“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
“I really don’t remember writing ‘Party Doll,” said Buddy Knox of Happy, Texas. “But I did, out on the farm, behind a haystack.” It was 1948, and Knox was fifteen at the time. Eight years later, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to write his own number one song. It took a lot of people, famous and not, to get it that far.
Knox went to West Texas State University, where he formed a band with two friends, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, and saw both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison play. They both recommended he take his songs and his friends 90 miles west to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with producer Norman Petty. Knox’s sister and two of her friends sang backup vocals; a more capable bassist replaced Bowen, and since Lanier didn’t have a full kit, he beat on a box stuffed with cotton (a sound that would later appear on the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away”).
The three were content with the acetates of “Party Doll,” but a farmer named Chester Oliver asked to press 1500 copies to sell around town on his own label, Triple-D Records. One copy made it to KZIP in Amarillo, Texas, where DJ Dean Kelley turned it into a regional hit. Lanier’s sister contacted Morris Levy of Roulette Records; he signed them and released the record nationwide. Ed Sullivan had him on his show, exposing “Party Doll” to the whole of the US, and the rest is history.
But the history of “Party Doll” covers was just beginning.
Roy Brown – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
As Knox’s song climbed the charts, other companies scrambled to put out their own versions to rake in their own cash. No fewer than eight covers came out in 1957, and some of them were excellent. Allmusic.com would have you believe that Roy Brown’s isn’t one of them. They call it “utterly lifeless” and say it “may well be the worst thing he ever committed to wax.” But Brown, who wrote “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and has a legit claim as one of rock’s true pioneers, sounds just fine to these ears, right from that opening, slightly tremulous “Weeellll…”
Steve Lawrence – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Before he married Eydie Gorme, a 21-year-old Steve Lawrence scored the second-biggest hit version of “Party Doll.” He sounds a little bit more polished than Knox, and this slickness would serve him well in his showbiz career as one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite singers.
Barry Frank & Michael Stewart Quartet – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Barry Frank was one of those artists who made a specialty out of releasing recordings of recent hits. If his coattailing didn’t lead to stardom, at least his talent gave him a full and lengthy career, and a spot as the lead singer of the Sammy Kaye Orchestra.
Ricky James – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
“Party Doll” had some fans across the pond, too. At the time, the British were still getting a handle on this whole new rock ‘n’ roll thing, filtering it through skiffle, trad jazz, and jump blues. Ricky James’ cover gives a good idea of how that sound could sound. Put it this way – it’s a long, long, long way from Ricky James to Rick James.
Artie Malvin – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Artie Malvin isn’t especially hip either, working with names like Glenn Miller, Pat Boone, and Jimmy Dorsey. His recording of “Party Doll” is about as L7 as it gets, but spare a thought for the guitarist, who has it in him to do something a little different with his guitar breaks.
Paul Rich – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
When Brian Epstein told the Beatles that every label had turned them down, John Lennon said, “Right. Try Embassy.” That would be Embassy Records, only available at a Woolworth’s near you, which specialized in cheap covers of current hits and didn’t even sign new talent. That enabled the career of Paul Rich, who recorded more songs for the label under his own name than anyone else (many used pseudonyms). It’s another British rocker that doesn’t quite get how to rock.
The Crests – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
The Crests are best known for “16 Candles,” their immortal doo-wop smash released in 1958. A couple years later they put out The Crests Sing All Biggies, featuring their bigger hits and covers of others’ bigger hits. Johnny Maestro’s lead vocal on “Party Doll” has all the warmth listeners remembered from “16 Candles,” and if the arrangement isn’t all that imaginative, it’s both familiar and friendly.
Don Ellis and the Royal Dukes – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Don Ellis’s cover has a unique mixture to it; it’s a rockabilly song with the wet, trebly sound of surf guitar. Combining the sounds of Buddy Holly with Dick Dale is an unexpected move, but it works here, giving the song a tougher feel.
Ronnie Dove – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Ronnie Dove had a decent career, charting several times on both pop and country charts. Before he did that, he cut his teeth with the Belltones, covering “Party Doll” in 1961. This arrangement’s mix of piano, horns, and an a cappella performance of the final line of the chorus gives it its own personal feel, but for me the highlight is the flubbed extra note from the piano at 2:06.
Leroy Van Dyke – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Leroy Van Dyke wrote “Walk On By,” which Billboard named the number one country song of all time (a record since taken over by Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise”). His 1962 cover of “Party Doll” leaned a little harder into the country & western sound than other covers. He gave it a smooth twang, befitting a singer who’d make a fine living as a pioneer performer in Branson and Las Vegas.
Bobby Vee & the Crickets – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
When Buddy Holly’s plane went down mid-tour, someone had to fill in; Bobby Vee and his band did the job and did it well enough to launch Vee on his own successful path. In 1962 he would release Bobby Vee Meets the Crickets; his version of “Party Doll” does the neat trick of showing how Buddy might have sung it while keeping it Bobby’s.
Gene Vincent – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Leave it to Gene Vincent to understand how to imbue a song with the rock & roll feel, even when taking it at a gentle, easy pace. “Party Doll” sounds real here, in a way it doesn’t – can’t – in covers by the likes of Malvin and Rich. The man who knew the poetry and power in the word be-bop-a-lula brings a percolating warmth to the song, and it wasn’t hard to know the next step after the gentle simmer.
Dickey Lee – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Dickey Lee wrote the George Jones classic “She Thinks I Still Care,” but he’s best known for “Patches,” a tale of teen suicide that sold a million copies despite being banned on many radio stations for its dark subject matter. His cover of “Party Doll” is fairly pedestrian, with the addition of horns being the most novel thing about it.
The Hullaballoos – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
The Hullaballoos were a band from Hull (natch), and they looked & sounded like they were put together to take advantage of Americans who were geared up to love any soldiers in the British Invasion. Playing Buddy Holly-type music with Ramones-type speed and brevity, they brought “Party Doll” into the mid-sixties with verve and energy, a service that we should all be grateful for.
Teddie Palmer – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
Times changed, and “Party Doll” was no longer speaking for the youth of the day; consequently, covers of the song fell off considerably. Here’s one of the very few from the seventies, courtesy of Teddie Palmer. Palmer hails from Northern Island, where he paid his stage dues for over twenty years before moving into the management game. He may never have gotten famous, but he was a working musician who made a lot of records and got a lot of applause. His cover of “Party Doll” comes off his 1978 solo record Teddie.
Big Daddy – Party Doll (Buddy Knox cover)
We’ll wind this up with a laugh. Big Daddy, not yet doing their “yesterday’s sound with today’s hits” m.o., appeared on 1979’s Rhino Brothers Circus Royale, a collection of novelty songs that marked the first LP appearance of Barnes & Barnes’s “Fish Heads.” There, they gave “Party Doll” a whole new meaning by rewriting the verses. What’s the new meaning? Well, let’s put it this way: The titular character now has an inflated sense of self-worth.