As my regular readers know, I like to keep things light here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. Thing is, when the past is your bag – and, let’s face it, we live in the past at SoulRide – you’re apt to run into some ugliness. The past, after all, is home to some very unenlightened thinking and behaviour.
Being a generally positive guy, I like to think that we as a society have come a long way when it comes to understanding mistakes we’ve made in the past and attempting to make amends and make changes going forward. But as recently as the 1950’s, African Americans in the music business were often treated less than fairly, to say the least. Whose fault is this? I’ll cop out and say I don’t know. I’d be way over my head to begin discussing race relations in the US in the mid-20th Century.
But “black” and “white” music of the 1950’s I think I can discourse on. Specifically, let’s talk about white artists “covering” songs by black artists. A quick note on what is meant by the term “cover”. Starting in the 1940’s, a hit song by an artist was often “covered” or recorded by other artists, each hoping to get in on the action. This practice can be seen throughout the big band era, the rock ‘n’ roll years and all through the 1960’s in the pop vocal genre.
A perfect example of an artist who benefited from – and was maligned for – the practice of covering hits by black artists is white singer Pat Boone. Not only is Pat Boone white, but he could be described as white bread; as in “really white”. Boone – still alive at 85 – is best remembered for his squeaky clean image. The very idea of him in his patented white bucks sanitizing rhythm and blues boggles the mind but it happened. Such was the racial climate of the day; many homes in middle class America in the 1950’s simply would not accept black music in their living rooms. Although the kids were digging R&B and rock ‘n’ roll by all artists despite their ethnicity, their parents, from a previous and less tolerant generation, much preferred the safe sounds of singers like Gale Storm, Teresa Brewer and Pat Boone.
Leave it to a record label exec to see money to be made from this situation. Boone recorded for Dot Records and the label paired him with producer Randy Wood. Wood, knowing full well that black music, while good, was not reaching a mass audience, suggested to Pat that he record current R&B hits but with his innocent, family friendly touch. Pat demurred, saying the songs were not his style and he didn’t really understand most of them. But when Pat’s first crack at it – his version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” – became Boone’s first #1 song, the machine was set in motion. (How white was Pat? He suggested changing the title to “Isn’t That a Shame”)
Also set in motion? Critics saying that Boone had appropriated rhythm and blues and was using it for his own gain. This was easy to assume as Pat repeated the practice many, many times: “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)”, originally by the El Dorados. “I’ll Be Home”, the Flamingos. “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”, Little Richard. “I Almost Lost My Mind”, Ivory Joe Hunter. “Chains of Love”, Big Joe Turner. “It’s Too Soon to Know”, the Orioles. “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, Roy Brown. In the record business of this era, if something worked it was employed endlessly.
But to attack Pat Boone for this is to misunderstand the whole picture. Boone himself has said, due to the racial climate in America at the time, “90 percent of the radio stations in America” were not going to play very much R&B and indeed the originators of these records were hopeful that a mainstream artist would cover their songs. Because of revenue generated for the composers through copyright law, these black artists – and most wrote or co-wrote their own material – were getting rich. Also, the exposure gained by their songs reaching the general public also helped to advance their careers. Almost always, Boone’s records charted higher than the originals. Indeed, Pat’s “I’ll Be Home” was the best-selling single of 1956 in the UK. Pat took “Ain’t That a Shame” to #1 while Domino’s peaked at #10. Fats bore no ill will, though. In fact, once when performing live, Fats called Pat out of the audience to give him some love. The biggest ring on his fingers, Domino said, was paid for by Boone and the royalties he generated.
Pat recorded a couple of songs by Little Richard, taking “Tutti Frutti” to #12 compared to Richard’s 21. Little Richard spoke on his feelings towards Boone, in his own inimitable way, in the 1987 Chuck Berry documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!: “I was mad. When Pat Boone covered my record, I was mad, I wanted to get him. I said, ‘I’m goin’ to Nashville to find him’.” Later, though, Little Richard began receiving royalties and the whole situation didn’t seem so bad. “Whoooooo!!”, Little Richard said.
Pat Boone was not the only white artist to cover black music. Elvis Presley was perhaps the one white singer in history who had the best grasp of black music and he famously combined the feel of rhythm and blues with the polish of white country & western and gospel quartet singing. Many of his earliest records were blues-infused and they appeared regularly on R&B charts. Funny thing, though; his covers of Little Richard’s songs always seemed to me to pale in comparison to the originals. Although through the years black musicians have criticized Presley for his appropriation of their music, he is generally heralded as an artist that advanced black music by recording it. If anything, he had been criticized by whites in the mid-Fifties; by giving black musicians his “stamp of approval”, Presley might help pave the way for racial integration.
Toronto’s The Crew Cuts also became known for their covers of R&B songs. Most notably, they recorded The Chords’ “Sh-Boom” and took it to #1. The Chords’ version charted at #9 and has been referred to as “the first rock ‘n’ roll song to hit the Top Ten”. Consider this; in the spring of 1954, The Chords’ “Sh-Boom” was a Top Ten record. But in the summer of that year, it was the white Crew Cuts that took the same song to the top of the charts and even performed the song on Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town. The Crew Cuts also had a #1 song with their version of the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”.
History shows the white records lack the edge of the originals. I find Elvis’ “Tutti Frutti” and “Rip It Up” to be thin compared to Little Richard’s beefy style. The Crew Cuts’ “Sh-Boom” transforms you right back to the malt shop but the Chords’ version has an intriguing tone and overall sound that gives it immense character. Pat Boone has a great voice and his records are nothing less than iconic and are quintessential “50s” records but his “Ain’t That a Shame” lacks the groove of Fats Domino’s version and Fats’ voice is quite special. There is nothing inherently wrong with the white records but, if you play them right after hearing the originals you can hear a distinct decrease in energy, fire and grit. Sometimes you’ll even hear different lyrics. According to Little Richard, Long Tall Sally was “built for speed”; to Pat’s eye, she was “built sweet”. Etta James’ “Roll With Me, Henry” became Georgia Gibbs’ “Dance With Me, Henry”.
White acts covering black music and having better success is nobody’s fault. It is a reflection – and an extremely telling one – of the climate of the times. Resenting these white artists makes as much sense as looking askance at crooners who “associated” with organized crime figures – but if you played a club in Atlantic City in the 1950’s, the club itself likely had mob connections. That’s just the way things were. You could say that these black artists got the last laugh and history has made reparations of sorts. The passage of time has revealed the quality of the original recordings that were covered by white acts. In most cases, the white covers come up short when compared to the originals. Granted, the covers are different; that was the point. The white covers are great pop records. If there hadn’t been original versions to compare them to, the white records would have no taint to them at all. Pat Boone’s records, the sound of the Crew Cuts and – obviously – Elvis Presley’s music are revered today.
In the end, we win. Us listeners. What we got was lots of great music from different artists in different styles. The white artists thrived in the business as far as their talent allowed and the black artists? They definitely faced obstacles and things may not have worked out exactly as they would’ve wanted. More than 50 years down the line, though, what they do have is sterling reputations and the love and respect of discerning music fans the world over, fans that understand that from their work, most of the great music in history has evolved. While that may not have been all they wanted it is certainly a worthy legacy.
(This article was initially commissioned by Ron Norwood of Norwood Media and used on his blog for a good friend of SoulRide, The Doo-Wop Express free internet radio station)