Today’s piece is inspired by (i.e., lifted from) a special Top 40 list of 7-inch vinyl compiled by 45Cat contributor, stereotom. These (literally) defining songs — whose titles all begin with the phrase “What Is a [blank]” — have been organized chronologically and married with streaming audio where possible (click on song titles). Was just about ready to post this piece when I stumbled on the fact that a key Johnny Cash tune was missing from this list. Any others?
- Music by Alec Wilder; words by Alan Beck; orchestra directed by Mitch Miller.
- Billboard‘s review in their August 4, 1951 edition:
“[‘What Is a Boy?’] This is the original, done here to cover on Jan Peerce’s hit version. Godfrey’s family following should be good for a few sales. [‘What Is a Girl?’ The sequel and companion piece to ‘What Is a Boy?’ is similar in construction and ideas. Godfrey recites it Edgar Guest style with a pretty background set up for him by Alec Wilder.”
- Released 1951 on Columbia.
- Peerce — American operatic tenor and father of film director, Larry Peerce.
- Released 1951 on RCA Victor.
- Written by Alan Beck and Sammy Spear; orchestra directed by Sammy Spear.
- Released 1954 on Decca.
- Billboard‘s review in their August 4, 1951 edition:
“[‘Girl’ side] Companion recitation piece to ‘What Is a Boy?’ follows the same successful format of the earlier work. Writer Spear handles the background ork on this but comic Jackie Gleason fails to inject enough schmaltz into his reading. [‘Boy‘ side] Coverage waxing doesn’t figure to catch the Jan Peerce disk. Again Gleason doesn’t sell the recitation very strongly.”
- Written by Peggy Lee & Sonny Burke.
- Recorded with the Walt Disney Studio Orchestra.
- Released 1955 on Decca.
“What Is a Skunk?” [flip side of “Seventeen Tons“] by Sammy Shore
- Presumably the same Sammy Shore who cofounded The Comedy Store in 1972.
- Written by Mark Andrews.and released December 1955 on RCA subsidiary, “X.”
- Billboard‘s review from the December 31, 1955 edition:
“Lots of jockeys will have a ball with this one. It’s a humorous narration that examines all the different types of the aromatic animals.”
- Spike Jones (“without his orchestra”) would get in on the action — and yet this 1955 recording would only be released in Australia and New Zealand!
- For amusement only: streaming audio of Spike Jones describing the musical instruments used in “Dance of the Hours.”
- Written by Ruth Roberts, Bill Katz, and Gene Piller.
- Narration with chorus and/or orchestra directed by Steve Allen.
- Released December 1955 on Coral.
- Spoken rap by Steve Allen, while the 45 label appears to indicate that the orchestral backing is an arrangement of “Mississippi Mud” by Harry Barris & James Cavanaugh (though I don’t hear the same chord changes — compare with Paul Whiteman’s original version from 1928)..
- Released January 1956 on Coral.
- Billboard‘s review in the January 14, 1956 edition:
“Following up the successful ‘What Is a Wife’ bit, Allen comes thru with an apt successor which carries a load of crazy mixed-up double talk. This is extremely well-written material, good for lots of chuckles and with Allen riding high on TV, albums and the ‘Wife’ disk, this could just carry on the happy trend. It’s a particularly good programming bet.”
“What Is a Waitress?” [b/w “Honest John Grabmore“] by Sir Cedric Fat-Wallett II
- Written by Lewis & Reynolds.
- Released 1956 on Cameron, Texas indie label, Tone Records [notable for issuing rockabilly classic “Zzztt, Zzztt, Zzztt” by Wink Lewis with Buz Busby & Band].
“What Is a Teenager?” b/w “What Is a Disc Jockey?” by Jim Ameche
Jim Ameche in 1940 — photo via Wikimedia Commons
- Released in 1956 on Jubilee.
- Songwriting credits and streaming audio are not yet within reach.
- Jim — younger brother of actor, Don Ameche.
- Written by Buddy Kaye & Tom Edwards.
- Released December 1956 on Coral.
- Both sides made Billboard‘s Top 100 chart in January 1957.
New Zealand EP — May 1959
- Written by Varley & Whyton — accompaniment directed by Harry Robinson.
- 45 label: “Introducing, ‘Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-O'”
- Released August 1957 in the UK on Decca.
“What Is a Baby?” — Narrated by Rosemary Clooney
- Prepared especially for Gerber Foods.
- Composed by John Gart & Dorry O’Halloran.
- Orchestrated by John Gart — conducted by Frank DeVol.
- Released February 1958 by Columbia (among her final recordings for the label, committed to tape at Hollywood’s Radio Recorders on February 8, 1958).
“What Is a Boyfriend?” [b/w “All About Girls and Women“] by Tom Edwards
- Written by Anne DeLugg, Milton DeLugg & Tom Edwards.
- Orchestrated by Milton DeLugg.
- Released 1959 by Dot in the US — London in Australia.
“What Is a Mother?” by James Condon
- “With Wilbur Kentwell at the Console of The Hammond Organ.”
- Written by Enid Irving.
- Issued as a “split single” b/w “The Teen Commandments” by Bob Rogers.
- Released December 1958 in Australia on Columbia.
“What Is a Boy?” b/w “What Is a Girl?” by Ira Cook
- Arranged by G. Reynolds — vocal by The Mellomen.
- Released October 1959 on Imperial.
“What Is an Indian?” [b/w “Telephone Operator“] by Dal Williams
- Written by Charles Stuart (i.e., Peter Chapwick) and Dal Williams.
- This 45 appears to be Dal Williams’ entire recorded output.
- Released December 1959 on Warner Brothers.
“What Is a Wife?” by The Voice of Mahon (John Mahon)
- Written by John Brindle.
- Released 1960 in Australia on Teen Records as a “split single” paired with Graham Webb’s version of T. Texas Tyler’s “Deck of Cards.”
“What Is a Rugby Supporter?” by John Pike [b/w “The Rugged Rugby-Playing Trail“
by The Rugbymen With The Half-Timers]
- Written by Alwyn Owen — narrated by John Pike.
- Released 1960 in New Zealand on Kiwi.
- According to Audio Culture (“the noisy library of New Zealand music”):
“In the early to mid-1960s, Westport radio station 3YZ was a home of broadcasting talent. Reon Murtha, Lloyd Scott, Peter Sinclair, Bill Toft, Ian Watkin, Bob Sutton, Warwick Burke and John Pike were just some of the announcers who either started or built their careers there. A good broadcasting team is only as good as its technical support and writers. 3YZ was lucky to have the witty producer/writer Alwyn (Hop) Owen on staff (he later founded the long-running RNZ Spectrum series). In 1960 Owen and station announcer Pike recorded ‘What is a Rugby Supporter?’ – a spoken monologue reminiscent of the newsreel shorts shown in cinemas before the main feature. Calling themselves The Rugbymen (with the Halftimers), it was released on Kiwi, backed with ‘The Rugged Rugby Playing Trail’.”
“What Is a Grandmother?” by Paul Randal
- Written (in all likelihood) by (Ruth) Roberts, (Bill) Katz, (Gene) Pillar, (Stanley) Clayton & (Teresa) Brewer
- This 45 — released March 1961 on Roulette. — appears to be Randal’s sole release.
“What Is a Daddy?” by Jeff Price
- Written by Joe Darion & Hecky Krasnow.
- Arranged & conducted by Glenn Osser.
- Released 1962 on May (“product of Colpix/Columbia Pictures Corp”).
- One 45Cat contributor points out this related bit of info:
“Real interesting account of the life and career of Hecky Krasnow, by his loving daughter: Rudolph, Frosty, and Captain Kangaroo: The Musical Life of Hecky Krasnow — Producer of the World’s Most Beloved Children’s Songs.”
“Qu’est-ce Qu’un Gars?” (“What Is A Boy?“) by Lucien “Frenchie” Jarraud
[flip side of “Pardon… Mon Fils” (Apology At Bedtime)]
- Songwriting credits listed as “Lucien Brien & Alan Beck.”
- 45 label identifies artist’s full name as Lucien Hétu à l’orgue Rialto de Gulbransen.
- Released August 1962 in Canada by RCA Victor.
- RCA Victor Canada soon after (judging by the catalog number) issued another single – “Qu’est-ce Qu’une Fille?” (“What Is a Girl?”) b/w “Qu’est-ce Qu’une épouse?” (“What Is a Wife?”).
- Written by Van Steen and Dolan — produced by Jim Gaylord.
- Compare with the Spike Jones recording from 1955.
- Released December 1962 on Stacy.
- Cash Box’s 45 review in their December 8, 1962 edition:
“[A-side] In this adaptation of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ a disk jockey learns from Santa himself that he’s doing something worthwhile by working Xmas eve spinning Holiday songs. [B-side] A sympathetic view of the deejay.”
- Written by Win Goulden & Jim Thurman — produced by Lee Gillette.
- Released November 18, 1963 on Capitol.
- Included as a bonus track on the Capitol compilation, Christmas Cocktails II.
“What Is a Dad?” [b/w “Casey at the Bat“] by Johnny Dark
- Composed by Johnny Dark.
- Released 1964 on Dragon.
“What Is a Fisherman?” b/w “What Is a Quail Hunter?” by Robert Fuller
- Both sides written by Charley Dickey.
- Released May 1964 on Challenge.
- 45Cat notes: “Actor seen in TV shows ‘Wagon Train,’ ‘Laramie,’ and ‘Emergency!‘ among others.”
- Another 45Cat contributor recalls with a chuckle:
“He was one of the best bluffers on TVs ‘Hollywood Squares’ game show, such that contestants would try to avoid choosing his square unless they needed to. The pinnacle best bluff on the show was when he was queried, ‘Who wrote The Diary of Anne Frank?’ He rolled his eyes, seemed to be thinking deeply, and had Peter Marshall begin to inform the contestant, ‘It appears Robert doesn’t have…” – he blurted out, “That new Hollywood guy, Spielberg.” The contestant agreed with him! If you search clips from Hollywood Squares, you will glimpse him in a number of saved games.”
- From an EP of “favorite recitations by Arthur Smith.”
- Recorded at Arthur Smith Studios – Charlotte, North Carolina (ca. Nov. 1963).
- Released 1965 on Sardis (song also released 1969 on Starday).
“What Is a Truck Driver?” [b/w “Rainbow Road“] by Ralph Emery
- Written by George Merritt — produced by Fred Carter, Jr.
- Released 1966 on ABC-Paramount.
- Included in the Country Singles Reviews in the July 16, 1966 edition of Record World:
“Geared to the truck driver, this narrative has built-in appeal. Chock full of identifiable images.”
- Based on a speech by James R. Brower.
- Musical Adaptation by Robert Young.
- Released April 1966 in Australia on ATA Records.
“What Is a Square” [b/w “That’s How Love Goes“] by Mike Douglas
promotional Ad Cash Box — February 1967
- Lyrics based on a speech by “Charles H. Brower” — music by Robert Young
- Arranged & conducted by Frank Hunter — produced by Manny Kellem.
- Released February 1967 in the US on Epic.
“What Is a Jew” by Alex Dreier
- Dreier — American news reporter and commentator who worked with NBC Radio during the 1940s, and later with the ABC Information Radio network in the 1960s and early 1970s.
- Variety notes in their bio of Dreier: “While in Los Angeles, an on-air commentary he delivered, ‘What Is a Jew,’ became a rallying cry for fund-raising to help Israel during and after the Six-Day War and was sold as a record in local shops.”
- Both sides “composed” by Don Bresnahan & Alex Dreier.
- Released September 1967 on Modern.
- Written by Ernie Maresca — arranged by Dave Mullaney.
- Released May 1968 on Laurie.
- Written and produced by Arthur Smith.
- Presumably the same recording from 1963 that was released on Sardis in 1965.
- Issued 1969 on Starday.
“What Is Truth” by Johnny Cash
45 picture sleeve — SPAIN
- Written by Johnny Cash.
- “What Is Truth” was performed at the White House on April 17, 1970.
- Song would inspire a parody by Ben Colder (below), as well as answer song by Howard Crockett (“The Word“) that was produced by Major Bill Smith.
- Released 1970 by Columbia.
“What Is Youth” [b/w “Tennessee Bird Talk“] by Ben Colder
- Ben Colder is an alter ego of Sheb Wooley.
- Written by Johnny Cash & Sheb Wooley.
- Released 1970 on (post-purge) MGM.
- Streaming audio on YouTube still but a pipe dream — sing along in your head
[To the tune of “What Is Truth“]:
A whole bunch of kids with real long hair
Standin’ throwin’ rocks at the town square
Might be fun but I don’t think it’s fair
Cause they call me the town square
Sure was different back when I was a kid
Some of the mean things that I did
The old man took down the razor strap
And he’d say Ben bend over my lap
Then the lonely voice of youth cried awow that is truth
You can’t even whistle at a girl anymore
It could be a boy and he might get sore
Then again he might not you can’t ever tell
Some of them fellers are really swell
They travel a lot and they’re really hip
Seems they’re always takin’ a trip
Bet there’s a lot of pretty country to see
Ridin’ around in an LSD
And the lonely voice of truth cries what is youth
I saw a young man sittin’ on the witness stand
And the man with the book said raise your right hand
Not that right hand you’re other right hand
The young man on the stand didn’t understand
The judge said son do you solemnly swear
Said I swear I can’t hear you on account of my hair
Really it was long as a horses tail
But I guess that’s the US male
And the lonely voice of truth cries what is youth
Heck I went to college for quite awhile
They say I made straight A’s in wild
Guess I was a little bit slow
I flunked protestin’ two years in a row
Couldn’t learn to speak the language of the kids in town
I’d say burn it up instead of burn it down
Even used pot to wipe out my head
But I used the one that was under the bed
And the lonely voice of truth cried
What are youth doin’
Youth are my friends youth and youth but not himth
- “Original lyric from the motion picture, Romeo and Juliet.”
- Written by Nina Rota & Eugene Walter.
- Produced by Bernie Lawrence — arranged & conducted by Jimmy Wisner.
- Designated by Billboard as a “Special Merit Spotlight” (new single deserving special attention of programmers and dealers) for the week ending Sept. 5, 1970:
“Good new group sound with the original film lyric from Romeo and Juliet make this outstanding arrangement a hot contender for the Hot 100 chart. Could prove a big one.”
- Released August 1970 on Avco Embassy.
“What Is a Jamaican” [b/w “Human Rights Song“] by Methodist Youth Choir
- Both sides penned by Clyde Hoyt.
- Narration by Radcliffe Butler — vocals by Methodist Youth Choir.
- Released in Jamaica on WIRL.
- Written by Bob Hamm.
- Released 1973 on Tribute.
- Note: This record is dedicated to the memory of the late Hon. Roy Theriot, former state comptroller of the State of Louisiana.
“What Is a Boy” [b/w “Phantom 309“] by Murray Kash
- Written by Beck & Winterhalter — arranged by Harry Robinson.
- Released 1974 in the UK on Columbia.
“What Is a One?” [b/w “Louie’s Market“] by The Zanies
- Written by B.J. Hunter.
- Released 1980 on Doré.