By 1948 the Cold War was well underway. Its onset had no doubt been accelerated by Stalin’s growing paranoia which had been in evidence since the suicide of his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva in 1932 at the age of 31. A fully committed Bolshevik, she shot herself after a very public quarrel with Stalin over some minor political point. The Great Terror commenced shortly thereafter. Purges reached the heights of insanity in 1936-38 when wholesale executions were an everyday occurrence. Nobody was safe. Communist Party and government officials, informal peasant leaders, Red Army leadership, and anyone falling under the catch-all definitions of “spies”, “Trotskyites”, “kulaks”, “saboteurs” and “counter-revolutionaries”, were subject to random, irrational execution. Some minions participated enthusiastically in these activities, but they usually ran afoul of Stalin’s displeasure at some point and suffered the same fate as their victims.
The most dangerous job in Russia at the time was People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs (head of the NKVD), as the incumbents were always under intense pressure and continuously in the center of Stalin’s baleful gaze.
None retired gracefully nor died of old age at home in their beds. Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov (nicknamed the “Poison Dwarf” he is also famous for being air-brushed out of photographs with Stalin), are good examples. These sycophantic lackeys served their purpose but had seen too much and possessed too much power to be allowed to live.
Executions transpired for no other reason than to fulfill or exceed quotas – you might lose your life because some bureaucrat hadn’t shot enough people that month. The killings and imprisonment continued right up until Stalin’s death in March, 1953.
It’s hard to imagine the grotesque frightfulness of life under this regime, where a gruesome death always lurked just around the corner. For those interested in the history of this period, I recommend “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
At the Tehran and Yalta conferences the main leaders of the anti-Nazi Alliance met to strategize prosecution of the War, to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender and to begin plans for a post-war world. Stalin smothered Churchill and Roosevelt with charm and cagily played them off one against the other for his own ends.
The final conference was at Potsdam, just outside Berlin, after Germany had surrendered, to draw a blueprint for post-War Europe. Churchill would soon be thrown out by the British electorate, Roosevelt had passed away and been succeeded by Truman; only Stalin remained. Stalin despised Truman, missed Roosevelt and considered Churchill the strongest of the Western leaders.
The term “Cold War” originated with George Orwell in 1945 to describe “ … a nuclear stalemate between two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds.” By 1948 the Soviets had forcibly introduced communist dictatorships in the countries “liberated” by the Red Army.
The USA and Great Britain were alarmed by the likelihood of permanent Soviet domination of eastern Europe and the threat of Soviet-controlled communist governments gaining power in western European democracies. The USSR, for their part were doggedly resolved to retain control of eastern Europe in order to insulate themselves against Germany rising again. As well, for ideological reasons they were intent on spreading communism around the world. U.S. aid provided to western Europe under the Marshall Plan had successfully countered the threat of friendly governments falling under Soviet influence.
The super-power rivalry was further inflamed with the announcement and expansion of the “Truman Doctrine” in 1947-48. It became the cornerstone of American foreign policy and stated the United States would support, militarily if necessary, countries threatened by Soviet geo-political coercion. At the time he had in mind Greece and Turkey. The Truman Doctrine led directly to the creation of NATO.
Germany and Berlin had each been partitioned into four zones at the end of World War II occupied by one of the major Allied powers: United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The Western Allies proposed their jurisdictions be united into one democratic country of “West Germany”. Berlin lay within the Soviet sector, but there was an agreement in place to permit unfettered ground access, to occupied districts in Berlin by the Western powers through USSR – controlled East Germany. Threatened by plans to unify the western sectors, the Soviet Union cut off all road, rail and canal access to Berlin in June, 1948. Not wishing to precipitate a military confrontation in such a hair-trigger situation, the United States and Great Britain began a massive airlift of food and other vital supplies into Berlin. By the time the Soviets backed down and re-opened ground routes in May, 1949, over 1 million tons of supplies had been transported. The Berlin Airlift was the first major incident of the Cold War.
The nation of Israel was born in 1948. Creation of a Jewish homeland was first formalized and promised in the Balfour Declaration which partitioned the defeated Ottoman Empire’s Middle East possessions after World War I. It wasn’t until after World War II and the Holocaust, that Great Britain fulfilled its commitment and created the state of Israel in what was then part of Palestine. Millions of Arabs were displaced and fled to neighboring countries where they became refugees, despite being told they could stay and become citizens of Israel. Surrounding Arab countries were highly insulted by the arbitrary creation of this Jewish state in their midst and promptly declared war, fully intending to destroy the fledgling country. To their surprise, they were defeated. They tried twice more, in 1967 and 1973, but fared no better. Israel still exists as does Arab enmity and the refugee situation. In fact, a U.N. agency set up to manage the Palestinian refugee situation in 1948 is still in full operation today, (UNWRA). There likely will never be a solution to this dilemma as too many players have a vested interest in seeing it continue.
James Caesar Petrillo was the head of the American Federation of Musicians. On August 1, 1942 the AFM refused to allow unionized musicians to participate in making musical recordings, as radio stations’ broadcast of recorded music was putting musicians out of work. He justified calling a strike by reasoning “Nowhere else in this mechanical age does the workman create the machine which destroys him, but that’s what happens to the musician when he plays for a recording. The iceman didn’t create the refrigerator. The coachman didn’t build the automobile. But the musician plays his music into a recorder and a short time later the radio station manager comes around and says, “Sorry, Joe, we’ve got all your stuff on records, so we don’t need you anymore.” And Joe’s out of a job”. In anticipation of the strike, record companies had stockpiled recordings of the public’s favorite singers, which they gradually released as the disruption progressed. Petrillo resisted immense political and legal pressure to end the strike, and eventually the record companies agreed to pay royalties to the union.
Congress became nervous with a union having ready access to so much and in 1947 invoked a provision of the Taft-Hartley Act rendering the recording fund illegal, and it was disbanded. In the meantime television had escalated the problems as they too were now making use of recorded music without paying royalties. So a second strike was scheduled for January 1, 1948, but this time lasted only eleven months before an independent trust was created to manage fee payments.
As with all profound incidents there were some results not foreseen or anticipated. Some vocal recordings during 1948 were produced a cappella, such as Ella Fitzgerald’s “My Happiness”. In the absence of musical accompaniment, the public found they enjoyed the purity of the singers’ voices, and this in turn precipitated the rise of pop singers. Big Bands and Swing were still popular as 1948 began, but both went into eclipse as other genres and artists took their place.
Many thought this captivating Dixieland style jazz standard was the most popular record of 1948 (8 weeks at #1, 23 weeks in the top-10, and 32 weeks on Billboard’s singles charts). Walter ‘Pee Wee’ Hunt had been a founder and valued member of Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra as trombonist and vocalist, before military service. He returned in 1946, and in 1948 charted with the huge hit, “Twelfth Street Rag“.
This familiar piece from Khachaturian’s “Gayne Ballet” turned into a strong instrumental record seller for both classical and pop artists. “Sabre Dance” by Woody Herman was a #7 hit on the sales charts.
Recorded before the musicians’ strike, the Tommy Dorsey tune “Until” was not released until late summer 1948 and went on to become a popularly welcomed hit, spending five months on the national singles charts.
Sammy Kaye’s recording of “Serenade of the Bells” reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on November 7, 1947 and lasted 16 weeks, reaching #3.
Many of the biggest names in pop music got their start as singers for Big Bands: Frank Sinatra was launched by Harry James’ Band and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, while Doris Day got her start with the Les Brown Band. Seasoned studio and radio troubador, Buddy Clark finally achieved mainstream credibility so Columbia decided to record him fellow artist, Doris Day. She had recently embarked on her solo career and this #1 radio airplay duet of “Love Somebody” was her first single since leaving the Les Brown band.
“Little White Lies” was a massive hit for one of the finest voices to emerge from the Big Band Era. Gordon Jenkins’ introspective arrangement of the 1930 piece sold over a million copies for Dick Haymes and spent 23 weeks on the Billboard singles charts.
Dinah Shore’s all-time top-seller was “Buttons and Bows”, an Oscar winner, recorded a full year before the public watched Bob Hope sing it in the film comedy “The Paleface.” It spent ten weeks atop the national sales charts.
Peggy Lee recorded “Manana” on November 25, 1947, officially debuting it on NBC Radio’s “Jimmy Durante Show” (on which she was a regular vocalist) on December 31, 1947.
Margaret Whiting also started her career as a band singer but by 1945 was recording under her own name. Her “A Tree in the Meadow” reached #1 in the summer of 1948 and finished the year in the top 10.
Perry Como’s recording of the 1902 ballad, “Because” surpassed the one million sales mark, reaching #4 on the national best-seller list during the spring months.
With a studio orchestra backing him up and billed on the record label as simply ‘King Cole’, the mellifluous tones of the King Cole Trio’s dean alarmed many of his jazz fans who feared he was abandoning them and betraying his pedigree to crass commercialism. Nonetheless, his performance of the peculiar composition, “Nature Boy” was happily received by millions, spent 7 weeks at #1 on the singles sales chart, and became the most successful effort of his career to that point. Nat King Cole had many firsts as a black artist, one of which was producing a 15-minute radio show called “King Cole Trio Time” in 1946. He was the first black to have his own radio show. His career solidified in the mid to late 40’s as he recorded more pop music.
Jon and Sondra Steele (married couple, real names John and Sondra McGuire), were a Hollywood area club act whose late 1947 independent-label recording of the 1933 tune “My Happiness” turned into one of 1948’s most memorable hits. It spent 30 weeks on the Billboard singles charts, peaking at #2 (jukebox), and creating a mild dilemma for the major record companies during this ‘recording ban’ year. The recording companies had all stockpiled several moths’ supply of unreleased material to trickle out during the strike. Unforeseen major 1948 hits like “My Happiness” demanded new competing cover versions be recorded, but only as a cappella.
Which is exactly how Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretation of “My Happiness” came to be. Though trailing the Jon and Sondra Steele version, this all-vocal record by Ella and The Song Spinners reached top-10 on the sales, jukebox and airplay charts. Ten years later Connie Francis would make “My Happiness” a monster hit and return it to the upper reaches of the best-sellers.
Jack Fina, whose 1946 swing arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” for Freddy Martin and his Orchestra, called “Bumble Boogie” reached # 7 in 1948 and was used in the Walt Disney animated film, Melody Time.
Up until 1946, Country Music was called “Hillbilly Music” but whatever you called it, it was very popular. “Guitar Boogie” is a guitar instrumental first recorded by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in 1945 and updated in 1948 which is the version here. It is credited with introducing “hillbilly boogie” to the masses. It eventually sold nearly three million copies. and was the first guitar instrumental to climb the country music charts, then crossover and also gain high rankings on the popular music charts. “Guitar Boogie” has been covered and adapted many times, even as a Twist!
Novelty songs were much beloved during this era although some wouldn’t pass politically correct muster today. This perennial Christmas favorite topped the record charts and sold a million copies during the 1948 holiday season. It features the bizarre vocal stylings of Spike Jones’ rather robust trumpeter George Rock. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” originally released by Spike Jones, has been covered many times since.
Another affectionately-remembered Spike Jones classic is a zany take on Rossini’s famous “William Tell Overture“. It’s highlighted by the horse race commentary of Doodles Weaver, brother of Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver (future president of NBC) and uncle of Pat’s daughter, actress Sigourney.
Eddy Arnold, nicknamed the “Tennessee Plowboy” owned the Country audience in 1948 with a total of six hits during the year. “Anytime” was first published in 1921 and popularized by Emmett Miller later in the 1920s. It would later provide a major career boost for Eddy Arnold. It crossed over into the top-20 of the pop jukebox listings in 1948, as did his best-seller “Bouquet of Roses” which spent 27 weeks on the chart.
The unattributed female harmony voice heard during the final minute of “One Has My Name” belonged to Colleen Summers, who would later become known professionally as Mary Ford when performing with future husband Les Paul. It became a #10 jukebox hit on the pop charts, and spent 11 weeks at #1 on the country rankings.
A new style of Country called Honky Tonk was starting to emerge and by the end of the decade would dominate the genre. Foremost practitioners were Ernest Tubb and the legendary Hank Williams (Lovesick Blues).
Western Swing is a type of American uptempo country dance music that emerged in the late 1920’s in the West and South among Western string bands. By the 1940’s its popularity was drawing huge crowds to dance halls and clubs in Texas, Oklahoma and California. Imposition of a federal war-time nightclub tax in 1944 severely reduced its following, although it still survives today. A Western Swing band includes strings, drums, saxophones, pianos and, most importantly, the steel guitar. Of course all strings and the steel guitar are electrically amplified and give the music its unique sound. At its peak it boasted artists like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (Deep Water) and Roy Hogsed (Cocaine Blues). I wonder how many cool cats who rushed out to buy “Rock Around the Clock” or “Crazy Man Crazy” knew Bill Haley was originally a Country Swing Artist who produced such classics as “Behind the Eight Ball”
As with all forbidden delights, race music (today known as Rhythm & Blues) snuck out of the wrong parts of town and captured the hearts of white teenage America while their elders impotently spluttered and fumed, warning of ruined reputations and other unspecified dire consequences. Who knew where listening to that raw, sweaty music with its hypnotic beat could lead? Perdition probably.
*Trigger Warning* If you are offended by explicit risque material, even in a playful context, you should consider not listening to some of the following songs. You can generally tell by the title which ones they are. These are the songs your mama warned you about, so proceed at your own risk!
In 1948 black musicians had their own charts, formerly known as Harlem Hit Parade, renamed in May, 1948 as Billboard’s “Best Sellers”. Some musicians like Nat King Cole regularly crossed over to Billboard, but in 1948 this was still fairly rare
The year’s #2 R&B song was “I Love You Yes I Do” by Bull Moose Jackson & His Buffalo Bearcats, and I must say it’s pretty tame compared to what anxious parents were imagining, (and to what Bull Moose usually produced). He narrowly avoided being labelled a “dirty blues” artist, but still regularly turned out such gems as “I Want a Bow-Legged Woman“, “Big Fat Mamas Are Back in Style” and “Big Ten Inch“.
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five were usually represented on the list of popular songs. He was one of the most successful African-American musicians of the 20th century, ranking fifth in the list of the most successful black recording artists according to Joel Whitburn’s analysis of Billboard magazine’s R&B chart. In 1948 “Run Joe” is a great song with a calypso beat.
Written and performed by Ivory Joe Hunter, “Pretty Mama Blues” was his second release and first time at #1.
Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” was #3 for the year.
A blues ballad with piano accompaniment and background singers, the song bears little resemblance to much of Johnson’s earlier blues and jazz material.
Roy Brown wrote and recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947 and tried to interest Wynonie Harris in the piece, to no avail. Another artist, Cecil Gant, introduced Roy to a record executive and he sang it over the phone to him. Roy was immediately signed to a recording contract whereupon Wynonie had a change of heart and recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as well, eventually taking it to #1 in 1948. Wynonie’s version can legitimately be called a true rock anthem, one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll pieces, and perhaps the first rock ‘n’ roll tune. Just between you and I, “rock” was a code word for sex back then. The piece has since been covered by many others and went on to become an early rock classic. It was Elvis’ second single in 1954, Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis brought
Orioles at Asbury Park, 1948out their own versions in 1958, Montrose did it in 1973 and the Beatles in 1981. Roy Brown’s big hit for 1948 was “’Long About Midnight”, a follow-up to his “Good Rockin’ Tonight”.
Julia Lee was fond of the sort of song that struck terror into the hearts of white parents and exemplified everything they were trying to get their kids to avoid. Julia had acquired a reputation as a “dirty blues musician”, because of all the suggestive double entendres sprinkled throughout her songs.
As she more delicately phrased it, she specialized in “the songs my mother taught me not to sing”. “King Size Papa” by Julia Lee & Her Boy Friends was the #1 R‘n’B hit for 1948. I guess we know what sells records.
Pee Wee Crayton is best known as a blues guitarist, and is thought to be the first one to use a Fender Stratocaster to play this musical style. “Blues After Hours” was one of his first, and went to #1 on the R&B charts. “Texas Hop” is another good example of his guitar acrobatics.
Ford Motor Company styling, engineering and planning had labored long and hard to get the company’s line-up of freshly redesigned post war automobiles ready for production, not only in the period after the war ended, but also as time permitted, during the war itself. Company leadership acknowledged the new cars represented the company’s future, if not its very survival. Accordingly all energy and resources were directed to getting the new cars ready.
Everything was a go for Mercury and Lincoln to go into production of the new designs for the 1948 model year, but unfortunately the Ford car itself had encountered serious problems and wouldn’t be ready. The company wanted to introduce all the new cars at the same time, so the entire production program was delayed.
Everyone had to make do with 1948 Mercurys that were basically warmed over 1947 cars for a little longer. The 1948 Mercurys were unchanged from 1947 models other than the introduction of a few new colors.
Interior appointments were not updated either.
The 1948 model year was severely curtailed and ended in March, but despite it being common knowledge the arrival of a fresh new offering was imminent, the 1948 Mercury still sold well.
During the spring and summer of 1948, three new assembly plants were brought on line, devoted exclusively to Mercury, and the exciting new models everybody had been anticipating were launched in the spring of 1948.