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How Hits Are Born

The most common version of the story goes like this: Huey Smith wrote "Sea Cruise" and sang the original version, together with Geri Hall. But then, without Huey's knowledge or consent, Ace label owner Johnny Vincent decided to wipe off the original vocal (leaving the great rhythm track in tact, and overdubbing it with bells and foghorns) and replace it with Frankie Ford's vocal. The most extreme version of this tale can be read in the 1985 book "I Hear You Knockin'" by Jeff Hannusch, where Huey is "still infuriated to this day" and "according to Huey, Johnny Vincent stole the song from him and gave it to Frankie Ford" (p. 41). Similar story for the other side, "Roberta", originally titled "Loberta". This gave the impression that Huey was also displeased with Ford's behavior and apparently this began to irritate Ford so much that he decided to give his own version of the story, both to Trevor Cajiao, the editor of "Now Dig This" (see NDT 176, Nov. 1997, and the liner notes to the Westhouse CD "Ooh-wee Baby! The Best of Frankie Ford", written by Cajiao), and to Wayne Jancik, the author of "The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders". In the second revised edition of this book (1998) Ford is quoted as saying the following (p. 70): "Now, "Sea Cruise" was cut to be the follow-up to Huey Smith's "Don't You Just Know It", but Bobby Marchan [then lead vocalist for Huey's group the Clowns] was leaving. The track was cut. It was to be Huey's new release. It was cut while I was in Philadelphia promoting "Cheatin' Woman" and singing at the George Wood Show at the Uptown Theatre. When I got home, they said "Well, let's try Frankie's voice on it." Huey had heard me one night in a club and said "Hey, he sounds like Bobby". So, I agreed and went into the studio, not knowing the song. I still have the piece of paper that Huey had written the words on for me, misspellings and all. Now, we recorded it on this two-track Ampex. There was no punch-in. If you made a mistake, it was just there. We did about 13 takes on "Sea Cruise", I think. On "Roberta" the Clowns were actually in the studio. There was two microphones. I was on one and the four of them were on the other. My manager [then, Joe Caronna] and the owner of the label [Johnny Vincent] said, "Huey, you don't need a release now. Let's put it out on Frankie." And it was set, I was to be the new lead singer with his group, too. Contrary to the Monday morning quarter-backing, I was there when the agreement was made. Huey was to be listed as producer and as to what was his deal with Ace Records, I don't know. We're still friends. In a lot of books - including the first edition of 'One-Hit Wonders' - it says that Huey was very displeased with me; and he was not, with me! We worked together and collaborated on a lot of compositions. And when things got as they did, we were instrumental in bringing him over to Imperial Records". End of quote. In the end, Frankie Ford never did join up with Huey Smith's Clowns.


Lewis insists he learned Shakin' in Mississippi in the early '50s, but he probably picked it up from Roy Hall - a raconteur, pianist, hard drinker and club owner who hired Jerry Lee for his after-hours Nashville joint in 1955. Hall had recorded the second version of Shakin', soon after Big Maybelle's 1955 original, and claimed to be the mysterious co-writer, Sonny David.

Jerry Lee's Sun debut had stiffed. But early in 1957, Sam Phillips had him back in his Union St. studio, trawling through some half-remembered songs when he lit into Shakin'. "We took one cut," says Sun guitar ace Roland Janes. "It wasn't prearranged when he slowed down in the middle. We just followed him." Drummer J.M. Van Eaton was the only other musician, although Sun's tightly-focused tape-echo magnified the sound to the extent that it counted as a fourth instrument. Shakin' was issued as a flip-side but DJs began spinning it. In July, Jerry Lee performed it on The Steve Allen Show, glaring at the cameras with wild-eyed fury. His genie was out of the bottle, never to return.


When Duane Eddy penned Rebel Rouser - the single that codified "twang" as a key component of '60s rock guitar - he was a 19-year-old struggling journeyman guitarist looking for a break. Inspiration arrived one morning in 1958 while tinkering in a Phoenix studio with producer Lee Hazlewood. "The idea was for something dramatic to open my shows," says Eddy. "I figured it would start with just me on-stage playing the riff - that's why the band doesn't come in right away."

The song's tremulous twang was achieved through the use of a 2,000 gallon water tank, purchased by Eddy for $50 and hauled to the studio: "We stuck a speaker at one end and a mic at the other - and it just worked beautifully." Hazlewood used just three tracks; the Gil Bernal sax solo and the Rivingtons' background rebel yells and hand-claps were over-dubbed at LA's Gold Star studios one week later. "That record laid the groundwork," says Eddy. "It made me feel like I contributed something."

MYSTERY TRAIN, Elvis Presley

Presley's Western bop music, as Sam Phillips called it, was creating a stir in the South by mid-1955. His fourth Sun record had dented the country charts; much was riding on the fifth. The problem for Phillips, president of Sun Records, was that Elvis wasn't a songwriter, and wanted to do songs he'd heard on the radio. Sam nudged Elvis towards copyrights from his publishing companies; one of them was Mystery Train, a haunting elegiac blues that Junior Parker had released on Sun in 1953. Like Unchained Melody, the title is mentioned nowhere in the song, compounding its enigma. Elvis grafted the rhythm and tempo of Love My Baby - the flip side of Junior's record - onto Mystery Train. Guitarist Scotty Moore played what he calls "a total rhythm thing . . . you just kept going and hung on".

"It was a feeling song," said Sam Phillips. "It was a big thing to put a loved one on a train." Are they leaving forever" Elvis breaks up near the end, clearly thinking this was a rehearsal. Sam Phillips new better. "It was the greatest thing I ever did on Elvis."

THAT'LL BE THE DAY, Buddy Holly & the Crickets

Buddy Holly made his first attempt at recording That'll Be The Day in Nashville in mid-'56, but the echo-laden performance was unsatisfactory. "The people producing it wanted to go water skiing as opposed to recording Buddy Holly," says Jerry Allison, Holly's drummer and the song's co-writer. "We finished it in about 30 minutes. I don't think we even wrote the words down, we simply remembered it all." The break-through version was recorded six months later at Norman Petty's Clovis studio. The session was intended as a demo, which allowed a relaxed atmosphere, despite Holly's perfectionism.

We were friends with Buddy Knox's guitarist, and his sister told us if we cut a demo of the song, she'd get it to Roulette Records in New York. Great!" But Roulette didn't want another rock'n'roll group and the recording languished until Petty, who added his own name to the composer credits, took the recording to Coral. Although the label initially rejected the song, it soon became a huge hit.

"It cost $15 to record," says Allison. "After we had a little success, we went back in, but suddenly the recordings were not good enough for us. We started doing them 30 times, until they sounded spontaneous! And the more we worked on them, the less they sold!"


When Eddie Cochran recorded Summertimes Blues in the spring of 1958, it was headed straight for a B-side in the mind of Liberty Records head Sy Waronker. Waronker was more accustomed to overseeing Julie London's career. Despite the songwriting talent demonstrated by Twenty Flight Rock, Waronker remained wary of Cochran's original songs in general and rockers in particular. And the more pressure Waronker applied, the more cochran wanted to let out his frustrations in raw rock and blues.

Cochran's girlfriend Sharon Sheely - who survived the 1960 car crash which took Cochran's life - recalls, "Eddie fought with Liberty constantly. They'd bring in these schlocky little ballads and say, 'You gotta record this.' He liked to do originals; he would beg them, 'Please, just let me make one instrumental blues album.' And Sy Waronker would say, 'No, no, no. Not commercial.'"

However, Waronker had no problem with Cochran's recording a sentimental ballad Sheeley had penned, Love Again. With Summertime Blues tucked away on the B-siude, the disc came out in June 1958. It took the nation's disc jockeys several weeks to discover the potential of the single's flip side. Nearly two months later, just before the summer was over, Summertime Blues was in the Top 10.


In early December 1955, Elvis played a showdate in Swifton, Arkansas. He had yet to record Heartbreak Hotel but he introduced it as "my first hit". Few around him shared his enthusiasm for this unremittingly bleak song.

Mae Axton, mother of Hoyt, taught high school; on the side she dabbled in songwriting, journalism, and PR for Colonel Parker. A local country singer, Tommy Durden, brought her a newspaper article about a suicide who left a note saying "I walk the lonely street". "It stunned me," Mae told Peter Guralnick; "I said to Tommy, Let's put Heartbreak Hotel at the end of this lonely street." Mae met Elvis when he played Daytona Beach with Hank Snow in May 1955. They met again in Nashville that November in the middle of the feeding frenzy around Elvis' contract. She played him Heartbreak Hotel; Elvis left town determined to record it. Mae sweetened the pot by giving him a one-third cut.

On January 10,1956 two days after his 21st birthday, Elvis drove to Nashville for his first RCA session. Steve Sholes, head of RCA's country division was there, with his assistant Chet Atkins. Nashville was full of never-knowingly-underdressed country stars, but Elvis, in pink and black, was something else. Even in the studio he moved and shook as he sang. Chet called his wife to the studio, telling her: "You'll never see anything like this again."

Drummer D.J. Fontana points out that Elvis effectively produced the session. "The engineer was Jim Ferris," remembers guitarist Scotty Moore. "He improvised an echo chamber out of the hallway at the front of the building. Then he hung a sign, Do Not Enter, on the door. We worked up the arrangement right there." Free of the endless retakes demanded by Sam Phillips, Moore remembers the definitive take being recorded with comparative ease.

When Sholes went back to New York with the master, he was told he was making a terrible mistake. In late January, Elvis came to New York to appear on national television for the first time, but inexplicably failed to perform his new single. Yet after an an agonizing five weeks, it showed up in the pop and country charts. On April 21, 1956 Elvis Presley scored his first national Number 1.

LONG TALL SALLY, Little Richard

Little Richard's follow-up to the epochal Tutti Fruitti was recorded on February 7, 1956 down at Cosimo Matassa's tiny J&M Studio in New Orleans, with Bumps Blackwell producing and a session crew that included Lee Allen and Alvin 'Red' Tyler on saxes and the great Earl Palmer on drums.

Initially just a few lines on a scrap of paper, the song was brought to Blackwell by a teenage girl, Enortis Johnson. Richard and Bumps added the music and more words, and set about recording it. Peeved that Pat Boone's cover of Tutti Frutti had outsold Richard's, Blackwell kept insisting the track be re-done faster and faster to confound the bland Boone. With Palmer at the traps, this was no problem - he was such a perfect time-keeper that, asked to speed a take up by 10 seconds, he'd pretend to wind up a clock on his ankle and speed it up by exactly that much. "I drilled Richard 'til it burned," recalled Blackwell. "When we finished I said, Let's see Boone get his mouth together to do this song!" It made no difference, of course - Boone's version still sold a million, though Richard's backed with Slippin' And Slidin', was a huge success too.

CRYING, Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison's signature epic was originally cast for another artist. Co-writer Joe Melson: "We were working on the song for Don Gibson - halfway through we decided it was better for Roy."

Producer Fred Foster recalls when Orbison brought him the finished version. "I think we changed around every song a little - except Crying. I thought it was a classic the first time I heard it."

But it was a classic not easily captured on tape. Two initial sessions were abortive. For the third, Foster hired three different arrangers. "I went to the men's room and pulled a couple of straws out of a broom they had in there," he explains, "broke them into different lengths, and the three arrangers, who knew what the deal was, each drew a straw. Jim Hall drew the short straw. When the intro of his arrangement kicked off, I thought, Good Lord, this may be the one - he had these mallets on the snare and a Stromberg guitar. So when we cut it, I said to the other two arrangers, you'll be paid, but there's no sense cutting this again."

Rockabilly Hall of Fame