THERE ARE GOOD PEOPLE AMONG US. They see a wrong and they set out to right it. Mostly, they fail. Nonetheless, we think of them as heroic for their efforts. There are others who set out merely to succeed at their own goals. While achieving those goals, they may also right a wrong, break down a barrier, or expand a horizon. They may not be heroes but surely they deserve our recognition for accomplishing good. Hell’s Belles, they might even deserve to be in one of our ubiquitous Halls of Fame!
In 1953, the Four Tones drove from Canada to Cleveland to appear on popular disc jockey Bill Randle’s show. The quartet sang the music that was popular then, hoping to emulate the success of groups like the Four Aces and the Four Lads. Randle got them an audition with Mercury Records, who signed the group to a recording contract. Randle also suggested they change their name to the Crew-Cuts.
The Crew-Cuts were lead singer Rudolph “Rudi” Mauger with Pat Barrett, John Perkins, and Ray Perkins. Their first hit came in 1954 with Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby, a straight pop record in the mold of many pop records of the ’40s. It had more in common with Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy than any record that actually boogie-woogied!
Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby was climbing the pop charts when the Crew-Cuts were rushed into the studio to record a version of Sh-Boom. This led them into playing a small but important role in the popularization of rock & roll in the early 1950s. 1
In early 1954, the Crows’ “Gee” became the first of the black vocal group sound that would come to be known as doo-wop made the national pop charts. It reached the Top 20 on both Billboard and Cash Box. Although Rama promoted it as a jump blues, some historians consider it to be the first rock & roll hit, and this was more than a year before Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” fired the rock & roll shot heard ’round the world.
Gee, yes I love her
This was a playful ditty that had just been released by the rhythm & blues vocal group the Chords. Mercury had the Crew-Cuts cut a sweetened, orchestrated version expressly for the white market. They did this knowing that most white radio listeners would never hear the Chords record.
In 1954, there was little competition in the marketplace between black rhythm & blues records and white “cover versions” because they would be played and purchased in two different marketplaces! The same applies to black covers versions of white pop and country hits.
There were signs that integration was occurring. Earlier in 1954, the Crows’ Gee had become the first black R&B “group vocal” record to make a big splash on the national pop charts, reaching the Top 20 on both Billboard and Cash Box. The Crows had accomplished this without any assistance from a white cover version bringing attention to it.
Sh-Boom had a very different story.
The Crew-Cuts’ ROCK AND ROLL BASH album (Mercury MG-20144) featured most of their “important” rock & roll-flavored hits, including “Sh-Boom,” “Earth Angel,” “A Story Untold,” “Ko Ko Mo,” and “Gum Drop.” Released during the first half of 1956, it may have been the first LP to use “Rock and Roll” in the title.
Life could be a dream
The five members of the Chords wrote Sh-Boom as the B-side to their first single on Atlantic Records’ newly-formed subsidiary, Cat Records. The A-side a was a cover of Patti Page’s Cross Over The Bridge, which had been a Top 10 pop hit a few months earlier. It was ripe for exploitation in the black market.
On July 3, 1954, the Chords’ Sh-Boom debuted on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Records survey. Neither it nor the forgotten A-side made that magazine’s pop charts.
On July 3, 1954, the Crew-Cuts’ Sh-Boom (Mercury 70404) debuted at #26 on the Cash Box Best Selling Singles survey. It was accompanied at that position by the Chords’ Sh-Boom (Cat 104). This was possible because Cash Box often listed more than one version of a hit song in the same chart position. They did this even when it was obvious which version was selling the most records.
By the time Sh-Boom reached #1 on August 7, 1954, it was obvious that the Crew-Cuts were outselling the Chords by a wide margin. But it also implies that, according to the retail sources that Cash Box surveyed, the black record was selling in white markets! Both records remained at the top spot on the Best Selling Singles chart for seven weeks, making it one of the biggest hits of the year.
The Crew-Cuts appear to have been pivotal in getting black records played on white radio stations in 1954-1955.
On the Billboard Top 100 chart, the Crew-Cuts’ Sh-Boom was also #1 for seven weeks, but the Chords’ version was nowhere to found. It didn’t spend a single week on the Billboard survey!
Did the Crew-Cuts’ cover help the Chords’ original make it to the upper realms of the pop charts?
Of course, it did!
The immense popularity of the Crew-Cuts record took the song to the toppermost of the poppermost on the Cash Box chart. It made it possible for the Chords’ Sh-Boom to be the first rhythm & blues record by a black group to reach #1 on a national pop chart, even if it did riding the coattails of the white version!
Had the Crew-Cuts not covered Sh-Boom, would the Chords’ record have followed the Crows Gee into the higher reaches of the pop charts? Any answer is speculation, but with Gee the sole precedent, the safe bet would be “No.”
In 1957, the Topps Chewing Gum Company published a set of 88 Hit Stars trading cards. They licensed the images of most of the pop stars that they thought kids would want. The Crew-Cuts were card #41. The back of the card claimed that “Sh-Boom” had sold almost 2,000,000 copies!
In late 1954, the Penguins released what was to become one of the signature records of ’50s doo-wop music, Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine). It topped the Billboard Rhythm & Blues Records survey in early 1955, staying at #1 for three weeks. 2
The Crew-Cuts released their version of Earth Angel in January 1955 as the B-side to Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So). The A-side was a whitewashed version of the original honking version by Gene & Eunice. It peaked at #3 on Cash Box but sharing that position with Perry Como’s even poppier reading of the song.
Again, the DJs flipped the record over and Earth Angel was the bigger hit, reaching #2 on Cash Box. Like Sh-Boom, the Crew-Cuts record shared that position with the Penguins’ Earth Angel, meaning they had dragged another black rhythm & blues record to the top of the white pop charts!
On Billboard, the Crew-Cuts record was also a double-sided hit: Earth Angel reached #3 and Ko Ko Mo made it to #6. The Penguins’ Earth Angel was also a hit, reaching #8 without piggybacking on the Crew Cuts’ record. (Ko Ko Mo failed to chart on Billboard.)
This could mean that the Crew-Cuts had helped the Penguins record find a market with white audiences. Or it could mean that the integration of Top 40 radio was picking up steam.
Don’t be angry, gumdrop
The Crew-Cuts continued to have hits with white versions of black records. In 1955, they placed three sides on the national pop charts with versions of Nappy Brown’s Don’t Be Angry, the Nutmegs’ A Story Untold, and Otis Williams & the Charms’ Gum Drop.
Brown’s Don’t Be Angry also reached the Cash Box Top 10, tied at that position with the Crew-Cuts. It did not make the Billboard survey.
The Nutmegs’ A Story Untold was dragged to #15 on the Cash Box chart by the success of the Crew-Cuts version. It did not make the Billboard survey.
The Charms’ Gum Drop did not tag along with the Crew-Cuts version onto either Cash or Billboard.
By 1956, black rhythm & blues artists were hearing their records played on Top 40 radio stations around the country. The need for white covers of black hits evaporated. The Crew-Cuts continued to reach the Top 20 with Angels In The Sky and Seven Days (1956) and Young Love (1957). The latter was one of three versions to make the Top 20, the others being by Sonny James and Tab Hunter.
In 1958, the Crew-Cuts moved to RCA Victor, who was unable to return them to the pop charts. The group moved to ever-smaller companies looking for their former glory. Their last single was Yea, Yea, She Wants Me, a rather limp Beatles knock-off for Chess Records, of all places. 3
The Crew-Cuts fourth album was MUSIC ALA CARTE (MG-20199) and featured a cover photo of the guys in a sporty little two-seater that looks like it belongs on a West Coast album from 1963-1964. While Mercury consistently spelled their name with a hyphen on their singles, here it is spelled as one word on the cover but as two words without a hyphen on the record labels. Had I been head of Mercury Records, this album would have been titled MUSIC ALA CAR(TE).
Hall of Famers?
Do the Crew-Cuts, the artists most associated with “covering” black records with inferior pop version and stealing all the thunder (and the moolah), deserve to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? No one listening to their string of hits from 1954-1957 would connect them with the nascent rock & roll movement of the 1950s.
They sound like the kind of music that rock & roll was meant to displace from the playlists of AM radio during those years. They sound, well, kinda corny.
By the time they made their first record in 1953, American society had been sluggishly, haltingly integrating for years. I think it’s safe to say that black musicians making rhythm & blues music would have eventually found their way onto radio stations that normally played pop music for a white audience.
“After the explosion of rock & roll in 1956, it soon became clear that teenagers preferred the real article.”
I also think it’s safe to say that white rock & roll singers hastened that process along considerably. In 1955, there were only a handful of R&B records played on pop stations, few of which were big hits.
“The main reason the Crew Cuts’ recording of Sh-Boom made it to #1 in place of the far superior original version by the Chords was that most mainstream disc jockeys around the country thought the watered-down pop version would be more acceptable to their listeners.
The record, the first rock-affiliated single to top the charts, opened the door in 1955 to cover versions of R&B hits by such white pop groups as well as such solo acts as Pat Boone. After the explosion of rock & roll in 1956, it soon became clear that teenagers preferred the real article.” (Doowopheaven.)
By the end of 1956—after the eruption of the cultural volcano that was Elvis Presley—almost any white teenager could hear almost any black R&B record they wanted to, whether on the radio, in at their local store, or at a friend’s house. Had rock & roll not happened, the integration could have taken many more years.
As the Chords, the Penguins, Nappy Brown, and the Nutmegs never had another big pop hit, it is not unreasonable to argue that the Crew-Cuts helped them all to their biggest moment of success and fame on the mostly white, mostly conservative Top 40 radio stations around the country.
Whether they intended to or not, the Crew-Cuts appear to have been pivotal in getting black records played on white radio stations in 1954-1955. This was before Bill Haley & the Comets opened the floodgates with Rock Around The Clock and two years before Elvis and the Rock & Roll Revolution that followed him.
So if the integration of black music into mainstream America is important, then perhaps those artists who were part of jumpstarting that integration deserve more than a mere and a belated nod at that—of appreciation.
And those artists include the Great Homogenizers, the Crew-Cuts and Pat Boone. I doubt either set out to open up the airwaves of white America to the sounds and rhythms of black America, but they did anyway …If rock & roll had not happened, the integration of rhythm & blues music into Top 40 radio could have taken many more years that it did. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of billboards advertising the Crew-Cuts and Anita Bryant on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. The photo was taken on July 26, 1960, on Woodland Avenue (from 58th Street to 60th Street) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Philly History Blog)
1 The success of the Crew-Cuts record also gave renewed life to their earlier single, Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby. It peaked at #11 while Earth Angel was #1.
2 The term doo-wop wasn’t applied to black rhythm & blues group vocal 45s until years after the genre’s heyday. Many of the original collectors of those records disliked the term.
3 It’s so amateurishly performed and recorded—listen to those drums—that it’s kind of charming.