Though not included in any dictionary at the time, the word “hop”, during the late 1950s, was a term used by young people to describe a place to gather and begin the pre sexual revolution, innocent pubescent introduction to intimate contact called dancing.
At this stage, you are immediately cast into another teeny-bopper comparison. Even while on the floor, I would question my
dance skills. Was I good or just average? I looked around and surmised that I didn’t have the graceful swagger of Stephen, but was better than the kid with flaying arms who missed every other beat. I had just enough confidence to ask someone to dance, knowing I could never be as bad as that guy.
Danny and the Juniors with their one and only hit, “At The Hop,” helped cement the term into our middle school vocabularies with their somewhat racy lyrics:
“Well, you can swing it you can groove it
You can really start to move it at the hop
Where the jockey is the smoothest
And the music is the coolest at the hop
All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop
I was more than ready to go. When I would hear my parents complain that they couldn’t understand the words to our modern music, I thought that was the plan.
By high school in 1962, “the hop” began to lose its luster. It didn’t sound like this new decade. Unable to settle on a name, our weekly summer dance night in the high school multi-purpose room became the What’s It club.
By twelfth grade, I was still small. Six foot would come two years later, after a fairly rapid growth spurt. My legs were so skinny that after sitting in a hot bath with my new jeans on, they still didn’t fit tight. My hair had turned from straight to wavy to coarse and curly in a span of three years, leaving me with fewer options than I preferred.
In the end, I could handle my myself socially. I was less shy about interacting with girls than many of my friends. Something about not being seen as serious gives you limited access and I had all the dancing I could handle. To use a baseball metaphor for intimate progression, I was a prime candidate to slide safely into second base.
She said, “Hey, Lyle, you wanna dance?
Yes, at times they came to me. Whether on the dance floor or in a phone booth, a girl making the first move was usually better than my plan, no move at all.
The What’s It was mostly about hanging out and dancing to records, but twice a month we had a live band that immediately turned the atmosphere from teen club to nightclub.
By 1962, Elvis Presley had already made twelve films and his days of producing good rock ’n roll were behind him. The music of many of the black musicians who inspired Elvis surfaced and, thanks in some part to Barry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit,
became mainstream. One of those performers who appealed to young people was James Brown, the King of Soul. His sparkling costumes, wavy processed hair and rapid footwork in his dance moves appealed to crowds from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl. The rhythms were relentless and the lyrics insignificant, all that was needed was an intermittent, “I feel good,” followed in the next riff by, “I knew that I would.”
Brown’s music inspired local bands to cover his style and they were presented throughout the summer at What’s It. The Jaguars with Richie Jackson performed twice, adding a small brass section for the danceable beginning numbers before introducing Jackson, who entertained with his voice and his soft feet. Another soul band, The Young Starlighters with Mitch and Cherie, delivered much of the same with harmonized vocals and some knock-off James Brown choreography.
On records-only nights, we danced to Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and later to the Supremes and Smokey Robinson. These were innocent, soulful times that we thought would last forever.
In 1964, the Beatles, a new group from Liverpool, England began to dominate AM radio airplay with the juvenile phase of their music. For many of us, their songs were short and silly, nothing that signaled legendary. However, the album, “Rubber Soul,” released in December 1965, began their ascent into creative brilliance that has not been matched since.
By the end of 1964, the California-sound of the Beach Boys, could no longer compete with the Beatles invasion in the annual Battle of the Bands call-in survey sponsored by KLIV-1590 AM Radio in San Jose.
We were raised on the music of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Motown, but now listening to bands called The Rolling Stones and the Kinks.
The British had taken our black music, respectfully filtered it through their culture and voice, and fed it back to us. To say that we
hailed it as groundbreaking is an understatement. How many potentially great live Beatles albums were ruined by the screamers?
The Jaguars and the Young Starlighters were gone from Thursday nights at the What’s It, replaced by bands like The Chocolate Watchband, mostly covered Rolling Stones tunes. Another band, Stained Glass, whose recording of the Beatle’s “If I Needed Someone” was number one on the 1965 Buffalo, New York top hit list, were always idiosyncratic and our high school classmate Dennis was the drummer. Then there was the Gollywogs who, a few years later, changed the band’s name to Credence Clearwater Revival and went global.
For a time, I missed Little Richie Jackson and hoped he would catch on with a new band, even if it meant performing on Friday nights in the lounge of a local bowling alley.
We danced nostalgically to Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry or Marvin Gayes’s “I Be Doggone,” but most of the new stuff was British. In 1965, “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction” became number one as we stepped our way to commencement. Soon, we were off to college and what happened over the next five years will be discussed by historians and sociologists for centuries.
As I look back, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, early beginnings of the women’s movement, the protests, the whole damn cultural revolution, happened in the face of the previous generation who had saved and protected our way of life.
I wish I could re-do some of those tense conversations and get my point across in a more sensitive way. I regret that courtesy and understanding were, at times, overshadowed by the cause, or what was perceived as such.
Songwriter Jackson Browne in a musical analogy, wrote, “Make room for my 45s along beside your 78s, nothing survives but the way we live our lives.”
We stopped dancing and started listening. The role of dance as an introduction to intimate contact became obsolete. With the dawn of birth control and a new open-mindedness, such encounters resulted from nothing more than a simple twist of fate.
American black music inspired the first British invasion which, in turn, inspired a new generation of British and American bands like Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as singer songwriters like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
In 1969, using a firmly planted, powerful position in student politics, the Black Student Union at my university secured comedian/activist Dick Gregory as a Scholar-in-Residence and brought in a series of jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Bobby Hutcherson to celebrate the black experience.
My musical horizons exploded. I once heard Reverend Jesse Jackson introduce the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago, referring to the role of music in the black movement.
He said, “The musician often tries to capture the new thing that gives us melody and rhythm as we do our thing.”
I became a sponge for the rhythms and the messages of the time. As Jackson urged those in the audience to stand up straight, the Quintet launched into their new inspiring anthem, “Walk Tall.”
There it was, the identical rhythms of James Brown, The Jaguars with Richie Jackson, and The Young Starlighters, disguised in a new package with a new meaning. As it all evolved musically and spiritually, I have never forgotten, not for one minute that, for me, it all started at the hop.