The Jukebox Story: An American Cultural Icon

Teenagers in leather jackets. Sitting on the fender of a shiny, wide-body car. Hanging at the local soda fountain or in the diner. It’s the 1950’s. The soundtrack is rock and roll. And it’s playing on a jukebox. You could see it in the movie American Graffiti. The Fonz was leaning on one in the TV show Happy Days. It’s a must for every 50’s style burger and shake place. The jukebox is a symbol of the 50’s lifestyle.  It represents the emergence of teens as trendsetters. It is a symbol of how young Americans thought of themselves and the world around them, and of course, the music they would listen too.

Bert's 50's Diner
Bert’s 50’s Diner, Mechanicsville, Md. (Image by Carol Highsmith)

Just about every form of music that is uniquely American, whether it’s jazz, country, rhythm and blues or rock and roll, owes at least a part of its popularity and growth to the exposure provided by the jukebox. Each started out as a form of music that was outside the mainstream, looked down upon by parents, if not their kids, and at least initially shut out of radio and TV. As far back as the 20’s, the machines that had not yet been christened jukeboxes were playing what at the time was called “race” and “hillbilly” music, music that would come to be known as jazz, blues and country.

In its formative years the jukebox was color blind in a world that was anything but. No black performers had a radio show until the MIlls Brothers were signed by CBS in 1929. Most record companies didn’t market the recordings of black artists to white audiences. This despite the fact that during a four year period in the mid-1920’s Bessie Smith, an African-American blues singer, sold six million records. Many radio stations at the time, and for some time after, wouldn’t play black artists. Jazz was the most popular music of the era and it was embraced by white audiences as well as black, especially young white audiences, but not by the folks who controlled the airwaves. 

Many black jazz musicians were also involved in a brief experiment with video jukeboxes, starting in 1939. The Panoram was the most popular of the video jukeboxes and it played three-minute video music clips called “soundies,” a predecessor of the videos that would become popular on MTV in the 1980’s. Among the artists producing soundies were Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.

Like the black jazz and blues musicians, the artists who made what was at the time called “hillbilly” music were largely absent from the era’s most popular and prevalent home entertainment medium, the radio.  And like the creators of “race” music, “hillbilly” music got its airings on the jukebox. During the Depression in the 1930’s it has been estimated that about one-fourth of record sales were of hillbilly music and that most of those sales were going to jukeboxes (Discovering Country Music, Don Cusic). By 1944, Billboard had created its first country music chart. It was called “Most Played Juke Box Hillbilly Records.” It lasted until 1958. In the 40’s Billboard also had a “race records” chart.

The older generation of the 50’s and the media and music outlets they controlled were similarly slow to embrace rock and roll. But the start of a new half-century saw a new generation of teens, more empowered and prosperous than their predecessors. And they brought the jukebox along with them. Up until the 50’s, jukeboxes were primarily to be found in bars, and often the seedier bars as that. They were, therefore, primarily used by adults. 

By the time the 50’s were in full swing, you could find jukeboxes in diners, soda fountains, drug stores, military barracks, video arcades and laundromats.  And the teenagers of the 50’s were right there with them. (Well, maybe not the laundromats.) What is the most played song ever on jukeboxes in America? Hound Dog by Elvis Presley, 1955. Also among the top six are Elvis’ Don’t Be Cruel (1956) and Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (1955). (The second most popular song ever on jukeboxes is the country music classic Crazy, by Patsy Cline.)

Jukeboxes continued to fuel record sales. By the late 40’s when 45’s replaced 78’s as much as three-quarters of the records sold went to jukeboxes. Record companies often sent their new recordings to jukeboxes first as a way to test market new songs.

Jukeboxes of the era reflected the style of the 50’s. They were bright and shiny, lots of chrome, bright colors and tube lights. Stylistically similar to the trendier cars of the era.

50's jukebox

The diners themselves stopped looking like old railroad cars and took on the same shiny metal, bright lights image.

By the mid-60’s the oversized influence of the jukebox on American music and culture was fading away. But, in the words of Richard Havers, writing for the web site udiscovermusic.com, “standing around the record machine, deciding what to play, is an enduring image of a bygone era of uninterrupted happiness.”

This entry was posted in History, History of Teenagers, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Jukebox Story: An American Cultural Icon

  1. Wonderful! I think you should be required to write about jukeboxes once a week!

    You can write a post about all the songs about jukeboxes. Please, mister, please? 🙂

    Like

  2. Caro Ramonde says:

    Great post, Ken.
    Interesting story about Jukeboxes and great images.
    I always love places that had them, sadly I haven’t seen one in a long time.

    Like

  3. A.P. says:

    I just sent this to my friend Nick, who is both a musician and a historian. It makes me long for a simpler day, it really does. Fascinating stuff, Ken.

    Liked by 1 person

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