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Teen idols, girl groups and JFK: Early '60s rock & roll

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The period between Buddy Holly's tragic death in 1959 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 is often dismissed as a fallow period in rock and roll. Dismissed as a time of bubblegum pop and manufactured teen idols, it's easy to overlook the era's vibrant undercurrents of innovation and the enduring influence of its girl groups. However, a closer look reveals a period brimming with creative energy, laying the groundwork for the seismic shifts that would define the mid-'60s.

While novelty songs like "The Twist" and "Limbo Rock" dominated the charts, a counter-current of artistic exploration pulsed behind the scenes. Artists like Phil Spector, the architect of the "Wall of Sound" production technique, were pushing boundaries. Spector's dense, layered arrangements, exemplified by the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," became a sonic blueprint for future generations. Similarly, artists like Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke were weaving soul's soulful vocals and R&B rhythms into the fabric of rock and roll, influencing the likes of Motown and Stax.

The era's "teen idols" also deserve a reevaluation. Often dismissed as mere heartthrobs, these performers were often multi-talented musicians and songwriters. Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons, for instance, possessed a remarkable vocal range, while Dion of Dion and the Belmonts penned classics like "Runaround Sue." These artists, along with others like Fabian and Bobby Vee, captured the burgeoning youth culture's energy and anxieties, paving the way for later singer-songwriters.

However, the period's true hidden gem might be the rise of girl groups. Acts like The Supremes, The Shirelles, and Martha and the Vandellas not only delivered infectious melodies but also challenged societal norms and gender roles. Their powerful harmonies and empowering lyrics resonated with a generation of young women, inspiring future generations of female artists.

This era also embodied a sense of youthful innocence, a stark contrast to the turmoil that would follow. The music reflected a carefree optimism, a belief in the future. It's no coincidence that this era coincided with the American post-war economic boom and a burgeoning sense of national pride. However, the assassination of President Kennedy shattered this innocence, ushering in an era of disillusionment and social unrest.

The period between Holly and Kennedy may not have the iconic status of earlier or later rock eras. Yet, it was a crucial crucible of innovation, laying the groundwork for the seismic shifts in music and society in the years to come. By reevaluating this "wilderness" period, we gain a deeper understanding of rock and roll's evolution and appreciate the often-undervalued gems it produced. This era may have been a transitional phase, but its creative legacy continues to resonate.

Richard Aquila is the author of "Rock & Roll in Kennedy's America: A Cultural History of the Early 1960s."

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org.

This interview first aired July 2, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi