Tidbits: Double Sided Hits

When record executive and erstwhile song leader Mitch Miller recognized a hit, he had it stamped it on the "A" side of the single with big bold letters, and sometimes added stars or asterisks before the song title. Miller wanted DJs to know which song they were supposed to play. Johnny Mercer, on the other hand, may not have been the ruthless executive Miller was (although no doubt a superior performer and songwriter) and often downplayed the whole "A" side concept.

Over time, the different approaches resulted in vastly different levels of success for the "B" side. Some labels seemed to gravitate to putting throwaways on the flip side, while others -- such as Capitol -- weren't as anxious to write off half of the disc.

We invite you to join us as we journey through a brief examination of the double-sided hit. This isn't a chronological account, nor is it complete. It is just a study to help us understand the psychology behind that rare and special treat -- the double-sided hit in pop music.

Considering the two record label executives mentioned above, it should be noted that during their era in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the double-sided hit was still sort of a new phenomenon in the recording industry. Keep in mind that cylinders with a single song were the preferred means of listening to records until about 1915. When flat disc recordings came out circa 1907, there were no industry standards; some records were designed to be played as fast as 120 rpm. Some were even designed to play at variable speed (each groove held the same recording time -- the playback slowed as the needle reached the center of the record). Furthermore, the quality was inferior to the cylindrical recording. But like any new technology, quality doesn't always win...just think of Beta vs. VHS. Flat disc playback systems were cheaper for consumers to buy, so eventually the industry sort of standardized on 78 RPM -- or thereabouts.

It was around 1920 that record companies began putting songs on the flip side as a steady practice. The concept took off in 1922 with one of the most important recordings in the history of American Popular Song, "Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean." The song was a series of jokes sung in 2/4 time, an ongoing give-and-take for which each verse cluminated with a punchline followed by "Absolutely Mr. Gallagher?" immediately answered by "Positively Mr. Shean!" That catch-phrase was known in virtually every American household into the 1960s. It later served as the basis for a Pitney-Bowes commercial -- Mr. Pitney? Yes Mr. Bowes -- even though the majority of the listeners during the 1990s were unfamiliar with its origins.

The song was really a recording of an ogoing vaudeville act by Ed Gallagher and Al Shean. They used the format to continuously introduce new material, and even the successful "verses" were seldom done the same way twice. The pair would adlib on stage, which further added to the fun. When the routine was finally put down on acetate, it was felt that the song would be continued to the flip side, so as not to cheat listeners out of the usual act. The two 3:00 minute sides comprised a 6:00 minute song, but the record buying public didn't see it that way. Already accustomed to having two different songs on a disc, it became a case of parts I and II -- both equally enjoyable -- and thus the first "double-sided" hit in history.

With two important hits on one disc, it was also the recording that dealt the final blow to cylinders, although Edison's offerings hung on until 1929. After "Gallagher and Shean," the popularity of flat discs was so overwhelming that most record companies stopped recording new masters required to make cylinders. Edison's company, mainly marketed through Sears & Roebuck, began mastering cylinders off of discs. Ironically, this resulted in discs actually having better fidelity than their cylinder copies.

There were many more double-sided hits in the 1920s, but none with the significance of "Gallagher and Shean."

One of the next highly notable double-sided hits came out in 1930 for the Leo Reisman Orchestra, “I Love Louisa” and “New Sun in the Sky.” These smash hits were significant in that they marked the ascent of Reisman's lead vocalist, dancer Fred Astaire. Astaire would become the most important artist of the 1930s, before Bing Crosby assumed the role later in the decade. Astaire had another major double-sided hit in April 1934 with "Flying Down to Rio" and “Music Makes Me.”

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featured performance

Here's your chance to relive the roaring 20's, a video of an original Diamond Disc playing "Gallagher and Shean" on an Edison S-19. Even the Edison company knew when it was beat, and eventually offered a line of "flat disc" players. This is just one side of the record; although it is only half the song, the orchestra intentionally ended side one with a flourish which makes it sound like the conclusion. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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Although Astaire's star burned brightly well into the 1950s, Crosby eclipsed Astaire as America's top vocalist some time around 1936-1937. Typical of his double-sided hits came in 1939, with "A" side "Ciribiribin" and "B" side "Yodelin' Jive." Oddly enough, the flip side eventually charted higher than the first! Crosby and The Andrews Sisters seemed to have a golden touch right through the 1940s, notching hit after hit, quite a few of which were double-sided.

Working with Crosby, the Andrews Sisters scored in 1943 with "Pistol Packin' Mama," and then listeners turned the record over and made "Vict'ry Polka" a hit. A year later the Crosby/Andrews combination hit the top of the charts with "(There'll Be A) Hot Time in the Town of Berlin (When the Yanks Go Marching In)" and another number one with the B side, "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)."

One artist who challenged Crosby for chart supremacy during the 1940s was Perry Como, and although he would go on to be universally beloved, the new "Mr. C" never quite achieved the stellar sales nor the chart domination "Der Bingle" enjoyed. But at times in the late 1940s, it seemed as if he might. One example was 1947's "Chi-Baba Chi Baba (My Bambino Go To Sleep)" which peaked at #1. DJs looking for more Como songs flipped the disc and made "When You Were Sweet 16" a "B" side that reached #2 on the charts. If not for Como's massive appeal, "When You Were Sweet 16" would likely have been a typical forgotten flip side. The song wasn't given much thought, as it was laid down in just one take in RCA Victor Studio #2 in New York.

Earlier in the decade, Frank Sinatra gave Crosby some competition, and certainly outscored Der Bingle with the "Bobby Soxers." Beginning with the single "Love Lies" (chart high of #17) / "The Call Of The Canyon" (peaked at #14), Sinatra had 23 double sided hits from 1940-1949. None of these charted as well as the double sided hits Como had, Frank's strongest double-sider was "Oh! What It Seemed to Be" (#1) back with "Day by Day" (#5) in 1946. Typically Frank would put one tune at #8, while the flip side would crack the top 20, but all in all it seems that other than Crosby, Sinatra had the most twin hits. By 1949 Sinatra had begun to falter a bit, and scored just one double-sided hit in 1949, and one in 1950. At that point they stopped until 1953 when his career got a bump from his movie roles, and incidentally he moved to the Capitol label.

Como was a close third after Sinatra and Crosby. As stated above, the "B" sides of his double-sided hits tended to have more punch than Sinatra's. Number-ones such as "Prisoner of Love" and "Till the End of Time" caused mediocre flip sides such as "That Feeling in the Moonlight" and "All Through the Day" to both roar into the top ten. Perry's third #1, "Surrender" in 1946 even saw a lackluster "B" side retread of a 1926 song crack the top 20. When his career rolled steadily into the 1950s, Como continued to nail down double-sided hits. In 1956 "More" (4) / "Glendora" (6) were typical of Mr. C in mid 1950s form. The pinnacle was 1957's #1 "Catch a Falling Star," backed with "Magic Moments," which soared to #4 on its own merits.

Now we'll return to Johnny Mercer.

Mercer, who never met a song he didn't like, wasn't a fan of throwaway "B" sides. As a result Capitol had a history of releasing decent "B" side well into the 1960s. Where other labels would downplay the flip side of a single, Capitol often presented both songs as winners. This faded out after the mid 1960s, but not before the Beatles and to a lesser extent the Beach Boys had a number of double-sided hits on Capitol's 1960s-era "swirl" label.

As for Sinatra, his move to Capitol only resulted in one chart-topper, "Learnin the Blues" in 1955. Often looked at as the low point in his career, his 8-year contract at "the tower" produced no less than 10 double-sided hits.

The Capitol Tower was known as "The House that Nat Built," of course for Nat "King" Cole, the Capitol artist who really launched the label during the 1950s. Cole had a string of double-sided hits, among them were 1955's "A Blossom Fell" / "If I May", both of which peaked at #2. One of Cole's double-sided hits, "Nature Boy," was oddly enough a double-sided hit also for Dick Haymes! Haymes' version peaked at a respectable #16, while the flip side, "You Can't Be True, Dear," actually broke into the top ten.

"You Can't Be True, Dear" just might be the ultimate double-sided hit maker. Virtually anything that touched it turned to gold. As mentioned immediately above, it was part of a double header for Dick Haymes. A cover version recorded at Capitol by a group called The Sportsmen marched up the charts to #11. For whatever reason DJs couldn't get enough of the Sportsmen, so they turned the record over and made a mundane version of "Toolie Oolie Oolie" a hit as well. Management at Columbia must've been psychic. They rushed out a version of "You Can't Be True, Dear" by an act called The Marlin Sisters, and by coincidence had them record "Toolie Oolie Oolie" for the "B" side. You probably guessed already that both sides of that disc also marched up the charts. Now the biggest version of "You Can't be True Dear" was the #1 hit for bandleader Ken Griffin in 1948, featuring a vocal by Jerry Wayne. It's probably the only version of the song that didn't have a "B" side to chart!

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, focusing on pop artists who shifted to country and vice-versa, please click here.