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Cover Records (page 1)

This piece begins with a factual history of cover records and then offers a provocative hypothesis about the role they may have played in bringing about the explosion of rock & roll on the pop scene in 1956.

Cover records 101

Any new rendition of a previously released song is called a "cover" version. Music publishers benefit from multiple versions through both performances and royalties from recordings, so it's always been in their interest for more than one artist to record a given song. In fact, until the mid-1950s, individual songs, not unique recordings of them, were the primary basis for ranking national hits.

Cover records began within mainstream pop music primarily as variations on the personal style of the original recording's band or vocalist. A song like "Harbor Lights" had seven different versions on the pop charts at the same time representing six different record labels, each wanting its own piece of the action. Well into the 1950s, if a song like "Unchained Melody" had broad enough appeal, it was not unusual for one or more instrumental versions to compete with one or more vocal versions for pop radio play and sales.

After World War II, small independent labels produced records for more specialized audiences, especially the black "rhythm & blues" and white "country & western" markets (called "race" and "hillbilly" markets at the time). In this environment a different kind of cover record was born. White and black audiences often liked the same song if they heard it performed by an artist whose style matched their cultural expectations in an arrangement featuring familiar instruments. So R&B artists sometimes covered songs first recorded by country artists and vice versa, in each case modifying the original version to better suit a different audience. (The CD database includes a double CD with 24 well-chosen examples of such songs presented in both versions; use "black&white" as the search term.)

The major labels picked up on this idea in the early 1950s and scored huge pop hits with covers of country songs such as "Tennessie Waltz" and "Cold, Cold Heart." To make the pop cover versions, producers chose familiar vocalists and replaced country-styled vocal inflections and featured instruments with mainstream counterparts, thereby "smoothing the rough edges" of the original recordings to maximize their mass appeal. Adopting the same musical approach, a series of cover records of rhythm & blues songs achieved similar pop success in 1954 ("Sh-Boom" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll") and 1955 ("Sincerely," "Dance With Me, Henry," "Ain't That A Shame," and "I Hear You Knockin'").

Cover records in rock & roll history (part 1)

This wave of R&B cover records was kicked off by the suprising popularity of "Sh-Boom," an infectious novelty vocal group song that "crossed over" to pop radio stations in southern California in early summer 1954. Although a few other R&B records had crept into the top 20 of the national pop charts over the years, "Sh-Boom" was the first to reach the top 10, rising all the way to #5 by the end of the summer. Previously, records played on radio stations featuring R&B music for black audiences very rarely crossed over to stations programming pop music for white audiences. "Sh-Boom" began to beak down that barrier, but it was only the beginning. The white pop cover version of "Sh-Boom" was a far, far greater success, becoming the #1 record in the country for over two months and one of the top 5 pop records of the year.

It took about two years before the record companies and artists performing most R&B records no longer had to worry about a pop cover stealing their thunder. I'll return to this chronology after an interlude to discuss different interpretations of the cover record phenomenon.

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