Peek under the covers

By  Hank Davis and Scott Parker

The Crew Cuts.
The Crew Cuts.

Cover records. Ughhh.

Pat Boone singing songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard. Georgia Gibbs copying records by LaVern Baker.
Is there any musical crime more horrible or more likely to unite fans of ’50s music and vintage rock and roll? The very thought of those pale, soulless, watered-down versions of original black music is enough to trigger frothing at the mouth and some familiar rants by ’50s record collectors.

Why is that? Aside from the usual decline in feeling or musical authenticity, there’s also the sense that something very politically offensive has happened here. Isn’t this one more instance of whites stealing from blacks? Of cheap, callow, white businessmen (and singers) stealing the original work and artistic heritage of an oppressed minority? Isn’t this, yet again, the mistreatment of African Americans by the white majority?

Even Elvis, bless his soul, built his career by stealing the feeling, style and music, itself, of black people. Haven’t we all heard that story? It’s exploitation. Rip off. No wonder we hate it. There’s almost no level at which this doesn’t seem offensive.

OK, let’s all take a deep breath. What if the story isn’t quite so, uhhhh, black and white. What if cover records aren’t all about race, or exploitation or theft? What if there’s a different way to look at things?

Admittedly, this may not fit a liberal political outlook quite so neatly, but it may offer some insight into how the record business works — or at least worked during the 1950s when most of these events took place.

Keep in mind that we’re not arguing in favor of cover records. Like most of you, we also believe that, for the most part, they stink. We usually like the originals better. But here’s the thing. In 1950, there were two kinds of markets in the music business: (1) the mainstream pop market (which tended, in general, to be white and urban) and (2) niche markets. The two biggest niche markets were black (R&B, blues and gospel) and hillbilly (soon to be called  “country and western”). Niche records sold to niche markets. They sounded different from their pop counterparts. They sold in respectable, but smaller, quantities. They didn’t tend to get mainstream pop airplay or publicity. Still, they had no trouble finding their own audiences.

Occasionally, there was a good, saleable niche song — remember, in the early ’50s it was all about songs, not records. Songs were hits. Songs sold records and sheet music. When a song was a hit, it wasn’t uncommon for every label in sight to release a version by one of its own artists.

So let’s say a song comes along in one of the niche markets that may have some crossover potential. At some point, it’s going to get noticed, and someone in the pop A&R (artist & repertoire) division of the label is going to want to cover that song with an artist who will be able to compete in the mainstream pop marketplace. So far, so good.

That’s hardly exploitation; it’s just good business.

Now here comes the kicker. Collectors and historians today talk as if black niche artists were the only ones being covered by the pop music business. Certainly, their music was copied, but it’s time to consider an often-overlooked fact: Before there were covers of R&B records by pop artists, there were pop covers of hillbilly records. Most music historians argue that the “golden age” of white covers of black music began some time in 1954 and continued for just over two years. That’s fine. But the golden age of pop covers of hillbilly music was well under way in 1951. In fact, the number of pop hillbilly covers may actually dwarf the treatment that R&B songs received a few years later. Plainly, this is not about race. It’s about niche. Hillbilly singers (think Hank Williams) had about as much chance of breaking into the pop charts as Little Walter or Amos Milburn did in 1952.

You want some examples of how widespread these pop hillbilly covers were? Here’s a list of eight of the best-selling pop artists during the first three years of the 1950s: Perry Como; Eddie Fisher; Patti Page; Rosemary Clooney; Joni James; Frankie Laine; Tony Bennett and Jo Stafford. Every single one of those artists released at least one Top 10 record that had been covered, borrowed, ripped off (choose your own favorite verb) from a  hillbilly hit song. None of those hillbilly records had a chance of being taken seriously on the pop charts. They were simply too “niche-ified.”

Perry Como’s version of “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” went on to sell more than a million copies. Have you ever heard Slim Willet’s original on the 4-Star label? Even Skeets MacDonald’s slicker hillbilly version on Capitol would have been a heck of a stretch for pop audiences in 1952. But Perry took the song to the bank. Hank Williams’ versions of “Half As Much,” “Cold Cold Heart” and “Your Cheating Heart” were beautiful country records, but they had little mainstream appeal compared to what Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Joni James, respectively, brought to them. Do you think Pee Wee King’s version of “Tennessee Waltz” could have garnered the attention that Patti Page’s version did?

The list goes on and on, but two points remain clear. First, pop covers of niche records did not begin with R&B in the mid-1950s. Second, it seems politically unfashionable to discuss this earlier white-on-white covering.

After discussing and writing about ’50s music for quite a few years, we have yet to hear anyone rail about the indignity that Perry Como heaped on Slim Willet or Patti Page heaped on Slim Whitman for “Keep It A Secret” or Rosemary Clooney heaped on Stuart Hamblen for “This Old House.” Rather, these pop covers seem to have been taken in stride as wise commercial decisions, rather than crimes against humanity, or at least one race against another. And they were good for the bank accounts of Slim Willet and Stuart Hamblen — songwriters whose royalties increased when their songs sold millions of records.

Again, we are no fans of cover records, in general. And we are certainly no fans of the racial injustice that permeated life in the 1950s. But neither are we convinced that racial injustice is at the core of The Crew Cuts recording of “Sh-Boom” or of some laughably bad records made by Pat Boone or Georgia Gibbs (who covered the hillbilly song “Seven Lonely Days” before she turned Etta James’ “The Wallflower” into the much-reviled “Dance With Me, Henry.”)
And one more point, while we’re at it. It wasn’t altogether unknown for niche artists (both black and white) to reverse the process and cover pop records from time to time. They produced alternative versions of pop songs for their own specialized markets. Examples include Hank Snow’s cover of Joan Weber’s “Let Me Go, Lover” and Dinah Washington’s cover of the DeCastro Sisters’ “Teach Me Tonight.” Roy Brown, a premier R&B artist, covered both “I’m Stickin’ With You” and “Party Doll” in 1957. Sometimes a record would start in one niche and get covered in another niche and also in the general pop market — Darrell Glenn’s country song, “Crying in the Chapel,” spawned a successful R&B cover by The Orioles and a successful pop cover by June Valli. In fact, straight pop records with no niche characteristics at all got covered too; in 1955, there were simultaneous hit versions of “Unchained Melody” by Les Baxter, Roy Hamilton, Al Hibbler and June Valli.

The bottom line is this: There were no boundaries. If somebody thought they could sell a song, then they recorded it. And so, pop acts covered hillbillies and R&B. R&B covered hillbilly and pop. Hillbilly covered both pop and R&B. And, lest we forget, there were cover records within each of those genres. Nothing was sacred. Once a song started selling or looked like it might, other artists jumped on the bandwagon.

Certainly, black artists, who are often portrayed as the victims in the saga of cover records, were not immune to the practice. Charles Brown recorded Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise”; The Drifters covered The Colts’ record of “Adorable.” Muddy Waters recorded Ann Cole’s “Got My Mojo Working” after hearing her sing the song on tour with his band in 1957. Her record is virtually unknown today; his is considered a classic. Fats Domino, who had once been outsold by Pat Boone’s cover record of “Ain’t It A Shame,” recorded his own cover version of Chris Kenner’s local hit, “Sick & Tired.”

The list is long, and the practice goes well back into the history of recorded music. In fact, Bear Family Records has just released a 6-CD box set consisting of nothing but copycat versions of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs (BCD 15540). Considered by many to be the father of country music, Rodgers recorded 110 songs between 1927 and 1933. Of that total, an incredible 108 were subsequently recorded by other artists, both black and white — everyone from Gene Autry to King Oliver.

You can look for deep sociological meaning in such activities, but it’s more likely they merely reflect some savvy commercial decisions. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the music business is, after all, a business.

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