Got You Covered: Dick Hayes vs. Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier
By RANDY McNUTT
There is some confusion over the definition of cover record, though today the original definition has been replaced by the term remake. But in the 1950s, when the cover was popular, it was called just that--a cover version. The cover was intended to compete with the original on the charts. Remakes were versions done later.
In 1955, when covers flourished in pop music, Music Guild magazine published an editorial titled, "Should You Run for Cover? Or Should You Program a Single Recorded Version of a Hit Tune?" It was aimed at jukebox operators, who faced a dilemma: The original, the competitor, or both? Editor D.M. Sternberg wrote, "The situation poses a problem for the operator . . . the choice or choices is up to the [jukebox] operator." Also that year, Billboard proclaimed that the cover record is "an integral part of the disk business, and "regarded as completely ethical by all." But some labels owners claimed they worked hard to record and promote a record, especially an R&B record, only to be scooped by a larger label's pop version.
Sometimes two versions of the same song became big hits. Then there's the incredible story of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" in 1955. To this day, the story of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" remains one of pop music's most fascinating cover stories.
The Walt Disney TV show, broadcast in December of 1954 in several one-hour parts, recounted the career of the "king of the wild frontier." Fess Parker starred as Crockett. The show became a phenomenal success, and soon every other kid was wearing a coonskin cap and carrying a toy flintlock rifle.
But the song came as a fluke. While reviewing the show, Disney realized that his director, Norman Foster, lacked enough footage. Disney didn't want to shoot more, so he suggested that his staff come up with a song that Parker could sing in between sequences. The song would take up some time and save Disney the cost of shooting more film and bringing back the actors and crew. Disney instructed Bill Walsh, a dedicated Disney employee, to take care of the matter. Disney himself suggested that the song have the feel of Crockett moving along. Walsh found George Bruns, a trombone player who had come to work at Disney a year earlier. Then Walsh found Tom Blackburn, a Disney script writer, to help. According to Paul F. Anderson, author of The Davy Crockett Craze, Blackburn admitted, "I never wrote a song in my life." But Mr. Disney wanted a song, and Bruns and Blackburn intended to please the boss. Anderson described their song as just a "throwaway," intended to link parts of the story. Imagine the writers' surprise when their throwaway spawned a number of renditions that collectively ended up at No. 1 for three months, and stayed on the Hit Parade chart for six months.
Eureka! No overtime required. Bruns had written the music and Blackburn the lyrics--in twenty minutes! After Disney approved it, and the song was added to the show, the public finally heard it. Despite the song's popularity with TV viewers, Walt Disney still didn't consider releasing a single with the star, Parker, singing the song. To Disney, the song was still a throwaway piece to fill up time on his show.
This is where the cover came into play. Back in New York, Archie Bleyer, the owner and chief of the independent Cadence Records, heard the song on TV. He told singer veteran pop singer Bill Hayes that he would have a hit record if he cut the song for Cadence. Bleyer told him that the song's publisher didn't care about it, so Cadence could record it. Soon after, Bleyer and Hayes went into the RCA Victor Recording Studio in New York studio and cut the song with two acoustic guitars, a bass, a jew's harp, and three boy singers. It was cut on one track, and in one take. The B side was "Farewell," which Hayes claimed was written by Crockett himself.
When Disney finally realized what was going on with Cadence, he approved a request that Parker record it. In the poor throwaway song Disney had a gold mine and he didn't even know it. Hayes' version turned out to be the bigger and, oddly enough, the original. Crockett star Parker's record was a cover. Nonetheless, Parker ended up selling a million copies for Columbia Records. Hayes did even better with 2.5 million copies sold over six months. Bleyer was so confident in the record that he ordered 750,000 copies at one time.
Meanwhile, the covers kept on coming. They had to come quickly, too, while the song was new. TV saw to that. It was an immediate medium. At least fifteen covers came out, including ones by country singers "Tennessee" Ernie Ford, Mac Wiseman, Tex Ritter, and Eddy Arnold. One parody, by Lalo Guerrero, reportedly sold 200,000 copies.
Thanks to Davy Crockett and Archie Bleyer, the cover record was going wild. It rocked the record industry. Though it had been around for some years, the injection of TV into the mix provided something new and exciting. Suddenly, A&R men were talking about covers--and making them.
Partially excerpted from Randy McNutt's Spinning the Groove: An A to Z Guide to the Lingo and Legacy of the Old Record Business, available from Amazon.com.
Special thanks to Paul F. Anderson, author of The Davy Crockett Craze, for saving the stories of the song and Davy Crockett.