White 'cover records' ripped off great Black R&B sounds

Richard Carter | 10/12/2012, 4:17 p.m.
"You can wag your tail, but you ain't no friend of mine..."-Willie Mae "Big Mama"...
Colony Records was my place for original Black R&B

"You can wag your tail, but you ain't no friend of mine..."-Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, "Hound Dog" (Peacock Records, 1953)

Among the myths about white rip-offs of original Black R&B and doo-wop in the golden era (1953-1963) is that all were inferior. Most were, including the best known: the cutesy-pooh McGuire Sisters' syrupy 1954 version of the Spaniels' "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight."

However, there were a few good white covers, such as the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'" (1957), originated by the Gladiolas. With a spoken refrain by its bass man, the Diamonds brought down the house on TV shows such as "Dick Clark's American Bandstand."

In 1956, the Diamonds-a Canadian quartet-had hit big on the Teenagers' sensational "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," featuring the great Frankie Lymon and the Willows' "Church Bells May Ring," led by the big voice of Tony Middleton.

Another huge white cover record was Peggy Lee's red hot "Fever" in 1957, recorded by Little Willie John the previous year. His sizzling version burned up the R&B charts but was unheard by most white record-buyers until Lee-a great jazz singer-struck gold.

Indeed, when it came to soft, slow, sensual vocals, few performers-Black or white-could hold a candle to Lee's sultry sounds. She was pure dynamite, and her "Fever" cover is what most people remember, despite Little Willie John's memorable original.

However, Lee and the Diamonds were positive exceptions. In addition to the McGuire Sisters, other really negative offenders were Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, Georgia Gibbs, the Fontane Sisters, Gale Storm, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Chordettes, the Crew Cuts, Paul Revere and the Raiders and, of course, Elvis Presley.

By the time Elvis burst on the scene singing Black music in 1956, the cover record process was in high gear. Well-known white singers would disguise the Black sound in plain vanilla and sell it to nave white record-buyers as something new and different.

As a result, legitimate, original R&B was the province of Black radio stations and DJs-becoming monster hits for us. Meanwhile, white America also was hearing covers of tunes such as "Ain't That a Shame," "At My Front Door," "I'm Walkin'" and "Sincerely," to name a very few, but it was Black R&B in white face.

Other well-known Black R&B artists whose work was covered in inferior fashion were LaVern Baker, the Coasters, the Chords, the El Dorados, the Harptones, Etta James, the Moonglows and the Penguins. However, the Spaniels were hurt the most.

In addition to the McGuire Sisters' slop, the Spaniels' "Goodnight Sweetheart" was covered by Gloria Mann, the Ray Charles Singers, Sunny Gale, Johnny and Jack, Gale Storm and by Sha Na Na to close their TV show. Adding insult to injury, Alan Freed-a popular white DJ who played Black R&B-refused to air the Spaniels' classic version when Vee-Jay Records didn't use his name as its co-writer with lead singer James "Pookie" Hudson.

Years later, "Goodnight Sweetheart" began turning up in movies such as "American Graffiti," "W.W and the Dixie Dancekings," "La Bamba" and "Three Men and a Baby," and Chrysler Corp. TV commercials. Legal maneuvering had lost Hudson the rights to his song and royalties that would have made wealthy men of him and the other Spaniels.