Ross On Radio: Bachata Sends The Remake Right Back At'cha

Three years ago, at the peak of "turbo-pop," an NPR story asked a handful of top contemporary writers and producers whether Etta James' classic "At Last" would have any chance of being a hit if it were to come out now. The not surprising consensus was that "At Last" was far too subtle to be a hit today, but one producer went further, positing that no remake could be a hit for a generation that demanded an entirely new sound.  

So how then to explain the bilingual bachata remake of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" that had already become a hit at Latin radio for Prince Royce, going top three on both the Latin pop chart and on the Tropical chart built around salsa, meringue and bachata? Or, shortly after, teen act Leslie Grace's remakes of the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" (contemporized by changing "you" to "u" for her version) and the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," both of them top 10 Spanish Contemporary hits. 

Bachata has also lent itself to a recent top five Tropical remake of Jackson 5's "I'll Be There (Alli Estare)" by Arthur Hanlon & Karlos Rosé as well as Pitbull protégé Sensato's "Remember," basically a remake of Earth Wind & Fire's "September." But it's most interesting as a vehicle for three classics from the early '60s. Two of those songs aren't even played on oldies/greatest hits stations anymore; only "Stand by Me" endures there because many of today's oldies listeners heard it as a current in 1986, not 1961. 

There's a certain appropriateness in Latin artists reviving the Brill Building pop of the early '60s. Writers like Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Bert Berns and Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich borrowed heavily from Latin music (which, in turn, had more of a pop crossover footprint in New York than it did elsewhere). In "Always Magic in the Air," Brill Building chronicler Ken Emerson cites the baion drumbeat that opens "Be My Baby" -- and was amply used elsewhere throughout early '60s pop. 

Beyond that, the bachata remakes don't just invoke the hits of the '60s, but the A&R strategy of the '70s. From Donny Osmond and the DeFranco Family to Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett, it wasn't uncommon for teen idols to record songs almost as old as they were. Grace goes to Barry & Greenwich for "Be My Baby." Cassidy went to them for the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron." (His version was more straightforward than the current reworkings.) That strategy was employed again recently by "American Idol" and its oft-derided decision to tether contestants to '60s nuggets they were often unlikely to even know on various theme nights. 

The bachata remakes might not seem quite as unusual at a time when classic R&B is being so thoroughly channeled by Bruno Mars, Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake. But that movement wasn't nearly so far along when "Stand by Me" was remade. And they're still oddities at a time when it’s much more common for an artist to interpolate a classic song than to remake it outright. 

The last spate of outright remakes at top 40 radio came roughly a decade ago when Sheryl Crow's version of "The First Cut Is the Deepest" and the Goo Goo Dolls' "Give a Little Bit" arrived in close succession. Having just started in the research business, I saw both of those songs get instant traction. They benefitted from the combination of familiar artists and songs that were just big enough to be known, but weren't still easily found on the radio. If One Dimension had released its version of "One Way Or Another" here, it probably would have been the full-scale smash that has mostly eluded them so far. 

Beyond that, of course, a great song is a great song. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" is an eternal question. Full Force rephrased it brilliantly for a new generation as Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's "I Wonder If I Take You Home," (and freestyle itself was often a throwback to the girl group era), but the success of Grace’s version shows that the original resonates as well. Like so much in the industry, the notion that a song from the distant past could only work again if significantly rewritten (often poorly) was a truism, but not true. 

So far, only Grace's "Will U Still Love Me Tomorrow" and Sensato's "Remember" (which hasn't been a Latin radio hit) have had any impact at English-language radio, particularly at rhythmic KZFM Corpus Christi, Texas, and KBFM McAllen, Texas, which has a longstanding history of picking up Latin smashes. It seems like a missed opportunity, although I fully expect one of these songs to follow the path of Don Omar’s "Danza Kuduro," showing up on New York's English-language top 40s at some point, if not while it's a current.