First recorded by The Drifters (1963, released 1996).
Hit version by Jay & the Americans (US #25 1963).
“Written by the brilliant Brill Building songwriting teams of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller (‘Hound Dog’, 1953; ‘Stand By Me’, 1961; ‘On Broadway’, 1963) and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (‘On Broadway’, 1963; ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” 1964; ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’, 1965; ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’, 1982), ‘Only in America’ was first written for and recorded by The Drifters.
“It was written at a time before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had become the law of the land, and the original lyrics when first submitted reflected the racism that existed at the time in the US:
‘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 original lyrics, so the songwriters rewrote them to be a satiric message about ‘patriotism’. The Drifters recorded the song with these new ‘patriotic’ lyrics, but the group refused to allow its release because they did not believe that message.
“Songwriters Mann and Weil were also upset with the changes to the song. Afterward, they began taking more control over how their songs were recorded, with Mann taking on additional studio production duties.
“Kenny Vance of Jay & the Americans recalls 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 recording deck. Up until those dark days we were recording all four-track. This allowed Jay & the Americans to record [our] vocals over the original backing tracks recorded for the Drifters.’
“Of the original Drifters’ recording Vance recalled ‘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.'”
[Additional source material: ‘Only in America’: 50 Years later a Drifters’ song has its day‘, Long Beach Post, November 5, 2008]
Jay & the Americans, “Only in America” (1963):