In the mid-50s and into the ’60s a sub-genre of music cropped up and made its way onto the charts. A series of “talking songs,” as Mister Boomer calls them, were born out of a tradition of country music story songs. The predominant characteristics of these songs were that the majority of the song was recited, in a fashion more akin to a dramatic reading or poetry recital, rather than sung; they all told a story, as if continuing a tradition of oral storytelling about legendary figures; and usually, if any singing was involved, it was on the refrain or chorus.
Four “talking songs” immediately come to mind for Mister Boomer: Big Bad John, Monster Mash, Ringo and Hot Rod Lincoln.
Big Bad John (1961)
This song was written by Jimmy Dean and Roy Acuff, and released by Dean. Jimmy Dean was already a country star at the time, and would soon have his own TV show and sausage empire. The song topped the pop charts for five weeks the last half of 1961, and earned Dean a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance in 1962. It hit number one on both the Country and Easy Listening charts as well. Not bad for an artist whose only singing in the song consisted of the one line, “Big Bad John.”
The song told the story of a miner named John. The man was known for two things: his mysterious past (he may have killed a man in New Orleans over a dispute about a “Cajun Queen”) and his stature and muscular build. As the song said, “He stood six foot six and weighed two forty-five.” The story continues with the tale that as a mine was collapsing, John grabbed a failing support timber as 20 men hurried out. Before the men could return with jacks and tools, the mine completely collapsed with Big John as the only remaining miner. The mine was never reopened, and a plaque was installed at the site to commemorate Big John’s heroism. The payoff line at the end of the song recites the inscription, which read, “At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man: Big John.” This is the version Mister Boomer recalls hearing on the radio, though the original said, “one hell of a man” instead of “a big, big man.” The times didn’t think kindly of the “profane” language broadcast over the radio, so it was changed for records, TV and radio versions.
Monster Mash (1962)
Apropos for our current season, Bobby Pickett recorded this talkie about a dance performed by monsters. Mr. Pickett was known for his Boris Karloff impersonation, which he would use when performing in nightclubs. His band members encouraged him to try and record something with the dead-on impression, and Monster Mash was born. It appeared shortly after the Twist and Mashed Potato, so it was perfectly timed to grab the new dance song craze as well as ride the talking song sub-genre. (Read more about Monster Mash in a previous Mister B post: Boomers Did the Monster Mash.)
A song presumably about a Western gunfighter named Ringo, it was “sung” by Lorne Greene — the same Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame. The Bonanza TV show helped carry over the public’s fascination with Westerns and the American West from the TV shows of the 1950s into the ’60s. Now one of the biggest TV Western stars of the time was proffering a record that told a legendary — though historically inaccurate — tale of a Marshall who once saved Ringo only to end up gunning him down in a shootout a few years later.
Seeing as it was released in 1964 and The Beatles were making a big splash in the U.S. at the time, the record company had Lorne Greene record an interview that could be played on radio stations. This recorded interview explained that his Ringo was not about Ringo Starr, thereby promoting his Ringo without disparaging the popular newcomer.
Greene doesn’t sing a single note in the song. The background vocals of the chorus were uncredited, but have allegedly been attributed to The Jordinaires or the Melo Men.
Of course, The Jordinaires are famous for being the backup band and vocals for Elvis Presley from 1955 to 1969, but the Melo Men are less well known by the public, but equally famous among musicians at the time. The group featured Thurl Ravencroft, whose deep voice lent background support on songs for Elvis, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Arlo Guthrie and others. Most boomers recall Mr. Ravencroft for his unforgettable singing of You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch, in the 1966 TV cartoon special of Dr. Seuss’, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).
Hot Rod Lincoln (1955)
Most boomers — including Mister B — recall Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen’s version of this talking song from 1972. When you look at it, the song’s “vocal” stylings do seem out of place in the 1970s, and there’s good reason for that. Written by Charley Ryan, it was originally released in 1955 by Charley Ryan and The Livingston Brothers.
Hot Rod Lincoln is reported to be an answer song to Hot Rod Race, a 1951 hit for Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys. In that talkie, the story tells the tale of a race between a Ford and a Mercury. The racers are side-by-side until a Model A with a souped-up Lincoln engine — a hot rod Lincoln — overtakes them both. Continuing the story of fast cars and street racing, Hot Rod Lincoln is narrated by the race driver, but he starts and ends it with a line from his father: “Son, you’re going to drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln.”
Mister Boomer heard all these songs on his transistor radio. The early ’60s was a time when genres were easily mixed on the radio, so a country song could be played, followed by a Connie Stevens pop song, followed by a Beach Boys surf song and a Beatles rock song, and more. Looking back, you can see the inspiration of traditional country music in these talking songs, along with the increasing influence of rock ‘n roll. If rock ‘n roll was indeed a blend of country, gospel and rhythm & blues, then these songs help bridge the gap between the music of the 1950s and what was rising in the 1960s.
The talking song has never really left us, though it waned in popularity around the time psychedelic rock arrived in the Summer of Love (1967). One might even link the genre to Rap, another type of poetic recital that dominates Hip-Hop charts today.
What did you think of talking songs, boomers?