Monday, June 7, 2010

Old Buck

Of the many remarkable aspects of the career of the doo-wop legend Buck Ram, perhaps the most remarkable was that his name was really Buck Ram. Well, not exactly, but he was born Samuel Ram to Jewish immigrant parents in Chicago. He was an overachiever who graduated from high school at the age of 15 and eventually finished law school as well, but his heart was in the music business. Although young Buck couldn't sing and could barely play an instrument, he found his niche as a songwriter and manager. He wrote a poem called "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which later became a massive hit for Bing Crosby.

Or maybe not. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was recorded in time for the 1943 holiday season, and credited to Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, but once it hit big, Buck Ram claimed he had actually written the lyrics. He said that sometime earlier, he had shown the lyrics (supposedly written when he was a teenager) to some guys in a bar, then was shocked when those lyrics turned out to be the basis of Der Bingle's single. Ram had indeed copyrighted the lyrics to a song called "I'll Be Home for Christmas (Tho' Just in Memory)" back in 1942, but according to Wikipedia, it bore little resemblance to the standard we know today. Honestly, I have no idea what the truth is, but Buck's story sounds a little fishy to me. Whatever happened there, Ram ended up with a songwriting credit on later pressings.

Note what year we're in here: Buck Ram was already 36 years old in 1943. He claims to have arranged charts for the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but his primary business seems to have been managing C&W and R&B vocal groups. Then, in 1951, Ram decided to merge his songwriting and managerial talents by organizing a group for the express purpose of performing his songs. The Platters existed before Ram took their reins, but he ordered several personnel changes and hired new lead singer Tony Williams. They cut seven singles for the L.A. label Federal Records, but they all stiffed. Federal considered one of Ram's songs, "Only You," not good enough to release.

But because of Ram's managerial skills, the Platters were a successful, profitable group on the touring circuit, and the Penguins, coming off their smash "Earth Angel," asked Ram to manage them as well. Since Ram now had an actual hitmaking group on his hands, he got both them and the Platters signed to Mercury, and had the Platters re-record "Only You" (with something called "Bark, Battle and Ball" on the B side). The new version, which came out in the summer of 1955, was a huge hit, going to Number One on the R&B charts and Number Six on the Hot 100. Their follow-up single, "The Great Pretender," also written by Buck Ram (in the bathroom at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, no less), went all the way to Number One in February of 1956. Buck Ram was 48 years old.

It astonishes me that someone that old could have been so deeply involved in creating rock & roll. I've done this coming from the other side, but consider: Buck Ram was older than Benny Goodman. He was older than Perry Como. He was older than Louis Prima. The man was born in ought-seven, for pity's sake. While Frank Sinatra, who was eight years his junior, was busy denouncing rock & roll and music for cretins, Buck Ram was busy inventing it.

Ram would go on to write "Twilight Time," "The Magic Touch," and several other hits. In the first 50 years of BMI, he was one of the top five songwriters in terms of airplay, alongside Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, and Jimmy Webb. (Kris Kristofferson? Really? I would never had guessed he had that many hits.) He also got involved in many lawsuits over the ownership of the Platters name, resulting in a group calling itself the Buck Ram Platters, and frankly, I'm not interested in that.

Buck Ram died on the first day of 1991, at the age of 83. Of all the people involved in the creation of rock & roll, he was almost certainly the oldest.

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