White Cover Records

In the late Forties and early Fifties, the record industry was dominated by the existence of several large national operations (“labels”), which competed with smaller independent regional record producers. In the early 1950s the big five major record labels were Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol and Mercury. There were popularity charts (“Top Ten” lists) by category, Pop, R&B, Country, Jazz, etc. and R&R, which replaced several of the categories. (“Crossing Over: From Black Rhythm Blues to White Rock ‘n’ Roll”,  Reebee Garofola;  Rhythm & Business: “The Political Economy of Black Music” (2002))

After World War II, small independent labels produced records for more specialized audiences, especially the black “rhythm & blues” and white “country & western” markets (called “race” and “hillbilly” markets at the time). In this environment a different kind of cover record was born. White and black audiences often liked the same song if they heard it performed by an artist whose style matched their cultural expectations in an arrangement featuring familiar instruments. So R&B artists sometimes covered songs first recorded by country artists and vice versa, in each case modifying the original version to better suit a different audience. The major labels picked up on this idea in the early 1950s and scored huge pop hits with covers of country songs such as “Tennessee Waltz” and “Cold, Cold Heart.” To make the pop cover versions, producers chose familiar vocalists and replaced country-styled vocal inflections and featured instruments with mainstream counterparts, thereby “smoothing the rough edges” of the original recordings to maximize their mass appeal. (Id.)

This wave of R & B cover records was kicked off by the surprising popularity of “Sh-Boom” by the Chords (https://youtu.be/H6LaAUGAu4U), an infectious novelty vocal group song that “crossed over” to pop radio stations in southern California in early summer 1954. Although a few other R & B records had crept into the top 20 of the national pop charts over the years, “Sh-Boom” was the first to reach the top 10, rising all the way to #5 by the end of the summer. Previously, records played on radio stations featuring R & B music for black audiences very rarely crossed over to stations programming pop music for white audiences. “Sh-Boom” began to break down that barrier, but it was only the beginning. The white pop cover version of “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts (https://youtu.be/1_obmvfv050) on the Mercury label was a far greater success, becoming the #1 record in the country for over two months and one of the top 5 pop records of the year. Following the success of “Sh-Boom,” the Crew Cuts systematically pillaged the rhythm & blues charts, covering hits like Nappy Brown’s “Don’t Be Angry” (Savoy) (1955), the Charms’ “Gum Drop” (Deluxe) (1955), and the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” (DooTone) (1954).

One of the white singers who utilized the cover song extensively was Pat Boone. Boone spent most of his early career covering rhythm-and-blues songs, like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”. Boone’s version (https://youtu.be/F68Z0sVVa7s) (1956), however, was influenced by pop styles and standards that were tamer and more familiar to white audiences of the time. He also sanitized Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” for his white audience’s ears (1955) (https://youtu.be/ec3Xr9f6q9g) and, apparently, their grammar. He tried, for instance, to change the title of the song to “Isn’t That a Shame.”

Boone refers to himself not as the father of Rock & Roll, but as the midwife of Rock & Roll. What he means by this is that his versions of Little Richard’s songs may not be as good as Little Richard’s originals, but Little Richard couldn’t get played on mainstream radio stations back in the ’50s, due to racism and other reasons. But, after the kids listened to Boone’s music, they tended to go on and want the real thing. Record sales back up Boone’s claims that cover songs eventually boosted the sales of originals. While Boone’s and other white pop artists’ versions of rhythm-and-blues tunes initially outsold the originals, by the mid-1950s, original versions began to dominate the charts. (How The 1950s Racism Helped Make Pat Boone A Rock Star, Written by Matthew Swayne, Penn State, https://innerself.com/content/social/culture-wars/14776-how-the-1950s-racism-helped-make-pat-boone-a-rock-star.html)

When Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” duked it out with the original on the pop Best Sellers chart in February 1956, Little Richard stopped at #18 while the cover version reached #15. But, when they repeated the contest with “Long Tall Sally” in May, 1956, it was Pat Boone’s version that stalled at #23 while Little Richard’s version made it all the way to #6. Pat Boone’s cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” went to No. 1 and stayed on the Top 40 pop chart for twenty weeks, whereas Domino’s original made it only to No. 10. Boone’s record sales at the time were second only to Elvis Presley’s, and Boone found this success through releasing dozens of covers. Slowly, however, the cover situation changed. After watching Boone outsell his song “Tutti Frutti” in 1956, Little Richard wrote “Long Tall Sally,” which included lyrics written and delivered in such a way that he believed Boone would not be able to adequately replicate them. “Long Tall Sally” went to No. 6 for Little Richard and charted for twelve weeks; Boone’s version got to No. 8 and stayed there for nine weeks.

Little Richard had this to say about having his songs “covered” by Pat Boone: “When I started with the ‘wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom,’ and Pat Boone covered it, I was woo, wop-boppin’ all over the place. I remember (Specialty Records owner) Art Rupe saying he would put my record on the top stations. Then here come Pat Boone. The white kids wanted mine, ’cause it was real rough and raw, and Pat Boone had this smooth version. And so the white kids would take mine and put it in the drawer and put his on top of the dresser. I was mad. When Pat Boone covered my record, I was mad, I wanted to get him. I said, ‘I’m goin’ to Nashville to find him. I wanted to get him at that time because to me he was stoppin’ my progress. I wanted to be famous and here’s this man that came and took my song. And not only did he take ‘Tutti Frutti’ but he took ‘Long Tall Sally.’ I wanted to do somethin’ about it. Now, in later years, I thought about that and said it was good. But back then I couldn’t stand it.”

Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” was a modest hit on the pop charts while Pat Boone’s cover was a #1 smash. Also, Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again” and “My Blue Heaven,” a double-sided R & B hit single, reached the pop top ten without competition from a cover version. How The 1950s Racism Helped Make Pat Boone A Rock Star, supra. By the end of 1956 Fats Domino had written and recorded more than 35 songs, 13 of which were covered by white artists. All 13 covers sold more than the original recordings. Fats Domino did not mind that his records were re-recorded, but he wanted there to be a regulation that covers could not be released until at least a month after the original recording. “Making a cover is all right, but they should allow a month at least before covers come out…. That way when we do something, we’d have a chance for our names to get associated with the song.” http://www.elvis-history-blog.com/elvis-cover-records.html

Why did the ‘covers’ sell? Was it race prejudice, better distribution, or public taste? In many ways, the original was a rougher gem and the cover a more polished stone. Today, rock purists prefer the raw, rough, gritty original versions. Fans of Fifties “easy-pop” often prefer the softer, more professional ‘covers.’ The singers on the ‘covers’ almost always provided a recognizable sparkle in their voice, a more trained sound in their delivery, and the accompaniment was softer and more mellow.

The following list allows for a comparison of the original song (usually sung by a black group) with the (usually white) cover record. There is a distinctive style. Can you differentiate between them?

“Sh-Boom” … The Chords (1954) https://youtu.be/SBgQezOF8kY; The Crew Cuts (1954) https://youtu.be/EMVQXZtUJrQ

“Earth Angel” … The Penguins (1954) https://youtu.be/VJcGi4-n_Yw; The Crew Cuts (1956) https://youtu.be/PKzc6zuykkk

“Sincerely” … The Moonglows (1954) https://youtu.be/XsxVKN114M0; The McGuire Sisters (1954-56) https://youtu.be/vh_DdJ10IaA

“Ain’t That a Shame” … Fats Domino (1955) https://youtu.be/I6JZW7zMDfY; Pat Boone (1955) https://youtu.be/fVuI_cVNW4Y

“Tutti Frutti” … Little Richard (1955) (https://youtu.be/F13JNjpNW6c; Pat Boone (1956) https://youtu.be/F68Z0sVVa7s

“Little Darlin”’ … The Gladiolas (1957) https://youtu.be/hHsSkI81Sgk; The Diamonds (1957) https://youtu.be/ysVLzXWnTzA

“I’m Walkin”’ … Fats Domino (1957) https://youtu.be/-rOuwEYTvYk; Ricky Nelson (1957) https://youtu.be/bbhajpuyubk

“Hound Dog” … Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1952) https://youtu.be/yoHDrzw-RPg; Elvis Presley (1956) https://youtu.be/lzQ8GDBA8Is

“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” … Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers (1956) https://youtu.be/q96ylFiQK_I; The Diamonds (1956) https://youtu.be/ldSoZpWnGQU

Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” … The Spaniels (1954) https://youtu.be/egX9N8yOgaU; The McGuire Sisters (1954) https://youtu.be/hR8hUzvL1qI