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Ervin Drake: No Restricted Signs

Gospel music and the Civil Rights movement have often aligned, especially beginning in the late ‘50s when Reverend Martin Luther King became the face and voice of the movement. Back in the ‘40s, however, the link was not so clear. That didn’t deter lefty Jewish songwriter Ervin Drake (who later went on to write the score for What Makes Sammy Run and a few Sinatra standards) from creating a piece of special material in 1946 for The Golden Gate Quartet, four close-harmony specialists who mostly sang spirituals. Their sound is pretty irresistible, and they can even be seen on camera accompanying Dick Powell and Mary Martin singing Arlen and Mercer’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” in 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm. True, they are playing Pullman Porters, but such were the times. Ervin Drake, however, had bigger things in mind.

“No Restricted Signs” is a piece of cheerful agitprop in favor not just of breaking down the color barrier, but also ridding the country of the hateful anti-Semitic practice of “restricted” hotels and resorts, which used coded language like “selected clientele” to reassure their customers that the place was not tainted by the presence of  “Sons of David,” never mind black or brown people.  The song is gospel music, protest music and first class song-writing. This might not be the most powerful protest song ever written, but it’s surely the hippest. And the Quartet sounds great.


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