Rest in peace, Ed Ames: “Who Will Answer?” (1968)

Ed Ames passed away on May 21, 2023 at the age of 95. He was the lead singer of the Ames Brothers, who were a force in the pre-rock and roll days. Between 1948 and 1954, before the chart we know as the Hot 100 took form, the Ames Brothers charted 23 hits, including three ranked at #1. Before you dismiss this and say “who remembers anything that old?” I say R, I say R-A, R-A-G, etc. Surely you know “Rag Mop” from 1950. (This is also a fun record to bring out when people of a certain age complain that “today’s music is just a bunch of nonsense.”) Even as rock and roll was taking form, the harmonies of the Ames family still were in demand by record buyers. “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” about one of the most notorious toddlers ever, went to #3 in late 1954, while “Melodie D’Amour” hit #5 in late 1957 when Elvis was the force to be reckoned with.

Following the split of the family act, Ed continued to act on Broadway and was a staple on television shows. (One of the most notoriously funny clips saved from The Tonight Show from the 1960s features Ed, Johnny Carson, and a rather amusing tomahawk-throwing incident. I doubt this clears the censors today.) Ed also continued making records for RCA in the mid- to late-1960s, giving young rockers’ parents something to listen to. His version of “Try to Remember” from the Broadway show The Fantastiks wasn’t going to sneak in on a Top 40 station, but it fared well on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart. In fact, between 1965 and 1970 Ed put seventeen records on this particular chart, with five in the top 10 and three chart-toppers. It’s a rare Oldies station that thought to include “My Cup Runneth Over,” but it was a solid #1 on the EZ chart and did cross all the way to #8 on the pop charts in early 1967. It’s almost impossible not to like the record, and since it DID play alongside the Monkees, I never figured out why Oldies stations didn’t do the same. (It did on some of mine, which may explain why I’m not in the game anymore.)

That brings me to the record that I wanted to highlight in this piece: 1968’s “Who Will Answer?” To say that this is a powerful record sells it short. Since I wasn’t born in 1968, I didn’t discover this one until much, much later – at my last stop programming WGVU/Grand Rapids’ Real Oldies station in 2009. In preparing the library for that station – we were usually about 7000 titles deep – and as the initial preparation for my chart research that led to my dissertation, I started looking for songs that fared better locally than nationally. “Who Will Answer?” was a #19 hit, but WLS in Chicago advanced it to #9 – which meant it was heard by a lot of people on this side of the lake, too. Thanks to our good friends at ARSA, we know that this record fared far better in the Midwest than it did nationally. WHLO in Akron had it at #1 in January 1968 while crosstown WAKR had it at #2. It was #3 at WGEM in Quincy, Illinois, while WSPT/Stevens Point, Wisconsin had it in the top five.

What was the draw? If I can speculate – the craziness between the Summer of Love and the absolute turmoil that was to be 1968 had some people scratching their heads and asking the big questions. Given the passage of time it’s easy to paint generations and points along the pop culture landscape with a broad brush, as if everyone was into the same things at the same time. Not everyone “dropped out.” There were plenty of average young people simply trying to make sense of the world they were inheriting. It’s no different today: I bristle when people try to besmirch the generation of students I work with. Sure, some have been fairly well coddled, but most of my students work to put themselves through school. Maybe it’s the group I have at a lesser-known state university, but these kids are busting their ass and just want to do the right thing. I expect there were plenty in 1968 in the same boat, and this record spoke to them. Hell, it’s right there in the lyrics, and I could see someone doing a take on this today:

If the soul is darkened
By a fear it cannot name
If the mind is baffled
When the rules don’t fit the game
Who will answer?

You couple this thought with the Hallelujiah Chorus riff throughout, and it’s a sort of sermon for the unchurched. Who among us has not been frustrated when you can’t catch a break? You do all the right things, but you learn that the rules do not, in fact, fit the goddamned game? You demand to know why. That’s just one theme here. The song addresses drug culture, losing good men in a frustrating war, the pledge of marriage being tenuous, suicide, the question of religion, the fear of nuclear annihilation – there are big, big questions, my friends, and it’s OK to not understand them nor even begin to answer them. You may seek the divine for the answer; you may merely contemplate on your own and search your soul. But you’re asking someone, because you simply do not know the answer. And Ed Ames’ soothing voice suggests that that may be OK.

No wonder it sold.

If you are still seeking the answers, the question might be here.


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