28 May 2012

Cry-Baby Cover Story: "Sh-Boom"

Okay, so I was planning for tonight's post to be about my first garment for That's Sew Cinematic. But, uh, I was cutting out the lining pieces a little too late the other night and cut a whole section of them out backwards! Which means I am a little behind.

But I think it's about time for another Cover Story! In keeping with my Cry-Baby theme, let's look at a song from the film: "Sh-Boom," performed here by Baldwin and his Whiffles:

This scene is part of a sequence taking place at the charm school talent show that sets up the social sphere of Baltimore's squares as the first foray through Turkey Point establishes the world of the drapes, contrasting their socially respectable, somewhat cheesy diversions with the drapes' wildness (everyone's listening to rock 'n roll! Toe-Joe's taking pinup shots in the parking lot! Ramona's fencing car parts! And then of course that one girl in the flowery bathing cap is actually smoking a cigarette while treading water). Given that context, the song couldn't be more perfect. Everything about the scene, from the goofy suits to the insipid singing to the super-awkward dance moves--even the haircut-based band name--is a clear play on this 1954 recording by the Crew Cuts:

It's not just any imitation of a silly pop song, though. The Crew Cuts hit number one with "Sh-Boom," and have since earned their notoriety in the annals of rock history, by totally biting a black doo-wop group called the Chords:

The Chords also hit number one with "Sh-Boom" (in the same year, in fact!), but the Crew Cuts massively outsold them, and were able to more widely perform and promote their version of the single, because of their race; in addition, the Crew Cuts' more traditional arrangement (slower-paced, orchestra-backed, pitched to appeal to the white pop audience) went down more easily with an American public maybe not quite ready to accept the musical advances that would set the stage for rock 'n roll and bring "race music" into the mainstream.

The Crew Cuts were but an early example of a wider and longer-running trend of white pop singers picking up singles by black artists and toning them down for the mainstream airwaves. It's part of the phenomenon referred to in the phrase "black root, white fruit," the notion that from ragtime and jazz through rock 'n roll and beyond, musical developments made by black artists have historically been better embraced by mainstream audiences when imitative white renditions popped up--and zoomed up the charts, and made all the money. Music historians have argued about the effect these mainstream white "takes" on early rock songs really had. Was Pat Boone's cover of "Tutti Frutti," for example--which toned down Little Richard's original in both lyrical content and performance style and beat it on Billboard by 16 spots--a criminal ripoff of an innovative track in a brand-new type of music, or a key bridge between the nascent genre of rock 'n roll and a public still not quite ready to hear about "good booty" on the radio?

I know what my answer is, and while it has something to do with how embarrassing I find the Whiffles' waistcoats (and Pat Boone's existence), it has more to do with the fact that most of America's racial legacy is gross. On a brighter note, this article, which I found by Googling "black root, white fruit" and which has a decent list of examples of Crew Cut-esque white ripoff covers of black artists, takes the point further to say some interesting things about black-on-black/black-on-white pop covers and musical revivalism!


  1. I had forgotten about the existence of Pat Boone. His version of Tutti Frutti is so insipid and terrible. The mere thought of him makes me mad. I think you can probably tell I fall down firmly on the side of 'criminal ripoff'. Can't wait to see your Cry Baby themed outfit.

    1. I took a class last summer at university on "Pop Music since 1945" and the day we did Pat Boone, the Crew-Cuts and the story of white rock co-opters was one of the saddest days. We had a fun debate though on the subject of "Elvis: Asshole or Admirable?"

  2. How interesting - I've always loved this song but only knew the Crew Cuts version. Thanks for highlighting the history behind it!

    Penny Dreadful Vintage