In the four decades that followed the First World War, each calendar decade had only a couple types of music that were really popular, and usually one of those was so predominant that it defined the decade. But, by the time the 1960’s rolled around, there were so many genres of popular music, none became synonymous with the decade. It’s no wonder! The country was in turmoil due to racial strife and the unpopular Viet Nam War. Every major city was lit on fire and peace demonstrations were continuous. Even my very old high school, built next to the American Revolution’s Springfield Armory, was destroyed by racial violence soon after I graduated. Young folks around the country were burning not only buildings but also their draft cards and even the American flag. Hard drugs (including psychedelics) abounded. JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated. This country’s individual beliefs were a mish-mash and so was the popular music.
The 1960’s began with Golden Rock-and-Roll and some big bands still doing well. I saw Duke Ellington once or twice a year and remember how his great tenor sax player, Paul Gonsalves, always knew me and let me stand three feet in front of him while he played (probably because I gave him a Camel cigarette between songs). I even spent a while talking with Cab Calloway one summer. I remember being invited to Bill (Count) Basie’s house in Connecticut for a weekend (as a result of being friendly with his nephew). What a thrill! My brother got a dirty look from Lionel Hampton for trying to imitate his antics while we were standing less than six feet from his vibraphone. I spent an hour, one-on-one, with Carl Perkins (of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame) before a concert. I was part-time stage manager at an auditorium where Dave Brubeck told me he was the only Jewish rancher left in California. In the same job, as a prank during a concert, I dropped a home-made stink bomb into the Boston Symphony’s cello section. I met many of the great Country musicians at the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford where I stood next to Ernest Tubb when, during the break, he let a blind girl come back-stage and read a poem she had written for him. I met the Kingston Trio when they performed at my university’s student union, met Peter-Paul-and-Mary in Hampton Beach, met the Platters’ Herb Reed back-stage when my brother played with them, spent a long time with Glen Campbell in his dressing room (thanks to his drummer being my brother’s good friend), had dinner (at my parents’ house) with Gladys Knight’s guitar player, listened to Dave Van Ronk (the great, white blues singer) up close and personal in a Boston coffee-house, and so on. The point is: all the musicians I met during the 1960’s represented different music genres.
After the British Invasion in 1963, popular music moved in many directions. By the mid-60’s, audiences were applauding The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend, smashing his instruments on stage. By the end of the decade, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died from drug overdoses. When you think about the stars of the 60’s, they would have to include everyone from the Beatles (British rock) to Temptations (Motown) to Ray Stevens (humor) to John Fogerty (swamp-rock) to Marty Robbins (country-crossover) to The Beach Boys (clean-cut rock) to Bob Dylan (protest poetry) to Ray Charles (gospel-R&B-country crossover) to Loretta Lynn (pure country) to Miles Davis (free jazz) to The Mamas & The Papas (folk-rock). I could go on and on. The music of the 1960’s was as diverse, and sometimes as radical, as the country’s racial and political views.