The battle plan chosen by the entertainment conglomerate had four parts.
First, redefine the sound while maintaining the terminology. In response to the growing interest in rhythm and blues or “rock ‘n’ roll” as it was being billed by Alan Freed and other independent deejays, the major corporations attempted to re-craft the gritty sounds of rock ‘n’ roll into attempts at sanitized mainstream respectability. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” were both covered by clean-cut pop singer Pat Boone; The Chord’s “Sh-Boom” was covered by an all-white group called The Crewcuts; and the music industry attempted to flood the radio, television and record stores with white, disinfected teen pop-idols to replace the wild and sexual white and black renegades who were polluting the minds of the nation’s teens.
Pat Boone covers “Tutti Fruitti” on Canadian television, 1957
Second, substitute new rock ‘n’ roll icons for the independent mavericks. Teen idols like Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Ricky Nelson were recorded and promoted as a cleaner version of the original rock singers. While they certainly did experience success in the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s, these teen idols were pleasant but plastic imitations of the genuine articles. Although the lyrics gave lip service homage to rock ‘n’ roll, their presentation and musical package were as far from the originals as plastic fruit is from a Golden Delicious apple. In a schmoozing voice with disinfected instrumental behind him, Fabian sang:
“Turn me loose, Turn me loose, I say.
Gonna rock and roll as long as the band’s gonna play.”
Fabian, “Turn Me Loose” on American Bandstand, 1958
The sounds of the teen idols were augmented by their appearance in movies, such as Frankie Avalon’s numerous Beach Blanket movies. Further exposure came for the teen idols by way of national television programs like “American Bandstand” which was hosted by Philadelphia deejay Dick Clark.
The third part of the plan was to sign away the best new singers and groups from the independent labels. Elvis left Sun Records for RCA. Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers signed with Warner Brothers Records. Carl Perkins left Sun for Columbia Records. Few of the small labels, Chess and Atlantic being two of the exceptions, survived.
While creating sanitized “cover” records, developing teen idols and signing away the better rock ‘n ‘ roll artists were all part of a corporate business plan, the fourth action, while legal, was definitely underhanded.
The major record companies, radio and television stations were all members of a music industry organization known as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Formed in 1914, its primary purpose was to ensure the payment of royalties from the music industry to the composers, performers and creators of books and music. In the 1950s that payment was most likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
While the major companies dealt with ASCAP, the smaller record labels and independent radio stations subscribed to BMI (Broadcast Music International), a less expensive non-profit organization. This jealousy between the two organizations, ASCAP and BMI, led to a retaliation by ASCAP against the smaller labels and radio stations in the court system. The money being generated by the music being created by the rock ‘n’ roll industry was not being funneled into ASCAP, rather, the smaller, younger and less constricting BMI.
At first, it was a $150 million antitrust suit against BMI in 1953; then a 1956 investigation on the relationship between BMI and radio stations by a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Anti-trust. This was followed in 1958 by an attempt to pass a law in Congress preventing radio station owners from holding stock in the BMI corporation.
While all these attempts failed, the final thrust, legal prosecution, was somewhat more successful.