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We’ve already seen small but telling signs of certain bastions of pop music nicking elements of rock ‘n’ roll to try and remain fresh and relevant in a decade that is surely not shaping up to be the same as the previous couple when it comes to just what constituency is driving the market.

Whether it’s the over-the-top emotionalism of Johnnie Ray or the hyperkinetic guitar licks of Les Paul there’s definitely been more willingness to acknowledge pop’s acceptance of outside influences as of late. Heck, within weeks we’ll see a white female pop singer Sunny Gale fronting a black band led by Eddie Wilcox on a song that will make both charts and appeal to both fan bases, so something is definitely in the air.

On the our side of the fence though this has usually been to the music’s detriment when rock acts move closer to pop trying to court crossover action by watering their own style down too much, but here we get something different altogether… a clear pop styled song done with the vocal inflections that could only come from black rock ‘n’ roll.


No One Else Will Do
When he started playing behind The Great Gates as a teenager, Marvin Phillips was doing just that… playing. He was a saxophonist and his pal Richard Lewis was the pianist.

Now a few years later both of them are singing as parts of Three Dots And A Dash, a collection of Los Angeles kids around twenty years old that initially included Jesse Belvin who sang lead on the terrific All That Wine Is Gone from last spring.

The eternally restless Belvin left his friends and the group that summer which meant another future star, Tony Allen, stepped into the breach and the process it elevated Phillips to lead singer in the group working with sax king Big Jay McNeely.

Phillips’ name – and his voice – should be well known to those of us from the future thanks to his work with Belvin in the shortlived duo Jesse & Marvin, who we’ll meet a year from now, and then soon after his work with another duo with rotating second bananas called Marvin & Johnny. Each of them, including multiple itinerations of the latter, scored hits in the mid-50’s and it was Phillips’s distinctive lazy baritone at the center of it all.

He may not have been a great singer in a technical sense, but he had definite panache, always appearing to fall a half step behind the beat, yet somehow catching up before the line would end. If you’re generous you could call him an effortless stylist, if you were more critical you might say he overestimated the appeal of his sluggish delivery, but what couldn’t be argued was that he was unique and in rock ‘n’ roll that is almost always a virtue.

On I’ll Never Love Again he puts that theory to the test by taking what on the surface is a wayward stab at pop acceptance… a song with toothless backing vocals, a light supper club piano and horn fills that replicate the sound of a squeegee on wet glass… and by virtue of his vocal mannerisms alone Marvin Phillips manages to give it some genuine soul.

Whether that’s a good thing in the big scheme of rock ‘n’ roll is debatable, but it’s definitely an interesting and unexpected twist in our story.

Night And Day
Most of this record is pretty lame. Well, let’s just say lame for rock ‘n’ roll because of its pop aspirations.

The dainty horn and piano intro… the artificially high-pitched vocal harmony lead-in sung with open-throated blandness… the vapid humming style of the backing vocals… the instrumental fills used in the transitions featuring climbing horns in tandem traipsing through a field of daisies.

Even the instrumental break shows that Big Jay McNeely hasn’t been fully innoculated from this deadly strain of wimpiness in his horn playing – though because it’s an alto it may not be Big Jay at all and rather John Henderson who is also credited on trumpet for the session. Let’s hope it’s Henderson, if only to spare McNeely’s reputation.

Either way though, it’s completely out of place on a rock release.

But where I’ll Never Love Again earns it’s status in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll rather than being simply a woebegone pop abberation, is with Marvin Phillips’ lead vocal which subverts the entire concept of it because he never tries to artificially adapt to pop’s accepted singing style. Instead he does what he always does – or always will do down the road, since this is his first lead – and marches to his own beat, pulling at the tempo like it was toffee, stretching lines out before wrapping them back around his finger.

His nasal baritone can’t help but be soulful at this pace, singing with all the urgency of someone who just finished smoking a blunt (which, let’s face it, he almost certainly did as most of the L.A. scene of young aspiring rock vocalists at the time were connoisseurs of the herb) and as a result it creates a surprisingly nice juxtaposition.

Call it a pop session invaded by an alien… or so it would’ve seemed had the musicians actually been pop oriented all the time. Because that wasn’t the case however they co-existed peacefully and while Phillips’ attitude didn’t pull the band with him, his chill vocals manage to make them somewhat palatable.

Maybe the best way to put it is that his presence shows how vacuous pop music mentalties had become because when looked at through a pop lens the backing track is actually halfway decent. At least it does what so many mainstream records of that era tried to do and if they’d had a “normal” singer handling this instead, let’s say an Eddie Fisher who was just starting to hit big, then this could’ve easily been a legtimate pop hit.

But Phillips, by not cooperating with the program so to speak, makes this something entirely different. It’s not a direction rock wanted to head, or that those of us who want it to remain as far away from pop as possible wanted it to head, but by undermining that concept here they managed to show there was more intriguing alternatives to pursue should the two styles occasionally cross paths again.


That’s Why I’m Through
Naturally a song like this, almost schizoprenic by design, has to weigh the parts equally and the more one ambiance dominates, the more that will factor into the overall impression of the record.

Sadly that means Marvin Phillips gets sort of screwed in the credit department, for while he is very good, the rest of it is very bad in a rock sense which ultimately means that if you listen to I’ll Never Love Again while inhabiting that mental space it will seem so out of place that you’d almost violently reject its inclusion on a playlist.

But we trust that the scores themselves are not the only thing people come here for and that the write-ups of the songs, their strengths, weaknesses and circumstances, matter more for those genuinely interested in the stories behind the records and so because he gets his due in the deeper dive into the performance we can feel a little better in slagging the record as a whole.

Besides, if you didn’t read the review in full you might think that Big Jay McNeely, who co-wrote it with Phillips but may not even appear on this side at all, was to blame for the final product.

As rock records go this would please very few of that fanbase. As pop records go it’d please even fewer who find that style rewarding. But as a rock record under a pop veil it does somewhat better, if for no other reason than it seems to delight in pissing off both constituencies.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)