Heroes (Part 4)
Lieber and Stoller
More record production legends. This month Lieber and Stoller and the black breakthrough.
This month, black makes a breakthrough as John Morrish charts the first singers to cross America's race line with the help of two 'white' boys, Lieber and Stoller (below).
Just before he signed Chuck Berry, something happened to Leonard Chess that must have almost broken his heart. He watched as two black vocal group records, "I'll Be Home" by the Flamingos and "Sincerely" by the Moonglows, both gentle sentimental sounds calculated to please the white ear, were smashed out of sight by white cover versions. Pat Boone and the McGuire sisters, respectively, took the songs on to massive popular success, leaving his artists back on the street whence they sprang.
This was more than a minor irritation to the independent label specialising in black music. It could mean the life or death of the company. By 1955 there was a major boom in record sales, and the pace of competition was hotting up.
Over in New York, Atlantic Records was having the same sort of problems. LaVern Baker, a versatile singer, saw her would-be pop hit "TweedleDee" taken over by Georgia Gibbs and turned into a million seller.
Jerry Wexler, Atlantic's chief producer and one of the owners of the label, looked at it like this: "We had a good, albeit parochial, sale with our rhythm and blues, but the bigger companies would get a vast sale simply by copying our material with white artists. The word is 'cover', but the truth is that they were copying our songs. They would get a Patti Page or the Fontaines and take a song from our Ivory Joe Hunter or Ruth Brown, record it with a white studio band, and rush around to a white radio station and immediately put it on the air. Their sales would be huge. We were restricted, meanwhile, to the black radio stations because white stations wouldn't play a black record. They'd say to us: 'Bring us a white cover'. But, of course, we didn't have any white artists," he told Tony Palmer.
But before we get carried away with the idea of "theft", we must appreciate that the style we are discussing, the black vocal-group music often called "doo-wop", was very largely for the white market.
As always, that's an oversimplification. But the first exponents of the style, the Inkspots, aimed their skilful vocal harmonies straight at the vast international white market.
The successors to the Inkspots produced equally smooth and approachable sounds. What Chess, Atlantic and all the others had to do was find a way of penetrating the white market with the style, without allowing it to be crushed by more-or-less inadequate white versions.
Early on, the success of the Orioles' version of "Crying In The Chapel" gave some indication of the possibilities. This quintessential vocal-group record differed from the sound of the Inkspots in that it incorporated a prominent, chiming piano and a strange wordless falsetto line, running along "obbligato" (to use the technical term).
But the enunciation was crisp and the lead tenor of Sonny Til restrained and elegant. Those factors, together with the fact that "Crying In The Chapel" was an old country song, may have enabled the record to "pass for" white.
Whatever the reason, the record was a massive hit in 1953, the first black record to "break through" the colour line, and a precedent that every black artist would have to follow. The style, meanwhile, was not standing still. Clyde McPhatter was a gospel singer who was tempted into pop by his singing teacher.
As early as 1950 he was making the first hybrid gospel/r'n'b records with the Dominoes, his voice hovering around the melody, then swooping up or down in imitation of the empassioned convert. Even in his first recording, "Do Something For Me", the chord changes are those of gospel rather than blues, which the song otherwise resembles.
Doing something broadly similar, but with a defiantly secular tone, were Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, whose "Work With Me Annie" was a massive r'n'b hit which surfaced in several bowdlerised versions in the pop market. This band borrowed the gospel shouts and the flamboyant vocal melisma (singing several notes for each syllable) of the Dominoes, but allied it to a thumping blues rhythm section.
The Midnighters had nothing to say to the white market, but the very next set of bands aimed themselves squarely at pop success.
Which brings us back to the Moonglows and The Flamingos. Either "I'll Be Home" or "Sincerely" will do as an example of the first generation of "pop" vocal records. Produced in the Chess Studios in 1954, they are both examples of black artists on their "best" behaviour. Both feature unvarying triplets on piano and the mildest of gospel affectations, two ever-present features in the coming years' vocal group productions.
"I'll Be Home" distinguishes itself by a spoken verse, borrowed from the Inkspots, and "Sincerely" boasts a gasping, hiccupping lead vocal from Bobby Lester. Unlikely records to launch a revolution you might think — and you'd be right. But it was precisely the failure of records like these to break into the white market that set the subsequent history of black music into motion.
Recording vocal music was a cheap way of making records — instrumental backings being kept to a minimum — but you couldn't go on like that for very long without a real hit. What was needed was some way of ensuring that your record made it into the pop charts without being knocked out by some major label's insipid cover version on the way.
One way was to go ever deeper into the pop world and away from the music's gospel and r'n'b roots. You could try simple, silly, novelty songs based on single words or catchphrases. For instance: "Sh-boom", "Gee" or "Tweedle Dee", all r'n'b hits covered for the white market. If that didn't work you could go for the sentimental with numbers like "Goodnight, Well It's Time To Go", "In The Still Of The Night", "Come Go With Me" and so on.
Another ploy that was widely used was to give the band some teenage name and issue songs aimed squarely at the imagined centres of teenage existence: clothes, dances, cars and girls' names all being popular topics. Typical titles include "At The Hop", "Sixteen Candles", and "Teenager In Love".
Sadly, none of these transparent ploys were much good if you wanted to sell black music to white people. The more white you sounded, the easier it was for a white person to cover your song. Indeed as time went on, white acts took pride in getting ever closer to the original: "Little Darlin'" by The Diamonds (white Candians) is virtually indistinguishable from the original Gladiolas disc.
And in the end, the major white-run companies decided that they would rather not bother with anything like real rock'n'roll at all. Instead they bought up pretty boys like Frankie Avalon or Fabian, bought them some songs, put an orchestra behind them, bought them a spot on "American Bandstand", and they were away. It was easy in those days, you didn't even have to buy them a video.
But there were other approaches. Some black-based companies decided that there was more future in letting their artists forge a personal, more rootsy style — and letting the public catch up.
This was Atlantic's approach and it paid dividends later, with the Coasters among the earliest to benefit. (Typically though, Atlantic hedged its bets by having its very own teen idol in Bobby Darin.) There was a third approach, however, and it is the most significant of the three in terms of the history of production. It was an attempt to invest enough money in a production to move it out of the reach of competitors. At first, the money went on vastly improved studio facilities, giving crystal clear sound at a time when some people were still recording in bathrooms.
The pioneers in this respect were The Platters, designed by their manager and arranger Buck Ram to be "the new Inkspots". Records like "Only You" and "The Great Pretender" shared the common heritage of piano triplets and gospel vocal stylings, but lead tenor Tony Williams turned everything into high drama, played out on the most sumptuous and reverberant of sound-stages.
The string-laden "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" was the apotheosis of their style, as the Flamingos "I Only Have Eyes For You" was the apotheosis of group harmony. And then the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You" topped them both.
These three records, more than any others, epitomised the distance that vocal-group rhythm'n'blues had come. Any further advances could only come from an unexpected direction.
Enter Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. These two white boys (more precisely Jewish, like so many rock'n'roll characters) made a precarious living out of writing songs meant to imitate popular black styles. Their original version of "Hound Dog" for Willie Mae Thornton was a rough country blues.
They began to produce "in self-defence," according to Stoller, who said, "If we wrote a piece that was to be played as a Texas shuffle, for example, it would more than likely end up sounding like some Mickey Mouse swing record if we weren't there to supervise." In doing so they became the first independent producers, contracted to create individual records, and thereby created the structure behind about half of today's hits. They also made some remarkable records, firstly in what they term their "playlet" style. Starting with "Riot In Cell Block No. 9", and its dark sequel "Framed", they wrote and produced a series of songs for the Robins/Coasters which satirised and celebrated the lives of young blacks, first, and then teenagers of any race.
This was a breakthrough, but its roots were obvious enough. Lieber and Stoller simply discovered the dramatic possibilities inherent in that original Inkspots line-up. Often in the Inkspots' songs the passionate tenor of Bill Kenny dropped away leaving lugubrious bass-man Orville Jones to speak a line or two. Lieber and Stoller took this often absurd moment a step or two further by making each of the four Coasters play a recognisable part, a part that stayed the same from song to song. The bass-man usually sounded like an idiot but that was all part of the fun, except that, as Charlie Gillett says, "The device seemed to confirm every stereotype of the black man as indolent and stupid." We know, however, that the Coasters were as popular with blacks as with whites.
"They were making great r'n'b records," says Jerry Wexler, who bought their productions for Atlantic, "very idiomatic records. Not only did their records have intelligent production, they were in tune, had a good beat and were properly balanced." As even a cursory listen to much 1950s vocal music will tell you, those last three could never be taken for granted.
But Lieber and Stoller's real innovations came with a different group, The Drifters. A group called The Drifters had had a number of hits for Atlantic. But now Jerry Wexler presented the two men with a new group and asked for a new style. He got it. With arranger Stanley Applebaum writing out the string parts, Mike and Jerry put together "There Goes My Baby". Says Lieber, "Stanley wrote something that sounded like some Caucasian take-off and we had this Latin beat going on this out-of-tune tympani and The Drifters were singing something in another key, but the total effect — there was something magnetic about it." (As told to Bill Millar.)
It was a national number one hit, and the elements it inaugurated reappeared in all The Drifters hits from then on: strings, a Latin beat derived from the "baion", hefty percussion sections, and anything up to five guitarists. "Beat Concerto" the pop papers called it, which seems accurate enough. The formula recurred in songs like "Dance With Me", "Save The Last Dance For Me", and "Up On The Roof" — indeed, it lasted longer than most of The Drifters' vocalists.
But what was more important was that the elements of the style, tightened up and straightened out with the time-bound Latin rhythm discarded, became the essential raw material of a new sound. They called it soul.
Listening: Finding the right records to go with this piece was more difficult than writing it. Too often you will be going through some apparently reliable compilation only to find that it includes "later", "alternative", or just plain "wrong" versions of the songs you want.
The Coasters "20 Great Originals" (Atlantic 30057). An impeccable compilation.
The Drifters "Golden Hits" (Atlantic K40018). Good but limited.
The Drifters "20 Greatest Hits" (Masters MA 0017983). Includes some interesting early material but decidedly odd versions of "On Broadway" and "Saturday Night At The Movies".
"Hank Ballard & The Midnighters" (Bellaphon BID 8003).
The Ink Spots "The Best Of..." (MFP 50529).
Feature by John Morrish
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