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In the middle of the Twentieth Century it was the song not the singer that was considered key. As a holdover from the days of people buying sheet music of hit songs to play and sing themselves at home, audiences in the first few decades of the recording era were often more interested in the tune itself than the rendition being played. As a result the standard procedure across the music industry was to seek out any new song rising in popularity and cover it by as many artists as possible on as many labels as possible and in as many different styles as possible, all hoping to get a piece of the commercial pie.

When rock ‘n’ roll broke through to a wider audience in the mid-1950’s pop music turned its attention here with disastrous results, the artists and arrangements chosen were ill-suited to this rawer form of music and the older pop audience were uninterested in most of the compositions themselves beyond an early curiosity factor. Consequently the cover-era across all forms of music largely died out by the end of the decade.

Though the term itself has taken on a broader meaning than once intended as most people now use it to mean any record of someone else’s song, even one cut years later, we’re focusing solely on the true definition where “covering” a song meant to try and compete directly with a current release while the original was still at its commercial peak.
 

 

IT’S TOO SOON TO KNOW
Because it was a tender ballad delivered by The Orioles in a style that wasn’t musically uncouth at all, It’s Too Soon To Know was the first rock original to see a lot of cover versions.

But this was still 1948 remember when the pop music industry were still thinking of music in black and white terms… literally, so the majority of the covers came from black artists with some respectability like Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Deep River Boys and The Charioteers, simply seeking to appeal to older and more affluent black audiences than The Orioles were likely to attract. The Ravens cut their own take on it for the rock audience and managed to get a small hit with it as well.

But none of those were specifically aiming at a crossover white audience, which is what we’re interested in skewering looking at, so instead we turn to Andy Russell And The Pied Pipers who give us a righteously square version that is so saccharine it’s almost hard to believe it’s the same song that Sonny Til was wringing his guts out on.

With accordion as the primary accompaniment while a frigid female chorus sing half the lines – never changing the gender, so maybe they were at least ahead of their time in celebrating lesbianism – this is stiff and artificial in every way. Listening to Russell try and convince you that he’s brokenhearted while desperately trying not to show any actual emotion in the process is a riot. He sounds as if someone is holding a knife to his back and forcing the words out of him.

Condescending and insincere, two hallmarks of pop music’s view of rock ‘n’ roll from the very start.
 


 
 

THE HUCKLEBUCK
Here was a rock song the mainstream music industry could successfully argue wasn’t a rock song at all, but rather a distorted jazz tune and thus something open to interpretation.

As we know Paul Williams’s instrumental smash The Hucklebuck was built from Charlie Parker’s Now’s The Time, but because it was an instrumental the usual cover version approach seemed to be thwarted. After all you COULD have whatever popular bandleader you had under contract deliver their own take on it (Benny Goodman being one who did), but it wasn’t going to be quite distinctive enough to draw more interest than somebody else’s similar take on the same song.

So naturally they penned lyrics for it allowing all sorts of singers to awkwardly wrestle with the song too.

Tommy Dorsey took a whack at it, playing sweet and mellow early on and then blaring ostentatiously for the chorus, which truthfully sounded more like a send up of it than Williams’s supposedly disrespectful version did. On Dorsey’s record Charlie Shavers delivered the “vocal refrain” which was designed to come across like he was on drugs… at least that’s the impression it gives as he sort of slurs his words and lays behind the beat with a sleepy delivery that’s got some cartoonish hep-cat rhythmic patter.

Truthfully this version is not awful, primarily because they had a very definite game plan that went into it and while it’s sort of mocking the song, it’s not doing so in a sneering manner.

For that we leave it to former Dorsey vocalist Frank Sinatra who was in the midst of a career downturn which made him powerless to refuse to cut songs he felt were beneath him. But just because his hands were tied didn’t mean he had to enjoy it and his version was sung as if he were struggling to keep his lunch down.
 


 
 

Yeah Dad, Right Now!
Following an melodramatic horn opening and an artificial spoken intro in which Frankie really lays into it like he were trying out for the lead in the class play, he eases back and tries to croon The Hucklebuck with such tenderness that you wonder if he understood what the song was about… or what kind of dance this was referring to. His phrasing is awkward, he can’t find the rhythm with a map and a compass and is clearly mortified to be singing lines like “wiggle like a snake/waddle like a duck”, although who can blame him on that count.

He cries out (in pain perhaps) a stilted lead-in to the brassy instrumental break and of course these guys are equally out of touch with what made Williams’s version so addicting, as they take what was an alluringly slinky melodic lines meant for shadowy corners and dress it up to go high stepping across the floor in a bright glaring spotlight.

We don’t talk about it much because the image of mid-century white America is usually so squeaky clean, but are we SURE half the country wasn’t on some potent uppers back then? They can’t still be fueled by the self-congratulatory good cheer after winning World War Two four whole years ago, can they? By the sounds of this everybody but Frankie is gearing up for opening night in a bad Broadway musical on this one.

As for the man left uncomfortably in the middle of all this, his voice is good because, well let’s not forget he was Frank Sinatra, but he’s so out of touch with the song’s spirit that you’d be forgiven for thinking he was just singing to try to get laid (which he was, but I doubt he was successful with THIS song).

Of course this being Columbia Records in 1949 we’re also subjected to the soaring female chorus, The Ken Darby Singers, who offer those toothy show-biz smiles as they pour on the schmaltz.

Because of this the public, who undoubtedly had heard about this song but weren’t about to delve into Williams’s rock version, even though that IS milder in appearance than some other sax-based rock instrumentals on the market now, tentatively checked out Sinatra’s rendition in enough numbers to have it creep into the charts and while he desperately was in need of a hit to keep his career prospects from sinking even further down, surely Sinatra was wondering if scoring with THIS was worth it.

Maybe pumping gas back in Hoboken didn’t look so bad by comparison.
 

 
 

I ALMOST LOST MY MIND
For much of its first half dozen years the rock songs most likely to elicit a cover were ballads simply because the record companies didn’t have to completely re-imagine the song as they would with a more aggressive uptempo cut. It would also help if the original rock artist was someone with pop tendencies themselves… such as Ivory Joe Hunter.

Once Hunter landed at MGM Records, a pop label let’s not forget, he released his all-time biggest smash right out of the gate with I Almost Lost My Mind, a record that was ripe for reinterpretation because of the stately melody and yearning lyrics that sidestep any sexual connotations, though you could certainly read between the lines and guess why Hunter lost his mind after his baby left him.

Because Hunter had been dabbling in country motifs over the past year with King Records it’s not surprising that this song drew the attention of that genre first as Floyd Tillman released a version on Columbia with vocals that sound like a drunken put-on. His twang is so exaggerated that you have trouble believing it’s not a joke… and maybe he was doing it because he felt the source material WAS a joke. With its steel guitar and parlor piano it’s an embarrassment.

Much better is Fran Warren, a pop singer on RCA Records who sells the lyrics with sincerity even though she sounds far more romantic and dreamy than broken-up over the song’s plot. Of course when the stiff chorus comes in to sing about the “gypsy” the record goes off a cliff and the backing music certainly doesn’t help matters much, but at least Warren has respect for the song’s melody and overall sentiments and is clearly taking her job seriously.

The most interesting cover of Hunter’s song however comes from Nat “King” Cole, the one black artist who was a legitimate pop star – not only aiming squarely for the white middle class, but doing so successfully.

In many ways Cole was what Hunter might’ve been – and still might become should his own success with balladry continue on MGM – as Cole had been a legitimately great jazz singer and pianist with some of the most impressive chops in the business during the early 1940’s before crossing into pop balladry late that decade, adding strings and for the most part eschewing, at least on singles, his jazzier inclinations.

Here he tries to revive some of that approach vocally even as the white female chorus behind him are stuck in their traditional soulless posturing. Cole’s piano is interesting but in some ways he’s hamstrung by the fact he was best suited to basically just imitate Hunter vocally – certainly it’d have been more convincing than Snooky Lanson’s creepy reading of it on London Records – but Cole was almost too respectful of Hunter the artist to undercut him that way.
 


 
 

At his best he alters some of the line readings in subtle ways, modulating his voice on the line “my eyes are full of tears” which gives it a more unique bent, but there’s not much else for him to do as he’s consigned to underplaying the emotional gravity that made Hunter’s so powerful.

Like Warren they hand the lines about going to a see a gypsy over to the chorus, as if the pop industry didn’t want to suggest their main stars would believe in such uncouth practices, but that only makes it sound far more artificial. Whereas Hunter was more or less using the gypsy metaphorically, they unintentionally make it literal by not understanding the mindset he had and the despair he’s feeling by losing the one he loves.

Of course that’s to be expected, for in pop music of this era nobody ever seems to lose anything of value for very long, that’d run the risk of upsetting listeners and reminding them that the world was a turbulent place full of unpredictable upheavals… like say rock ‘n’ roll starting to grow powerful with the original versions of songs that found a far bigger audience than the tamed down covers the mainstream industry tried peddling.