out of existence which might put to use ... original program material," was something the commission was keen to avoid. In the end, the FRC created regulations, set forth in a series of General Orders, that left a degree of wiggle room. Playing records on the air was not expressly forbidden, but the general view remained that they were a poor substitute for live performances. For those with the means to produce original shows, then, it made sense, in terms both of status and avoiding governmental entanglement, simply to avoid broadcasting phonograph records.

Crosby, of course, was not asking to play records on the air. What he wanted was to record transcription discs of his program. Transcription discs, unlike mass-market 78 rpm records, were recorded specifically for radio broadcast. They were not sold retail, and their format was different from the consumer products. A 78 contained recordings made in wax, which had been transferred to a master plate for mass production; transcription discs were themselves recording media capable of recording, playback, and duplication. They had less surface noise than 78s, and, because of their large size (sixteen inches) and relatively slow 33 1/3 rpm speed, they could hold more program material, up to fifteen minutes per side. They were used widely in the production of local programming, advertising spots, and air checks and served as a distribution alternative to the networks' telephone lines. One of the first syndicated radio shows, Amos and Andy, which originated at Chicago station WMAQ, was distributed on transcription discs before being picked up for live broadcast by NBC. In the 1930s, there were four major transcription services dedicated to recording and leasing discs, including recordings of network programming.

Transcription discs, however, had their own contentious history, different from but related to that of broadcast records. The government's concern centered on truth in advertising: the public was to be fully informed of what they were hearing. Again, rules and attitudes evolved throughout the 1930s. The language of the 1929 FRC General Order 78 required that transcriptions be preceded by an announcement: "This program is an electrical transcription made exclusively for broadcast purposes." While this made a regulatory distinction between mass- market records and recordings made specifically for radio use, many broadcasters considered the language cumbersome and confusing. It was also disruptive since it was required at the beginning of every side of recorded programming even if this meant interrupting the program flow. The announcement rule was amended in the 1932 FRC Rules and Regulations, which replaced the General Orders, allowing the announcement to be streamlined and written in such a way as to fit into the program in the least intrusive way. Again, however, the suggested language was vague and open to interpretation. One suggestion, for instance, was to announce, "This is a mechanical reproduction," a term that might fit either a record or a transcription. In response to criticism, FRC commissioner H. A. Lafount articulated the spirit of the regulation in a statement of February 13, 1932. "It is my personal view," he wrote, "that no attempt should be made to 'fool the public' in the announcement of phonograph records.... [E]very ordinary record performed must be described in clear terms each time it is played. There should be a distinction, however, between phonograph records and transcriptions made exclusively for broadcast purposes."

Of greater concern to broadcasters and production companies than the announcement language was the requirement that it precede the playing of each side of recorded programming. The World Broadcasting System, one of the largest transcription services, hired a former FRC commissioner, Judge Ira E. Robinson, to lobby on its behalf to change the rule to one announcement at the end of the program so as not to prejudice listeners with an opening disclaimer. He argued that under the current Rule 176, transcriptions were "stigmatized in a class with more ordinary phonograph records; advertisers [are] fearful that the public do not appreciate phonograph records and stations [are] fearful that their credit before the Commission is harmed by the use of anything but live talent." The argument continued through the formation of the FRC's successor, the Federal Communications Commission, which was created by the Communications Act of 1934. Finally, on January 28, 1936, the FCC issued a revision of Rule 176 that acceded to World's argument that recorded programming should not be broken up every fifteen minutes yet at the same time undermined Robinson's plea for transcriptions' special status. In essence, the rule placed all programming on an equal footing so long as the public was furnished an accurate description of the medium involved, stipulating, "Where a transcription is used it shall be announced as a 'transcription' ... and where a phonograph record is used it shall be announced as a 'record.'" The FCC ruling injected some common sense into a debate fraught with misrepresentations based on competing commercial interests. Finally, the "ordinary" phonograph record now stood alongside other program material as, if not equal in status, at least a legitimate broadcasting choice. Clearing the government's hurdles, however, was only the beginning.


Excerpted from I Don't Sound Like Nobody by Albin J. Zak III Copyright © 2010 by Albin J. Zak III . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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