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A History and Definition of Oldies Music


by Amy Gold

Bill Haley and his Comets

Bill Haley and his Comets on TV ca. 1955

"Oldies music" is a wide-ranging and ever-expanding catch-all term that has come to encompass most pop, rock, and R&B songs released and played on the radio between 1950 and up to at least 10-20 years before the present. This broad category includes styles as diverse as doo-wop, early rock and roll, novelty songs, bubblegum pop, folk rock, psychedelic rock, baroque pop, surf rock, soul music, funk, classic rock, most hard rock, some blues, and some country. Since the beginning of rock and roll in the mid 1950s, popular music has undergone many radical changes and branched out into a wide variety of genres, with each decade being defined by a different set of styles. Today, most of what is considered to be oldies music covers the 1950s through at least the 1970s. Due to ever-changing demographics, some radio stations that specialize in oldies are now also considering songs from the 1980s and even the 1990s to belong to this category as well (although they may refer to them by other names, e.g., "classic hits").

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley stars in the movie,
"Jailhouse Rock," 1957.

The "golden oldies" are those songs that date from the 1950s through the early 1960s, and they have remained a permanent fixture in pop music history. As America entered the 1950s, traditional and jazz-infused pop as performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Laine, and Patti Page, gradually gave way to doo-wop, rockabilly, R&B, and other more modern styles. A major turning point in pop music was the birth of rock and roll in the mid 1950s. Although its stirrings could be heard in tunes dating as far back as the late 1940s-early 1950s, rock and roll had finally taken root by the time Bill Haley and His Comets' seminal "(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock" topped the charts in 1955. Other top bands and artists from the golden oldies era were Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Nat "King" Cole, Pat Boone, the Platters, the Diamonds, the Chordettes, Chubby Checker, and, of course, Elvis Presley who still reigns today as "the King of Rock and Roll." This era also had its fair share of teen idols that included not only Presley but also Ricky Nelson, Dion, Paul Anka, and Frankie Avalon.

The designation of older pop tunes as "oldies" can be traced back to Los Angeles radio DJ Art Laboe who, in 1957, first coined the phrase, "oldies but goodies," in response to many of his listeners wanting to listen to songs from earlier in that decade. Laboe himself was quite an influence in the West Coast radio scene, being one of the first radio DJs to not only play rock and roll but also many black artists at a time when these performers were not being recognized. The phrase would soon become well known, thanks in part to a song released in 1961 called "Those Oldies But Goodies" by Little Caesar and the Romans which was a throwback to the doo-wop style of singing from the 1950s. The catch phrase this song title embodied became more popular in later years when many people were becoming nostalgic for songs from previous eras.

The Beatles

The Beatles arrive at John F. Kennedy
International Airport, Feb. 7, 1964.

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade not only for the nation but also its music. A major transformation in style took place when the Beatles first landed on the shores of America and, on February 9, 1964, made their historical appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. This momentous event ushered in the British Invasion and an influx of other bands and artists from across the pond that included the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and Petula Clark. Surf rock, both instrumental and sung, was another style that originated around the early 1960s. The best known of the many surf rock groups from the 1960s included the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Ventures, the Surfaris, and Dick Dale whose music was later revived in the 1994 movie cult classic, "Pulp Fiction." Folk music gradually evolved to folk rock, a style that was introduced in the mid 1960s by the Byrds who topped the charts in 1965 with the Bob Dylan-penned "Mr. Tambourine Man." The late 1960s burst forth with various hard rock styles that provided a mouthpiece for the political and social unrest of the day; they included garage band, blues, acid, and psychedelic rock. The Doors, the Who, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane were just some of the many rock bands that ruled the airwaves. As rock music got harder and more experimental with each passing year, artists such as Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, the 4 Seasons, Dionne Warwick, and Roy Orbison, whose styles hearkened to earlier eras, produced a steady stream of chart-topping hits throughout most of the decade.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin sings "My Country 'Tis
Of Thee" at the U.S. Capitol during the
56th presidential inauguration in
Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.

In the meantime, R&B (along with funk and soul music) continued to evolve and thrive alongside rock and roll, producing such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Brook Benton, and Ray Charles. It was not only R&B artists such as these who were instrumental in defining the music of the 1960s. The highly popular Motown recording studio, with its famous signature sound, was a huge product of many celebrated acts that included the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and the Four Tops. Another major recording studio with its own unique signature was Stax Records that produced many top R&B bands and artists from the 1960s and 1970s, including Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Emotions, and the Dramatics. As with folk and hard rock, much of the R&B music of the mid to late 1960s also reflected the changing socio-political climate of the day.

The 1970s are best remembered for the dawn of disco and the emergence of soft rock, glam rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal. Major bands and artists included Elton John, the Bee Gees, the Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Paul McCartney, the Eagles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Donna Summer, the Spinners, and Barry Manilow. The musical mood of this decade was generally less intense than that of the more turbulent late 1960s, and many bands and artists who had started out back then with edgier styles continued to produce hits in the 1970s, but often with a more mellow style. The early 1970s briefly waxed nostalgic with the music of Tony Orlando and Dawn, Hurricane Smith, and other acts with styles that were throwbacks to the pre-rock and roll era. The increasing popularity of singer-songwriters such as Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Jim Croce, James Taylor, and John Denver, whose styles were more laid-back and introspective, also reflected the changing musical tastes of the times. In the meantime, disco was also becoming increasingly popular and by the mid 1970s, it had firmly taken root when the Bee Gees topped the charts in 1975 "Jive Talkin'," which was followed soon thereafter by their immensely popular soundtrack from the 1977 movie, "Saturday Night Fever."

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson, May 14, 1984

The 1980s saw the emergence of MTV, punk rock, new wave, and various forms of alternative rock. The top artists of that period were, by far, the iconic Madonna and Michael Jackson. (Jackson's sixth album, "Thriller," released in 1982, was - and still remains - the best selling album of all time.) Other top performers included Duran Duran, Journey, Hall and Oats, George Michael, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, and Billy Joel. Many old favorites who debuted in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s continued to release hits and even top the charts for decades thereafter, sometimes well into the 1990s and beyond; they include Elton John, Paul McCartney, Whitney Houston, Prince, Madonna, Olivia Newton-John, Stevie Wonder, Cher, Chicago, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Santana, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and the Rolling Stones.

While many Baby Boomers still consider the songs from the 1950s through ca. the early 1970s to be the "true" oldies, the music from the late 1970s and the 1980s is now gradually becoming a permanent part of the oldies repertoire as well, with classic rock or classic stations playing songs from both decades. The 1990s saw a new form of rock and roll, known as grunge, enter the music scene, as well as the emergence of gangsta rap and the hip hop culture (which is still very prevalent today). The best known acts of the 1990s include Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Alice in Chains. Some classic radio stations now also play hits by these groups and consider them to be "oldies" in the sense that these are classic songs. Many of today's young adults grew up during the 1990s, and for them, this music is a part of their childhood, just as the "golden oldies" are for previous generations.

Oldies music will continue to flourish as new generations discover older tunes from when their parents and/or grandparents came of age. With the growth of technology, the kids of today are able to find and download older hits and classics to their phones or mp3 players, ensuring that the oldies will always be goodies.