Black artists and white singers, Rich Paschall
At the dawn of Rock and Roll in the 1950s and even into the early 1960s, 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.
DOT, a Memphis area record label founded in 1950, became big by hiring white singers to cover black songs. In fact, they made stars out of some of these singers. Among the biggest was Pat Boone, who you might see selling walk-in bathtubs these days. 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 that Boone got a lot of radio play. The others did not.
DOT 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 benefited from the practice of covering other artists as well. 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 his cover versions of older 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 1950s, 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.