The 1960s are widely thought to be the decade that truly signalled the move into the modern era. However, the 1950s was equally (if not more) instrumental in ushering in today’s world – thanks to the emergence and expansion of blues music. Here we consider how blues was involved in some of the main cultural developments in the West, and has made a lasting impact on contemporary life.
Early 1950s: postwar life and an appetite for change
The UK began the 1950s very much in the shadow of the Second World War, as the Labour Government under Clement Attlee were working to rebuild the country’s prosperity. They had already set up the NHS and unemployment was relatively low at under 5% but there was much work left to do. The electorate didn’t believe that they were the party to take such a challenge on and the Conservatives were returned to power in October 1951.
Popular music was still dominated by post-war crooners like Perry Como, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine as well as home-grown talent like the “forces’ sweetheart” Vera Lynn. The key American influence was swing jazz, but that was soon to change.
Meanwhile, there were great social changes taking place in the US. Following the war there was what was known as the Second Great Migration as millions of African Americans who had been living in rural communities started to move into the country’s major cities including Chicago, Memphis and Detroit. It’s estimated that 8% of African Americans living in the South moved out in the 1950s – a trend that was to continue and increase over subsequent decades. Naturally, they brought their music with them and, in doing so, it started to change from so-called country blues to a more urban manifestation of the genre, helped on its way by the increasing use of electric guitar.
As any fan of the music will know, the giants of this era were musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, who introduced the classic Chicago blues style to a wider audience than ever before with his hit albums Singin’ The Blues and Sings Spirituals. At this point, other performers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were taking blues into a more rock ‘n’ roll style of music that would take the country, and world, by storm.
The decade also saw the growth of music venues across the US – and this ran in parallel to the gambling boom in Las Vegas. Indeed, these two trends coalesced in venues such as the Sahara Hotel and Casino, which booked jazz musician Louis Prima to be their late-night lounge act – one of the first on the strip. Along with Keely Smith, Prima’s wife at the time, and sax player Sam Butera, they created one of the largest entertainment attractions in Las Vegas.
The nostalgia for the 1950s shows itself in many unusual ways. Vegas grew substantially in the 1950s – and it was in this era that casino tourism took off. A night at the casino was considerably different in the 50s, the dress code was smart and it attracted a high calibre of guests. Modern day casino visitors and even those that play online look upon this era fondly. Due to this, the nostalgia for the 1950s shows itself in many unexpected ways. There is now an online slot game called The Glorious 50’s, which is based on the time and really gives players a feel for the era, land-based casinos also follow this example and often host 50s-themed nights.
Late 1950s: transatlantic ties
In the 1950s there was an appetite for a new kind of music in the UK – and this was evident from the popularity of skiffle bands. These made a virtue of the post-war shortages by using improvised instruments like washboards and basses made from tea chests and lengths of string. The overriding philosophy was that anyone could make music – one that emerged again two decades later with the emergence of punk. Virtually every school in the country had a number of skiffle bands and it was Lonnie Donegan who really enjoyed chart success with the style, most notably with his version of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line.
As the decade wore on, records from the blues masters started to make the journey across the Atlantic introducing a whole new kind of music to British ears. Because in those days most imports arrived by ship, it meant that Liverpool was one of the first cities in the UK to get a steady supply of this new music. This, it could be argued, was why the Liverpool scene gave birth to so many of the earliest blues, and rhythm and blues, groups in the country. A shared love of rare blues records is what first cemented the friendship between Beatles founders John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Muddy Waters’ first-ever visit to the UK in 1958 introduced the idea of electric blues to an eager and appreciative audience – among them a host of impressionable musicians who would go on to found pioneering British bands such as The Who and The Rolling Stones. Thanks to Muddy Waters’ influence, blues became embedded in the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 1960s.
The 1960s: like a Rolling Stone
Whereas The Beatles were initially inspired by the blues records they were receiving first hand, often through their manager Brian Epstein’s Liverpool record store, it was their great rivals The Rolling Stones who were more comprehensively influenced. Just as Lennon and McCartney had bonded over their mutual interest in esoteric blues records, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had done the same and the band’s early sets consisted almost entirely of cover versions of the blues records that they were listening to. Other bands like The Yardbirds were also heavily influenced by blues rock, along with the self-styled progenitors of heavy metal Led Zeppelin, who went to sell 300 million albums worldwide.
At the same time, the first generation free from military conscription emerged in the UK. With young people finally given a voice and the freedom they wanted, teenagers grew up significantly differently to how they had a decade before. Cultural life in the UK changed accordingly, with music at the core of a more social generation defined by music concerts and festivals. The US was also experiencing something of a musical heyday, epitomised by blues guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s star spangled banner solo at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
1960s and beyond: blues taking new forms
Over the intervening decades between the 1960s and now, blues music has stayed alive and continued to thrive, thanks to its huge and timeless appeal. Every weekend, up and down the country there are countless blues bands performing live, and the enduring and widespread popularity of artists like Jools Holland demonstrate that blues is a genre that will never die.
There’s also been a growth in 1950s nostalgia, with vinyl sales topping three million last year – the highest total in 25 years. And it’s not just in music, but in other realms, too. By the side of the road are 50s-style diners where you can enjoy a burger and shake while listening to a soundtrack from the time – not to mention the constant reappearance of fashions that hark back to the decade, too.
So it’s fair to say that the 1950s have never really left the public imagination and, just like the blues, they’re definitely here to stay.