The development of contemporary American music is clearly reflected in the integration of black composers, performers, and their songs into mainstream popular record charts. Between 1953 and 1978 a fascinating role reversal occurred. During that quarter century black artists shifted from creators to revivalists. The same role reversal did not apply to white artists, who tended to evolve along a more consistent audience-acceptance continuum. How can this 25-year cycle of social change best be illustrated? What particular elements of black music dramatically entered the pop spectrum during the fifties, and later gained dominance by the end of the sixties? Why did black artists become more and more conservative during the late seventies? A careful examination of audio repetition – cover recordings and song revivals – offers a great deal of revealing information about changes in social, economic and artistic life in America after 1953.
The path to popular music success was extremely difficult for black performers during the early 1950s. Unless they were willing to adopt a white-oriented singing style such as that of Nat “King” Cole, black musicians invariably found themselves isolated from dominant recording companies – Decca, Columbia, RCA Victor and Capital – and thus separated from the majority of the record-buying public. Worse yet, when a black artist developed an original, potentially successful tune through a small, independent recording outfit – Savoy, King, Specialty, or Peacock – white artists, including Pat Boone, Gale Storm and The Fontane Sisters, hurriedly supplied the white record-purchasing audience with an acceptable “cover” version of the same tune.
This cover phenomenon occurred frequently enough to confirm the suspicions that prejudice, plagiarism and financial exploitation were central factors in American recording industry practices between 1953 and 1956.
Below are several examples of original recordings by black performers that were duplicated by white artists.
The bulk of cover recordings and revivals of black songs by white artists were not intended to inflict terminal financial hardship on Afro-American artists. Rather, they served as indirect acknowledgements of the musical quality and sales attractiveness of original black material by white artists who were supported by more sophisticated record marketing approaches and public distribution resources. Several white performers, including Georgia Gibbs, Elvis Presley, The Crew-Cuts and The Chordettes profited directly and often by producing songs originally released by blacks. For example, The Drifters’ “Money Honey,” Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” and Willie Mae Thornton’s “Hound Dog” were easily adapted to the Presley repertoire. But beyond these Presley revival recordings are two points of great significance.
First, black music – although slightly altered rhythmically and occasionally lyrically contrasted – began to reach beyond the segregated “Rhythm and Blues” charts into Billboard’s “Top 100” lists during the 1955-59 period. Second, more and more white singers began to revive classic r & b tunes. During the ’60s the careers of performers such as Dion DiMucci and Johnny Rivers were shaped significantly by their ability to adapt black material for contemporary audiences. Dion recorded The Drifters’ “Ruby Baby,” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and even Muddy Waters’ blues classic “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Meanwhile, Rivers revived several Chuck Berry hits, including “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Memphis Tennessee,” as well as tunes previously released by Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, Huey Smith and The Clowns, and Major Lance. Songs that had initially attracted attention from a limited audience – records played exclusively on black-oriented radio stations – were suddenly transformed into nationwide hits The following list of white remakes of songs originated by black artists further demonstrates this point.
Although the most blatant period of white-over-black cover recording activities ended after 1956, the practice of reviving or altering the lyrics of black songs in the hopes of satisfying white audiences continued for several more years. One reason why radio stations refused to play (and hence the white listening public failed to listen and purchase) some black songs released during the mid-1950s was that the lyrics frequently contained earthy, off-color comments or explicit sexual references.
In 1954 Hank Ballard and The Midnighters recorded several suggestive songs – including “Work With Me Annie” and “Annie Had a Baby” – describing the sexual exploits of a promiscuous young women. The explicit nature of her relationships with her male courtiers was too vivid for the public airwaves. However, the catchy rhythm of Ballard’s “Annie” songs prompted a black female artist to produce a lyrically altered song entitled “The Wallflower.” This new version eliminated much of the direct sexual commentary in the original “Annie” numbers, while providing a female response to Ballard’s male-oriented tunes. The sales success of Etta James’ “Wallflower” encouraged Mercury Recording Company staff writers to edit out all of the song’s remaining suggestive lyrics in order to create a bouncy, wholesome song entitled, “Dance With Me, Henry.” Thus white pop singer Georgia Gibbs produced a truly kingsized pop hit in 1955 while Hank Ballard’s tunes and Etta James’ song continued to appeal only to a relatively small “race record” audience.
Another illustration of lyric alteration occurred in the case of one of the most famous early rock ’n’ roll hits, “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” This song, as first performed by Joe Turner in 1954, describes in detail the sheerness of a sexy women’s nightgown (“…the sun comes shinin’ through”) and her enticing physical endowments (“…I can’t believe that whole mess is you”) in the bedroom. With slight line changes, which included shifting the setting of the singer’s commentary from the boudoir into the kitchen, Bill Haley and The Comets succeeded in transforming Turner’s moderately successful Atlantic recording into a smash hit for Decca.
Other kinds of lyric alterations have been utilized to call attention to social injustices. In 1972, for instance, Roberta Flack interrupted her bluesy version of “Somewhere” with the startling cry – This ain’t no West Side Story!”– in order to emphasize the reality of racial inequality in New York City.
Curtis Mayfield, in his 1972 “live” performance album, added several lines of rambling social commentary about disc jockey and radio station management censorship that was exercised against The Impressions’ hit song “We’re A Winner.” And Solomon Burke cleverly converted Creedence Clearwater Revival’s tale of youthful travel aboard the Mississippi sternwheeler “Proud Mary” into an attack against slavery and the post-Civil War caste system of black servitude.
MUSICAL CREATIVITY AND ARTISTIC TRIBUTE
Another interesting trend in song revival practice has been the desire of black performers to return to their musical roots by reproducing hit tunes originally performed by other Afro- American artists. This stylistic vitality has produced many significant popular hits. Aretha Franklin’s 1967 success with the tune “Respect,” originally authored by talented but ill-fated soul singer Otis Redding, is typical of the black-over-black revival practice. The peculiar genius of Lady Soul also led her to revive two other previously released black hits – Don Covay’s “See Saw” and Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” Before his death in 1967, Redding also offered new renditions of hits originally released by other noted black artists, including James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” which he dynamically performed in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival.
The following list of tunes were reintroduced by black artists, who brought innovative rhythm patterns and new vocal styling to established hit songs.
Perhaps an even more interesting question concerning the relationship of black music to record revivals is: How did black performers respond to the “new music” from Great Britain during 1964 and after? The answer is obvious. While most white journalists sang the praises of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other groups from the far side of the Atlantic, black artists recognized them as kindred musical spirits who shared deep respect for songs from the early rhythm ’n’ blues tradition.
While The Beatles sang the hits of Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven”) and Larry Williams (“Slow Down”) and the Stones lauded Slim Harpo (“I’m a Kind Bee”) and Marvin Gaye (“Hitch Hike”), American blacks commenced their own restyling of a variety of British song hits. The Beatles provided ample material for Wilson Pickett (“Hey Jude”) and Ike and Tina Turner (“Let It Be” and “Get Back”). The Rolling Stones’ lyrics also proved appropriate for Muddy Waters (“Let’s Spend The Night Together”) and Otis Redding (“Satisfaction”).
The use of white material by black musicians was not limited to British songwriting talent, either. As the list below indicates, black performers successfully transformed the record revival practice from a tactic of racial parasitism into a strategy for professional harmony and mutual musical exchange.
Cover recordings and revivals of previously successful songs ultimately broadened the base of the music revolution in the United States from 1953-1978. Black artists, at first victimized, eventually joined their fellow white performers in financial prosperity through skillful use of the record revival system. The emergence of marvelously creative black rock ’n’ roller during the mid-1950s — Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Larry Williams and Bo Diddley — provided a prophetic basis for what was to come during the mid-1960s — from Detroit, Memphis, New York City and Chicago. The homogenization of rock, was accomplished to a great extent during the decade before The Beatles. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “separate, but equal” theory of education, so too the American record buying public destroyed the old “race record” barrier in popular music after 1954.
As this study demonstrates, repetition in recordings proved to be and unexpected blessing for many black performers. The theft of potential sales by white artists who covered rhythm and ’n’ blues tunes during the mid-fifties undeniably cost some black singers access to both mainstream fame and popular chart dollars. The integrationist tendency of rock ’n’ roll revolution was not to be denied, though. The distinctive musical power of Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price, Clyde McPhatter and dozens of others withstood the early cover challenge and ultimately fostered a vibrant period of black artistic independence.
Ironically, as the British Invasion lionized many rhythm ’n’ blues singers, the recordings of many youthful black stars shifted from creative to revivalist tendencies. This conservative approach, perhaps predictable, was yet another sign of commercial success. It should surprise no one that the late 1980s continue to feature revivalist tunes such as “The Twist” by The Fat Boys.
In contemporary music, where songs with established track records offer high hit prospects, black artists and and white artists continue to utilize revival tactics to insure Billboard and CashBox recognition. Repetition is still alive and well!