The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

5 June 2004

Back atcha

I'm whipping down the Lake Hefner Parkway at the speed that was legal half a mile ago fercryingoutloud, and the Blossoms, Darlene Love and all, pop up on the speakers with the 1961 semi-hit "Son-In-Law," a smart-alecky response to Ernie K-Doe's enormous hit "Mother-In-Law," which goes something like this:

He's gone all night and he's got no job
Don't comb his hair, he's such a slob
You can find him on the corner with the rest of the mob
My no-good son-in-law

Exactly the person, in other words, who might muse, "If she would leave, that would be the solution." "Son-In-Law" stalled at #79 in Billboard, which is actually pretty good for an example of that now-forgotten genre, the answer record, the song that takes note of the plaintiff's top-charting plea and details the case for the defense.

Most of the time, it's obvious what's being answered, as it is with Wendy Hill's "Gary, Please Don't Sell My Diamond Ring." Seldom did answer records chart very high, though Jeanne Black's "He'll Have to Stay," which refutes Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go," made #4.

But for the greatest answer record of them all, we have to reorient ourselves toward early-Fifties country music, and a fellow named Hank Thompson, who besides selling sixty million-odd records, starred in the first-ever TV variety show in color (live from Oklahoma City, even) and recorded the first-ever country live album (At the Golden Nugget, 1961).

Thompson's signature song, a tremendous hit in 1952, was "The Wild Side of Life." He didn't write it Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters put it out a couple years earlier but Thompson made it his own. It contained this chorus:

I didn't know God made honky tonk angels
I might have known you'd never make a wife
You gave up the only one that ever loved you
And went back to the wild side of life

Songwriter J. D. Miller saw an opening here, and Kitty Wells was coaxed out of semi-retirement to hurl Hank Thompson's words back at him:

It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they're still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong

A situation that has changed little in half a century, I might add. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" sold a million, a first for a female country artist, and a rare example (well, rare before Loretta Lynn) of a woman in Nashville actually talking back. And just to make a point, Kitty followed it with an answer to Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair."

The answer record has largely been supplanted over the years by the tribute recording, often overlaid with entirely too much attempted irony: see Dread Zeppelin, or Rolf Harris' attempt to tie down "Stairway to Heaven." Which means we probably won't hear a 21st-century equivalent of, say, Jon E. Holliday's "Yes, I Will Love You Tomorrow," which isn't the least bit amusing, or the Romeos' "The Tiger's Wide Awake," which is.

(Note: There were a couple of MP3s linked here; they were taken down after 36 hours to avoid the wrath of the Recording Industry Association of America, which objects strenuously to this sort of thing, even when the recordings are not available commercially and likely never will be.)

Posted at 3:34 PM to Tongue and Groove

Besides "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" and "Paying For That Backstreet Affair", Kitty Wells did at least two other 'answer' songs. She answered Lefty Frizzell's "If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time" with "I Don't Want Your Money, I Just Want Your Time" and Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" with "My Cold Cold Heart is Melting Now".

Posted by: Dr. Weevil at 8:24 PM on 5 June 2004

I'd heard the Frizzell follow-up, though not the Williams. We probably shouldn't make Kitty out to be nothing but an answer-record artist, but it is a fact that she got her biggest hit from one. (And if I remember correctly, Kitty Kallen, some years later, cut a version of "Honky Tonk Angels.")

Posted by: CGHill at 9:12 PM on 5 June 2004

Thanks so much for putting up the Wendy Hill MP3. I'd read about it but never heard it. Who produced it and wrote the new lyrics (such as they are)? Those are the loudest, scariest tympani I've ever heard. And out of tune, yet. It's like they've been lifted from a 1971 German prog album.

Posted by: Dawn Eden at 11:38 PM on 5 June 2004

The credits on the Wendy Hill record read identically to the one on Gary Lewis' 45: same composers (Al Kooper, Bob Brass, Irwin Levine), same producer (Snuff Garrett), same arranger (Leon Russell). Not surprising, perhaps, since it's on the same label. It doesn't sound like any of the same players, though. I've posted a query to the Spectropop people, quoting your tympani observations; at the very least, Al Kooper will see it, though I doubt he had much to do with this case of pop eating itself.

Posted by: CGHill at 8:37 AM on 6 June 2004