Learning to Listen (LTL) Excerpt 11: Roy Hamilton: Star, pioneer, and misfit

As I write this there is an online petition for those who support the induction of black baritone Roy Hamilton (1929-69) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given his influence on Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, and the Righteous Brothers this only seems fair. Hamilton’s classic versions of “Hurt” and “Unchained Melody” were popular hits for him and became, arguably, the definitive versions. If the purpose of institutions like the Hall is to recognize talented and influential performers Hamilton easily earns this distinction.

 Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Pop music is filled with classically trained male singers who have translated operatic technique into pop. These include Italianate balladeers like Mario Lanza, singing actors including Robert Goulet, Gordon MacRae, John Raitt and Paul Robeson, jazz-oriented singers like Johnny Hartman, and actual Italian crossover-pop acts like Andrea Bocelli. Though R&B music has its share of robust vocalists it is rarely associated with the refinement and technique native to the operatic tradition. Roy Hamilton was among the first commercially significant singers to challenge such a dichotomy. Hamilton began recording in 1954 when he scored an R&B and pop hit with his interpretation of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which gained a new life when it went from being a show tune to a civil rights anthem during the early 1960s.

Hamilton, as I discuss in other chapters, represents the liminal position many black singers found themselves in during the mid-1950s-mid-1960s. Music was already racially segregated in the industry in the early 1950s when Hamilton began recording, and as rock ‘n’ roll grew more prominent music grew more socially divided into markets. R&B was for blacks, rock was for teenagers, and LPs were for adult buyers of classical, jazz, and Broadway music. Among the victims of these formulas were black singers who straddled the boundaries between pop, R&B, and jazz, which seem much clearer today than they did in the 1950s.

 Dinah Washington is commonly referred to as a jazz singer today, but she was actually the most prominent female vocalist in commercial R&B from late 1940s-early 1960s, as well as a respected jazz-oriented singer, and an accomplished interpreter of the classic blues.  Similarly performers like Gloria Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Ernestine Anderson, and Dakota Staton all began singing between the late 1950s and early 1960s and have all blurred (artificial) genre boundaries which limited their careers, with the exception of Wilson.  It may sound essentialist to say this, but my impression is that, at the time, black singers working in R&B, jazz and blues were viewed by black audiences as simply making black music—i.e. music made by black musicians which was important since in the era of segregation (and post-segregation) black culture was primarily marketed to black audiences through radio stations, stores, and performance venues aimed at blacks.

Hamilton is broadly considered an R&B singer since he was a black man, with a background in gospel music, whose greatest commercial successes appeared on the R&B singles chart. But in reality this tells little of his complicated story. Collectables Records has reissued his Epic recordings spanning from 1954-62 and they demand some serious questioning of what R&B and black pop can mean. The bulk of his Epic LPs are standards albums comprised of the kinds of songs Sinatra, Como, Eckstine, and Cole sang including Roy Hamilton, With All My Love, Come Out Swingin,’ Why Fight the Feeling?, and Soft ‘N’ Warm. The first is a mix of ballads and mid-tempo arrangements; the second is primarily lushly arranged ballads; Come and Why are big band swing sets, and Soft is a ballad set. As a vocalist Hamilton is interesting because he is too gospel to sound like a straight crooner, too polished to adhere to conventions of R&B voices of the time, more rhythmically conservative than a traditional jazz singer, and yet too mature to fit into the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and teen pop.  His focus on standard material was such that his two ventures outside of this are the overt genre sets Spirituals and the rock and R&B-oriented Mr. Rock ‘N’ Soul which still includes a fair share of standards. Hamilton’s confidence with some of popular music’s most harmonically complex pop ballads (“All the Thing You Are”) and swingers, and his comfort with gospel reflect his formal classical vocal training and his pre-fame gospel roots. Given this it’s not surprising that Rock ‘N’ Soul is his least convincing set. Hamilton is always professional and the set has some entertaining performances, but as a whole it feels overtly trendy.

The bonus tracks featured on some of his reissued LPs and the two singles collections You’ll Never Walk Alone and Golden Boy reveal the dual personality Epic was trying to create for him. Walk mixes classy ballad fare like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Ebb Tide,” “Unchained Melody,” and “If I Loved You” that reiterates the commercial relevance of this material even as rock ‘n’ roll was making commercial inroads. Golden Boy leans toward R&B material like “Hurt” (a hit for Timi Yuro in 1961), MOR (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing”), and forgettable pop songs. The bonus tracks on his albums also tend toward trendy ephemeral material.

 Source: amazon.com.

Source: amazon.com.

As a musical figure Hamilton has a strange place in pop historical lore. Though his robust vocal style and creamy timbre is evident in Presley, Wilson, and others he is not commonly referenced as his talent and influence would merit. He is referenced in Soul in the City, Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding, and Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. He was featured in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, but was deleted from its most recent edition published in 2001. The recent reissues of his material explain his absence from the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide (updated in 2003 but with no Hamilton entry) and the Musichound R&B Guide (published 1998). His refined enunciation and phrasing, romantic sensibility, and penchant for smooth balladry and light swing is quite different from the kind of visceral R&B that has made R. Kelly, Usher, and other more recent figures popular.

Listening to his recordings it’s clear that he was talented, versatile, and influential but he’s a hard figure to place. His fate is similar to that of Ed Townsend. Townsend, who is best known for the 1959 pop and R&B hit “For Your Love,” was a smooth crooner with a big voice who loved singing with an orchestra. Though he is remembered as an R&B singer, the handful of albums he recorded for Capitol Records were not jukebox fare.  Rather they were lushly arranged orchestral renditions of popular standards. Townsend’s Capitol period was short and he never rebounded as a singer, though he became a successful songwriter.

It’s hard not to empathize with them since their respective legacies are endangered by the rigid generational, racial, and genre boundaries popular music has been adhering to since the beginning of commercial pop music, but that grew especially prominent during the 1950s. The rise of R&B made a space for gospel-influenced black performers to enter into the commercial mainstream. But pressures for black performers to either perform exclusively in this mode, or to tone down these elements to make them more marketable to white audiences is one of the great compromises in pop music that marginalizes less malleable talents. The brand of gentlemanly pop Hamilton and Townsend performed placed them out of vogue with rock ‘n’ roll and mainstream R&B which was unusual, especially for black performers from the mid-1960s onward [....]


For more information on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame petition visit: http://royhamilton.net/

Check out this essay on Hamilton’s influence on Elvis Presley: http://www.elvisinfonet.com/presley_hamilton_spotlight.html