Historicist: "Life Could be a Dream, Sweetheart"

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Historicist: “Life Could be a Dream, Sweetheart”

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang
Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay

With those opening nonsense syllables, Toronto vocal quartet the Crew Cuts launched a pop sensation in the summer of 1954. Their rendition of “Sh-Boom” rocketed to the top of the pop charts, hitting number one on August 7 and remaining there for seven weeks—and lingering in the top 10 until November. With glee club harmonies, the Crew Cuts polished the rough edges of the doo-wop original to conform to the standards of white jazz and pop established by the likes of Perry Como.
Like the Crew Cuts, the Chords were a group of teenagers who’d started singing as an after-school activity. They’d seen their composition, “Sh-Boom,” rise to number two on the rhythm and blues chart and cross over to the pop chart—an almost unprecedented occurrence in 1954.
But the meteoric rise of the Crew Cuts’ version smothered its momentum. Based on radio airplay, jukebox spins, and record sales, the Crew Cuts’ million-seller was the second-biggest song of the year. The Chords’ original recording was 30th.
Many would regard the Crew Cuts’ cover, perplexingly, as the first rock ‘n’ roll record—an opening salvo in the emergence of a new youth culture. Others considered it and similar covers to be “white-washing,” “cultural theft” and—as musicologist Portia Maultsby termed it—”the most wide-spread, systematic rape and uncompensated cultural exploitation the entertainment industry has ever seen.”
There’s more nuance to the history than either straightforward narrative suggests. And the parallel tales of the Crew Cuts and the Chords reveal the complexities and contradictions of a segregated—but rapidly evolving—music industry where white groups covered black recordings, and black groups covered white performers.



At the St. Michael’s Choir School on Bond Street, boys from across Metro Toronto were completing standard academic courses as well as receiving a musical education. Since its founding in 1937, the school had aimed to supply parishes of the archdiocese with musicians, singers, and choirmasters. As such, its director, Monsignor J.E. Ronan, and his small staff trained the students in organ, piano, violin, choral, and solo singing, harmony and counterpoint, musical theory, and musical composition. But in addition to serious ecclesiastical music, the students learned concert music and folk songs.
Taking these latter lessons to heart, several St. Michael’s boys in the late 1940s and early 1950s dreaming of fame and fortune formed themselves into pop vocal quartets. “Not all the boys can find their vocation in church music,” Monsignor Ronan pragmatically noted, as quoted in John Goddard and Richard Crouse’s Rock and Roll Toronto (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1997).
One such group that formed in 1946, the Jordonaires, performed around town until two of its members, Johnny Perkins and Rudi Maugeri, set their sights on university and the seminary respectively and left the group. After recruiting replacements, the remaining Jordonaires moved to New York City to work as back-up singers for Johnnie Ray and Doris Day before enjoying a series of hit singles as the Four Lads.
In March 1952, Maugeri and Perkins enlisted another pair of St. Michael’s Choir School classmates, Ray Perkins (Johnny’s younger brother) and Pat Barrett, to form the Four Tones—later renamed the Canadaires. Within weeks, the new crew auditioned for Toronto theatrical agent Dave Bossin. Although he found them amateurish, Bossin saw enough potential in their barbershop harmonies and signed them up. Performing countless one-night gigs in small-time nightclubs, the quartet’s journey to the top of the charts was not without its bumps.

“We didn’t have any reputation; didn’t even have a good routine,” Johnny Perkins later recalled of an early audition for a CBC television show. (Star, December 13, 1954) “How could we get mad at people for not putting us in a show? Dave Bossin did what he could but we just didn’t get the early breaks.” In addition to performances on local radio stations, the Canadaires drove to New York City where they placed second on Talent Scouts, Arthur Godfrey’s television show.
In March 1953, Bossin succeeded in booking the boys at Toronto’s premiere club, the Casino Theatre, as the opening act for headliner Gisele Mackenzie. Another week-long engagement at the venue later that year netted the quartet $350.
When the group was invited to perform on a Cleveland television show in January 1954, they first had to fulfill a concert commitment: a midnight show in Sudbury for shift-working miners on a Sunday. Then, piling into a beat-up car with no heater, they made the painful 500-mile overnight drive—in temperatures plunging to 44 below—to Ohio. They arrived outside the studio just a half hour before rehearsal. Just before the broadcast, one of the producers commented on the quartet’s short-cropped hair and their new name—the Crew Cuts—was born. One thing led to another and the newly renamed foursome was signed by Mercury Records.
The Crew Cuts‘ first single for the Chicago-based record label was “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby.” A jaunty original number penned by Maugeri and Barrett, the song was a moderate success on the charts. It also demonstrated how their formal education differentiated them from other performers. “Monsignor Ronan gave us a good basic training in music at St. Michael’s,” Maugeri later told the Star. “We don’t just pick up a number by ear. We know the notes. That gives us an edge over other quartets.”

Meanwhile, on stoops and street corners in New York City in the early 1950s, amateur black groups were developing a new style of music—doo-wop. Every day after school, James Miller writes in Flowers in the Dustbin (Fireside, 1999), teenagers in black neighbourhoods gathered to test their vocal abilities against rival singing groups. Among them were a number of Morris High School classmates from the Bronx—only one of who had any formal musical training. They dubbed themselves the Chords.
This picture of street-corner lyrical duels suggests natural (or even accidental) talent, but the members of the Chords and similar groups patiently practised and worked hard to master the intricacies of the harmonies of the doo-wop sound. The Chords studied the repertoire of not only African-American groups like the Orioles and the Five Keys, but also the more straight-forward pop stylings of white groups like the Four Freshmen.
In 1953, the group was heard singing at a subway station and, after an audition, was signed to a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. It’s been suggested that the head of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, and his top A&R man, Jerry Wexler, hoped to pitch the Chords to a white audience. At the time the Chords went into the studio on March 14, 1954, Brian Ward writes in Just My Soul Responding (University of California Press, 1998), Atlantic certainly was “consciously [cultivating] a cleaner, more mannered R&B style which fused blues elements with some of the musical conventions of white pop.” However, Ward argues, Atlantic’s “carefully manicured R&B material” was “initially aimed at an increasingly urbane black audience.” Prior to the growing self-confidence of the civil rights era, Ward argues, even black audiences favoured R&B recordings that were closer to European musical standards than to the rawness of the blues. Emblematic of this focus, the Chords were called upon to cover a Patti Page million-selling pop song for the R&B market for their first single. “Cross Over the Bridge” was a bland, white-bread pop song if ever there was one.

But this single needed a B-side, so the label had the group record a light-hearted ditty of blended doo-wop harmonies interspersed by jazz-influenced scat that the Chords had composed during their street-corner sessions. With Wexler’s rigorous standards for precise harmonies and clear enunciation, it took them 22 takes to get “Sh-Boom” down. The record company hated the song. But in the late spring of 1954, radio disc jockeys at R&B stations across the country showed far more interest in the throw-away B-side than in “Cross Over the Bridge.” And it looked like “Sh-Boom” would cross over to the pop charts. The label knew better than to argue with a hit and looked for ways to broaden its appeal.
Still operating under an increasingly antiquated business model in the 1950s, the music industry’s principal source of income came from music publishing. That meant it made financial sense to rights holders for songs to be covered by as many artists as possible. As a still relatively minor R&B imprint, Atlantic didn’t have the heft to penetrate the mainstream pop market. So the label and the Chords struck a deal to sell a half-stake in the song to Hill & Range, Tin Pan Alley’s publishing powerhouse. The Crew Cuts’ recording was only the most famous version of “Sh-Boom.” There were country versions by Bobby Williamson and Leon McAuliffe, as well as renditions by the Billy Williams Quartet, Johnny Otis & the Jayos, and comedian Stan Freberg. An adaptation of the song was even used in Robert Wagner’s 1954 election campaign to be mayor of New York City.
This was an entirely common industry practice at the time. Performers in different genres would release cover versions—frequently bearing little musical resemblance to the original—targeted at a new segment of the market. Country songs were covered by pop singers, and vice versa. Black artists might revive vocal group standards or current pop hits. And crooners covered R&B numbers. Since “the market for popular music was driven more by the consumption of songs than by any particular recordings of them,” Michael Coyle writes in a contribution to Beebe, Fulbrook and Saunders’ Rock Over the Edge (Duke University Press, 2002), the record-buying public had little concern for authenticity or artistic integrity in the 1950s.

Mercury Records, at the time the Crew Cuts signed with them, were among the industry’s foremost issuers of cover records. In John Broven’s oral history of the music industry, Record Makers and Breakers (University of Illinois Press, 2009), Luigi Creatore of Mercury Records matter-of-factly described that label’s approach. “I wasn’t aware so much of Fats Domino versus Pat Boone,” he said. “It was just that if there was a record breaking (and it didn’t have to be a black record, it could be any record by an unknown), you could cover it with a name. And these black records, as they started making it, you knew there was going to be a barrier for them. So if you make it with a white act, the white stations will take it because they knew that there was a record making it. But they weren’t going to play [the original].”
With “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby” still enjoying its run on the pop charts, Mercury suggested that the Crew Cuts record “Sh-Boom” in May 1954. The group, they later recalled, initially hated the song but acquiesced to record-company pressure. As was common in remaking songs, an established pop orchestra leader, David Carroll, was brought in to “improve” the arrangement. Doing away with the original’s acapella opening, the four Torontonians put the nonsense lyrics of the Chords’ scat front and centre and emphasized them repeatedly. The quartet also added “Ya-da-da Da-da-da Da-da-da Da” to the end of almost every recitation of the word “Sh-Boom.” In making the sound more familiar to a white pop audience, the instrumentation focused on the woodwinds. In the place of a gritty sax solo, the music faded out to a silence in the Crew Cuts’ version punctuated by a timpani. It sounded “like a giant trampoline making an elephant airborne,” an unimpressed James Miller deadpanned.
When the Crew Cuts’ version of “Sh-Boom” was released, it trumped any cross-over potential of the Chords’ original. In an all-too-familiar 1950s pattern, once a white artist’s cover was released, many radio deejays simply stopped playing the original—even if its sales and jukebox popularity still merited airplay. This was partly the result of systemic racial bias in the radio industry that inflated airplay for bland covers presumed to sound more comfortably familiar to Middle America. But it also resulted partly because Mercury, and other major labels, had established relationships with deejays across the country and enjoyed a huge promotional advantage that smaller or independent labels (like Atlantic) had difficulty overcoming. Certainly black audiences continued to purchase the original R&B recordings, but the performers were unable to reap the full reward of success on the pop chart.

2011_07_30_Star-December13-1954_330.jpg
Toronto Star (December 13, 1954)

The Crew Cuts were now “on a popularity-winning, money-making merry-go-round” in the words of A.O. Tate’s Star Weekly feature of August 28, 1954. The group was booked solid for gigs until the following June. Outside shows, they were now met at stage doors by crowds of fawning, quivering bobbysoxers, and had to dole out their combs and the like as souvenirs or risk having their clothes torn and buttons ripped off. Local fan clubs sprouted in communities across the continent.
Of course, in order to defuse claims that the soundtrack of the emerging youth culture was rebellious, the publicity for the Crew Cuts emphasized their wholesomeness. They were known by their boyish names, and sported conservative suits. While touring, they kept in touch with their parents by telephone almost daily. “These are the cleanest young artists I ever worked with,” their manager told one reporter. “No fooling around, no late nights, no drinking, no girls. They work and they save, they try to please and they listen to suggestions. You won’t hear them being envious of the success of others or resentful of anything that happens to them.”
Flat broke at the start of the year, the group now earned as much as $1,200 per performance, in addition to commanding fees for personal appearances at record shops. The Crew Cuts drew $6,000 for a week-long return engagement to Toronto at the Casino in late 1954. Travelling an average of 5,000 miles per week, the Crew Cuts were accompanied by a staff of two.
By the time they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town in mid-December 1954, “Sh-Boom” had sold a million copies. After performing their new single, “Dance Mr. Snowman Dance”—accompanied by women dancing in snowman costumes—the group was awarded its gold record on the air.
The astronomical success of “Sh-Boom” established a pattern for the Crew Cuts. “What we did,” Johnny Perkins later admitted bluntly, “was take songs by black artists and re-do them in our style. It’s not something you could do today and get away with. Now, people listen to any kind of music, but in those days black artists weren’t allowed on the charts.” The quartet covered Shirley Gunter and the Queens’ “Oop Shoop” (1954), the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” (1955), the Charms’ “Gum Drop” (1955), and Gene and Eunice’s “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)” (1955), among others. It is worth noting that the group also covered country songs, pop standards, and an early version of “Unchained Melody.”
Their success inspired a raft of imitators who covered doo-wop songs. “Look at it this way,” Maugeri explained when asked about Crew Cut imitators by the Star‘s Gordon Sinclair on December 13, 1954. “This style of ours is called rhythm and blues. It’s not original with us. It’s not copyright. Anybody can do it. So what put us over in the beginning? Personality did. We’re young and cheerful and we made other folks feel young and cheerful. Well, personality is like teeth. You got ’em or you don’t got ’em. You can’t buy, or beg, or borrow personality. Nobody can leave it to you in their will. You either have it or you don’t have it.” The singer’s naivety is troublesome. At the peak of the cover-version craze, between 1954 and 1956, remakes increasingly became note-for-note carbon copies of the original, which became especially problematic and damaging to the careers of black musicians.
While the Crew Cuts were living it up, the Chords were struggling to survive. They’d quit their jobs to sing full-time, a risky proposition. “Doowop,” Ward writes, “was an integral, if transient, part of many young black lives, rather than a career option” since their livelihood depended entirely on the promise or success of the most recent recording. Unfortunately, the Chords weren’t even able to profit from their big hit. “We went through a ‘thing’ with Atlantic,” the group’s second tenor, Floyd “Buddy” McRae, explained. “We had lawyers.” It took the songwriters years to receive any royalties from Atlantic. The Chords continued to record as the Chordcats and the Sh-Booms. But the singles failed to make a significant impact on the charts. In the spring of 1956, the quartet left Atlantic for Vik Records, went through lineup changes and—for the most part—faded back into obscurity.

While the Crew Cuts have been accused of homogenizing R&B and neutering rock ‘n’ roll, the group didn’t see themselves as being at the vanguard of rock ‘n’ roll. Like most in the 1950s, including the powers-that-be in the music industry itself, the Crew Cuts thought the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll was a passing fad, rather than an important new genre. It was assumed that the influence of R&B on mainstream pop would fade and be replaced, for example, with samba or boss nova–flavoured songs.
The Crew Cuts were following the accepted music industry wisdom about career longevity. Their trajectory was taking them towards the adult pop market; emulating Perry Como and Bing Crosby, not Elvis Presley. An interview with the Crew Cuts that appeared in the Star of April 11, 1959, makes the group’s aims clear. Although the hits had dried up and the group had shifted from Mercury to RCA a year previous, Johnny Perkins said: “We’ve had ups and down, but the thought of any other profession at no time ever occurred to any of us.” He characterized their singing style as “a sort of middle road, not too hep and not too square.” The reporter summarized their intentions: “While this isn’t giving them any million discs at the moment the Toronto boy feels it is giving them a permanent appeal so they will have long show business careers.”
Within a few years, Johnny Perkins later admitted, it became obvious that the landscape of the music industry had shifted. “We kept trying to do the same sort of thing that we’d been doing in the fifties, and people weren’t interested anymore,” he said.
The cover-record craze, of which the Crew Cuts were such an important part, had helped broaden the mainstream audience’s horizons by acclimatizing the public to R&B artists and songs. A Crew Cuts concert in Liverpool, England, for example, helped introduce a 14-year-old Paul McCartney to a new brand of music.
But, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the record-buying public was no longer interested in just songs, but in particular performances of the song. Savvy youth who’d grown up on rock ‘n’ roll were more interested in original recordings than bland re-recordings. The Crew Cuts stopped touring in 1963 and the members, all of whom had relocated to the United States, found other vocations.
Nowadays, although the Crew Cuts’ hit songs were revived with the emergence of the golden-oldies radio format, their R&B covers sound dated. On the other hand, the original doo-wop recordings of groups like the Chords, who were asked to mold their sound to white jazz and pop standards, stand up today as inspired cultural artifacts.
Other sources consulted: Glenn C. Altschuler, All Shook Up (Oxford UP, 2003); Richard Aquila, “The Homogenization of Early Rock and Roll,” in Kenneth J. Bindas, ed., America’s Musical Pulse (Praeger, 1992); Michael Coyle, “Hijacked Hits and Antic Authenticity,” in Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook, and Ben Saunders, eds., Rock Over the Edge (Duke University Press, 2002); Ryan Edwardson, Canuck Rock (University of Toronto Press, 2009); Reebee Garofalo, Rockin’ Out, 4th edition (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008); Mitch Rosalsky, Encyclopedia of Rhythm & Blues and Doo-Wop Vocal Groups (The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2000); A.O. Tate, “‘Crew Cut’ Capers,” The Star Weekly (August 28, 1954); Joel Whitburn, Billboard Pop Hits: Singles and Albums 1940-1954 (Record Research, 2002); the Toronto Star of August 26, 1954, December 13, 1954, May 30, 1956, April 11, 1959, December 5, 1959, and October 19, 1962; and the Globe and Mail of July 19, 1955, February 8, 1958, and December 1, 1984.

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