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?)

A few months later, Johnny Sea hit No. 35 (and supposedly sold 250,000 copies in two weeks) with "Day for Decision," a florid rant on the subject of young people who scorn old-fashioned patriotism and happily knuckle under to Viet Cong Commies. Its title was patterned after Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," but "Decision" isn't an answer to McGuire's song; it's a dramatic rereading of a speech by newscaster Allen Peltier. It ends with a stirring chorus of "America the Beautiful," over which Sea notes that "if you feel a little pride welling up inside of you—if you feel a little mist in your eye—then thank God for you, Mister: You're still an American."

The ne plus ultra of right-wing spoken-word hits, though, was newsman Victor Lundberg's 1967 No. 10 hit, "An Open Letter to My Teenage Son." Lundberg, backed by the inevitable "Battle Hymn of the Republic," explains that he's OK with young people wearing their hair long and growing beards, since George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did, too, but objects to the kid's pacifism: "If you decide to burn your draft card, then burn your birth certificate at the same time. From that moment on, I have no son." It was promptly followed by a mountain of answer records, most prominently "A Letter to Dad," credited to Every Father's Teenage Son, which scraped the charts at No. 93. (Dick Clark, then in his mid-30s, tried to jump on the bandwagon with "An Open Letter to the Older Generation.")

Following another o-tempora-o-mores, goddamn-kids-get-off-my-lawn recitation, Bill Anderson's "Where Have All Our Heroes Gone" (No. 93, 1970), the next big spoken-word pop hit, was, once again, a one-off fluke by a TV host and radio announcer. In 1971, Les Crane recorded a dramatic reading of a 1927 poem by Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata." (The title doesn't appear within the poem proper, but an anonymous background chorus chirps it at the beginning of the recording and throws in a distinctly post-1927 refrain: "You are a child of the universe/ No less than the trees and the stars.") As usual with such things, there was some confusion over the text's authorship; it had been reputed to have been "found in Old St. Paul's Church in 1692." Not the case. Crane's "Desiderata" hit No. 8; it also inspired a wicked parody, National Lampoon's "Deteriorata," which went to No. 91 the following year, twisting the original's chorus into "You are a fluke of the universe/ You have no right to be here."

Then, in 1973, septuagenarian Canadian radio announcer Gordon Sinclair wrote and broadcast a brief argument in defense of Americans as "the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people in all the earth." The original broadcast of "The Americans" started to make the rounds of American radio stations, but the first to release a record of it was actually another Canadian radio personality, Byron MacGregor—which led to the usual confusion over who had written the thing.

MacGregor's version (backed by a stirring martial rendition of "America the Beautiful") became the biggest spoken-word pop hit ever in America, hitting No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts; Sinclair's own recording (backed by a stirring martial rendition of, you guessed it, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") got only as high as No. 24. And country star Tex Ritter, who wasn't even Canadian, chipped in with his own version, "The Americans (A Canadian's Opinion)," which hovered around the lower fringes of the charts for three weeks. Ritter, as it happens, had recorded his own version of "Deck of Cards" back in 1948. History repeats itself!

"Rotate your tires/ ... Hire people with hooks," "Deteriorata" advised. A quarter-century later, the Chicago Tribune's Mary Schmich wrote a superficially similar (if less sarcastic) column—a sort of imaginary commencement address, advising young people to wear sunscreen, stretch, and be kind to their knees. It was promptly circulated far and wide under the pretext of having been written by Kurt Vonnegut, who had nothing to do with it. In the late '90s, it was recorded as "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" for an album credited to director Baz Luhrmann and became, as far as I know, the last spoken-word American pop hit to date. ("Yes We Can" was a meme, not a chart hit.) To add to the confusion, it's not actually Luhrmann reading Schmich's text, but an actor named Lee Perry; the musical setting is a remix of a cover of a minor 1992 hit by Rozalla, "Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)." "Sunscreen" made it only to No. 45 on the Hot 100, but it's remained a radio evergreen, especially around graduation time. And, friends, this story is true. I know—I was that fluke of the universe.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

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