Answer Man: Boy, what a song that was

News-DemocratMarch 22, 2014 

Recently, CBS celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Near the end, Ringo Starr led the audience in singing "Boys." The crowd loved it. However, Ray Charles had the hit "What'd I Say," which seems to have a similar tune/melody, but obviously different lyrics. What is your opinion? -- Bill Beebe, of Fairview Heights

Oh, Bill, Bill, Bill, you want to get another moptop in trouble?

You remember what happened the last time, don't you? It led to a 27-year court fight and ultimately produced a nearly $600,000 judgment against George Harrison over his inspiration for his 1970 hit "My Sweet Lord."

In his book "I, Me, Mine," Harrison wrote, "I was inspired to write 'My Sweet Lord' by the Edwin Hawkins Singers' version of 'Oh Happy Day.' I thought a lot about whether to do 'My Sweet Lord' or not, because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated a lot of people might get weird about it. Many people fear the words 'Lord' and 'God' -- makes them angry for some strange reason."

But that wasn't what made U.S. music publisher Bright Tunes angry. In Rolling Stone magazine, Ben Gerson had written that the song was an "obvious rewrite" of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." On Feb. 10, 1971, Bright Tunes sued Harrison for copyright infringement.

Five years later, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Owen ruled that Harrison did not intentionally plagiarize the 1963 Ronald Mack song, but added, "It is clear that 'My Sweet Lord' is the very same song as 'He's So Fine.'" He awarded Bright Tunes $1.6 million, which was whittled down over the years until the case finally ended in March 1998.

The lengthy suit scared even Mick Jagger enough that he added k.d. lang and Ben Mink to the credits for "Anybody Seen My Baby?" on the Rolling Stones' "Bridges to Babylon" album. The song sounds much like lang's "Constant Craving" and Jagger did not want a similar court battle.

Now you want to go back to a song that was released on the Beatles' debut album "Please Please Me" (exactly 51 years ago last Saturday, by the way)?

Well, at least I can't get Ringo into trouble. "Boys" was written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell for the Shirelles. Unless you have the old 45, you may not know that it was the flip side of the girl group's first megahit, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," released in November 1960.

Ringo must have heard it and, three years later, thought he could put his individual stamp on it. Recorded in a single take on Feb. 11, 1963, it would be the first time many fans heard their drumming idol sing a lead vocal. (That Beatles album also included the Shirelles' "Baby, It's You.")

On the other hand, "What'd I Say?" came about entirely by accident, according to Mike Evans in his book "Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul." Playing a "meal dance" show in Brownsville, Pa., the then 28-year-old Charles had exhausted his playlist and still had 12 minutes left, so he told his Raelettes, "Listen, I'm going to fool around, and y'all just follow me."

The result was "What'd I Say?," which produced such an enthusiastic audience response that Charles immediately told his producer that he was going to record it. By the summer of 1959, it had hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 10 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

So did Dixon and Farrell steal their "Boys" from Charles? Yes, there are some musical similarities and, of course, there are the same "hey heys" in some of the choruses. But like Japanese haiku poetry, gazillions of blues songs follow a very similar musical pattern.

If you want to have some fun, go on the Internet and search for "pop songs that sound alike." You'll find loads of sites like www.thatsongsoundslike.com and www.soundsjustlike.com, on which bloggers continue to add to an endless list of ditties that sound like clones of each other.

For example, Fun's 2012 song "Some Nights" sounds more than a bit like Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia" from 1970. Some say you can even plug Gale Garnett's 1965 "We'll Sing in the Sunshine" into "Three Coins in the Fountain."

However, after listening to them closely several times, I ultimately disagreed with you for a couple of reasons. Most important, the two have distinct rhythms. "My Sweet Lord" and "He's So Fine" are interchangeable, but you just can't plug the lyrics of "What'd I Say" into the rhythm of "Boys" (or vice versa) and get the same tune.

Also, Charles seems to hammer away on one note at the start while "Boys" seems to have a wider range of notes throughout. And then, of course, there is that long, suggestive "What'd I Say Part II." So, in the end, I'd say Dixon and Farrell were just a couple of "Boys" who just wanted to have a little pop-rock fun.

Today's trivia

Who nearly released "My Sweet Lord" first before his version was withdrawn?

Answer to Saturday's question: It was 175 years ago today that the term "O.K." was published in The Boston Morning Post, the first time it has been found in print. While there are many theories for its origin, one of the most accepted involves a habit in the 1830s of educated people intentionally misspelling words. Then they would abbreviate them and use them as slang. O.K. was short for "oll korrect."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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