That Time I Got To Rate-A-Record

One of the most memorable features of American Bandstand was Rate-A-Record.  Two “typical” teenagers were chosen “at random” from the studio audience, and they listened to a new record while the rest of the kids did their best to dance to the music.  The two teenagers would pick scores from 35 to 98, after which Dick Clark would ask them to comment on why they picked their score.  The apocryphal answer was, “It has a good beat and you can dance to it,” but I can also remember records getting lower scores with comments such as, “The dancers seemed confused.”  Dick would write their scores down on a grid, and then the entire process would be repeated with a second record. Dick would then average the two scores (originally a third teenager would record the scores and calculate the averages, but perhaps that turned out to be too much of a challenge for a mere teenager who was in front of a camera for the first time).  Dick would finally ask the teenagers if they thought either of the two records would be a hit.  There are lots of videos of Rate-A-Record online, but most of them seem to be for records I don’t remember at all.

I never got to go to see American Bandstand in person, mostly because Philidelphia was more than a simple train ride away.  I did, however, have my own opportunity to do a Rate-A-Record in 1966.

One of my father’s friends, Bill Stegmeyer, had written A Symphony For Susan and the song had been recorded by the Arbors, a group that up to that point had only one non-hit record to their name.  Bill not only wrote the song, he arranged it as well.  Columbia Records was impressed enough by the recording that was ready for release on Carney Records that they somehow acquired rights to the record.  Columbia being the label it was, after they got rights to the record they (of course) determined that the record wasn’t quite up to their standards. Columbia added an unnecessary string section behind the existing recording.  The resulting record was pressed on a subsidiary of Columbia, Date Records.  The release of the record had a secret purpose: Bill’s goal was to make enough money off the record to buy his daughter (Susan) a horse.

Before the record was released to radio stations and record stores, my dad and I visited the Stegmeyers and I was afforded the opportunity to sit and listen to the record.  After which, of course, I was grilled about my reaction to the record.  For once I understood how those poor teenagers felt about being put on the spot!  The record had nice harmonies (similar to Lettermen records…and the Lettermen would later record the song themselves).  There was also a very lush string section, but the net effect was to sound very not top-40 for the mid-sixties.  I suggested that it was too similar to Cherish by the Association; not that they sounded alike, but that it was too soon for another record like that to be a hit. I was ignoring, of course, that both I’ve Got You Under My Skin by the 4 Seasons and Born Free by Roger Williams were in the top ten of the charts at the same time already.  I was sure that record buyers already had string fatigue.

I was no longer popular in the Stegmeyer household, but as it turned out I was correct.  The record dented the charts on WMCA, lasting all of three weeks and peaking at number 40.  WABC, of course, simply ignored the record.  Nationally the record stuck around for ten weeks, reaching #51 before disappearing.  The record did better on the Adult Contemporary charts when it got up to #18, but I’m not sure that resulted in very many sales.

You can compare the original version of the song with the updated version I heard and decide for yourself if the record would have been more successful without the strings.

Little did I know at the time that just a few short years later I would be playing new Arbor album cuts on my own radio show in Nashville.  A Symphony For Susan would subsequently be included on albums by the Arbors, and no doubt those sales and the new recording by the Lettermen resulted in additional royalties..no word on whether the total royalties added up to a horse for Susan.

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