9/17/13 - carole king, "earth angel," and sexual awakenings

In today's selection -- from Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller. For thirteen-year-old Carole King, later to become a musical superstar with such songs as "You've Got a Friend," "It's Too Late" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," the stirrings of sexual awakening were accompanied by the sounds of the Penguins' new 1955 hit song "Earth Angel":

"Carole gave parties in her family's basement -- 'and they were packed,' remembers [her friend] Barbara [Grossman Karyo], especially during rounds of Spin the Bottle. ... 'Eventually, these parties Carole and other kids gave had lots of touchy-feely going on,' Barbara remembers. To 'get felt up' in the ninth grade was a first step to three or four years of fending off the pull of sex, a tension made all the more fraught by the new sleeper hit by an L.A. group, the Penguins, to which everyone was slow-dancing. The sensual, pleading song -- so different from those genially corny white hit parade staples -- sounded like nothing these Brooklyn girls had heard before:

Ear-ear-ear-ear-ear-earth angel. Ea-earth a-an-gel ... Will you be mi-ine?

" 'On Monday there was this other music; on Tuesday there was rock 'n' roll.' That's how The Band's Robbie Robertson once described the seemingly overnight mid-1954 shift in popular music. One day middle-aged white writers were cranking out saccharine pop songs like 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,' 'Mr. Sandman,' and the trusty 'Shrimp Boats,' which were presented, by way of live skits, on TV's Lucky Strikes-sponsored Your Hit Parade ... and the next day the world changed. White teens started listening to, and demanding, an alternative: black music. (This overnight change can also be illustrated by the fact that in January 1954 an unknown Elvis Presley was recording Joni James covers; just a few months later, his raw, plaintive 'That's All Right, Mama' was making good on his producer Sam Phillips's dream of finding 'a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel.') ...

"The crossover demand came from white teenagers. By early 1954 A&R men in New York were hearing about black 'cat music': records by black performers, made for black customers, which were secretly being purchased by white teenagers in the South and Southwest -- the newly available transistor radio having enabled teens to listen to music out of their parents' earshot. A disparate smattering of R&B-loving white deejays, who in some sense 'passed' for black -- Dewey Phillips, out of Memphis; Greek-American Johnny Otis (a musician as well as the host of a TV music-variety show), out of Los Angeles; and Alan Freed, out of Cleveland -- who had previously been serving black audiences, turned on the tap for these soul-starved white kids. In the culture-jolting synthesis that emerged, blacks did the innovating while whites got the credit. Though Bill Haley and the Comets' 1955 'Rock Around the Clock' officially put the new genre on the map, that jitterbug-paced hit by the white rockabilly performer had none of the fluidity of Jackie Brenston's 1951 'Rocket 88,' which most scholars date as the real first rock 'n' roll song. And although Alan Freed got the credit for coining the term 'rock 'n' roll,' he appropriated Delta blues singer Wynonie Harris's sex euphemism 'good rockin'.

"Rock 'n' roll in 1954 and early 1955 consisted of white singers trying to sound black (Elvis on 'That's All Right, Mama') and black singers trying to whiten their sounds (Chuck Berry's hillbilly 'Maybellene,' 'Johnny B. Goode,' and 'Sweet Little Sixteen'; Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti'), but most of those songs -- while highly danceable -- were not emotionally affecting. Instead, being frenetic, they were safely unsensual. By contrast, the slow, languid 'Earth Angel' was sexual. When Alan Freed moved to New York in 1954 and started broadcasting on WINS and presenting his concerts at the Brooklyn Paramount, he featured these songs -- variously called street-corner, a cappella, or doo-wop -- by the Penguins, the Willows, the Spaniels, the Flamingos, the Platters (with their classic 'Twilight Time' and 'The Great Pretender'), the Moonglows (who gave the new genre one of its first national hits, 'Sincerely'), the local-hero Cleftones (whose 'You Baby You' was a proudly borough-born national seller), which had a sweet, pleading urgency.

"Often that pleading urgency was leavened by the humor of the lowest basso 'answering' the highest falsetto, the farcelike vocal contrast handily erasing the threatening sexuality. But when that humor was absent, as it was in 'Earth Angel,' and all you heard was the poignance ('I'm just a fool ... a fool in love with you-ou-ou ... '), the result was a high-voiced longing -- a linking of vulnerability to carnality -- that was highly appealing to girls. ' 'Earth Angel' was the breakthrough for us;' Barbara Grossman Karyo remembers, expressing a widespread feeling among girls about the song, which, after various releases, became a hit in 1955 and 1956. 'Slow dancing to 'Earth Angel' was the beginning of our sexual awakening.' And so the year before the decade-long battle for civil rights began in the South by way of Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man, and the year that fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was violently murdered in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman (his killers enjoying a kangaroo-court acquittal), white girls were getting in touch with their sexuality with the help of black male voices."


Sheila Weller


Girls Like Us


Washington Square


Copyright 2008 by Kellwell, Inc.


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