How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

By Elijah Wald | Go to book overview

8
SONS OF WHITEMAN

We weren’t out to change the world musically. We wanted to make a living and get as much
self-satisfaction out of our work as we could.

DUKE ELLINGTON

It is often said that history is written by the victors, but in the case of pop music that is rarely true. The victors tend to be out dancing, while the historians sit at their desks, assiduously chronicling music they cannot hear on mainstream radio. And it is not just historians: The people who choose to write about popular music, even while it is happening, tend to be far from average consumers and partygoers and often despise the tastes and behavior of their more cheerful and numerous peers.

One example of this is that virtually all popular music history and criticism up to the 1980s—and the vast majority of it today—has been written by men, though most of the main pop trends have been driven by women. As Vincent Lopez, one of Paul Whiteman’s closest rivals, wrote in 1924, “the success of the public ballroom depends on whether it is in favor with the women patrons.”1 The reason, as the blues singer Little Milton told me some seventy years later, is that if you appeal mainly to men you will only draw an audience of those men; but if you appeal to women, “basically, for every woman that comes, you can figure that she’s going to have at least three men to follow that one woman. You’re laughing, but from experience and observation, it’s true.” As a general thing, American women dance because they want to dance, while American men dance because they want to be around women. The result is that the most popular dance music will be whatever style the most women prefer. That doesn’t hold up in every single case, but—if one leaves out gay subcultures—it holds overwhelmingly true throughout the country and across lines of age and ethnicity. Artie Shaw recalled that in his initiation to the life of a full-time musician, working Chinese restaurant gigs around Cleveland in the mid-1920s, “the early session was a kind of luncheon dance affair, mostly attended by office girls who, between bites of chow mein, used to dance with one

-97-

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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Amateurs and Executants 13
  • 2 - The Ragtime Life 25
  • 3 - Everybody’s Doin’ It 36
  • 4 - Alexander’s Got a Jazz Band Now 49
  • 5 - Cake Eaters and Hooch Drinkers 60
  • 6 - The King of Jazz 71
  • 7 - The Record, the Song, and the Radio 84
  • 8 - Sons of Whiteman 97
  • 9 - Swing That Music 111
  • 10 - Technology and Its DisContents 126
  • 11 - Walking Floors and Jumpin’ Jive 138
  • 12 - Selling the American Ballad 150
  • 13 - Rock the Joint 166
  • 14 - Big Records for Adults 184
  • 15 - Teen Idyll 199
  • 16 - Twisting Girls Change the World 213
  • 17 - Say You Want a Revolution… 230
  • Epilogue - The Rock Blot and the Disco Diagram 248
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 281
  • Index 291
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