In numerous articles published on PopularSong.org we’ve discussed the phenomenon of multiple hit versions of the same song, a common thing in the 1940s and early 1950s. The practice was the result of record companies that relied on their artists appearing on radio shows, and record buyers who would rush out to purchase the version they’d heard. That was how Bing Crosby would hit #7 with a song released by Decca, Perry Como would hit #12 with the same song on RCA, and Dick Haymes would hit #22 on Capitol. Other artists would sell versions of the same song in local markets on regional labels. These are called “competing singles.”
This practice died out as radio gave way to television. If Eddie Fisher performed a song on a major television program, female record buyers had to have his version; no substitutes for Eddie! But this also gave rise to a new type of cover record, the phenomenon of milky-white artists covering scandalous black or hickish country originals. This had happened for many years, but not to the extent it did in the mid to late 1950s. These are called “originals and covers.”
This “Forgotten Gem” is often lumped into one of these two categories, but really it is neither. “Singing the Blues” was a massive hit for which two “market covers” became hits. In other words, the song was popular enough that “cover” versions were recorded for market segments that might not otherwise purchase Guy Mitchell’s. Two of them, in fact, were on the same record label.
In 1956 American record buyers were an uncertain lot; rock and roll was coming into its own, but artists like the Perry Comos and the Doris Days were still charting right along with the Elvis Presleys and Fats Dominos. Bill Haley would have the top spot one day, the Ames Brothers would be there the next. Sprinkle a few hits by Jimmy Dorsey and Prez Prado, toss in Terry Gilkeyson, and you get the idea. Anything and everything could sell.
The timing was perfect for a song written by Melvin Endsley called “Singing the Blues,” not to be confused with an earlier song by Frankie Laine. Endsley was something of a rockabilly singer who had a knack for writing catchy songs. His tunes were thumpy, bluesy, and just rock and roll enough to sell to a broad audience (“I Like Your Kind of Love” hit #8 for Andy Williams), but Endsley had no real success as a performer. “Singing the Blues” was obviously his best composition, as the numbers bear out.
Guy Mitchell was a middle-of-the-road artist who was probably the closest thing to a “rock and roller” prior to Elvis. Considering that he worked for Mitch Miller at Columbia, he wasn’t much of a rocker. In any case, his voice and his styling weren’t quite up to the level of a Fisher or a Sinatra; he had to reach for some notes, missed others, and was a little more simplistic in his phrasing. For these reasons, some people felt that the new rock and rollers — who weren’t the greatest vocalists — sounded a bit like Guy Mitchell. And Guy Mitchell sounded like them.
Long story short, when Guy Mitchell recorded a semi-rock and roll song written by a rockabilly singer, it sounded ok to teenage record buyers, so they bought it. But Guy Mitchell was indeed a popular vocalist, so parents bought the record as well. It hit a groove, and kept on selling, hitting the top spot in December, 1956, and remaining there for nine straight weeks.
It’s interesting to note that the song it knocked out of the top spot was Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” Considering the lasting popularity of that tune, and how “Singing the Blues” has become less remembered, you may be surprised to learn that “Tender” was only at the top spot for five weeks. At the time, Mitchell’s song was bigger than Presley’s.
Another of Columbia’s artists recorded the song at the same time, but not a competing version. Marty Robbins, a young vocalist from Arizona — and a far superior singer to Mitchell — recorded “Singing the Blues” for a country audience. This version rocketed to the top of the country charts and established Robbins as a bonafide hitmaker. His version was so good that it vaulted up the pop charts as well, peaking at #17 while Mitchell was lodged at #1.
Meanwhile, a British rock pioneer named Tommy Steele recorded the song for record buyers across the pond. His version of “Singing the Blues” peaked at #1 on the British pop charts in February, 1957. It also began a ride up the U.S. charts, but by then the song was nearing the end of its run and Steele’s release never made much noise stateside.
Mitchell followed up with a top ten song called “Rock-A Billy,” and then had his last big hit in 1959 with “Heartaches By the Number,” which peaked at #1. Robbins went on to become one of the biggest country stars of all time. Steele had a few more hit records, and then went on to star in movies and on stage. Today he is regarded as sort of the father of British rock and roll.