Friday, June 09, 2006
Great Pretenders -- Karen Schoemer
I couldn't resist a book of interviews with some of the stars of '50s pop music. Included are chapters on Frankie Laine, Pat Boone, Patti Page, Connie Francis, Tommy Sands, Georgia Gibbs, and Fabian. But the book's not really about them. It's about the author and her attempt to somehow connect with her mother through the music and stars that her mother knew.
Schoemer was for a long time a music critic who wrote about rock. For her, music wasn't worthwhile if it wasn't out there on the cutting edge. She knew she wasn't supposed to like anything recorded by the likes of, say, Pat Boone. But she did. One thing she discovered in writing this book, she says, is that it's all right to like bad music.
I don't think she really gets it, though. She still speaks disdainfully of "Mule Train" and calls it "a silly song." Well, sure it is. That's the point. What someone who wasn't there can never seem to understand is that people knew at the time that "Mule Train" was silly but that it was also a lot of fun. I was just a little tyke when it came out, but it had a beat and a melody that I could sing along with, and it was something that my parents and I could laugh about and joke about. It was a pleasure that a kid could share with adults. We all knew it was silly. Who cared? What's wrong with songs that have energy, melody, harmony? Are those such bad things? And if they can make you smile, what's wrong with that?
I'm not sure Schoemer gets it about "cover records," either. Sure, sure, you've heard it a thousand times: Pat Boone covered Little Richard and Fats Domino and got rich. He cleaned up the lyrics and put white shoes on them. Schoemer does mention that this didn't happen just to black artists. Country records got covered and spiffed up for the pop market, too. Guy Mitchell did it all the time, as did many others. But the cover record was a common thing. Everybody covered everybody. In the '40s and '50s there might be three or four versions of the same song on the charts every week. It wasn't about race. It was about money. Or so it seemed to me. I lived in a part of the country (Texas) where the radio stations played both versions of "Tutti Frutti," and nobody thought anything of it. I have a bunch of Little Richard 45s in a box in my closet, but I don't own any of the Pat Boone covers. I heard both and made my choice.
That's not to say I don't like Pat Boone's records from the '50s. I like some of them a lot. I think it's a big mistake that he and Connie Francis aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were part of the experience for everybody who grew up then.
But I digress. Schoemer finds that she likes most of the performers she talks to, some more than others. Her chapter on Tommy Sands is a heartbreaker. If you're an Old Guy like more, or just a Young Whippersnapper who'd like to learn something about those old 45s in your parents' closets, Great Pretenders is the book for you.