BLACK ARTISTS, WHITE SINGERS – RICH PASCHALL

Black artists & white singers
Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog


At the dawn of Rock and Roll in the 1950’s and even into the early 1960’s, it was not uncommon for white singers to cover African-American singers.  Black artists did not get radio play on white radio stations.  That shut them out of a lot of markets and kept much of America from hearing their songs.  This opened the door wide for white singers to record songs heard only on black R&B stations, leaving the impression in many areas that they were the original artists.

The Memphis area, Tennessee label, DOT, founded in 1950, became big by hiring white singers to cover black songs.  Indeed they made stars out of some of these singers.  Among the biggest was Pat Boone.  The crooner recorded Fats Domino’s 1955 song “Ain’t That a Shame,” which became a big hit.  It had been suggested that Boone change the lyric to “Isn’t That A Shame,” perhaps to sound more “white.”  Fortunately they resisted that bad idea.

Boone followed with a number of covers that made him a household name.  His next success was the Little Richard song, “Tutti Fruitti,” which Boone did not want to record.  To Boone “it didn’t make sense” but he was talked into it and it went to number 12.   A song that went all the way to the top was “I Almost Lost My Mind,” originally by Ivory Joe Hunter.  Nat King Cole even covered the song, but Boone had the hit.  The main reason was Boone got a lot of radio play.  The others did not.

DOT also made a star of Gale Storm when she covered the Smiley Lewis R&B hit, “I Hear You Knockin.”  She also recorded “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”  Snooky Lanson and The Fontane Sisters also benefited from the era of covering other artists.  Eventually DOT cashed in off admitting to the practice with an album of 30 of these songs.  “Cover to Cover,” includes 7 recordings by Pat Boone alone.  It also includes a mediocre version of Chuck Berry’s Rock Classic, “Maybelline,” by Jim Lowe.

The white versions were generally slower and toned down in comparison to the R&B versions.  They were playing to a different audience so they produced versions they thought would be more appealing to that audience.  It was a sign of the racially segregated times and something that would not happen now.  Of course there are still many covers, but for various other reasons.

When Elvis Presley hit the scene, he also brought with him cover versions of other songs.  His 1956 hit “Hound Dog,” was originally by Big Mama Thornton, but Elvis may have been influenced by the 1953 novelty version by Jack Granger and his Granger County Gang, aka Homer and Jethro.  The 1954 hit, “That’s All Right,” belonged to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and was originally called “That’s All Right, Mama.”

One of the consequences of all these cover songs was they helped pave the way toward acceptance of this genre of music and eventually of some of the black artists who originated the songs.   Little Richard is said to have claimed that while teenagers and young music lovers may have had Pat Boone on top of their dressers, but they had “me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better.” 

By the late 1950’s, with the segregation of music dying out, the Doo-Wop group Little Anthony and the Imperials came along and started to hit the big time.  While many of their early songs found great success for other artists, they found wider radio and television play than earlier Black R&B stars.

For a look at the Linda Ronstadt version of this song, see this past article.

21 thoughts on “BLACK ARTISTS, WHITE SINGERS – RICH PASCHALL

  1. That’s Jack Turner (‘Hound Dog’). It was hardly a ‘novelty’ version – it was straight Country, almost Rockabilly.

    I’m from Britain, and for a lot of teenagers in the 1960s (when I was only a child*) music made by African-American artists was simply part of their environment. This was mainly because of records brought over by black GIs. White boys bought the discs from them, heard them, went crazy for them, thought “This music is brilliant, I’ve got to try to play and sing like this! I want to play this music!” and the first wave of 1960s British ‘Beat Groups’ was born. Of course the music industry exploited them, so you had British acts bringing out recordings of ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Chains’, ‘Can I get a Witness’, ‘Shout’ and so on; but doing so because they loved the music. Meanwhile all UK cities had clubs where teenagers went, where the music they danced to was wall-to-wall Motown, Stax, and Atlantic. No concept of stealing anything, the music had simply become part of their lives.

    *By the time I was old enough to start going to clubs ‘our’ music had become almost exclusively Jamaican.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Rich, this brings back so many memories. I had recordings of most of these people in my youth. I also listened to them religiously on the AM radio “top 40” shows. My favorite show was “Your Hits Of The Week” with Peter Tripp on WMGM AM in New York. They did a top 100 countdown from Monday to Friday. I followed the show like we follow our favorite TV shows today.

    I must confess I did like some of Pat Boone’s stuff — his ballads. “Goldmine In The Sky”, etc. But when I heard Pat’s cover of “Blueberry Hill”, I almost lost my mind.

    I just watched “Blackboard Jungle” again the other night. Watched it in bed with headset on. I almost jumped out of bed, head bopping to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”.

    I hear ya knockin’ Rich…….

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  3. Great article. I teach a class on the History of Rock n Roll, and we cover all of this. Hound Dog was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, both of whom were 19 at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pat Boone was a joke, even back then. TuttiFrutti was pure Little Richard, and Boone couldnt even snap his fingers to the beat, lol. I’ve seen perfomances of them side by side, and its pitiful what Boone could do to a song.

    Shows like American Bandstand opened the doors for a LOT of black perfomers like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. No color barriers there, nope.

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