Only in America - a song that was a high just before I was a teenager. Listening to the lyrics carefully today, I decided to research both the words and their history. My finds follow my thoughts and feelings.
This song as I heard it pushed a message for me, as a white man. Who is "a guy from anywhere"?
Is that a Black man?
Is that a LatinX woman?
In both cases, one can look at this in two distinctly contrasting ways:
1. We must be tolerant of the times. Back in those days what was relevant and important were the feelings of white teenagers, boys, and the girls that admired them?
2. This song showed/shows a world where boys' egos needed to be boosted in their quests for "love" and the world was a narrow world of white male privilege.
It is ironic that the original song was intended to relate to the waking up of our country to the fight for equality for Black People.
Only in AmericaCan a guy from anywhere
Go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire
Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President
Only in America
Land of opportunity, yeah
Would a classy girl like you fall for a poor boy like me
Written by the Brill Building songwriters Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, this song was first recorded by The Drifters, with lead vocals by Rudy Lewis, who sang their hits "On Broadway" and "Up On The Roof." The song was written at a time before integration, and the lyrics were originally about racism. It had the following chorus:
Only in America, land of opportunity
Can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me
Only in America, where they preach the Golden Rule
Will they start to march when my kids go to school
Atlantic Records had a problem with the lyrics, so the songwriters changed them to be a satiric message of patriotism. The Drifters recorded the song with these new "patriotic" lyrics, but refused to release it because they did not believe that message.
The songwriters Mann and Weil were also upset with the changes to the song and started taking more control of how their songs were recorded, with Mann taking on more production duties.
Kenny Vance of Jay & the Americans told Songfacts how they came to record this song: "I happened to go up to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's office, because I used to hang out there as a kid - they produced us. I guess I was like a barometer for them, and they played me 'Only In America.' I said, 'Boy, that would be great if we could have that,' because we're Jay & the Americans.
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