The Stormy Beginning When the Erie County Fair First Waded Into The Rock and Roll Craze

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On the subject of Pat Boone. It’s really interesting. It’s so interesting I thought readers might have a fun time with it.

I found this out while researching the history of my grandfather’s pizzeria in Blasdell, New York. Specifically, I discovered this little factoid when I began reading about my grandparents various marketing efforts. One of those ventures turned into a wholly separate business. To promote their new pizzeria, they accepted an invitation to operate a pizza stand at the Erie County Fair.

The first year they were at the Fair (1956) featured the Erie County Fair’s first ever Rock and Roll concert on its first two nights (Saturday, August 18th, 1956 and Sunday August 19th, 1956). Box seats for the concert were $1.50; grandstand and front row bleacher seats were $1; and other bleacher seats were 50 cents.

Remember, Rock and Roll was a relatively new phenomenon at the time. Elvis had his first big hit in 1954 and Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”) and Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”) had big hits in 1955. In many ways, though, 1956 was to become a breakout year for Rock and Roll. It was the year of Elvis Presley’s ascendency. He began the year with “Heartbreak Hotel.” This became his first #1 pop hit. He quickly followed that with “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog.” On top of that, his appearances on CBS’s Stage Show, NBC’s Milton Berle Show and Steve Allen Show only foreshadow the record-breaking TV audience that would see him on CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show in September.

The Erie County Fair has always been one of America’s premiere events. It’s maintained itself by embracing the leading edge when it comes to performing acts. Rock and Roll was becoming popular, although not necessarily fully accepted. It represented a relatively risky venture for the wholesome Fair. To hedge its bets on this new form of entertainment, the 1956 Erie County Fair also featured appearances by TV’s Lassie and Superman.

Anyways, back to Pat Boone. He headlined the event with a woman by the name of Lillian Briggs. She was billed as “The Queen of Rock and Roll.” I supposed this meant she was the female counterpart to Elvis (a.k.a., “The King”). She caught people’s attention with her rousing take of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1954. In 1955 she released her first single “I Want You to Be My Baby.” It sold over a million copies. You might know of her today for a different reason, but back in 1956 she was all about Rock and Roll.

You might be more interested in the undercard. It included in order of appearance: Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, and Bill Haley. Reviewers questioned Haley’s apparent “disregard” for his guitar, since every time he would strum it, he threw it to the ground. No, he was not channeling The Who of the future. It was raining. The outdoor stage was wet. He was wet. The guitar was wet. Oh, did I mention it was an electric guitar? Every time he went to play Haley was electrocuted.

Just think, if the incident would have proven fatal, would we still have had Happy Days? Would Ron Howard have emerged as a director? Would “Jump the Shark” still have made it in our lexicon? Answer: Probably yes, since Bill Haley & His Comets recorded “Rock Around The Clock” on April 12, 1954 (a month after Sonny Dae and His Knights recorded the first rendition). Although it was a “B-side” and didn’t register much when released, it became the first Rock and Roll record to rank #1 in Billboard’s Pop Charts in 1955 following the release of the movie Blackboard Jungle, where it was featured in the opening. Thus, it became an “anthem of rebellion” for teenagers. Of note, while he did perform earlier hits on the stage at the Erie County Fair, he did not sing “Rock Around The Clock.”

But I digress. The real story here is Pat Boone. Remember, this was billed as a Rock and Roll concert. With Pat Boone as the headliner. How many of you would put “Pat Boone” and “Rock and Roll” together in the same sentence, let alone together on the concert stage?

Well, get this. One reviewer claimed he couldn’t hear Pat Boone because, “With his first note the crowds literally went wild.” One of those teenagers was the daughter of the Fair Treasurer, who insisted he take her and her friend to the stage to meet Pat Boone. Dad refused (“Rock and/or Roll, harumph!”), but Boone’s manager heard her plea and brought the girls to the singing star. Although Pat Boone may today be considered “your parents’ Rock and Roll” (not mine, though, as they were teenagers and my mother was a big fan of Blackboard Jungle), but he certainly wasn’t at the time.

In either case, the concert caused such a commotion that it would be another 15 years before the Erie County Fair would invite another Rock and Roll band to play.

And now, for the rest of the story…

…whatever happened to Lillian “The Queen of Rock & Roll” Briggs? After a somewhat successful recording and performing career from the 1950s-1970s, she moved to Miami where she became a very successful real estate developer. So successful, in fact, she could afford to buy a yacht. She did. It was named Monkey Business.

Do you remember seeing a yacht by that name in a famous 1980s political scandal? Yes, that’s the one. The one with the picture of Donna Rice sitting on presidential contender Gary Hart’s lap. It cost Hart his candidacy. The picture was taken during a cruise aboard Monkey Business with Hart wearing a shirt labeled “Monkey Business Crew.”

And that’s how pizza, presidential politics, and raw Rock and Roll came together during the summer of 1956.

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