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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Georgie Woods’s Rock ‘n Roll Show

While Bob Horn’s televised Bandstand still played white pop music and copies of black rhythm and blues songs performed by white artists, deejays like Georgie Woods and Mitch Thomas started playing rhythm and blues music and calling it “rock ‘n’ roll.”[vi] Woods and Thomas held rock and roll concerts in large arenas and hosted record hops at skating rinks and recreation centers in addition to their daily radio shows. Vocal harmony groups in the city’s black neighborhoods, moreover, performed at these neighborhood shows and developed singing styles that influenced and were influenced by what they heard on the radio. Beyond the walls of American Bandstand’s studio, then, black broadcasters and teenagers made Philadelphia a vibrant rock and roll scene.

While radio was the most important medium for the development of rock and roll in Philadelphia, Georgie “the Guy with the Goods” Woods became the city’s most prominent black broadcaster. Woods was born in rural Barnett, Georgia, in 1927, the ninth of eleven children. Like many black families in the area, Woods’s family faced consistent threats from the Ku Klux Klan, culminating when the Klan burned a cross in his family’s yard. While his father continued his work as a preacher in Georgia, Woods’s mother moved the family to Harlem in 1936 to escape this racial violence and to find better employment and educational opportunities. After his mother died, Woods dropped out of high school at fourteen to work, and later spent two years in the army before returning to New York City. Woods got his start in radio with WWRL, a black-oriented station in New York, and came to Philadelphia’s WHAT in 1953 after one of its deejays quit.[vii]

Although Woods was less experienced than WHAT’s other popular black deejays, Doug “Jocko” Henderson and Kae Williams, he distinguished himself by pitching his show to teenagers. Influenced by the popularity of Alan Freed’s radio program in New York, Woods started describing his program as “rock ‘n’ roll,” a black slang term that Freed brought into the mainstream. Freed’s large interracial rock and roll audiences impressed Woods. In January 1955, for example, Woods described these interracial audiences in his weekly column in the Philadelphia Tribune, “Rock and Roll with Georgie Woods”:
There is a change taking place in the music industry of America, especially in the so-called rhythm and blues field. Today, as never before, white teenagers are buying rhythm and blues tunes. Reason—the younger generation is away from the old idea that rhythm and blues music is strictly for Negroes. In this writer’s opinion, Rock and Roll music is the rhythm of America and there are many who will agree. Here’s an example of how the change in taking place. In New York City a disc jockey by the name of Allan [sic] Freed…plays only rock and roll music and yet he has more white listeners than Negro listeners…[H]e gave an affair at the St. Nick’s arena and…it went like this: The affair was a complete sellout—30,000 strong for both shows at $2.00 per, and each nite there were more whites in attendance than Negroes…A change for the better is taking place and I for one can’t see any wrong in that change.[viii]
For Woods, rock and roll did not refer to a new type of music, but rather to a larger consumer market for rhythm and blues music. Already a popular radio personality, Woods started billing himself as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and organized his first rock and roll stage show at the Met in North Philadelphia in April 1955. This first concert was followed by shows in Center City at the Academy of Music and the Mastbaum Theater. [ix] Each of these shows featured a mix of rhythm and blues singers like LaVern Baker, big bands like the Buddy Johnson Orchestra, and vocal harmony groups such as the Roamers. More important for Woods, each concert sold out. The Academy of Music show, the Philadelphia Tribune reported, “was packed and jammed with over 5,000 yelling, screaming high school students.”[x] Woods used his radio show to promote these concerts, and this cross promotion prompted a dispute with station management that led him to leave WHAT and sign with the rival black-oriented station WDAS.[xi] He maintained his popularity after switching stations, and with each of the concerts Woods established himself as the leading rock and roll personality in Philadelphia.[xii]

As he promoted these large stage shows, Woods also hosted smaller dances and concerts in the city’s majority black neighborhoods. Although teens paid only twenty-five or fifty cents to attend the record hops and one or two dollars for the larger concerts, these events helped to supplement Woods’s radio salary of twenty-five dollars a week.[xiii] Beyond this financial motivation, the concerts and record hops also established a closer relationship between Woods and his teenage audience. Woods recalled that “anyplace where a number of people could gather, we [held a dance]. It wasn’t just one special place…we used playgrounds, gyms or auditoriums to do the dances.”[xiv] Combining recorded music, live performances, and dancing, these neighborhood events were “community theaters,” which music scholar Guthrie Ramsey describes as central to the cultural experience and memory of black music.[xv] As rock and roll was starting to take off nationally, these local concerts and record hops established black community spaces as the local sites through which this music could be experienced. These events often featured vocal harmony groups made up of teenagers from the neighborhood.[xvi] A North Philadelphia group called the Re-Vels , for example, performed frequently at the Richard Allen Community Centre in its neighborhood.[xvii] Weldon McDougal, who lived in West Philadelphia and sang with the Philadelphia Larks, remembered that these talent shows provided a rare opportunity to venture into other neighborhoods:
You didn’t go to too many different neighborhoods to go to any dance. Because again, they didn’t want you to mess with their girls. You had to have a good reason [to go]. Like the Larks, we’d sing in community centers and also we would sing in talent shows in other parts of the city, like in North Philly at the Richard Allen projects, which I lived in [when I was younger]. So when they said they had a talent show over there, I said "oh man, let’s go over there"…now here I am from West Philly going to the Richard Allen projects, and we didn’t have cars so we caught the trolley. And we’d get off and walk on over there. And lo and behold here comes a gang. And they said, "What are y’all doing around here?" And we said, "We’re in the talent show." And they said, "Y’all can’t sing. The best group in the world is the Re-Vels." They lived in the Richard Allen projects. And they said, "We gonna kick your ass if y’all can’t out sing the Re-Vels." They said, "sing something." So then I broke out, and they said "man, y’all sound pretty good." And they said "listen, we’re gonna come to the talent show, but I don’t think y’all can sing as good as the Re-Vels." And what it really was, these guys, they liked us, so we weren’t in danger of getting beat up. But they still didn’t like us enough to beat the Re-Vels, so they would come to the talent show and they’d be hollering and screaming. It was exciting you know?[xviii]
Like the Re-Vels and the Larks, several other singing groups formed among teenagers in the city’s black neighborhoods. These vocal harmony groups were part of “the forgotten third of rock n’ roll.”[xix] Stuart Goosman, Robert Pruter, and Philip Groia have shown that vocal harmony took off in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York as it did in Philadelphia. These singing groups, usually comprising blue-collar young men from urban neighborhoods, drew from pop, blues, and novelty songs to create a smooth form of R&B that reached national popularity with groups like the Orioles, Clovers, Cadillacs, Cardinals, Flamingoes, and Moonglows. At the local level, vocal harmony groups practiced on street corners, in school hallways, in recreation centers, and in any available neighborhood space. Many groups became famous in their communities without ever recording an album.[xx] The Philadelphia Tribune ran pictures and stories about local groups such as the Guy Tones, the Dreamers, the Opals, Ronald Jones and the Classmates, and the Satellites.[xxi] At a time when discrimination limited educational and employment opportunities for black youth, and stories on juvenile delinquency appeared frequently in the mainstream press, these “local teens make good” articles highlighted music as a productive activity that could lead to a career and financial success. Indeed, several recreation centers and church groups also put on talent shows for teenagers as a way to curb juvenile delinquency and gang violence.[xxii] While most vocal groups only performed at neighborhood showcases, several groups signed recording contracts and released singles, while other individuals, like Weldon McDougal, used their music experience to go into music promotion or production.[xxiii] Regardless of their level of commercial success, each of these groups contributed to the development of rock and roll in Philadelphia.

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