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The topic of cover versions is a dicey one to get into when it comes to early rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s not just because of how pop music in the mid-50’s raped and pillaged black rock with white pop acts, thereby cutting down on the chance for more sales and bigger hits for the originators, but also because earlier in the decade it was the black rock acts coaxed into cutting cover versions of white pop songs in an attempt to broaden their reach and possibly cross into pop territory.

Yet in this case we have a song that doesn’t seem to fit any of the preconceived notions of how these things operate, in that the tune itself rose to prominence with a white singer fronting a black band on a predominantly rock-based independent label and soon was covered by a host of artists from every conceivable genre including rock acts like The Cardinals who earned a legitimate hit with it while not hurting their standing with their primary audience.

As they say, there’s exceptions to every rule and this is one that clearly qualifies in that regard.


While The Wheel Is Turning
In late 1951 Derby Records, a small New York label known primarily for countless Freddie Mitchell rock instrumental versions of old pop standards – an entirely different questionable practice we’ve wrung our hands about for years – wound up pairing white pop songstress Sunny Gale with Eddie Wilcox’s band, crediting both on a cover version of a song that had come out back in June when it seemed to stir little commercial interest.

Whatever social taboos were being broken since the band was entirely black, the tune itself began to gain traction as the surging horns by Wilcox’s band were ear catching on their own which drew further attention to the fairly clever lyrics and before you knew it their record was climbing the charts which meant more cover versions began to appear in rapid fashion.

Capitol Records wound up scoring the biggest seller with Kay Starr’s exquisite take on the song, adding a clickety-clack effect meant to replicate a roulette wheel which was certainly a gimmick, but a good one, adding to the image of chance without detracting from the yearning plea that Starr delivered.

But when The Cardinals, a rock vocal group on Atlantic Records, went in the studio back in early October to cut their rendition of The Wheel Of Fortune in a normal session, none of these records were on the radar and so it was simply a case of a latching on to a promising song that hadn’t had a definitive performance come out of it yet.

The company held it back until January when the Gale and Wilcox single was suddenly drawing everyone’s attention and in a way trying to straddle two distinct markets, as Derby Records’ reach was certainly stronger in black community, though nobody would mistake Sunny Gale for anything but a pop singer. But that duality, even if it was more perception than reality, allowed Kay Starr’s record to out flank it on the pop side, while The Cardinals aimed to run to the other flank and take it on in the black music market.

Usually this kind of thing is a little too calculating to work, but in this case it did as The Cardinals scored their second hit, though not quite able to outdistance Gale and Wilcox on the R&B Charts surprisingly, nor Dinah Washington who played it completely straight and had a huge fan base of her own to propel it into the Top 3, but The Cardinals managed to capture the majority of the rock fans along the way making this truly a song that reached all corners of the music community.

Will The Arrow Point My Way?
With Starr’s rendition – #1 Pop for a whopping ten weeks – being most familiar at the time as well as in the years since, there almost seems to be something missing hearing The Cardinals track without that distinctive ticking as the song opens, but hers wasn’t recorded until this single was already pressed and shipped, so their window to define the song was not yet closed when this hit the streets.

The change they do make from what had come before is shifting the horn line to the vocals, giving it a unique twist to separate it from both the Gale and Starr takes on it, both of which stuck to the horns.

This plays to their advantage, provided you’re not so enraptured by those horns in the other versions that you miss them too much. In truth this is quite possible, because they are so captivating, but then again so are The Cardinals voices because of how they’re able to shift effortlessly from hitting those throbbing notes to delivering everything from more melodic harmonies to brief wordless fills and lyrical echoes as the song warrants.

Ernie Warren’s lead meanwhile glides up and down the lines with natural ease, his tone is right for conveying the yearning quality inherent in the story and he adds a good deal of emotional resonance that the white pop singers have to alter to make work, although in doing so they may hit upon a potentially better method than the guy going against them here.

First off let’s say both approaches are undoubtedly effective in their own way. The Wheel Of Fortune is basically offering up the opinion that many share regarding the vagaries of love, wherein it too often seems that it’s not what you do specifically that matters most when it comes to getting somebody of the opposite sex to fall for you, but rather it’s a game of chance – simply being in the right place at the right time which determines your odds.

This isn’t true of course, not exactly anyway. Yes, you do need to cross paths with that special someone, but how you act does tend to play a greater role in the outcome than merely relying on blind luck. Yet the narrators are genuinely not convinced of this, hence their plea for some good fortune in their spin of that wheel.

But you need to feel an affinity for their perspective that it IS left more to chance in order for the song to really work, and it does for all three of them, albeit in slightly different ways. Warren, maybe because he’s the guy and guys are usually depicted as being more determined to force the issue in these matters, comes across as more passive by begging for lady luck’s assistance.

Gale, and especially Starr, on the other hand, largely because the female position in these situations tends to be passive, give the impression of being more aggressive, albeit in a desperate sort of way, to turn their fortunes around.

It may be simply perception, but with so many options to choose from sometimes the smallest detail will make all the difference.

I’ll Not Dream Of Winning
Although The Cardinals did earn their smaller hit thanks to a very good vocal arrangement and performance – save for the frog like bass interjections in the final responses during the bridge – it may still only take the bronze medal in the song’s sweepstakes.

The real winner here is the song itself, which takes a fairly trite concept and injects it with enough heart, some well-constructed lyrics and a subversively catchy melody to make it appealing in almost any version.

By getting so many good records to choose from, each offering something slightly different, allows every type of music fan to find something to satisfy them.

Maybe because of the wide array of renditions that found favor with different segments of the broader audience means The Cardinals take on The Wheel Of Fortune, despite its hit status, might get lost in the shuffle just a little as you rarely hear it mentioned in the same breath as their other two national Top Ten hits.

But it is very good, certainly worthy of its chart success and although it can’t touch Kay Starr, whose version is perfect – see, I don’t hate pop music of this era after all – The Cardinals’ contribution to the overall popularity of the song should never be forgotten entirely.


(Visit the Artist page of The Cardinals for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
The Four Flames (February, 1952)