Ducktails, Drive-Ins, and Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at ’50s Music

Excelsior. Jun. 2023. 362p. ISBN 9781438492681. $29.95. MUSIC
Journalist, psychologist, and occasional guitarist Davis (Caveman Logic) turns cultural archaeologist as he catalogues, compares, and unearths information about composers, musicians, and singers associated with the varied melodious genres of the ostensibly proper, although surreptitiously subversive 1950s. Benefitting from the contributions of diverse demographic groups, midcentury musical forms in the United States consisted of bebop, blues, country, doo-wop, folk, jazz, pop, rock and roll, rockabilly, and novelty tunes such as “The Chipmunk Song” and “The Purple People Eater.” Davis uses interviews and his friendships with many of the artists to combine personal accounts and critical evaluations into a fascinating narrative. His focus is on lesser-known participants and on disabusing commonly held beliefs. He asserts that many people covered others’ works without attribution; that there is no one answer for what was the first rock ’n’ roll song; that sexual innuendo pervaded many lyrics; and that the ever-popular “Unchained Melody” originated as a 1955 Oscar-nominated song about prisons. Davis advises readers to enhance their knowledge by playing the original recordings that are now available on YouTube or other streaming platforms.
VERDICT A captivating and surprising overview of the 1950s music scene.
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