Written by the Brill Building songwriters Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, this song was first recorded by The Drifters, with lead vocals by Rudy Lewis, who sang their hits "On Broadway" and "Up On The Roof." The song was written at a time before integration, and the lyrics were originally about racism. It had the following chorus: "Only in America, land of opportunity, can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me. Only in America, Where they preach the Golden Rule, will they start to march when my kids go to school." Atlantic Records had a problem with the lyrics, so the songwriters changed them to be a satiric message of patriotism. The Drifters recorded the song with these new "patriotic" lyrics, but refused to release it because they did not believe that message. The songwriters Mann and Weil were also upset with the changes to the song, and they started taking more control of how their songs were recorded, with Mann taking on more production duties.
Kenny Vance of Jay & the Americans told us how they came to record this song: "I happened to go up to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's office, because I used to hang out there as a kid - they produced us. I guess I was like a barometer for them, and they played me 'Only In America.' I said, 'Boy, that would be great if we could have that,' because we're Jay & the Americans. They took us over to Atlantic recording, who had a brand new-fangled machine, an 8-track machine. Up until those dark days we were recording all four-track. (This allowed Jay & the Americans to record their vocals on the original backing tracks produced by Leiber and Stoller for the Drifters.)
I remember it became a hit in Florida. There's a friend of mine, he's a film director by the name of Leon Ichaso, and he told me that when they were kids that had come from Cuba in 1963, 'Only In America' was an anthem for them. That they couldn't speak English, but phonetically they could all sing 'Only In America.' And I remember when we played down in Florida in 1963, the whole audience was Cuban, and I didn't know why. But it took me about 30 years and finally that question was answered."
The original, unreleased Drifters version is available on their boxed set. Says Vance: "It's a killer version. I had the acetate and I gave it to the guy at Rhino who was putting the CD out. I saved it all those years. It just was a killer performance." (Read more in our interview with Kenny Vance.)
Barry from Sauquoit, NyJohn 'Jay' Traynor passed away on January 2nd, 2014 at the age of 70. He was the original 'Jay' of the group Jay & the Americans... He sang lead on the group's first Top 10 record, "She Cried", which entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart on March 11th, 1962, and on May 13th it peaked at #5 (for 1 week) and spent 14 weeks on the Top 100... May he R.I.P.
Don Hertel from Dover, NjI believe the original lyrics were written by Cynthia Weil alone, but she and hubby Barry Mann (composer) took it to Leiber & Stoller for help making the lyrics "playable" by radio stations. The Drifters refused to record it because the new lyrics were not part of THEIR America.