Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pay Us, If You Please

Amid my collection of cutout 45s, there is a sprinkling of older children’s material on 78 rpm discs. They came from a visit to a house in Gary, where the growing-up children had outgrown their kiddie records. I don’t remember if these people were friends of my mother; they may have been an acquaintance we never visited. I believe money changed hands when the box of 78s came my way.

These weren’t just any old black lacquer discs. Some of them were Golden Records 78s, which had the distinction of being six-inch records with an LP-sized spindle hole (rather than the large hole common to American 45 releases). The Golden Records were, well, golden. I found them very appealing for that reason. Colored records have always caught my eye.

I also received at least three cowboy-related 78s produced by the Record Guild of America. I hope you will look at the scan here, but if you can’t, I’ll tell you that each side of the seven-inch record showed a color drawing with a Western theme, surrounded by an orange band filled with cattle brand markings. The song groove was pressed into clear plastic, it seems, that was glued to the drawing. One side of the record had a larger outer lip, which was subject to chipping, in part because the other side was trimmed to the size of the drawing, and there was not much support for the plastic. The songs were fun to listen to, but I haven’t tried to digitize them yet, so I have not heard them since maybe 1975.

The focus of this post is one particular Golden Record, one that eventually helped pave the way for artists to get more royalties out of movie companies. In case you or I ever sell something to the movies, this is a good precedent.

This disc, Golden Records D214, contained “The Siamese Cat Song” and “Bella Notte.” The cat song fascinated three-year-old caithiseach, because the vocals are so unusual, and because it was the only song I owned then that attempted to sound Asian. My version was sung by Anne Lloyd and Sally Sweetland, accompanied by Mitchell Miller and Orchestra.

These were not the Disney artists who performed the song for the animated film Lady and the Tramp (1955). That was Peggy Lee, singing the roles of both Si and Am.

This is, of course, the same Peggy Lee (1920-2002) who was born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. The same one who sang “Fever” better than anyone else. The one who not only sang “The Siamese Cat Song” but co-wrote it with J. Francis Burke, whom I mentioned in January in reference to another of his compositions, “Midnight Sun.”

I wanted to talk about this legendary singer in another context. A bit less than twenty years ago, Peggy got annoyed at the money Disney was raking in from video sales of Lady and the Tramp, mostly because the company wasn’t paying her any royalties for the videos. She got a good lawyer and sued Disney. She won. This victory helped not just her, but many others who had not had the foresight in the 1950s to ask for royalties on video sales when they negotiated their contracts.

Since then, contracts for royalties have become much more vague about the specific media from which a performer or writer will receive royalties. The language these days sounds sort of like “royalties from any means of delivery, real or imagined, including multidimensional holography, on the Earth, the moon, and any other rocky or gaseous bodies in the known Universe, or in any unknown Universes yet to become known.”

Or something like that. And while such language may seem like overkill, you would be stunned at how many people aren’t being paid their cut of a sale simply because the images are imprinted on aluminum instead of celluloid. As much as some actors make, by comparison to the annual income of people who work 2000 hours a year, the idea that a company can stop paying its workers while it still rakes in the bucks strikes me as mildly unfair.

And since it is somewhat contradictory for me to present you with this very cool song free of charge and, thus, free of royalty payments, I will make explicit the always implicit request that you go out and buy the items you want to keep.

Between now and my Saturday post, people in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The holiday dates back continuously to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Although people here now use the holiday to watch American football and eat incredible amounts of food, there is still room for being thankful for what we have. So, enjoy your holiday, and be thankful.

For Saturday, I will talk about what happens when you’re the only person you know who likes a song. I hope to try an innovation on that post while I’m at it. See you Saturday!

Peggy Lee, Siamese Cat Song

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The scan of the "Buffalo Gal" record is gorgeous! I'd never seen anything like that before. Très cool - thanks for sharing it. :)

I have my own made-up lyrics to this song, because I didn't like the originals. I was always a bit scared of Si and Am. They're sinister, no? Am I the only one who thinks this song (both on its own and in the Disney movie) is rather creepy?