The First Rock ‘n’ Roll Tours

“I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus.” – Frank Sinatra

During the Second World War Frank Sinatra became the first pop idol – the bobby soxer’s heart-throb, he had learned much of his craft as a singer with the big bands, criss-crossing America with Harry James and later Tommy Dorsey; it was all about life on the road, and that meant travelling on a bus. According to Connie Haines, one of Dorsey’s female singers, “We would all travel on one bus – a broken down old Greyhound bus” By the Fifties rock 'n' roll tours very little had changed. . .it was still all about being on the bus.

Away from the bigger cities in the 1920s and 30s the way live music of the more popular stars of the day was experienced was in tent shows. Bessie Smith was a regular at this, as well as in local dance halls and small theatres, constantly travelling around the South in particular – in the end it’s what killed her. The venues that were ‘black only’ became known as ‘The Chitlin Circuit’, it was named after chitterlings, stewed pig’s intestines – Southern soul food. A similar, if not so well known, or widespread, circuit was ‘The Borscht Belt’, venues located in the Catskill Mountains that were popular with the Jewish community from New York – think of the movie, Dirty Dancing.

The Cotton Club in New York City was on the Chitlin’ circuit as was the Ritz Theater in Jacksonville, Florida or the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas. At some venues, especially those playing jazz, white people were welcome too as the music had not the stereotypical racial boundaries. In the days before rock 'n' roll the venues that played R & B and jump music tended to be predominantly black only.

When Alan Freed ‘invented’ rock 'n' roll he also played a big part in changing how white kids got to see their idols on stage. In 1952, 20,000 kids from the local area flocked to the Cleveland Arena to see Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams and Tiny Grimes headline at Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball. The arena only held 10,000 people so the police put a stop to it before it even got going. From then on Freed was a little more careful in his planning.

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Freed developed for his rock 'n' roll tours a semi-revolving cast of stars that could be added to as the tour went on, and as new stars were making the charts. In 1953 Freed was getting into his stride with his Rock ‘N’ Roll Holiday Show that included Count Basie, La Vern Baker, Heartbeats, The Cadillacs, The Wrens, Joe Williams, The Valentines and Fats Domino. Another package tour billed as the Rock and Roll Revue featured Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton and Dinah Washington among its almost exclusively jazz playing entourage.

“I saw Buddy Holly & The Crickets perform two songs at an Alan Freed Rock & Roll show at the Brooklyn Fox theatre. I held him in higher esteem than Elvis because Holly wrote his own songs and played lead guitar. It was so exciting to see him because there was only on small guitar amp on stage with a very long lead leading off stage. Before Alan Freed introduced the next act you could hear the amp clicking and buzzing loudly as the next guitarist was plugging in. And we had no idea whether it was Buddy Holly, Mickey and Sylvia, Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry. They were all playing on the same bill!” – Tony Visconti

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By the time The 1957 Biggest Show of Stars tour came along it was becoming enormous. To begin with there was Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Lavern Baker and Clyde McPhatter as headliners, along with the Five Keys, The Moonglows, Ann Cole, The Five Satins, The Schoolboys, Charles Brown and Bill Doggett. Later in the year the line up had changed considerably with the addition of white rock 'n' roll acts. Besides Chuck, Fats, Lavern and Clyde, there was other new black acts, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Drifters along with The Crickets, Paul Anka, Eddie Cochran, The Everly Brothers, the Diamonds, Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen. Supporting them all was Freed’s old Cleveland buddy, Paul Williams – the man who is credited with inventing the honking sax, such an important part of the sound of rock 'n' roll.

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In January 1958 the Everly Brothers headlined a tour that included, Danny and The Juniors, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Eddie Cochran, Paul Anka, The Hollywood Flames, The Tune Weavers and another half dozen barely remembered names. Freed was always coming up with slightly different titles for his touring shows. There was Alan Freed presents The Big Beat, Alan Freed’s Christmas Jubilee and just as uninspiring, Alan Freed’s Third Anniversary Show which ran during August 1957.

But Freed had plenty of competition. America’s Greatest Recording Stars featured the Everlys and Buddy Holly on early 1958. A month later the Everlys and Buddy along with Bill Haley starred in The Big Gold Record Stars in Person. Lee Gordon’s, The Big Show starred Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Jodie Sands and Johnny O’Keefe and the Dee Jays. A year later as almost everyone knows Buddy, along with Richie Valens, Dion and the Belmonts and the Big Bopper were the main attractions on The Winter Dance Party tour.

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By August 1958 there were signs that in America there was a shifting scenario as far as tours was concerned. Billboard noted, “The GAC summer dance promotion makes no reference to rock & roll in promotion, even tho the talent was obviously of that category. It is also noted that Alan Freed, once known as the ‘King of Rock 'n' Roll’ and who takes credit for first employing the term in its modern connotation, now carefully avoids its mention. Freed’s on air remarks now refer only to ‘The Beat Beat.” The beat Boom was coming. . .

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In Britain as well as Australia, and later on Europe too, the pattern of putting together a number of groups and artists on package tours became the norm through the early to mid 1960s. Artists that often had very little in common, found themselves on the same bill; when Jimi Hendrix first came along he was famously put on a tour with The Monkees. The Beatles had their start on the package tour circuit, having first learned their craft playing in Hamburg, sometimes with the stars of rock 'n' roll.

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“Chuck Berry had already had a run of hits and so did Little Richard and Fats Domino. So, they usually closed. We had one. (hit), then two (hits), so we would be somewhere in that second half of the show. It would tour all over the country, so they would have a couple of country artists. They would open up. Each act would do a couple of songs, basically their hits. It moved pretty quickly. People would just scream through the whole thing.” – Joe (Terranova) Terry, Danny and The Juniors

Without rock 'n' roll tours teenagers would have been unable to experience the collective excitement of seeing some of the greatest performers play their music live,  even if sometimes the noise was so loud from the audience it was hard to hear the performers.

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