CBS News described what happened on the evening of March 10, 1956 as a race riot. A rock and roll review held on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) turned ugly when scores of local youths rubbed elbows with Boston's college elite. The truth was that the term riot may have been appropriate, but race riot???? The warring factions fit best into these categories; white and black teenagers versus a legion of young college men.
It was the first big local show for the G-Clefs, a Boston based doo wop/ vocal harmony band who had recently found radio airplay success with their crossover hit, Ka Ding Dong. The members of the G-Clefs had grown up in the black Boston neighborhood of Roxbury and would soon become the first black act from Boston to be welcomed into the white dominated national pop charts. The quintet's newly found celebrity brought the multitudes of friends and neighbors from the Roxbury community, straight down Massachusetts Avenue, over the Charles River via the Harvard Bridge and onto the Cambridge/ MIT grounds where stood the Rockwell Cage. Hundreds of black and white teens arrived from surrounding areas as well. Word had spread quickly about the area's first real rock and roll extravaganza.
By the time the dust settled a MIT student lay paralyzed by an alleged golf club beating. we always found this golf club incident ironic since the press/media would lead you to believe that gangs of black youths arrived wielding putters and 7 irons. Now remember kids, this is the nineteen fifties. Which suburban, affluent country club community was offering golf lessons to disenfranchised black youths from Boston? Every black family in Roxbury owned a set of clubs, right? Seems to me that just maybe some frat boy didn't have a tight enough grip on what he pulled out of the trunk of daddy's car.
PHIL SPERTUS: I was in my senior year at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and I was in charge of a carnival, a charities carnival. It was originally set up without any idea of a rock and roll or musical production at all. It was going to be a normal college carnival where various dormitories and fraternity houses would put up booths. There would be a ticket system where people would play these games and the net proceeds would go to a charity. It was going to be a fairly normal college carnival and then ......
George Cadenas was one of the members of my committee. He was a very dynamic, enterprising young man and he came up with the idea, maybe six or eight weeks before, that we ought to get some entertainment. There was this disc jockey named Bill Marlowe who was very popular in Boston at the time. He had a fan club of listeners of eighty five thousand and would work with us and he'd pitch in and even participate. I went out with Cadenas and met with Marlowe and thought it was a great idea. He'd announce it on his show and it would draw a lot of people because he had a lot of listeners and he'd help put together some of the acts that would perform. He had the contacts because of his disc jockey work.
BILL MARLOWE: Prior to '55, I was doing a show called Rendezvous with You which was very, very nice music. The Duke Ellington's, the Count Basie's, the Ella Fitzgerald's and Sarah Vaughn's and Stan Kenton's and Harry James and Glenn Miller. With the advent of rhythm and blues, not rock and roll, rhythm and blues, they asked me to do a radio show. I said that I would prefer not to do that because I really wasn't familiar with the roots of rhythm and blues. Since I was forced to do it, I said, 'If I'm going to do this then I am going to do it better than anyone else.' So I started this show The Hawk Talks which gave me two shows. I would go from one show, Rendezvous with You, lush and posh and beautiful things and then the curtain dropped down, a complete metamorphosis into the other. Now I'd be into Bo Diddley and rhythm and blues. You name it. The thing was that if I was going to do rhythm and blues, I was going to make it exciting.
At this time the station I was with, WCOP, had moved its headquarters from Copley Square in Boston out to the transmitter on Olde Concord Road in Lexington. When I would do my show the kids would line their cars for a full mile outside the station, for a full mile out to the Mass Turnpike with their radios
blaring. Parked there listening to me. Now obviously adults are
not going to give you that kind of reaction. I got three mail
sacks full of mail, three mail sacks full to the brim, every single day to prove the popularity of that show. Now I wasn't even cognizant to the fact that it was that popular. I had no idea. It was incredible. MIT was more a culmination of people with an acceptance for rhythm and blues although now we are talking about people on a college level. I would hope with intelligence.
CHRIS SCOTT: The MIT gig was the first big local gig the G-Clefs did. The first time we played with the big names. Well, big names today. At the time they were no bigger than us. Our record was getting as much airplay as them. But to us it was, 'Now we're gonna be with the stars'.
TEDDY SCOTT: You're talkin' about Ace Studios and Pat O'Day and how it all started. They were in recording this song called "Dear John". It was about this guy fighting in Korea who gets a letter from his lady and she's tellin' him she don't wanna see him anymore. Well, it was a big hit. Our friend Kenny Paulson was playin' guitar in the band that night for Pat O'Day and during a break sometime the producers Jack Gold and Cecil Steen were talkin' about this song Mary Lee by The Rainbows. Jack had heard the song and was sayin' that if he could find a group to cover it he'd make a goldmine cuz The Rainbows had broke up. And so Kenny Paulson said, 'I know a band that sings exactly like that song'. Jack said, 'Call 'em and get 'em down here. Let's see what they sound like.'
So, we rounded ourselves up in a few hours and went down to Ace Studios and Jack Gold is sittin' there and says, 'Well, let's hear what you guys sing. Do Mary Lee We did it and it was almost exactly like them. As a matter of fact, that's what Bill Marlowe told me when we took it over to WCOP. Bill Marlowe played it that night every other song. He must have played it twenty five times that night and said on the air, 'If you like that song give us a ring.' It turned out it got such a big response. Then the publishers or owners of The Rainbows called up to stop it getting played. Some legal shit or somethin'.
CHRIS SCOTT: So, Jack calls us up and says, 'Look, you can't do Mary Lee. What originals do you have?' By then we had about ten or fifteen originals. Ka Ding Dong was the one he picked. Oh, that was the one that we hated. We signed with Jack Gold as a producer and Cecil Steen put us on his label, Pilgrim Records.
PHIL SPERTUS: When we got a week or so before the show it was
becoming evident that there was tremendous interest in this and MIT was getting a lot of calls at the switchboard from people asking for directions for it or asking information about it. There was some question if we should continue but we decided to go through with it. Marlowe had put together what was apparently quite a rock and roll revue for the time. It was before the emergence of Elvis.
THE TECH (MIT's Campus Newspaper, March 9, 1956): MIT's Charities Carnival to be held tomorrow in the Rockwell Cage may prove to be one of the more worthwhile social events of the year. Publicity has been released to all the major colleges in the vicinity and it is expected that several thousand persons will attend......
At 7:00 p.m. the doors will be open to the general public at 99 cents a person with stags and drags both urged to attend. The guesses for attendance range from two to ten thousand persons....
Another attraction will be a show including one of the greatest collections of rock and roll musicians ever assembled. This will be staged in the center of the Cage at no additional charge. The show has been organized by Bill Marlowe, a prominent Boston disc jockey, who will be the Master of Ceremonies. Among the stars appearing will be Frankie Lymon's Teenagers, The Valentines and The Cleftones, coming from New York as well as the G-Clefs, Art Paulson's Martians, The Dappers and Cindy and Lindy.....
The Carnival has been extensively publicized in the Boston
area by radio, television, college radio stations, and posters.
PHIL SPERTUS: Finally the evening came and the carnival got started in its normal fashion and people just started pouring in. We did it in this field house where they'd normally hold sporting events. It was set up that all the fraternities had booths around the edges of this. The center part was the performance area.
SHORTY: We took buses to get there from Roxbury. It was a word of mouth type thing. We might have heard it on the radio as, 'You come as you are' Me, I remember drinking and getting wound up for the rock and roll show. There was some small platforms in the middle for the performers and a place for the deejay and his records. There were dirt floors. Earlier, Charlie Thomas, he was a really popular dancer, was doing this dance called The Chicken. Whenever he danced there was always a circle of people around him. Charlie Thomas was the best Chicken dancer I ever saw.
BIG JOHN BELMONTE: They had some cars outside that you could smash with a sledgehammer for a buck. It kinda set the whole mood.
PHIL SPERTUS: Marlowe started the show. He was the emcee of the show and he had arranged for the current Miss Massachusetts to be there. This was set up that he drove out, with her in a Cadillac convertible with the top down, to the stage that was set up in the center and surrounded by people and began being the Master of Ceremonies, introducing the first act. It seems to me that it was Cindy and Lindy. By that time so many people had poured in. It reached the point that the police would not let anyone else in the building.
BILL MARLOWE: Number One, they centralized the stage which was murder. It was the worst thing they have ever done, Number Two, they had only three police officers as I recall. They tell me there was as many as ten thousand kids trying to get in the place. They opened the doors to everybody because they had obviously had become money hungry. All they saw was the green material and for a college or a university to do something like that is unpardonable. Unpardonable from the standpoint that Number One it was against everything we had agreed to and secondly it was going to be tremendously reflective on me as the performer, as the catalyst, the organizer. I had professors shining shoes, professors in dunk tanks. There were so many ways, inventive to say the least, from which MIT would have prospered money wise. With all of these factors it would take a miracle to prevent a riot.
BRUCE GROVER: Bill Marlowe was worried about the kids crowding around the stage. They were up on the platform next to the stage, trying to get as close as they could to the performers. The first act Cindy and Lindy went on but the crowd was getting closer to the stage all the time. Then came the G-Clefs, a group of four or five fellows whose singing caused the people to start stamping their feet and jumping around. When a couple of people started to fall, they all began falling - they were all so close together.
TEDDY SCOTT: We were on stage when the riot broke out. There was a stage that they'd built that afternoon that was four or five inches off the ground. When we first got into our routine on Ka Ding Dong ya know, the dance steps and stuff, the people wanted to see what the feet were doin'. They were all leanin' on one another and started fallin' on one another. People rushed the stage and the stage fell down. Then the fights started....
There's always a wise guy out there. She wasn't attacked or nothin' but Miss Massachusetts her bein' a beauty and all. She had on one of those strapless gowns and someone said, 'We'll pull
that sucker down. Let's see what you really look like.' We just tried to keep playing cuz that's what you're supposed to do. Then we looked at each other and said, 'We're outta here!' No set of boobies were gonna keep us around. We didn't see Marlowe afterward. He got punched in the eye. He was on stage and got knocked down tryin' to protect Miss Massachusetts. He tried to get her out of there the best way he could.
SHORTY: I think that the fights started outside the building and then made its way to the stage well, it was really more like a small platform. The G-Clefs were doing Ka Ding Dong and I remember they all had on red cummerbunds. Somebody yelled 'Fight!'. This guy we knew George McDermott was fighting with a cop at the door because they wouldn't let 'em in. Then someone started yellin' 'The cop lost his gun!' because someone had stole the cop's gun out of his holster when all that was goin' down. That's what turned that into a riot.
Some guy got up on stage and ripped Miss Massachusetts' V-cut dress off from the front. Marlowe was tryin' to cover her up. Then three more guys got up and started throwing Marlowe's records into the crowd. I got Honeybun by the Colts. Still got it today. I picked it up and stuffed it down my pants and started swingin'. We were rumblin'. Anyone came your way you hit 'em. You didn't need to know the guy, you just hit 'em. Even girls were fighting. We played for keeps. It was no joke; the riot. I saw a guy get hit in the head, everyone else said it was with a golf club but I say it was the sledgehammer from the game they had there where you could whack the car.
BILL MARLOWE: I could see it happening. We couldn't even get the acts in and out and I was lucky to get away with my life really. I grabbed Miss Massachusetts, Virginia Marafucci, and I saw one opening. I grabbed her and one other fellow I think was Lindy
Doherty and out we went. And when we got to the door I tried to get the police and so forth and they were already notified. And I see cars upside down. It was just terrible and I said, 'someone's gonna get hurt.'
TEDDY SCOTT: Frankie Lymon was cryin'. When the fighting broke out, the crowd were comin' back where the dressing room was and there was no security. We're still in the dressin' room singin'. Us and the Valentines and everyone doo-woppin'. But he was just a young kid, thirteen or somethin'. He thought he was gonna be killed. We hung out in there 'til two in the mornin'. We had nowhere to go.
BILL MARLOWE: I got calls from all over and it didn't cease. It went on and on and on for a minimum of for what I would say three years later. Obviously because it was MIT connected or any university for that matter. It was blown truly out of proportion. I mean it was serious there was no question. And grave. But to last for the three years, the calls from Italy, from France, from Switzerland, from England. Newspaper people. It made subheadlines all over the world. I didn't realize it would have the implications it did.
SHORTY: Later that night we were hangin' out on the stairs next to the Auditorium at MIT when I saw The Valentines going to flag down a cab. I yelled out, 'Hey Valentines! Where ya goin'?' One of 'em yelled back, 'Fuck you guys from Boston. You guys are crazy. We're going back to New York.'