26 March 1955
NEW YORK-BASED REPORTER PAUL ACKERMAN WAS AMONG THE FIRS OF THE POP PUNDITS TO COMMENT ON THE RISE OF R&B when he announced in Billboard magazine: “Despite the scarcely veiled antagonism of many pop publishers and A&R men to R&B material, 13 of the 30 discs on the current US best-selling singles chart fall into that category.”
One of the most prominent of the success stories involved Coral, a record label breaking big and experiencing the greatest business of its life due mainly to its success in hitching its roster of white, teen-appeal artists to a catalogue of songs that matriculated from black jukeboxes.
Top of the heap were Coral’s McGuire Sisters, who’d just topped three national charts – those relating to dealers, DJs and jukebox operators – with their cover of Sincerely, a song written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed that had proved a hit for Fuqua and Bobby Lester’s doo wop group The Moonglows. But while their group’s version sold a healthy 300,000, The McGuire Sisters’ note-for-note copy soared past the million mark.
“Rock’n’roll smells phoney.”
Additionally, Ackerman noted, the Mercury label was cashing in heavily on R&B covers via The Crew-Cuts, a Canadian group whose versions of The Penguins’ Earth Angel and Gene And Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo were respectively 10th and 14th in the charts. Another Mercury artist, Georgia Gibbs, also had two major chart records at that point, with a copy of LaVern Baker’s Tweedlee Dee and Etta James’ Roll With Me Henry (aka The Wall-flower), the latter toned down as Dance With Me Henry. Even Frank Sinatra – who’d allegedly claimed “rock’n’roll smells phony and false” with many songs relying on “almost imbecilic reiteration and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics” – released a cover of The Charms’ Two Hearts, Two Kisses, as did Doris Day, though it was Pat Boone‘s version that ultimately made cash registers jingle.
The Sinatra allegation regarding dirty lyrics, was one widely held. The teenage Etta James might well sing “you better roll with me Henry,” but America’s white-dominated radio stations refused to participate in passing such steamy suggestions on to their listeners. Georgia Gibbs’ rendition knew its place; it acted politely and, with subtle lyric changes, was made welcome by white America. James acceded and regarded Gibbs’ action as music industry norm.
Not so LaVern Baker. When Gibbs’ imitative cover of Tweedlee Dee destroyed any chance that Baker’s original might have of crossover glory, Baker contacted her congressman in an effort to have note-for-note covers declared copyright violations.
“I spend over $7,500 for each of my record sessions, hiring arrangers, special songwriters plus a big band and chorus,” Baker complained, “then what happens? Some singer comes along and plagiarises your creations.”
Forgiveness wasn’t part of her plan. One widely repeated story involved Baker taking out a life-insurance policy before a long-distance air flight and naming Georgia Gibbs as beneficiary. “You need this more I do”, she reportedly wrote, “because if anything happens to me, you’re out of business.”
As Bad For Kids As Dope...
Meanwhile, those seeking to have black R&B completely ejected from the nation’s best-selling listings gathered momentum as prominent West Coast DJ Peter Potter declared, “All rhythm and blues records are dirty and as bad for kids as dope.”
Etta James may well have scooped up publicity with the furore caused by The Wallflower but her increasing reliance on drugs contributed to the fact that, in the wake her next 1955 success, Good Rockin’ Daddy, she would make no records for the next five years.
One DJ fighting for public acceptance of genuine R&B was Bill Randle, a broadcaster on New York and Cleveland radio. He claimed that the new beat didn’t cause delinquency, suggesting that, “It just reflects it.” With some foresight, he predicted that rock’n’roll would be just part of music’s evolution and eventually settle down to become part of Americana.
Others begged to differ. Bob Haymes, who spun records for a New York station, believed the genre offered nothing but “poor music, badly recorded with lyrics that are, at best, in poor taste and at worst obscene.”
Meanwhile, a number of radio stations in the Boston area came up with the solution. They opted to play R&B tunes, only if recorded by “genuine pop artists”. Even so, Alan Freed, the DJ who spearheaded the arrival of black jukebox music on America’s airwaves, remained optimistic. Denying all criticism of what he termed “suggestive or offensive leerics” (sic) he enthusiastically proclaimed: “The Big Beat has arrived.” And it had. It really had.