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LEVINE: 'Answer song' a hidden rock 'n' roll genre

The Old Rocker

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

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Ben E. King

This rock ‘n’ roll genre has gone the way of the Slinky, Beanie Babies, Pogo Sticks, Beehive and Duck Tail hairdos, and 8-track tapes.

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Barry Levine

The genre — the answer song — is a song recorded in response to a previous song. As an example, Jim Reeves’ hit “He’ll Have to Go” reached No. 2 in 1960. Jeanne Black answered with “He’ll Have to Stay,” which rose to No. 4 later that year. Interestingly, they were the most successful hits for both performers.

What is believed to be the first answer song was written 20 years earlier. Irving Berlin, recognized as America’s greatest composer, penned “God Bless America” in 1918 and put it in a drawer until he revised it in 1938 as a peace song. Berlin wrote more than 1,000 songs, of which 25 reached No. 1. “God Bless America” eventually became known as the country’s “second national anthem.”

Unhappy with the lyrics to “God Bless America,” Woody Guthrie, a folk musician and songwriter, answered with “This Land is Your Land” in 1940.

Here are some of the more famous answer songs:

Annette Funicello, a Mouseketeer in Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, had her first hit, “Tall Paul,” which rose to No. 7 in 1959. Carole King, one of the most successful female rock songwriters ever, responded to Annette’s hit with “Short Mort” later in 1959. While King had 12 Top 40 hits, “Short Mort” was not among them.

King also had an “answer” for a Neil Sedaka hit. Sedaka had his first Top 10 hit with “Oh! Carol,” which jumped to No. 9 in the fall of 1959. She responded with “Oh! Neil” in 1959, but it failed to penetrate the Top 40.

Seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore was one of the few singers whose first song reached the top of the charts. Her song, “It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To),” was No. 1 for two weeks in the spring of 1963. She recorded her own answer song with “Judy’s Turn to Cry” in the summer of 1963.

The Mamas & Papas also answered their own hit. “California Dreamin’ ” was the group’s first smash as it rose to No. 4 in 1966. The following year, the group hit with “Creeque Alley,” which refers to “California Dreamin’ ” in its lyrics.

Damita Jo had answer songs for hits by the Drifters and Ben E. King.

One of the most renowned groups in rock history, the Drifters, had their only No. 1 hit with “Save the Last Dance for Me” in the fall of 1960. Jo answered with “I’ll Save the Last Dance for You” in 1961. King, the Drifters’ former lead singer, had his biggest hit in the summer of 1961 with “Stand By Me,” which reached No. 9. Jo responded with “I’ll Be There” later in 1961.

King’s version of “Stand By Me” returned to the Top 10 in 1986 at No. 4. This coincided with its use as the theme song for the movie by the same name. The 25 years between the song’s trips to the Top 10 is a record for the most years for the same song by the same artist.

Elvis Presley had a record 114 Top 40 hits, 18 of which reached No. 1. One of his biggest No. 1 hits was “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” which was at the top of the charts for six weeks in 1960. The song was initially recorded by Al Jolson in 1926.

Dodie Stevens, who had a Top 5 hit with “Tan Shoe Laces” in 1959, answered Elvis’ song with “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight” in 1960. It failed to reach the Top 40.

Claude King had his only Top 40 hit with “Wolverton Mountain,” which rose to No. 6 in 1962. Jo Ann Campbell responded with “I’m the Girl from Wolverton Mountain.” Campbell’s song enjoyed moderate success, reaching No. 38 in 1962.

Hank Locklin scored his only hit on the Billboard Top 40 when “Please Help Me I’m Fallin’” landed at No. 8 in the summer of 1960. Locklin’s hit was answered twice that year. Skeeter Davis responded with “(I Can’t Help You) I’m Fallin’ Too” and Betty Madigan with “I’m Glad That You’re Fallin.’” Neither answer song reached the Top 25.

The mailman cometh:

Mr. Levine,

I just felt a need to email you and tell you how much I enjoy your newspaper column about the music of ’50s and ’60s. I too am a product of the “rock ‘n’ roll” era. I worked in a record shop in Morgantown, W.Va., during my senior year in high school (1957), and I vividly remember all the songs and artists that you write about. I was able to purchase the 45s for 60 cents each and they normally sold for 99 cents. I had quite a collection. I have started saving your columns but wish I had started earlier.

J. M. Yielding

Mr. Levine,

“Witch Doctor” was the first 45 rpm record I ever bought. I was 10 years old. Thanks so much for your column! I remembered almost all of the songs mentioned.

Norris Wootton

Mr. Levine,

I heard Ray Stevens do a cute song with a title about getting a hair cut out of town. Do you recall this song? Its name was “Never Get Your Hair Cut by a Barber Out of Town.”

Paul A. Jones

Barry Levine writes about music and movies for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.