“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” – Oscar Wilde.
Hi all, FYI I held off writing this bonus episode till early in the week. While this tale reveals an injustice which happened all too often in the postwar music business, there are elements to this bonus tale I don’t have my head around as much as I would like. For one I don’t feel the most comfortable around the position of written music in the era in question – oh by the way we’re talking about covers today. Written music still made up a sizeable percentage of music sales in the 1940s and 50s. The songwriters often wrote in the hope that multiple artists would pick up their work, and release their own arrangements of it… much more so than a songwriter today, who will often write with a particular artist in mind. In 2020 songs are usually associated with a single artist, and it has been that way for decades. Songs often weren’t in the 40s and 50s. It only seems fair I state this up front.
The other element I feel uncomfortable working around is how, exactly you designate one song a tribute (i.e. Elvis records Lonnie Johnson’s Tomorrow Night), another a rip off (i.e. The Diamonds cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers Why Do Fools Fall in Love). I think it is fair to say some covers are better than others. Elvis, for example, covered a lot of songs – and on most of them he brought something new to the table. There was also an authenticity to the work of the King, and a respect for the original artist. I don’t know his work well enough to say for certain he never released a cover within weeks of the original artist – tracks like his cover of The Drifters Such a Night came seven years after the original. Even his cover of Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes came six months after Perkins version. There just seems something very different with releasing a note for note copy within weeks of the original, with the express purpose of stealing its thunder.
Give me Scottish witch trials, Chicago mobsters or Victorian era conmen I feel pretty confident – but this topic takes me a little out of my wheel house is all I’m saying. But now I have said that….
Our tale starts today in Los Angeles, California in late 1948. Albert Patrick, a record executive at a small rhythm and blues label called Supreme Records, bought the rights to produce a song called A Little Bird Told Me. The writer an acclaimed songwriter and arranger named Harvey Brooks. They soon went about producing a catchy ear worm with an R&B piano, handclaps on the backbeat, and the vocal talents of Paula Watson – an African American R&B vocalist and piano player newly arrived from Mobile, Alabama. The song, at first, proved a wise investment – it shot up to the top of what was then called the ‘race music’ charts (now the R&B charts). What proved especially pleasing no doubt would have been A Little Bird Told Me also entered the far bigger, and largely white pop music charts. The song was an exceedingly rare case of a black artist on a small, black owned label having a hit song in the white channels – well exceedingly rare until around 1956 in any case. The song rose through the charts till it hit number 14… then it died away just as dramatically.
The song’s trajectory was stalled because Decca records, a large label mostly making safe pop records – largely white music for a largely white audience- had been paying attention. They quickly realized if they made a sound-alike version – copied the formula, the jaunty R&B piano, hand claps, the backing vocals – and put an attractive young white woman out front – they would have a huge hit on their hands. They may not capture the fire of the original; the singer may not be as good as Ms Watson – but they had the bigger label, far more connections, and a society more willing to buy music from the white artist. Evelyn Knight’s cover, released within weeks of Paula Watson’s went to #1 with a bullet, staying on the charts for 21 weeks. It killed the momentum of the original.
Supreme records took out a lawsuit against Decca. While they could not claim copyright of the song, they felt comfortable they could claim rights to the arrangement of the song. When the case went to trial in 1950 the courts sided with Decca – you cannot copyright an arrangement. This was bad news for Supreme records, who were broke at the time, and soon after shut their doors. It was not the worst of news for Paula Watson, who had, in the interlude signed up with Decca herself – but it was awful news for a number of early rock and roll groups and singers, who may have broken bigger, and sooner – had some judge not set a precedent which allowed major labels to relegate their work to the trash heap with their inferior, but far more privileged cover versions. The examples are numerous, but let’s discuss a few.
The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’ is an often cited example, not least of all because the early Doo Wop song was on track to become the first rock and roll song to hit #1 on the pop charts. Sh-Boom (some of you may know it as ‘Life Could Be a Dream’, but Sh-Boom is it’s real name) was written by the members of the black, Bronx based group themselves – and released in 1954. It shot up both the R&B and pop charts – until the Canadian pop group The Crew-Cuts cut an insipid, watered down version of the song. With all their advantages, their cover killed the Chords original just as it hit #9 in the charts. Their cover went to #1, and stayed in the pop charts for 20 weeks. Despite being, by far, the better version – the Chords version would miss out on sync opportunities in movies and television until the 1990s.
The Crew-Cuts were one of a number of white acts preying on black artists. They would go on to make inferior versions of The Penguins ‘Earth Angel’ (mentioned in last week’s bonus episode), and Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo (I just wish I had the time to talk about this song, dozens of artists covered this song, including Rosemary Clooney’s sister and the actor Andy Griffiths – it was HUGE – it is now forgotten). Of course Pat Boone was another serial offender; ripping off songs by Fats Domino, the Flamingos, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner… and most famously Little Richard.
And then of course, there was the LaVern Baker v Georgia Gibbs feud.
LaVern Baker was a popular R&B and early rock and roll singer from a family of blues and gospel singers. She had come to national prominence in 1953 with the torch song Soul on Fire, released on Atlantic records. Her first big hit, however, would be Tweedle Dee, an up-tempo piece with a Latin feel to it. The song is dumb, but Baker’s performance elevates the track to something truly listenable. Tweedle Dee crossed over to the pop charts, reaching #14, to be knocked off the charts by white former big band singer Georgia Gibbs note for note cover of the song. Gibbs version, released by the then much larger label Mercury records, shot to the top of the charts. To add insult to injury Gibbs had hired the same arranger and musicians Baker had used for her version. She had tried to hire her audio engineer, Tom Dowd also, but he demurred. Baker was furious at the gall of Gibbs, more over the lost opportunities – more the airplay and lost exposure, than the lost sales (which she estimated at $15,000 in 1955 dollars). She went all out to ensure no rip-off artist ever did that again.
First, Baker carried out a publicity stunt meant to embarrass Gibbs. After booking a long distance flight, Baker took out a life insurance policy for the journey. Who was listed as the beneficiary on the policy? Georgia Gibbs of course – If the plane went down and LaVern Baker died, Baker let all in sundry know, Gibbs’ career would die a horrible death too. Second, she approached Michigan congressman Charles Diggs Jr, asking congress to look to pass a law banning note for note copies of other peoples’ records. All indications are congress looked into the issue, but decided it was out of their purview to do anything about it. What she did do however, in publicly embarrassing Gibbs and rallying congressmen to the cause, was to make it suddenly very uncool to just steal another artists act like that. Gibbs would go on to record one more dodgy knock off cover – this time Etta James’ answer record The Wallflower (retitled Dance with me Henry) before swearing off stealing R&B artists music. She kept her word for two years. Lavern Baker had another single, Tra La La, which was flying up the charts – so Gibbs copied it note for note. Her version bombed. The listeners were buying Baker’s disc for the B side, a great rock and roll song called Jim Dandy – today’s attached song.
I’ll do another one of these Tales of Rock and Roll next week – probably the final of these for a little while. IF the Batavia series doesn’t capture the imagination as I hoped it would I’ll have a look at running another short Thursday series… Please love Batavia though, you have no idea how many hours I spent on it. See you all next Tuesday for the final episode of Tom Horn. – Simone.