Monday, December 07, 2009

The Story Of A Most Unlikely Hit Record

One of the many interesting stories in Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll concerns an improbable runaway hit called "Pistol Packin' Mama."

In normal times, the song by Al Dexter, a Texas-born, Los Angeles-based honky-tonk singer would have sunk like a stone, but when it was released early in 1943 it was in the midst of a ban on new recordings because of a battle between the major musical copyright groups and a war-induced shortage of the shellac used in vinyl records. Add to that a huge population shift with the mobilization of millions of men and women into the armed forces and millions more from rural areas to cities with wartime industries.

The fight between ASCAP and BMI provided new opportunities for non-mainstream artists like Dexter to reach audiences thirsty for hillbilly and cowboy music (later known as country and western) and "Pistol Packin' Mama" was being played on jukeboxes from coast to coast when the recording ban was lifted in June 1943.

By early 1944, versions of "PPM" (as it was known in the music trade press) sung by
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were outselling Dexter's even in places like Forth Worth.

Nevertheless, Your Hit Parade, which supposedly showcased each week's 10 most popular songs, refused to include "PPM" until the publisher took the producers to court.

Wald picks up the story:

"Life magazine speculated that the censorship order might have come from either the show's notoriously conservative sponsor . . . or from Frank Sinatra, the program's reigning star. Sinatra was notoriously contemptuous of hillbilly music, but if he was the motivating force in this case, the punishment fit the crime: After "PPM" was added to the Hit Parade lineup in October 1943, he had to sing it on fourteen subsequent episodes."

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