Title: The Che Underground
Author: Matthew Rothenberg et alia
From: Maplewood, New Jersey
Blogging since: February 2008
Post Title: The roots of San Diego rock ‘n roll
Post Date: November 24, 2009
An excerpt from “The History of San Diego Rock ’N’ Roll, Part One: A Sleeping Town Wakes Up,” by Steve Thorn, which originally appeared in Kicks #3, 11/1979.
“The only thing happening in San Diego County is Eno and closet homosexuality.” — Kim Fowley, quoted in Phonograph Record Magazine.
The above quote from Sunset Strip’s famous rock impresario is one of the many snide remarks that have been hurled at San Diego and its people for years. Fowley’s comment is not the most famous barb, however; that distinction belongs to satirist Mort Sahl, who once said, “There are only two things to do in San Diego — visit the zoo or join the Navy.”
A little research into the city’s musical past, however, reveals this is not the case at all.
1955 — KCBQ Brings Rock to Town
The “Fabulous Fifties” have been described by sociologists as the era of the “sleeping generation.” San Diego at the time seemed indicative of the nation as a whole — a sleepy harbor town with nice neighborhoods and a strong alliance with the Navy.
But in 1955, a love affair began between San Diego teenagers and the radio. In that year, KCBQ became the first popular music station in town to incorporate rhythm and blues into the regular programming format. The San Diego kids — like kids all over America — ate it up.
A native San Diego radio personality, Don Howard, recalls the early days of rock music in his hometown. Before he left the airwaves in 1970, Howard was a familiar voice on both rock and middle-of-the-road stations in town. “Prior to 1955, rhythm and blues was only played on radio stations at a specified time period,” Howard remembers. “It was considered strictly ethnic music then. The records were played by black disc jockeys and their shows were sponsored by black businessmen.
“For example, when I was working at KSDO, we had a black disc jockey named Jimmy Bell whose rhythm and blues show was sponsored by the Heart of the West, a black nightclub located at the corner of Second and Market in downtown San Diego. KCBQ raised its rock ’n’ roll banner in December 1955, the month the station was purchased by the Bartell Broadcasting group.
KCBQ was operating out of the Lafayette Hotel in San Diego at the time of the Bartell purchase. “When we first went all-rock ’n’ roll in late 1955,” Howard recalls, “we were the seventh-ranked station in a town of seven radio stations. When the next radio ratings came out in May 1956, we were number one — and stayed number one for five years. It was the longest reign of any radio station in the United States during those days.”
What were the reasons for KCBQ’s big leap in the ratings? One clue was the station’s successful capture of the teenage audience. The other reason was that during the ratings period, a rockabilly cat by the name of Elvis Presley released a single titled “Heartbreak Hotel.” The record was so well received by the local radio audience that The King and his loyal manager, Colonel Tom Parker, came to town for a concert.
Don Howard and Harry Martin were behind the stage at the Presley show. “Right after ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ came out, Elvis was booked into a skating rink and athletic auditorium called Palisades Garden, located on Eighth Avenue in downtown,” Howard says.
Ten thousand fans — the majority of them females — packed the auditorium. According to Howard, the concert was typical Presley pandemonium. But it was the aftermath of the show that really amazed and shocked him.
“After the concert, the police arrested twelve girls running nude through the halls of the El Cortez Hotel, looking for Elvis. At the auditorium, some girls broke into the bathroom of Elvis’s dressing room and stole the toilet seat. His Cadillac was covered with obscene messages and two sailors were arrested for masturbation during the show from watching the antics of the girls,” Howard recalls.
The city fathers were outraged. The day after the concert, mayor Charles Dail passed a resolution with the city council that Elvis Presley would never be allowed to perform in San Diego again. Presley would appear again, but not until almost 20 years later.