by Josh Kun
A thirty-year timeline of L.A. music
This past spring, the exhibition Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles 1945–75 opened at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show—which featured an audio-visual timeline wall, a digital jukebox, and two galleries of video, music, photography, and historical artifacts—explored the popular myths, social realities, and political upheavals of life in post-WWII LA through the city’s multiple music scenes. The following is the text from the exhibit’s timeline, a guide to the key political tensions, cultural breakthroughs, and musical moments of the period that helped shape the making of this exhibition.
Musician and impresario Johnny Otis improvises a cover of “Harlem Nocturne” onstage at Central Avenue’s Club Alabam. He and his band record it soon after, earning Los Angeles one of its first national R&B hits.
The LA-born jazz producer Norman Granz launches the Jazz at the Philharmonic Tour, part of his attempt to promote desegregated jam sessions.
Journalist Carey McWilliams publishes Southern California: An Island on the Land, a portrait of LA as “a vast drama of maladjustment: social, familial, civic, and personal.”
Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” is found brutally murdered in Leimert Park. The gruesome unsolved killing helps earn LA a reputation as a capital of noir and crime.
The American Council on Race Relations publishes “The Problem of Violence: Observations of Race Conflict in LA,” which finds the city overrun with prejudice and economic inequality.
The Elks Hall on Central Avenue hosts a historic jazz concert featuring a breakout horn battle between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray that helps cement L A as a laboratory of bebop.
Hunter Hancock, a white radio DJ, debuts his R&B and jazz program “Harlematinee” on KFVD.
John Dolphin opens Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a South Central record store specializing in R&B and jazz that stays open 24 hours, has its own radio broadcasting booth, and its own recording studio for Dolphin’s “Recorded in Hollywood” record label.
Roosevelt High graduate Don Tosti records “Pachuco Boogie,” his hipster ode to zoot suit-wearing pachucos that becomes the first Latin song to sell a million copies in the US.
The Shelley v Kraemer Supreme Court decision abolishes racially restrictive housing covenants, though the practice still continues throughout Los Angeles.
Working as a busboy at Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown, Jerry Leiber hears Jimmy Witherspoon on the radio and dedicates his life to writing R&B songs. He soon partners with Mike Stoller to pen some of the most popular R&B hits of the twentieth century.
William H. Parker III is sworn in as chief of the LAPD and initiates an era of aggressive, racially discriminatory policing. He praises Los Angeles as “the white spot of the great cities of America today.”
Dragnet, a TV series based on the LAPD under Chief Parker, debuts on NBC.
The construction of the LA freeway system begins.
The white Local 47 Musicians Union and the black Local 767 Musicians Union amalgamate after a three-year campaign spearheaded by Buddy Collette, William Douglass, and Mark Young.
Oklahoma trumpet transplant Chet Baker records a classic West Coast bop session for the Pacific Jazz label alongside Shelley Manne, Russ Freeman, Herb Geller, and others.
John Dolphin organizes a protest with 150 Central Avenue business owners against the LAPD, whom they accuse of leading a “campaign of intimidation and terror” against white customers of black businesses.
The “Latin Holidays” concert series, organized by Boyle Heights radio DJ Chico Sesma, debuts at the Hollywood Palladium and features local and national Latin music legends.
The Robins have a #1 R&B hit with “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Leiber and Stoller tune about a riot in a federal prison.
Walt Disney opens Disneyland, a suburban Utopia and “the happiest place on earth,” in Anaheim.
Marilyn Monroe convinces the owners of The Mocambo to book jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who becomes the first black artist to perform at the legendary Sunset Strip nightclub.
Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean as a white suburban teenager, makes LA synonymous with “the juvenile delinquent.”
The Nat King Cole Show debuts on NBC to great controversy as the first variety show hosted by an African American.
To avoid age restrictions at LA nightclubs, Art Laboe starts promoting concerts at El Monte Legion Stadium. Drawing a multiracial audience of all ages, they become one of the prime music attractions in the region.
Ritchie Valens records an electrifying rock-&-roll-meets-cha-cha-cha version of the traditional Veracruz folk song “La Bamba” at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. He dies in a plane crash the following year.
The surf rock craze is born, thanks to “Let’s Go Trippin,” an instrumental by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.
While working as an elevator operator at Bullock’s department store, saxophonist Ornette Coleman records his debut album, Something Else!
Ed Pearl opens The Ash Grove, a “Los Angeles cabaret,” on Melrose Avenue. It is the first LA venue to feature folk, blues, theater, bluegrass, and flamenco under one roof.
Gidget, starring Sandra Dee as a white suburban teenager, helps turn surfing into a national pop craze.
Twenty-seven-year-old R&B star Jesse Belvin dies in a suspicious car accident following the African American singer’s performance at the first integrated concert in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Rampart Records, the Motown of East Los Angeles, releases its first 45 RPM single.
The Hawthorne-reared Beach Boys debut “Surfin’” on LA radio. Despite Brian Wilson’s fear of the water, they become international ambassadors of Southern California beach culture.
In Watts, pianist Horace Tapscott forms the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, dedicated to preserving and performing African American music. Two years later, it grows into the Underground Musicians Association.
Guitarist Charles Wright forms Charles Wright and the Wright Sounds, a band that will soon grow into the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, best known for their 1971 hit “Express Yourself,” famously sampled by NWA.
Sam Cooke records the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” at RCA Studios on Sunset. Cooke is killed the following year at the Hacienda Motel on Figueroa.
Phil Spector produces “Be My Baby” for The Ronettes at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, highlighting his signature “Wall of Sound” recording style.
The Teenage Music International concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show, is filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It features performances by James Brown, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, and others.
Love, led by Dorsey High alum Arthur Lee, begins playing Bido Lito’s, where the audience often includes Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger.
Thee Midniters record “Whittier Boulevard,” their ode to East LA’s main drag, which they base on The Rolling Stones’ instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue.”
After a twenty-one-year-old African American man is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, a community struggle ensues with LAPD officers that escalates into five days of fires, looting, and civic disturbances that become known as The Watts Riots or The Watts Rebellions. Chief Parker calls in National Guard troops and the ensuing conflicts leave Watts with thirty-four deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests and over $40 million in property damage.
Frank Zappa watches the Watts Riots on TV in his Echo Park home and writes “The Watts Riots Song,” later renamed “Trouble Every Day” on The Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out.
The Byrds begin a residency at the It’s Boss club. Art scene regulars Dennis Hopper, Craig Kauffman, Jack Nicholson, and Toni Basil are among those in attendance.
The Doors make their debut at The London Fog nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
Police clash with teenagers up and down the Sunset Strip over curfew and loitering violations. The “Sunset Strip Riots” reach their peak with a confrontation involving over 1,000 protestors in front of the Pandora’s Box nightclub.
In response to the riots, Stephen Stills of the band Buffalo Springfield writes “For What It’s Worth” three weeks later.
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks begin collaborating on songs for Smile, a new Beach Boys album that Wilson describes as “a teenage symphony to God.”
The Watts Happening Coffee House opens and The Watts Writers Workshop is formed, both important steps in using the arts to rehabilitate community in Watts after the riots.
The first “Love-In” is held at Griffith Park.
Ruben Leon forms the Black and Brown Brotherhood Band with Buddy Collette and members of Eddie Cano’s Afro-Jazz Quartet “to counter black and Hispanic tensions across the schools.”
James Brown records his Civil Rights anthem “Say It Loud—I’m Black, and I’m Proud” at Vox Studios in Van Nuys.
Students walk out of high schools throughout East LA in protest of unequal education.
Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire.
The Watts Summer Festival launches.
Members of the Manson Family commit a series of grisly murders, including a spree that ends at the canyon home of director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate. The murders are the brainchild of Charles Manson, a struggling songwriter linked to Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds provide inspiration for the protagonists of Easy Rider, the landmark counterculture film directed by LA art and music denizen Dennis Hopper.
“Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice,” the Doors sing in “Peace Frog,” from their fifth album, Morrison Hotel. “Bloody red sun of fantastic LA.”
The Chicano Moratorium antiwar movement holds a peaceful protest of over 20,000 people in East Los Angeles that is violently broken up by police.
In solidarity with the Chicano civil rights movement, Mexican American soul band The VIPs change their name to El Chicano and record the hit single “Viva Tirado.”
Berry Gordy opens MoWest Records, a short-lived Los Angeles branch of Motown.
To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots, the Wattstax music festival—dubbed the “Afro-American answer to Woodstock” and featuring Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and The Staple Singers—is held at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Aretha Franklin records the top-selling gospel album in history, Amazing Grace, live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
The music and poetry group known as The Watts Prophets—Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton, and Otis O’Solomon—publish The Rising Sons of Wisdom & Knowledge. The trio met as members of the Watts Writers Workshop, a creative writing collective formed in the wake of the Watts Riots.
Neil Young releases his fifth album, On The Beach, which includes “Revolution Blues,” a song inspired by the Manson murders, and the title-track, which worries that “the world is turning’, I hope it don’t turn away.”
“Before the Deluge,” a song included on Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, muses on the end of Southern California innocence and “the resignation that living brings.”
Long Beach band WAR releases ‘Low Rider,” their tribute to the Chicano low rider scene in East LA.