For its time, the mid-1950s, the lyrical phrase “You got to roll with me, Henry” was considered risqué just as the very label “rock and roll” was understood to have a sexual connotation. The line comes from an Etta James record originally called “Roll With Me Henry” and later renamed “The Wallflower.” Already a smash hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart, it went on to become a pop hit in the spring of 1955, but not for Etta James. Re-recorded with “toned-down” lyrics by the white pop singer Georgia Gibbs, “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” entered the pop charts on March 26, 1955, setting off a dubious trend known as “whitewashing.”
In addition to replacing “Roll” with “Dance,” the lyrics of the Georgia Gibbs version omitted lines like “If you want romancin‘/You better learn some dancin,'” but its most important change was more subtle. Even in an era when radio audiences rarely saw the faces of the singers they listened to, the rhythmic and vocal style of the Georgia Gibbs record made it as obviously white as the Etta James record was black. And while many Americans might have preferred the Etta James version to the Georgia Gibbs cover had they heard the two in succession, they would rarely have the opportunity to do so. Pop radio was almost exclusively white radio in 1955 America, and middle-of-the-road artists like Nat “King” Cole and the Ink Spots were rare exceptions to this rule.
The argument sometimes put forth in defense of whitewashing—that it brought exposure and writer’s royalties to black artists whose songs might never have reached white audiences otherwise—makes a certain amount of coldhearted sense. It fell on deaf ears, however, for another originator of a whitewash hit: the R&B legend Lavern Baker. When the very same Georgia Gibbs scored a pop hit with Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” in 1955, Baker petitioned Congress to declare note-for-note covers to be copyright violations. The proposal went nowhere, and Lavern Baker went on to become a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but she never dropped her grudge against Gibbs. A widely told story—possibly apocryphal—has Baker taking out a life-insurance policy on herself in advance of a flight to Australia and naming Georgia Gibbs as the beneficiary. “You need this more than I do,” Baker is said to have written to Gibbs, “because if anything happens to me, you’re out of business.”