Folks who do not have enough dough (or shelf space) for Bear Family’s undoubtedly meticulous and wide-ranging box set of popular music from the original Atomic Age, can nevertheless simulate the experience by (1) keyword searching 78 RPM using the word “atomic” (also “atom“) and then (2) listening to desired tracks via YouTube streaming audio.
I especially like that the search results from 78 RPM are in chronological order. Note that the earliest songs in the first search (“atomic”) are from 1946, however the second search (“atom”) yields a song from 1945 that is not in the Bear Family box set and competes with Slim Gaillard’s “Atomic Cocktail” (not published until 1946, according to this site) for earliest song about atom splitting — “Atom Boogie” by Sammy Franklin (sadly, not yet uploaded onto YouTube).
The box set would also include King Records‘ big contribution to the national conversation: 1947’s “When They Found the Atomic Power” by Hawkshaw Hawkins and, four years later, The Spirit of Memphis Quartet‘s “The Atomic Telephone” – a song credited to Henry Glover, Lois Mann (i.e., Syd Nathan) and Eddie Smith.
“The Atomic Telephone” The Spirit of Memphis Quartet 1951
The Spirit of Memphis Quartet – Jethro Bledsoe (lead vocals), Silas Steele, Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax and others (supporting vocals) — recorded the original version of “Atomic Telephone” on August 14, 1951 at the King Studios in Cincinnati. 1951 would also see “The Atomic Telephone” covered by The Harlan County Four –recorded in Cincinnati on October 29, 1951, according to Ruppli’s King Labels sessionography — yet another early example of Syd Nathan putting one of “his” songs (published by Lois Music) to work in more than one “market.”
Johnny Sippel, Billboard‘s man on the “Folk Talent and Tunes” beat, would report in the May 3, 1952 edition that KMA disk jockey Lee Sutton of Shenandoah, Iowa “conducted a contest, asking listeners to guess the names of the Harlan County Four, new King artists” [i.e., Alton and Rabon Delmore, plus Zeke and Ulysses (“Red“) Turner, as affirmed by PragueFrank. Billboard‘s record review of The Harlan County Four version in the February 9, 1952 edition would note that this “fast-tempo spiritual shows off the nice blend of the group and their sincere vocalizing.”]
The song would get name-checked in Bob Groom’s essay “Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: A Decade of Disillusion in Black Blues and Gospel Song” [included in 2008’s Ramblin’ On My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues, edited by David Evans]:
Many of [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur’s supporters had favored “nuking” the enemy out of existence, failing to understand the consequences if Russia retaliated on behalf of China. The lethal power of the nuclear weapon was not readily apparent from recordings like “Atom and Evil,” a humorous parody recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet on June 5, 1946 (Columbia 37236), and the Spirit of Memphis Quartet’s “The Atomic Telephone” (King 4521), recorded August 14, 1951. It was hard to imagine the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happening in America, and the government promoted among the population the naive belief that fall-out shelters would protect most people from harm. The development of the hydrogen bomb offered an even speedier path to annihilation, but even this weapon could become a macho image. Certainly, singer Bob Ferguson used it to stress his power as a performer when he adopted his nom-de-disque “H-Bomb” Ferguson in 1951.
The original 1951 King 78 release “Atomic Telephone b/w “He Never Let Go My Hand” sells for two figures at auction.
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