Answer songs have long been one of Tin Pan Alley’s favorite ways to squeak a little extra capital out of someone else’s hit record.
These records take characters or plot points from a popular hit, and rework them in some way— relying on audiences’ knowledge of the prior song to fully “get” the meaning. While many answer songs have been relegated to obscurity, others—like Etta James’s “The Wallflower,” one of many responses to Hank Ballard’s “Work with me Annie”—became hits themselves.
B. Lee Cooper and Frank W. Hoffman the 1946–1975 the “golden era” of answer songs, and the trend was particularly strong in R&B in the 1950s and in country & western and pop in the 1960s. 1 Skeeter Davis, for example, released a whole string of popular answer songs beginning in 1960. 2 Rock and roll also saw its share of answer songs, particularly as it dominated the charts in the mid- to late-1950s.
Most answer songs also include musical elements from the original, ranging from a short audible cue—a host of answer songs to the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” for example, begin with a ringing phone—to wholesale theft of the melody and harmony. These similarities frequently led to lawsuits. “Don’t Want to Be Your Good Luck Charm” by Jo of Judy & Jo (Capitol 4745, 1962), for example, sparked a lawsuit by Gladys Music, which owned the publication rights to “Good Luck Charm” made famous by Elvis Presley. 3
Answer songs often represented dialogue between men and women, frequently showing different perspectives of a love or breakup story—often reinforcing stereotypical gendered roles but occasionally bucking them. When women rock and rollers cut answers songs, they were more often than not answering songs written and performed by men.
Here are some of the common tactics that appear in women’s answer songs.
In this variation on covering a song, any gendered nouns and pronouns in the lyrics are switched, usually to keep romantic narratives heterosexual. Sometimes, however, this also changes the scenario or meaning laid out in the original—as Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” famously did later in the 1960s.
For example, several women including Meg Myles (1956), Dinah Shore (1958), and Ann-Margret (1962) re-recorded “Thirteen Women” as “Thirteen Men.” The song is perhaps best-known as the B-side of Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock around the Clock,” but it was originally written and recorded by black musician Dickey Thompson. In the song, the protagonist fantasizes about a post-nuclear scenario in which they are the only member of their gender left, while thirteen remain of the opposite. The “female” version of the song doesn’t change any of the other lyrics, however, creating a scenario that could be interpreted as even more risqué, since women are thought of as the primary drivers of monogamy.
The backing track of Meg Myles’s version, cut for Liberty Records and released in 1956, features dissonant horns and an anxious, rapid bongo drum beat that seem to signal that this world would not exactly be a paradise.
Meg Myles, “Thirteen Men”
Novelty / Humor
While in a sense many answer records are novelty records, some didn’t even try to be serious. In 1960, for example, Jeri Lynne Fraser took the already silly “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and told us what happened to the girl in the bikini in her answer, “Poor Begonia (Caught Pneumonia).” Begonia may have gotten sick, but she also gains a new fiancé in the lifeguard who comes to her rescue.
The song has a distinct melody and structure from “Itsy Bitsy,” but it has a similarly light-hearted arrangement. It also satirizes the original for a moment in the pre-chorus by including semi-spoken count off “2-4-6-8, gosh she’s in an awful state!” that resembles the earlier song.
Jeri Lynne Fraser, “Poor Begonia (Caught Pneumonia):
Subversion or Social Commentary
Some women used the answer song as a medium to object to the behaviors of the protagonists in men’s songs. Kitty Wells’s signature hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (1952), written by Jay Miller as a response to Hank Thompson’s recording of “Wild Side of Life” (1951), set a gold standard for the women’s point of view answer song. (There are a number of examples of these “women’s answer songs” written by men.)
Dion and the Belmonts’ “Runaround Sue” sparked a couple of answer songs from the perspective of “Sue.” Linda Laurie cut one for Rust in 1962, “Stay-at-Home Sue.” The backing vocals are credited to the Del-Satins, a white doo-wop group very similar to the Belmonts. “Stay at Home Sue” is a very close copy of “Runaround Sue”—Laurie even invokes Dion’s vocal style—but the lyrics accuse Dion of cheating and implore: “If you’re in love with a guy who’s not true / don’t sit around and be a stay-at-home Sue!”
Clip: Linda Laurie, “Stay-at-Home Sue”:
Relocated Male Fantasy
Some women’s answer songs reinforced the point of view in the man’s song, rather than countering it or admonishing him in some way. Dodie Stevens cut a response Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in 1960 called “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight.” The song has a very similar arrangement to Presley’s, with softly crooning background vocalists and a delicate acoustic guitar strum. The melody is also cribbed from the original, and Stevens affirms each of the sentiments from Presley’s record: “Yes I’m Lonesome tonight and I miss you tonight / I’m so sorry we drifted apart And my memory strays to those wonderful days / when you kissed me and called me sweetheart.”
Clip: Dodie Stevens, “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight”
Listen to more answer songs:
- B. Lee Cooper and Frank W. Hoffmann, Popular Music Research: Answer Songs, Blue-Eyed Soul, Cover Recordings…and Beyond (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).
- “‘Answers’ May Add Disk Edge,” Billboard, 22 August 1960.
- “‘Good Luck Charm’ An Unlucky Tune for Cap: Publisher Claims Piracy,” Variety, 16 May 1962, 51.