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Sock Hop
Sock Hop

History of Boston Rock
History of Boston Rock & Roll - Chapter 2 - In The Beginning

"One weird thing happened to me while I was still on the air at WBOS, Pat Boone had his big hit, Love Letters in the Sand. After I played that song one night, I asked my listeners to send me sand from whatever beach they were at. So I received sand from places like Nova Scotia and Bermuda as well as the local beaches, but I found out very quickly that the Post Office didn't take kindly to the stunt. The sand was getting into their machines and lousing up the mail. But that showed me just how many people were listening to rock 'n' roll."
- Arnie "WOO WOO" Ginsburg


By 1956, the gears had begun turning and in eastern Massachusetts various hot spots evolved where sock hops, bands and rock 'n' roll clubs began to proliferate. Like amoebas in chaos, white Boston began to see dollar signs in the new black-influenced music and the fact that it was the latest teenage craze. Hundreds of singles were being released every week throughout America as bands mounted a battle to push the new rock 'n' roll into national prominence and bucks.

The Surf and Its Bands

South of Boston on Nantasket Beach, Bill Spence opened his ballroom doors and began importing national acts to the Surf. Because of youthful enthusiasm and the rock 'n' roll lure of teenagers, the Surf's main function room did not serve alcohol. Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg and other disc jockeys from Boston radio stations would come in and emcee the shows, and stars such as Fabian or Frankie Avalon would take the stage and lipsynch to their latest hit record. And the Surf also saw Boston's own G-Clefs and Tuneweavers rise to national prominence.

One of the predominant music magazines of the times was Cashbox, and its Top 10 of 1956 was dominated by the black, vocally-oriented group, the Platters. Coming in at #2 with The Great Pretender and #3 with My Prayer, songs that still send chills down music lovers' spines, the Platters avoided playing instruments but instead concentrated on vocal harmonies and hired their own session musicians to play music.

Black groups predominated in Boston, also, with the local answer to the Platters, The G-Clefs, an all black, two brother, vocal group whose killer single, Ka Ding Dong was released on Cecil Stein's Pilgrim label and hit the charts nationally at #24. The first of two hit singles, their manager unfortunately tried to capitalize on this early success through less than gentlemanlike business procedures and quickly had to leave the music business. Ka Ding Dong went on to being covered by such top national groups as the Diamonds and the Hilltops.

The Tuneweavers, another all black group, also preferred to stick with the vocal formula and released Happy Happy Birthday to local acclaim. Checker Records then bought it in 1957, rereleased it nationally and watched it tear up the charts to #5 across the nation.

Jesus, Mary & Joseph

Teenagers went ape over the phenomemon of sock hops hosted by famous disc jockeys. But what kind of adults would organize and promote this Idea, predicated as it was on music that many parents thought sinful and the rest thought annoying to the ear? None other than the Catholic Church. Enter the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) dances. Even though religious organizations turned up their noses at the new music, as they also did at gambling, they needed more income and saw sock hops for what they really were: a money-making bonanza, just like legalized gambling in the form of Bingo.

To organize a sock hop, the churches only need hire a famous (white) d.j., say Joe Smith, at a hundred-dollars, then charge a buck a head at the door, and 2,000 teenagers equals a $1,900 profit, since the rental of the church was free. Bingo. Suddenly the handiwork of the devil became the embroidery of God.

And indeed the sock hops didn't produce much of any juvenile delinquency. "The most evil thing anyone ever did at the hops was smoke cigarettes in the bathroom - AND I MEAN TOBACCO!" remembers Big John, owner of Cambridge's Cheapo Records, You could catch a sock hop at most of the major parishes of Boston's suburbs but, like today, where you went depended upon your musical tastes. For example, If you were into the true r & b sound, it wouldn't be cool for you to show up at a Newton High sock hop because they featured white teen idols and music by Gail Storm, Patti Page (How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?) and Pat Boone. Instead, you might try a Cambridge or Malden sock hop, or better yet, try to get into the Hi-Hat on Columbus Avenue where Symphony Sid spun more authentic sounds.

Shoeless Hop

Did You know...that the term sock hop came from the fact that high schools (and some churches) wouldn't allow the dancers to wear shoes during their dances because it marked up the gymnasium floor that was usually the site of the hop.

East Coast Promo Man

When you've got a product, you've got to promote it, and that's exactly what everyone was learning to do with rock 'n' roll in the 1950's. The sock hops needed emcees, the emcees were working for radio stations and the radio stations were promoting the new found stars and their records.

Once the emcee was hired he (yes, they were all he's, of course) would spend a lot of airtime reminding his audience where he would be found that week and who was performing. And the best way to promote a radio station turned out to be the inordinately frequent Live Broadcast: disc jockeys headed out the station door to tire factories, drug stores and gas stations where they held their shows, much to the delight of the public. Your corner gas station changed management every six months, and this always called for a live broadcast for an entire week from the likes of WHIL's disc jockeys.

Another big public relations stunt was the Record Survey. The radio stations would send in their playlists to record stores which would then compile them and hang a list of the most-played records in the store, Each week, a star would be put next to a new record on the chart, announcing its status as Record of the Week. WVMS (now WEZE), for instance, sponsored a new wrinkle on this procedure whereby if you came in and told the record store salesperson that "Joe Smith sent me," you'd get the record for half price.

TV or not TV

Television began hitting its stride in the 1960's, and it was perhaps inevitable that the fledgling technology would join hands with sock hop mania, and emerge as a local bandstand television show in perhaps every city in the U.S. Boston's own Bob Clayton, WHDH disc jockey who favored the diluted r & b covers such as Pat Boone's Tutti Frutti and Steve Lawrence's Speedo, seems to have begun the first Bostonian version at the Boston Ballroom, televised before American Bandstand with Dick Clark hit the airwaves nationally in 1957.

Little Walter, local music historian, explains the impact. "The Bandstand concept was historical and it was a crazy idea at the time! It showed for two hours every afternoon, teens dancing, but it was CHEAP! Those stations didn't have to pay teenagers nothin'." On Clayton's show, the G-Clefs and Freddie Cannon's Spindrifts would often play, but, most of the acts consisted of "a lot of" local junk that never made it."

Meanwhile back on the farm...

Alan Freed (the disc jockey we mentioned in last issuers article who popularized the term "rock 'n' roll") had by now migrated to New York and began promoting rock shows while dj-ing on WINS. At the Brooklyn Paramount his shows grossed almost a quarter of a million dollars in a series of weekend concerts. He took the series over to the Broadway Paramount on Washington's birthday in 1957, getting ready to kick off his national "Alan Freed Rock Show" tour which would make an historic stop in Boston in May of 1958. The tour starred Jerry Lee Lewis and, promoted Freed's new movie, Don't Knock the Rock

ABC, seeing this success and that of the record hops on TV in major cities, thought it was the right time to incorporate this trend into a national format, nee American Bandstand, a tribute to the white teen idol.

In our next article, we will tell you about the Alan Freed riots which marked Freed's descent into hell and the rise of Dick Clark's lily white empire.

This article originally appeared in The Beat on 2/01/85
(c) Charles William White III

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