HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY BABY
Years before the advent of artist representation, the same man who owned your record company also managed your career and before you knew it owned the songs that you wrote. Thus was the case of the biggest rhythm and blues hit to come out of Boston in the nineteen fifties, Happy, Happy Birthday Baby.
MARCH 7, 1957
Margo Sylvia wrote and recorded the song, Happy, Happy Birthday Baby which by the tail end of the nineteen fifties had become an international hit that sold over a million copies.
I began correspondence with Margo in the mid-nineteen eighties through letters and phone calls until her death in 1991.
Through this time period she gave me a glimpse into the world of the endless line of black musicians and songwriters who were robbed of their royalties by their record company/management.
I first turned Margo onto the entertainment lawyer, Chuck Hahn, who had previously won a precedent law case to recover the lost royalties to the songwriter Richard Barry who wrote the classic, Louie, Louie. A settlement never came to fruition during Margo's lifetime, but there was some bittersweet justice when country music star Ronnie Milsap rerecorded Happy, Happy Birthday Baby and sent it to the top of the country charts for over eight weeks in 1987; its resurrection equaled money for Margo's estate for the first time in over 30 years.
Rather than getting into specifics and particulars of what happened in the spring of 1957, I feel that the words of Margo in the following letter sum it up.
Golden Lady Publishing House
1169 Market St., Suite 319, San Francisco, CA 94103
April 29, 1988
I hope this letter finds you well. I have taken the liberty of beginning my book on the '50's. Enclosed, find the Introduction. I haven't thought of a name for the book yet, but this will give you an idea of what I want to write about.
If you think it has any merit, I'd like to show it to the publisher of your book to find if something like this will sell. I hope so.
Stay in touch. I'm looking forward to reading your account.
Since the beginning of the 80's there has been a resurgence of interest in the music of the 50's. As a result, I now have a videotape of the interviews I've done around the subject. Just recently, I made copies of this video for family and close friends, and in doing so, was struck with the sameness of each interview, even though they were done at different times and in different cities. There is the same particular innuendos that says that the artists who had one, two, or three hits, had become strangers to each other once the fame and fortune was gone. Certain key phrases like, lost touch with each other, had to be found, came upon hard times, and where are they now?
There is the same light reference to the injustices we were victims of. Although there is great praise in that 50's music is still remembered and still selling in many forms, such as 50's music albums released by major recording companies; books on 50's music in all major book stores released my major publishing houses; used in advertising from cars to burgers; used in major motion pictures and played on every Rock & Roll radio station from coast to coast. I was never encouraged to speak at any length, and on some shows, was instructed not to speak at all regarding those injustices perpetrated by those major music moguls during that era, some of which continues today.
However, the most striking sameness was my repeated protection of the image; much like an abused child protects the wicked parents, like the victims of rape or theft, we alone suffer the loss, and it is far greater than the loss of fame and fortune! We suffered the loss of faith in those we once trusted; we suffered the loss of unique friendships and elite company; we suffered the loss of a dream that rarely ever comes true; we suffered the loss of identity! The effects of those losses has been demonstrated in alcoholism, drug addiction, and one too many times, ended in suicide. Some of us, like me, simply survived knowing that for all that time has changed, some things remain the same.
In 1957, I sang lead in the family vocal group, The Tuneweavers, and wrote our Classic hit, Happy, Happy Birthday Baby which has received four BMI awards, the most recent being given this year for reaching the million mark in airplay. For the most part, I've kept this part of my life in secret, and asked family and friends to do the same. Until seven years ago, the interviews I did were on radio, sometimes in the studio, sometimes on the telephone. No one could see me and later identify me as 'the girl that sang that song.' I cringe even now at the prospect of such another occasion, because the final question, without fail is, 'Whatever made you stop singing?' I cringe because I've never given a satisfactory reply. Usually, I answered by saying, 'It's a long story.'
And it is a long story filled with so many mixed emotions, I couldn't possibly tell it in 25 words or less. It was a time filled with such contradictions that the thought provokes feelings that are in constant conflict; moments of joy accompanied by anger; pride accompanied by shame. This book is filled with the joy and pride I will always feel in contributing to the 50's music era; filled with the joy and pride in having worked with the legends of the past in present. But it is also filled with the sorrow and anger that comes from being the victim of corruption, greed, mismanagement, racism, uncaring and unethical business practices, and the damage suffered as a direct result.
Happy, Happy Birthday Baby, once a love ballad, has long since become the blues.
MOTHERLODE ORAL HISTORY
MARGO SYLVIA: I was pregnant with my son Vinnie. I was eight months pregnant and I think we must've did Happy, Happy Birthday Baby at least fifty times. Frank Paul made that the worst session of my life. I was thinkin' I don't wanna sing no more. In fact, I nearly fainted at one point. I guess we were at Ace Studios for ten hours just to do two lousy three minute songs. The owners of Ace loved Frank because he was payin' them for the time. 'Oh sure, let's do that over again,' as if we were machines that could go on and on.
FRANK PAUL: Margo was pregnant....
MARGO SYLVIA: Frank Paul is the reason that the Tuneweavers never got any further than they did. Not to say that the man had a mean heart. He was a Catholic. He went to church every Sunday. We respected him. We loved Frank Paul because we felt he was taking care of us. But as it turned out in later years as we realized that it wasn't so much that he was tryin' to do anything bad and stuff, but he just felt that nothing that was bein' given to us was enough for him cause we never got any of it. But we trusted him and that's what hurt all of us the most. We gave him power of attorney and there was not one check ever that was received for Happy, Happy Birthday Baby. Baby. In fact, The Tuneweavers ended up
owing him money. Our love for the man had turned to a great disappointment.