If there were ever a song that illustrates the muddle we are in about race, tolerance and offensiveness, it’s my Friday Song this week, ‘That’s Why They Call Me “Shine”‘. The song has taken a peculiar journey over the past century which, as far as I (or, rather, Google) can see, has never been recounted.
It was written by Cecil Mack, born Richard C McPherson, with music by Ford Dabney, and released in 1910. Mack has an impressive list of credits, including ‘Charleston’ and – surely this one is due for a revival – ‘I’m in the Right Church But the Wrong Pew’ and Dabney was a former vaudeville performer and band-leader who worked with the famous showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Both Mack and Dabney were black and, at a time of grim racial prejudice, the song they wrote together courageously takes on the subject race hate but in a clever, comical way.
The term ‘shine’ was a racial insult. In his lyrics, Cecil Mack takes the insult and turns it into a compliment. The introduction makes the idea as clear as it can be:
‘When I was born they christened me plain Samuel Johnson Brown,
I hadn’t grown so very big ‘fore some folks in the town
Had changed it ’round to Sambo, I was Rastus to a few,
Then Choc’late Drop was added by some others that I knew,
And then to cap the climax I was strolling down the line
When someone shouted, “Fellers, hey, come on and pipe the Shine.”
But I don’t care a bit,
Here’s how I figure it….’
Or, as the second verse (not sung by Ry Cooder) puts it:
‘A rose, they say, by any other name would smell as sweet,
So if that’s right, why should a nickname take me off my feet?
Why, ev’rything that’s precious from a gold piece to a dime
And diamonds, pearls, and rubies ain’t no good unless they shine.’
It was, arguably, the first jazz protest song.
But not for long. The explanatory lyrics were soon forgotten. ‘That’s Why They Call Me “Shine”‘ was reduced to ‘Shine’. The chorus became the song.
‘ ‘Cause my hair is curly,
‘Cause my teeth are pearly,
Just because I always wear a smile,
Like to dress up in the latest style,
‘Cause I’m glad I’m living.
Take troubles smiling, never whine;
Just because my color’s shady,
Slightly diff’rent maybe,
That’s why they call me “Shine.” ‘
An instrumental version of the song was a hit in 1924 for the California Ramblers, and it was was back in the Top Ten in 1932 in an amazing recording by Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers. Here the racial theme is still just about intact: Crosby’s part is in the second person while the Mills Brothers are in the first. There’s even a wince-making changeover between verses.
Bing Crosby: Oh Chocolate Drop –
Mills Brother: That’s me…’
Soon after this, the song became comprehensively sanitised. It was sung by Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine, covered by Django Reinhardt. By the time Joe Brown and His Bruvvers cashed in with a rock version in 1961, the narrator of the song was no longer even black – he was a cheery, curly-haired cockney who made the whole world smile.
The oddest part of the story is that as the bleached version of ‘Shine’ became established, it was the original anti-race message that became problematic. When Ry Cooder included the original version in his 1978 album Jazz (one of his best and widely under-rated, in my view), there was much tut-tutting and sucking of teeth among reviewers. I included the full song in my show Taboo-Be-Do!, a musical tour through politically incorrect music, but, when I suggested playing it during a local radio interviewer, the presenter almost fainted clean away.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that a song with a powerful, unsettling message about race has down the years been cleaned up, whitened and rendered harmless. I suspect that Cecil Mack wouldn’t have cared too much – his song has been a hit for successive generations, after all. But to me there’s something paradoxically racist about this process of civilised censorship in the sacred name of good taste and not causing offense.
What a hero Ry Cooder is for setting the record straight.