Q: A lot of nice things are being said about Pat Boone prior to his appearance this weekend at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville. Nothing is being said about the white recording artists who stole music from black R&B artists back in the 1950s without paying any royalties to them. Pat Boone recorded “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard songs) and “Ain’t That A Shame” (Fats Domino), but the last I heard, not a penny has been paid to those two black artists. Any comments?
W.C., of Troy
A: If you’re a Boone fan, it would be a real shame if you avoided his weekend shows Saturday and Sunday over this apparent misconception.
First, it wasn’t performers like Boone directly cheating black artists out of their royalties. Instead, it was the record companies that signed those artists, according to Charles Gallaher and Cameron Lippard in their book “Race & Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic.”
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Instead of paying royalties, record companies — often owned by whites — would offer their artists a flat fee for a song. Unfamiliar with U.S. copyright laws, the artists would sign the contract, collect the fees — and lose all ownership rights (hence, future royalties) to the song.
They tell the story of Fred Parris, who wrote the classic “In the Still of the Night,” which sold between 10 million and 15 million copies. But instead of earning an estimated $100,000 in royalties, he walked off with $783. Similarly, Ahmet Ertegen, the founder of Atlantic Records, remembered having a conversation with a Columbia Records executive who said the company never paid its black artists royalties.
So when Boone and other white cover artists recorded a song, their labels would pay the necessary fees but it might have wound up in the pockets of the record company execs.
Of course, you are correct on another point. In fact, Boone admits he made tons more money off the sales of the records you cited than the original artists initially did. But if you think Boone, now well-known for his Christian beliefs, is ashamed of this, think again.
“Guilty? No,” he told PBS’ Travis Smiley during an interview on May 29, 2015. “Here’s the bottom line: There were lots of rhythm and blues artists and they were doing well in their genre and they were famous and they had the charts and everything. (But) the only ones anybody knows today are the ones that were covered by the Beatles, by Elvis, by me and by many artists.”
As an example, he pointed out that legendary DJ Alan Freed on WINS Radio in New York asked his audience which version of “Ain’t That a Shame” they’d rather hear — Boone’s, which had hit No. 1, or Domino’s. At that time in 1955, he said, listeners chose Boone’s. Moreover, Boone argues that those black artists were thankful for these white covers because it often gave the black artists both money and a needed catapult to fame.
“They were thrilled because they wrote the songs,” he said. “They made more money from my records than they did from their own and it introduced them to a far larger audience that they didn’t have any access to at that point.”
If you don’t believe Boone, then take it straight from the horse’s mouth — Little Richard himself, who, in the Chuck Berry documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, said he appreciated Boone’s help. Well, OK, he did eventually.
“When I started with the ‘wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom,’ and Pat Boone covered it, I was woo, wop-boppin' all over the place. I remember (Specialty Records owner) Art Rupe saying he would put my record on the top stations. Then here come Pat Boone. The white kids wanted mine, ’cause it was real rough and raw, and Pat Boone had this smooth version. And so the white kids would take mine and put it in the drawer and put his on top of the dresser. I was mad. When Pat Boone covered my record, I was mad, I wanted to get him. I said, ‘I’m goin’ to Nashville to find him.’
“I wanted to get him at that time because to me he was stoppin’ my progress. I wanted to be famous and here’s this man that came and took my song. And not only did he take ‘Tutti Frutti’ but he took ‘Long Tall Sally.’ I wanted to do somethin’ about it. Now, in later years, I thought about that and said it was good. But back then I couldn’t stand it.”
You have to understand the times, too. Over the years, we seem to have grown accustomed to the wild exploits of, say, the Miley Cyruses and Ozzy Osbournes. But back in the early 1950s, our “hit parade” was filled with Doris Day, Patti Page and Perry Como. Imagine parents suddenly hearing Little Richard come screaming out of their teens’ radios.
And it wasn’t only parents. Radio station owners were worried that many of the new songs contained sexual innuendos that, if broadcast, might bring the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission. Hence, to soften the transition in musical styles temporarily, the music world went through what is known as the “cover era” from about 1954 to 1957. It was a brief period when white singers recorded songs initially produced on a small record label associated with “race music.” Voilá — Boone doing “Tutti Frutti” and Canada’s vanilla Crew Cuts covering the Chords’ “Sh-Boom.”
Sometimes, the lyrics were even changed to make the songs more acceptable. That’s what happened when Bill Haley cleaned up Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and why Georgia Gibbs changed Etta James’ “Roll with me, Henry” to “Dance with me, Henry.”
Initially, the white stars did indeed enjoy phenomenal success on the backs of the fledgling black artists. It’s probably not well-remembered now, but Boone’s version of “Ain’t That a Shame” hit No. 1 while Domino’s made it only to No. 10. Similarly, Boone’s recording of “Tutti Frutti” hit No. 12 while Little Richard stalled at 17.
But it didn’t take long for these sanitized versions to lead music fans to discover the more earthy originals that are beloved today. By 1958, the cover era was over as black artists became stars in their own right. Georgia Gibbs (born Frieda Lipschitz) disappeared from the charts. Pat Boone turned to ballads and the novelty hit “Speedy Gonzales.” Even Fats Domino gained a little revenge by hitting the charts in August 1968 with a cover of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.”
So don’t be so hard on Pat. In fact, you might even want to give another listen to his 1997 cover treasure, “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
Besides “Ain’t That a Shame,” can you name Pat Boone’s four other No. 1 hits?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: He may be best known for his dictionary, but in 1833 Daniel Webster published a revised version of the King James Bible. Because the Good Book was often used in schools back then, Webster wanted to correct grammar, remove obsolete usages and clean up expressions “so offensive, especially to females, as to create a reluctance in young persons to attend Bible classes.”