Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gene Sullivan's "Please Pass the Biscuits" (1958)


Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan

I saw that Acrobat Records in the UK recently released a four-disc box set called The Greatest Country Hits of 1958, and Gene Sullivan's "Please Pass the Biscuits" was the only song on it that I didn't already own. I was familiar with the song from Jimmy Dean's version, but I had never even heard Sullivan's version, even though it was a Top 10 country hit—and even though 1958 might be my favorite year for music. 

Before "Please Pass the Biscuits," Sullivan was half of the country duo Wiley & Gene with Wiley Walker. In 1940-41, the two of them wrote and recorded "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," which Elvis Presley popularized in 1956. The group's only hit was "Make Room in Your Heart for a Friend," which was a #2 country hit in 1946. The Bronco Buster label in Germany released an anthology of Wiley & Gene's 1940s recordings, but it doesn't include "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" for some reason. Unlike many acts from that period, Wiley & Gene wrote most of the songs they recorded.

In 1957, about a decade after the heyday of Wiley & Gene, Sullivan recorded a demo of a novelty song he wrote, "Please Pass the Biscuits," for Little Jimmie Dickens, who often recorded similar comedy songs, like "Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait." Columbia liked Sullivan's demo recording enough to release it as a Sullivan record instead of a Little Jimmy Dickens one, so Sullivan's version was released as Columbia 40971. I don't know if Columbia released Sullivan's demo or had Sullivan re-record it. It sounds like it could be a demo.

The song, which mixed singing and recitation, portrayed a hungry guy who "can't eat without bread" but can't get anyone to pass him the biscuits at suppertime. Despite his constant complaining, the kinfolks at the table eat all of the biscuits, and he never gets one.
 
A Columbia Records ad in September 1957 said that advance copies of Sullivan's record were making noise in Seattle. The song became a national Top 10 country hit on the Billboard chart soon afterward, where it remained well into 1958. In some cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, it was a Top 5 hit. Sullivan's record also was released in Australia and New Zealand by the CBS Coronet label.



I don't think that Dickens actually recorded "Please Pass the Biscuits" in 1957; Columbia must have decided to release Sullivan's version before the song even got to Dickens. Bear Family Records in Germany released a box set of Dickens' complete 1950s Columbia recordings—released and unreleased—and "Please Pass the Biscuits" isn't on it.

In early 1958, Andre Williams, the R&B singer, recorded a cover of "Please Pass the Biscuits" for Fortune Records as "Pass the Biscuits Please." Williams even claimed composer credit for it. Sullivan wasn't credited on Williams' single at all. 

Jimmy Dean recorded the song in 1962 as the B-side of his single "Little Black Book." In Dean's version, a vocal chorus sings the singing part and Dean handles the recitation. I'm not a great fan of this song (even though I'm writing a whole blog post about it), but if I had to listen to it, I'd choose Dean's version.

The last recording of "Please Pass the Biscuits" that I know of is Norval & Ivy's 1967 recording for Imperial Records. Norval & Ivy were a duo of Jimmy Bryant and Red Rhodes, who recorded one album, Wingin' It With Norval & Ivy, which contained the group's version of "Please Pass the Biscuits." Their version is pretty similar to Jimmy Dean's.

Surprisingly, even though he scored a Top 10 country hit with "Please Pass the Biscuits," Sullivan never released a follow-up record. After his lone solo hit, he ran a music store in Oklahoma City and occasionally performed with Wiley, until Wiley died in 1966. After that, Sullivan performed occasionally as a solo act until he died in 1984.

Recitations—humorous ones and serious ones—were fixtures on the country music chart into the mid 1970s, but they're rare today. The last big year for recitations in country music was 1976, when both Jimmy Dean's "I.O.U." and Red Sovine's "Teddy Bear" cracked the country Top 10.

1 comment:

  1. I could have sworn I first heard this song on a Jimmy Dickens record at my Aunt Edna's house during the brief time we lived with her in 1950 or '51. Guess it must have been Gene Sullivan. Memories do get mixed up.

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