A ‘What’ Preview

I’m still regrouping here, doing the minimum necessary to keep the household running, drinking lots of fluids, taking lots of decongestant and other meds and just holding on. But I thought I’d toss out another preview to the feature I hope to start in earnest in the next week or so: Journalism 101.

Last Thursday, I offered a preview of the first of the five W’s: “Who.” Today, we’ll find a tune with “What” in its title, sorting among 1,375 tracks the RealPlayer found. Among the tracks we’ll have to reject are two pretty good albums, the Doobie Brothers’ What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits and the Dramatics’ Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get. (There are more that we must pass by, but – in keeping with the tenor of this post – that’s a preview.)

From the perspective of nearly sixty years, the Coasters’ 1959 track “What About Us” sounds, certainly in the first verse and perhaps in some of the later verses, like a plaint about economic inequality:

He’s got a house made of glass
Got his own swimming pool . . . what a gas
We’ve got a one-room shack
Five by six by the railroad track, well

What about us
What about us
Don’t want to cause no fuss
But what about us

He’s with a beautiful chick
Every night of the week, pretty slick
We’re two poor hung up souls
Girls won’t touch with a ten-foot pole, well

What about us
What about us
Don’t want to cause no fuss
But what about us

He goes to eat at the Ritz
Big steaks, that’s the breaks
We eat hominy grits
From a bag, what a drag

He’s got a car made of suede
With a black leather top, got it made
If we go out on dates
We go in a box on roller skates, well

What about us
What about us
Don’t want to cause no fuss
But what about us

By the second verse, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are placing the tale clearly in the teen-age milieu, but I wonder if the first verse and some of the later verses had a wider target.

“What About Us” was released in late 1959, and Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles shows it going to No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 as the B-side to “Run Red Run,” which went to No. 36. Oddly, perhaps, Whitburn’s R&B book shows “What About Us” as the A-side; it went to No. 17 on the Billboard R&B chart (with “Run Red Run” going to No. 29 on the B-side).

Whether pointed statement or teenage playlet, whether A-side or B-side, the record has the classic Coasters sound: A catchy rhythm, humor-laden lyrics, the low-voice interjections and a sax solo that I assume comes from King Curtis. Enjoy!

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