Recently, I've been reading two books as I write: Ready, Steady, Go!: The Swinging Sixties and the Invention of Cool by Shawn Levy and Faithfull: An Autobiography by Marianne Faithfull, both of which lend a great deal to my understanding of my own evolution as a musician...
Outside of a few instances the Fifties wasn't the greatest musical decade. Sure, there were people like Elvis and Chuck Berry, but most of it was made up of teen idols who were invented, groomed, and spit-shined by the suits who only wanted to make a buck. Even Elvis didn't escape it. He was great when he first came out; songs like Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock are still some of the best we have out there, but when he was discharged from the the army his manager saw that there was more money to be made in sappy beach movies with their obligatory love song than in blues and rockabilly. And of course, we cannot forget the raging racism going on at the time. Elvis had already raised too many eyebrows by singing "nigra music" that threw all of those innocent little white girls into orgasmic paroxysms. "Cay-an't hayve that, no siree."
But I was lucky. My dad was a jazz and swing drummer, and our house was full of jamming musicians of all colors, addictions, and sexual persuasions all hours of the day and night. Hell, I grew up thinking of Louis Armstrong as just one of my many musical uncles. My parents screwed up a lot of the time, but this is one of the things they got right, so I can forgive them. I'll take the upbringing I had over a nice, "normal" childhood any day!
Fortunately, although drifting discontentedly along with the tide of Leslie Gore, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, and any number of other well-scrubbed, wholesome (white) musical icons, as well as black artists who had been shamelessly whitewashed by racist producers and managers, I had an older brother who turned me on to Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley, who happened to be white, but were cool anyway. Between Top 40 radio's all-American pre-approved image of what teen music should be and my mother's new infatuation with Percy Faith and Perry Como records (following her conversion to Southern Baptist Christianity), I could have easily missed becoming a musician altogether.
I don't remember once thinking, "If only I sounded like Shelley Fabares!" (Johnny Angel). Instead, I owned every Brenda Lee album and worked at developing a voice like hers. At the ages of 9 and 10 I sang along with her albums (the first I would ever buy with my own money), trying to understand why she sounded like she did. I didn't know anything about the makeup and causes of blues and R&B, or why certain whites like cute little "Miss T 'n T" respected it enough to buck the system and sing it anyway. All I knew was that she FELT something when she sang and I wanted to feel it too. I learned early on, however, to accept that my voice was a smooth and creamy alto, but I didn't see why that should urge me to fall into the plastic teenage music of the early Sixties. I still felt the Blues, but I had no role model. My deep love of harmony had been fed by Joe & Eddie (I still get chills when I listen to them!), the McGuire Sisters, who I'd listened to of my own free will since I was five, and the Everly Brothers.
Remembering my mom's records of Keely Smith and Lena Horne which she'd played while cleaning house when I was a small child, I pulled those out and started really listening to them. I began learning guitar by listening to Ricky Nelson, the Ventures, and the Rooftop Singers (Walk Right In). All pretty tame stuff. I felt myself being pulled into folk music, and I watched Hootenanny and The Mitch Miller Show religiously. Then, in 1964, something profound happened.
You knew it was going to happen. You knew that at some point I was going to say everything changed when the Beatles came to America. But that's for another entry. Meantime, I really urge you to click the songs I've linked and give them a listen.