Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Sick" sound: The craze for amateur girl singers in 1960-61

Kathy Young

An odd musical craze swept the nation in 1960-61. Billboard called it the "sick" sound, characterizing it as "not necessarily true to pitch." It was a brief string of hits by amateur teen girl singers whose voices weren't, let's say, quite as polished as radio listeners were accustomed to.

Cathy Jean

Writer and future music publicist Ren Grevatt wryly described this "interesting new kind of artist" in a 1961 Billboard article about the influx of inexperienced teenage girl singers into the pop charts: Kathy (Young) & The Innocents, Cathy Jean & The Roommates, and Rosie & The Originals.

In all cases, the vocalists were 14- or 15-year-old girls with novice singing ability, and all enjoyed major hits in 1960-61: Kathy Young with "A Thousand Stars" and "Happy Birthday Blues," Cathy Jean with "Please Love Me Forever," and Rosie with "Angel Baby."

Rosalie Hamlin of Rosie & the Originals
In addition to their similar sound, Grevatt remarked on the similarity in their names:
"With a flourish of informality, these thrushes may also set a new pattern in using only their first names, as in Cathy Jean, Rosie, and now one who calls herself simply, Connie. Connie and the Cones are out this week with 'No Time for Tears' and 'Take All the Kisses,' on Roulette." 
Connie Sue Landers AKA Connie Dee
of Connie and the Cones
(To be fair, Connie of Connie and the Cones was like those other artists in name only. Connie Sue Landers, AKA Connie Dee, was actually an excellent vocalist.)

Another new "sick" act that Grevatt mentioned was the Creschendos, whose single "Take My Heart" and "My Heart's Desire" was picked up for national distribution by Gone Records in 1961. The female vocalist wasn't named on the label, but as Grevatt snarkily added, "in the current furor for this kind of performance ... she cannot long remain anonymous." In fact, the vocalist was Wanda Burt, the only African-American artist to get lumped in with the sick scenesters. She was older than the others, having been about 18 when the record was recorded. 

Wanda Burt of the Creschendos/Crescendos/
Casual Crescendos
Even though Grevatt singled out girl singers, the boys had some purveyors of the sick sound too. The most obvious example is Fabian, who was signed to a recording contract on the basis of his looks. He had no innate singing ability—as his first record, "Shivers," shows—but plenty of hits.

Maybe listeners found this kind of guileless, unsophisticated singing relatable and down-to-earth, but if so, their enthusiasm didn't last long. Cathy Jean, Rosie, and Kathy Young had no further hits on the Hot 100 after 1961 (although Young nearly had a hit in 1964 with "All You Had to Do," a duet with Chris Montez that showed some improvement in her vocal technique). Interestingly, Fabian's run of Billboard chart hits, which began in 1959, ended in 1960, so his career as a hit-maker died out around the same time as those of his female counterparts.
In the years since the heyday of the sick sound, amateur young singers have scored pop hits on occasion, but the records have tended to be novelties or topical songs of some sort (like Sharon Batts' 1985 hit "Dear Mr. Jesus") rather than teen love songs. Now that a seemingly infinite number of amateur singers can be heard on YouTube, Bandcamp, SoundCloud, etc., the novelty of hearing them on the radio is greatly diminished.