Hello and welcome to Deep Tracks in Rock History: the place where we dive deep into the entire history of rock, from beginning to…well, hopefully there’s no end. I am your salacious host, Doug “He’s got the calves to pull off wearing a kilt” McCulloch.

I think that was my longest self-ascribed nickname yet…

I want to thank all of you for your patience as my release schedule is still not back on a weekly track. I think the reality of the situation is I won’t be able to get back onto a weekly release schedule for a while, so for now my goal is to just get episodes out when they’re done, rather than trying to get one out every Monday. I’m trying to quality over quantity. Although, when I go back and listen to old episodes, I hear places where the sound levels are a little wonky, or my vocal inflection is kind of weird—or especially all the frikkin sibiliance!—and I wonder if I’m even nailing the “quality” part…

Anyway, today’s ludicrous lyrics come from Danny Bladh in…somewhere in Utah. I can’t remember what city he lives in. Anyway, this is what Danny said:

“I thought the first line to Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ was ‘This kid, he hopped a northbound train to get somewhere’ for years. The real line is ‘Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest,’ so I was way off.”

In my response to Danny, I admitted that for years I had thought the opening line in “Karma Police” was “Arrest this man, he talks too much,” when in fact it’s really saying “Arrest this man, he talks in maths.” Although, to give myself some grace, I will point out that pluralizing the word “math” is one of the most ridiculous things British people have ever done. English people should English more betterer!

But okay, that’s enough culturally insensitive banter with my friends across the pond for today.

This episode will be the last of any world-building I’ll be doing before we finally begin discussing the first generation of rock artists. I know I keep teasing our foray into the lives and careers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, for example, but as I’ve said before, context is crucial in order to understand the pulls and pressures on these artists. This is an episode where a lot of info from past episodes is going to come into play. I will endeavor to provide mini-reviews and context throughout it because I don’t expect everyone to remember every single bit of information I’ve given out in this podcast so far…although, maybe I should expect more from my listening audience. Maybe I should expect all of you to remember everything I’ve said. Maybe that will be the way to unlock future episodes is you’ll all be provided mid-term exams and you can only listen to Deep Tracks if you get an 80% or higher on your tests.

Anyway, back in “Real World”: I will provide enough context to my call-backs so that, even if you’ve never listened to any other episode of Deep Tracks before, you can still know what’s going on in this one. That being said, if you’ve never listened to Deep Tracks before, you are living an empty life my friend and you will not feel truly complete until you’ve gone back and listened to every one of my impactful, informative, intelligent and intrepid episodes.

Okay, back in the real “Real World”…

You may or may not recall that the blues existed as a musical tradition amongst African Americans for a while before it really became more widely known amongst other demographics in the U.S.—particularly the white demographic. People outside the black community were given glimpses into the blues with artists like Jimmie Rodgers who incorporated blues into his style—remember he was known for his “blue yodel”?—as well as African American bandleader W.C. Handy who brought a vaudeville-esque style of the blues to the forefront of American popular music—and this of course helped launch the careers of other black artists like Perry Bradford and Mamie Smith.

It's important to understand, though, that any elements or styles of the blues that bled out from the black community into a larger listening audience was usually done so through a white intermediary—like with Jimmie Rodgers—or, if it was done through a member of the black community, it was nevertheless still a watered-down version of the blues that would be more acceptable to a white audience—like with W.C. Handy. “Sky blues,” if you will. Or “powder blues”…? How about “teals?” Can we say people were singing the teals?

My point is, very early on, you had this divide between the music that stayed within the black community and the music that went beyond that. And I should specify, I’m talking about secular popular music of the black community—so I’m not talking about black gospel music. Of course, gospel music would inform and influence a lot of the secular forms of music, like blues and jazz—just like how white gospel would heavily impact country & western music—but we’ll dive more into that discussion when we dive into Little Richard.

So, for now, in regards to the secular popular music of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century, I want to look at this vein of music that would reach a wider and whiter audience outside the black community. This vein of music would eventually reincorporate elements of blues offshoots like ragtime and jazz, mix it with brass bands, and evolve into what we know of today as “Big Band” music (sometimes also called “Swing” or “Swing Band,” when it’s incorporating a dance element). Big Band would come to dominate popular music in the 1930s and ‘40s, and remain strong even into the 1950s, but its heyday was really 1935-1945.

And like I’ve mentioned before, in the twilight period of Big Band, people were talking about singers rather than band leaders. This would start to happen with the crooners, like Bing Crosby, reaching its apogee with Frank Sinatra who truly solidified the singer’s place as the main attraction. Frank Sinatra however would become more than just a singer: he would be an icon; he would also be an idle to what was then an emerging new subculture within the U.S.—the youth culture that we talked about last episode. And you might remember, a new term for this demographic of “not-quite-kids-but-also-not-quite-adults” was coined: “teenagers;” and this term quickly saw its own first etymological offshoot when the adoring teenage girls fawning over Sinatra were dubbed “teeny-boppers.” You may remember I mentioned that short cartoon from the 1940s entitled “Swooner Crooner” in which a rooster version of Frank Sinatra sings to a gaggle of chickens…wait, it’s a gaggle of geese. What’s a group of chickens called? A herd? A flock? A clutch refers to their eggs I think… Maybe it’s a brood? I don’t know. I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I’m gonna use plethora. Anyway, he’s singing to a plethora of chickens who are passing out from being overcome with adoration for him and his voice.

In short, as illustrated in this cartoon (tee hee, ‘illustrated’): the crooners owned the late 1940s and early 1950s. And with the crooners, the music industry saw its first glimpses into which demographic would be driving their record sales over the next several decades. It wouldn’t be senior citizens, it wouldn’t be middle-aged office bureaucrats, it wouldn’t even be young stay-at-home-moms. No, it would be…teenagers.

In terms of record charts, crooners were considered “mainstream popular” music, and that was the chart on which their record sales were tracked. And by the mid-1950s, you still had a number of crooners still going strong, like Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Eddie Fisher and Perry Como, to name a few, but in general their popularity was on the decline. The 1950s would be the first time that record charts for mainstream popular music would start to see more and more crossover from the other two record charts.

Let’s pause for a moment to review record charts. You’ll remember that throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s there were essentially three main record charts: mainstream pop, country & western, and Norwegian death metal. Okay, I’m kidding, the third chart was rhythm & blues. I just wanted to make sure you’re paying attention. Before the 1940s, country & western had been called “hillbilly music,” and rhythm & blues had been called “race music,” with a number of record companies having a division aimed specifically at distributing that type of music that were called “race records.”

The term “rhythm & blues” was made popular by Jerry Wexler during his time as a music journalist—before he became a music producer at Atlantic records—and it was often used as a “catch-all” for black music in general. But really, “rhythm & blues” refers to what blues music was evolving into at that time with electric blues artists like Elmore James, as well the music of black crooners who were a little more blues influenced, like Ray Charles (as opposed to other black crooners who were more jazz or pop influenced, like Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis, Jr.).

Rhythm & blues charts were a mixture of the more the more “acceptable” types of blues music as well as the less “acceptable” types. And it was the stereotypes and perceptions surrounding those “less acceptable” types of blues that we’re going to drill down into for a hot minute.

This will also bring our discussion back to the vein of African American music that, initially, had stayed within the black community.

You might remember back in episode 4 that I referenced something called “hokum blues.” Hokum was originally a comedy bit that was often done in minstrel shows, usually using some sort of innuendo or double entendre in its humor, eventually evolving into a type of blues music after World War I in which that element of double entendre was a staple part. The tradition of lyrics having a secondary, or hidden meaning, is something that can be traced in black musical traditions all the way back to Africa. And it is something that continues to this day. For example, I once wrote a piece of music in college that incorporated Congolese folk tunes and I remember one of them had words that sang about an overbearing mother-in-law, but the deeper meaning behind the words was that they were really singing about government overreach or corruption…I wish I could remember the name of the tune. I wrote a paper on it, which I still have in a box somewhere. Maybe it’ll turn up one of these days and I can include it in my show notes.

Anyway, my point is, hokum blues was just one mini-tradition to spring out of this broader tradition of lyrics with double-meaning. And the thing to remember about hokum blues is, it was music intended for adult audiences. It was music for juke joints—not necessarily jukeboxes. It wasn’t really composed for younger audiences.

Hokum blues songs sometimes had more subtle titles, like “Pretty Baby Blues” for example, but more often than not they had song titles that put little or no effort into veiling their true subject matter: one of the titles in this category that I mentioned in episode 4 was “Banana in Your Fruit Basket”; other titles include “She’s a Bread Baker,” “Please Warm My Weiner,” “Sam the Hotdog Man,” and “Let Me Play With Your Poodle.”

This adult element to blues music would come to dominate many people’s perceptions of black music in general. Combine that with the nightclub scene associated with the black community at that time—as dens of liquor, prostitution and gambling—and you essentially had a scarlet letter foisted onto any and all music that was unapologetically black.

There are a few points to make here. First of all, black artists were not the only ones to write and perform hokum blues. For example, Jimmie Rodgers has a famous hokum blues song called “Pistol Packin’ Papa.” I’ll share with you the first verse of the song:

“I'm a pistol-packin' papa, and when I walk down the streets
You can hear those mamas shouting ‘don't turn your gun on me’
Now girls, I'm just a good guy and I'm going to have my fun
And if you don't want to smell my smoke, don't monkey with my gun”

Another point I want to bring up is, when white, popular music artists did engage in what can be perceived as similarly risqué lyrics, there was a much wider berth afforded them. Take for example this song “Make Love to me” by Jo Stafford which was number 5 on Billboard’s top 100 in 1954. I’ll read you some of those lyrics:

“take me in your arms, and never let me go
(Ba-boom-boom-boom-boom) whisper to me softly while the moon is low
(Ba-boom-boom-boom-boom) hold me close and tell me what I wanna know
(Ba-boom-boom-boom-boom) say it to me gently, let the sweet talk flow
Come a little closer, make love to me

kiss me once again, before we say good night
(Ba-boom-boom-boom-boom) take me in your lovin' arms, and squeeze me tight
(Ba-boom-boom-boom-boom) put me in a mood, so I can dream all night
(Ba-boom-boom-boom-boom) everybody's sleepin', so it's quite alright
Come a little closer, make love to me”

As we will soon see, as we continue our coverage of rock’s birth: because of rock’s association with this other, less “acceptable” form of black music, rock artists—both black and white—will get away with a lot less than what Jo Stafford may or may not have been singing about in “Make Love to Me.” And this pressure wasn’t only a racial thing. Even within the black community there was a perception that many people held that labeled blues and jazz as the devil’s music. You might remember Howlin’ Wolf was more or less disowned by his mother who never approved of his music career; and as I’ve mentioned before, Little Richard will experience a similar moral dilemma when we get to him as he not only vacillated between rock ‘n’ roll and gospel music, but even between his career as a musician and his attempts at pursuing a career in the ministry.

But this delineation between music that is moral and music that isn’t is a very arbitrary thing. African American blues and jazz artists were not the first ones to use coded messaging to sing about sex and sexuality. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, a popular form of music arose called the madrigal. Within the poetry used as text for madrigals is a theme of dying that arises over and over again. However, when you learn that to “die” was also a euphemism for experiencing orgasm—which itself sprang from an old belief that a person briefly dies during orgasm—the meaning of a lot of those old songs suddenly takes on a new light. A famous example is from a poem by Marenzio about a shepherd named Tirsi in which Tirsi says to his beloved, “Do not die yet, for I want to die with you.” I like how Maureen Buja put it in an article she wrote for Interlude on this topic: “The madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo upped the stakes by having his lover declare that he suffers because ‘a thousand times a day I die.’ He equates his deaths with the number of sighs he has from frustration each day.” So, basically, he was writing about sexual frustration. Gesualdo wrote a number of madrigals on unrequited erotic love, actually, which is made all the more ironic since he is also famous for having murdered his wife and her lover after catching them in bed together. Of course, though, since he was the Prince of Venosa and the Count of Conza, nothing ever happened to him. He literally got away with murder. And then kept writing songs about love.

I make this point because I’ve known people who have given the blanket approval on all music older than a hundred years—particularly “classical” music—while also maintaining a blanket disapproval of all contemporary popular music—especially rock. However, as you can see, lewdness doesn’t belong to just one type of music or one segment of the population. There’s a little more “rock-n-roll” in a lot of classical music than people give it credit for.

But getting back to rhythm & blues: these “less savory” associations many people had with unwholesomeness and rhythm & blues would be a factor in its marketability—and by “factor” I mean “obstacle.”

As a result of this, music that was labeled “rhythm & blues” and that was associated with “race records,” was often limited to regional exposure through smaller radio stations that catered to a more local crowd, and also confined the music to independent record labels that created circulation from the trunk of a car as much as they did through record stores, jukeboxes, or radio airplay. In fact, these independent labels—you might remember—often gained radio airplay through direct, face-to-face relationships garnered with those local DJs through bribes and favors—also known as “payola.”

And you also might remember that by the late-1940s, DJs had become the ultimate gatekeepers of new music, which, by extension, also made them major tastemakers in popular culture in the U.S.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, more and more white youth were gaining access to black “underground” music through smaller, local radio stations, jukeboxes, and record shops. For example, in episode 6, I read that quote from the Mark Ribowsky book on Little Richard that mentioned how, during the day, “Nashville’s WLAC…had a standard mainstream format, but after dark, when other stations on its frequency went off the air, it sent [rhythm & blues] programs so far across the map that the station billed itself as ‘the nighttime station for half the nation.’” Something you may have missed in that quote when I read it in episode 6 is the first part of it: “[‘Tutti Frutti,’ was released] in mid-October 1955…under the name ‘Little Richard And His Band.’ …The first Richard heard it, he was back in Macon, [Georgia]…”

Macon, Georgia. That’s over 300 miles from Nashville.

So this illustrates one of the ways white youth were being exposed to black music: through these stations that would switch their format late at night from playing mainstream pop to play rhythm & blues—and not only play rhythm & blues, but blast it: you may remember in episode 4 how I mentioned that some stations could boost their signal at night when other stations went off the air—that quote I just read about WLAC is an example of that very thing. These stations would blast their signal far and wide.

However, here’s the rub: as we learned last episode, the country was already in the throes of a national panic over juvenile delinquency, and the generational rift was growing larger and feeling more pronounced. With parents on high alert, any influences that could be tied to immorality in any way would be highly scrutinized and aggressively shunned.

So, of course, in the face of dealing with hyper vigilant parents, teens did what they’ve always done: they immediately stopped any and all disagreeable behavior that their parents didn’t approve of and obediently followed every command they were given.

No! They worked even harder at listening to their music in secret!

So what you had were numerous scenarios in which hyper vigilant parents, who saw all music coming out of black culture as being immoral and lascivious, finding out their kids were accessing this music at the local soda shop on the jukebox or secretly purchasing the records from a nearby record shop; or even hearing it on the radio late at night. And it didn’t matter if the music was hokum blues or not—all secular black music, particularly rhythm & blues, was seen as suspect—especially since the music was notorious for having this streak of lyrics with hidden meanings within it. Like, think about older generations today trying to grapple with all the new acronyms and terminology that have sprung up from texting and social media, and you’ve got yourself a decent picture of parents in the 1950s looking at “wop bop a loo bop a lop bam bom” scratching their heads wondering if it’s innuendo or not.

However, to be fair to those parents who were concerned about the emergence of rock music as being a lewd influence, the term rock ‘n’ roll itself does come from hokum—it’s a euphemism for sex. But we’ll talk more about that story when we talk about Alan Freed.

As I mentioned a little while ago, the early to mid-1950s was the first time you had artists from the other two charts crossing over onto the mainstream popular music chart on not only a consistent basis, but also an increasing one. The first rhythm & blues artists to consistently cross over were Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, and next episode we’ll discuss how and why they were able to do this.

Now, I should stop and explain what it meant to “cross over,” because there were different ways that artists from one chart would cross over to another one.

For one thing, the charts were as much attempting to be predictive as they were reactive. The creators of record charts categorized artists along the lines of who they thought the listening audience would be for certain artists or songs. This of course affected marketing and exposure. As John Covach and Andrew Flory put it in What’s That Sound?: “According to this system, if you owned a record store on Main Street that had few black customers and almost none from the country, you would not pay much attention to the rhythm and blues and country and western charts, since most of your customers would have been interested in pop records.” However, they then go on to point out: “Contrary to beliefs about such segregated listening, anecdotal evidence suggests that many black listeners enjoyed pop and country and western, and that many country and western listeners enjoyed pop and rhythm and blues.” And this now brings us to what we’re talking about right now in the story of rock as I read this next quote from the Covach/Flory text: “One of the most significant changes to these business practices that occurred during the early 1950s was when middle-class white teens discovered rhythm and blues, which led to the softening of the boundaries between chart classifications.”

So, when a song held a prominent position on more than one of the three types of charts, that’s called a “crossover.” But when I say a “song,” this may or may not be referring to its original artist. You see, there was a difference between an artist crossing over vs. a song crossing over. If an artist crossed over, that meant that their performance of that song was the version that was sitting pretty on more than one chart. However, sometimes a song that was doing well on a rhythm & blues chart would then be covered by another artist, and that cover version would be the one that popped up on another chart. So, in this case, it was the song itself straddling charts, but had one artist’s performance of it on one chart and another artist’s performance of it on another chart.

A great example of this would be the song “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. Initially his song was doing well on rhythm & blues charts, but didn’t appear anywhere on any other charts. Then along came a guy name Pat Boone who did a cover version of the song that then did really well on mainstream pop charts. At that moment, the song had crossed over. Later, however, more and more people were exposed to the original version of the song and Little Richard’s performance of it eventually became more popular than Pat Boone’s. So then Little Richard performing his own song became the dominant version topping all the charts. At this point, Little Richard as an artist had crossed over.

And it’s a story we’ll see time and time again: initially a song would be doing well on rhythm & blues charts, so it would then be covered by a white artist which would then bring it to the attention of mainstream pop charts, until down the road, sometimes—but not always—the original black artists’ versions were discovered and popularized, eventually becoming the dominant versions on the charts.

It was a system that would frustrate countless black artists who would write a song, record it, but because of their skin color and/or the negative stereotypes surrounding their musical culture, their song was often relegated to the rhythm & blues charts—which received less attention than mainstream pop charts—also confining their music to local radio airplay and independent labels; in the meantime, a white artist would discover their song, perform it—sometimes changing the style but sometimes doing an exact, note-for-note copy—and then make a ton of money off of it while the black songwriter languished in obscurity.

And because of how the music industry worked at that time, many of those black songwriters didn’t receive royalties from their covered songs. You see, if a guy came along and said he wanted to record and market a song you wrote, you didn’t always know if you were going to see that person again. He may just run off with your song without paying you a cent. So, you could either make money off the song on the “front end” or the “back end.” The front end meant you would get a larger sum up front, but that meant you were selling all rights to the song and surrendering any possibility of receiving royalties on the song down the road. But at least it was a guarantee: you were getting money then and there, without taking any risk. Getting money on the back end, of course, is the opposite of that: you get little or no money up front with the anticipation that, by retaining your rights to the song, you would be receiving more money down the road.

But like I said, many artists didn’t know if they would see these so-called “talent scouts” ever again. Some guy would show up and offer to record your music, promising you a bunch of money down the road—on the “back end”—and then disappear with your intellectual property and never send you a dime. And a lot of these guys were shysters, taking advantage of musicians—white and black—who either didn’t understand contractual language, or—in the case of many black musicians—didn’t know how to read. Remember how I pointed out that Howlin’ Wolf didn’t learn to read until he was in his forties? So, this was something that afflicted songwriters of every skin color—and was one of the reasons that Tin Pan Alley came into existence, because a bunch of songwriters wanted to band together to help protect their trade—but it was especially bad amongst African American artists because many of them were more poorly educated and had had fewer advantages. In fact, the difficult and impoverished circumstances from which many of them came only created a greater sense of desperation and urgency among them, making them easy marks for conmen and predatory businessmen.

So, in the early days, many black artists demanded money up front, selling most or all of their rights to their songs. But! As more and more songs by black artists were crossing over, you had more and more black artists retaining their rights to their music, rather than selling those rights up front in a desperate bid to get some quick cash, and this also led to more and more artists crossing over with their songs, rather than being left behind.

I’m going to read a pretty lengthy quote from What’s that Sound? that does a nice job of summarizing everything I just said:

“Until 1955, chart boundaries were relatively reliable; for the most part, records and songs popular on one chart stayed on that chart and crossovers were more the exception than the rule. From 1950 to 1953, for instance, about 10 percent of the hits appearing on the rhythm and blues charts crossed over. Beginning in 1954, however, a clear trend can be seen, as rhythm and blues records began to cross over onto the other charts; 25 percent of the rhythm and blues hits crossed over that year, and by 1958 the figure increased to 94 percent. Sometimes two versions of the same song would appear on the pop charts—the original rhythm and blues performance, most often performed by a black artist, and a cover version, usually performed by a white artist. With only a few notable exceptions, the versions by white artists performed better on the pop charts than the rhythm and blues originals. When the original version appeared on a small independent label, a larger independent label (or a major label) could record a cover and distribute its records faster and more widely; to some extent, this explains the greater success of these versions…. Race played a significant role in pop listeners’ tastes, which was the source of much resentment among the black artists whose records were copied.”

This brings me to a series of more lengthy quotes I want to read from an excerpt of Ruth Brown’s autobiography from the anthology entitled Rock History Reader—which is another textbook that I’ve used in teaching my rock history class. It’s edited by Theo Cateforis and I’m reading out of the 2nd edition. I should probably start receiving some kickback from textbook publishers for all this free advertising I’m doing for them…

Anyway, Ruth Brown was also known as “Miss Rhythm,” and I played a little bit of her music in my overview, a couple episodes back. As Cateforis points out in the little intro to her excerpt, “The flood of cover versions that floated between rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and pop in the 1950s proved to be a point of serious contention for black singers like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, who as Brown mentions, formally complained of the inequality that she faced competing with white cover singers like Georgia Gibbs. On one bitter occasion, [LaVern] Baker even went so far as to name Gibbs as the recipient of her flight insurance, reasoning that if any tragedy were to befall her, Gibbs would be without a source of further revenue.”

So, with that tidbit from the intro, here are some bits and pieces of the actual Ruth Brown autobiography excerpt:

“Any real money I made came from touring, and I was always out there promoting the records. Back then any record by a black artist needed every ounce of help it could get. The expression ‘R&B chart’ was another way in the later forties and early fiftes to list ‘race and black’ as well as ‘rhythm and blues’ records. And the reason so few discs by black artists crossed over to the Billboard’s mainstream chart was simple: it was compiled from white-owned radio station playlists featuring music by white artists, with our list catering to blacks. As Jerry Wexler…put it when asked if it was difficult to get R-and-B records played on general-audience stations in the early fifties, ‘Difficult would have been easy. It was impossible.’

“It very gradually became less so, of course, as R-and-B artists broke through the barriers by the sheer strength and quality of their music. But it took time, and throughout my biggest hit-making period I was forced to stand by as singers like Georgia Gibbs and Patti Page duplicated my records note for note and were able to plug them on top television shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, to which I had no access.

“Chuck Wills wrote ‘Oh, What a Dream’ especially for me, and it was my favorite song, but it was Patti Page, with an identical arrangement, who got to sing it on national television.”

I’ll pause for a moment to play excerpts of both versions, back-to-back. First the Ruth Brown original, and then the Patti Page cover:

[song clips]

I have to add, I love that little squeak that Ruth Brown always added to the ends of her phrases. It just such a great vocal inflection that gives her such a unique style. And to be fair to Patti Page, she had a great voice and really did the song justice. But that’s not the issue here. In fact, the issue here will be spelled out clearly in this next portion of my super long Ruth Brown quote that I’m sharing with y’all:

“My labelmate and good friend LaVern Baker, who joined Atlantic [Records] in ’53, suffered the same fate on her original of ‘Tweedle Dee’—another note-for-note copy by Her Nibs Miss Gibbs. There was no pretense, either, that they were anything but duplicates. Mercury actually called up Tommy Dowd on the day they were cutting ‘Tweedle Dee’ and said, ‘Look, we’ve got the same arrangement, musicians and tempo, we might as well have the same sound engineer too.’

“It was tough enough coming up with hit sounds, therefore doubly galling to see them stolen from under our noses. Few seemed to stop and question the morality of this, least of all the publishers, to whom it was a case of the more the merrier.”

And I’ll pause again in this quote to remind you what we discussed back in episode 5, I believe, about how for a long time published music was the main vertical in the music industry, so music publishers would get as many artists to sing the songs they were publishing as they possibly could because it would help drive up sales. So for artists like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, there was no recourse in turning to the music publishers because for them, the more artists singing the songs they were publishing, the better. Right and wrong didn’t enter into the equation.

Okay, continuing on to this next portion of the excerpt, Ruth Brown will talk about her sales abroad which will then dovetail into cover versions she approves of and accepts as legitimate:

“I was denied sales abroad as well, although I knew nothing of this at the time. … Having made number three on Billboard’s R-and-B chart in the States, and actually crossing over to their pop charts as well, reaching number twenty-five, my version of ‘Lucky Lips’ was ignored in Britain. The [song] itself hit there years later in a 1963 version by Cliff Richard. … Cliff took the tune to number four on the British charts, well into his unprecedented run of over one hundred chart entries that continues—and deservedly so—to this day. Why he’s not bigger in the U.S. I’ll never know.

“My gripe would never be with legitimate covers, or subsequent versions like Cliff Richard’s, but with bare-faced duplicates, with no artistic merit whatsoever. Everybody in the business accepted covers as fair game. There were umpteen versions of songs like ‘Hey, There,’ ‘Stranger in Paradise’ and ‘Around the World,’ and you chose your favorite version based not only on the singer, but on the different treatments and arrangements on offer. I covered several songs myself, like ‘Be Anything (But Be Mine),’ originated by Winnie Brown with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and Larry Darnell’s ‘I’ll Get Along Somehow,’ but they were never by any stretch of the imagination mere duplicates.”

And then she makes this crucial point: “We contributed to the songs.”

To illustrate what Ruth Brown is talking about, I’ll play clips of those covers she mentioned at the end there. I’ll play the Winne Brown version first, then the Ruth Brown version of “Be Anything,” and then I’ll play the Larry Darnell version of “I’ll Get Along Somehow” followed by Ruth Brown’s.

[song clips]

Now, I hope you’ll forgive me offering full disclosure on my own bias on this issue: I agree with Ruth Brown. If you’re going to do a cover of a song, then bring something to the table. Don’t just do a note-for-note rip-off. Unless you’re a cover band: then I think people sort of expect the note-for-note thing, but cover bands function in a very different way than artists doing song covers. Cover bands are usually preserving a nostalgia—it’s the same rationale Rivers Cuomo gave for Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa,” although, another full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Weezer’s cover of “Africa.” I love Weezer as a band and, as you’ll see when we finally get to the 1990s, their first two albums are two of the greatest rock albums to come out of the ‘90s, but in this one instance, I’m not on board.

A couple examples of covers that I think were really well done: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”


And Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World”


In both those examples, there was something of the style of the coverer that was brought to the table to add to the possibilities presented by the music.

But more than that, in the case of Ruth Brown and other black rhythm and blues artists of the 1950s, there was the racial element. Like it or not, there is a history of whites exploiting blacks in this country. To be fair to Patti Page and Georgia Gibbs—as well as Pat Boone, when we get around to talking about him—and also to other white artists of the 1950s who covered the music of black artists, there was, indeed, this tradition of songs being a sort of “free for all” for performers, publishers—anyone who could get their hands on it. We discussed this briefly when we were looking at how the Star Spangled Banner is essentially new words placed on a pre-existing tune. Before music copyright matured into what it is today, it was common practice to borrow and steal tunes and songs—and again, this was part of the reason for the creation of Tin Pan Alley: songwriters trying to protect their intellectual property. It’s also the reason for the creation of an organization called the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers—or ASCAP—which we will also be revisiting in a later episode.

But still…tradition or no tradition, stealing is stealing; and like I said, it had the racial element to it. It’s a bad thing for a white person to exploit another white person, and it’s of course bad for a black person to exploit another black person, but at that time, before civil rights, in the era of Jim Crow laws and other social inequities for blacks, it just had that extra baggage to it that made the practice sting that much more when white artists exploited black artists for an easy hit song.

And in fact, down the road, we’ll see how this will become one of the reasons why rock ‘n’ roll—which was originally a very black music—would eventually come to be associated almost completely with a white demographic as black artists would branch out and flock to other genres of music like soul, sweet soul, funk, and finally rap. But we’ll save the “gentrification” of rock music for another day.

For now, everything that we’ve laid out in this episode and last episode is the world into which the first generation of rockers would be entering as they strove to make their mark in music history. And that is what we will be talking about next episode: the emergence of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley onto this unique world stage. After these three artists, we’ll FINALLY tackle the life and music of Little Richard, and then after that we’ll be ready to look at Sam Smith, Sun Records, and Elvis Presley. Somewhere in there we’ll also be taking a closer look at Atlantic Records, which will include Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, but also Ray Charles. The next several episodes will be super exciting.

Don’t miss them.

Show notes coming soon!