White rockers in the 1950s did a good job many times of reinventing black R&B songs. Elvis took songs like “Baby, Let’s Make Love” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” to new levels of intensity.
“Baby, Let’s Make Love,” for example, became “Baby, Let’s Play House,” which as a matter of poetry, offers more titillation and deeper levels of meaning than a more straight forward “Let’s Make Love” message. Elvis also added the great chorus of “Baby, you may have a pink Cadillac, but don’t you be nobody’s fool.”
On the CD “Jump Blues Classics” from Chess, there are a number of original versions of songs later revamped by white rockers, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast the interpretations.
For example, I much prefer the Rock and Roll Trio‘s version of “Train Kept A’rollin'” to the Tiny Bradshaw version. The Burnette brothers, with their unheard of guitar distortion and wild abandonment just do a better job of capturing the mood of the song. It’s better even than the hit version by Aerosmith. Also, the Collins Kids deliver more whomp to “Hoy, Hoy” than either Roy Milton or Little Johnny Jones. But Wyonnie Harris‘s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Big Mama Thornton‘s “Hound Dog” both have a groove that Elvis neither tried to imitate or mimic. That’s to his credit really, but the fact is, there is a soulfulness to those songs that he didn’t capture.
But the pivotal song of white borrowing from black music and changing around songs is “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
At a time when mainstream white America feared black music as much as it was fascinated by it, Bill Haley displayed both his awe and his trepedation of black music when he covered the Big Joe Turner classic.
Compare, for example, this lyric from the original:
Get out of that bedWith the Haley-altered version:
and wash your hands [twice]
Get into the kitchen
Make some noise with the pots and pans
Well you wear low dresses
The sun comes shin’ through [twice]
I can’t believe my eyes.
That all this belongs to you.
Get out in that kitchen
And rattle those pots and pans [twice]
Roll my breakfast
‘Cause I’m a hungry man
You were those dresses
Your hair done up so nice [twice]
You look so warm,
But your heart is cold as ice.
And one verse from the Turner version is missing entirely from the Haley cover:
I said over the hill,
And way down underneath [twice]
You make me roll my eyes,
And then you make me grit my teeth.
Why the alternations? As Charlie Gillett explains in his classic history of rock, “The Sound of the City,” Haley feared the original lyrics were too risque for a white audience.
But as if to demonstrate how little Haley, and probably most of white America, didn’t understand black culture and the black musicians love for sexual metaphor, Haley didn’t change these lyrics:
I’m like a one eyed cat
peeping in a sea food store
If you can’t see the clear sexual innuendo in that couplet, I think I’m too polite to tell you what it is.
I always chuckle when I hear the Haley version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The misinterpretation of the song is something worthy of Pat Boone. I know Haley wanted to be remembered as a legend of rock and roll, but there is a reason Elvis Presley eclipsed him both in popularity and critical acclaim. When Elvis changed songs, he did so with a spirit that was true to an African-American culture he appreciated deep in his bones. Haley, like so many others in the white record industry of the time, just wanted to make music he hoped would be palpable to white teen-agers. For one man, the results were classic and lasting. For the other, just mere transitory fame.