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Capitol's "Songs Without Words" Contest

The inner sleeve of an excellent 50-cent yard sale find, a Les Paul & Mary Ford album entitled Hits Of Les And Mary (Capitol DT1476), reveals that in 1961/1962, Capitol Records sponsored a lyric-writing contest which bore many traces of the song-poem game.

Both sides of the sleeve of Hits Of Les And Mary were given over to promotion and rules of the contest. Members of the general public were invited to write a song lyric to accompany one of 10 different melodies. These melodies were presented on another Capitol album, Songs Without Words (Capitol T-1601 / ST-1601), which the aspiring lyricist would have to buy in order to know what to write his lyrics to. Remember that this was in the days before home taping ruined the recording industry, so the prospective lyricist had little choice -- if he wanted to enter, he had to buy. For lack of finding a more plausible reason for Capitol to have undertaken this project, it seems that the contest was calculated just to get people to buy Songs Without Words. My guess is that Capitol already owned the recordings, and perhaps even the publishing rights to the compositions, so they wouldn't even have had to pay any royalties -- thus, pure found money for them. This sort of maneuver is called "working your catalogue."

The 10 tunes were divided into three categories -- Popular, Country & Western and Rock 'n' Roll. All were written by solid professional songwriters, some of them quite well-known. Entrants were allowed to submit a lyric to one song in each of the three categories, with one winning lyric to be chosen for each melody. Although the melodies were untitled, the rules did not exactly encourage lyricists to think up titles of their own: "You may submit a title, but titles will not be judged and are not required."

Winning lyricists would receive $500 and a contract with one of Capitol's publishing subsidiaries. The best three of the ten winning songs would be recorded by a Capitol artist. These prizes are redolent of the dream-humping aspect of the typical song-poem promotional literature. It's highly unlikely that Capitol's motivation in running the contest was to actually discover new songs songwriters.

AS/PMA field rep Brenda Weaver found a copy of the actual Songs Without Words album, also for 50 cents at a yard sale. About half of the songs are nothing more than bland background music, but the other half are pretty tuneful and made me, as a former lyricist, want to break out the pencil and notepad and have a crack at a few contest entries myself. Alas, the entry deadline was January 31, 1962. The rear cover of Brenda's album had further details of the contest, including a short blurb about each of the composers.

An attempt to find out about the results of the Songs Without Words contest got me nowhere. I contacted Capitol's publicity department, but the woman I spoke with said that there was nothing in their files about it. In fact, the tone of her voice made it clear that she thought I was cracked.

Click on the picture of the inner sleeve to reveal its text:

Capitol's 1962 lyrics contest was a retread of one they held in 1949. The structure of the two editions was virtually identical, right down to the fact that many of the same tunes were used in both. "
Capitol Contest In Big Start" rolled out news of the original version on the front page of the August 1949 issue of amateur songwriter tipsheet Songwriter's Review. The article reveals a hopeful attitude, but the reality of the contest would ultimately disappoint the amateur songwriting community. "Cap's Lyric Contest Promotes Album," which as the lead story of the October 1961 issue of SR was the parallel to the '49 article article, is quite a bit more cynical in tone.

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