Only In America: 50 Years Later, A Drifters Song Has Its Day

This past spring’s Smithsonian Week in Long Beach was themed in part around 1950s rock ’n’ roll and doo wop. Had Smithsonian and the city waited one more year to feature this topic, a segment might have been devoted to April of 1963, when a popular R&B group recorded a song containing the lyric “Only in America can a kid without a cent get a break and maybe grow up to be president.” The song, with its gentle Latin rolling beat and percussion thump, could have been the next chart hit for the Drifters if Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler hadn’t pulled the recording. Wexler said that, in the light of race relations of that time, it would be unfeeling, unfair and unfitting to have a black group release a song about America being the land of opportunity and suggest that an African-American could become its president.

According to a representative from the office of songwriting husband-and-wife team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, “Only in America” began as a biting antiracist composition with the lines “Only in America, land of opportunity, can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me,” and “Only in America, where they preach the Golden Rule, will they start to march when my kids want to go to school.” Atlantic Records convinced Mann and Weil that in the reality of those times (and most likely in the consideration of record sales and turning profits), the song wouldn’t get much, if any, airplay, and that a rewrite was necessary. Another prolific writing duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, worked with Mann and Weil to write a more patriotic version, which the Drifters recorded. When Wexler made his decision, it was given to Jay and the Americans, who had a hit with it; it reached #25 on the charts.

“They recorded the song on top of [the Drifters’ version],” said Paul Kahley, manager of Charlie Thomas, who recorded with the Drifters during the time that Ben E. King sang with them and for several years after. “Wexler’s decision was about politics, but I think that it would have been a great song to put out even at that time.”

Somewhat ironically, Jay and the Americans consisted of mostly of Jewish boys, but although a presidency was out of reach for them at that time as well, the distance wasn’t anywhere near as far as it was for African-Americans. In 1996, former Jay and the Americans member Kenny Vance provided Rhino with an acetate of the Drifters’ version for its first release on the Rockin’ and Driftin’ box set, now no longer in release.

Charlie Thomas wasn’t available to comment because he was at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Sharon, Pennsylvania during the writing of this article, but Kahley commented that Obama might want to hire Thomas’s Drifters to sing at the inauguration ceremony. (Ben E. King could come along later to sing “Stand by Me” when President Obama starts dealing with the bollixed mess he inherited.)

I found myself humming “Only in America” on the way to the Belmont Shore church where I vote and considered it an appropriate hymn. I quit humming when I reached the 100-foot sign near the polls. Jerry Wexler passed away early this year and didn’t live to eat his words, but I imagine that he would have done so with gusto and smacked his lips afterward. And America has superseded the conditions prevalent 50 years ago and has elected to the presidency a brilliant, capable, visionary human being who just happens to be black.

To hear a free version of the Drifters’ “Only in America,” click here. The song is available on used copies Rockin’ and Driftin’ and a number of subsequent collections. They’re available online, or if you want to be cool and support local independent business, Fingerprints on Second Street will order one of the collections still being pressed and offer a discount.

– By Kate Karp

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