Wednesday, January 19, 2011

THE VERSATONES - BILA


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

21 comments:

  1. I like this song for all the reasons you mentioned and you encapsulated the entire feel of it very well. You said what I thought but much better. This is a nice piece of investigative work and made for interesting reading. Thanks for taking the time.

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  2. Thanks for the nice comments. I really do enjoy trying to uncover the reasons why people like certain records, and this one has as wild and wacky a story as they come! Thank YOU for taking the time to read my blog!

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  3. To quote my bilingual brother: "Listen to the first phrase by the lead, as he begins by singing "I got a girl name(d) Bila", from which point it then trails off into total gibberish. The fact that no other lyric in the recording can be recognized by the attentive and inquisitive ear, does nothing to detract from the fact that this is simply one of the greatest recordings in the history of the human musical experience. There are few recordings that can match it for pure glory. I can't make out the lyrics to Fur Elise or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony either. Does that render them as chopped liver? I think not!"

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    1. Oh, this record is FAR from being chopped liver! I'm with you, it's a fantastic record!!

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  4. I can't help with the actual lyrics but I can point out that "baila" means dance in Spanish.

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  5. I was told these guys were from Newark and they were spanish...Bila is a girls name also...The dance they did to this record back in '64 at Jerry Blavat's Chez Vous ballroom on friday night's was one of the scariest,most,primitive rituals I've ever witnessed...It only occurred on the shadowy,underlit section they called the 'jive' side where only the greasers hung out...They were the long leather jacketed kids,some with the belts swingin' in the back,well oiled,pumped up pompadours,sharkskin slacks and Hi-boy collar shirts or Italian knits for the guys (coyotes) and huge bee-hive haired chicks (amazons) with white lipstick and fingernails,usually smellin' like Tabu perfume and Aqua-net,all wearin' pointed toe shoes/boots and struttin' with real serious gum poppin' attitude...You did not mess with nobody on the 'jive side'...They were fuckin' knuckle draggin' neanderthals and they danced their most wildest when"Bila" blasted thru those big old Electrovoice loudspeaker horns that hung on the woodn columns throughout the Rink...It sounded so LOUD and DANGEROUS!!!...The dancers would shake their jackets off,dropping them to the floor as if commanded by this wild hypnotic, jungle beat...Girls would fall to their knees while their partners would stand/slop above them and draw this imaginary sword and start swinging violently,finally stabbing her over and over until she finally crossed her arms over her chest and slowly fell back onto the floor where she lay gently writhing with her hands out as if to shield herself from the deadly blows...Finally her guy would take his two fingers,slide them down the imaginary blade as if to be cleaning off the blood, and then lick his fingers,smiling as he danced away into the dark,that primitive,pounding beat pumping thru our veins!!!...Jawdroppin' shit for a couple of 14 year old kids and to this day my friend Lou and I still agree that this was the Wildest,Cooles,most exciting moments of or entire lives....I still get chills thinking about it...What a monster,fuckin' record!...Yeah,man...The power of Rock and Roll!

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    1. Well, I attended the Friday night dances at Chez Vous (and Sunday at Wagner's) and danced front line with the Nixon brothers. We were not greasers. In fact, I was as preppy as you could get back then, and we loved Bila. I did not have a "beehive", nor did the girls dancing front line with me, but most of us did have our hair in "flips" and wore Ambush (or Canoe if we dared). What a fabulous sound it was. If I could go back in time, I would go back to being a teenager when Jerry was hosting dances. It was the best of times. I do remember seeing the kids you describe, and being slightly afraid of them (and so glad my Mom did not know they were there). It was an awakening for a girl who attended a local private Catholic girls' school, I will say that. It never was that crazy at Wagner's. Now to see if I can find Bila on YouTube.

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  6. The first pressing on Lost Nite (yellow wax and no lamp post on label) is a different version of Bila! This is fairly hard to find, and ONLY the yellow wax version is different. If you're not too familiar with the song, you must listen to both versions back-to-back to appreciate the difference.

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    2. Thank you! I have been looking for that alternate version! I must have bought 10 Lost Nite copies at flea markets trying to hear what Porky Chedwick played once. He normally spun the original but once I heard the alternate! I still would love to have it! At least I know what I am looking for now!

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  7. PS: Great blog. I wonder if you would consider adding the gadget that allows someone to follow via email subscription?

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  8. THANK you for posting this! porky Chedwick used to play this great record on the air and at his dances! As a 12-13 year old, I would move my Motorola Hi-Fi to the bedroom window and turn it as loud as it went to play this! Definitely music our parents didn't get! In fact when I hear this, I turn it up as loud as I can and it takes on another life! Bila and a few Little Richard records do this when played at excess volume! Thanks!!

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  9. I have another record by the Versatones. "So Good" on a light blue Lost Nite label, #LN-1002. Nice ballad on the flip.

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  10. I have another record by the Versatones. "So Good" on a light blue Lost Nite label, #LN-1002. Nice ballad on the flip.

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  11. OK...I'm not sure what the year was but it must have been'60 or '61. I swear this is true!!! So I was 14 or 15 years old living in Pittsburgh and knew the version of this song that Porky Chedwick and others played, quite well. I had a friend, departed now, who had an "original" version of Bila on which the words were quite clear....I don't remember all of the lyrics but I do remember "come and let me feel up Bila, get a little tit off Bila"....seriously. I'm not trying to do a Kingsmen "Louie Louie" thing here because we all know the original lyrics to the Richard Berry song, right...my friend told us that they somehow scrambled the lyrics because they wanted to keep the original groove, which is righteous and not have to re-record the song.

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  12. OK...I'm not sure what the year was but it must have been'60 or '61. I swear this is true!!! So I was 14 or 15 years old living in Pittsburgh and knew the version of this song that Porky Chedwick and others played, quite well. I had a friend, departed now, who had an "original" version of Bila on which the words were quite clear....I don't remember all of the lyrics but I do remember "come and let me feel up Bila, get a little tit off Bila"....seriously. I'm not trying to do a Kingsmen "Louie Louie" thing here because we all know the original lyrics to the Richard Berry song, right...my friend told us that they somehow scrambled the lyrics because they wanted to keep the original groove, which is righteous and not have to re-record the song.

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  13. Oh, and my above comment seems to make some sense as the flip side was "Tight Skirt and Sweater"!

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    1. Yes, Porky Chedwick did play this back in 1958 or 59. What Jack say's is correct you could understand some of the lyrics. So I think it must of been an original record at that time. I talked to Porky several years latter and ask him about this song. He said he wore the record out playing so many times. Mad Mike picked it uo some tim in the 60's and gave life to it at his dances in the Burg.

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