Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sounds Like Teens Hear It

No Elvis (Presley). I promised that in January. I have all of his hits, because I have nearly 80% of the Top 40 hits from 1955 to last Saturday. I even have some Elvis 45s that came into the family before I did. But this is a blog that sticks to the obscure, unless there’s a compelling reason to feature a hit. My E.P. EPs (four-song seven-inchers) didn’t make a big impression on three-year-old caithiseach. I was more into the King of the Mambo than the King.

I do, however, have an opportunity to discuss the Voice of Elvis (Presley), thanks to today’s artist.

My Uncle Tom brought me a 45 with a gaudy label one day. As accustomed as I was to black labels (RCA, Mercury, Chess, Scope, Diamond . . . ), this pink-green-yellow-orange monstrosity actually hurt my eyes. The label was Gone, and the song was “Girl of My Best Friend” by Ral Donner & the Starfires (Gone 5102).

The bigger shock came when I gave the record a test run. I turned to my mom and asked, “Why is Elvis on a colored record?” I knew Elvis was on the records with the white dog on a black background. Even then, I understood label affiliation. It’s possible that the first letters I learned after S-E-A-N were R-C (with A being part of my repertoire, of course).

So I knew something was wrong when Elvis was playing on this Technicolor nightmare 45. But Mom had an answer. “Little caithiseach, that’s not Elvis. It’s Ral Donner.”

Ral Donner. Ral? Ral didn’t sound like a name to me, and Gone didn’t look like a serious label to me, and Ral sang like . . . Elvis. Three strikes, you’re relegated to the bottom of the box, and thus you become a Survivor rather than a victim of the Great Meltdown of 1972. How does karma work again?

OK. Ral Donner could not help the fact that his voice sounded like Elvis’s. If you like Elvis’s voice, you probably like Ral’s, unless you resent the encroachment on Elvis’s turf. And plenty of people probably thought Ral was at least as attractive as Elvis. So, since Ral Donner was indeed a talented singer who worked hard, he deserved the success he achieved, and perhaps more. The question I’ll discuss shortly is: Would there have been a Ral Donner without Elvis?

Ralph Donner was born in 1943 in the Chicago suburbs. He began singing at a very early age, and once he caught the rock-and-roll bug, he started up the ladder. Between TV and live appearances, Ral was doing pretty well for himself. Just after “Girl of My Best Friend” entered the Top 40 on May 1, 1961, he sang it on American Bandstand. He followed up with “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It),” which reached #4 late in the summer of 1961. He reached the Top 40 twice more, which makes for a respectable career. It seems to be well-documented that Ral Donner might have had more hits if he had not complained about nonpayment of royalties and been shut out of opportunities to switch labels.

Ral kicked around, recording short-term for a number of labels, until 1980 or so. He did a double album of Elvis covers that was released in 1980, and he received the opportunity to be the voice of Elvis in the 1981 film This Is Elvis.

Ral started complaining of illness in 1977, but he was ignored by his doctors until August 1980, when he began to cough up blood. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he outlived the original estimate but died on April 6, 1984.

Now, back to my question, which is not about Ral Donner, but rather trends in music. Ral was not the first, or last, singer to sound like someone else. The wave of popularity for a certain type of voice starts either with fans or the labels who push the artist. I pin the phenomenon on the labels.

Ed Rambeau’s experience backs me up. When he went to Philadelphia to record “Skin Divin’,” someone from Swan asked, “What are we going to do with a white Johnny Mathis?” There wasn’t a pattern for such a creature, so they might well have passed on him. Music people seem to spend more time looking for the Next “____________” than developing the Next Original Act.

When something distinctive like Elvis’s Voice comes along, every label understandably wants to compete. One way is to distract from Elvis by pushing someone equally dynamic, but the easier and safer bet is to find a soundalike. And so, had Ral Donner come around three years before Elvis, would he have been big, or would someone unearth his recordings years later and call him a precursor to the King?

Casual music listeners are able to buy only what labels produce and market, and only what makes it to the radio will become familiar enough to warrant an investment in the product. Maybe I give listeners too much credit, but with the music industry being turned upside down by grass-roots support for MySpace musicians, the potential for greater variety in available music is enormous. Even so, as soon as one of the MySpace successes makes it big, labels still jump in with similar-sounding artists.

At certain points in history, voices with particular qualities have controlled the airwaves. I think that one singer gains an audience, and the marketers dig up other singers who sound like that one. Then, the listening audience gets comfortable with the nature of that voice, and it becomes the voice of a generation. It doesn’t even matter whose voice it is, as long as it sounds like the voice in every song on the radio that year. Here are some vocal trends that have arisen over the years:

People copied more about Elvis than his hair and his wiggle. While no one was as dead-on vocally as Ral Donner or Greg Tortell of Dread Zeppelin, when listeners started assuming that Elvis made “Blue Suede Shoes” famous, the mistake stemmed in part from Carl Perkins’s Elvis-like delivery.

A bit later, Buddy Holly spawned soundalikes, including Bobby Vee, who idolized Buddy and used the “Holly Hiccup” in “Rubber Ball” in 1960, and Tommy Roe, who took the Holly sound to #1 in 1962 with the “Peggy Sue” clone “Sheila.”

At some point, the Patti Page/Anita Bryant style gave way to Connie Francis/Annette/Shelley Fabares. Then, when Paul and John and Brian were reteaching boys how to sing, Grace Slick and Aretha Franklin did the same for girls.

Down the road a ways, the mellow male voice returned, with Manilow being an example, but soon enough it was the 1980s, and the Fixx and Madness led to Depeche Mode, all with similar vocal sounds—unlike the Britsh artists of the 1960s, who tried to sound American, these guys flaunted their British speech patterns. On the rock front, Grand Funk Railroad sounds very 1970s, and Poison/Metallica/Def Leppard/Warrant sound very 1980s. If we time-swapped the vocalists but left the songs intact, would those bands get signed?

Is it coincidence that all of the Seattle grunge acts have Kurt Cobain vocals? Did 1950s guys who sounded like them just not sing, or did the Elvis fans ignore them?

Shortly after Pat Benatar came along, boom, we had Rindy Ross of Quarterflash. Compare Concrete Blonde and 4 Non Blondes to Heart. I remember a time in the early 1990s when Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair, Lisa Germano and Joan Jones (of Sun-60) all popped onto the scene, all sounding somewhat alike. Now we have Colbie Caillat, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. If you’re a female singer in 2008, sing soft and skip the vibrato.

Check out Nickelback, Lifehouse, Coldplay and Daughtry. If you’re a guy with gravel in your voice, you get signed. I can picture a lot of label people going to shows with a mandate to find a Chad Kroeger. No one is looking for a rock band whose singer sounds like Randy Bachman. However, if a Bachman soundalike comes up with a great song that shoots up the charts, his voice will be back in style. Then, of course, what dominates the airwaves becomes the comfort zone of a generation of teens.

In this age of easily heard snippets of new artists’ work, the opportunity will arise for a broader range of vocal styles to be popular at the same time. I don’t see teens surfing for Chad Kroeger soundalikes, to the exclusion of all other types of singers, in the way labels have always sought to copy the Current Big Thing. I suppose I’ll know in five years if it was the labels or the kids who drove the careers of Ral Donner, Tommy Roe and Rindy Ross. Stay tuned.

“Girl of My Best Friend” has a solid pedigree. One of its writers, Beverly Ross, is responsible for “Judy’s Turn to Cry” (with Edna Lewis) and “Lollipop” (with Julius Dixon). Ms. Ross recorded a Top 40 version of “Lollipop” as the Ruby half of Ronald & Ruby. She also worked with Jeff Barry during his formative years. Her co-writer on “Girl,” Sam Bobrick, didn’t get as far as a songwriter, but he wrote episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart and Saved by the Bell.

Whether or not Ral Donner was successful by association, he was a talented guy who probably could have made his way without sounding like anyone else. In one sense, not sounding like Elvis might have boosted Ral’s career, since some listeners, like three-year-old caithiseach, saw no need for two Elvises.

I’ll spend next week discussing one of the weirdest and ugliest 45s I owned. If you like to stare at train wrecks, this major-label fiasco will be right up your alley. See you Wednesday!

Ral Donner, Girl of My Best Friend

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