The Early Years (1950-1955)
Randolph C. Wood, born in 1918 in McMinnville, Tennessee, was the force behind Dot Records. After serving in the Army in World War II, Wood settled in Gallatin, Tennessee, a small town near Nashville. He started an electrical appliance store called Randy's, and as an afterthought, started carrying records in 1947. At first, he stocked classical music and popular music of the day, but they rarely sold any copies at all. Those that came into the store looking for records were asking for the records by rhythm and blues artists like Joe Liggins, Roosevelt Sykes, or Cecil Gant, records that were being played on WLAC in Nashville. Wood discovered that these records were available, but only in limited quantities, and not in his area. He started a 78rpm mail-order business in 1948 by placing a short advertisement with "Hoss" Allen and Gene Nobles on WLAC, and the orders poured in. By 1950, the mail order business had swamped his electrical appliance sales. He was stocking 20,000 titles, and the store had become "Randy's Record Shop." He and Gene Nobles started a business relationship which resulted in Wood's own label, Randy's, on which he put out a few records like "Gene Nobles' Boogie" by Richard Armstrong, and the Record Shop Special label, which recorded Cecil Gant. Basically, these were just an extension of the record store. Then came Dot.
When Wood also became part owner of a local daylight-only radio station, he and Nobles decided to form a "real" record label with much wider distribution, and record local artists in the radio station after hours. One of the first artists he recorded was a young man who packed records for him at the store, Johnny Maddox. Maddox and his honky tonk piano style graced Dot Records for almost twenty years. Early singles show he also recorded gospel artists like the Fairfield 4 ("Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," Dot 1003), In addition to the Fairfield 4, the Gateway Quartet, the Golden Voice Trio, Rosa Shaw, Joe Warren, the Singing Stars, and the Brewsteraires. And of course, there were rhythm and blues artists.
One of the first R&B groups he recorded was a combo called the Griffin Brothers, which featured Margie Day and Tommy Brown. Five of his early Griffin Brothers recordings made the Billboard R&B top- 10 in 1950-51. The first three (Dot 1010, 1019, and 1060) were issued on 78 rpm records only, while the last two (Dot 1070, 1071) were also issued on 45 rpm. The biggest of these hits was "Weepin' & Cryin'" (Dot 1071), which made #1 on the Rhythm and Blues charts in early 1951.
Other early R&B artists on Dot included Ivory Joe Hunter, Joe Liggins, the Four Dots, the Big Three Trio, Brownie McGhee, Shorty Long, and the Counts. The Counts racked up a top-10 R&B hit in the spring of 1954 with "Darling Dear" (Dot 1188), but their followup failed to chart. The Counts were a group of five black teenagers from Indianapolis (Robert Wesley, Robert Penik, James Lee, lead singer Chester Brown, and Robert Young).
In addition to R&B and gospel, early singles included country artists Big Jeff, Mac Wiseman, Bob Lamm, Andy Wilson, Tommy Jackson, Jam Up & Honey, the Tennessee Drifters, Lonzo and Oscar, and Jimmy Newman. Mac Wiseman, an ex-deejay from Virginia, was one of the first artists for Dot, signing in 1951. His records sold well enough for him to remain employed, and in 1955 he had the first of his two top-10 country records for Dot, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (Dot 1240, #10). He had a top-5 country record in 1959 with "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" (Dot 15946). After that he recorded for several labels, and although he placed seven other sides on the country charts between 1963 and 1979, didn't reach the top 10 again. Dot has repackaged his early material in reissue albums many times over the years.
Jimmy "C." Newman had been recording since 1946, and was also an early artist for Dot. Even though his middle name is Yeve, he used "C." for "Cajun" in his stage name. He broke into the country charts with "Cry, Cry, Darling" (Dot 1195), which made #4 in 1954. A half-dozen additional country hits (5 of them top-10 and the other #13) over the next three years entitled Newman to wear the mantle of Dot's legitimate country star. He left for the MGM label in 1958, and placed country hits on the charts for the next dozen years for MGM and Decca.
Randy Wood got his first pop chart hit with a white vocal group called the Hilltoppers, lead by songwriter- musician Billy Vaughn and lead singer Jimmy Sacca. The others in the group were Don McGuire and Seymour Spiegelman. The four were students at Western Kentucky College in Bowling Green, and they took their name from the college's basketball team. They recorded a song called "Trying", and Bill Stamps, a local disc jockey, sent the song to Randy Wood. Wood signed them to Dot and re-recorded the song, which was issued as Dot 15018 in the summer of 1952. It rose slowly in the charts until it was given a big boost by an appearance on the Ed Sullivan national TV show. It eventually reached #7 on the national pop charts. Their biggest hit was "P.S. I Love You" in 1953, which made #4, but they scored eight other sides on the top 20 between 1952 and 1954. During their appearance on Ed Sullivan, they wore college sweaters and caps with a big "W" on them, and it became their trademark for years.
Although Billy Vaughn was a member of the Hilltoppers for the first few years, his musical tastes ran toward orchestral arrangements more than vocal quartets. He tried a single as a solo artist in late 1954, a remake of an old tune called "Melody of Love" that Wayne King had recorded for Victor in 1940 (Victor 26695). When it became a #2 smash in early 1955, Vaughn decided that his future was as an orchestra leader, and he left the Hilltoppers to became the musical director for Dot, and to start a career as an orchestra leader with many more chart hits. He also was the leader of the orchestra that backed many of the other Dot pop acts, such as Pat Boone, Gale Storm, the Fontane Sisters, and others. He charted an astonishing 36 albums with his orchestra from 1958 to 1970.
The Cover Records, 1955-1957
By 1955, Randy Wood was alert to the growing demand for rhythm and blues music from white listeners and was one of the prime movers in making "cover records". During the early 1950s, music played on the radio was quite compartmentalized (much as it is today), and unlike the rock and roll years of 1956- 1970 when "top 40" stations played all genres of music. There were Popular music stations ("pop" stations), which limited their airplay mostly to white artists such as Jo Stafford, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, etc. There were country stations, which played hits by Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Johnny & Jack, Webb Pierce, and the like. To round out the big three, there were R&B stations (as WLAC), devoted to records by the Royals, Drifters, Dominoes, Ruth Brown, and other artists, mostly black. Other genres included gospel, farm-related news, polka shows, and other specialties, but these latter genres usually wound up sharing time on small stations, rarely being popular enough to command the programming of a radio station by themselves. The big three formats, though, were quite popular... and totally isolated from one another. If a great song appeared on the country stations, those listening to pop or R&B stations would never hear it.
The "cover record" was an attempt by artists in one of these big three genres to record a big hit in another genre for their own format, thus "covering" the song, or bringing it to their own audience. Pop hits like Georgia Gibbs' "Seven Lonely Days" was "covered" for the R&B market by the Crows, for instance. Pop singer Jo Stafford "covered" Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," and country artists Johnny & Jack covered the pop group Four Knights' hit "(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely." Before 1955 or so, "cover records" were an accepted part of the business and little thought was given to it. By 1955, with the breakthrough of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino onto the pop charts, and the radio shows of Alan Freed playing R&B records for audiences that were mostly white youngsters, a big demand for R&B records (an outgrowth of the phenomenon that Randy Wood had observed back in 1947) caused a big change in the music industry.
This change was not without acrimony. The pop stations, which were programming for predominately white audiences, considered their music much more "refined" than the "hillbilly" country and western or the "sexually-oriented" rhythm and blues music, and resisted playing any of it. Instead, they programmed white cover versions of the hits, such as those offered by singers like Dot's Pat Boone. Since the pop audience was quite large, these artists sold many more records than their counterparts in the other fields. This would not have been a problem if the public had been given a chance to hear the R&B or country records in their original form and spend their dollars on a real choice, but these original records were shut out of the mainstream airwaves. The controversial era of the cover record, approximately 1955-1957, came to a crashing end when pop stations lost their audiences to a new type of format, "Top 40," which played all the types and genres of music, as long as it was selling well. Pop stations drifted into the 1960s with vastly reduced audiences, and spent the next decades as "Easy Listening" and "Adult Contemporary" stations.
Back in 1955, when Randy Wood was trying to get his records played on the radio, he had been recording music of all genres. But he was shrewd enough to realize that making pop cover records could be the ticket to the game that was then being played in radio. He signed a clean-cut college crooner named Pat Boone, and had him sing cover versions of rhythm and blues records. Boone was not eager to sing these songs, which he considered "lowbrow," but he did his best. In some cases, he revised the songs with more "acceptable" or "refined" lyrics when he recorded them. His recordings smothered the sales of the original recordings including the Charms' "Two Hearts," Fats Domino's "Ain't It a Shame" (which Boone changed to the slightly more grammatically correct "Ain't That a Shame," although he admittedly suggested "Isn't It a Shame"), the Five Keys' "Gee Whittakers!," Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally," the El Dorados' "At My Front Door," and Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind." All of these records were released within about a one-year period from early spring of 1955 to late spring of 1956, after which Boone stopped this practice in favor of standard ballads, becoming a crooner in the Bing Crosby/Perry Como mold. But because he was so successful (and because he was so obviously ill at ease in the uptempo performances), Boone became the Poster Boy for the cover record practice and all its ills. Even today, Boone is still remembered as the Cover Record King, despite over 50 other records he charted and dozens of other artists who were doing the same thing.
Starting in 1957, Boone had a very successful career singing teen oriented songs such as "Don't Forbid Me", "April Love" and "Love Letters in the Sand". Pat Boone was with Randy Wood's Dot Records for many years, charting over 60 hits for Dot, even as late as 1968. In fact, it was only after Randy Wood left Dot to form Ranwood Records that Boone left the label and moved on.
In fact, one of the most prominent aspects of Dot Records was the loyalty of its artists. Many artists, like Johnny Maddox, Pat Boone, Billy Vaughn, the Fontane Sisters, and Lawrence Welk, spent decades with Dot. One of the reasons for this loyalty was that Randy Wood had a reputation for being "fair minded." None of the scandals of the late 1950s - - the payola, the failure to pay royalties on records sold - - touched Dot Records. Randy Wood told the 1959 Congressional investigation into payola that his books were open.
Another mid-1950s group on Dot that was very successful with cover songs was the Fontane Sisters (Marge, Bea, and Geri Rosse). They were three sisters from Milford, New Jersey, who had been a background vocal group for Perry Como since the late 1940s. They had a gold record with "Hearts of Stone" in 1955. The original of "Hearts of Stone" was by the Jewels (R&B 1301, 1954), which was itself covered by Otis Williams and the Charms (DeLuxe 6062, late 1954). The Fontane Sisters also had hits with the Teen Queens' "Eddie My Love," the Drifters' "Adorable," the Marigolds' "Rollin' Stone," and Fats Domino's "Please Don't Leave Me," all in the 1955-1956 cover record period. In 1956-1958, they put out a song with Pat Boone called "Voices," along with competing versions of Jimmy Bowen's "I'm Stickin' With You," the Tarriers' "Banana Boat Song," and Art & Dottie Todd's "Chanson D'Amour." Although they were fine singers, the lack of original material eventually led to their decline in the charts.
Another artist known for cover records was Snooky Lanson (Roy Landman, b. 1914 in Memphis). If for artists like Pat Boone and the Fontane Sisters, covering R&B records was something new, it was a natural for Lanson, who had been singing other artists' songs on Your Hit Parade since 1950. Along with Dorothy Collins, Gisele MacKenzie, Russel Arms, and Raymond Scott & The Lucky Strike Orchestra, Lanson would appear on television each week to count down the top seven tunes of the week (along with a "Lucky Strike Extra" or two). His two chart entries for Dot were both cover records, "Why Don't You Write Me" from the Jacks (RPM 428) and "It's Almost Tomorrow," from the Dream Weavers (Decca 29683), whose members included the song's authors, Gene Adkinson and Wade Buff. He also had a cover of "Seven Days" which didn't chart.
Wood signed actress Gale Storm to a recording contract in 1955. Gale was the popular lead in the TV series "My Little Margie" starting in 1952. Wood recorded her singing "I Hear You Knockin'" and it became a #2 national hit (the song was a cover of the original by Smiley Lewis). She had a very successful singing career on Dot covering many other songs including "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." Her hit record of "Ivory Tower" in the spring of 1956 (Dot 15458) was not a cover record, but a Tin Pan Alley tune which was also simultaneously snapped up by Cathy Carr (Fraternity 734) and Otis Williams & His Charms (DeLuxe 6093), who both had their own versions of the song chart. Although Storm's version made #6, Carr won the three way race with a #2 showing, while the Charms checked in at #11 pop and #5 R&B.
Other cover records on Dot during this period included the Hilltoppers' "Only You" (Dot 15423), "Ka- Ding-Dong" (Dot 15489), and "Marianne" (Dot 15537), Nick Todd's "Plaything" (Dot 14643) and "At The Hop" (Dot 15675), and Jim Lowe's "Blue Suede Shoes" (Dot 15456) and "Maybelline" (Dot 15407).
Missourian Jim Lowe was working in Chicago as a disc jockey, trying to find his niche in music, in 1954. That year, he was signed to Chicago's Mercury label, and wrote and recorded country and western material. One of his songs was the original version of the self-penned "Gambler's Guitar." The flip side of "Gambler's Guitar" was a wonderful version of the old standard, "The Martins and the Coys," done in a delightful country style. Both received airplay in Chicago, but "Gambler's Guitar" was covered by established singer Rusty Draper, making #6 and relegating Lowe's original to a #26 showing. Cover records were one thing, but Draper was on Lowe's own label, Mercury! Lowe soon moved to New York to continue his radio career, and switched to Dot Records in 1955. His first successful attempt with Dot was the novelty "Close the Door (They're Coming in the Windows)," a vaguely obnoxious tune if only because once heard, it absolutely could not be eradicated from the mind ("Those UH-uh-UH-uh, UH-uh- UH-uh, are everywhere!"). A few months later, he recorded another novelty, "Green Door," in a Greenwich Village apartment. This time, it was pure gold, rising to #1. After a few more moderate hits for Dot, Lowe concentrated on his radio career. Dot released two albums by Jim Lowe.
In late 1956, Wood signed Tab Hunter, a popular young Warner Brothers actor, to his label. Chicago disc jockey Howard Miller suggested to Wood that he might want to sign Hunter, who was enormously popular and had just packed a stage show in Chicago with screaming girls. Wood asked if Hunter could sing, but Miller replied, "I don't know, it doesn't matter, I guess." Tab Hunter was the first to tell Randy Wood, "I can't sing, I really can't." Wood had recently heard Sonny James' remake of a Ric Cartey song, "Young Love," and told producer Milt Rogers to teach Hunter to sing the song and not to stop rehearsing until he could sing it. The record rocketed to #1 nationally, pushing out Sonny James' version, and stayed on the pop charts for six months. When Hunter followed up with "Ninety-Nine Ways," Warner Brothers went ballistic. WB wanted to cry foul, that Paramount Pictures was making money off their star, but Warner Brothers didn't have a record label, so it was tough to convince anyone with this argument. But seeing the huge sales potential, they started the Warner Brothers label primarily to get Hunter's recordings back into the fold. Tab Hunter only stayed with Dot for a few but memorable months, and by early 1958 he was recording for the new Warner Brothers Records. Dot finally got around to issuing an album by Tab Hunter in 1961, titled "Young Love" (DLP- 3370).
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Thanks to Larry Davis.