Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: I have two copies of "Sh-Boom," both on the same label, with the same numbers (Cat 45-104). But one credits "The Chords," and has "Cross Over the Bridge" on the B-side, and the other credits "The Chordcats," and has "Little Maiden" on side two. There is also no clue as to which came first. What's the story?
—Robin Drexel, Hartford, Conn.

DEAR ROBIN: It definitely is unusual, and you have only two-thirds of the "Sh-Boom" story. There is one more piece to this enigma that varies from those two singles.

The story begins in April 1954, when New York based Atlantic Records introduced a new subsidiary label, Cat Recording Corp. The name had nothing to do with felines; it was inspired by teenagers who called certain R&B teener tunes as "cat songs." "Sh-Boom" was an emblematic cat song.

In mid-April, display ads ran in Billboard and Cash Box for the first four Cat singles, plugging the A and B-sides of each:

Cat 101 - Mike Gordon and the El Tempos: "Why Don't You Do Right"/"You Got to Give"
Cat 102 - "Little" Sylvia Vanderpool: "Fine Love"/"Speedy Life"
Cat 103 - Jimmy Lewis: "Broke My Heart Again"/"Last Night"
Cat 104 - The Chords: "Cross Over the Bridge"/"Sh-Boom"

Of this batch, only the Chords appeared on a national chart, but that would not be for two months. Not bad for two brothers and three friends — Carl Feaster, Claude Feaster, James Keyes, Floyd McRae, and James Edwards — who never worked professionally before signing with Atlantic/Cat.

Eventually, Sylvia Vanderpool would achieve more success than anyone in the Cat stable. In 1957, she and Mickey Baker teamed as Mickey & Sylvia, and reached No. 1 with "Love Is Strange" (Groove 0175), and No. 8 with "There Oughta Be a Law" (Vik 0267). Groove and Vik were subsidiaries of RCA Victor.

In 1973, recording as "Sylvia," she earned a Gold Record for her No. 1 hit, "Pillow Talk" (Vibration 521). Over the next 10 years, Sylvia cranked out 11 more R&B chart hits.

Jimmy Lewis didn't fare nearly as well as Sylvia, but in 1969 he and Ray Charles put a duet in the Top 25, titled "If It Wasn't for Bad Luck" (ABC 11170).

We know of no other U.S. releases by Mike Gordon and the El Tempos.

As for Cat 104, a Cash Box review (April 24, 1954) listed the sides according to Atlantic/Cat's numbering, awarding "Cross Over the Bridge" a "B" rating, but a "B+" to "Sh-Boom," describing it as "a quick beat bouncer with an exciting tempo and infectious delivery. Group has a socko sound that should mean a big disk future."

Their editors also made "Sh-Boom," still regarded as the B-side, one of their "Rhythm 'N' Blues Best Bets," adding "it's getting a strong reaction and building . . . it looks like a solid winner."

All this activity involved the first issue, with "Cross Over the Bridge" as the designated A-side, though we find no mention of that side being on anyone's survey, or playlist.

With "Sh-Boom" getting glowing reviews from the trades, the dee jays, and juke box operators, the cats at Cat caved in. Their display ads in early May highlighted "Sh-Boom" in huge letters, and "Cross Over the Bridge" in tiny print. Meanwhile, "Sh-Boom" was already No. 1 in Los Angeles.

In the first week of June, Atlantic/Cat announced in print that "Cross Over the Bridge" was being replaced with "Little Maiden."

Once it was obvious that "Sh-Boom" would be a huge seller, having "Cross Over the Bridge" on the flip side, meant those writers — Bennie Benjamin and George Weiss — would receive the same royalties as the writers of "Sh-Boom." The same goes for publishers. Since the hit side was written by the Chords (Feaster, Feaster, Keyes, McRae, and Edwards) who also wrote "Little Maiden," it became the new B-side.

Though "Little Maiden" didn't get played, the in-house earnings still doubled on the Cat single. Besides the loot from their recording, the Crew-Cuts' pop market cover of "Sh-Boom" sold a million copies (Mercury 70404), further fattening the fortunes of the five Chords, and Progressive Publishing (BMI).

There were four other covers, each titled "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)," by the Billy Williams Quartet (Coral 61212), Bobby Williamson (RCA Victor 5799), Leon McAuliffe & His Western Swing Band (Columbia 21283), and a ghost record by Barry Frank & the Four Bells (Bell 1051). None charted, but a "Sh-Boom" parody by Stan Freberg with the Toads (Capitol 2929) did reach the Top 15.

The second pressing, with "Little Maiden," is the one that topped all the R&B charts in the summer of '54, even reaching No. 1 on the Cash Box Top 50 Pop Singles.

The third pressing of "Sh-Boom" came out in October, just as the song was dropping off the charts after a prosperous run. But there was only one reason for this single, as briefly explained in Billboard's Nov. 6th issue: "Atlantic/Cat Records has changed the name of the Chords, the "Sh-Boom" boys, to the Chordcats. It seems there is another group that had the name first."

Whoever "had the name first" is a mystery to me. What we do know is there were no other Chords on any music chart before "Sh-Boom." Moreover, no other Chords even made a record before 1958, when a Philadelphia group had "Don't Be a Jumpin' Jack"/"Tears in Your Eyes" (Casino 451).

IZ ZAT SO? In keeping with Atlantic/Cat's crazy name game, "Zippity Zum (I'm in Love)" (Cat 109), the follow up to "Sh-Boom," returned to crediting the group as the Chords, seemingly indicating any legal spats over the name were resolved .

Or not . . . because on second pressings, released just a few weeks later, "Zippity Zum (I'm in Love)" again credits the Chordcats.

Their next record, "A Girl to Love" (Cat 112), also credits the Chordcats, but the next four singles, on four different labels, the boys became the Sh-Booms. Now that's a name no one else would dare use:

1955: "Could It Be"/"Pretty Wild" (Cat 117)
1957: "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"/"Lu Lu" (Vik 0295)
1960: "Blue Moon"/"Short Skirts" (Atlantic 2074)
1961: "Sh-Boom"/"Little Maiden" (Atco 6213)

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