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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author
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The Rise of Rock and Roll in Philadelphia

The masses of African Americans who have been deprived of educational and economic opportunity are almost totally dependent on radio as their means of relating to the society at large…Television speaks not to their needs, but to upper middle class America…No one knows the importance of [radio deejay] Tall Paul White to the massive nonviolent demonstrations of the youth in Birmingham in 1963; or the funds raised by Purvis Spann for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964; or the consistent fundraising and voter education done for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Civil Rights Movement by Georgie Woods, my good friend in Philadelphia…In a real sense, you have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white…I salute you.
—Martin Luther King Jr., keynote address, National Association of Radio and Television Announcers Convention, Atlanta, 1967[i]

Starting in 1957, millions of teenagers across the country tuned into American Bandstand every afternoon to watch Philadelphia teenagers dance to the most popular music of the day. The history of American Bandstand, however, starts not on national television, but with the rise of rock and roll in Philadelphia through radio, concerts, record hops, talent shows, and local television. Like youth across the country, Philadelphia teenagers found meaning in rock and roll, but they did so in ways that were mediated by deejays who sought to capitalize on the music’s popularity with youth. At the same time, these deejays introduced young people to the music that helped form their teenage communities. Attending to the local roots of rock and roll, and the deejays who led this development, highlights the complex mix of commerce and community in the growth and popularization of rock and roll. In addition to showing how American Bandstand emerged from a fertile musical culture in Philadelphia, this local perspective also makes it clear that the show’s particular mix of commerce and community was not the only available option.

This section begins with Georgie Woods, a leading rock and roll deejay who also advanced civil rights in Philadelphia. Woods’s civil rights activism developed out of his experience working with black teenagers as a deejay and concert promoter as well as his concern about the lack of black television personalities and black-owned broadcast stations in the city. Woods used his radio show and concerts to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund and to promote civil rights protests, in which he also participated. Woods drew praise from Martin Luther King Jr. for his work.  By merging his critiques of the media industry with civil rights work in support of the black teenagers who sustained his broadcast career, Woods offered a model for what music could achieve beyond commercial success. In addition to Woods, black deejay Mitch Thomas hosted a locally televised dance show that drew black teenagers from across the Philadelphia region and was watched by teenagers across racial lines. The Mitch Thomas Show was among the first television shows with a black host (it debuted fifteen years before Soul Train). Thomas’s show highlighted the creative talents of black teenagers and brought images of these teens into Philadelphia homes. The show also offered a mediated space for interracial association and influenced many of American Bandstand’s dancers.

Rock and roll developed in Philadelphia thanks largely to Woods, Thomas, and their teenage audiences. Dick Clark tapped into this excitement for rock and roll, first as a radio deejay, and later as the host of American Bandstand. Clark acknowledged that Woods’s and Thomas’s programs influenced the music and dance styles on his show. A talented cultural producer in his own right, Clark guided Bandstand from a local program to a national show with lucrative sponsorships. Woods, Thomas, and Clark all capitalized professionally on young people’s interest in rock and roll. The three differed, however, in their visions of what music meant to Philadelphia’s teenagers. For Woods, music became a way to raise for money and awareness of civil rights. For Thomas, music offered a safe leisure space for teenagers and, through his television show, made black youth culture more visible. For Clark, music was the best way to appeal to, and become famous among, the growing youth demographic. As three of the people who did the most to shape Philadelphia’s rock and roll scene, the careers of Woods, Thomas, and Clark demonstrate how rock and roll became big business, but also how it was capable of being something more.

As the above quotation from Dr. King suggests, Woods was part of a generation of radio deejays who played important roles in local black communities across the country. Deejays like “Tall Paul” Dudley White in Birmingham; Purvis Spann, Herb Kent, and Wesley South in Chicago; Spider Burks in St. Louis; Johnny Otis and Magnificent Montague in Los Angeles.; and Jocko Henderson in Philadelphia and New York raised money and recruited members for local and national civil rights organizations, serving as what historian William Barlow calls the “media nerve centers of the civil rights movement.”[ii] Black deejays played important community roles, more so than their white counterparts, because local radio remained the most important form of media among black consumers. Advertisers looked to black deejays to sell products and by 1963 there were over eight hundred “black appeal” stations, most of them white-owned.[iii] These commercial interests were important for black deejays like Woods, but they were only part of the story. Through their actions, both inside and outside of the broadcast studio, many black deejays were “local people” in the sense that historians Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard use the term. That is, they exhibited “a sense of accountability and an ethical commitment to the community” that went beyond economic gain.[iv] Martha Jean “the Queen” Steinberg, who broadcast in Memphis and Detroit, recalled that the mission of black deejays was “to serve, to sell, to inform, to entertain, and to educate our community.”[v] The localism of black radio, therefore, both constrained and enabled black deejays. Georgie Woods would never get a shot at national television like Dick Clark, but he would forge relationships with his community of local listeners that enabled him to use music to advance the struggle for civil rights.

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