Sunday, February 22, 2015

Betty Smith's "Hand Jive": The hit that never was


 

The hand jive was supposed to sweep the nation in 1958. The clapping game, which originated in England and was later depicted in the film Grease, was "destined to become the biggest teenage fad in the history of the record business."

So said London Records, the label that released the original version of "Hand Jive" by the Betty Smith Group. Billboard reported that Smith's "Hand Jive" was the hottest selling record in Denver at one point, and London's ads said that one spin of "Hand Jive" in New York had elicited over 1,000 inquiries from listeners.

London promoted the record heavily, taking out full-page ads in the trade magazines to offer DJs free records and free instructions on how to do the hand jive. The clapping game was said to be a great alternative to dancing in spaces where "the dance floor is too crowded" or "where dancing is not allowed." The label issued an entire hand-jive album by Betty Smith, Music For Hand-Jiving, which was accurately billed as the "first hand jive LP."
Smith sang the lead vocal on "Hand Jive," but—despite all of these promotional efforts on behalf of the hand jive—American DJs flipped her record and played the instrumental B-side instead. The B-side was a smoky saxophone version of the song "Bewitched," a tune from the 1940 film Pal Joey that was originally known by its full title, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." The song had been a hit for several artists in 1950, including Doris Day and Gordon Jenkins. Somewhat surprisingly, Smith herself was the saxophone soloist on her group's rendition of "Bewitched." The record reached #51 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A competing hand-jive song, "(Six-Five) Hand Jive," was released in two versions: one by Don Lang & His Frantic Five and one by the Show Brothers. Both groups were British. Neither of these records were hits either.

It would take an American act, Johnny Otis, to break through with a hand-jive song. That song, "Willie and the Hand Jive," was a Top 10 hit on the pop and R&B charts in 1958. Eric Clapton put the song in the Top 40 again with his 1974 remake.

Betty Smith playing her saxophone
As for Betty Smith, she released a few more singles on London, but none were hits in England or the United States. Malcolm Lockyer was the musical director on Smith's early recordings, and she continued to work with him into the 1970s. In 1974, they released an album titled I'm Old Fashioned on the British label Contour Records, which specialized in easy listening and budget recordings.  





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