8 Teen Idols and Surf

Changes to the Music Industry: Payola Scandal

Payola – The paying for airplay or other publicity by composers/musicians to publishers or radio programmers. It had been a music business practice in some form or another since the 19th century. By the late 1950’s payola meant a payment to radio programmers to “encourage” them to give more airtime to a particular song. Independent record companies would pay for airplay in a town and make profit from the record sale in that town as a result of the airplay. They would then move to another town and repeat the process.

In 1958, the Special Committee on Legislative Oversight formed. ASCAP requested this committee look into the bribing of Djs for airplay (the Payola Scandal). The result was that Payola was deemed illegal and many small, independent record companies that relied on payola for airplay went out of business.

Disc Jockeys

Photographic image of Alan Freed wearing plaid jacket and a bow tie.
Figure 8.1 Alan Freed.

Alan Freed – (1921–1965) Disc jockey who fought against racism in the music industry, promoting music by African American artists. Freed had a TV show on ABC called Dance Party showcasing rhythm and blues. He also had accepted payola, and once the investigations into payola began his career was investigated. When Freed was found guilty of charges of accepting bribery/payola, he lost his television show.

Dick Clark – (1929–2012) Another important disc jockey and television personality, Clark avoided ruin during the payola scandal. Clark was the host of the show American BandstandAmerican Bandstand would occasionally showcase a rock and roll or rhythm and blues artist, but was generally more conservative in its choices. More often clean cut teen idols were featured.

The Ed Sullivan Show was also an important television program that provided a variety of entertainment. Sullivan realized that booking rock and roll acts attracted the teenage audience and began regularly featuring musical performances.

Pat Boone and Teen Idol Pop

Color photographic image of Pat Boone wearing a blue jacket and blue tie with a dark background.
Figure 8.2 Pat Boone.

The image of teen idols and the content of their music was very clean cut, acceptable by the most conservative parent. The themes of teen idol songs were “as youthful and wholesome as the performer’s image”. Musically, teen idol pop represented a departure from many aspects of Rock & Roll, with softer singing styles, a significantly less use of electric guitar and saxophones, and orchestral instrumentals often replacing guitar/saxophone solos. Elements of the Blues were often absent, but not entirely. The performers were often well known for their clean cut and safe image, sometimes more than their music. Popular music seemed to leave Rock behind by the early 1960s, but it would come back in a big way within a few years, only with different artists leading the charge.


Pat Boone – (Born 1934) Singer of popular music, became a “teen idol”. He primarily sang pop ballads but also sang blues and rhythm and blues covers. Boone’s image was very boy-next-door. This was a contrast to the rebellious image of Elvis. In his cover version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” from 1956 (Ch. 8 Listening Examples), he attempted to achieve a similar rhythmic singing style to Little Richard but without the aggressive growling tone quality. Boone, like Elvis, was involved in movies including April Love (1957) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).

On average, teen idol singers were successful more for their clean-cut, popular image than their musical talents. They often lip-synced their lip movements to recordings on TV, in movies, and even live. Rarely did any of them play an instrument and generally didn’t write their own songs. Other “teen idols” include Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobbie Rydell, and Ritchie Valens who had a hit with “La Bamba” (1959). Valens was unique in that he was a talented singer, guitarist, and wrote his own music. Chubby Checker (his name is a very obvious variation on Fats Domino) covered a  song called “The Twist” by blues singer Hank Ballard, and it turned into a hit record, starting a dance craze in the United States.

Listening Examples 8.1

Listen Boone’s version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and notice the contrast in style between this and Richard’s version. Boone’s version still has elements of rock and gospel even, but the aggressive elements from Richards’ version are played down a bit. More apparent are the lyrical differences. Notice in the following verse the subtle lyrical change in Boone’s version from “rock to the east” to “I been to the east”. The word “Rock” often had sexual connotations, so just to be safe the Boone version leaves it out.

Richards’ version:

Got a girl named Sue, she knows just what to do
Got a girl named Sue, she knows just what to do
She rocks to the east, she rocks to the west
She’s the girl that I know best

Boone’s version:

I got a girl, named Sue, she knows just what to do
I got a gal, named Sue, she knows just what to do
I’ve been to the east, I’ve been to the west, but
She’s the gal that I love the best

Here is Pat Boone singing a more typical song in his style, “Moody River” from June 1961 which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 charts.

The Brill Building

Color photographic image of the Bill Building. The building has three gold doors, glass windows, and decorative elements.
Figure 8.3 The Brill Building

Many pop hits in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were written in the Brill Building, located on Broadway in New York City. There were numerous music offices and studios in this one building. Professional songwriters were used because in many cases of pop musicians, they didn’t write their own music. Manager Don Kirshner had many of these songwriters under contract and was responsible for giving many of them their first breaks. Some of the songwriters who later found fame in their own performance careers included Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, and Carole King.

Carole King and then-husband Gerry Goffin wrote many hits including the song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” for the girl group the Shirelles (Listening Examples 8.2). This song is in AABAA form, a departure from the many early rock songs in 12-bar blues form. One advantage in having professional songwriters was that the songs had more complex arrangements, forms, and instrumentation, adding to the variety of sounds on a given record. Lyrically, the song is from a female perspective, the context being a romantic encounter between lovers where the singer is cautious about the motives of her lover. We get a set up of a seemingly perfect new relationship, but the singer wants to make sure that the encounter is part of a “lasting treasure” and not simply a “moments’ pleasure”,  and asks, as a refrain at the end of each A section, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”. At the time of the songs’ release in 1960, this was a powerful message from a female perspective, something of an assertion of female independence at a time when women were generally expected to remain reserved and not overly opinionated.

Tonight you’re mine, completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?
Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure
Can I believe the magic in your sighs
Will you love me tomorrow?
Tonight with words unspoken
You say that I’m the only one
But will my heart be broken
When the night meets the morning sun
I’d like to know that your love
Is a love I can be sure of
So tell me now and I won’t ask again
Can I believe the magic in your sighs
Will you love me tomorrow?
So tell me now and I won’t ask again
Will you still love me tomorrow
Will you still love me tomorrow
Will you still love me tomorrow

Phil Spector

Black and white image of Phil Spector wearing dark aviator sunglasses.
Figure 8.4 Phil Spector by John Mathew Smith.

Phil Spector – (Born 1940) Producer whose distinctive style became known as the “Wall of Sound”. The term is derived from the fact that Spector’s productions were full of instruments, overdubs, and mixed so well that many of his recordings had an orchestral quality and power to them, unique in popular music. One of Spector’s influences was the classical composer Richard Wagner, known for his massive orchestral works featuring huge instrumentation including percussion instruments like timpani, gong, etc. Indeed, Spector called his records “symphonies for teens.” In the late 1960’s, Spector worked with the Beatles, producing Let It Be, and with George Harrison and John Lennon on their solo records after the breakup of the Beatles.




Listening Examples 8.3

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons:

The Shirelles: (See lyrics above) Here is a live version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” by the Shirelles in 1964. Here is another version. The song uses a relatively new form (for us) called AABA form. Simply put, the A sections always use the same music with different lyrics in each iteration. For contrast, the B section provides different music and often leads back to one last A section in a satisfying way. Sometimes the B section is called a “bridge” section as it bridges two A sections together. In this version, an orchestral break adds an instrumental A section as well. This replaces what would have been a guitar or saxophone solo in a Rock & Roll song.

The Ronnettes: “Be My Baby” This song uses another new form (for us) called Verse-Chorus form. This a two part form (the verse and the chorus being the two parts). The verses and choruses usually have distinct music. Lyrically, the verse features different lyrics each iteration, while the chorus (Sometimes called a refrain) features the same words every iteration. Here is a video outlining the new form along with the song itself: “Be My Baby” Formal Outline Video Again, you’ll notice an orchestral break where a guitar or saxophone solo would have likely been if this were a Rock & Roll song.

Spring Reverb was an important element of the surf guitar sound. In a nutshell, on certain amplifiers from the 1960s and later, the signal from the guitar can be transmitted through a metal spring which vibrates and extends the length of a given sound, giving the effect of the ambience of a hall. A knob on the amplifier allows the guitarist to dial in the amount of reverb, and the length of decay (how long the ambience lingers). In this video below I demonstrate various levels of reverb as well as a “vibrato” effect on a 1965 Reissue amplifier that is modeled after the ones used by many surf guitarists.

Duane Eddy

Duane Eddy – (born 1938) Guitarist who developed a distinctive style the epitomized surf music. The style is described as “twang” where the guitar strings were plucked close to the bridge where they are tightest, resulting in a bright, punchy sound.

Eddy’s use of echo and vibrato effects as well as his repetitive picking style resulted in a wavering sound that may have given rise to the inclusion of surfing topics into the music. His music such as the instrumental “Rebel-Rouser” (1958) used call and response techniques like those used in gospel music and jazz.

Surf Music

Musicians on the west coast began developing their own brand of danceable pop music known as Surf Rock. The music was different in a number of ways. For one, the vocals weren’t based on the crooner vocal tradition the way many pop singers of the day were; in fact, many popular surf hits were instrumental, a rare phenomenon in popular music. Other differences were the fact that many groups wrote their own material, the music was often more simple than the songs written by trained professionals at places like the Brill Building, and the bands played their own instruments, unlike pop stars of the day. The instrumentation of guitars, bass, and drums was very common. The surf instrumentation holds similarity to the older rock traditions, but much of the music was lighter and less aggressive. (That’s why it is considered in the pop tradition). The electric guitar (particular the solid body) became the primary lead instrument, and often replaced the vocals as the primary melodic voice for instrumentals.

The link between Surfing and Music described by Paul Johnson of the Bel-Airs

Paul Johnson, guitarist for The Bel-Airs who had one of the earliest Surf hit songs with “Mr. Moto” released January 1962, describes the link between the instrumental pop known as Surf Music as coincidental. Simply, surfers showed up to their gigs sheerly by proximity/geography. He attributes this primarily to the association between the music and surfing. Later on, the advent of spring reverb at Fender (discussed in a video in Ch. 8.2 Listening Examples) became a sound inextricably linked to these groups. To hear Johnson discuss the first time he heard the term “Surf Music” and how the genre developed, listen to the podcast linked here from ca. 5:00. Particularly interesting is the reaction of surfers themselves to the Beach Boys at 8:15 into the Podcast. Surfers seemed to associate instrumental music with their sport much more so than vocal music with surf-based lyrics.

Dick Dale

Color photographic image of Dick Dale wearing a black jacket with white lettering and holding a yellow electric guitar.
Figure 8.5 Dick Dale.

Dick Dale – (Born Richard Monsour 1937-2019) Known as the “King of Surf Guitar” because he originated the style that was to be copied by many of the surf groups of the 1960’s. His group, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones had a string of successful singles and albums in the early 1960s until Dale was sidelined by a cancer diagnosis in the mid 1960s. Dale began using a guitar style similar Duane Eddy, but took it one step further when he incorporated a technique inspired by the tremolo picking of the Middle Eastern and Greek instruments like the bouzouki. Tremolo picking refers to fast repetitions of a note which sustains the note and adds a level of intensity to the sound.

Dale’s music was led by his innovative guitar sound, but he also sang and featured other instrumentalists such as horns or even orchestras ala Phil Spector’s wall of sound. Many of his songs featured a mix of all of the above features, but he is best remembered for his forceful guitar playing and the signature Fender sound featuring a Fender Stratocaster guitar, Fender Spring Reverb, and the Fender Showman Amp, the most advanced and most powerful (ie. Loudest) guitar amplifier available in the early 1960s which Dale helped develop with Leo Fender. His most enduring composition is “Misirlou” which features his unique guitar tone combined with “tremelo” picking and a middle eastern scale, all featured in the main theme of the song. The song was featured in the film Pulp Fiction in 1994 and led to a minor resurgence of Dale’s career.

The Beach Boys

Black and white image of the Beach Boys.
Figure 8.6 The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys were formed by the Wilson Brothers Carl, Brian, and Dennis, their cousin, and a neighbor. The early hits were about surfing and teenage issues, though they later developed far beyond their initial image, much like the Beatles.

From the beginning they were not strictly a surf group. Brian Wilson, the primary songwriter, often used the group vocal harmony style of jazz groups. Their guitarist Carl Wilson did use the twang guitar style of Duane Eddy but also used the riff-based style of Chuck Berry. In fact, “Surfin’ USA” (1963) had the same melody, chord progression, and form as Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958).

The groups serene vocal sound was apparent in many of their early songs such as “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room” (both 1963). A testament to their live performance abilities, the group was able to successfully perform these complex vocals in concert.

By 1966, Brian Wilson’s songwriting had matured considerably but he suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to stop touring. He kept writing and recording though, and that year they released Pet Sounds, their most important and influential album. “Pet Sounds” is notable as an early concept album in pop music where all the songs are thematically related. This predates “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the Beatles’ concept album and magnum opus, which was inspired by the album. The concept was “an expression of hopes, dreams, and anxiety about the present and future felt by a young person growing up”. Pet Sounds features songs written primarily by Brian Wilson as well as his arrangements which featured unusual instruments such as orchestral instruments like strings and percussion, and unusual studio productions such as echoes and reverberation which give the music a haunting yet full and colorful sound. Simple pop-oriented songs such as “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” featured these complex arrangements much like the productions of Phil Spector did earlier in the decade. (Listen to “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” in Ch. 8.3 Listening Examples)

Listening Examples 8.3

Duane Eddy:

Dick Dale: Here is Dick Dale Live on Ed Sullivan. I demonstrate the “Twang” of surf guitar by playing close to the bridge, then I demonstrate the tremolo picking style of Dick Dale.

The Beach Boys:  First, listen to “In My Room” by the Beach Boys performed live (NOT lip-syncing). The Beach Boys recreate their vocal sound nearly-perfectly (with the exception of the screaming fans). In the song “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”, the form features a bridge (middle section) that brings back the intro theme on the piano, but places it in a brand new context including a different key, effectively creating a moment of “Bitonality” (Music in 2 different keys at once) from around 1:05-1:30. The keys are closely related, so the music sounds OK to our ears, bur the concept is quite advanced. The song “Good Vibrations” was a number one hit and also featured Phil Spector-influenced production. As well, the song introduced the electric-theremin into pop music, building on the haunting, colorful sounds from Pet Sounds.


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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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