Chapter Ten 1954
The year 1954 brought equal parts progress and upheaval for the United States. On March 1st the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission exploded the first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll, in the Pacific. Solar power and silicon transistors were tentatively explored and computers, the first offspring of UNIVAC, entered the business arena. Americans downed oral contraceptives, Thorazine and the first tranquilizer, called Miltown. An increasingly outraged Senate voted censure on Joe McCarthy,1 and Ray Kroc bought out California's McDonald brothers with stars (and arches) in his eyes.
The big bang, however, took place on May 17th. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren led a 9-0 ruling that overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal.” Segregation of public schools had been (re)tried and found wanting. How, though, to prod change and coerce heavily protesting social gears to mesh? Belzoni, Montgomery, and Little Rock soon showed exactly how the coercion was faring. As far as Cincinnati was concerned, it saw the first black Red secure a place on the team, when Chuck Harmon took the field on April 17th. Two months later, Ezzard Charles (the “Cincinnati Cobra”) pummeled Rocky Marciano in the first of two meetings of the boxers that year.
At this time, black musicians setting out in overloaded station wagons for extended promotional tours found their talents often cut zero ice. This was especially true for a northern act touring the Midwest or south. Now, up-and-coming acts could be robbed by label bosses in New York or Chicago and harassed, threatened or denied service almost everywhere on the road. Sometimes the only haven (with decent money) would be a black theatre and club circuit, or one of the emerging package shows put together by DJs like Allan Freed or Tommy “Dr. Jive” Smalls.
On the subject of prominent and popular DJs, the Queen City boasted Lawrence “Larry Dean” Faulkner, who by the summer had a huge following for his five-hour “Larry Leaps!” program on WCIN. Dean, a mover and shaker formerly with WSOK in Nashville and WLOU in Louisville, had been named WCIN’s program director the previous summer.
He began 1954 with a pleasant announcement indeed: that WCIN would soon join an all-new national network, called WEB, to be the first network aiming programming and advertising specifically to America's 15 million black citizens. The broadcasts began January 25th, initially comprised of dramatic and soap opera material. WCIN joined stations like Annapolis’ WANN, which reached 600,000 target listeners. The WEB headquarters was in New York City, and had none other than Cab Calloway as its talent adviser. Other network members included WLOU and Miami’s WMBM. The advertisers were no deadbeats, counting amongst themselves Pet Milk and Philip Morris.2
The King/Federal stable had plenty of competition in the mid ‘50s, and 1954 was a fierce year for it. George Goldner’s new label, Rama, had a big hit called “Gee” with its group the Crows. The Clovers, from Atlantic’s collection of heavy hitters, were charting strong with “Lovey Dovey.” The Spaniels were hopping on Chicago’s Vee-Jay with “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight.” And twice in the early part of the year, DJs had turned a record over and gotten a smash with the b-side: the Chords’ “Sh-Boom” and the Penguins’ “Earth Angel.” R&B was heading for its biggest year ever, and its peak as a fresh and innovative phenomenon.
There was a lot of music flowing out from the building on Brewster, and much going on within those walls. King now controlled over 30 satellite offices, creating a huge and constant influx of orders and feedback. (Often, Nathan found it handy to record a message to these auxiliaries, press it as a record, and have it fired out into the field to any or all branches at once. Instant directives, with any necessary growls included!). King also began to expand its distribution of other labels, and now handled the 4-Star, Gilt-Edge and Big Town lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They'd shipped these lines previously, but only in the east.
RCA Victor's little 45 rpm disc had become a favorite with everyone who handled it, from distributors to merchants to record buyers themselves. It was lighter, easier to store and far less breakable than a 78, and the industry soon saw the writing on the wall. In July, Columbia, RCA Victor, Capitol, Decca and Mercury began shipping promotional DJ singles in the new format. King did also, but they left open the option of the 78! One simply filled out a postcard with the station's preference and sent it back.3
The label's popularity grew exponentially. From fall of ‘53 to spring of ‘54, King/Federal was second only to Atlantic among jukebox operators reporting their profits.4 A handsome showing, considering Atlantic boasted not only unit-movers like LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, The Clovers and The Drifters, but also the unstoppable veteran Joe Turner and comer Ray Charles. King/Federal could in fact place Earl Bostic and The Dominoes among the Top 10 hottest juke acts.5 Factors like heavy juke action, especially on a wide scale, kept a hot act perpetually booked.
Returning back to the wild Midnighters, to the spring of the year; what was happening? “Annie” had the #1 R&B spot nailed down; it was time for a follow-up smash. “Sexy Ways” did the trick, being more straightforward than its predecessor—if not as clever. All through that scorching summer the two tunes rode the chart until an amazing thing happened.
A West Coast DJ remarked offhandedly after spinning “Annie” that “…if you think that was something you oughta hear the new one—“Annie Had a Baby!” No such song existed, but the station was deluged with calls pleading for the song—where could it be had?!! Word got back to Nathan who grabbed Henry Glover and composed (with Nathan using a favorite pseudonym, Lois Mann) a song to fit the bill. By early September, Ballard & Co. held down three Top 10 slots with “Annie Had a Baby” at the top.6
The previous year's firestorm aside, the “answer” trend hadn't played itself out yet. Therefore, here came young Annie's chart challengers.
Two records vied for the first response: Etta James’ cautiously named “The Wallflower (Dance with Me Henry)” on Modern and the El-Dorados’ “Annie’s Answer” on Chicago’s Vee-Jay. A group called The Midnights (how’s that for confusion) banged out “Annie Pulled a Humbug,” and Linda Hayes did “My Name Ain’t Annie” for King. There were several more, each trying to dip into their share of teen wallets.
It took months more to play out the pile of related releases, including Mac Burney and The Four Jacks’ “Tired Of Your Sexy Ways” and a Midnighters’ response to Etta James called “Henry’s Got Flat Feet.” Later fall saw the release of “Annie’s Aunt Fanny” and it seemed the group would get a rest. They did, although it was a precursor to a four-year dry spell when the hits just wouldn’t come. To their credit, though, they remained a Federal act.
Ballard’s plea was, ultimately, the culmination of at least three decades of songs that contained double entendres, sly messages, or were lewd outright. “Lewd,” it should be stressed, by a mainly white standard. How had such fare been produced for so long without raising the hackles of parents, preachers, and mayors? The answer needn’t be dressed up with a lot of analysis. It was simply that white sons and daughters were just beginning to discover the energy and drive of what R&B was becoming.
It was an enjoyable music in its mid ‘50s, barrier-crossing incarnation. It addressed the perennial complaints, dilemmas, and joys of listeners grappling with youth. It could also be very frank in its subject matter. Often a tune stuck out because the culture it now (widely) reached differed so from the one where it was born.
Again, the label’s songs of this time followed quite a legacy of suggestive stuff in the country's cultural history (tunes that were already popular and pre-dated recorded music). It should be noted, though, that the label had been producing tunes like those of Wynonie Harris for years, so it wasn't exactly a neophyte. And in the years 1950-54 it was a substantial dealer in the risqué.
DeLuxe hadn't been a King asset for long when Roy Brown cut the 1950 “Butcher Pete,” a record that took up both sides of a 78 with its narrative of a crazy man, back in town and “…hackin’—whackin’—choppin’ that meat!” Pete was no respecter of persons…he was after anything with a pulse it seemed. It was a manic tune, well-reviewed but unfit for airplay. Also from this year came Myra Johnson’s sly “Silent George” (from the pen of Glover and Nathan, who again used a pseudonym: Sally Nix). In it, George shows up on a young girl’s doorstep seeking, apparently without speaking, some companionship. Apparently he’s a lover of some mettle, as after the song’s length in protests our lass relents and lets him in. The tune featured Lucky Millinder’s outfit backing up Johnson.
Next up was the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man,” a record whose popularity showed for the first time that airplay wasn’t critical for a record to be a smash. More importantly, owing to the cool bragging of its protagonist Lovin’ Dan, “Sixty Minute Man” is the first identifiable instance of a mass movement of young white males toward R&B. Dan wasn’t just a boastful street cat, either. He was a genuine archetype.
Roots American music, both black and white, sometimes featured symbolic or recurring characters. In the R&B family tree were the late 19th Century “Peetie Wheatstraw,” as well as “Stack-O-Lee,” later also known as Stagger Lee. The bane of every working man, soldier, or traveling salesman was the notorious “Shorty,” always coming around his back door as he left from the front. And this “Lovin’ Dan?” As Steve Propes and Jim Dawson illustrate while discussing the song, Dan Tucker—or Jim Dandy—was born of 19th Century minstrel shows.7 A jazz group called the Black Dominoes did “Dancin’ Dan” in 1923, and Bessie Smith sang of “Hustlin’ Dan” for Columbia in 1930. A woman named Georgia White cut “Dan the Backdoor Man” in 1937, all laying the groundwork for Bill Brown’s smooth bass.
The year 1952 produced a slew of King label “blue” blues, often as credited to Glover/Nix or Glover/Mann. To begin the year, Baltimore’s aforementioned Swallows cut a cool and reserved track called “It Ain’t The Meat It’s The Motion” which declared
It ain’t the meat—it’s the motion
makes your daddy wanna rock
it ain’t the meat it’s the motion
it’s the movement that gives..it…the sock
For a bunch of kids, the song’s well done. It’s got rhythm, flair, and even a little guitar riff for good measure. Although the song is delivered by bass Norris Mack, it’s a little more subtle than Brown’s reading of “Sixty Minute Man.” The Swallows were a class act.
A woman named Fluffy Hunter, backed by the Jesse Powell Orchestra, cut a stomper called “Walking Blues” (with a repeated chorus of “walk right in—walk right out”) that was not rocket science. And in keeping with the label habit of backing a hot young chanteuse with an equally strong band, Connie Young and Todd Rhodes’ Orchestra cut a charmer called “Rocket 69.”
May saw the release of Dave Bartholomew's “My Ding-a Ling,” definitely a novelty outing. (This song had a lifespan that, for pop, was remarkable. Bartholomew later did it for Imperial as “Little Girl Sing Ting-A-Ling.” A New York group, The Bees, did it as “Toy Bell”—also for Imperial—and in 1972 Chuck Berry took it to #1!).
Next up is a platter that rocks even today, by a man of undeniable vocal charisma and dead-on musical timing…Mr. Benjamin “Bullmoose” Jackson. He waxed what was arguably the quintessential risqué R&B number, called “Big Ten-Inch Record.” Print doesn't do it justice:
Last night I tried to tease her
I gave her a little pinch
But she said now stop that jivin’
and get out that big ten-inch…
record of the band that played the blues
of the band that played the blues
she just loves my big ten-inch…
record of her favorite blues
No examination of salacious songcraft would be complete without another nod to “Mr. Blues,” Wynonie Harris, a man who lit up any room he walked into. After leaving Lucky Millinder, Harris cut “Around the Clock,” a tale of a marathon sex session, for the Philo label. Importantly, he used the lyrical device of going through the hours, something that would later crop up on songs like “Rock Around The Clock” and “Tossin’ and Turnin’.”
After Philo was renamed Aladdin he delivered “Hard Ridin’ Mama,” and after his 1948 signing to King we get tracks like “Lollipop Mama,” “All She Wants to Do is Rock,” and “I Like My Baby's Pudding.” Most of these have clever moments, so it's a shame that Harris’ mid-‘50s attempts at the sly fall flat. From ‘52 and ‘53, the clumsy “Keep on Churnin’” (“…keep on churnin’ ‘til the butter flows—wipe off the paddle and churn some more”) and “Wasn't That Good” come up short, being more crass than catchy.
The Royals’ 1953 “Get It” was a declaration of things to come, as was a re-released Apollo master from The Five Royales called “Laundromat Blues.” (This became a King holding as the group came into the Nathan orbit). This fellow's girl has the “very best equipment—there’s no better machine to be found,” as it turns out.
bring your dirty clothes—bring all your dirty duds—
don't worry ‘bout no soap, her machine is full of suds—
Oddly, most of these songs were on higher-visibility King, even though Federal at this time stood waiting for such potential gunpowder.
In this a most delicate and explosive of years, as the hue and cry against smutty records approached a fever pitch, King had company in the wink-and-a-nod stakes.
Blues thrush Dinah Washington did a number called “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” for Mercury. (This after “Long John Blues,” also for Mercury, from five years earlier). A Brooklyn bunch called The Toppers did a B-side called “(I Love to Play Your Piano) Let Me Bang Your Box” for Jubilee. There’s stretching for a hit, and then there’s courting disaster.
The era’s outcry clutched at any straw that would defeat the music, was lead by Variety and Billboard, and included newspapers, civic and religious groups and law enforcement agencies from all across America. If comparatively overt sex and the horrible “jungle” beat weren’t enough, there were other angles of attack, including the sheer inanity, goofiness and/or raucous nature of the tunes—tracks comprised of “leer-ics” laid over incompetently arranged and executed music.8 Far below the surface was a clandestine effort by staid ASCAP to destroy the interloper BMI, as BMI was responsible for most of the independents’ publishing.9
On February 20th, a loose coalition of East Coast DJs issued a press release that they were organizing a club of sorts to fight records they found offensive. These included discs that “…deal with sex in a suggestive manner, deal with drinking, or that hold the Negro up to ridicule.”10 They’d pass the word amongst themselves, then contact the label and the artist(s) and give the reasoning for their decision. Apparently the club felt that most labels didn’t put out many such recordings, but that the ones that did were “continual offenders.”
Scarcely a month later jock Ed McKenzie, on Detroit's WXYZ banned the tune “Such a Night.” And it wasn’t just one, but three versions of the song: The Drifters’, Johnny Ray’s and Bunny Paul’s. A pile of mail from parents and teachers decrying it as “suggestive trash” probably spurred the call.11
In New York City, the Metropolitan Disc Jockey Club and Association of Broadcasters was formed. This (rather grandly named, considering the business) group set about improving DJ presentation, discouraging off-color material, and such.12 There was even talk there, and especially in other large cities of the region, like Boston, that perhaps the Mambo craze sweeping the country would supersede R&B in the kids’ affections.
Country music sprang from a pretty marginalized culture, though not nearly as marginalized as that which gave birth to R&B. Pot shots, ridicule and lambastings of all sorts were not only alright, then, but almost expected. Peter Potter, a jock for KLAC and host of CBS TV’s Juke Box Jury weighed in repeatedly on the subject. “It’s a low level in home music entertainment,” he sniffed, referring to L.A. kids’ embrace of R&B. “Much of it is obscene and of lewd intonation, and certainly not fit for radio broadcast.” He slammed the labels: he slammed the A&R men. “It's as bad for the kids as dope!” he wailed.13 On the September 25th airing, popular comedian Stan Freberg appeared. He had just released a parody of “Sh-Boom” on Capitol, and used the TV spot to take a few snide shots at R&B. “I hope this puts an end to rhythm and blues,” he cracked, offering a few choice remarks about the music.14
Several voices from the industry shot back, some with observations about his current success with “St. George and The Dragonet.” (It was a spoof based on an R&B track called “Dragnet Blues”). Hunter Hancock, a hip white jock said “It’ll take more than Stan Freberg to kill (the) music. If he doesn't like it, then let him stick to the type of entertainment he does approve of.”15 (A decade later, Dean Martin would rag his show’s musical guests: a new act called The Rolling Stones).
On October 3rd, WDIA, the 50,000-watt powerhouse out of Memphis, put the industry on notice that they were getting away from any and all suggestive material. In a wordy press release, station manager Bert Ferguson essentially stated that the label would put a record under the microscope if they felt it warranted close scrutiny for blue leanings. (Axed were not only obvious targets like the “Annie” stuff but also catchy tunes like The Drifters’ “Honey Love”). Production manager David James hoped WDIA’s move would spark an area trend. “We believe we had better regulate our own industry rather than have the government do it,” went his statement. They even produced an announcement for when some young area lad called with an unacceptable request:
“WDIA, your goodwill station, in the interest of good citizenship, for the protection of morals and our American way of life, does not consider this record, (blank), fit for broadcast on WDIA. We are sure all you listeners will agree with us and continue to enjoy our programs
and the music you hear every day.”16
Chicago industry types leaked quotes, though often anonymously. Who wanted to upset the gravy train? The points were made, though, that a) nobody was really talking about this stuff until the “pop” (read: white) kids started picking it up; b) most buyers sought beat over lyrics; c) it would probably pass and d) a hip, modern teen could read more into an innocent lyric than a gaggle of slick writers could cook up in a month. The Windy City settled for a “wait and see” policy.17
It was one thing for a label head to huff and puff, as did Bess Berman (of Apollo) and Herman Lubinsky (of Savoy), but quite another when a big gun got warmed up. Albert S. Denver headed the Music Operators of New York, Inc., and as such held the coin slots of over 10,000 metro area jukeboxes under his thumb. “We can’t endanger the public goodwill our industry enjoys for the quick profit of any individual who trades on bad taste,” he stated.18
Few voices were honest enough to flinch, for the record, about lost piles of profits. Or, as Philly dealer Joe Williams noted, that the records should be available in a free and open market.
Syd Nathan, in an inter-office memo that had to have been intentionally leaked, declared his disdain for “blue” material. He urged staffers and musicians to sidestep such material…after all, King—and all who dealt in R&B had grown so in stature—they had a moral obligation to the youth of America! (King VP John S. Kelley, Jr. was compelled, as late as the March 16th, 1955 issue of Variety to admit to a degree of culpability in questionable releases, and swear that there’d be no more such fare from King-group microphones.)19
Nathan had gotten his, so the label pulled back.
So it went. WFAX, in Falls Church, Virginia instituted a policy of spinning nothing that even sounded black. Bill Haley stopped in at Cleveland's WERE, where he concurred with the jocks that he didn’t get all the fuss and commotion over, in many minds, the music in general. A popular saying there at the station was “Nobody likes it but the people!”20
The music continued to spread in popularity, but as the labels policed themselves to ensure their market share a bigger, darker, and more menacing bogey was used to stir the klaxons: the music’s beat. It was the beat that, as R&B left clubs and armories to fill arenas, would bring about a true, terrified, and often violent protest.
Two cash cows/controversies—answer records and risqué records. Two different phenomena with two reasons for bickering, legal action and the like. Yet neither could shake apart a business that was starting to see heretofore outlandish sums of money.
More uproar lay in wait. There was a third drama to be played out through 1954 and into 1955. This one inflamed passions because it involved not only money lost but other things lost as well, including prestige, drawing power, and other intangibles that so affect show business.
It was, of course, cover records.
The term “cover” (or “copy”) is used because it is just that…an attempt to duplicate a record’s sound so closely as to be indistinguishable from the original. The other term for a redone song is, simply, “remake.” The latter term is appropriate when two (or more) versions differ obviously.
Covering had been around for a few years, and was popular in the R&B field. This was the year where it became a prominent issue, and it has seldom since returned to the back burner. The Crows’ “Gee” provides a case study. After a February release it shot from region to region, commanding sales and airplay wherever it was heard, and became one of the first smashes in a smash year.
By the time it hit the West Coast markets Capitol got June Hutton into a studio to cut it, and Columbia’s (newly reactivated) R&B label Okeh featured The Skylarks’ version. Regardless, The Crows’ version sold like wildfire. By month's end they'd clocked 51,000 units from one Southern California distributor alone. Demand for personal appearances grew as well.
In April, Clyde McPhatter released “Such a Night” on Atlantic. It spawned no less than three pop covers, but outdid them all. Getting the real thing was, and is, no cinch. At this point, artists like Dinah Washington and The Orioles were breaking pop on utter charisma. From the King crowd you could add Earl Bostic and The Dominoes to this list. (An earlier example of such appeal would have been Louis Jordan: later, Sam Cooke).
Regarding Atlantic, it was now the most covered label of them all, with an ever-growing list. Included were The Clovers’ “Lovey Dovey,” Ruth Brown’s “Oh What a Dream,” and Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The Chords had scored big with the aforementioned “Sh-Boom” for the small Atlantic subsidiary called Cat (“cat” was slang for young black hipster). People couldn't copy it fast enough, and its supplicants included a bone-white act on Mercury called The Crew Cuts. These guys weren’t alone. Labels all over, from the straighter (squarer?) independents to the majors soon realized that this stuff sold lots of records. Take a snappy tune, let Patti Page, Perez Prado or Perry Como smooth out the character (and crucially, the color) and presto! Big, safe success. Disdain can’t be heaped solely on poor Pat Boone, then. He was a relative latecomer to the cover game.
One thing should be noted here. R&B compositions had never been released in sheet music form, at least not any appreciable amount. This year would change that. A publishing company called Progressive Music released “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Honey Love.” In England, the featured versions were those done by Vicki Young on Capitol. This was strange, as Progressive was an affiliate of Atlantic.
Again, the cover situation carried over from ‘54 to ‘55. A duo called Gene & Eunice enjoyed a huge hit with tempo-shifting “Ko Ko Mo” on a label called Combo. Perry Como (RCA Victor) and The Crew Cuts (Mercury) were there with bells on. The McGuire Sisters laid down a shrill version of The Moonglows’ “Sincerely.” The Fontane Sisters (label-mates of Pat Boone on Dot Records) did “Seventeen,” (a soon-discussed hit for Boyd Bennett on King).
It came to a head of sorts in March of ‘55, with Georgia Gibbs’ blithe copy of “Tweedle Dee” with which LaVern Baker had enjoyed success on Atlantic. Gibbs had previously appropriated Ruth Brown’s “Mambo Baby,” also originally on Atlantic, but this was too much. Baker contacted Rep. Charles Diggs, Jr. (D.-Mich.) to formally complain. She pointed out that the song was originally cut by her and that Gibbs had “…duplicated my arrangement note-for-note on records…” She estimated her losses in royalties at about $15,000, mainly from distributors and record buyers who’d unknowingly purchased the other versions.21
She noted a 1946 decision which upheld the Copyright Act of 1909, wherein a song could be protected, but not an arrangement. “The law is outmoded,” she continued, “and should be amended by bringing it into line with current conditions…It’s not that I mind anyone singing a song that I write, or have written for me by someone, but I bitterly resent their arrogance in thefting my music note-for-note.” It was a strong move, but one with little real consequence; within two weeks, Gibbs had released a pop “Dance with Me, Henry.” Baker carried on, and renewed her contract with Atlantic for some time to come.
None of these developments was lost on Nathan, who watched as The Crew Cuts covered “Gum Drop” by Otis Williams and The Charms, (who cut it originally on King subsidiary DeLuxe). Boyd Bennett’s “Seventeen” had no less than three copiers.
There were, in fact, provisions for a label to cover another label’s song. If the first company wouldn’t license a song, the second could file a declaration of their intent to cover the song with the Copyright Office, and provisions were made for monthly or quarterly payment of royalties. This was called “compulsory licensing.” Nathan demanded this arrangement for the two tracks in question; otherwise, the competing labels should simply scrap their master recordings of them.
He was joined in his stand by the head of the Savoy label, Herman Lubinsky. Lubinsky, like Nathan and other indie heads, was beginning to see the effect of Pop’s rampant annexation of R&B. It was one thing to snatch a hit straight from an indie cradle and make a killing from it—it was quite another to give away additional free records for every number of records bought, as some companies did, adding insult to injury. Keeping an eagle eye on compulsory licensing, then, reined in at least some profit loss.
With one more twist in the cover saga, R&B hits were beginning to be covered by…R&B artists. Champion Jack Dupree’s “Walking the Blues” was done by Willie Dixon on Checker, and Little Willie John's debut smash “All Around the World” was done by its writer Titus Turner on the Mercury subsidiary Wing. And among many other examples, “Only You” by The Platters had been redone by a fledgling group on Jubilee called The Cues. (Again, The Platters had only just left Federal for Mercury a few months previous, rerecorded a slicker version of “Only You,” and watched it break huge).
What a business. Ads in the trades for new releases often now trumpeted some version of “The Original Smash!” or “The First and Best!” It helped also to have a smash hit to tag your name to, a la Faye “Shake a Hand” Adams or “The Tweedle Dee Girl” LaVern Baker.
This was a year of transition, and one of the reasons was that the time-honored maroon King label was due to be phased out in a year, replaced by the blue label for all King releases regardless of type. Let’s examine the activities of a few key King acts around this time.
Cowboy Copas kept himself with the Brewster facilities through three 1954 dates, and these yielded some fine sides which enjoyed decent sales but which also bolstered his Opry popularity: “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me” and “Carbon Copy” were particularly well received. He didn’t neglect the spiritual, as he cut “I Saw the Light” and “When Jesus Beckons Me Home,” which appeared as 45-5676. The four tracks from the August 24th date, including “Carbon Copy,” appeared as Parlophone GEP 8575, “Cowboy Copas: Western Style.”
His last two sessions during his original stay with King featured still more warm, engaging recordings. On February 28th, 1955 he assembled Louis Innis, Zeb and Zeke Turner, Tommy Jackson, Dale Potter and Jerry Byrd at Brewster and cut the impressive “Ashamed of Myself,” a song with a loping, upright bass-provided beat. It’s country, but with something else in the flavoring. Hot fiddle and a guitar break (that evokes the intro of “Work With Me, Annie”) create a number that compels attention. The song was backed with a version of “Pledging My Love,” perhaps to capture a bit of the “opportunity” afforded by Johnny Ace’s death.
Copas had another go at “Tragic Romance,” and turned in a fine version. He and the boys tackled Bonnie Lou’s “Old Faithful and True Love,” and this was coupled with a song from his first 1954 session—of a year earlier—called “(I’m a) Stranger in My Home” as 45-5437. Interestingly, these releases appear as continuations of the original maroon-label line, as with “Carbon Copy” (45-1386) and “Summer Kisses” (45-1464), as well as continuations of the 4000 series, such as with “Old Faithful” (45-5437) and “I Saw the Light” (45-5676).
This assigning to the two different series continues with the last session in question, from Nashville, held on July 20th, 1955. “Blue Yesterday” and the bold, rollicking “Tell Me More” appeared as 45-1507, while “Any Old Time” and “Don’t Shake Hands With the Devil” were assigned number 45-4865. Furthermore, many Copas tracks made new appearances during these years, and included songs such as “Breeze” and “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.” This is to say nothing of the LPs yet to appear over the years, which, as was standard practice, were beset with studio tampering.
By April of 1956 Copas was ensconced in a comfortable life in Nashville, set to enjoy years of steady recording and popularity.
Reno & Smiley were approaching a peak of their might, and held two very fruitful 1954 sessions: the first in the WBT Charlotte studios on April 6th, and the second at King on November 8th.
Seven singles resulted from the Charlotte date, and they continue the two’s exploration of both devotional numbers and skillful bluegrass workouts. King 1352 combines “Tree of Life” which moves along at a brisk pace and features tight vocal interplay and a lyric that slows, then stops before picking up again. Fiddle and banjo breaks accent the track. The flip, “Someone Will Love Me in Heaven” has close harmony that sets up a spoken interlude dramatizing a boy who’s lost his parents. There’s a line between heartbreak and comfort that’s very hard to strike, but the song achieves that balance. Thoughtful, waltz-time “Emotions” is backed by the hot breakdown “Tally Ho,” and here a template is set—a devotional or slice-of-life piece on the first side, coupled with a barn-burning b-side on which the boys’ trade off fantastic fiddle, mandolin and banjo, all nimbly underpinned by Red’s guitar.
They revisit their initial hit on “Since I’ve Used My Bible as a Roadmap,” and this is followed by the resolute “Your Tears are Just Interest on the Loan.” The afterlife is repeatedly referenced, as with King 1409, “I’m Building a Mansion in Heaven” b/w the call-and-response vocal of “Springtime in Heaven.”
The Brewster studios were good for a total of nine single releases (the better to fill the many coming albums!). The boys effortlessly capture the listener’s ear, as on the pleasing, midtempo “I’m the Biggest Liar in Town,” which is coupled with the hot “Mack’s Hoedown.” The next release stays with the formula, and features ‘It’s Grand to Have Someone to Love You” as well as “Charlotte Breakdown,” a master-class in bluegrass instrumentation. With this band, rock-solid ensemble playing lays the groundwork for lightning-fingered soloing, and there are no weak links to be heard. King 1490, “Barefoot Nellie,” bears this out, as astonishing banjo and mandolin are joined by harmony vocals that match the speed of the playing—no mean feat.
Fiddle and mandolin join in to augment “Double Banjo Blues,” while “Family Altar” reinforces the prayer theme further. Singing of hearth and home, the boys deliver an ode to the mythic power at the heart of most southerners, the “Old Home Place.” The last release from these sessions is King 4962, and has a simmering fiddle texture underlying nimble banjo and guitar: the whole track, “Cruel Love,” is laid over with a keening vocal.22 Its flip is “Hen Scratchin’ Stomp,” which sends fan off with lashings of white-hot fiddle and mandolin.22 All in all, Reno, Smiley, Mack and their colleagues were at the height of their powers and producing timeless roots music.
If an argument can be made that the people of the Midwest are some of the finest in the country, then Mary Jo Kath is a fine example of the person produced by this region.
She was born in Talawanda, Illinois on October 27th, 1924, and learned yodeling, guitar and violin as a youngster. She loved hearing Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers on WLS, and by 16 she was singing on station WJBC, Bloomington as “The Yodeling Sweetheart, Mary Jo.” A short two years later, she was enjoying Saturday-night exposure as part of the Brush Creek Follies program on KMBC, Kansas City, and she had a new name: Sally Carson.23
As the program was carried nationwide through the Columbia Radio Network, it came to the attention of Bill McCluskey in 1945. McCluskey liked the girl’s voice and delivery (she’d also submitted a demo of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Freight Train Blues” to WLW), and hired her for the station. There, she’d be able to perform with another act she’d long admired—Dolly and Millie Good, who performed as the Girls of the Golden West! As KMBC owned the name “Sally Carson,” McCluskey hit upon the name “Bonnie Lou,” and the pretty singer was now poised for a long run of popularity and success in the Queen City.
There are a few surviving acetates from a program called Boone County Neighbors, and Bonnie had a brief stay at Mercury in 1949-50, but it wasn’t until March 2nd, 1953 that she stepped up to a King-studios microphone. With Charlie Gore on the session, she cut a fair two-sider. “Seven Lonely Days,” with its male chorus splits the difference between country and Pop, yet attained #7 country. It was subsequently covered by Wanda Jackson, Georgia Gibbs and Patsy Cline. So went the song’s flip, a slow-vamp barroom weeper called “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms),” which was later cut by Jim Reeves and Faron Young. King, WLW or both were positioning her for big things, as her recordings, both on 78 and 45, also appeared on Parlophone.
From later in the month came “Dancin’ With Someone,” a song anchored in the poppier end of country, coupled with a play-it-safe track called “Scrap of Paper,” but it was in May that she recorded and attained another hit. The genteel “Hand-Me-Down Heart” had a jaunty flip called “Tennessee Wig Walk” that featured a multi-tracked vocal and Bonnie punctuating her delivery with a little yelp. It was good for #6 country, and even charted #4 in the UK. In fact, distributor Martin Novak reported in Billboard that “Hand-Me-Down Heart”/”Tennessee Wig Walk” was the hottest number he’d handled in three years, and that he’d had to reorder several times to satisfy jukebox-operator demand.24Also from that May session came “Two Step-Side Step,”25 which is built around the motif of a dance novelty and someone who’s working to get it right. Bonnie, backed by fine steel guitar and upright bass, is full of sass and “…all set for Saturday night!” Backing it is a velvety performance called “Please Don’t Laugh When I Cry.”
In September she cut “Pa-Paya Mama,” which uses island rhythms to create an appealing little number. On the reverse of 45-1272 is “Since You Said Goodbye,” and her lilting delivery is relaxed, with a beautiful vibrato. Perhaps she’d theretofore been intimidated by the prospect of recording for Nathan. King 45-1279 joins honky-tonk “No Heart at All” with a festive “The Texas Polka,” yet one gets the feeling that the label simply did not know quite what to do with the singer.
By 1954, though, she was feeling a sense of potential. From a February 2nd session came “Don’t Stop Kissing Me Goodnight,” with a pulsing beat courtesy of some fine piano and steel guitar, while “The Welcome Mat” keeps the tempo up and features a hot fiddle break. King 45-1341 features more fiddle on “Huckleberry Pie,” backed with a confident, elegant “No One Ever Lost More,” her best woe-is-me track thus far. She was finding a voice, and that voice was meant for large, powerful performances. Over two more 1954 sessions she turned in several more interesting numbers. “Blue Tennessee Rain” allows here to take flight, while “Wait for Me, Darlin’” features a creative refrain. The next single—“Darlin’, Why?”—shows the singer taking some time for lyrical and vocal arrangements…seeking something a little above average. From November comes her turn at the mambo mill, via “Tennessee Mambo,” a tune appalling in concept yet somehow successful in execution (and helped along by a surprising series of grunts!).Its flip features another take on Bonnie’s “Train Whistle Blues,” with piano, steel, muted trumpet and even a fiery guitar solo. She’s clearly enjoying herself, as the whistle answers her lyrics.
Over the next three years she kept very busy, leading up to the television debut of Midwestern Hayride, where she became a fixture. She (along with Teresa Brewer and, again, Georgia Gibbs) took a stab at “Tweedle Dee”—first taking it at a fair clip, band falling in wonderfully behind her, before settling on a version with a male chorus which echoed her vocals. She did a May, 1955 date with the Harmonaires Quartet which features a clutch of purely Pop turns, with the anomaly being “Barnyard Hop.”
From September came something else entirely.
She cut but two songs, but they were a lively track called “Dancin’ in My Socks” and a Gore-Innis composition called “Daddy-O.” The latter (covered by Wanda Jackson) told of a fellow who was “…sure good-lookin’, always cookin,” and therefore, “…all the girls are batty—over Daddy-O!” The track was good enough for #14 Pop, and enlarged her fanbase considerably. By now she appeared on not only Parlophone in the UK, but the Quality label in Canada. And there was more to come.
Boyd Byron Bennett was born on December 7th, 1924 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but later moved to Goodlettsville, Tennessee with his musically oriented family. He interrupted an interest in both gospel and honky-tonk music for a Navy stint which saw him wounded in the Solomon Islands. After the war he honed his skills as a nightclub singer, drummer and DJ. Around this time he assembled a group of kindred spirits he dubbed The Southlanders, who leaned heavily toward Western Swing-flavored honky tonk. This group recorded for King at first a December, 1952 session then at a November ’54 date, resulting in three releases. (Of note is an early rendition of “Little Ole You All,” one of two unissued tracks—which sounds almost like Dixieland in its arrangement).26
The released single from the ’54 date—“Waterloo” b/w “I’ve had Enough” stiffed, so Boyd closed out 1954 with a new attitude and approach. Bill Haley’s group had left behind the name, clothing and personae of The Saddlemen and latched onto the beat-driven new sound. Why not he and his group? So arose Boyd Bennett and the Rockets, comprised of Roy Ayres and Mickey Allen, guitars; Bobby Jones on tenor sax, Kenny Cobb on bass and Bennett on drums. Vocals were split between Bennett and a large, jovial fellow named James Muzey (better known as “Big Moe”).
On January 4th, 1955 the Rockets hit 1540 Brewster. They were probably more mindful of getting out of the wet Cincinnati cold than of laying down a prescient observation of the by-then exploding teen culture.
The buttery “You Upset Me Baby” has great sax, and evokes nothing so much as Moon Mullican. Its flip, “Poison Ivy” features another sax break and guitar for good measure, and the observation “I’m like poison ivy…I’ll break out all over you…” The Mullican feel is there, as well as a soupçon of Wynonie Harris. It’s an interesting two-sider, although so far it was a session that could’ve been cut in 1950-51. It’s the other single from the day that makes the dent. King 45-1470 couples a redone “Little Ole You All”—now a hot workout—with a number called “Seventeen.” Muzey provides the vocal, and he’s fired up by his description of
“…sloppy shirt, old blue jeans
Dirty shoes, by all means—
Patch of blonde, peroxide hair
Juke-box baby, ain’t no square—“
This is a very specific, very American girl of the type now populating the high schools and teen haunts countrywide. Andy Hardy movies on television provide no frame of reference for such creatures, and “Seventeen” catches that gulf with the adult world just as it’s about to widen from the big cities to include the suburbs and, to a degree, great swaths of the heartland. Once more, sax and guitar flesh out the tune effortlessly, and the song attained #5 here while netting a #16 ranking in England.
Not bad for a song Nathan had vetoed. Yet the story goes that while the boss was in vacation in Florida, Henry Glover released the track. Bill Randall, a Cleveland disc jockey, gave the tune heavy play and it soon caught on to the point where the band was facing a heavy touring schedule, sometimes even finding themselves on the bill with Bill Haley and Co.!27 As with Bonnie Lou, more was in store.
In September ’54 came a rollicking release from a group of Cincinnati youngsters who called themselves The Charms (after the popular candy). “Hearts of Stone” and this group’s rise, fragmentation and regrouping will be discussed shortly. At this point, we should back up a bit and note the release, within a four-month period, of a trio of truly influential recordings: furthermore, each record corresponds to trends in the music discussed thus far.
The first was veteran shouter Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” which debuted in April on Atlantic. Turner’s R&B credentials were beyond question, and the track is solid R&B, yet here was something that was newer, perhaps…powerfully delivered lyrics which set up a simple, truly catchy refrain. In the following month Bill Haley and the Comets (again, an act which had seen the writing on the wall, ditched their Western theme and begun making a name for themselves with numbers like “Rock the Joint” and “Crazy Man, Crazy”) released a track called “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)” on Decca which sat quietly until its flipside, “Rock Around the Clock” was appropriated for the opening of the film Blackboard Jungle. And on July 19th, 1954, Elvis Presley made his debut with Sun 209, which coupled “That’s All Right” with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Here was the cover phenomenon, then, as the song had previously been released by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, also on RCA Victor.28
The influences of these three records were slow in building, but they created a groundswell that affected not only the U.S., but the rest of the world as well.
That groundswell hadn’t yet built, though, so Nathan’s mind was strictly on the business at hand. The controversies and legal fights of the moment were taking all his time, to say nothing of the encroachment of the majors. As King prepared to wind down a busy year, Syd Nathan assembled Bass, Stone, LeBow, Glover and a few other fellows on December 11th. His thoughts are worth quoting at length:
“I’m open to different ideas…only by voicing yourself are we able to get to the basis of what we might call ‘company policy.’ Now, what is the record business? Primarily, it’s Victor, Decca, Columbia and Capitol.”29
He added MGM and Mercury, reckoned King as occupying space number 7, then continued:
“The majors are breakin’ their backs trying to cut into this field…we’ve got to stop the majors. I don’t welcome them in this field. I fear them.” Nathan observed that perhaps the majors could be beaten at their own game, using as an example the Charms’ release of “Ling Ting Tong” (a hit for the Five Keys) and “Bazoom I Need Your Lovin’” (a hit for The Cheers), before noting—by way of comparative sales numbers—“Give us [King] six million records [sales] a year, and you’ve got the happiest little fat man you ever saw, sittin’ right here.
“I can assure you, boys, that when Henry Stone and Syd Nathan sat in the studios to make “Hearts of Stone,” we only hoped to make it as good as the record we were covering! We made it better, ‘cause we know more about getting a beat.”
Without being necessarily nasty about it, Nathan never missed a chance to plead poverty, and here he again drove home his conviction about ceaseless hard work and hustle, especially in the face of the resources available to the majors:
“Ralph Bass sold his Caddy…bought a Ford. Gets him there just as fast, and costs less to operate. We’ve gotta get there in a Ford, while they’re getting there in a Cadillac.”
Guts were the ticket. A lean operation. Staying a bit ahead of the other guy…meeting demand for fresh sounds and keeping the record-buyer happy, whoever they were.
Across town, a man was taking notes.