No tags :(

Share it




Rock ‘n’ roll music, more than any other genre in history, is the domain of teenagers.

It didn’t start OUT that way however. Well, not exactly anyway.

For most of human civilization there WERE no teenagers. There were people who were teen aged of course, meaning between 13-19 years old, but the separate and distinct cultural role those years formed was a fairly recent modern invention.

The term itself had a few scattered public mentions in the early 1940’s, but not until after World War Two did it become firmly entrenched in common usage.

This is perfectly understandable when you look more closely at the evolution of American society. Prior to that, for a variety of reasons (shorter lifespans, far lower high school graduation rates and thus earlier entry into adulthood via work and marriage), the transition from childhood to adulthood was seen as a direct line, with no stopover in a world unto itself.

One of the underlying stories here on Spontaneous Lunacy is the shifting cultural markers that take place over the years, and the rise of the teenager is second only to race in terms of societal impact as reflected by rock music. The reasons for this take a little bit of explaining.

Let’s Go To School
The importance of schooling America’s youth has risen dramatically since the 1800’s. In the first decade of the 20th Century less than ten percent of kids graduated high school, but by 1930 the rate tripled to just under 30%. Over the next decade, in spite of the Great Depression which forced many to drop out of school to help the family survive by getting whatever jobs were available, the progress continued, topping 50% by the dawn of the 1940’s before World War II temporarily plunged it back below half.

But by the late forties, where we find ourselves now on our journey, things were on the upswing again. The depression was over, as was the war, and there was an abundance of jobs available for able bodied adults. The G.I. Bill sent returning vets to college which enabled them to get better paying jobs in the growing white collar fields brought about the rapidly improving technology. Those previously resigned to the lower class now were reaching the middle class, while the types who’d made up the previous middle class were now taking residency in the expanding upper class. The adult breadwinner in a family was now more than capable of winning ALL of the bread needed, which meant by the end of the 1940’s there was less reason than ever for kids to have to end their schooling prematurely. As a result the high school graduation rate touched 60% for the first time ever and would continue upward for the rest of the century.

Fascinating stuff”, I’m sure you’re saying while scanning impatiently down the page to see if this entry is ever going to mention the actual record it purports to be reviewing.

Hold on, I promise we’ll get there and then this will hopefully all make sense.

Kid’s Stuff
Now what all of that has to do with rock ‘n’ roll is something that wasn’t easily spotted at first and by the time it was recognized it was too late to do anything to stop it I suppose. But these seemingly unrelated events essentially CREATED the teenager.

What had been a rapid transformation from being a child in need of support to an adult who was expected to help provide support now had an extended layover from 13 to 20 years of age that for the most part hadn’t existed before. The booming economy then inadvertently gave these “teenagers” the discretionary income needed to become a market force unto themselves (allowances, part-time jobs… and remember, records were under a buck) and with little or no financial responsibility otherwise they increasingly used this money to indulge in their own pursuits.

The rest of the contributing factors in rock’s rise should be obvious. Whereas adult tastes are well-established and relatively unchanging, teens by nature are still forming their tastes and so they have a greater natural interest in exploring the latest cultural trends in an effort to find something that they can identify with. They also have the unique daily social cauldron of school where they enjoy the support of likeminded peers to ward off adult criticism of their collective choices.

Lastly in the late 1940’s there was a concurrent shift that gave rise to the music they’d soon embrace, as the post-war black society was growing ever more restless for further advances of the increased freedom they’d tasted during the war years. Not surprisingly that mindset increasingly surfaced in cultural outlets to express this new optimism and a generation of artists who had just come of age during this time were the instigators in bringing that forward-thinking outlook to music.

A music which spoke directly to the younger generation who shared that worldview.


Do You Hear What I Hear?
The major record companies were oblivious to all of this of course, still adhering to the accepted practice of targeting adult consumers with generally conservative tastes and as such retail outlets stocked and promoted those records above all else. They weren’t focusing on this “new” market of teens, and certainly not the black audience, which left the door open for independent labels to gravitate towards them once they saw the economic possibilities in catering to those “fringe” tastes which were being roundly ignored by the existing record industry.

Though the percentage of the total sales seemed small on the surface and were hardly worth worrying about to the long established and seemingly indestructible major companies at first, suddenly there was a growing source of this music being supplied for anyone with open ears and an abiding interest in hearing something different. That audience hadn’t existed before, or at least hadn’t been targeted, but now over the next few years they came out in force, actively seeking out this music while armed with far greater economic power than ever thought possible.

It was a perfect storm, a confluence of cultural transformations that were seemingly unrelated to one another but each factor necessary to bring those specific components to the table at the precise time was present and accounted for. It was far too convoluted to ever be planned, and it’s unlikely, if not impossible, to ever be duplicated accidentally. You can even throw in the post-war baby boom which churned out future rock fans as if on a conveyor belt to ensure this wouldn’t be simply a short-lived trend and then top it all off with the eternal disapproval of parents to whatever the latest rock trend may be which of course guarantees it also fulfills the social rebellion criteria for their offspring who are listening to this music to piss those parents off in the first place.

Add them all together and what you have is rock ‘n’ roll as the living embodiment of a cultural revolution.


And The Children Know The Way
Which brings us – FINALLY! – to the record and artist in question. (See, I told you we’d get to it… Eventually!)

Little Willie Littlefield was the first teenage rock star and thus a symbol of this generational schism.

Now he wasn’t the first teenager overall to play rock ‘n’ roll, Andrew Tibbs had been 18 when he cut his first sides last fall, but his music was more mature by nature, serious topics delivered with a more stoic outlook. Not so here. Little Willie’s Boogie had the exuberance of youth embedded in its grooves.

Littlefield wasn’t at all beholden to the past as many older rockers who’d come of age in another time had been, he simply didn’t have enough of a past to draw from for that to be the case. This was released just as he celebrated his 17th birthday, though by the sounds of it the party wasn’t cake, ice cream and pin the tail on the donkey.

He’d already been playing in Houston clubs since he was 14 years old and had built a pretty strong reputation as a pianist. One local figure thought so highly of him that he essentially started a record company just to record and release his work, which is what we have here, Littlefield’s recording debut which shows that there was no age requirement for being an rock artist.

We’d been flirting with this trend towards youth already in rock, after all, Roy Brown had just turned 22 when he started all of this, Amos Milburn was two years younger than that, the biggest group on the scene The Ravens hadn’t hit the quarter century mark yet, while The Orioles were even younger still. But Littlefield firmly established the notion that in rock ‘n’ roll youth and inexperience wasn’t a hindrance, but a virtue… especially when it came to reaching the most fervent audience for this music.

Tellingly, in a welcome break from the way most record companies usually approached such matters, he’s not offered up as a gimmick because of his youth (aside, perhaps, from the “Little” moniker he was affixed with), but rather he’s just presented as an artist, period, and left to stand or fall on his own two feet.

He doesn’t just stand, he jumps.


Maturity Is Relative
After a somewhat crude choppy intro Littlefield tears into the meat of the self-titled song with maniacal fury, his left hand pounding out a rhythm while his nimble right hand dances across the ivories as if the keyboard was made of ice. Most of rock’s instrumentals thus far have been sax-led but there have been enough piano “boogies” as they were invariably titled, to give a sense of what was expected in that realm and I’ll be damned if this… this… KID doesn’t put most of them to shame not just due to sheer rambunctiousness, but an abiding talent that was already entirely evident regardless of age.

Now truth be told I don’t know if you can find a melody contained anywhere within this if you used a microscope and dissected it with a scalpel, but I also know you don’t need one. Little Wllie’s Boogie is the musical equivalent of an adrenaline shot to the heart, a loud, boisterous, unapologetic statement that this rough hewn music, this bastard child of culture that many would have you believe was cheap, tawdry and without much musical merit, had grander plans and ambitions.

Not ADULT plans and ambitions mind you. He wasn’t aspiring to play ritzy places in a tuxedo for half-bored sophisticates, he was planning on having his audience tear their clothes off in ravenous lust and shimmy naked across the floor until they were arrested for indecency or all collapsed from exhaustion, but either way with a smile on their face.

One listen to this and you know he succeeded in that regard without you needing to witness the orgy of flesh for yourself. Everything about this reeks of hedonistic passion and fun. Never slowing down, never looking back, just storming forward with brash confidence, absolutely convinced – like every teenager is – that you’re the first to ever see such bright colors on the horizon, to hear such joyous sounds in your ears, to feel this uninhibited every single day of your life.

Youth may be naïve in that regard but who can blame them when you’re at a stage in life where such emotions come fast and furious with overwhelming power and the music you embrace captures that feeling perfectly.

Rock ‘n’ roll does this without fail. It’s impetuous by nature, unrelenting and egotistical, above all else it’s music that demands attention. Traits that are more characteristic in teenagers than anyone else.

In that vein here comes this kid, brash, restless and impatient, who’s cockily offering up his own ode to the music – and to himself (it’s not called Little Willie’s Boogie for nothing) – and insisting that you either fall in behind him or get the hell out of the way.

Yeah, the kids are alright and more and more as 1948 eases into its stretch run the future ahead is no longer murky and uncertain, but is looking brighter than ever.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Willie Littlefield for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)