#480: Ling Ting Tong by Buddy Knox
Peak Month: March 1961
8 weeks on Vancouver’s CFUN chart
Peak Position #2
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ #65
YouTube.com: “Ling Ting Tong”
“Ling Ting Tong” lyrics
Five Keys 1954 Original: “Ling Ting Tong”
Buddy Wayne Knox was born in 1933 Happy, Texas, a small farm town in the Texas Panhandle a half hour south of Amarillo. During his youth he learned to play the guitar. He was the first artist of the rock era to write and perform his own number one hit song, “Party Doll“. The song earned Knox a gold record in 1957 and was certified a million seller. Knox was one of the innovators of the southwestern style of rockabilly that became known as “Tex-Mex” music.
Buddy attended Happy High School, graduating in 1950. The population of Happy, Texas, in 1956 was only 690 people. After high school, Knox attended West Texas State College in Canyon, Texas. While there, Knox met Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, who were also students at the college. Together, they formed a group called the Rhythm Orchids, named after their orchid colored shirts. Though they were underaged, the trio played in local clubs for beer and food. But their performances in Canyon, Texas, came to a halt when it was discovered they were minors. Luckily, Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids had developed a fan base. They became the hottest local band around.
Backstage after a show at West Texas State College, with Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, Knox had a conversation with his Bowen and Lanier. Orbison had told Knox about a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico. It was there Roy Orbison had recorded some of his earlier songs like “Ooby Dooby.” Shortly after Knox, Bowen and Lanier got themselves to Clovis, New Mexico. They had just $60 in their pockets. For the next three days they recorded three songs that would change rock ‘n roll and their lives forever. Knox recalls, “I don’t think Norman really spotted the potential at the time. I don’t think he was really alert to what was happening in the music business as far as our type of music was concerned.”
Buddy would later look back at that recording at Norman Petty’s studio. “Looking back it’s just something that happened 40 years ago. You try to remember a moment that was so great but in time you forget some of the small details because you didn’t know that would be the one moment in time that would change your life. You have to remember a recording session was a lot different in 1956 than it is today, you had to do everything in one take.”
From that one session Buddy Knox would receive two gold records in 1957, one for “Party Doll” and the other for a song that Jimmy Bowen sang and co-wrote with Knox called “I’m Sticking With You.” “We didn’t know what we had just done,” Knox recalls, ” All we wanted to do was record our music and sell it around the college. This was just a fun trip for us.” By the time the year 1957 was over, Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids had 4 million selling singles to their credit. Other hits that year included Knox’s Top Ten single, “Hula Love.” In an interview years later Buddy Knox said “I wrote “Party Doll” and “Hula Love” years before I recorded ’em … way back around 1948, when I was still just a kid.”
In the early 1960s Knox signed with Liberty Records. With this change Knox released several more mainstream pop records, featuring string arrangements and backing vocalists at the suggestion of producer Tommy “Snuff” Garrett. “Lovey Dovey” and “Ling-Ting-Tong” were the only ones that got much airplay.
“Ling Ting Tong” was written by Mable Godwin and recorded in 1954 by the R&B doo-wop group The Five Keys. Capitol got a Chinese-American man to play the gongs on “Ling, Ting, Tong.” The song peaked at #5 for them on the Billboard R&B chart in January 1955. Not much is known about Mable Godwin, but she possibly knew a little about Chinese history from school, and Ling Tong, a military general serving under the warlord Sun Quan, during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. Ling Tong died of an illness at the age of 28 in 219. Ling Tong appears in the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century about historical events between 169 and 280 CE.
But in “Ling Ting Tong”, the subject of the song is not the military general in ancient Chinese Eastern Han dynasty lore. Instead, it is a guy who lives in the Chinatown neighborhood of Hong Kong named Ling Ting Tong who sings a song called “I Sa Mok Em Boo Di Ay, I Sa Mok Em Boo”. On Hong Kong Island, Chinatown is near the Wan Chai Ferry Port, across the water from Kowloon. Ling Ting Tong is encountered by a customer who is buying Egg Foo Yung for take out. While he sings his song, Ling Ting Tong likes to sound his gong. The customer is so taken with Ling Ting Tong’s song, that he wants to sing it himself.
Egg Foo Yung was born in Pacific Coast American Chinese restaurants in the mid-1800s. But its inspiration likely comes from Shanghai cuisine. Fu Yung Egg Slices is a Shanghai recipe made with beaten egg whites and minced ham, possibly named for the lotus flower. A northern Chinese version replaces the ham with a minced chicken breast. From these dishes came the Egg Foo Yung some of us may remember enjoying in Chinese-American restaurants throughout the 1950s and 1960s—a deep-fried pancake filled with eggs, vegetables, and meat or seafood. It is unlikely that in old Hong Kong chefs were making Egg Foo Yung, given the Chinese-American roots of the dish.
The Five Keys original of “Ling Ting Tong” was a jump jive tune. When Buddy Knox covered the song it was done in the country-pop genre. The song Ling Ting Tong sings, “I Sa Mok Em Boo Di Ay, I Sa Mok Em Boo”, are nonsense novelty lyrics. These are not words found in the Chinese language. Over the years there have been popular songs that included nonsense lyrics. These include “Chickery Chick” by Sammy Kay, “Mairzy Doats” by the Merry Macs, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” by Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” by Richard Chamberlain, “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, “Little Star” by the Elegants, “Come Go With Me” by the Del-Vikings, “Little Girl Of Mine” by the Cleftones, “Speedoo” by the Cadillacs, “Tweedle Dee” by Lavern Baker, “Little Darlin'” by the Diamonds, “Witch Doctor” by David Seville, “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko-Bop” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, “I Am The Walrus” by the Beatles, and many more.
The nonsense lyrics in “Ling Ting Tong” don’t resemble Cantonese or Mandarin dialects. “I Sa Mok Em Boo Di Ay” is closer to phonetic sounds found in the Georgia Sea Islands by people who speak in Gullah. It also closely resembles some of the syllabic sounds found where Creole is still spoken in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Maryland.
“Ling Ting Tong” climbed to #2 in Vancouver (BC), and #14 in Springfield (MA).
Both “Lovey Dovey” and “Ling Ting Tong” were much bigger hits in Vancouver than in America. The sound captured on these recordings was a distinct departure from his earlier rockabilly work for Roulette. Knox’s recordings now sounded more similar to other mainstream pop artists of the time, like Johnny Burnette (“You’re Sixteen”) and Bobby Vee (“Rubber Ball”), especially with the introduction of strings.
Buddy Knox cracked the Top Ten Vancouver (BC) in October 1961 with “Three-Eyed Man“. But elsewhere the song was not commercially successful. Knox cracked the Top 30 in July 1962 with “She’s Gone” on CFUN.
“Dear Abby” was the B-side to the non-charting “Three Way Love Affair”, Knox’s fourth single in a row to miss the Billboard Hot 100. The A-side flopped everywhere. “Dear Abby” only made the Top 30 in Fresno, California, and the bottom of the WIBG Top 99 in Philadelphia. But with his popular concerts in Vancouver, in November 1962, “Dear Abby” gave Buddy Knox his best success with the disc peaking at #16. Buddy Knox had two more singles make the Top 50 in in Vancouver (BC): “Hitchhike Back To Georgia” in 1964 and “Good Time Girl” in 1965.
Buddy Knox was never as successful as Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. He released thirty-one singles of which only ten made the Billboard Hot 100. However, his career spanned over four decades. Knox became a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. And “Party Doll” was voted as among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Living on the road almost all his life, Buddy Knox toured nearly eleven months out of the year. If you saw a Winnebago going down the road it was probably Buddy Knox. Always admired for his kindness and desire to help someone out, Knox was known as one of the “nice guys of rock ’n roll,” a happy man from Happy, Texas.
In May 1969, Buddy Knox appeared at Langley Speedway in the Fraser Valley. Knox was called upon to pass out trophies to winners of each race. Between 1968 and the mid-70’s Knox was involved in several business ventures in Canada. Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot, and Knox, teamed up and became owners of a chain of Canadian nightclubs. During this time Buddy Knox moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
During the nineties he moved to British Columbia, Canada and worked and lived with Vancouver promotor Les Vogt. They put a huge show on for Buddy’s 60th at the Ranch owned by Vogt at the time. Guests included Tommy Sands and Red Robinson.
In 1997 Buddy moved to Washington State. In February 1999, Buddy Knox died of lung cancer in his home of Bremerton, Washington, at the age of 65.
December 16, 2019
Buddy Knox bio, Buddy Knox.com.
April Stevens,” ‘Party Doll’ Performer: Knox Trdes in Life on the Road for SK,” Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, WA, October 14, 1998.
“Obituary: Buddy Knox,” The Independent, UK, February 19, 1999.
John Einarson, “Rockabilly Star Put Down Manitoba Roots,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 20, 2016.
“Les Vogt – The Story,” Les Vogt.info.
Marv Goldberg, “The Five Keys,” uncamarvy.com.
“Ling Tong,” Wikipedia.org.
Melissa Joulwan, “The Egg Foo Yong Story,” meljoulwan.com, April 20, 2013.
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