Be forewarned. You may never be able to get this record out of your head. Be forewarned.
"Bila" by The Versatones ranks right up there with "Shombalor" and "Rubber Biscuit" as the best examples of nonsense syllable doo-wop. But while "Shombalor" and "Rubber Biscuit" have some sort of melody, and are fun to attempt to sing along with, this record sounds atonal and THREATENING, as if the group will jump out of the record and dance around your house like a bunch of crazy people. In fact, if you dropped a microphone into a mental ward, the result would probably sound a lot like this record. There is NO information about this group, either on the internet or in the dozens of books about rock and roll history in my personal library. Apparently this group only made this ONE 45, and disappeared from view (by the way, these are NOT the same Versatones who recorded for RCA in 1956-57). Even though it was re-released several times, the record never hit the national charts.
Yet, over the years, it has become a well-remembered track for record collectors, especially in the New York and Philadelphia areas. The record is insane, the recording itself is the lowest of lo-fi; heck, it wasn't even the A-side of the record. What's the story here?
Apparently, this was a New York group, because they came to the attention of novelty record king Dickie Goodman, who was based in New York, sometime in late 1957. Dickie was in the midst of a falling out with the distributor of his record label, Luniverse Records, so he decided to go independent, forming the All Star Record Corporation, which would distribute the final Buchanan and Goodman single on Luniverse, "The Flying Saucer Goes West". Before the "Flying Saucer" craze, Goodman was actually a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, and had written a song called "Tight Skirt And Sweater" for the Versatones to record as the first release on the All Star label. They needed a flip side, and the group had their own song (written by the mysterious "C. Worrell - S. Tindall") called "Bila", so Dickie had them knock it out in one take and he put out the 45 in March or April 1958. "Tight Skirt", the A-side, began receiving airplay almost immediately (it didn't hurt that Alan Freed was a close friend of Dickie's) but soon there were problems - the record was banned by many stations for "obscenity" (probably because of the "leering" way they sang about the girl in the tight skirt and sweater - that's the only reason I can figure) and soon died a quick death, along with All Star Records.
Let's fast forward a couple of years, to 1960. The New York subway tunnel below Times Square at Broadway and 42nd Street had a tiny record shop located in it, called Times Square Records. The proprietor was a cadaverous old man named Irving "Slim" Rose. You can read the history of his store here. Anyway, Slim sold obscure doo-wop 45s, many of which became big-time collectors' items after Slim had them played on Allan Fredericks' "Night Train" program (which was sponsored by Times Square Records, naturally). Slim loved weird group sounds, and had an old copy of "Tight Skirt", but LOVED the flip, "Bila". Fredericks started playing it on his radio show, and Slim soon sold out of his stock of old All Star copies. Luckily for Slim, at that time (March 1960) Fenway Records in Pittsburgh reissued the track (because it was a Top Ten hit in that city, thanks to radio station KQV), and "Bila", now promoted to the A-side, sold respectably in the New York area, mainly out of Slim's store.
We fast forward again, to 1963 Philadelphia. Jerry Blavat, the legendary "Geator With The Heater" on WCAM radio, finds a copy of "Bila" and starts thrashing it on HIS show, creating a HUGE demand for the track in Philly (Blavat did this a lot - in 1964 he started playing a record called "God Only Knows" by The Capris and created another big demand, even though the record was originally released in 1954!!). Atlantic Records somehow heard about this, and re-released "Bila" in December, 1963. Once again, the record flopped nationally, but it kept selling in Philadelphia! So Jerry Greene, proprietor of the Record Museum store in Philly (and former right-hand man to Slim Rose until Slim, in his usual stingy way, decided that Jerry wasn't worth the nominal raise he asked for) leased the track from Atlantic and issued it on his Lost Nite label, where it sold many, many copies throughout the 1960s.
To this day, "Bila" remains a Philadelphia favorite. Jerry Blavat still dusts it off every once in a while when he makes personal appearances. Every time I play it on my radio show, someone always calls and says "I can't BELIEVE you played that!"
I still don't know what this song means, and I don't think anyone ever will. Except C. Worrell and S. Tindall. Maybe.
The Versatones - Bila (All Star 501) - 1958