They Tried To Rock CD-Album-Series by Bear Family Records
The Hillbillies: They Tried to Rock, Vols 1-4
Hank Davis, Roy Forbes, and Scott Parker (comp.)
4 CDs Bear Family BCD 17350, AH/BCD 17406, AH/BCD 17416, AH/BCD 17417 For decades popular music scholars have disagreed about the motivation and efficacy of mid-century cover recording. Some authors contend that white musicians sought to deprive black artists of both music chart recognition and commercial profits by producing and marketing copies of original blues, doo-wop, and R&B recordings. Other writers assert that the white covers of new black music during the 1950s were simply the continuation of a common recording industry practice totally unrelated to race. Still other scholars argue that the unintended consequences of the appearance of multiple versions of new rock-and-roll songs expanded the general public's interest and enthusiasm for non-traditional melodies and lyrics. What is undeniable, though, is that cover recording practices always benefited composers.
Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Otis Williams
Thus talented singer-songwriters like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and Otis Williams (of the Charms) were financially rewarded rather than penalized during the period of cover recording warfare. It didn't matter that Pat Boone, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra took turns crooning the Charms' 1955 hit "Two Hearts, Two Kisses (Make One Love)." The royalties still rolled back to Otis Williams and Henry Stone. Similarly, Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino welcomed the supplementary recording revenue generated by Pat Boone's rendition of "The Fat Man" and Teresa Brewer's version of "Bo Weevil." The four Bear Family CDs featured in this review present a non-accusatory perspective on both '50s cover recording activities and rock-and-roll experimentations by traditional country and pop performers.
The They Tried to Rock series,
organized by Hank Davis, Roy Forbes, and Scott Parker, features 128 recordings distributed among four CDs. Using detailed liner notes that explain the genesis of each song presented, the compilers unravel a web of angst rather than avarice. Davis, Forbes, and Parker contend that the unanticipated rise of rock and roll had created genuine career uncertainty within the tradition-bound record industry. Established songwriters feared for their future livelihood. Experienced singers wondered if audiences would continue to support their old styles by purchasing new recordings.
What are documented via oral evidence in these delightful Bear Family discs are the attempts of numerous performers to hitch a ride on the musical mystery train that had propelled Elvis Presley, the Moonglows, Buddy Knox, and Wanda Jackson onto the Billboard charts. Sometimes novice rockers borrowed entire hit songs like "Maybelline," "Long Tall Sally," and "Hound Dog"; sometimes they tried to re-create guitar licks, slap-bass techniques, or drumming patterns that sounded rebellious; and sometimes they just co-opted key words like "rock," "rockabilly," "teenage," and "go, go, go" to achieve youthful attention. Compilers Davis, Forbes, and Scott are sympathetic to the business turmoil and personal confusion that prompted non-rock producers and non-rock performers to make so many terrible recording decisions.
The Carlisles, Bobby Williamson, and the Stanley Brothers
Clearly, the performances of the Carlisles, Bobby Williamson, and the Stanley Brothers on covers of "Honey Love," "Sh-Boom," and "Finger Poppin' Time" are awkward. Similarly, the total productions for Art Mooney, Jo Stafford, and Jim Lowe on "Tutti Frutti," "I Got a Sweetie," and "Blue Suede Shoes" are ill conceived. Notwithstanding the epic failures depicted in each volume of They Tried to Rock, there is a silver lining of interesting music and successful rock imitations on these discs.
Louis Prima is outstanding on "Jump, Jive, and Wail"; Ella Mae Morse nails it with "Money Honey"; Marty Robbins is credible on "Long Tall Sally"; and Eileen Barton is exciting on "Fujiyama Mama:' Of course, other renditions are more humorous than effective. The Crew Cuts are out of sync with "Susie Q." The majority of recordings illustrate talented singers and talented musicians taking on risky lyrics and unfamiliar rhythms. Some work; most don't. They Tried to Rock hammers home one key point about the rock-and-roll tsunami that overwhelmed traditional American pop music between 1954 and 1957.
The genius of the new music was grounded in charismatic personalities (Elvis, Little Richard, and Gene Vincent), distinctive vocal pyrotechnics (Wanda Jackson, Clyde McPhatter, and Jackie Wilson), crafty yet simple lyrics (Chuck Berry, Harvey Fuqua, and Jesse Stone), and raucous rhythms (Dale Hawkins, Bill Justis, and Link Wray). Age was also an important factor.
Bill Haley and Joe Turner
Although Bill Haley and Joe Turner thrived at the dawn of rock and roll, most other middle-aged country, pop, and R&B acts floundered under the youth-oriented audio avalanche. This witty Bear Family retrospective offers valuable insights into the muddled profes-sional music world of the 1950s. As always, money drove artistic decisions. But the youthful zeal for rock-and-roll sounds befuddled both record executives and their stables of tradi-tional artists. Change was in the air. A decade before the nasal Bob Dylan warned about the impending social and political upheavals of the '60s, the nature of American popular music was already being reshaped by racial integration on music charts and teenage choices at local record shops.
The days were numbered for pop performers like Teresa Brewer, Dorothy Collins, Billy Eckstine, Georgia Gibbs, Guy Mitchell, and Kay Starr. As for young country artists like Patsy Cline, George Jones, Marty Robbins, and Leroy Van Dyke, their momentary flirtations with rockabilly rhythms prompted wise decisions to commit their future careers to country music. More lucrative options beckoned.
All of these tales are on display in They Tried to Rock.
B. Lee Cooper Newman University