The Great Pretender: Tony Williams and The Platters; Sam Cooke; Freddie Mercury

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song The Great Pretender. This is a lovely pop tune from the mid-50s. We will start with the original song by The Platters, and then we will review covers from Sam Cooke and also Freddie Mercury.

The Platters and The Great Pretender:

The Platters were the first African-American pop supergroup.  Below is a photo of the “classic lineup” of The Platters. From L: David Lynch; Tony Williams; Zola Taylor; Herb Reed; and Paul Robi.

The group had been formed in 1952, and added lead vocalist Tony Williams in 1953.  After their first couple of records failed to make the charts, songwriter and producer Buck Ram became the group’s manager. Ram made some personnel changes to the group, producing what is now called the “classic lineup” for the Platters.

Buck Ram then negotiated a record deal for the group.  Mercury Records wished to sign The Penguins, another group that he managed.  Ram allowed Mercury to sign the Penguins, but only if they also offered a contract to his other ensemble, the Platters.

This turned out to be an incredible windfall for Mercury. The Penguins never had a hit for them, while the Platters became the most successful vocal group of the era.

Two of Buck Ram’s songs became the first big hits for the Platters. The first was Only You, which Ram had originally written for the Ink Spots. And the second major success was Ram’s The Great Pretender. This song, released at the end of 1955, made it all the way to #1 for the Platters.

The lyrics are deceptively simple. The singer has been dumped by his lover, but he disguises his despondency by acting “laughing and gay like a clown.”

Oh-oh, yes I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

[CHORUS] Too real is this feeling of make-believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal

Yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughing and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not, you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you’re still around

Here are Tony Williams and the Platters ‘performing’ The Great Pretender. The song showcases Williams’ beautiful tenor voice, with the other Platters providing their smooth backing vocals.

As you can see, the Platters here are simply lip-synching to their record. However, this video clip is highly significant for several reasons, which are worth a brief digression.

First, the DJ introducing their performance is the great Alan Freed, the man who coined the term ‘rock and roll.’ Next, this scene shows footage from the 1956 film Rock Around the Clock.  Below left is the poster for that movie.

Poster for the 1956 movie Rock Around The Clock.

Poster for the 1956 movie Rock Around The Clock.

Rock Around the Clock was important because it was the first-ever rock and roll musical. This film started an entire wave of rock musicals – Elvis’ first film Love Me Tender would come out later that year.

Rock Around the Clock provided a fictional history of the birth of rock and roll, and featured the music of Bill Haley and the Comets. The fact that the Platters were also headliners shows the stature of that group at this point in history.

Another feature of Rock Around the Clock was that it shows both black and white musicians performing together. This was a major part of Alan Freed’s legacy. He played music from both black and white performers on his influential radio show, included musicians of all races in the concerts he promoted, and the audiences at his live shows were racially mixed.

Eventually, rock and roll music became a powerful force in helping to remove some vestiges of segregation. With both black and white musicians performing, it seemed incongruous to continue racial segregation of audiences at concerts. When some courageous artists refused to perform to segregated audiences, this accelerated efforts to bring about racial integration.

Alan Freed’s career did not survive the ‘payola’ scandals of the late 50s, and he died at age 43. However, we should remember his important contributions at the start of the rock and roll era.

Now, back to The Platters. Here is the group in a live performance of The Great Pretender. This took place on Canadian TV in either 1955 or 1956.

Clearly Tony Williams could pull off his silky-smooth vocals in live performance, with strong contributions from the rest of the Platters.

Following that song, this video has spliced in the Platters performing part of their first big hit, Only You. It is not clear whether this segment is actually live, or whether the group are simply lip-synching.

Later in their career, the Platters took to performing covers of much older pop tunes. Their cover versions of such classics as Twilight Time and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes not only were big hits, but they provided a bridge from the previous generation’s Tin Pan Alley songs to the rock and roll era.

The widow of Jerome Kern, the writer of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,
expressed concern that her late husband’s composition would be turned into a “rock and roll” record.
Mrs. Kern need not have worried; not only was the Platters’ version a respectful copy of the original tune, but their version hit #1 on both the US and UK pop charts.

The Platters were an incredibly successful early rock group in the 50s. However, in 1959
the four male members were arrested in Cincinnati on drug and prostitution charges.
Although no convictions ensued from the arrests, the reputation of the group was badly damaged. They lost bookings and several radio stations black-listed their records.

The group subsequently began to rely more and more on European tours for their income, and various members of the group departed.

Unfortunately, in later years this singing ensemble degenerated, as a number of groups claiming the name “The Platters” began touring. This situation led to lawsuits, injunctions, and some bizarre legal decisions.

For example, at one time or another groups were on tour with names such as “The Five Platters,” “The Original Platters,” and “The Buck Ram Platters.” Even later, groups would appear named the “World Famous Platters,” “Salute to the Platters,” and “Tribute to the Platters.” Enough already!

Poster for the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti.

Poster for the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti.

Despite the many competing touring bands, the Platters were an incredibly important pop group.
The group had 40 charting singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1955 and 1967, including four no. 1 hits … [they] were one of the first African American groups to be accepted as a major chart group and were, for a period of time, the most successful vocal group in the world.

The 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti, that highlighted 50s and 60s pop songs, featured three of the Platters’ hits, more than any other group. The poster for that movie is shown at left.

Fittingly, the Platters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Sam Cooke and The Great Pretender:

Sam Cooke was one of the great early soul singers. He and Ray Charles were probably the two greatest innovators in the field of soul music.  Below is a photo of Sam Cooke, in the studio, smoking a cigarette.

Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, MS in 1931, and began his career in 1950 when he became the lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers.

The Soul Stirrers were the best-known gospel group in the country, and were famous for their beautiful harmonies. The handsome and charismatic Cooke was also a favorite of young girls.

In 1957, Cooke decided to leave the gospel field for a career in the field of pop music. Trading gospel for secular music was a difficult decision for many artists, and it must have been hard for Cooke to leave a group performing ‘God’s music’ to take up rock and roll.

However, Sam Cooke’s first pop song, You Send Me, went to #1 on both the Billboard R&B charts and also the pop charts.

Sam Cooke was definitely an anomaly in rock and roll, particularly for an African-American artist. Most musicians at the time had only the haziest understanding of the economics of the music business, and hence were frequently signed to extremely unfavorable contracts.

Cooke, on the other hand, had a very clear understanding of the inner workings of the recording industry from his days in gospel music. He wrote most of his own songs, started his own record company and also set up a music publishing business.

Here is the audio of Sam Cooke’s version of The Great Pretender.

Isn’t this beautiful? Sam Cooke’s voice is thrilling, and his sense of timing and delivery was impeccable. Here, Cooke is backed by a full orchestra, with notable contributions from flute, French horn and harp. His version of The Great Pretender is extremely moving.

As I was unable to find live video of Sam Cooke performing The Great Pretender, I will provide a brief live video of him singing his first big hit, You Send Me.

As you can see, Cooke appears to deliver this simple but lovely song quite effortlessly. The YouTube video states that it is from the Ed Sullivan show on Dec. 1, 1957. However, I am doubtful about that, for the following reason.

Sam Cooke first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show on Nov. 3, 1957. He was the final performer on that show, and he began to sing You Send Me. However, the show had run late; as a live TV show, there was no option but to curtail Cooke’s performance.

So, Sam Cooke was cut off after slightly less than a minute, in mid-song. Furthermore, Ed Sullivan had no opportunity to make any closing remarks; Ed just appeared, said “Good night,” and the show abruptly ended.

This situation generated so many complaints that Sullivan felt obliged to bring Cooke back on Dec. 1, where Cooke performed the entire song You Send Me. The YouTube video above seems to be more consistent with Cooke’s abbreviated Nov. 3 appearance, rather than the Dec. 1 one.

In 1964, Sam Cooke was one of the biggest pop stars. He had moved to RCA Victor Records where he was having great commercial success. And he had hired the agent Allen Klein to represent him.

Klein, who would subsequently go on to manage the Beatles and Rolling Stones, was one of the most influential and controversial figures in rock music. He was known for setting up deals with his artists that dramatically altered the economics of the field.

As I have mentioned, early rock musicians were generally at the mercy of the major record companies. Record contracts tended to be hugely unfavorable to the artists. However, Klein set up deals that, in principle, were much more favorable to the musicians.

Under Klein’s management, novel arrangements were set into place by which artists would receive substantially greater returns for successful albums. This helped tip the scales in favor of the musicians, and played a major role in enriching the most popular groups that he managed.

At the same time, Klein’s Byzantine accounting deals tended to be hugely favorable to Klein himself. As a result, many artists who hired Klein ended up filing a series of lawsuits against him.

In the case of Sam Cooke, Klein set up an arrangement that should have provided Cooke with a large and steady stream of income.

Unfortunately, on Dec. 11, 1964, police were called to a seedy establishment called the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, where a kidnapping and shooting was reported. They found Sam Cooke shot to death by the night manager of the motel.

The “official” story was that Cooke had taken a woman to the motel against her will. The woman, believing that Cooke intended to rape her, had fled from the motel room and then called the police.

The night manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed that a nearly-naked Cooke had burst into the motel office, demanding to know the whereabouts of the woman from his room. When Cooke was unsatisfied with the manager’s statement that she knew nothing about the woman’s whereabouts, Cooke became so abusive that Ms. Franklin shot him in self-defense.

A coroner’s inquest on the shooting accepted the testimony of Bertha Franklin, the woman who had accompanied Cooke to the motel, and the motel owner. They ruled that the shooting was justifiable homicide.

Cooke’s friends and acquaintances were convinced that this story was fishy. They believed that a much more likely scenario was that the woman at the motel and the night manager were in collusion to rob Cooke. However, no definitive evidence of such a plot has ever been uncovered.

And, guess who ended up with the publishing rights to all Sam Cooke’s songs? Yes, it was entrepreneur extraordinaire Allen Klein.

Regardless of the exact circumstances, Sam Cooke was dead at age 33. A couple of albums were released following his death. One of those songs was the beautiful and moving A Change is Gonna Come, one of the classic anthems of the civil rights era.

Sam Cooke was a brilliant singer and a great songwriter. He was poised to be extremely successful in the music business. In addition, he was also active in the civil rights movement at the time of his death. How sad that his brilliant career was snuffed out at a tragically early age.

Freddie Mercury and The Great Pretender:

Freddie Mercury was the lead singer for the British pop quartet Queen. We previously reviewed the work of this band in our blog post on the song Somebody To Love. So here we will briefly review the life and career of Freddie Mercury.

Below is a photo of Freddie Mercury performing at Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in 1985.

Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar, now a part of Tanzania. In his teens his family emigrated to England. There he earned a diploma in art and graphic design at the Ealing Art College.

Bulsara had been interested in music since a young age, and he subsequently joined a few local bands. Things really picked up when he joined forces with guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon.

At that point the band adopted the name Queen. Bulsara then changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and used his art-school training to design a ‘coat of arms’ for the band.

In 1973, Queen signed a record contract with Trident/EMI. The band subsequently made use of Trident’s high-tech recording facilities. In particular, they were able to extract some fascinating sounds from Red Special, the instrument that guitarist Brian May and his father had built from scratch.

In addition, the band tended to make creative use of multiple overdubbing techniques to give the impression that their songs were backed by massive choirs.

For the next couple of years, Queen became popular in the UK but made little commercial headway in the US. All that changed dramatically with the release of the group’s fourth album, A Night At the Opera, in 1975.

That album, contained the song Bohemian Rhapsody, a pop tune written by Freddie Mercury in operatic style.  Here, Mercury showed off his astonishing 4-octave vocal range, and Brian May produced some amazing sounds from his Red Special guitar.

Bohemian Rhapsody spend several weeks at #1 on the UK pop charts, and the album was a runaway best-seller. The single reached #9 on the American pop charts, and established Queen as a major pop group on this side of the Atlantic.

Queen’s popularity then took off. Their albums sold like hotcakes. Their music videos were extremely creative and influential; in fact, some critics have suggested that the popularity of Queen’s music videos was instrumental in the founding of MTV several years later.

Freddie Mercury was the lead songwriter for the group, although Brian May contributed some of their more popular songs, and Roger Taylor was a co-writer on a few tunes.

In addition, the band became major headliners on tour. Although it was not possible to reproduce Queen’s’ studio effects in live performance, the band became known for their stunning live shows. Some critics rate Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985 as the greatest live show in rock music history.

At the height of their popularity, Freddie Mercury began producing some solo records. He issued a couple of solo albums and a few singles. The Great Pretender was a single release from Mr. Mercury, and it reached #5 on the UK pop charts.

Here is the “official music video” of Freddie Mercury performing The Great Pretender.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to find live video of Freddie singing this tune. However, the video is nevertheless quite interesting. The song lends itself well to Mercury’s operatic tendencies, and his soaring tenor voice.

In addition to Freddie on lead vocals, the video features a group of “backup singers” in drag. I understand that the singers include Freddie himself, his Queen bandmate Roger Taylor and friend Peter Straker.

At this time (early 1987), Mercury had shaved off his trademark mustache. The video also includes brief re-creations of scenes from earlier Queen music videos, including Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Great Pretender is a song about a man who conceals his desperately unhappy love life by pretending to be joyous and fulfilled. In an ironic twist, just a couple of months after this music video was filmed, Freddie Mercury discovered that he had contracted the HIV virus.

At that time, HIV frequently continued on to full-blown AIDS, and the medical community was still trying to develop effective treatments for HIV. For the next four years, Freddie Mercury would continue to tour, to be in the public eye, and to deny that he was ill. So during this time, Freddie Mercury himself was a ‘great pretender.’

Over the intervening years, Mercury did develop AIDS, and eventually he became so weak that touring was out of the question. Those few times that he appeared in public, his haggard appearance raised questions about his health.

Freddie Mercury continued to deny that he was seriously ill until Nov. 22, 1991. At that time Mercury issued a press release acknowledging that he had AIDS. Just over 24 hours later, Mercury died from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS.

As Freddie Mercury was the first major celebrity in the music world to die from AIDS, his passing was a great shock to his fans around the globe. Sales of Queen albums spiked following Mercury’s death.

Poster for Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Wembley Stadium, April 1992.

Poster for Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Wembley Stadium, April 1992.

Also, in 1992 the Mike Myers movie Wayne’s World featured the song Bohemian Rhapsody. That single from Queen was re-issued following the release of Wayne’s World, and peaked at #2 on the pop charts.

On April 20, 1992, a Freddie Mercury Tribute concert was held at Wembley Stadium in London. At left we show the poster for that charity concert to benefit AIDS awareness.

Featuring the remaining members of Queen plus a long list of rock music stars, the concert was broadcast live worldwide on radio and TV.  It is estimated that the concert may have reached as many as 1 billion people.

Freddie Mercury was the flamboyant front man for one of the most popular bands in the history of rock and roll. His death at age 45 has simply increased his legendary status.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, The Great Pretender
Wikipedia, The Platters
Wikipedia, Alan Freed
Wikipedia, Sam Cooke
Wikipedia, Allen Klein
Wikipedia, Freddie Mercury
Wikipedia, Queen (band)

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Doo-Wop, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Soul music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Great Pretender: Tony Williams and The Platters; Sam Cooke; Freddie Mercury

  1. Pingback: A Change Is Gonna Come: Sam Cooke; Al Green; Beyonce | Tim's Cover Story

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