Song of the Day: Jay and the Americans’ “Only in America”

by M.C. Antil on December 2, 2010

M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day — December 2, 2010
A daily snapshot of songs you might not know…but should.

Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Cynthia Weil dreamed of one day becoming a triple-threat actor, singer and dancer.  But while still in her teens, she discovered her real talent was writing lyrics and soon landed a job as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist in the publishing company headed by the legendary Broadway taskmaster Frank Loesser. (Tin Pan Alley being the umbrella name given to the dozens of music publishing and production companies that once operated in the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway.)

But by the late 1950’s, thanks in large part to shifting musical tastes and young, innovative producers and recording execs like Don Kirshner and Al Nevins, the face of American recording industry was starting to radically change.  The Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths of the Brill Building’s heyday — people responsible for so many of the chestnuts in the Great American Songbook — were slowly but surely being phased out of mainstream pop culture, replaced by a new generation of songwriters, many of whom were marrying the sounds and rhythms of “race records” to the realities of post-war American life.

The result was a new type of music, some started calling “rock and roll.”

Weil eventually went to work for Kirshner and Nevins’ company, Aldon Publishing, which had set up shop in the Brill Building annex, just a half a block uptown and around the corner from the original home of Tin Pan Alley.

That’s where Weil met another young songwriter named Barry Mann.  Mann, a Brooklyn kid who had a clear talent for melody, had written a few hit songs for other artists and would go on to score one of his own (the gently-mocking novelty hit, “Who Put the Bomp?”). In very short order Mann and Weil became, first professional partners, then life ones.

And by the early Sixties they had emerged as one of three husband-and-wife songwriting teams churning out hits in the original Brill Building and its kissin’ cousin; the others being Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich and Gerry Goffin & Carole King.

Social Awakening
Early in 1962, Goffin and King wrote a dance tune for their 16-year old babysitter, Eva Boyd, called “The Loco-Motion.”  Fueled by a powerful, driving rhythm, the song was a huge hit and transformed Little Eva from a baby sitter and part-time house cleaner into a pop star.

But later Goffin and King discovered that Boyd was regularly being beaten up by her boyfriend, and would often show up for work battered and bruised.  They asked her why she put up with the abuse, and she told them that when her boyfriend beat her it proved he loved her.

They were appalled and immediately wrote a song titled, “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)”, which the Crystals recorded under Phil Spector’s firm hand, watchful eye and golden ear.  Goffin and King hoped the irony of the song would raise awareness of domestic abuse.  But the irony was ultimately lost on too many listeners and the record came off as something of a back-handed endorsement. Following a storm of protest in many markets the song found itself dropped from radio station playlists like the proverbial hot potato.

A few weeks prior, Weil had also written lyrics for a very different kind of pop ballad.  She and Mann called it “Uptown.”  The song, was also recorded by the Crystals, painted a picture of young love light years away from the love many other composers continued to write about.

The world Weil created in “Uptown” was urban without being the least bit urbane, and it was a world populated, not by white people living in relative middle-class comfort, but by city-dwellers living in working-class despair; most of them, it would seem, people of color.

What’s more, it spoke not of the dreams of some better world that might exist out there, but of the harsh realities of life as it truly was:

He gets up each mornin’ and he goes downtown
Where everyone’s his boss and he’s lost in an angry land.
He’s a little man.

But then he comes uptown each evening to my tenement,
Uptown where folks don’t have to pay much rent.
And when he’s there with me,
He can see that he’s everything.

Then he’s tall.
He don’t crawl.
He’s a king.

Shortly thereafter, Weil and Mann followed “Uptown” with “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” a song once again recorded by the Crystals (though this time with Darlene Love singing lead).  Like “Uptown”, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” put an extremely fine point on romance in the bricks, and its sentiments were expressed in an urban vernacular one didn’t normally hear in a love song:

He don’t hang diamonds ’round my neck,
All he’s got’s an unemployment check.
He sure ain’t the boy I been dreamin’ of,
But he’s sure the boy I love.

Though “He Hit Me” never got any airplay to speak of, and “Uptown” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” failed to crack the Top Ten, each was critically important in that it would help turn 1962 into a landmark year for the Brill Building, if not all of pop music.

Because with the release of those three songs, pop lyricists everywhere started mining the kind of real-life social situations American kids found themselves in, and writing socially relevant, sometimes danceable pop songs that when fully produced turned those real-life situations into dramatic, even operatic, two and three-minute teenage opuses.

On Broadway
The following spring Weil wrote the lyrics to another new song, something she called “On Broadway.”  It might have been more than just a bit autobiographical, as its central character was a young girl dreaming of becoming a big Broadway star.

Producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, based in the original Brill Building, were set to go into the studio with the Drifters the following day and were still one song short of an album.  When they asked around to see if anyone had an original song to fill out their recording session, Mann and Weil walked down the street and played for them an unadorned version of “On Broadway.”

Leiber and Stoller thought the song had potential, but wanted to rework it for a male voice, specifically the Drifters’ Rudy Lewis.  So that night, the four songwriters got together and began fine tuning.  When they finished their all-night session, what had once been an uptempo pop song of wide-eyed optimism sung by a young, wanna-be ingénue turned into a far more subdued, and slightly bluesier lament by a male singer/guitar player who’d been chasing the dream for a while.

The resulting lyric, tempo and melody tweaks, along with profound sense of hope the singer still maintained despite his lack of success, proved to be magic and “On Broadway” — complete with a guitar solo by a young Phil Spector — became one of the most memorable two and a half minutes in the history of pop music.

The resulting lyric, melody and tempo tweaks proved to be magic and “On Broadway” became one of the most memorable two and a half minutes in the history of pop music.

A few weeks later, Weil wrote the lyrics to yet another song that went far beyond the palette of most pop tunesmiths.  She called it “Only in America.”

Weil had never really written a protest pop song, but this was as close as she’d ever come.  At that point in 1963, the Civil Rights Act was not yet law, and African Americans — particularly those in the South — were still being systematically discriminated against to a stunning degree.  Like many in the budding folk music scene in Greenwich Village, just a short subway ride downtown from their cubicle overlooking the lights of Broadway, Weil and Mann found themselves caught up in the social change that was afoot in America, and felt compelled to write about it.

Their song was originally composed for the Drifters, an all-black vocal group, and the phrase “Only in America” was meant to be bitterly ironic comment about what it meant to be a black man in the U.S. in 1963.

According to, Weil’s original lyrics included such acerbic lines as:

Only in America, land of opportunity,
Can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me.

Only in America, Where they preach the Golden Rule,
will they start to march when my kids go to school.

Just as they had done with Mann and Weil’s previous composition, “On Broadway”, Leiber and Stoller — who, as the composers of such smash hits as “Hound Dog”, “Kansas City”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Yakety Yak” and “Poison Ivy,” pioneered how rhythm and blues could and should be packaged for the ever-growing white teenage market — took the song and began studying it.  Leiber and Stoller knew it would never see the light of day as long as it continued to include phrases like “back of the bus,” regardless of the skin color of its singer.

What’s more, the two veteran record producers knew the tone of “Only in America” as originally written was far too cynical to pass muster with Jerry Wexler and the execs at Atlantic Records.  Leiber and Stoller believed, given its somewhat catchy title, the best hope for the song would be to disguise it as a patriotic anthem, in hopes that by doing so they could slip its edgy, contextual irony past Wexler and his boss, company president Ahmet Ertegun.

Once again, the quartet of songwriters sat down and began tweaking Weil’s lyrics ever so slightly.  When they gave it to the Drifters to record, which the group did in August of 1963, they all hoped it would come across, not as an earnest attempt at patriotism, but as not-so-thinly-veiled satire.

The arrangement Leiber and Stoller eventually commissioned for the song was heavily Latin.  Latin music, particularly Bossa Nova, was huge at the time (Mann and Weil had spun gold a few months earlier with “Blame It On the Bossa Nova”, which Eydie Gorme took to #7), and Stoller in particular was a huge fan of its intoxicating rhythm and sensuality.

Leiber and Stoller knew “Only in America” would never see the light of day as long as it continued to include phrases like “back of the bus,” regardless of the skin color of its singer.

So when the Drifters went into the studio that summer, what emerged was a record that, despite bearing only a passing resemblance to Weil and Mann’s original composition, had all the earmarks of a big hit.

No Ordinary Summer
Unfortunately for so many people on so many different levels, the summer of 1963 was anything but a typical summer in American history.  It was the summer that black civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his driveway in Mississippi, the summer President John Kennedy first introduced his highly controversial Civil Rights Act to Congress, and the summer Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington, strode up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared to the million or so African Americans who had marched with him that he had a dream of a better world.

In fact, on the very day the Drifters’ recorded “Only in America,” King was arrested in Alabama for “parading without a permit,” an arrest that would lead him to write just a few days later his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Given that background, the last thing Jerry Wexler wanted to do was release a record with a black man singing about America as the “land of opportunity,” one which included lines like:

Only in America can a kid without a cent,
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President.

Not only would the white kids never buy such a song, Wexler figured, but neither would the DJ’s at urban radio stations.  (In fact, some had already received their advanced promo copy of the record and had flatly refused to play it.) Instead, he intended to simply write off the cost of the session and the original run of 45’s, trash the records that had still had in stock, stick the master tapes in a drawer somewhere, and move on.

As he told Lieber and Stoller after hearing the Drifters’ version, “If I release this, they’ll lynch us.”

But Leiber and Stoller were not about to give up.  They believed in the song.  So they made Wexler a proposal.  They’d buy the master tapes from Atlantic by reimbursing Wexler for the cost of the recording session. Then they’d strip the Drifters’ vocals from the master and get a white group they had in mind to record an all-new vocal track.

Which is exactly what they did.

A New Jay
In the Brill Building one day, just after Wexler’s decision to kill “Only in America,” they ran into a teenage kid from Queens named Kenny Vance.  Vance was a member of a group called Jay and the Americans, and Leiber and Stoller had gotten to know him because they had produced his group’s first and only album, from which came its first and only hit, “She Cried.”

But since that first hit, the band had lost its lead singer, Jay Traynor.  A few months earlier Traynor had opted to pursue a solo career, and left Jay and the Americans without either a “Jay” or a lead singer.

One of the remaining members said he knew of a guy from Brooklyn who he heard could sing a little bit.  His name was David Blatt, and that point his only full-time gig was selling shoes for Thom McAn.

During Blatt’s audition for the band, which was held in Queens in one of their parents’ basement, he chose to sing an a capella version of the only song he knew by heart, “Cara Mia.”

When Blatt finished his rendition, the rest of the Americans just stared at him in silence, mouths agape, blown away by both the power and the range of the shoe salesman’s voice.  It was then that they noticed the entire stairway leading upstairs was full of people; friends, family and neighbors who’d heard Blatt singing from the street, and wandered in on the chance they could get a glimpse of the person attached to the voice.

Jay and the Americans had found both their new singer and their new Jay — this one would soon start calling himself Jay Black.  Now all they needed was a song for him to sing.

Which brings us back to Leiber and Stoller.  The two producers had once played the Drifters’ version of “Only in America” for Vance when it was first recorded, and he went crazy.  He not only loved the song, but he thought it would be perfect for his band to record.  After all, he told Leiber and Stoller, they were Jay and the, you know… Americans.

But at that point Leiber and Stoler were firmly committed to the Drifters, so they just looked at him in silence before Leiber finally shrugged and said, “Sorry, kid.  That’s the way it goes.”

Later, however, given the darkening racial clouds hanging over the country and Wexler’s decision to trash all the Drifters’ copies of the record, Leiber and Stoller found themselves much more open to the notion of giving Jay and the Americans a shot at the song, and in fact had already secured its rights on behalf of United Artists, the group’s record label.

So even though they brought in the boys and auditioned them, the only reason they did so was so they could get a sense of their new lead singer.

The long and the short of it was that Black nailed both his “audition” and the subsequent recording session.  And a slightly sped-up version of “Only in America” (to accentuate both the song’s positive energy and message, and its Latin rhythm and production qualities) was released in September of 1963 — tragically, just a few days before four young black girls would be killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Though Jay Black, Vance and the rest of the Americans contended they never liked the finished mix of the song, since in their minds’ the higher speed made them sound a little like chipmunks, it was a terrific record and stayed on the charts for four weeks.

And though it only topped out at a disappointing #25, it did end up having special meaning to a small but politically significant segment of the population.

In the fall of 1963, with Cuba just three years removed from the bloody revolution that swept Fidel Castro and his Communist party into power, there were still thousands of Cuban refugees flocking to America each month, most of them to the southern tip of Florida.

Many of those refugees couldn’t speak a word of English when they landed on U.S. soil.   And as they began to settle in cities like Miami and New York, they soon discovered there was very little in the way of Spanish programming on U.S. radio stations.  In fact most stations, if they featured Spanish-language programming at all, usually only carried an hour or two per week, and usually only during off-hours.  And rarely did such stations possess anything remotely resembling a strong signal.

No song in the fall of 1963 resonated any more with Cuban refugees than an optimistic, upbeat little number whose message — even in another language — was far more stirring and resonant than its Latin arrangement. 

As a result, many of that first wave of Cuban exiles were introduced to U.S. culture through Top 40 radio, which played one hit song after another, usually on clear, powerful 50,000-watt AM stations, many of them non-stop, around the clock.

And no song in the fall of 1963 resonated any more with those Cubans than the optimistic first-ever single by the newly configured Jay and the Americans, an upbeat little number whose message — even in another language — was more stirring and resonant than even its Latin arrangement.

Many of them embraced “Only in America” and treated it as their new unofficial national anthem, turning it up as loudly as possible and singing the lyrics phonetically at the top of their lungs as they went about the business of adjusting to life in their new country.

As for Cynthia Weil, she never did accomplish the level of social awakening she had hoped to achieve with her little pop song of protest. She did, however, make a meaningful difference in the lives of a relative few.

For tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants in 1963, people who had never set foot on these shores before, the song originally conceived as a song of protest became both an homage to freedom and a celebration of hope.

What’s more, its ironic little title taught many of those immigrants the very first words they would ever speak in English; a simple three-word phrase they would find themselves repeating over and over again as the wonders of life in United States continued to unfold before their eyes…Only in America!

So with that, please sit back, turn up the volume and enjoy M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day for Thursday, December 2, 2010:  Jay and the American’s 1963 version of a song that proved to be every bit the melting pot — and every bit the long-shot — as the country it celebrated: “Only in America.”

Song:  Only in America
Artist:  Jay and the Americans
Composer:  Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Year released:  1963

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