Dr. Hook ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’: Backstory

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Whatever you thought of the song itself, you had to acknowledge that it was one of the greatest marketing ideas in the history of rock music: a band records a song about its burning desire to make it to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and… ultimately achieves its goal!

Genius! It wasn’t easy though.

Let’s back up. The band was called Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show and its roots stretched back to a southern band formed in 1967 called the Chocolate Papers, which had some success touring but not on disc. After that act fizzled, two of its members, George Cummings and Ray Sawyer, relocated to Union City, N.J., just 15 minutes outside of Manhattan, and recruited a local bassist, Dennis Locorriere. Billy Francis, another ex-Chocolate Paper, rejoined his old pals, a couple of other musicians were added and they were soon on their way.

Not much happened with the band—which took on the Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show moniker due to Sawyer’s eye patch—until 1970, when it was tapped to cut the soundtrack music for a new Dustin Hoffman flick called Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, which featured songs written by poet/cartoonist Shel Silverstein. (Trivia note: One scene was filmed before a Grateful Dead concert at Fillmore East, the day that Jimi Hendrix died.) The film, which included Dr. Hook performing the song “Bunky and Lucille” onscreen, was a bust (for good reason) but it brought Dr. Hook to the attention of Columbia Records, which signed them to a contract.

They hit pay dirt pretty quickly with “Sylvia’s Mother,” a song penned by Silverstein, who wrote all of the songs on the group’s self-titled 1971 debut album. “Sylvia’s Mother” reached #5 on the Billboard singles chart but the album stalled at #45. The band knew that if it had any hope of continuing its run, and being taken seriously in the post-AM radio rock world, it had to do something to get the attention of record buyers. As Dr. Hook prepared its second album—also written entirely by Silverstein—it became obvious which song was the standout: “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.”

Rolling Stone magazine was only five years old in 1972, as Dr. Hook looked ahead at its options, but it had already become a very big deal in the counterculture. Coverage by the magazine could boost a band’s career while being ignored or shunned would paint a rock band as too unhip for consideration. “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” wasn’t quite serious but neither was it parody. Regardless of how popular a band might become, the lyrics went, they were still nothing until they experienced “the thrill we’ve never known…the thrill that’ll gitcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.”

Columbia Records had argued with the band about some of the lyrical content—“We take all kinds of pills that give us all kind of thrills” and “I got a freaky ole lady name a cocaine Katy”—but the song was released as a single nonetheless, and by the end of 1972 it had begun its climb, peaking at #6 in Billboard the week of March 17, 1973. The gamble had paid off: Dr. Hook had staying power.

Did you buy five copies for your mother?

While the song was ascending the singles chart, the group’s manager, Ron Haffkine, met with Rolling Stone’s editor and publisher, Jann Wenner, convincing him that the band was basically providing a radio commercial for his magazine. Wenner was persuaded, and sent young reporter Cameron Crowe to interview Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

Issue #131 of Rolling Stone, published March 29, 1973, featured the “Cover of the Rolling Stone” band on the cover of Rolling Stone.

If you look carefully at the image, you’ll note that although Wenner put them on the cover, he avoided mentioning them by name.

Dr. Hook (they shortened the name) continued to find success—there were four further top 10 singles and a string of charting albums—into the early ’80s, but to many rock fans they remain best known for that one impossible feat: singing their way onto the cover of the most popular rock magazine ever created.

Watch them perform the song on The Midnight Special in 1974

(It should be noted that this is the same Shel Silverstein who wrote the best-selling children’s book The Giving Tree and the Johnny Cash hit, “A Boy Named Sue.”)

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  1. Lena
    #1 Lena 17 March, 2017, 18:27

    I saw dr. Hook in WV. Years ago in a bar I worked at called the White House. Loved them. Where are they’re.?

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    • Teresa
      Teresa 3 May, 2017, 12:08

      Dr. Hook surprised us and got up to play with a band on the front porch of my restaurant “Squealer’s BBQ in Meridian, Ms! What a thrill, one of my childhood idols! He sang “on the cover of The Rolling Stone”. Would love to be surprised like that again! He doesn’t know it, but a Southern Living writer and photographer were featuring our restaurant in a new book “the South’s Best Butts”, and they took a picture of him and the band that night. He is in the book with us!

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    • Marc D.
      Marc D. 19 March, 2018, 01:18

      You had me at WV. I took friends to see them at the Tomorrow club in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1979. We ALL went backstage & they were so generous with their time to indulge us with one of the best times of our lives. One of my favorite RnR memories! THEY ARE REAL, PEOPLE

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  2. Brixton
    #2 Brixton 19 March, 2018, 08:36

    I was at some kind of record get together in NYC and Dr Hook was playing at our hotel. I wasn’t too impressed since they were primarily known as a singles band. Not having anything else to do I went and saw them & they blew me away. They put on a great performance. It’s too bad more people didn’t realize there was more depth to the band than just the singles

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  3. Chuck Miller
    #3 Chuck Miller 17 June, 2019, 12:47

    Trivia note – “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was altered for play in the UK, as the track was modified to say “Cover of the Radio Times” – with some unknown studio voices shouting “Radio Times” over the words “Rolling Stone.”

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  4. Jim
    #4 Jim 19 November, 2019, 14:34

    I remember that at some concerts, they performed as their own opening act though disguised as a punk band (and usually getting booed off the stage by their fans).

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