The Beatles scored a top 20 single in 1964 How could one have been “lost” to time?
But it’s true. A #19 hit in America, this song fared better on the Billboard singles chart than such memorable tunes as “From Me to You” and “I’ll Cry Instead,” yet it has received virtually no radio airplay in decades and is almost never mentioned in accounts of the band’s early days. Source: bestclassicbands.com
The tune in question was a cover, recorded in Germany all the way back in 1961, when Pete Best was still the band’s drummer. It hit the U.S. chart the very same day as the title song from A Hard Day’s Night, which of course rocketed to #1, but this particular song was considered a curiosity even as it climbed the charts.
What could it possibly be?
The record was “Ain’t She Sweet,” composed by Milton Ager with lyrics by Jack Yellen in 1927, sung by John Lennon 34 years later and released in America on Atco Records, a subsidiary of the R&B titan Atlantic Records, and in England by Polydor.
The song had amassed a rich history by the time the young British musicians found it. It had been recorded by dozens of artists starting in the year it was penned, mainly by now-forgotten singers and orchestras alongside a few whose names are still well known (Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Lunceford). Over the years it returned to favor on occasion, making its way to waxings by Pearl Bailey, Eddie Cantor, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Harry James, Big Joe Turner, jazz organist Jimmy Smith and others. Frank Sinatra would also cut the song, but not until a year after the (still-unknown) Beatles did.
The version that Lennon hooked onto was Gene Vincent’s, recorded in 1956 for Bluejean Bop!, the rockabilly singer’s debut album for Capitol Records (ironically, the label the Beatles would ultimately sign with in the U.S.). Vincent treated it as a smooth semi-rocker, bathed in reverb, but the Beatles turned up the tempo and placed a pronounced rock ’n’ roll beat under the tune when they started performing it.
If you think about it, the sentiment is rather silly. Why does the narrator need to maintain confidentiality in his discussion of her sweetness? It’s not as if they’re discussing state secrets or bedroom habits, after all. If he thinks she’s sweet, who cares what anyone else thinks?
Yet he continues seeking validation. In the following verse, he declares the objection of his affection to be “nice,” then asks whoever is on the receiving end of this gushiness to “look her over once or twice” and agree with his assessment. This insecure banter is repeated several times, with no definitive agreement being reached, until the tune winds down after a couple of minutes or so.
The nascent Beatles most likely cut their version of the song on June 24, 1961, during sessions in Hamburg for producer Bert Kaempfert. The group was in the studio to supply backup music for British singer Tony Sheridan. One of their members, bassist Stu Sutcliffe, wasn’t included, leaving John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best to do the task.
In addition to the Sheridan-fronted numbers—which included “My Bonnie,” also released as a single in 1964; the Hank Snow country tune “Nobody’s Child”; bluesman Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance on Me, Baby” and others—the Beatles had time to cut a couple of tunes on their own. “Ain’t She Sweet” was one; the other was a group original, “Cry for a Shadow,” an instrumental tribute to Cliff Richard’s backup band the Shadows.