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During the first few years of rock ‘n’ roll’s existence the music was largely ignored by mainstream white America and the proud defenders of their bland musical legacy who operated the major record labels at the time.

But as rock began to get bigger and bigger within its own community and the diversity of that music grew as well, then the staid old companies began to wonder if it might be possible to treat some of those hit songs as a new source of material for the rampant cover versions that all artists relied on for a majority of their releases of in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

Country music, another native style long neglected by the mainstream taste makers, had recently begun to have their style poached by hit seeking pop acts so if a handful of acceptable rock songs could be found there was increasingly a chance they’d be moved in on by the established stars as well… much to our dismay.
 

 

I NEED YOU SO
Ivory Joe Hunter, with his knack for pleasantly meandering melodies and plaintive vocals conveying the sting of romantic rejection without the bitterness or vitriol that many rock acts preferred when dumped by their partner, was custom built for pop cover versions of his songs. In fact there were times, especially now that he was recording for the budding major label MGM, that he almost seemed to be angling to become a pop act himself.

Early in 1950 he enjoyed his greatest success scoring two Number One hits, the first of which was released the last month of 1949 and two releases later he followed that up with I Need You So, a song that owed as much its success to his sublime performance as the alluring melody that featured the kind of slow introspective style that would seem to lend itself to pop interpretation.

But the record industry was still skittish on stooping so low as to widely cover a rock act no matter how tailor made the song may have seemed and as a result only Don Cornell on RCA made a concerted effort to win over the pop audience with a take on I Need You So.

He shouldn’t have bothered.

Cornell sounds like he’s in pain. Not emotional pain, like the song’s lyrics suggest, but rather physical pain, like maybe he’s got a hernia or a lacerated kidney. It might not be anything serious, who knows it could just be he’s got a bad sunburn and he’s trying to stand as stiff as can be so as not to exacerbate the pain.

Unless he brings us a note from his doctor explaining his problem to our satisfaction then he’s going to get slaughtered for this dreadful reading of the song. Cornell wouldn’t learn his lesson, he’d still be attempting to cover rock hits regularly for the rest of the decade so we’ll get plenty of opportunities to take gratuitous pot shots at him along the way.
 


 
 

TEARDROPS FROM MY EYES
By the fall with rock releases skyrocketing up the R&B Charts almost as soon as they were released the pop music world had no alternative but to start casting its eyes on rock more seriously, not so much because they had any genuine affinity for the music, but because of the fact some of the originals might get too big on their own and crowd out the more traditional pop styles if they weren’t careful.

Ruth Brown’s Teardrops From My Eyes might not have seemed like such a record, as its brash uptempo arrangement, unceasing rhythmic drive and her passionate vocal were far removed from the standard pop approach and it was the song’s buoyant spirit and incessant beat that made it instantly popular with rock fans.

That was the problem if you were a pop act – and this is readily apparent in all of the versions we’ll look at – this wasn’t an easy to handle ballad, though it could’ve been had the pop world had the brains to take it slower as Brown herself wanted to do before being told to sing it hard and fast.

In other words Brown initially would’ve liked to have cut the original pop version of her rock breakthrough, while the pop singers tried to cut it almost like they wanted to be rock singers, which was a turnaround no one saw coming.

Country acts like Red Kirk, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Gene Autry who brought pop singer Jo Stafford along with him to try for a country-pop crossover of a rock song, all failed at translating this to their styles… though for that matter so too did the only rock cover of the song by Wynonie Harris.

But as always we’re more interested in the straight pop renditions which kicked off with June Hutton who got hers out by November and surprisingly doesn’t mangle it much, singing with the proper cadence, holding some notes nicely with a lighter voice and handling her business with surprising grace. But the production on it is typically atrocious as there are demeaning additions to the arrangement with the male backing chorus sounding particularly offensive, though I’m sure it was hard for them to sing with their bow ties so tight around their throats their underwear starched to the point of turning into cement.

So we turn to Fran Warren, who did the best job on a rock cover song last year with a fairly decent reading of Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind, but apparently she’s had second thoughts about making a career out of this sort of thing and clearly is trying to sabotage her chances at connecting with Teardrops From My Eyes as she butchers the rhythmic cadence in a way that’s a harbinger of a disturbing trend down the road when it comes to pop interpretation of uptempo rockers.

You’d think that might scare off other attempts but no, we get even more including one that turns out to be a major disappointment because if any artists in the general pop sphere were to have a shot at delivering the goods on this song it’d surely be Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Instead they manage trip all over themselves too with Prima taking the bulk of the vocals until Smith makes a late appearance and follows Warren’s unfortunate lead by trying to re-write the melodic and rhythmic rules for some inexplicable reason and naturally fails miserably in her attempt.

Surprisingly the best sung pop version comes from Frank DeVol And His Music Of The Century – yeah, that’s how they were billed… pretentious of him, isn’t it? Though his cover record is beset with some of the same issues regarding an appropriate accompaniment, the vocal by Helen O’Connell actually sticks to Ruth Brown’s blueprint fairly faithfully, which if you’re going to keep the tempo the same is the only way to sell it.

Obviously there’s no way to justify calling Louis Jordan a pop act, that’s too big of an insult for a man of his stature, but by now he’s at least an elder statesman in black music circles rather than a trendsetter in that realm so we should at least mention his efforts too, especially because he got his penultimate chart hit with his take on “Teardrops” in the spring of ’51.

Not surprisingly he tries the hardest to make his version stand out by adding an entirely new intro – words and music – before shifting into the familiar which is highlighted by Wild Bill Davis’s organ accent notes. As you’d expect Jordan knows how to ride the rhythm rather than fight it, but as respectful as he is to the original there’s a touch of sadness listening to him as after a dozen years on top it’s clear he’s about to reach the end of the line if he’s reduced to covering the next generation’s newest star.
 


 
 

PLEASE SEND ME SOMEONE TO LOVE
We’ll close out 1950’s cover versions of rock songs with an unlikely one… not the song itself, for it’s actually surprising that Percy Mayfield’s brilliant state of the world address Please Send Me Someone To Love wasn’t tackled by more artists because not only are the sentiments easily adaptable for the mainstream pop approach – though it’s doubtful they understood the racial implications he was suggesting in his original – but the fact this was also a ballad made it a much easier job to handle for those who never took their vocals out of first gear.

Dinah Washington might not qualify as strictly a pop singer, but then again it was always hard to pin her down. Too sophisticated for blues, too bawdy at times for jazz, too classy for rock, too black frankly for pop acceptance, she was in a category of her own but this rendition of Please Send Me Someone To Love combines her inimitable vocals, which take the song as seriously as you would hope, with a blaring brass section which sounds as if it’s razzing her the entire time with their rudely insensitive interjections.

Come for Dinah’s exquisite vocals, but bring a bag of rotten tomatoes to hurl at the band while you’re at it.
 


 
 

The other, even more unexpected, cover version of note came with Dale Evans, best known for being screen cowboy Roy Rogers’s wife and frequent singing partner, who delivers what sounds like a pop version with trumpet and strings backing her until the end when the fiddles arrive on the late train and seem to gently remind her that she’s considered a country artist and should act like it.

Even so, this is a sincere reading, her voice is a little conversational at times but then again so was Mayfield’s, albeit in a slightly different manner. Though she’s far too awkward in the bridge, merely reciting the lyrics as written rather than expressing them earnestly, her voice itself has a nice quality to it and while she loses her handle on the song down the stretch a little, for the most part her effort won’t offend you at least which has to be considered a victory of sorts.

Though Nineteen Fifty was rock’s best year commercially to date there still wasn’t all that much interest by the pop world to delve into it, but that would soon change and when it did everybody would suffer equally.