“Rock And Roll Lullaby”
Artist: B.J. Thomas
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
“According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens’s ‘La Bamba.’ Just consider Valens’s three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of ‘Louie, Louie’ by the Kingsmen, then consider “Louie, Louie’ in the light of ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks, then ‘You Really Got Me’ in the light of ‘No Fun’ by the Stooges, then ‘No Fun’ in the light of ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by the Ramones, and finally note that ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ sounds a lot like ‘La Bamba.’ There: twenty years of rock & roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled.”
(Lester Bangs, “Protopunk: The Garage Bands,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 edition)
“Like I said, that’s the saddest song I’ve ever sung. It’s supposed to be a true song, too. And I believe it. Back when I was a boy, if a girl got pregnant, she never did return home. Not pregnant and single. She just wasn’t welcome….It was the first song I learned, but I can’t hardly sing it now, because it’s so possible. Because it happened then, and it could still happen now.”
(Charlie Louvin, describing his childhood experience of learning to harmonize “Mary of the Wild Moor” with his brother Ira, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, 2011)
In 1972, attempts to limit the world’s understanding of what “rock and roll” was, were becoming more self-conscious by the day. The paragraph above–written a few years later by the only rock critic with a legitimate claim on genius–exemplified these attempts as neatly as anyone ever could. Note how a “theory” of “punk rock” at the beginning of one sentence moves swiftly and inexorably to “rock & roll history” at the beginning of the next. Given the dubiousness of the premise–three-chord “primitivism” as the only rock and roll that matters–you can’t get any neater than that.
* * * *
In 1972, everyone also knew what to think about girls who got themselves pregnant without catching a husband.
For the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve (who dominated the North Alabama world Charlie Louvin grew up in), she was a fallen woman.
For the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate (who dominated the world Lester Bangs operated in as a critic) she was a social project.
For the vast Middle-Which-Does-Not-Rock-The-Boat-Ever (the world most of us live in, toiling along, forever getting the government we deserve) she was best left unnoticed. Out of sight, out of mind. To be spoken of in whispers if at all.
She had an ongoing place in the history of popular music to be sure–and one did not have to reach back to “Mary of the Wild Moor” to know where she stood.
As recently as 1969, Dolly Parton, just then establishing herself as a legitimate genius of country music, had written what would turn out to be likely the most powerful song of her career about the very subject. It was called “Down From Dover,” and Parton matched the death-dealing, heart-clutching lyric to one of her greatest vocals. She updated the social and musical traditions she had grown up on with the tenderest of all possible care. She brought all the pathos of the mountain ballads, mournful and endless, often stretching to dozens of verses, down to a manageable commercial length without sacrificing anything vital in the way of emotional impact or telling descriptive detail. She took a decided leap in a brilliant songwriting career that already included “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” and “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.”
What she did not do, was release it as a single.
What she also did not do–and which was probably related to relegating what she must have known was a song she would never better to an album cut–was break the cycle of pain and death inherent in the tradition.
Admittedly, in “Down From Dover,” it’s only the “illegitimate” child that dies. That was a merciful step past “Mary of the Wild Moor,” which killed off the mother, the child, and the grandfather who leaves them to freeze to death in the snow when his daughter attempts to return home.
But it was evidently still too strong for country radio, which, in those days, always had a place for murder ballads and such. I mean, 1973 wasn’t very different and, in that year, Tanya Tucker could top the charts with a chilling, off-hand reading of “Blood Red and Going Down,” which tells the tender tale of a ten-year-old girl (Tucker herself was fourteen at the time) tagging along behind her Daddy while he tracks down his wife and her lover and leaves them “soaking up the sawdust on the floor” in an Augusta bar-room.
For that, there was room.
Just not for unwed mothers–at least not those rendered as sympathetically and realistically as Parton’s.
Over at Top 40 radio–from a few years earlier–there was another recent twist on the theme–told from the perspective of the Supremes’ “Love Child.”
Nobody dies in that one, but–#1 hit or not–it’s clear from the dread and shame in Diana Ross’ voice as she’s fending off the advances of a potential baby-daddy, that no possible good can come of it:
“No child of mine will be wearin’, this name of shame I been bearin’”….
That was how it was in 1966–not to mention 1966 B.C.
It was no different in 1972.
* * * *
I’m not sure how much better it is now. Maybe we really are a little more thoughtful and forgiving. Maybe we are more empathetic and civilized. Maybe it only seems that way from certain carefully guarded perspectives. It’s hard to turn a tradition thousands of years in the making on its head in an instant. And the uglier the tradition the harder the turning often is.
But Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil gave it a try.
They took on the truly momentous rock and roll responsibility (if you want to call it the burden of the revolution you won’t get an argument from me) of giving voice to the voiceless and then had the nerve to give their song a title evidently designed to make advocates of punk primitivism as the only rock and roll that matters grind their filed teeth to paste.
Then they wrote a song so powerful almost no one has ever bothered to deny its classic status even if it does turn the most comfortable narratives sideways and upside down–complete with a wash of “sha-na-nas” lifted from rock’s oft-despised (by everyone from the old Tin Pan Alley crowd to the new-left folkies to the mock-intelligentsia forever gathering ’round the Beatles and such to today’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee) tradition of nonsense group vocals.
Mann told the song’s producer Steve Tyrell that he heard “old sounds” in the lyric and suggested they get the session guitarist to play like Duane Eddy.
Tyrell heard old sounds, too.
He said, “why not get Duane Eddy?”
Things only got more ambitious from there.
What they ended up with was a record that sounded absolutely constructed, layer by loving layer–not just Eddy’s bottomless guitar part, likely the emotional pinnacle of his monumental career, but background support from Darlene Love’s Blossoms and ex-Diamond Dave Somerville, carefully modulated dead-ringer early-and-late Beach Boy arrangements, Barry Mann himself on the piano, the lushest possible orchestration–and also as if it had been breathed into the world in an instant.
Why Mann and Weil chose to write a song redeeming abandoned single mothers and their children–to that moment, possibly the most doomed and despised sub-group in the history of doomed and despised sub-groups–I do not know. That they even thought it was possible seems a bit nervy and mysterious–unless, of course, you know (as they certainly did) the actual history of rock and roll, which, more than anything else, is the history of speaking up. The few interviews I’ve heard or read from them over the years have–perhaps understandably given the full weight of their accomplishments (they wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” among voluminous others)–bypassed this particular record.
So maybe they had some special attachment to the situation…or maybe they just figured it was time.
I could be wrong, but somehow, I don’t think it was just that week’s assignment.
It says something, for instance, that they chose to write it from the perspective of the fatherless child, now grown up. That deliberately placed “the event”–and the teenage mother’s dilemma–closer to the social realities of the nineteen fifties than of 1972, when there might at least have been a commune waiting for her somewhere. It thus very specifically and pointedly pushed the concept of “rock and roll” back to its own beginnings–when the audience, more so than any self-appointed intellectual class or marketing department or even the artists themselves–was deciding not so much what rock and roll was (as a form of music) as what it was going to mean to their lives (which they were determined to make matter).
In a rhyme scheme as tick-tock perfect as any Tin Pan Alley ever produced, the Brill Building grads inserted the key into the secret chambers of the rock and roll heart and said, in everything but words, that “Love Me Tender” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” were every bit as much “rock and roll” as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Tutti Frutti.” That the Platters and “In The Still Of The Nite” mattered just as much as Chuck Berry and “La Bamba.”
That, in fact, this had been the point.
So, in addition to pushing back against the cruel tide of human history, “things were bad and she was scared but whenever I would cry, she’d calm my fears and dry my tears with a rock and roll lullaby,” also pushed back even harder against the increasingly hide-bound–and increasingly suffocating–mantra of its own moment, and, in doing so, asserted in no uncertain terms that rock and roll, more than any art that preceded it, offered something very like salvation for its audience.
All of its audience–not just the part recognized by white boys fighting out its “meaning” in college dorm rooms and the pages of Rolling Stone.
What resulted was a record that seemed, on the surface, too perfect to not reach the top of the charts and take its place as a permanent staple at oldies’ radio.
Of course, surfaces often tantalize and delude and that sort of inevitability often rides a curse.
“Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” fate certainly proved all that.
Well on its way to the fate it richly deserved, its distribution was undone by the financial collapse of B.J. Thomas’ record company, Scepter–a fate Scepter shared with many of the other record labels which had turned out the doo-wop and girl group sounds “Lullaby” was invoking, including, most particularly, Red Bird, the failure of which had destroyed the career of the Shangri-Las, who had surely given Mann and Weil a Zeitgeist to play into if anyone had. (If anyone wants to hear how a sixteen-year-old girl with a backbone ends up alone–pregnant or otherwise–they can listen to Mary Weiss singing “Never Again”–that’s the one where she begins by telling the boy he better not walk out on her again and ends by walking out on him–and get a pretty direct idea.)
The record ultimately stalled at #15. Not bad, and plenty of records, including Thomas’ own “The Eyes of a New York Woman” (which had topped out at #29 a few years earlier) have stayed in heavy rotation for decades following even less initial success.
But none of those records were fighting history.
So “Rock And Roll Lullaby” fell in between the cracks. A bit too popular (and Populist) to be a true cult item, far too strong to fit easily into any nostalgia format. Doubtless there are stations somewhere that play it. Maybe even a few that play it a lot. But in thirty-five years of listening incessantly to oldies’ stations across the country, I’ve never heard it on the radio once.
I’ve played it enough at my house to know it doesn’t really matter. A thousand random encounters between here and the grocery store or in rental cars on the way to Cleveland or Fort Worth or Memphis or Winston-Salem couldn’t possibly have dimmed it.
* * * *
There’s a special reason for that last, a reason why the record simply can’t fade. A reason why the only way to deny its power is to throw up deliberate defenses, which might include “oh, we’re past all that now”…defenses you can bet will be broken down the minute you stop minding them. A reason found in a quality that actually transcends the perfect song Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote–a reason that skips right past two swift verses, a luminous bridge and a simple chorus repeated three times, gently, gently, ever-so-gently telling anyone who ever turned their back on need: “Shame on you.”
That reason was specific to rock and roll as well. Simply put, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” was B.J. Thomas’ genius moment.
Now even in rock and roll, not every good singer gets one. But it does happen more often in rock and roll than anywhere else (and by “anywhere else” I don’t mean just other forms of music).
You have a career. You make some good records, maybe quite a few. You practice your craft honorably and well. You build a loyal following that sticks with you for years, or even decades.
But you aren’t a genius. Not really.
So far, you could be doing anything.
But if you sang rock and roll while the revolution was still on track, there was always a chance that once or twice, somewhere along the way, you would be better than that. That sooner (say Carly Simon on “You’re So Vain”) or later (say Neil Sedaka on “Bad Blood”) or somewhere in between (say Dobie Gray on “Drift Away”) you would, for three or four minutes, be as great as anybody has ever been or ever will be.
Heck, sometimes you didn’t even have to be good or honorable or anywhere near having a career.
Rock and roll did that, too (here, I’ll let you fill in the name of your choice–no sense ticking anybody off!) It was a bit rarer than the romantic legends would have it, but it did happen.
I’ve always been fascinated by that other main chance, though. The professional’s main chance.
In a way that was a greater, rarer moment, because while it’s possible to believe that “Louie, Louie” or “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” or “The Book of Love” (okay I went ahead and named some but surely nobody could be ticked of by those examples!) really could have happened for almost anyone, “Rock And Roll Lullaby” could only have happened for someone very like B.J. Thomas–or maybe only for B.J. Thomas specifically.
In The Heart of Rock and Soul, his mostly invaluable celebration of the old-fashioned single, where he gave “Rock And Roll Lullaby” a deservedly high place, Dave Marsh described Thomas as being “not much better than a B-level country-rock hack on every other record he made.”
Sorry, Marsh wrote a wonderful book, but on this particular point, he’s dead wrong.
Thomas was a first-rate vocalist in the greatest era of recorded vocal music we’ve yet heard. No, he wasn’t a genius. Not usually anyway. But he had kicked off his chart career with a cover of a Hank Williams’ song that was both commercially successful and emotionally true. The first guy who tried that, fifteen years earlier, had only managed the easier half of the equation and he only turned out to be Tony Bennett.
So no, B.J. Thomas was not a genius, but he was damn good.
No “hack” could have stood in front of all that was going on in “Rock And Roll Lullaby’s” production–or gotten behind all that was going on in back of its lyric–and made it so thoroughly his own.
Neither could any one-off.
Maybe a genius could have done it…but even a genius couldn’t have made it sound as if they knew this was their lasting moment. Geniuses can’t afford to feel that way. That’s part of how they get to be geniuses: by believing that they can always go further and higher, or, at very least come back, again and again, to the furthest, highest place.
For “Rock And Roll Lullaby” to be as great as it is, though, it almost certainly needed to be sung by someone who sensed (even if they didn’t care to admit it) that the moment might never come again for them–that they would never reach any higher than this.
It took a pro for that–the very kind of craftsman who has been so often written out of rock history by those who decided rock and roll would be better off in the margins, untainted by the wearing and tearing necessities of compromise and other impurities inherent in social (as opposed to personal) relevance, and who, incidentally, have seen their wish come true.
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have a claim on being geniuses. Duane Eddy has a claim on being a genius. So does Darlene Love.
They could all rightly, if arguably, claim this as the greatest record they ever worked on.
But of all the wonderful records that come from a particularly tricky place–the place where talent becomes genius for one precious, irreducible moment–“Rock And Roll Lullaby” is likely the greatest…and boldest.
And, though he has no other claim on being a genius himself, you can thank B.J. Thomas for that.