The week’s media saturation of Michael Jackson’s death set me thinking about my music idols of my youth; most of a generation without it’s own music. That’s true.
My high school days were 1951-54 in Bend. Yes, we had dances. Yes, we had music. But it was not the music of our generation. It was the music of our parents.
We danced to Miller, Kenton, the Dorsey brothers, Goodman, Armstrong and Harry James. The bands of our parents. Vocals were done by Margaret Whiting, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Mel Torme, Paula Kelly and the Modernaires and a lot of faceless, unremembered others.
The really successful current popular music of that time was not great for dancing. We were at the beginning of the birth of American modern jazz. Dave Brubeck, Quincy Jones, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and a lot of others. Our contemporary music you listened to; you didn’t dance to.
How about the 50′s rock and roll, you ask? Well, check the dates. The first commercial success of R&B was Bill Haley and the Comets. 1955. Jerry Lee Lewis, too. Elvis cut records in ‘55 and went big in ‘56. The first four years of the 50′s were ancient history by then and we were out of high school.
For a while, a few names hung on: Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Doris Day, Teresa Brewer, Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole and others who took over the big bands after their namesakes died.
But they weren’t the ones making music that was flying out of record stores from 1955 into the ‘60′s. Fats Domino, Rick Nelson, the Platters, the Tops, the Four Seasons, the Four Freshmen, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and others. And of course, ELVIS!
Then the ‘60′s and the Beatles and all their copiers. Music styles morphed again and big bands and big band singers slipped further to the back on the record shelves.
It wasn’t that the people of my generation didn’t like the new music. It was fine. Most of it. But it was the music of our kids by then. It wasn’t ours.
It was the same with cars. Nothing stood out in the early ‘50′s. So we modified the cars of our parents. Fords and Mercury’s … ‘41 through ‘50 … were the most popular because of the V-8 engines. We graduated in ‘54. The next year, POW! The V-8 ‘55 Chevy, the Crown Vic and the kids coming up had new toys.
No music. No cars. So how did we get along? We shared. We shared with our parents. And it seemed natural.
That’s all gone now. The togetherness of the two basic items of teen survival have been replaced with “individualism” and “gotta be me.” And it doesn’t stop there. Now kids have to have their own phones and phone numbers, computers, TVs, styles, language, looks and, if the folks will sign the contract, new cars.
If I had ever told my pacifist mother, “Now, when you see me on the street, don’t talk to me in front of my friends” she would have cut a year or two off my life expectancy! But my grandkids say that.
While I’m not saying those days were better than these days, I think the sharing lifestyle of that time was a good one. There was a sort of family continuity of interest in the things important to teens. There was less separation of “your things” and “our things.”
Which brings me back to Michael Jackson. He seems to be one of a handful of major performers that was contemporary to more than one generation. Elvis did that. Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and maybe one or two others. The way fads come and go, that staying power can be quite a tribute.
Jackson was, in many way, a child in a man’s body. His life was one of childish spending for childish things. He indulged in a lifestyle most of us don’t understand and amassed and spent a fortune few of us could comprehend. He was badly treated by some of those closest to him, including some in his own family. He died the center of attention while mostly alone.
But the talent survives. Few think of Sinatra and remember his ties to organized crime. Few remember Elvis and dwell on the extravagant lifestyle and the copious amounts of drugs that eventually killed him. It’s the talent.
Michael Jackson was not a contemporary of mine. But he did have a huge appeal to more than one generation. That rare talent, in itself, is quite an accomplishment. And a pretty good epitaph.