ORIGIN OF AN ANTHEM
While “Hang on Sloopy” once topped pop charts, it likely would have been forgotten if not for Ohio State students and fans adopting it as their unofficial anthem.
Its familiar opening drumbeats can transport alumni across the many miles and years back to Columbus, Ohio, where “Sloopy” became theirs. And Ohio Stadium will rock again this fall, as today’s students carry on the tradition.
But the history of the song – from its roots in rhythm and blues to the last-minute decision to include it in a halftime show in 1965 – has remained largely unknown.
The music industry in the 1960s was a tough business, even for a successful R&B group like The Vibrations.
They played shows where black and white audiences were separated by a rope. Some promoters cheated them out of their pay after gigs. And, of course, there was the common practice of songs being covered and released by other groups.
“A lot of times they wouldn’t play black records on some of your pop stations,” singer Carl Fisher says. “(Record companies) would bring it down from too wild and put it out by a white act, and it would sell – a lot of times much more than the black artist’s record would sell.”
Such was the case for the Afro-Cuban song “My Girl Sloopy,” recorded with The Vibrations in 1964, and its rock ’n’ roll relative, “Hang on Sloopy,” released a year later with The McCoys.
“I didn’t have any resentment against (The McCoys),” Fisher says. “They got a better pop sound, you know? But I did like the groove ours had with the Latin feel behind it. That’s what I liked about ours.”
The Vibrations, an established African American rhythm and blues group, meets with Atlantic Records producer and songwriter Bert Berns in New York City in 1964.
Even though the group is from Los Angeles, it is a well-known act around New York.
The Vibrations produced more than 20 records in nine years, and its members entertain live audiences with acrobatic flips at the Apollo Theater and other venues along the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit.”
Berns is respected in the R&B industry as well. He already wrote and produced hits like “Twist and Shout” with The Isley Brothers and “Cry to Me” with Solomon Burke.
Berns’ work is influenced by the Latin music he grew up listening and dancing to in the Bronx. That sound is prominent in a new song Berns and fellow songwriter Wes Farrell want The Vibrations to sing: “My Girl Sloopy.”
“I didn’t think much of it until I heard the band – the arrangement – behind it,” singer Carl Fisher says. “It was a conjunto Latin section that did it. When I heard it like that, it really stood out. I really liked it because it had a groove.”
The Latin arrangement by Teacho Wiltshire – complete with a percussion section that included timbales and tangos – gives the song an Afro-Cuban feel.
The song reaches No. 26 on the pop charts. Berns and The Vibrations go their separate ways and create more music.
Also in 1964, an award-winning professor and respected researcher in the field of music education is named director of The Ohio State University Marching Band.
Charles “Charlie” Spohn makes it a priority to increase student involvement in the marching band, including giving some students the opportunity to arrange music for game performances.
Spohn works hard on creating themed shows for halftime because he wants crowds at Ohio Stadium to be entertained and sometimes amused.
In 1965, another Berns hit, “I Want Candy,” by The Strangeloves, is moving up the charts.
Billed as a band of brothers from the Australian outback, The Strangeloves actually are songwriter-producers from New York City: Bob Feldman, Richard Gottehrer and Jerry Goldstein.
They need another song to play while on tour and write a rock ’n’ roll version of “My Girl Sloopy.” They add a verse and name it “Hang on Sloopy.”
The Dave Clark Five hears the song and reveals plans to record “Hang on Sloopy” after the tour. The Strangeloves don't want to get beaten in the release and vow to cut their own single after their last show.
That show is in Dayton, Ohio. The Strangeloves are impressed with a local teenage band playing at the show, The McCoys.
Feldman says it was clear that The McCoys' lead singer, Rick Zehringer (who later changes his name to Rick Derringer), would be the perfect vocalist for “Hang on Sloopy.”
“We got their parents to come down to the gym and sign a contract that night,” Feldman says.
The song is getting serious play on radio stations nationwide about the same time John Tatgenhorst, a percussion student at Ohio State, is working at the Ohio State Fair.
During a break, Tatgenhorst hears “Hang on Sloopy” over the speakers along the midway and realizes it could work well for The Ohio State University Marching Band.
Tatgenhorst begs his mentor, Spohn, to let him arrange it.
Initially, Spohn is not interested in having the band play “Hang on Sloopy,” but he changes his mind while planning a themed halftime show celebrating the arts. He thinks it would be whimsical to have the band transition from a ballerina dancing to Tchaikovsky to a girl swaying to a pop tune.
Neither Tatgenhorst nor Spohn expect the song to become a crowd favorite for decades to come.
And beyond Ohio Stadium, a fondness for the song extends throughout the Buckeye State, with fans at professional sporting events from Cincinnati to Cleveland dancing to "Hang on Sloopy" and chanting "O-H-I-O."
The 116th Ohio General Assembly passes a resolution making “Hang on Sloopy” the state’s official rock song on Nov. 20, 1985.
While “Hang on Sloopy” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it’s important to look back at the song’s origins and honor the artists who gave it life.
It’s also a time to recognize how hundreds of thousands of Ohio State students, alumni, friends and fans have embraced the music, sing the song and join in the dance.
They give “Sloopy” a soul.
John Tatgenhorst was just a student when he began arranging rock ’n’ roll music for the marching band.
His first was “A Hard Day’s Night.” His most enduring was “Hang on Sloopy.”
His mentor, Charles “Charlie” Spohn, believed in giving School of Music students opportunities to shine in the classroom and on the field. He trusted Tatgenhorst’s sense of what songs would resonate best with crowds in Ohio Stadium.
Tatgenhorst, who became a professional composer for clients including Coca-Cola and Warner Bros., is proud that generations of Buckeyes have embraced “Sloopy.”
“I like it a lot – particularly when the team needs another kick,” he says. “It seems to put adrenaline into the team and crowd somehow.”
As Buckeye Nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Hang on Sloopy,” it’s important to tell the song’s entire story, Professor Ted McDaniel explains in a Buckeye Voices blog.
The appropriation of black material that was given to white artists contributed mightily to the spread of rock ’n’ roll.