The Crew Cuts, Long Hairs and a Culture War Kickoff

Woodland Avenue, from 58th Street to 60th Street, west of Martin Coal Company, July 26, 1960. (PhillyHistory,org)

Larry Magid didn’t need to go to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to hear The Crew Cuts in July 1960.  He knew their six-year-old hit Sh Boom and preferred the original version by The Chords. Back in 1954, the 12-year-old Magid and his West Philly buddies heard the difference between the two—loud and clear.

“It was kind of a moral outrage,” Magid later recalled to the Inquirer’s Dan DeLuca. “It just didn’t seem fair. Because the Chords‘ version was a better song. And that was not just for me, but for many kids.”

The Chords, an African-American group from the Bronx, had written Sh Boom in the back seat of a Buick and they had put on the map. But with marketing guidance from executives at the Mercury label, four white boys from Toronto who didn’t even like the song were transformed from The Canadaires into The Crew Cuts and sold more than five million copies. Sh Boom became a #1 record – one of the first examples of doo-wop on the record charts. It won Downbeat’s poll as the best rhythm and blues song of the year. And with Mercury on their side, the formula of turning Black hits (Oop-Shoop, Earth Angel, Ko Ko Mo, Don’t Be Angry) into “safe-sounding harmonies” for White audiences became the Crew Cuts’ calling card.

Their success was about music, but it was also about hair. With white-bread sound and looks to match, the Crew Cuts launched a line of hair products making in-store promotional appearances for Collegiate Hair Cream. They recorded a jingle version of their hit for Sh-Boom Shampoo.

In the summer of 1960, the Crew Cuts, appeared at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier with Anita Bryant, the former Miss Oklahoma whose recording of Paper Roses had peaked at #5 on the Billboard Pop chart. Later as spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission, Bryant became even better known for her appearance in television commercials singing “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree” and her delivery of the tagline: “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” In 1977, Bryant came out as an anti-gay rights activist.

The Crew Cuts remained together for 12 years, breaking up about the time young audiences took up with Rock and Roll.  A few years after that, Larry Magid opened The Electric Factory at 22nd and Arch Streets, a former tire-warehouse where he booked groups including Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. They filled the place with audiences of 5,000—not once, but as many as two or three times a night. By then, the Crew Cuts were long out of style, and so were crew cuts. It wasn’t about hair, although hair played its part. It was about the rise of an American Counterculture.

In the Spring of 1969, when a drunken Jim Morrison of The Doors allegedly exposed himself on stage in Miami, Anita Bryant and more than 30,000 others gathered soon after at Miami’s Orange Bowl in a “Rally for Decency.” The next day, Pat Buchanan, a young speechwriter in the Nixon White House seized the opportunity to publicly mention the rally and “the pollution of young minds.”

The Culture Wars had officially begun.