[Yes, I’ve been lazy. Here’s a new post! – Ed.]
Nineteen-sixty-eight turned to 1969. The world, filled with an equal feeling of hope and dread, awaited a less tumultuous year. Americans hoped the new Nixon administration would bring stability to the nation and get us out of Vietnam. Of course, none of these things happened, and everything got much worse.
If anything was a hint of how the decade would close, it was the sad story of a catchy tune done by the group, The Box Tops. This teenage blue-eyed soul ensemble from Memphis, Tennessee, had a string of Top Ten hits in the last half of the 1960s. They had number one hit in 1967 with “The Letter” and reached number two with “Cry Like a Baby” in the spring of 1968. By the end of 1968, their new single “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March” was climbing the charts and looked like the next gold record for the group. Instead of reaching number one, it crashed and burned in a minor scandal.
Created by the short-lived songwriting duo of Bobby Weinstein and Jon Stroll, “Sweet Cream Ladies” was a pop song dream. Written in the key of G major, it had a catchy, happy melody. The with a chord progression of G – A- C – G for a hook set to 4/4 marching time, the song was infectious and had the makings of an instant hit. Ending with the perfect musical device of the times, the piece closed with a multilayered, psychedelic fade coda. There was only one problem – the subject of the lyrics. The songsmiths didn’t write a teenage love song; it was an ode to prostitutes.
In 1968 parlance, a Sweet Cream Lady was another name for a prostitute. While one could say slang varied from region to region, and therefore, the title interpretation differed, the lyrics left nothing to the imagination.
“Tell the socialites to look the other way
It’s instinctive stimulation you convey
It’s a necessary function
Meant for those without compunction
Who get tired of vanilla every day”
“Let them satisfy the ego of the male
Let them fabricate success to those who fail
And should penalties pursue them
When there’s really credit due them
They might keep a simple fellow out of jail”
This song wasn’t just an ode to sex workers; it was a celebration. As stated by the exuberant lyrics, Hookers were necessary in the grand scheme of things. They were an industry – deserving pay, recognition, and respect as much as a Union autoworker in Detroit churning out Buicks. The World’s Oldest Profession keeps the country humming along. Mr. America could proudly seek RELIEF with a streetwalker and not go crackers because Mrs. America wasn’t putting out enough. (A nation without end, Amen.)
In the beginning, the song title’s meaning flew over most people’s heads. No one really listened to lyrics back then. As most music was coming out of tinny transistor radios and one-channel speakers, no one had any idea what any group was singing in any song. I do remember hearing the faint strains of “Sweet Cream Ladies” wafting up to my classroom during 6th grade in January of 1969. A child was on the playground with a Christmas present radio. Kids were marching around to the beat. Likewise, while riding the school bus, I spied housewives drumming fingers to the melody while stuck in traffic when the song came on the car radio. It was a popular tune, and in heavy rotation on local stations, so it popped up everywhere.
With more and more airplay, terrible sound or no, adults finally figured out the lyrics, probably given away by the suppressed snickers from their teenage children. Mr. and Mrs. Midcentury were shocked and aghast a naughty song was winding its way into the American psyche. As the lead singer for the Box Tops was underage, this factoid added to the perversity of the situation. America soon erupted in moral outrage as the everyday housewife gossip mill churned. Though news traveled more slowly in those days, it spread as mothers burnt up the party lines with the horrifying truth –“Do you know what a Sweet Cream Lady IS??!”
Into action, they leapt. The most powerful country in the world would not lapse into Communist free-love degeneracy by allowing an anthem to sex workers to corrupt virgin ears and unhappy homemakers! While innocent pre-pubescent children were at school, mothers searched homes for the offending recording. Given as presents only a few weeks before, 45 RPM records of “Sweet Cream Ladies” vanished. Housewives stuck in traffic switched the radio off. Adults spun the radio dial on when the song came on. Irate parents and little old ladies in tennis shoes, long convinced rock music, in general, was a commie-pinko plot to subvert minds and weaken the nation, called up hapless DJs, demanding the song pulled from playlists. As a result, “Sweet Cream Ladies” stalled at number 28 on the Top Forty and soon disappeared.
The 60s came to an end, and so did Flower Power. The Box Tops turned 18, registered for the draft, then disbanded. In March, The Doors frontman Jim Morrison supposedly exposed himself in a Miami concert. Quaint suggestive song memories faded as more outrageous things arose. “Sweet Cream Ladies” found a home at record store bargain bins, as instrumental elevator music and, eventually, oldies radio stations.
That should have been the end of the entire sad saga. But catchy tunes have a way of never completely dying. The song bobbed up again like a river corpse, this time in the late 1980s for a dessert advert. Nostalgia for the 1960s was in full swing at the end of the ultra-Conservative Reagan era. Fueled by popular TV shows, Thirtysomething and The Wonder Years, all things from the 1960s were in fashion again. Many 60s hits wound up used in TV advertisement jingles. Some anonymous ad exec remembered the infectious march and used the melody to promote Dream Whip. This dessert topping was losing the product battle with Cool Whip. The ad campaign focused on an easy dessert recipe called the Dream Pie to boost Dream Whip sales.
Broadcast into millions of homes, the 60 second musical TV ad showed immaculately dressed and coiffed housewives marching proudly to the song “Sweet Pie Ladies, Forward March.” Never mind the women looked like cheerful sex robots who escaped the town of Stepford. They proudly strode out of the kitchen, serving up easy-to-make pies to happy families. To further reinforce the return to traditional family gender roles, a cow-eyed man popped up to be spoon-fed pie as the lyrics assured us, “Sweet Pie men adore them!”
Guess what happened next? One could almost hear the collective pearl-clutching that followed. Though trying to reenforce Ronald Reagan’s traditional family values, this tragic ad campaign had instead reduced Mr. and Mrs. America to whoremonger and whore by using a song about strumpets. America, the greatest, richest, most MORAL nation in the world, would not stand for such things! The ad ran a few times and then vanished. I hope the ad exec moved on to a different agency, still employable but older and wiser about musical choices.
Of course, 53 years on, the original hysterics over this song is absolutely laughable. There were far more offensive songs prior to this hapless tune and plenty after. Why people went crazy in 1969 remains a mystery. Perhaps it was simply pent-up outrage over the changes wrought by a decade of social turbulence. Perhaps it was Nixon’s silent majority flexing their muscles for the first time, jettisoning at least something from the counterculture, no matter how trivial, in some strange show of might. The same reaction twenty years later over the TV advert was equally ridiculous.
Believe it or not, I found the original sheet music for a nominal sum last winter on eBay. Here it is in full glory. I doubt there are many copies still in existence. Offensive or not, it’s still a nice tune. I present it for examination for the sake of history.
Sadly, there are no images from the unfortunate “Sweet Pie Lady” ad campaign of the 1980s. In the wake of the overreaction, I’m guessing the embarrassed ad agency had everything trashed, burned, and buried. As I’m one of 5 people in the world who remembers that debacle, I hope this interweb entry will preserve its memory. Though our recollections do not completely mesh on every detail, another blogger also remembers ad and got the Stepford vibe. (Proof, I wasn’t imagining things.)
And of course, here is a vintage ad for the Dream Pie. Whip it up for supper or whatevs. I’m not responsible for anything anyone does with it. But, if you make the pie and march out humming the tune, I won’t judge.