Wednesday, February 19, 2014


How about a song that became a big hit…after a complete lyrical re-write?

In 1953, Georgie Shaw and Tex Ritter both recorded "Let Me Go, Devil," written by country singer and songwriter Jenny Lou Carson. Jenny was the first woman to write a #1 country hit ("You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often"). Her redundant tune about demon rum:


"Let me go, let me go, let me go, devil. Stay away, stay away, stay away from my soul!
I got so low, got so low, yes so low, devil. I let you, evil you, get control!

...I lost my pride, lost my friends, it's the end, Devil. Let me go let me go, let me go!"
I'm gonna fight, gonna fight, with my might, Devil. Gotta win over sin if I can.
I've been a fool, yes a fool, just your tool, Devil. A disgrace to the race of man!

The song did ok with the country market, but that was about it. Music producer Mitch Miller was aware of the song, though, and liked the waltz melody, if not the lyrics. In addition to producing records, he was working on the hour-long TV series "Studio One." For an episode about a disc jockey trying to help catch a killer, he needed an ironic song that could be played over and over. And, no, there was no line of dialogue about "Play "Misty" for me."

New lyrics turned "Let Me Go, Devil" into "Let Me Go, Lover," and that was the title for the show's November 15, 1954 episode starring Joe Maross, Cliff Norton and Connie Sawyer. The number was sung by an unknown but promising 18 year-old New Jersey native named Joan Weber. After the broadcast, people were asking disc jockeys to play the song, and hunting for it at local record stores. They quickly got their wish. The original 78rpm pressing adds: "From the "Studio One" TV Production," and credits it to "Hill- J.L. Carson."

Hill? That was one, if not all of the song writing team of Fred Wise, Kay Twomey and Ben Weisman, who apparently chose Al Hill as a space-saving pseudonym when they doctored songs. Of the three, only Ben Weisman had a strong solo career, having a hand in over 50 songs recorded by Elvis Presley. Did it really take three people to switch around a country ballad about alcoholism into a universal song of love's anguish?

Let me go, let me go, let me go, lover. Let me be, set me free from your spell.
You make me weep, cut me deep, I can't sleep, lover. I was cursed from the first day I fell!
…Please turn me loose, what's the use, let me go, lover. Let me go, let me go, let me go!

Within a month, the Joan Weber Columbia recording was on the Billboard charts, with competition from Teresa Brewer (her Coral single hit #6 and the credit for it read: Jenny Lou Carson- Special Lyrics by Al Hill) and lilting Patti Page (who reached #10 for Mercury). Peggy Lee, on Decca, reached #26). There was also a version from the Doo Wop group The Counts (on Dot), and Columbia even competed with their own budding star with a 78rpm from Ruby Murray. (Within a few years, there would also be covers by Wanda Jackson, Dean Martin, The Valiants and Connie Francis).

Weber's version was the most dramatic, which reflected Mitch Miller's love of stark, lay-it-in-their-laps vocals (Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray were also on Columbia). Over the years, most singers use Patti Page's take as the role model, singing without angst, but as a wistful, mild-mannered sweetheart. Patti used that style on her biggest hits…the one about the rather stoic girl who watches her boyfriend get stolen away ("Tennessee Waltz") or the girl who watches her lover marry somebody else ("I Went To Your Wedding.")

Joan Weber's follow-up was actually a demo that had been sent to Miller, "Marionette." More in keeping with the country flavor of "Let Me Go, Lover," Columbia released her take on the stark C&W tune "Gone," but nothing much happened. Some say the problem was motherhood. Joan was visibly pregnant when she made a few TV appearances promoting "Let Me Go Lover," and after the birth of her daughter, couldn't put her full attention on music. Some say her band-leader husband, out of protection or jealousy or control, took over as her manager (from veteran Eddie Joy). With limited connections, her new manager couldn't get Joan booked at top clubs that only dealt with big-time operators with a vast roster of talent. Others say that Weber was simply too young for stardom and became more mentally fragile as more demands were placed on her. It's not known when she turned up at the Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, but she died there in 1981, only 45 years old.

Ending this on an insane but humorous note, it was no doubt Hank Snow's cover version of the new lyrics ("Let Me Go, Lover" was sung as "Let Me Go, Woman") that inspired "Let Me Go, Blubber" by the song-butchering "thinking man's hillbillies," Homer and Jethro. The fat lady in question probably was dating both of them at the same time. Hoping to loosen her grip on them, they insist, "You're too fat in the first place, you know it's true. You're too fat in the second place, too!"

Georgie Shaw, Joan Weber, Tex Ritter, Hank Snow, Peggy Lee, Teresa Brewer, Homer & Jethro LET ME GO LOVER, WOMAN, BLUBBER, DEVIL….


Tor Hershman said...

'Tis and amusingly informative blog you have, Kudos!

Michael Esposito said...

I first heard about Joan Weber on the Casey Kasem radio program "America's Top 40 Disappearing Acts" in 1973, and the story intrigued me. Later, I learned through the 1989 edition of Joel Whitburn's book of Top 40 hits that she had passed away in 1981. Just recently, I was reminded of her again for some reason, and was determined to learn more. The best source of information turned out to be newspaper articles from the period, which chronicle her career with greater clarity. When "Lover" began its climb, she and her husband, who became her road manager, toured extensively to promote the record, even to Juarez, Mexico, while Joan's mother took care of the baby back home. Her husband is not mentioned in articles published after 1955, so I have my doubts about Mitch Miller's assessment of his influence over Joan's career. In the 1955 articles, her husband appears as someone trying to keep her steady with all the insanity going on with the promotion of the hit. What eventually led to their divorce is not mentioned in any of the articles I was able to read. In 1956, it was reported that Joan took some time off to hone her skills as a performer, dyed her hair blonde to remake her image into a more mature one, then spent a few years performing at a variety of venues to see if she could be successful, though not as extensively as in the past and without the clout of a recent hit to get her into larger engagements. One critic wrote that he had noticed her lack of experience on her first tour, and was pleasantly surprised to note that her show was more polished than on the first tour. Roughly in 1960, around the same time her marriage ended, she made the decision to return home and focus her attention on her daughter, who was approaching school age. She made the occasional local appearance in Philadelphia or South Jersey, and the last interview I could find for her was in 1966, when she was a restaurant hostess in Philadelphia. The headline read "Singer Gives Up $1,500-A-Week To Care for Her Young Daughter." In that interview, she explained her decision to retire from show business. After that, there is only speculation as to her whereabouts. From what is available, there is a thread of the anguish she experienced in dealing with the sudden fame, and hints at anxiety and depression at various phases in her life. I remind myself that the treatment of mental illness was not the same in that period as it is today, and that it's possible that a person in her situation now may have access to better information and resources to obtain treatment, and may not have had to be institutionalized. My conclusion is that she held it together as long as she could, and tried to keep her priorities in the right place in spite of everything. I am grateful that I'm able to listen to the other songs that didn't chart to get an idea of how her voice progressed, though it would really have been great to hear what songs she performed during the second round of touring.