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REGAL 3281; AUGUST 1950

 
 

 

A record company bringing in their most trusted all-around talent to hastily cut a cover version of a song that has been taking off in the pop realm was never a good sign.

Making its prospects even worse was the fact that the original record was viewed as novelty or a gimmick by many in the music community and so there was always the potential that a rock version would be expected to treat the content with disdain.

To top it all off Paul Gayten wouldn’t be appearing alone on this record as he was using a veteran gospel group, either by his own volition or being asked by the company to break them in after they’d just been signed by the label, all of which added up to a whole lotta things that could go drastically wrong if they weren’t careful.

That everything actually wound up going right was nothing short of a minor miracle.
 

 

Sometimes I Take A Great Notion…
In addition to the primary goal of reviewing every rock single ever released (and this record marks our one thousandth review to date for whatever that’s worth), an ongoing peripheral focus around here to help place all of those records in historical context has been to give quick glances at the dominant pop records in the Monthly Overviews that adorn the site.

That’s where we take a look at not just the most popular mainstream records of the era, but also drop a few snide remarks about the backwards mentality and myopic perspectives of the industry churning them out, particularly when it came to their shallow appropriation of music from non-traditional (IE. not Tin Pan Alley) sources.

But in the case of Goodnight Irene there was a different dynamic at play. The song’s basis was in a tune from the 1800’s composed by Gussie Davis, one of the first black songwriters to be widely successful in publishing circles. His song, just titled “Good Night”, like all songs in the pre-recording era was passed on from one generation to the next, its characteristics being altered as it went.

Huddie Ledbetter learned it from his uncles in the early 1900’s and re-crafted it into the version known ever since, re-writing the lyrics and altering the rhythm and while serving time in 1933 folk researchers John and Alan Lomax recorded him singing what is now considered the definitive take on the song.

In between prison stints Lead Belly’s fame grew and Goodnight Irene was his signature song as he became the darling of the 1940’s folk music scene. In December 1949 Ledbetter died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease at the age of 61 shortly after his successful tour of Europe.

In early 1950 The Weavers, a group which included Pete Seeger, and who were among the most well-known in the folk music fraternity that took shape in Lead Belly’s shadow during the 1940’s, cut their version of the song with arranger Gordon Jenkins getting co-artist credit on the label, maybe because it was him who decided to cut out some of Ledbetter’s lyrics. The resulting record was a runaway hit, the biggest two-sided record of the year with Tzena Tzena Tzena, a Hebrew song (again, showing just how the major companies were trolling other cultures for unique songs) hitting #2 while Irene made it to #1.

Thanks to this every record company under the sun immediately jumped on the song with both feet. Our old friend and sometime rocker, Cecil Gant cut a version, while country acts Moon Mullican, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley chimed in with versions of their own. In the pop realm Jo Stafford, Dennis Day and Frank Sinatra all scored with it, though Sinatra (as usual when it came to these types of tunes) detested the idea but was beholden to Columbia’s whims.

So the decision for Regal Records to have Paul Gayten cover it as well in the hopes of meeting the potential demand for it in rock circles was hardly anything out of the ordinary for an industry still under the belief that songs, not singers, were the most vital component of their business and would do anything to grab a piece of the commercial pie.

The surprise was that Gayten actually turned in a record that far surpassed such transparent mercenary goals.
 

Gonna Take Another Stroll Downtown
Maybe owing to the material itself and the way in which it had already reached national consciousness there’s not much of Gayten’s typical arranging traits to be found here. The record starts off with a muted trumpet and softly saxes moaning in the distance creating a very tranquil scene.

Gayten’s arrival shakes that up some however, his voice pitched higher in its range than usual, cutting through the haze with a fair amount of urgency while the more mellow harmonies of The Coleman Brothers gospel group – and owners of the Coleman Record label – provide sublime support.

The two vocal entities contrast beautifully throughout the record, a yin and yang pairing that finds Paul pushing the intensity and the Colemans pulling back on it to great effect. Gayten was a somewhat quirky singer by nature at times, often preferring a herky-jerky delivery that was half-speaking and half-singing, but on Goodnight Irene he shows that he actually had a good voice with a smooth style that still retained a casual air to it that came across as conversational but without sacrificing its melodic qualities.

The Colemans for their part were the epitome of gospel professionalism, always respectful of the material while lending gravity to their reading with the sheer harmonic blend of their vocals. At times they sound like the pop chorals employed by so many major labels only wished they could, with their swelling voices bending notes for dramatic effect.

Bass singer A.J. Eldridge, who’d replaced Melvin Coleman after Melvin departed the group to become their business manager (for the record company, hotels they owned, and other ventures… these guys had vision) takes the bridge while Gayten sits out altogether and then as Paul comes back in for the next stanza he’s in a playful mood, coming close to scatting – mentally anyway, if not quite vocally – as he clearly is enjoying himself on a song that may have been foisted upon him by circumstance, but whose melody and lyrics are so enjoyable that he probably couldn’t help but be caught up in it.

After tossing in a few extra words down the stretch he hands back off to Eldridge to finish out a section while Russell Coleman hums a tenor counterpoint that sounds like a woman practically worrying herself to death but which gives the record an unexpected dramatic wrinkle that separates it from the rest of the versions hogging up the airwaves and jukeboxes across the country.
 

I’ll See You In My Dreams
For the most part on these pages we decry the recording practices of the day where artists were often no more than pawns of their labels who merely viewed records as “product” and cared only about scoring hits wherever they could be found. We’re equally critical of their casual disdain for artistic integrity when it came to the type of material they were demanding from their roster in this quest for shallow commercial appeal.

To the music industry at the time making records was no different than building cars or washing machines or lawnmowers. When one model came along that sold well, everybody else copied it as closely as they could without violating any patents. In music this was much easier to do of course, not only could it be done quicker, but as long as you paid the publisher royalties you could rip-off every hit song in the exact same arrangement without anyone batting an eye.

So for Paul Gayten to shake that premise up by altering the entire attitude with which it was sung, replacing the stodgy respectfulness (or in Frankie’s version, the barely concealed contempt) with a low-key soulfulness that he delivered in a loose off-handed manner, was either horribly offensive… or wonderfully inventive, depending entirely on your perspective.

In rock ‘n’ roll of course those two views are often inextricably bound and if Goodnight Irene wasn’t the type of song that most rock fans would’ve willingly gravitated towards in normal circumstances, Gayten’s carefree performance of it was right up their alley and consequently became a huge hit, topping the local New Orleans charts for over a month and giving Gayten his final Top Ten national hit as an artist.

Considering how often Huddie Ledbetter courted trouble in his own life we’d like to think he’d be proud of Gayten for having the nerve to cross this line so willingly and in the process show the rest of the music industry that even when forced to give up some of your artistic sovereignty when it come to material, you didn’t have to relinquish your entire persona in the process.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Paul Gayten for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)