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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The March on Washington 50 years ago this summer has been credited with turning the tide of the American civil rights movement. A quarter of a million demonstrators turned out on the National Mall. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Civil Rights Act was passed the following year. Meantime, another less visible revolution was taking place on transistor radios across the country. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett brings us that story.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: The summer of 1963 started off with a tune by a singer who had helped forge a path into the mainstream spotlight for African-American performers a decade before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAZY, HAZY, CRAZY DAYS OF SUMMER")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Those days of soda and pretzels and beer.

BARNETT: Nat King Cole sold millions of records in the 1950s and was the first African-American to host a nationally broadcast TV variety show. "Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer" would turn out to be the singer's last hit song.

HERB KENT: That particular record was not our cup of tea if I can remember.

BARNETT: Herb Kent was a disc jockey at WVON, then a new station in Chicago. It featured a totally African-American programming staff and leaned heavily on the music coming from a young, black-owned record label based nearly 300 miles to the northeast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIDE AND JOY")

KENT: The Motown sound was like you did the music first, and then you did the vocals. So the music drove the records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIDE AND JOY")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) You are my pride and joy, and I just love you, little darling, like a baby boy loves his toy.

BARNETT: Herb Kent says Motown president Berry Gordy used WVON to test the label's new records and artists. But even though the station's call letters stood for Voice of the Negro, Kent says they weren't just going for a black audience.

KENT: We had a bunch of white listeners to our black station back in the day, and we would program some songs to attract them. You know, we're in the ballgame to win. I played Dion and the Belmonts from time to time. "It's My Party," Lesley Gore, we played that. We were just kicking butt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S MY PARTY")

LESLEY GORE: (Singing) It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry, too, if it happened to you.

BARNETT: It was also an interracial dance party at WHK in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY HOLLIDAY JINGLE")

BARNETT: Top jock Johnny Holliday recalls that a number of black artists were starting to appear on his station's Fabulous Fifty song list in 1963.

JOHNNY HOLLIDAY: We knew by playing those kind of records people would tune in to our radio station. We did check the R&B charts of the R&B stations. And if there was something that was just going completely nuts on their station, we might slip that into our little top 50 list and see what kind of response we got.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FINE DAY")

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing) One fine day, you'll look at me, and you will know our love was meant to be.

BARNETT: And this wasn't just happening in Chicago and Cleveland, says Craig Werner, author of "A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America."

CRAIG WERNER: The racial divide between what people were listening to diminished steadily through the late 1950s into the early 1960s. It doesn't mean that there weren't some differences remaining, but at the center of the musical hit parade, black folks and white folks were listening to very largely the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR DAY WILL COME")

RUBY AND THE ROMANTICS: (Singing) Our day will come, and we'll have everything.

BARNETT: And occasionally, a performer's racial identity got a little confusing.

RUBY GARNETT: When "Our Day Will Come" first came out, a lot of people thought I was a white girl until they saw us in person.

BARNETT: Sitting in her living room in Akron, Ohio, Ruby Garnett says her group, Ruby and the Romantics, toured a lot behind their first hit record that summer of 1963, and Craig Werner suggests that audiences were receptive to more than Garnett's silky voice.

WERNER: You get a song like "Our Day Will Come," you get a song like "One Fine Day," even though those songs were not written with a political message in mind, they resonated with the energy of the civil rights movement, what people were feeling politically. They're looking ahead to a better future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR DAY WILL COME")

RUBY AND THE ROMANTICS: (Singing) No tears for us. Think love and wear a smile.

BARNETT: And Ruby Garnett says you might even get a message if you look closely at the two hands clasping on the cover of her album.

GARNETT: It's a white hand and a black hand that meant we're going to have everything, we're, you know, going to be together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR DAY WILL COME")

RUBY AND THE ROMANTICS: (Singing) Our day will come.

BARNETT: In suburban Cleveland, 15-year-old Steve Goldurs was intrigued by something very different. Today, he's an editor for a local TV station and recalls that he and his friends were Beach Boys fans when they heard folk music coming out of the radio in the summer of 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND")

STEVE GOLDURS: Peter, Paul and Mary was very popular. We were starting to appreciate it. We were starting to like it. We were starting to learn what it said. And that's something to be said because going from "Little Deuce Coupe" to "If I Had a Hammer" or "Blowin' in the Wind," that's a leap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND")

PETER, PAUL AND MARY: (Singing) How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man? How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?

BARNETT: Peter, Paul and Mary's version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" was sitting at number two on the billboard music charts at the end of August 1963. Peter Yarrow has vivid memories of playing it to the demonstrators at the March on Washington.

PETER YARROW: It was a heady time. And when "If I Had Hammer" broke for a hit and it became a top 10 hit, we felt, well, music is changing. It's not "Shrimp Boats is A Coming" and "It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To."

BARNETT: But music scholar Craig Werner says that's the point. It was Lesley Gore, the Beach Boys and Peter, Paul and Mary.

WERNER: You're hearing all of that right next to each other, and that, I think, is what makes it really wonderful. If on some basic level the civil rights movement is about freedom, it's about the freedom to be who you are, to not fit yourself into a niche. And I think you really feel that in the soundtrack of '63.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

BARNETT: There was another song about social justice starting to move up the charts as the summer of '63 came to a close. It was a Latin remake of a Peter, Paul and Mary hit, which, in turn, was a remake of the original version by The Weavers a dozen years before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

TRINI LOPEZ: (Singing) If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning.

BARNETT: Trini Lopez's take on "If I Had a Hammer" may have been protest lite, but it had a message and a good beat. You could dance to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

LOPEZ: (Singing) I'd hammer out danger. I'd hammer out a warning. I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.

BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

CORNISH: You can hear more than 100 songs inspired by the civil rights movement at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD A HAMMER")

LOPEZ: (Singing) I'd ring it in the morning. I'd ring it in the evening all over this land. I'd ring out danger. I'd ring out a warning. I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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