Sunday, August 12, 2012

Before K-Tel There Was Master Seal: the Politics of Race, Music and Originality

K-Tel was famous in the 70s and 80s for producing compilation albums with such memorable titles as Super BadRight On and Music Machine.  However, K-Tel was not the first to do this.  Before K-Tel, there was Master Seal.

Master Seal was one of several companies in the 1950s to produce budget compilation albums, sold mostly through dime stores, such as Woolworths.  8 Top Hits was the title often sold by Master Seal and often featured young people either dancing or singing on the album cover.  Unlike K-Tel, however, Master Seal did not sell compilation albums with original artists.  They re-recorded the music with a sound-alike band.  Although there was an effort to make the tracks sound like the originals, often the results were laughable.

I have an 8 Top Hits from 1957.  Where I got it, I am not sure.  It features several popular songs from the time, including the hit "Little Darlin'."   You know "Little Darlin'."  It was a hit by the Diamonds in 1957.

But the thing about music in this time period was that often the hits that made the Billboard top charts were not the original versions.  "Little Darlin'" was originally written and recorded by the Gladiolas, an Aftrican-American  Doo-Wop band out of South Carolina featuring vocalist Maurice Williams.  They recorded the original version of "Little Darlin'" in early 1957 on the Excello Records label.

Much like the country at the time, music was also segregated. There were black labels and white labels.  Record labels had a difficult time marketing "black music" to white audiences.  The solution:  have white artist cover the songs.  Elvis Presley was famous for this. "Hound Dog," for example, was originally performed by Big Mama Thorton.

So, in 1957, the Diamonds, a white band from Canada, covered "Little Darlin" and that version became a hit on the Billboard charts.

To capitalize on these hits, Master Seal and other budget compilation companies placed these songs on compilation albums.  But, to save money and to sell the albums as cheaply as possible, they licensed the rights to record the songs.  Thus, no-name bands would perform the songs as closely to the original hits as possible.

On this 8 Top Hits from 1957, "Little Darlin'" is performed by Don Raleigh and his Orchestra, featuring the vocals of Jimmy Perry and Les Young.

So what we have here is a great example of a postmodern palimpsest --a cover, of a cover of an original.  And the impetus of this was simply a desire not to offend the conventions of the time by marketing a black band to a white audience. 

But listening to all of these versions of "Little Darlin'" a truth remains:  the original is most always the best.

All versions of "Little Darlin'" can be heard on Vinyl Voyage Radio--where all music is played on glorious vinyl just as it was meant to be.

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