Yesterday, I referred you to an ESPN segment that prominently featured the song “Operator.” Today, we’ll consider the same song in the context of The Originals series.
If you are already familiar with “Operator,” you most likely heard it sung first by Manhattan Transfer (1975 self-titled) or the Downings (1976 Spirit Fest), or later by the Lesters (1986 Legacy). If you’re a younger Southern Gospel fan, maybe you first heard it as a Burman Porter feature when he was with the Dove Brothers (1999 On the Wings of a Dove; 2001 The Old Country Church).
None of those artists were the first to record “Operator.” Who actually was first depends on how you define “original.”
The Friendly Brothers were the first to record the song in the form we know it now. They released their version in 1959. Lead singer William “Bill” Spivery, Jr. is credited as the songwriter. Take a listen:
Spivery’s lyric is not entirely original. Sister Wynona Carr’s recording titled “Operator, Operator” from 1954 obviously inspired Spivery’s version with it’s nearly identical phrase, “Operator, operator, give me Jesus on the phone.” The melody and rhythm are similar as well. Here is Carr’s original recording:
There’s another twist to this story. Adapting an established song with new lyrics and seeing the new version become more popular than the original is a fairly rare thing. After Manhattan Transfer had success with “Operator,” Bill Spivery decided to see if lightning would strike twice. He wrote a song titled “Trouble With The Operator” based on the same general idea of making a phone call to Heaven, and billed his group as The Operators. The following recording was released in 1978:
Needless to say, lightning did not strike twice. “Trouble With The Operator” is more or less lost to history.
Spivery’s first and better-known version is well-written and features that signature slow intro, but wow, I sure would love to hear a modern version of Carr’s song. Maybe Steve Ladd or Lauren Talley or some other capable singer will read this and take the hint!
Despite being a favorite of Downings and Dove Brothers fans, “Operator” has not been covered by many Southern Gospel artists. In fact, the only prominent groups I’m aware of who recorded the song have already been listed in this article. (In addition to recording the song when he was with the Dove Brothers, Burman Porter also re-recorded it on a live CD with Freedom Quartet a couple of years ago.)