I usually don’t expect “Great Stupid”-style race-baiting from The History Channel, but today for some reason it alerted me that on this date in 1955 “Black music got whiter” with the release of Georgia Gibbs’ “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” “setting off a dubious trend known as ‘whitewashing.'” This recording was a cleaned up version of Etta James risque song you can hear above. “Roll with me, Henry,” as the lyrics of that song went, essentially meant “Fuck me, Henry,” and they weren’t going to play that on mainstream AM radio stations in 1955. So producers bowdlerized the lyrics for pop singer Gibbs, who was, ugh!, white, and she had a hit:
Apparently there’s supposed to be something sinister about this, as if Gibbs was “stealing’ record sales from Etta James. Nonsense. Artists aiming at different audiences with covers of songs taking a different turn is called “commerce.”
Here’s a 1936 song by Rodgers and Hart that was favored by old fogies at the time..
…but only after the lyrics were changed…
Old Blue Eyes, before he was old, covered it later by jazzing it up…
But “Blue Moon” only became a mega-smash when it a lot of 50’s era gibberish was added and it came out like this:
Rodgers threatened to sue—until the checks came rolling in. Then he liked to say it was his favorite rendition of any of his songs. You will notice that three of the five Marcels were black. Does that make the re-do okay? Were the Marcels, by changing the song to appeal to an “American Graffiti” crowd that would have barfed at the typical “Blue Moon” versions “teen-washing”?
I guess when this hit…
had everyone humming, it was “English-washing” when teen idol Bobby Rydell sang it with a jazz beat and so the lyrics could be understood…
As for “Roll With Me Henry,” Etta James waited a bit to long to record the “clean version,” which she could have done to begin with:
This race-baiting complaint isn’t new, of course; Elvis Presley especially was and continues to be accused of “cultural appropriation” by making hits out of songs previously sung to less acclaim by black artists. This was usually because Elvis sang better than than the original artists—he sang better than almost anyone. The “whitewashing” insult is especially obnoxious in the case of James’ song, which wouldn’t have been played on radio stations with the original lyrics if the singer were Doris Day.
Some examples of white stars trying to make hits out of black artists’ records were just embarrassing, like super-white Pat Boone’s various covers of Little Richard’s classics. If anything, Pat’s hubris probably drove audiences to the originals.
Any performer of any color can sing any song any way they like, as long as the songwriters sell the rights, and if they get a hit out of it, good for everyone. The problem black artists had getting on major AM stations in the 50’s was due to racism, straight up. There was, and is, nothing “dubious” about a white artist crafting a cover to appeal to a new audience.
Here’s Louis Armstrong “blackwashing” “White Christmas”: