Ride This Time Machine Down a Road Less Traveled

by Mark Reynolds

3 September 2009


The Shape of R&B to Come

As “What’d I Say” and “There Goes My Baby” demonstrate, changes were afoot on the pop side of the black music ledger, too. And not all of those changes were happening in America.

One of the few events in Kaplan’s timeline that did get noticeable media coverage this year is the $800 loan Berry Gordy received from his family to start a little record label called Motown. Of course, that label went on to become anything but little, but in 1959 there wasn’t anything to suggest what Gordy’s enterprise would become. He did have his first hit, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but the Hitsville USA factory wouldn’t forge its distinctive sound or start building its titanic canon for another couple of years.

Although “Money” is firmly established in the pantheon of Tunes Every Bar Band Should Know, there were two songs from 1959 that had a more immediate and lasting impact on black pop music. Both of them were released on Atlantic, the reigning r&b label of the day, but beyond that they couldn’t be further apart. 

Let’s start with a song that has an interesting backstory – and a monumental postscript, to boot. In February, Ray Charles and his band recorded a hot blues tune they’d developed on the road. It featured Ray’s furious riffing on electric piano, then some non sequitor lyrics, then a false ending in which Ray was persuaded to keep the beat going. This he did, with a now-famous call-and-response routine with his background singers, which got extended all the way through the roof.

With some minor editing from engineer Tom Dowd, Atlantic ended up with a monster hit, the two-sided “What’d I Say, Parts I and II”. Its six minutes of wigged-out ecstasy captured all of the strains that went into Ray’s music of the ‘50s, that swirling, steamy cauldron of blues, gospel and jazz that gave rise to both the notion and genre of soul. It was the first song, a few months ahead of its time, to put the swing into the “Swinging ‘60s”.


To the surprise of virtually everyone involved, “What’d I Say” would be Ray’s last hit for Atlantic. His contract with the label was up at the end of 1959, and he received an overture from ABC-Paramount, a relatively new label with a few hits, deep pockets and the desire to make an impact in the music industry (its complicated parentage covering TV and film). They offered him not only good money, but also a chance to reach a broader audience, creative control over his music, and the chance to eventually own his recording masters – a deal never before offered in the rock era. Atlantic wouldn’t match it, and so Charles was off to a new label in 1960, where he would go from Genius to American Icon in the space of just a few years. 

One month after “What’d I Say” was waxed, there was a recording session in March for a new incarnation of the Drifters, a group with a great pedigree that hadn’t done much of anything since lead singer Clyde McPhatter bolted for a solo career four years earlier. By this time, the original members were all gone, and a new lineup featured Charlie Thomas on lead. But he wasn’t up to the task that day, so Benjamin Earl Nelson stepped up on a tune he co-wrote with the session’s producers, the already legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

The Leiber-Stoller chart called for production values at the opposite end of the spectrum from the hits they’d written for the Coasters, Big Mama Thornton, and others. Instead of a blues-flavored ditty for a tight combo to rip through, here was a melody that owed more to classical music than the R&B they helped popularize, a five-piece string section, a call for booming tympani, and a Latin-ized rhythm not part of the standard rock fare.

With Nelson’s impassioned vocals on top and the other Drifters doo-wopping inside the mix, nothing about the record sounded like the rest of the R&B landscape. This was clearly a meticulous, planned concoction of the studio, with more elements going on than most folks thought an R&B song could safely (or properly) accommodate. The Atlantic bosses refused to release it, and only after some re-mixing by Dowd did they give it their reluctant blessings.


The song was “There Goes My Baby”, and its massive success gave the Drifters a whole new identity (not to mention that new lead singer, who changed his name to Ben E. King). Almost immediately thereafter, putting strings and expansive production on a black pop record was no longer considered heretical. Leiber and Stoller ushered in the idea of the songwriter-producer as auteur, mentoring the young songwriters hanging out in New York City’s Brill Building, and taking a fledgling producer named Phil Spector under their wings. But from their perspective, this session was just one history-making moment in a career full of them, as the new Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography (w/David Ritz, Simon and Schuster) attests.

Kaplan gives space to three groundbreaking jazz albums recorded in ’59: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; Dave Brubeck’s Time Out; and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come.  But as “What’d I Say” and “There Goes My Baby” demonstrate, changes were afoot on the pop side of the black music ledger, too. And not all of those changes were happening in America.

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