‘Both mother and daughter, working for the Yankee dollar’
Rum And Coca Cola – The Andrews Sisters with Vic Schoen And His Orchestra
Decca 18636 (USA) / Brunswick 03576B* (UK)
Recorded at Decca, New York City, 18th October 1944
Released December 1944
Writers Lionel Belasco, Rupert Grant & Morey Amsterdam**
Producer Milt Gabler
USA #1 17th February 1945 7 weeks
*UK release as B-side of ‘One Meat Ball’
**Original release credits Jeri Sullivan, Paul Baron & Morey Amsterdam
There’s an old music business saying, “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ”. The origin is uncertain though as we shall see, ‘Rum And Coca Cola’ certainly fits the bill. A controversial song from the outset, it was banned by radio networks throughout the world, notably the BBC in England who slapped a ‘Not To Be Broadcast’ sticker on it. And there were plenty of good reasons. Aside from the obvious advertisement for the popular American beverage, it was about booze and there was a hint of prostitution, though the Andrews Sisters were unaware of the questionable aspects of the lyric that they only received the day before they recorded the song. In fact it transpires that this multi-million selling song was only recorded at the last minute when the famous trio ad-libbed their way through it in half-an-hour left over at the end of a recording session. Maxene Andrews later recalled: “People can’t believe that we didn’t know what that was about. It wasn’t until we found out it was banned in some places that we started asking why, and they’d say, ‘Well, dummies, it’s about prostitution.’ Young people today can’t believe that people were so naive in those days.”
The BBC in their infinite wisdom banned records for various reasons. During the war, one Bing Crosby side, ‘Deep In The Heart Of Texas’, was banned during working hours on the grounds that the infectious rhythm might, “encourage workers to bang their machinery in time with the music”! Regarding ‘Rum And Coca Cola’, the corporation proclaimed that it would have to be sung as, ‘Rum And Limonada’. Despite numerous misleading reference articles to the contrary, I can find no evidence that the Andrews Sisters actually recorded ‘Rum And Limonada’, though several other artists including band leader Edmundo Ross (born in Trinidad) did, cashing in on the absence of the Andrews Sisters’ version from the BBC airwaves – and had the sisters performed the song ‘live’ on the BBC, they would have been forced to comply with this ruling. (On their US radio show they sang it as ‘Lime And Coca Cola’) It appears that Decca UK, who released the recording on their Brunswick imprint, anticipated a ban since they switched sides placing the US B-side ‘One Meat Ball’ on the A-side with ‘Rum And Coca Cola’ on the flip-side.
The Andrews Sisters, LaVerne (born 1911), Maxene (1916) and Patricia (1918) became the most successful female group in the history of recorded music. Born and raised in Minneapolis to a Greek immigrant father and American/Norwegian mother, they first performed together in 1925 when Patti was just seven-years-old, turned professional in 1932 and by the late 1930s had their own national radio show and a contract with Decca Records. Label executive Dave Capp heard the girls singing on a radio show while he was in a taxi and called them in for an audition. Their 1937 Decca contract gave the sisters $50 for each two-sided record they made. Maxene Andrews is quoted as saying, “Well, I figured that we could make a record every day. That was nothing. We’d be rich!” Their first major hit came in 1937 with ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön’ (To Me You Are Beautiful), initially released as a throwaway B-side but becoming the first recording by a female group to sell a million copies. (Gold records for a million sales weren’t awarded at the time – they were introduced as a gimmick by RCA in 1942, the first given to Glenn Miller for ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’)
The sisters swiftly became an entertainment phenomenon, appearing in 15 movies and shifting millions of copies of their hits including ‘Beat Me, Daddy, Eight To The Bar’ (somewhat politically incorrect these days!), ‘I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time’, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ (later covered by Bette Midler), ‘Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree’ and dozens more. They often recorded with other Decca artists such as Al Jolson and Danny Kaye but most notably Bing Crosby with whom they had 23 hits including their version of Cole Porter’s ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ which was Number 1 in America for 8 weeks immediately prior to ‘Rum And Coca Cola’. When the United States became embroiled in the Second World War they travelled the world entertaining troops (often inviting 3 lucky servicemen out to dinner!), recorded dozens of ‘V-Discs’ (special recordings distributed to US troops abroad) and became known as ‘The Sweethearts of the Armed Forces Radio Service’.
Recorded in New York on the 18th of October 1944, ‘Rum And Coca Cola’ would soon become the focus of two separate legal battles regarding first the musical, and then the lyrical content of the song. The Andrews Sisters release credited Jeri Sullivan and Paul Baron (music) and Morey Amsterdam (lyric) as the writers, though the first 200,000 copies only named Amsterdam until Sullivan and Baron lodged a complaint. Amsterdam copyrighted the song in New York in September 1944 however, as the ensuing legal proceedings would reveal, of the three named writers’ only Amsterdam had any legal grounds to make such a claim, and that was thin at best. The music had its’ origins in a 19th century Martinique folk song that Trinidadian musician Lionel Belasco used to write a song entitled, ‘L’Année Passée’. Court proceedings would later establish that this song had been written in 1906, and according to Belasco, for many years he’d only ever played it to fellow musicians and friends. As luck would have it, he made a recording of the song in the early 1940s and it was copyrighted in America in early 1944.
About a year before this, Trinidadian calypso performer Lord Invader (aka Rupert Grant) appropriated Belasco’s music for his calypso, ‘Rum And Coca Cola’. Mr Grant, who’d been performing since the mid-1930s, got his alter ego from his tailor who had said, “I tell you, Rupert, you should call yourself Lord Invader so when you go up to the city you be invadin’ the capital!” Grant’s lyric, which focused on American GI’s presence on the Caribbean island, alluded to prostitution: ‘Since the Yankees come to Trinidad, They have the young girls going mad, The young girls say they treat them nice, And they give them a better price’. As he later told the court, he was aware that the music belonged to Belasco and thus only registered his lyric (on March 1st 1943) in Trinidad, where it was covered by British copyright law.
Morey Amsterdam, an American comedian later to find international fame on The Dick Van Dyke Show, visited Trinidad in September 1943 entertaining US troops on the island and was in the country for a month. By this time Lord Invader’s song was a huge local hit – he’d been performing it around the island, though no recording had been made. Returning to the US (and according to his later testimony) Amsterdam offered the song to singer Jeri Sullivan who approached conductor Paul Baron to re-arrange the tune to Amsterdam’s re-written and extended lyric. Amsterdam claimed that he’d sung his song to Sullivan to a different tune and hadn’t even met Baron at the time, though this was patently beyond the bounds of belief since the music that Baron allegedly came up with was identical with Belasco’s and Lord Invader’s. Amsterdam’s lyric toned down the allusions to prostitution, though the chorus still referred to ‘ladies of the night’ in its final stanzas: ‘Both mother and daughter, working for the Yankee dollar’. He also threw in a quick reference to Bing Crosby: ‘Like the Yankee girl the native swoon, When she hear der Bingo croon’.
Nobody (including Decca for whom Lord Invader had recorded some sides in 1941) seems to have questioned the origins of the song that then found its’ way to the Andrews Sisters. The so-called composers’ only legal defence would be an assumption that both music and lyrics (which they had undeniably borrowed) were from a traditional folk-song in the public domain, though during cross examination Amsterdam was adamant that he’d never heard Lord Invader’s song and had been inspired to write his version after hearing a US soldier sing the line, ‘Rum and coca cola kill the Yankee soldier’. This was demonstrably untrue since it was established in court that though he’d written further verses, his first two were very similar to Lord Invader’s originals, and the chorus of both songs was identical! The two legal cases took several years to wind their way through the New York justice system, but both were concluded by 1950. Lionel Belasco won the right to be known as the composer, and Sullivan and Baron’s names were stricken from the copyright. In the lyric case, Lord Invader was eventually awarded 150,000 Yankee dollars, a tidy sum in those days, though it would be another seven years until he finally received his settlement. Since he had written additional verses (and perhaps given the fact that he had helped turn a local Caribbean calypso into a major worldwide hit, albeit under somewhat dubious circumstances) the major villain in the piece, Morey Amsterdam, was allowed to retain his part of the copyright.
Despite its worldwide lack of radio play, the Andrews Sisters’ version of ‘Rum And Coca Cola’ was Number 1 in America for 7 weeks and Number 1 in Australia for 2 months – few other countries had record sales lists at the time, though the record sold 7 million copies worldwide becoming their most successful recording and was the 3rd best-selling tune of the 1940s. The huge success of both ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and ‘Rum And Coca Cola’ in early 1945 is credited with reviving the US record industry from a wartime slump brought about by the shortage of shellac (used to manufacture 78 rpm records) and a lengthy recording ban by the American Federation of Musicians, which had only recently been resolved. The Andrews Sisters’ chart career at Decca spanned the years 1937 to 1953 during which period they sold between 75 and 100 million records with a career total of 113 Billboard hits, 46 Top Ten and 8 Number 1’s.
The only female group with more US Number 1’s were The Supremes (featuring Diana Ross) who scored 12 in the 1960s, 9 of which were composed by the famous writing trio Holland, Dozier & Holland. The Andrews Sisters split up in 1953 when their Decca contract expired and Patty went solo, though they reunited in 1956 and continued performing until LaVerne died of cancer in 1967. At the time of writing (2009) the only surviving sister is Patty, aged 91, who lives in California with her husband, Wally. The popularity of ‘Rum And Coca-Cola’ initiated a calypso fad peaking in the mid-1950s with the huge success of Harry Belafonte and particularly his hit ‘Banana Boat Song’. Probably due to the advertising versus airplay restrictions, ‘Rum And Coca-Cola’ has not been much covered or appeared on the charts since the 1940s though in the rock’n’roll era it has been released on single by Prince Buster, Barry White and Julio Iglesias.
Copyright © 2009 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.