American rockers Dr Hook enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic when they were at the peak of their popularity. Enjoying regular chart hits between 1972 and 1979, the band continued to release successful records with a blend of “soft” rock and country music that had mass appeal, until it all ended in 1985.
Formed in 1968 in New Jersey, the band was originally called Dr Hook and the Medicine Show. Founder members were guitarist and songwriter George Cummings, vocalist Ray Sawyer and keyboard player and vocalist Billy Francis. Initially playing gigs around New Jersey, they were soon joined by bass player and singer Dennis Locorriere and drummer Popeye Phillips.
Their 1971 album, called Dr Hook, gave them their first taste of chart success after they signed for CBS Records earlier that year. It reached number 45 in the US album chart, also charting in Canada and Denmark.
Their second single, Sylvia’s Mother, peaked at number five in the US singles chart and at number two in the UK, after their debut single, Last Morning, had little commercial success.
They shortened their name to Dr Hook in 1975 and released a total of 13 studio and live albums and 29 singles during their career, including their most famous hit singles, A Little Bit More in 1976, Walk Right In in 1977, When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman in 1979 and Sexy Eyes in 1980.
Most of their songs were written by the band, but they also recorded some cover versions, including Walk Right In, which was a big hit for American R&B band The Rooftop Singers in 1962, spending two weeks at number one in the Billboard Hot 100 chart early in 1963.
Cannon’s Jug Stompers
The song’s history goes back even further than 1962, as it was written in 1929 as a country blues song by Gus Cannon. Originally recorded by the band Cannon’s Jug Stompers in 1929, it was released on Victor Records.
Cannon was born in Mississippi in 1883 and helped to popularise jug bands in the early 20th century – a jug band was made up of traditional and unconventional instruments.
A jug made of glass or stoneware was used as an instrument, with the musician playing the rim by blowing on to it with pursed lips to produce a trombone-like tone. The jug had a lower pitch than that of the harmonica, fiddle and other instruments.
Other ordinary items made into instruments included the washtub bass, spoons, washboard, stovepipe and a comb and tissue paper, known as a kazoo. Cannon had taught himself to play a banjo in his youth, with a home-made instrument fashioned from a frying pan and raccoon skin.
Also known as Banjo Joe, he left home at 15 and became a travelling musician, making his money playing at railroad camps, sawmills and impromptu open-air gigs around Mississippi.
He eventually settled near Memphis in the early 20th century and began playing gigs with harmonica player Noah Lewis and guitarist Ashley Thompson. They played at parties, dances and medicine shows, but Cannon also worked in various manual jobs to make a living.
In 1927, Cannon got a record deal as Banjo Joe with Paramount and subsequently assembled Cannon’s Jug Stompers with Lewis and Thompson. They began recording for Victor Records in 1928 and Walk Right In was one of their biggest hits in 1929.
Walk Right In was first resurrected in 1959 by Samuel Charters on an album called The Country Blues, released on Folkways Records.
The Rooftop Singers released their cover version of the song in 1962, when it was revised by Darling and Svanoe. As well as being number one in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it also spent five weeks at number one in the Easy Listening chart. It reached number four in the R&B chart and number 23 in the country music chart.
Darling later said he had wanted to record a folk version of Walk Right In with a distinctive sound after hearing the original recording by Cannon. Subsequently, he and Svanoe both played 12-string guitars on the recording. The 12-strong guitar was notoriously rare in those days. Darling ordered one from manufacturer Gibson and then had to wait while they specially made a second one for Svanoe.
The success of the song in the 1960s was a massive bonus for Cannon, who was 80 when the Rooftop Singers’ version charted. He had retired from the music industry and wasn’t well off, so the royalties he received helped him to live a more comfortable old age until his death in 1979 at the age of 96.
He also enjoyed a brief resurgence in his own musical career as a result of the Rooftop Singers’ hit, as he played a gig in Chicago, at a club called Old Town North on Sedgwick Street, in the early 1960s. He was accompanied by guitarist Ray Tate, who ran the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Dr Hook’s hit
Released in 1977, Dr Hook’s version of Walk Right In is perhaps the most well-known of all the recordings to date. It charted in the United States and Canada and was number one in Australia.
Taken from the album, Makin’ Love and Music, it was re-released as part of their 1996 box set, Pleasure and Pain: The History of Dr Hook. It resurfaced again two years later on the band’s compilation album, 36 All-Time Greatest Hits.
People have often wondered about the meaning of the lyrics. They are quite simple and repetitive, containing the line, “Walk right in, sit right down,” repeated many times – or in some versions, it became “set right down” – followed by, “Baby, let your hair hang down.”
According to Cannon, there was no deep meaning to any of the lyrics. It was simply about dancing and having a good time, with people reading whatever they wished into the lyrics. As far as Dr Hook was concerned, it was a song that the crowd could sing along to and always got them dancing, which was what everyone wanted at a gig.
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