Monday, November 23, 2009

Where Did That Song Come From?

Most of the songs you'll hear on MusicMaster Oldies were recorded between 1954 and 1974. But, we also play quite a few songs that are considerably older, some going back to the very early 1900's.

We like to occasionally mix in a number one hit from the late 1930's and 1940's because those songs were frequently heard on the radio in the 1950's and even the 1960's, often mixed in with the current hits. I was born in 1953, and as a kid, I heard those songs all the time, mainly coming out of my mom's radio or record player!

You'll also hear a lot of songs that are early incarnations of rock and roll, including some really classic old rhythm and blues, hillbilly, and even some big band swing tunes. It's really amazing to hear some of these songs, especially those performed by artists who were truly ahead of their time.

Another category of really old songs we play have recently become a hot item among certain record collectors. These are the "original" versions of songs that were later redone to become big hits. Most of the time, these original songs were not big sellers at all. Somehow they were discovered many years later by a recording artist or producer and recycled. In fact, a lot of 1960's rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Beatles, loved to listen to really old American rhythm and blues tunes even before they got together and started making records of their own.

Let's sample some of the more interesting Original Versions you'll hear on MusicMaster Oldies.

We'll start with the big British Invasion hit by Herman's Hermits called I'm Henry The VIII, I Am. You might have wondered how they came up with such a strange thing to sing about when you first heard that song. Well, that song was actually an old English pub song which was written in 1910 by Fred Murray and R. P. Weston. It was first recorded in 1911 by a guy named William Crump who was born in Shoreditch England in 1865. He started singing at the age of 15 under the stage name Will Conray. At age age 23, he became known as Harry Champion. Harry had a lot of songs in his repertoire and he liked to sing many of them at breakneck speed. He died in 1942 while living in Tottenham, where he spent most of his adult life and, reportedly, drove a taxi when he wasn't singing! Herman's Hermits probably never heard Harry's recording, and may have instead copied a 1961 recording of the song done by Joe Brown. But here's Harry Champion doing the Original Version of Henery The 8th on England's Columbia 1621 from 1911, which he also recorded on the Beka and Homophone labels in that same year:

When you first heard Jimmy Soul (James McCleese) singing If You Wanna Be Happy in 1963, you probably didn't know was a recycled song. It started out as a calypso song written by an interesting guy who was born Hubert Charles in Trinidad in 1908. He later changed his name to Rafael De Leon and started calling himself The Roaring Lion. He moved to New York City in the 1930's to record calypso records. The Duke Of Iron on this recording is actually a guy named Cecil Anderson who is backed up by Gerald Clark's Orchestra. Here's Marry An Ugly Woman on Banner/Perfect 735 from 1934!

You always though the Beach Boys first recorded Sloop John B, right? Actually, that's another recycled song. This is a very old traditional song that was published in Harper's Magazine in 1916 in an article called Coral Islands And Mangrove Trees by Richard Le Gallienne. Carl Sandburg included it in The American Songbag, his 1927 collection of folk songs, claiming it was almost a national anthem around Nassau. It's been recorded many times over the years under various names such as Wreck Of The John B by the Weavers in 1950, Sloop John B by the Kingston Trio in 1958 (which is likely the version the Beach Boys heard and copied), I Want To Go Home by Johnny Cash in 1959, and many others. The first recorded version, however, was made by Alan Lomax in his 1935 collection called Deep River Of Song. Here is that Original Version by the Cleveland Simmons Group from Bahamas which they called Histe Up The John B's Sails:

The guys who kicked blues-rock into high gear in the 1960's were heavily influenced by a guy named Robert Johnson. You've heard Crossroads by Cream with Eric Clapton on vocals and electric guitar. Later, Eric Clapton actually named his rehab center in Antigua after this song after fighting depression and drug addiction in the 1970's. Now listen to the Original Version, Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson on Vocalion 03519 from 1936. Oh, by the way, if you should happen to find a copy of this in good condition, you could expect to sell it for well over $5000.

Speaking of Robert Johnson, you'll find that some of his original blues lyrics were "borrowed" by both Cream (two lines in Crossroads) and Led Zeppelin (The Lemon Song). Robert Johnson himself may have borrowed the lyrics used by Robert Plant from another 1937 song called She Squeezed My Lemon by Roosevelt Sykes. Here's Traveling Riverside Blues by Robert Johnson recorded for Vocalion records in 1937 but not released until 1961:

The melody behind Love Me Tender by Elvis Presley actually comes from an American Civil War song about a maiden called Aura Lee written by W W Fosdick and George R. Poulton. Elvis actually recycled this melody again when he sang Violet (Flower Of NYU) in the movie The Trouble With Girls. The melody is also used for a song called Army Blue which is associated with the U.S. Military Academy. That version was used as a running theme during the 1954 movie The Long Gray Line. Aura Lee was sung by Frances Farmer in the 1936 movie Come And Get It. This first recorded version of this song appeared on Decca records in 1937 by the Shelton Brothers.

The Tokens big hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight is another recycled tune. This song was introduced in the USA by Pete Seeger's group, the Weavers, after Alan Lomax provided him with a recording. An article about this song appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in May 2000 which sparked a lawsuit against the American copyright holder, Abilene Music, which ended six years later with heirs of the original artist being awarded a royalty settlement. To hear the Original Version of this one we actually have to go back to South Africa in 1939 to find Solomon Linda's Original Singing Birds singing Mbube on Singer 829.

Eric Burdon And The Animals were certainly not the first to record See See Rider. Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Malissa Pridgett. She died on December 22, 1939 at age 53. Here's the Original Version of See See Rider Blues by Ma Rainey on Paramount 12252 from 1924 with a young Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano.

But Eric Burdon most likely copied a later version from 1957 by Chuck Willis on Atlantic 1130.

Chuck, in turn, probably copied this 1942 version by 'Wee' Bea Booze on Decca 8633:

See how much fun this can be? Let's have a bit more!

Beyond The Sea by Bobby Darin started out as La Mer by French singer Charles Trenet. Born in France in 1913, Charles moved to New York City after World War II where he lived in an apartment near the Empire State Building. He became friends with Charlie Chaplin and Louis Armstrong. In 1946, he recorded this Original Version, La Mer on Columbia 8108:

Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford was a remake of a song by legendary Country singer Merle Travis. Here's Merle singing 16 Tons on Capitol records from 1946:

Did you think George Thorogood And The Destroyers were the first to sing Move It On Over? No way. That was written and first recorded by the legendary Hank Williams on MGM 10033 in 1947:

Speaking of Hank Williams, many people believe he was the first to record Lost Highway. Actually, a slightly earlier version of that song was recorded by Leon Payne on Bullet 670 in 1948

Stagger Lee has been recorded by a whole bunch of people, over 200 in fact, including Lloyd Price, Beck, Pat Boone, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Nick Cave, The Clash, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bill Haley, Tim Hardin, Wilbert Harrison, Hot Tuna, The Isley Brothers, Tom Jones, Sleepy LaBeef, Jerry Lee Lewis, Huey Lewis, Trini Lopez, Pacific Gas And Electric, Terry Melcher, Johnny Otis, Charlie Pride, The Righteous Brothers, Bobby Rydell, Neil Sedaka, Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes, Taj Mahal, Ike And Tina Turner, The Ventures, and so on! Here's the Original Recording made by Alan Lomax in New York City in 1947, this is Memphis Slim singing Stagolee and playing piano, along with John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson on harmonica and Big Bill Broonzy on upright bass:

Elvis Presley became famous for copying an early rhythm and blues record with a country flavor, with the resulting blend being a brand new sound that some consider one of the first examples of true rock and roll music. Well, here's that Original Version that The King heard, Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup singing That's All Right on Victor 2205 from 1949. (CORRECTION: It's come to my attention that Arthur Crudup's original 78 RPM recording on Victor 2205 was actually issued in 1947. This song was reissued by RCA when they introduced the 45 RPM format. In fact, That's All Right was the very first R&B record ever issued on a 45 RPM single. It was on RCA 50-0000 with a very hard-to-read light gray label and reddish-orange vinyl (RCA called it 'cerise'). They started out with the intention to color-code 45's based on the type of music. For example, Country & Western music was on green vinyl. RCA dropped this idea very soon afterward and started pressing everything on black vinyl.)

Some songs were changed so radically when they were recycled that it's hard to tell if the later version was intentionally copied by the later artist. It's pretty easy to argue that you just happened to come up with a song that was quite similar to someone else's work. Sometimes this kind of thing ends up getting settled in court. Keep that in mind as you listen to Sunflower by Frank Sinatra on Columbia 38391 from 1949. See if you think the similarity of Hello Dolly by Louis Armstrong was an intentional copy, subconscious influence, or just a total coincidence!

If you like to play Guitar Hero you've probably slapped the buttons in step with Train Kept A-Rollin'. Here's the Original Version of that song by Tiny Bradshaw from 1951 on King 4497;

Elvis Presley's huge 1956 hit was first sung by The King to a basset hound on Steve Allen's television show. The next day, he went into the studio with the Jordanaires, Scotty Moore, D J Fontana, and Bill Black to record the record. It was not the first time that song had been recorded. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, it was first recorded by Willie May 'Big Mama' Thornton and was dubbed the best R&B record of 1953. Here's the Original Version of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thronton on Peacock 1612 from 1952:

Elvis, however, was more likely influenced by a somewhat different version of this song done by Freddie Bell And The Bell Boys. The original recording was a bit raunchy for white radio, so Bernie Lowe suggested Bell make some changes. Out went "snooping around my door", "wag your tail", and "weep and moan", and the human references were downgraded by Freddie to that of a canine and a rabbit. The song wasn't about a gigolo anymore. It became more of a novelty in the Bill Haley style with riffing sax and group call-back response. Freddie Bell's version got a ton of radio airplay on the East Coast and became a nice regional hit and lasting crowd pleaser. While it failed to produce a big payday for Bell, it did feature prominently and successfully in his act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. It was in Las Vegas that Bell's re-write of Hound Dog would take its place as Bell's greatest contribution to rock and roll history. Colonel Tom Parker booked Elvis into the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1956, which proved to be one of the few mistakes the Colonel made that year. But, that booking gave Elvis and his band the opportunity to catch Freddie Bell's act. The 'Atomic Powered Singer', as Elvis was billed in Las Vegas at that time, was impressed with Freddie's version of Hound Dog and got to know the band. (They remained friends and later Freddie would give Elvis karate exhibitions backstage.) Elvis asked about Hound Dog and Freddie Bell told him to go ahead and record it. Elvis thought it was a natural and showcased the song in his stage act as his closing number and featured his famous bump and grind version on his second Milton Berle TV appearance on June 5, 1956 to much adverse publicity. So while Freddie Bell had sought to sanitize the song, Elvis' performance of it caused quite a bit of controversy. Here's Freddie Bell And The Bell Boys doing Hound Dog from 1955 on Teen 101:

Who would have thought that Johnny Cash was recycling a song when he recorded his big hit, Folsom Prison Blues? The Original Version was actually a song called Crescent City Blues sung by Beverly Mahr backed up by Gordon Jenkins Orchestra on Decca records from 1952:

Sometimes you can just add some lyrics to an existing instrumental song and turn it into a big hit. Such was the case with Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley And His Comets! Yes, the familiar theme song from Happy Days and one of the first rock and roll records ever made started life as an instrumental by Jimmy DeKnight on Peak 105 in 1953. (CORRECTION: I have since learned that this is NOT an original version. This song was actually issued in 1959, which means it's simply an instrumental cover of the hit. I should have triple-checked the facts on this one! The full artist credit on this record was Jimmy DeKnight And His Kings Of Rhythm. It was reissued on Apt 25034 in 1959 for national distribution.)

But Bill Haley wasn't even the first to add lyrics to this song! That honor goes to Sonny Dae And His Knights on Arcade 123 in 1954!

Here's another song that may or may not qualify as an Original Version. You be the judge. You've heard Chuck Berry do Sweet Little Sixteen and the very similar Surfin' USA by the Beach Boys. In fact, there was a big lawsuit over that song where Chuck Berry claimed the Beach Boys had stolen his melody. Chuck Berry won that lawsuit, but Chuck himself may have "borrowed" that melody from a song called Route 90 by Clarence Garlow on Flair 1021 from 1954!

A lot of the early rock and roll songs started out as rhythm and blues records. Everyone knows Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. Here's the Original Version by Big Maybelle on Okeh 7060 from 1955.

I could go on and on and on with these Original Versions but I've really got to start doing shorter blog posts! You can learn a lot more about Original Versions of hit songs at You can also hear well over a thousand more of these Original Versions on MusicMaster Oldies!


  1. What a piece of work - genius. It's also worth checking out Watch Your Step by Bobby Parker, which Lennon openly admitted he re-riffed for I Feel Fine..

    Great to hear the original of Train Kept A Rolling - it's always been a fave

  2. Thanks for letting me know about that. Turns out that Bobby Parker had some bad luck with another song. He was the first to record You Got What It Takes on Vee-Jay 279 in 1957. Of course, that song was later a big hit for Marv Johnson in 1960, and then again for the Dave Clark Five in 1967. Both of those later versions listed the composers as Berry Gordy Jr., Gwendolyn Gordy, and Tyran Carlo. Bobby's name wasn't even mentioned at all! Parker has argued that as co-writer of that song, he should have received credit and royalties, but that never happened.

  3. I'd like to thank those of you who sent emails with additional information. I've made a couple of corrections in my original post, and I've learned a few things as well (like, facts should be triple-checked and you should not stay up half the night trying to finish your blog post!) Hearing this great feedback from those of you who read and enjoy what I've written makes this all worthwhile and encourages me to write even more cool stuff. Please keep those cards and letters coming in!

  4. This was a great post. I've known that many of these famous tunes had antecedents but I've never heard many of them. Re the Stagger Lee though, I have a Mississippi John Hurt version (in a comp), called "Stack O'Lee", which is almost 20 years earlier than the Memphis Slim version. Keep up the good work.

  5. nice job! There's some great info here....i put you on my blogroll too btw

  6. Nice posting. There are many more originals over on halfhearteddude's blog at

  7. Some great stuff in your post. The reason Leon Payne recorded "Lost Highway" before Hank was that Leon wrote it.

  8. great...hehehe....greeting from solo indonesia dude

  9. Great Job, I need very much these type of informations, If you are finding more these type post than visit Månegarm Vargstenen mp3 downloads