NPR logo Rock 'n' Roll Summer School: Teen Idols

Rock 'n' Roll Summer School: Teen Idols

Every Wednesday through the summer, we're posting/offering quick, introductory-level surveys of elements of rock 'n' roll from the 1950s. These overviews are not intended to be comprehensive — they're designed to help curious listeners dive in and explore some of the genre's often-overlooked building blocks. Whether you're a novice or a rock snob, join the conversation below.


Rock 'n' roll went from zero to 100 mph in a blink. As a result, the nascent genre became a prospector's paradise, rife with entrepreneurs and marketing wizards seeking to cash in on the craze.

Those business types transformed clean-cut, earnest, marginally talented kids into megawatt sensations — teen idols who ruled magazines and often went on to big careers in beach movies. The hype trail those Svengalis blazed endures today: Their promotional playbook has helped launch The Osmonds and New Kids on the Block, N'Sync and The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. And let's face it, where would rock 'n' roll be without The Jonas Brothers?

Like today's pitch-corrected teen dreamboats, the stars of the '50s — including Fabian, Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon — were often derided as fabulous-looking but barely passable singers. Yet some of them did have talent: Here's the super-smooth Frankie Avalon, who started out playing trumpet, singing his 1959 smash "Venus."

Among the other teen idols with musical chops: Ricky Nelson, the first up-and-comer to use television to promote his music. He was featured on the Ozzie & Harriet sitcom, singing a tune at the end of each episode. A guitarist, Nelson has his first big hit in 1957 with "I'm Walking." That record and others display an adult sense of timing and musical nuance. A fast learner, Nelson surrounded himself with immensely talented musicians, including lead guitarist James Burton, who went on to play with Elvis Presley. Here's Nelson, accompanied by Burton, performing his 1963 classic "Fools Rush In." It's arguably one of the most musically sophisticated teen-idol hits.

The teen-idol phase didn't really end in the early '60s: Throughout the decade, while rock 'n' roll was getting arty and folksingers like Bob Dylan were tackling serious subject matter, there was still room for those well-scrubbed teen stars. Bobby Sherman, anyone?

Frankie Avalon: "Venus"
Bobby Rydell: "Wild One"
Ricky Nelson: "I'm Walking," "Fools Rush In"

Fabian: "Tiger"
Bobby Vee: "Take Good Care of My Baby"

What are the key traits of a teen idol?
Looking over the entire history of popular music since the 1950s, who's the most interesting teen idol? The most musically interesting teen idol? The least talented teen idol?