Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Music of Our Lives - sample excerpt

Book Excerpt

NOTE: The following is a preview excerpt from my upcoming novel, currently titled Music of Our Lives: Insights on Music and Society in Postwar America. While I'm currently planning on releasing it as an independent eBook, if you or someone you know is an editor specializing in music- or sociology-related titles and would like to assist me in potentially releasing it on a broader scale, I can be reached via email at jppcbooks@gmail.com. Thanks, and now on with the show!

HI-FI HUSTLERS: Playboys and the Dawn of High-Fidelity (1949-1963)

Popular Science article - March, 1957

As newfound prosperity began to wash over the U.S. in the immediate post-World War II era, the country set about trying to forget the past and began the work of assuming the role of the most powerful nation on the planet. Due to the massive casualties, wreckage and general instability plaguing most of the European and Asian continents, none of the other traditional powerhouse nations were equipped to compete with the burgeoning American infrastructure. When U.S. soldiers returned home from the war, they were quickly introduced back into an economy that was about to be kicked into virtual overdrive.

Take the year 1952 for example. A pretty good one for American citizens-- at least if you were of white ethnicity or could pass yourself off as such. Or so long as you weren't a member of the Communist party or affiliated with them in any way. Or if you were lucky enough not to be over in Korea getting your face blown off. Or as long as you weren't an unwed teenage mother being forced to live in a group home, or a homosexual, or a homeless person, or basically anybody who didn't fit squarely into the normative social structure of the time.

But for many of those who did fit inside the box, it was a exceptional time to be alive. A few statistics will reinforce what I'm talking about when it came to the life of a "typical" American family in 1952:

The median (average) family income in the United States that year was $3,900, up $200 from 1951. Furthermore an average home buyer in the state of California could anticipate spending roughly $9,564 for a house. A 1952 Series 70 Buick Roadmaster sedan that sat six and weighed in at a gargantuan 4,285 lbs. had a list price of $3,200, and gas hovered around 30 cents per gallon. Likewise, tuition to attend a upper echelon state university such as UCLA was free for any student who had been a resident of the State of California for a period of one year immediately preceding the semester in which they had wished to enroll.

A cherry 1952 Roadmaster sedan.

With a typical inflation calculator of the type one can easily find online, we can see that one U.S. dollar in 1952 had the same buying power as $8.79 did in 2014, and that the annual inflation over this period was 3.57%.

Thus utilizing basic mathematics, it can be proven that when adjusted for today's money, the average American family in 1952 was pulling in about $34,281; that an average house in California cost roughly $84,000 plus change; that a luxury automobile such as a Buick Roadmaster could be had for as little as $28,128 (with gas coming in roughly at $2.64 a gallon); and that the price of attending a top tier state university such as UCLA would be... free, minus a few nominal fees such as the cost of transcripts.

Perhaps now you find yourself struggling to get past some unspecified sense of rage over how badly you're getting screwed in today's economic climate, but put that feeling aside for a minute and try if you would to consider the life of the typical twenty- or thirty-something 1950's middle class American male, and see if you can place yourself in his shoes...

Likely just back from serving in some godforsaken hellhole overseas, and having survived by the skin of your teeth after watching your buddies die, you are now welcomed back home in your country of origin a conquering hero. Due to the post-war boom period, you've been set loose in an era of prosperity unequalled before or since in the course of human history, and all with the G.I. Bill by your side, providing you with opportunities for low-income loans, low mortgage rates, tuition and cost of living stipends, unemployment insurance, you name it.

Jobs are plentiful; money is, if not quite easy to come by, at least worth a lot more than it is now; and you've already earned the respect of your neighbors and peers by virtue of your service to your country. And due to all the technological breakthroughs stemming from the war, new sorts of devices, gadgets and products are now suddenly popping up around you seemingly everywhere you look.

For a lot of men, this newfound freedom meant going back to school or just settling down and marrying their high school sweetheart, raising a few children and living an outward approximation of the squeaky clean image that we often see when superficial images of 1950s America are presented to us in modern culture: the stay-at-home mom, the white picket fence, the dog, the washing machine, and the rest.

Was it ever really like this? I'm guessing not.

However, underneath this cosmetic societal surface, a new breed of American male was developing. The genuine progeny of such primogenitors as the rake or the fop, this current breed of man would forego the family route to take full advantage of his economic and social status in the new America, forging an identity previously considered unattainable by any of his antecedents.

Playboy #1 - December, 1953

The concept of the playboy (or bon vivant) dates back as far as the 1828 Oxford English dictionary, in which he is characterized as a person with money out to enjoy himself. However the image of the modern playboy really started to catch on during the post-WWII boom in international travel, and was cemented in public consciousness by the introduction of Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine in December of 1953 with its then-scandalous image of Marilyn Monroe gracing the cover of the introductory issue.

By 1961 playboy culture had evolved to the point that one of their own had even ascended to the position of leader of the free world.

All in all it was likely a glorious time to be alive, so long as you were an upwardly mobile white American male. While battles for all forms of equality were beginning to rage elsewhere throughout the country, the playboy could devote much his attention towards other, perhaps less noble aims. Of course one pursuit in particular would capture his attention, that being the pursuit of the fairer sex.

To this end, the aspiring casanova already had a few tricks in his arsenal. Having money and independence meant having the freedom to relocate; and relocate he often did, further and further toward the epicenter of wherever "it" was "at". Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and of course New York City were the prime destinations within the United States, anchored as they were by their vibrant jazz clubs. Moving deep into a metropolis also meant escaping the often times narrow-minded moral judgement of one's small town neighbors, which surely was another consideration for a man opposed to settling down.

As the cities flourished with renewed vigor, Las Vegas with its promise of a "swingin' good time" quickly became the domestic tourism destination of choice. The titular owners of the Vegas casinos, with the backing of actual bosses such as Moe Dalitz and Joseph "Doc" Stacher, were only too happy to bilk the world's playboys (aspiring or fully-realized, it made little difference) out of whatever money they could whenever they came through town.

Showing a keen eye for the tastes of their clientele, these men running the city were astute enough to recruit "Old Blue Eyes" himself Frank Sinatra for numerous residencies at casinos such as the Desert Inn and the Sands Hotel-- the sound of Sinatra's liquid baritone being a well-known elixir that the playboy could use to his advantage.

It was here at the Sands in 1960 during the production of Oceans Eleven that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop performed together in the Copa Room, and the genesis of what was colloquially known as the "Rat Pack" (though they would never refer to themselves as such) was formed.

Though regarded today as the quintessential playboy set, it's interesting to note that according to at least one gossip column by "Journalist to the Stars" Joe Hyams, the original "Rat Pack" included only Sinatra amongst the Oceans crew, alongside such stalwart female members as Judy Garland and Lauren Bacall, both of whom could likely party just as hard as any of their male compatriots.

It was, as people like to say fondly when reminiscing, "a different time"-- one in which married individuals of international notoriety such as Jack Kennedy or Howard Hughes could slip away for a long weekend or several at the Sands or the Desert Inn and still keep it under wraps when it came to the hoi polloi. However that's not to say that the jet-setting playboys of the fifties and early sixties escaped media scrutiny entirely.

Sinatra seemed to get it the worst. Not only did he catch heat from right-leaning syndicated Hearst columnists such as Dorothy Kilgallen and Ruth Montgomery who antagonized him over perceived issues concerning his morality, but he was also on the outs with his former friends on the left the Kennedys, who quickly tried to disassociate themselves from Frank reputedly due to his mob ties (likely the same ones that swayed the 1960 presidential election in the first place) once JFK attained the oval office. Peter Lawford, who had married Jack's sister, quickly sided with his new in-laws, and the Rat Pack (or the "Clan", or the "Summit", or whatever they referred to themselves as internally) were over with almost before they began.

Before we get into high fidelity and its role in shaping the culture of this particular subset of modern American society, it's important to take a moment to realize just exactly how vital music was to the playboy and the culture he inhabited. As previously mentioned, the lure of the jazz clubs in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or New York was perhaps the greatest asset those cities could offer the casual casanova, trumping even fine dining, movie theaters or any of their other vast cultural amenities.

That these clubs usually always served alcohol should not be underestimated either, as the goal of the playboy was always to woo as he practiced his seduction. Taking a young lady to a gentleman's bar to drink would be considered crass by any standard. Yet inviting her to a jazz show radiated with the illusion of class by comparison, even if the goal of the modern day lothario was generally one and the same regardless of his approach.

Charlie Parker performs at the Royal Roost-- Brooklyn, NY: Dec. 11, 1948. 

And should the young lady become woozy due to the intoxicating combination of sensual jazz and strong drink, the immediate next move of the playboy would always be to bring the party back to his "pad", for it was there where he could practice his moves. Again, referring to his downtown domicile as an "apartment" or "loft" would not have been in the handbook. Though likely unfamiliar with black culture writ large, the playboy would nevertheless adopt the codified negro dialect of the jazz musician when it suited his needs.

Later we shall examine the "pad", both as a concept and as an actuality, for it is there where high-fidelity sound first became a cultural force. Huh?

While it is certain that quite a few people around the country, flush with cash thanks to the recent economic upswing, were already enjoying high-fidelity audio systems (henceforth, "hi-fi sets"), the rise of the hi-fi as part of the home itself dovetails precisely with the rise of the playboy (as well as Playboy itself).

This transition is made evident in an article presented in the March 1957 edition of Popular Science magazine titled "What's All This Fuss About Hi-Fi?". Apart from usefully dating the very beginnings of the movement to 1949 (when "thirty little manufacturers" were making "mad-scientist-looking stuff that they sold to a few thousand people called 'audiophiles'"), and giving us an early explanation as to what "hi-fi" actually meant ("in a high-fidelity set, each component is a superbly precise instrument in its own right"), we also see that 1957 was precisely the year that hi-fi broke. The primary accompanying photograph shows a gaggle of well-tailored middle-aged white men swarming in on a large display of Ampex amps, receivers, turntables and reel-to-reel decks at Harvey's on Sixth Avenue.

But what's more, it's another smaller picture included with the article that really foreshadows where the movement was going at that exact point in time. In it, a beautiful woman leans towards a component system encased in a wood cabinet as if listening intently, with the words below her reading: "A newcomer to hi-fi may prefer to embark upon the hobby with a rig that looks elegant as well as sounding nice. The industry is now changing its style to cater to this trend."

In other words, the unspoken message was that the amatuer hobbiest with the gigantic system comprised solely of boxes, wires and transistors taking up half the living room was probably not going to please his wife too much, should he even be able to secure one in the first place with such an unglamorous hobby.

Likewise, the average American was not even likely to own a hi-fi set during these early stages. That era would not arrive until later in the 1970s, and even then it was not as widespread as some might believe it was. Typically during the late fifties most homes in the U.S. simply employed basic radios or cheap all-in-one units. Some had even held on to their hand-cranked Victrolas from years ago!

No, there was only one breed of citizen out there who coveted the new and the now, but still maintained a basic ethos of form over function. One who could design their living space around their hi-fi system and still make it look elegant enough to where desirable women were attracted rather than repulsed by it.

In other words, it was no accident that much of the early music geared towards hi-fi listeners happened to be the same music by which the playboy plied his craft.

A Fisher 800-B Wideband Multiplex Receiver.  Similar to what JFK had installed in the White House.

The 33 1/3 revolutions per minute long-playing record (or LP for short) was first unveiled by Columbia Records at a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria on June 18, 1948, thereby obsoleting the old 78 rpm record format in near-instantaneous fashion. The primary benefit of the LP was that even in its primitive state it could hold up to 20 minutes of music per side-- a feature which would prove highly advantageous to the playboy for obvious reasons.

Though for the time being pop, r'n'b and country/ western music remained predominantly singles- driven in the marketplace (their sales largely still predicated on radio play geared towards poorer segments of society such as white teens, ethnic minorities, poor rural whites and so on), LP sales soon began to take off when it came to other genres. Suburban families found they could now enjoy the contents of an entire Broadway production on just one or two vinyl discs (Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady and so on) while the more erudite sophisticates immersed themselves in entire operas or symphonic works on same. It was, to put it mildly, an entertainment revolution with long-lasting repercussions for the industry.

As for the playboy, his music of choice was typically jazz, and not necessarily the inventive bebop of early Miles Davis or the wild sonic explorations of Charles Mingus or Eric Dolphy, though he may have enjoyed some of those artists as well. But rather it was primarily the emerging west coast "cool jazz" sound that established the sophisticated yet soothing vibe he preferred when it came time to seduce.

Soon LPs by the likes of Chet Baker and Stan Getz, influential musicians who helped pioneer the cool jazz sound, began to to be top sellers in the jazz market. Their music in turn would serve to compliment the decor or (in modern parlance) the "vibe" of the new age bachelor pad, the epitome of which was clearly laid out for the neophyte within the early issues of Playboy, should he have the means but not wherewithal to jumpstart his new persona. (I'm picturing that this is how Eric Stratton from Animal House got his ideas for constructing his minor league pad over at Delta House!)

Now the pad itself was to be a shrine to tasteful commercial decadence. References to articles of decor such as "Tanier cone chairs", "Uni-built fireplaces", "Herman Miller tables" and "Hollywood beds" in Playboy were commonplace, proving that even from its early days the magazine was more of a how-to guide for the aspiring urban male sophisticate than the simple jerkoff rag critics of the time largely portrayed it as being.

A successful bachelor pad was to be chosen based on its location rather than its size, though of course being lucky or rich enough to rent a large apartment in a great part of town didn't exactly hurt you either. Nevertheless the primary function of the unit, other than having a roof overhead, was that it needed to be either a short walk or cab ride from wherever the heart of the action was. Skyscraper lofts were considered preferable for those who could afford them, but a simple walk-up offered its own funky sort of low-key charm, so long as it was in a cool neighborhood.

Typical brownstone walk-up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. This one is a bit special as Barack Obama used to live on the top floor with his girlfriend in the 1980's after graduating from Columbia.

As to its interior, the pad had to be sparsely furnished and centered around two central fixtures: the bed and the hi-fi. Everything else was extraneous and needed to be kept subtle and minimalistic, if not totally out of the way. What was left out on display (lamps, tables, chairs, perhaps a loveseat) must be of the finest quality one could afford. Dim lighting was fine so long as it complimented the mood (yes, this is where the concept of "mood lighting" was first developed!) but candlelight next to an open window on a warm summer's night or a fireplace in the wintertime was always considered optimal.

That the selection of available liquor and fine wine must be kept sufficiently diverse and well-stocked probably didn't need to be brought to the playboy's attention, but he also had to be careful to keep enough mixers, ice and clean glasses on hand. Otherwise a classic rookie mistake.

Artwork was to be tasteful, perhaps even to the point of absurdity. Prints were considered sufficient if one could not afford a real DeKooning or Rothko to hang on the wall, but any semblance of ostentatiousness was to be avoided at all costs. As such, television sets were generally not a part of any respectable bachelor pad unless they were kept out of the way. A true playboy had little time to sit around the house watching TV at any rate.

Bachelor Pad Nirvana. Notice the hi-fi built directly into the headboard and the side table on which to pour brandy shots. The natural fabric curtains, lack of clutter and simple yet tasteful furnishings direct attention back towards the bed as the center of activity for tonight's rendezvous. Space age touches like the overhead monitor contrast nicely with the vintage wood burning fireplace.

Variations on the basic theme were indeed somewhat commonplace. If the occasion called for black tie and tails, then Sinatra or Tony Bennett would likely be on the turntable once the couple returned back home for an evening of potential romance by fire or candlelight.

Some playboys, mostly war vets from the Pacific Ocean theater, opted for a sort of ersatz-Polynesian themed layout that we'd refer to today as Tiki culture. This sort of romanticized (some would say misappropriated) cultural pastiche would ideally promote an aura of worldliness and adventurous overseas conquests, to which supremely inventive if not exactly culturally sensitive orchestral mood music from the likes of such arrangers as Les Baxter or Martin Denny (a style referred to much later down the road as "exotica") would provide suitable accompaniment to the backdrop.

Still others might have preferred the cascading "light music" style of composer/ arranger Annunzio Mantovani, or the romantic film scores of Henry Mancini, or the dulcet tones of elite female jazz vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington or Peggy Lee. Yet regardless of the approach, the end goal was always the same: convey the impression of class, sophistication and a taste for the finer things in life. And what better way to showcase this than with a top notch, well-ensconced, state-of-the-art sound system?

Regardless of the musicians named here, the commonality shared between them and many others of their era is that they created records that not only spoke to the heart in a relaxed, disarming fashion, but ones that were also crafted utilizing the finest recording studios and top musical accompanists, and were held to an almost painstaking degree of attention to detail.

Unlike the beautifully simplistic rock 'n' roll of the era, which was often recorded on a wing and a prayer and a shoestring budget, many of the LPs from the artists favored by the playboy were quintessential "high-fidelity" releases that sounded ever cleaner, smoother and more dynamic as he upgraded his equipment accordingly. As the fidelity increased, so did the mellifluousness of Sarah's voice, Stan's alto, Chet's trumpet, Mancini's strings...

And so now today perhaps we can finally see, if we squint our eyes just right, that the hi-fi trend took off in 1957 not so much as a way for a man to aggrandize his own ego, as it was a way for him to unlock a woman's heart.



The entire American playboy "scene" (if one chooses to refer to it as such) would soon become so codified that by the time of the big U.S. bossa nova boom of 1963, Verve Records was putting out several of its most notable releases with covers comprised primarily of a series of paintings by the Puerto Rican abstract expressionist Olga Albizu. It was at this exact moment when playboy culture reached its initial zenith in the U.S., and high-fidelity sound was still at the center of it all.

Excerpt taken from the forthcoming novel Music of Our Lives: Insights on Music and Society in Postwar America by Jason Penick (c) 2014.

For all publishing inquiries: jppcbooks@gmail.com


  1. You had me absorbed right there. More excerpts , please?? Or must we wait until it is released... I'm buyin' one.

  2. Thank you Qantas! I appreciate you taking the time to read through all of that. I'll be happy to post more excerpts as I write them. Any other feedback will be greatly appreciated. Cheers ~Jason

  3. This looks interesting. I hope to read the whole thing some day!--Bill

  4. Thank you, Bill. I will post more here as warranted by peoples' requests. Thanks for taking the time to read what I posted!

  5. Well J, it's been a year! How is the book coming along?--Bill