“Hey there teenage Baltimore, don’t change that channel, ‘cause it’s time for the Corny Collins show, brought to you by Ultra Clutch Hairspray!” (Shankman). Do you know where this quote is from? Many of you probably do, as it is from a very popular movie that mostly everybody knows… Hairspray! Hairspray in whole has fun music, lovable characters, and lots of dancing. But the movie also brings attention to the problems and solutions of racism that were blatantly happening in the fifties and sixties. White people in the fifties and sixties were largely influenced by African American music because it put African Americans in the spotlight and brought all of the races together.
Before the music and dancing, let’s talk about the fifties and sixties. The fifties were mainly thought of as a prosperous decade. It is when the “white flight” happened, or when many white families started moving to the nicer, safer suburbs. While this was happening, many African Americans were moving into the bigger cities since they could not afford to live in the suburb neighborhoods, nor were they even allowed to. The whites always had the upper hand. When the sixties rolled around, it only got worse for African Americans, because less and less white people lived in the cities, leaving the cities open to crime and violence to be committed between black people. Black people were usually dismissed and white people’s values seemed to be the only ones that mattered–that was until black musicians started to express themselves publicly, making a voice for themselves.
Music and dancing are two things that bring people together no matter what age, race, or gender they are, because it is for everyone. It could be used for all to express themselves. Popular and influential artists include Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. Fats Domino was a very famous jazz singer and pianist who started off by singing in small gigs to make a couple of dollars. Later, he was found and signed by a producer and record label which led him to sell many records. He went on to play shows and go on tours, but as soon as The Beatles came into fame, Fats Domino’s fame slowed down. However, he was one of the first artists who was put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–as Billy Joel said, “the piano was a rock and roll instrument” (Fats), and many following artists were influenced by him, including many big stars like Paul McCartney and Elton John. Little Richard was another famous African American singer. When he left his childhood home, he went on to perform in a club in Macon who was owned by a white family with whom he lived with. At first, nothing
happened with his career. Finally, he was found by a producer who needed a lead singer in a new band and went on to produce many famous songs such as “Tutti-Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” (Little). Many other famous singers covered his songs including The Beatles. One more famous singer was Elvis; even though he was not black, he still adopted his outfits, hair, singing, and dance moves from African American culture. This just goes to show how influential black singers were. As a matter of fact, when Elvis died, he was crowned the ‘King of Rock and Roll.’ In response to this, another singer–Ol’ Man River–said, “Naw he ain’t! My friend Chuck Berry is the King of Rock. Presley was merely a Prince who profited from the royal talent of a sovereign ruler vested with tremendous creativity. Had Berry been white, he could have rightly taken [Presley’s] throne and worn his crown well” (Ward).
African American music also brought together all of the races, and it showed in many ways. It started a new era of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which opened up so many possibilities for aspiring artists. All of a sudden, white kids were seen going into black neighborhoods–although it was not very safe all of
the time–to find more black music to listen and dance to. The movie Hairspray even depicted this when showing how the main characters wanted a new sound and step to their music and dance, so they followed Seaweed–an African American teenager–to this neighborhood in order to get more of what they started to enjoy. Different races were also seen together in large gatherings such as concerts, to come and enjoy what they loved together. White people showed that they did not care about the separation of races within the music, especially Elvis Presley, which showed in his dancing and outfit choices. Teenagers went against what was
the status quo and started to listen to the African American produced music. This has definitely carried into present day, because many famous and popular singers are black.
The fifties and sixties were largely influenced by African American music, and it showed in the aspects that many white singers covered black artist’s songs and white people were seen listening to the black music. Segregation could be said to have ended in this time period due to the outbreak of famous black artists and the rest of the world’s willingness to support them. Embrace different cultures because the best and only thing it can do is bring everybody together. African American music has definitely carried into our present world. Rap music sometimes talks about the African American experience and we should respect that.
Article by Kaitlyn Vannucci & Video by Deanna Frank
“Fats Domino.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, www.rockhall.com/inductees/fats-domino.
“Little Richard.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 3 Dec. 2015, www.biography.com/people/little-richard-9383571.
Shankman, Adam, director. Hairspray. New Line Cinema, 2007.
Ward, Brian. “Was Elvis Presley Guilty of Appropriating Black Music? | Opinion.” Newsweek, 18 Aug. 2017, www.newsweek.com/elvis-presley-40-years-later-was-king-rock-n-roll-guilty-appropriating-black-651911.