One of the fascinating things about pop music – to us nerds anyway – is its traceable lineage. The nature of music is that aspiring artists pick up where their heroes left off; sometimes, they might even completely rip them off. Musicians participate in a sort of musical relay race, with chord progressions, lyrics, and even hairdos constantly changing hands. And because everything has been pressed into vinyl and immortalised, it’s easy to trace the progression of pop music from one era to the next, to track its aesthetic developments and evolving etymology.
The perfect example of this musical relay race in mid-dash can be found within the dusty jacket of Elvis Presely’s 1955 single ‘I’m Left, She’s Right, She’s Gone’. The song was Presley’s fourth release on the Sun Label and his first to get onto the national chart. Featuring that trademark hiccupy vocal, the track’s success was largely down to its simplicity. The six words in the title pretty much encapsulate the whole story, one of heartbreak mixed with a scoop of light-hearted humour.
But it isn’t the A-side that is important; not now at least. Flip the record over, and you’ll find a track originally written and recorded by Arthur Gunter called ‘Baby Let’s Play House’. Born in Nashville in 1926, Gunter began his career as a singer in a gospel quartet — a dream that Elvis himself never managed to fulfil. After Ernie Young, the owner of Gunter’s favourite Nashville record store, launched his own label, Excello, in 1952, the aspiring star got his big break and released ‘Baby Let’s Play House in 1954’, which quickly became the label’s biggest hit on the Billboard R&B chart.
Elvis’ version is even more scornful than Gunter’s unapologetically misogynist original. However, it’s also a great deal more playful. Presley chews words like “School” into “Skewl” before ad-libbing new lines like: “You may have a pink Cadillac but don’t you be nobody’s fool” – clearly a reference to one of the Hollywood starlets he was dating at the time. Working with producer Sam Phillips, Presley re-shaped the vocal performance, rewriting lyrics, changing the tempo and occasionally throwing out entire verses to make the song more concise and punchy.
Ten years after Presley released his reworked 1955 single, Lennon and McCartney recorded ‘Run From Your Life’, for which they lifted lyrics directly from ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, something they would come to regret. The Beatles track takes Presley and Gunter’s shared misogyny and runs with it, employing Elvis’ devastating slight: “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” in the very first line.
Lennon later admitted that he’d rather forget about ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, naming it his least favourite Beatles song. Today, many fans agree.