A brief history of the spoken-word pop hit.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 20 2009 6:56 AM

Flukes of the Universe

A brief history of the spoken-word pop hit.

When will.i.am's video for "Yes We Can"—a song built around a recording of a Barack Obama speech—became an Internet sensation last year, it was a new twist on a narrow but venerable tradition. There's an odd little strain of American pop that turns up now and then: recordings that are all over the radio and sell like crazy but actually aren't songs at all. Every so often, a spoken-word recording with musical accompaniment crosses over to the pop charts. They've all got a few things in common: They're addressed directly to listeners, and they're more or less secular sermons—homiletic instructions on how to live a happy life or comments on the state of society in their day. Virtually all of them have spawned responses, covers, and parodies; and almost all of them have been the subject of some kind of confusion about who was responsible for them.

To clarify what I mean, I'm not talking about hip-hop, and I'm also not counting pieces derived from the "toast" tradition, such as James Brown's 1972 hit "King Heroin." There have also been a handful of R&B hits, especially in the late '60s and early '70s, with sermonlike speeches that served as extended introductions—Clarence Carter's 1969 wonder "Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)," for instance, which is a four-minute lecture on sex and infidelity followed by a mere verse of singing, or Joe Tex's "Buying a Book," a disquisition on the subject of May-December romances that occasionally erupts into song. What I'm looking at are straight-up lectures—recordings whose chief vocalist speaks unrhymed prose but doesn't sing a note—that somehow ended up on the Billboard pop charts.

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Before the rock era, there was a small tradition of inspirational spoken-word records in country music; Hank Williams, in fact, recorded a handful of rhyming ones under the pseudonym "Luke the Drifter." T. Texas Tyler had a No. 2 country hit in 1948 with "Deck of Cards"—a spoken tale about a soldier, caught with a deck of cards in church, who explains to his disapproving superiors that the cards serve as his Bible ("When I look at the ace, it reminds me that there is but one God") and his almanac ("When I count the number of spots on a deck of cards, there are 365, the number of days in a year"—there are actually 364, but who's counting?).

Then, in 1959, Wink Martindale—yes, the Tic Tac Dough Wink Martindale—covered "Deck of Cards" and scored a No. 7 pop hit. "And friends," it ends, "this story is true. I know—I was that soldier." Neither Tyler nor Martindale could have been that soldier: The story that became "Deck of Cards" dates back to at least the 18th century.

But the homiletic spoken-word pop hit didn't really take off until 1966, when country singer and ex-DJ Buddy Starcher went to No. 39 with "History Repeats Itself," a litany of the strange parallels between the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. ("The names Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each contain 13 letters!") He's backed up by a sort of military-banjo arrangement of "America the Beautiful," bookended by a few bars of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." "And friends," Starcher concludes, "it is true. History does repeat itself."

That bit of history, at least, proceeded to repeat itself almost instantly. A week after Starcher's version appeared on the pop chart, it was joined by another recording of "History Repeats Itself" by, of all people, jazz bandleader Cab Calloway—which went to  No. 89. Both versions can be heard here, along with a parody by Homer & Jethro, "Great Men Repeat Themselves," which explores the strange parallels between Lyndon Johnson and Batman: "The names Mr. Robert S. McNamara and Commissioner Gordon each contain 18 letters!" (The former has 17, but who's counting?)