Friday, September 30, 2011

Doo Wop. Umm, Maybe Next Time

I grew up in New England, which was largely what you might call a white bread area. In the sixth grade (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) I met a black person for the first time, a classmate named Harry. That's pretty much how life went for me until I joined the Army.

In my teens (Beverly, Massachusetts) my friends and I listened to rock and roll on the radio and began to be exposed to music by black artists. At first the Boston area stations played almost entirely songs by white artists. When blacks had hits on the R&B charts the songs were covered by white artists such as Pat Boone and Georgia Gibbs, whom I consider the King and Queen of Cover Artists, based entirely on the number of black artists' songs they jumped on.

In 1955 the flood gates opened when the Platters became the first black artists to reach number one on the pop charts, which they accomplished with The Great Pretender.

As a result, some popular R&B singers such as Big Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter, and Ivory Joe Hunter began to be heard on stations that were previously devoted pretty much to whites, the exceptions being singers of ballads and blues, such as Nat King Cole, and suddenly the charts really showed a mixture of black and white. Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Coasters, The Platters, and others often reached the top of the pop charts, not only with rock and roll but with slower music as well, and we white teenagers not only liked it, we liked it a *lot* more than white cover versions.

Here it must be noted that things were very different on the music charts in those days. It was not unusual for there to be two or three versions of the same song in the top twenty. Occasionally this was simply due to several white artists or groups recording the same songs, but often it was a matter of white artists covering tunes by black artists.

I think the reason we preferred the the black artists is that the white artists didn't know what the Hell they were singing about. If you'd like to hear a classic example, listen to Long Tall Sally by Little Richard and then listen to it by Pat Boone. Another? Listen to Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner and then by Bill Haley & His Comets.

There's no getting around it: the white versions fail in two respects. First there's the style of the playing and singing, with black artists displaying emotion and excitement. Second there's the bowdlerization of the lyrics. Consider, for example, Little Richard's

Long tall Sally, she's built for speed.
She got everything that Uncle John needs.

And now Pat Boone's

Long tall Sally's got a lot on the ball
And nobody cares if she's long and tall.

Similarly, there is Big Joe Turner's

Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through.
Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through.
I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you.

And Bill Haley's

Wearin' those dresses your hair done up so nice;
Wearin' those dresses your hair done up so nice;
You look so warm but your heart is cold as ice.

My absolute favorite comment on a "cover" situation involved the song Earth Angel, recorded by both The Penguins (black) and The Crew Cuts (white). I'd love to attribute the quote, but I don't remember who wrote it and I can't find it on google. It went something like this:

On the pop charts the Crew Cuts version reached number three and the Penguins version reached number eight. On the R&B charts the Penguins reached number one and the Crew Cuts were nowhere in sight.
I didn't want to clutter up this post with images of videos, or even with links, so I'll leave it to those of you who are interested to search YouTube for the songs and artists. You'll find everything mentioned here.

Well, I intended to write about doowop, but you can see what happened. Doowop will be next up.


Oklahoma City Divorce Attorney said...

When did Elvis come into the picture? He was part of that group wasn't he?

BrokenDownProgrammer said...

His roots were in rhythm and blues, I think. I've never thought of him as a doowop artist, but I'd guess several of his recordings could be so categorized.

After several national TV appearances in 1956, he broke free of the pack.