Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Radio's first filibuster" gave Art Mooney an unlikely hit in 1948

The story of Art Mooney's 1948 hit "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" is one in which a disc jockey's ridicule inadvertently turned a record into one of the biggest hits of the year. 

The 1940s and '50s were a time when personality disc jockeys could make or break a record; these deejays were tastemakers who could turn even old and obscure records into current hits. Al "Jazzbo" Collins was one such disc jockey. His Jazzbo Jamboree was broadcast from Salt Lake City, Utah's KNAK beginning in 1946. 

Collins was a zany character who pulled many promotional stunts in his career. He used to broadcast from a barber's chair, he once participated in a public wrestling match with a rival disc jockey, and he even cut a few records of his own: some children's singles and a 1967 album for Impulse!, A Lovely Bunch of Al Jazzbo Collins and the Bandidos. The album title refers to his early '60s television show, The Al Collins Show, on which he would force his celebrity guests to don a Mexican bandit costume and say to the camera, "I don't got to show you no stinkin' badges!" If you're familiar with that phrase, then you can thank Collins for helping to popularize it.

In 1948, while Collins was still at KNAK in Salt Lake City, MGM Records sent him a promo copy of the new Art Mooney record, "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover." This old-fashioned recording features the banjo of Mike Pingitore, who had previously played with Paul Whiteman, on a tune from 1927 that was associated with Al Jolson. Mooney's recording also has a mixed choir that sings in unison, not harmony, like a community sing-along. It's a pretty goofy record. 

"Collins's short-fused temper exploded because such a disk was sent to an established jazz deejay,"  Arnold Shaw wrote in his 1974 book The Rockin' 50s. Collins proceeded to play the record for hours while ranting about it and ridiculing it. 

Billboard reported on the stunt, describing Collins's act as "radio's first filbuster" and "a heroic effort" to sink Mooney's record. The stunt backfired though, and the show turned into—as Billboard put it—"chaos" and a "clambake for the hapless Collins."

Collins expected his jazz listeners to join him in protesting MGM's ridiculous offering, but instead, Billboard wrote, "phone calls poured in from pleased listeners who added insult to Collins's injury by praising him 'for playing something good for a change.'" 

The show reached a crescendo with Collins broadcasting his callers' "delighted screams," and then the police got involved somehow. Afterward, Collins said, in reference to his misguided listeners, "I never knew they were so square!"

The stunt helped to stoke an interest in Mooney's tune that spread across the nation. The record went to #1 on the Billboard pop chart and became one of the 10 biggest hits of 1948. Many competing versions were released, some of which charted. Russ Morgan, Alvino Rey, and the Three Suns had versions that reached the Top 10. Versions by the Uptown String Band and Arthur Godfrey just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11 and #14, respectively. In Australia, a version by George Trevare topped the pop chart. 

Apparently unbeknownst to Collins, the real instigator of this "Four Leaf Clover" revival was not Art Mooney but the Uptown String Band. The Uptown String Band was a long-running ensemble that started performing at Philadelphia's Mummers Parade in 1938. 

In 1947, the group released a recording of "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" on the independent Krantz label. When the record started to make some noise, Mercury Records picked it up for national release, and the cover versions—including Art Mooney's—began to pile on. Krantz advertised the Uptown String Band's version as "the original" and billed itself as "the originators of the country's best selling string band records," but to no avail. Mooney's version, with an inadvertent assist from Jazzbo Collins, soared to the top of the chart.

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