It’s established pop music history that classic 50s songs like Sh-Boom, Tweedlee Dee, Hearts of Stone, and many others were recorded by black artists on minor labels before they were “covered” by white artists on major labels and became major hits. And it’s generally felt by many fans of the original versions that the original artists were “cheated” out of the glory due them by “inferior” cover versions by white artists. They feel that the cover versions “whitewashed” the soul right out of the originals by making them smoother and slicker, and more acceptable to “mainstream” audiences. To these people, the originals are the real thing, and the cover versions are (racial pun not intended) pale imitations that really had no right to exist.
As a music history person, I’m not sure that I ever felt that strongly, although once I discovered the original versions of songs I’d heard for years by the Penguins and others, I discovered that I generally liked the rougher versions better. As a music history person, I knew that everyone borrows from everyone else. In fact, I even wrote about it a few years ago.
However, I had a spectacular revelation at a barbershop harmony concert about a year ago. Here different barbershop groups, male and female, got together to present two or three favorite songs, done in barbershop style. These ranged from old barbershop classics to current hits. And as I listened to them sing these songs, it hit me…
The people who covered those 50s songs by black artists didn’t “steal” anything from anyone. They didn’t “whitewash” the soul out of anything. They simply did those same songs in a different style…a style that was popular with the mainstream audiences of the day. And they didn’t cheat those black artists out of their glory either, because the original versions weren’t going to be played on mainstream radio stations or bought by mainstream audiences anyway; they’d remain in the province of people who listened to what were then called “race” radio stations and bought “race” records.
The composers of those songs, however…well they cried all the way to the bank, having made money off of both versions.
Why is it that we feel that the original artist is the only one who has a right to have a hit with a particular song?
Let’s take a look at I Can’t Stop Loving You. Ray Charles wasn’t the first person to record it. That honor goes to country singer Don Gibson in 1957. His version made it all the way to number 7 on the Billboard Country chart but only to 81 on the (mainstream) Hot 100. But when Ray Charles recorded it in 1962, it went up to number 1 on the Hot 100, R&B, and Adult Contemporary charts. It was a reversal of the trend of white artists getting major hits off of songs first recorded by black artists.
I’m sure that Gibson, who also wrote the song, cried all the way to the bank, when the Ray Charles version introduced the song to an even wider audience and made it a standard. In fact, I bet that when he got that royalty check from the Ray Charles version, he thought to himself, “life could be a dream, sh-boom!”