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One of the annoying recurring topics in rock history, especially early on, was the habit of record labels trying to manipulate their way to hits.

This habit generally involved using a previous hit as a form of source material… not quite a blatant duplicate but more than just a loose prototype.

The problem with this was obvious to everyone but the companies themselves, which was by copying the general feel of something that had been unique and original, the labels were ensuring these quasi-take-offs, though containing a very obvious musical and thematic similarity, were missing underlying qualities which made those hits feel as though they were authentic expressions of an artist in question.

In the process, here Jubilee Records do their best to derail the careers of their two promising teenage female stars in one fell swoop.


The Letters You Have Sent Me
When she was finally inducted into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, the focus of Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson’s accomplishments over her long multi-faceted career largely centered on her role as hip-hop’s godmother, the founder of Sugarhill Records and producer on so many early rap hits.

The accolades then drifted back to her own career as a performer, both her 70’s seductress persona which resulted in a Number One hit and her 1950’s work as half of Mickey & Sylvia, a duo who scored one all-time classic amidst a number of truly great sides.

But anyone frequenting our History Of Rock chronicles who’ve been reading about her earliest efforts as a teen chanteuse on a string of non-hits for various labels will tell you, she had that ineffable “star-quality” from the very beginning.

It wasn’t always properly nurtured by the production she was saddled with and maybe none of the songs leapt out at you in a dynamic manner that assured they wouldn’t be overlooked, but her performances were typically so well-judged that you knew she had an intuitive sense about music that set her apart.

Which is why it was always risky to have her cutting outside songs chosen by others for reasons having little to do with her developing a persona of her own, and more with the label’s often contrived idea of what constituted “marketable promotion”.

On A Million Tears that means this means trying to pass off a warmed over recreation – call it an unimaginative sequel if you want – to a previous smash from the label’s first teen female star, Edna McGriff’s Heavenly Father in the desperate hope that it will elicit the same commercial response as that one had.

Not surprisingly this has the same basic plot of a girl writing to her solider boyfriend halfway around the world while using a shamefully similar aural framework with which to further emphasize the connection.

But this was only par for the course when it came to Jubilee Records who had already killed McGriff’s momentum by forcing her to try and duplicate that song, which she had written herself, thereby pegging her as a one-trick pony despite being really talented in ways she rarely got a chance to show after that. Now they were trying to tell us that Vanderpool wasn’t even good enough to have her OWN trick, but had to borrow somebody else’s.

A Million Games Of Solitaire
What’s good about this record is, of course, the understated tender vocal of Sylvia Vanderpool.

What’s not is most everything else.

Though it’s not the worst melody we’ve heard to date, it’s hardly fully realized either, making it seem as barely a sketch of a tune let alone a song worthy of comprising a finished record. It’s also not the worst arrangement Buddy Lucas has come up with at Jubilee, but it’s pretty skimpy all things considered making it seem almost as if it were a demo. It’s not even the worst storyline we’ve encountered, but its details are fairly clunky suggesting that if they insisted on mimicking Edna McGriff’s more compelling original plot from last winter, they could’ve at least used another draft or two so it could shore up some of the weaker imagery before committing to wax.

Because none of those aspects are intentionally off-putting however, there might be a tendency to merely pass this off as an inconsequential offering, but not very damaging to the career prospects of Vanderpool, especially since she comes off looking okay despite the weak material.

But it’s what A Million Tears represents that is the real problem here, which is another case of a record company viewing the career of an up and coming talent as nothing more than a way to try and use something already familiar to the public just to hoodwink a few people into buying it without even stopping to consider that Vanderpool’s long term viability was potentially at stake.

This record is a cheap exploitative imitation by design and even if it were mildly successful because of qualities already proven commercial by someone else, that doesn’t do Sylvia much good in establishing her own persona.

I’ll Read Them When I’m Lonely
As we’ve come to expect out of her, she does the best she can with whatever she gets handed her, including this sickeningly innocent look at a girl missing her sweetheart who’s off fighting another pointless war halfway around the globe. Though the messages themselves are trite and simplistic, her emotional investment is pretty good… though I imagine someone as streetwise as Sylvia was her entire life would be laughing at them between takes.

She even manages to add something to the skeletal melody with the way she lets her voice swell at certain times, rising up and then pulling back to suggest there’s much more to it than appears on the lead sheet.

The one area where she falters – unless you want to credit her for regional authenticity – is in her pronunciation of certain words using her native New Jersey accent which inserts a “w” into words where they don’t exist… such as turning “all” into something more like “awl”, the woodworking tool. She does this a few times and if the song was more popular you could envision a drinking game where you have to do a shot each time you notice it. In fact that trait would be something she’d never fully shake free of, but it’s up to each listener individually whether they want to call it annoying.

If it had a more original melody and wasn’t based on someone else’s song, maybe this would be more tolerable, but not without overhauling the sentiments themselves, which are grating because they’re so sappy. Unlike the heartfelt message that McGriff wrote herself, which may have been similarly cloying, but were at least reflective of her own personal point of view, A Million Tears was written by Sol Winkler and Jerry Goldsborough, two guys I highly suspect were not innocently longing for some faraway grunt in the Army (though frankly that WOULD be something which would make this dreary song far more interesting to say the least!).

The weird thing is, this was quickly covered as a pop song by a variety of male singers (Dick Lee this same month, followed by Alan Dale as well as The Four Knights, a black group who sang pop) which makes you wonder if there was a lot more guys in the closet back then.

But by virtue of their deeper voices and the expectations relating to the usual object of male desire, the military service that seems so obvious in Vanderpool’s rendition gets obscured simply by the gender switch alone. What these lugs are thinking however when they’re singing “Heaven soon will grant my plea/And send you safely home to me”, I have no idea… maybe their (implied) girlfriend was imprisoned for turning tricks or selling drugs or massacring a family of 12 in the unexpurgated versions of their renditions.

All Our Dreams That Went Astray
There’s always the mindset in some to say that the occasional bad choice of material, or cynical play for the marketplace, is not as big of a deal as we make it out to be. After all, here in the future the majority of people don’t even know these songs exist while we DO know of Sylvia Vanderpool’s many other successes that followed, so how much harm could it have done?

Well, the obvious flaw in that thinking is to assume that everything that followed was somehow assured from the start. That the choices you make today – or that are forced upon you by the commercial concerns of cretins like Jerry Blaine – are not in any way going to impact your future opportunities.

But reality is far less forgiving than that. While something like A Million Tears didn’t prove to be a death knell for Vanderpool’s career, it certainly didn’t help her standing any. Now, at the age of 17, she was on her third record label without a national hit to her credit and this warmed-over rip-off had no chance of remedying that.

Since this composition was commissioned by Jubilee – published by them as well – there’s no one else to place the blame on than with the record company who should’ve left well enough alone when it came to revisiting the poignant plea that had once seemed fresh coming from someone else, but now only seems cheap and exploitative.


(Visit the Artist page of Sylvia Vanderpool for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)