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Occasionally as music fans you are given the rare chance to peer into the future to hear the sounds of tomorrow before they hit full-force and often well before anyone else in the music scene has been tipped off to the possibilities that await them.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the usual names, aren’t we?

Louis Armstrong playing with King Oliver in the early 1920’s ushering in the Jazz age around the corner… James Brown inventing funk circa 1964… those fortunate kids in a Bronx park when DJ Kool Herc was spinning records and setting the scene for hip-hop way back in 1973…

And of course the 13 individuals who bought a thoroughly modern doo-wop record by the immortal Billy Austin & His Hearts in late 1952.

Wait… say WHAAAAAAAAT?!?!


From The Start
Looking back from a safe distance, seventy-five years or so into the future, people have a tendency to remember broader eras rather than specific dates.

Bring up Motown music and people will instinctively think of the 1960’s, even though Berry Gordy’s family of labels actually began in 1959 and lasted until 1988… or 1972 if you want to mark when he moved from Detroit to Los Angeles.

If you mention country-rock even most historians will assume you mean the late 1960’s groups like The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, International Submarine Band, maybe Rick Nelson and the Mike Nesmith led tracks of The Monkees… even though Ray Charles had a country-rock album years earlier that was one of the biggest LP’s of all-time, and Ivory Joe Hunter was releasing country-rock sides as far back as the late 1940’s.

Doo-wop fanatics though are a little more precise – or pedantic – with their dates and they’ve even been thoughtful enough to break down the specific eras of different styles within doo-wop, such as kiddie-leads and various regional trends.

But let’s make things a little more simple for the casual observer who can be steered towards some notable moments throughout the process that established certain broad styles. You have the foundational groups like The Ravens, Orioles and Robins in the late 1940’s. The early 1950’s groups that were well-drilled with dynamic professional instrumental arrangements to bolster their sound.

But you’ve also had the young groups walking in off the street without benefit of working up their songs with musicians and to compensate they used their voices to try and achieve the same effect, as Billy Austin & His Hearts do so well on Angel Baby, an historically obscure group who disappeared after cutting this one single for…

Apollo Records… Really? An afterthought for the most part in rock ‘n’ roll until now, who somehow wind up with two consecutive releases codifying the early steps towards soul with The “5” Royales and now presaging the dominant uptempo vocal group sound of the next few years.

Who would have ever believed it?


Every Time I Look At You
Though we already stated that the group themselves provide much of the musical fireworks here with their voices alone, that doesn’t mean that Charlie Ferguson and his fellow session aces aren’t prominent in their own right, especially to start off as the rollicking piano and cymbal smacking drummer are creating a stir before the voices even enter the picture.

But once those voices make themselves known they become virtually all you can focus on because of how active they are. The nonsense syllables that will go on to define doo-wop, even give it that ridiculous historical moniker itself, are front and center here – “Do-wah-de-wada” chanted in unison by The Hearts behind Billy Austin who lays down a confident lead.

Hold on a minute though, for before we even get to the way those background vocals shift and reform various times, there’s another aspect of this we need to bring up which is just how Angel Baby tweaks the accepted thematic formula of uptempo songs about aching for a girl that so many vocal group records had established before them.

Whereas most of those such as The Dominoes or Swallows or Ravens had been fairly open about their sexual urges when singing to these unnamed beauties, Austin is no less eager but not nearly as suggestive in expressing his desire. It’s not that he’s excited to take her to the library or anything, but he’s clearly focused on the emotional side of love rather than the physical manifestation of lust, suggesting that he may in fact be younger and more inexperienced… or that record labels are beginning to sense that by being less racy they may attract a wider audience.

We can’t say that’s a change for the better necessarily, but it was influential all the same, and that’s a key factor in making this sound ahead of its time.

But it’s still those backing vocals and the way they keep coming up with new phonetic chants for each section to keep this lively that marks the biggest change on the vocal group scene. Even though Ferguson gets a very good solo that’s worth the price of admission itself with a great tone at times, the other Hearts are matching it in exuberance and nearly in volume as well with inventive tongue-twisting words that aren’t found in any dictionary but which seem to mean a whole lot more than those which do.

Because of this you don’t know which way to turn, other than you know full well you’re not turning away under any circumstance. The vibrancy of Angel Baby is off-the-charts, every aspect of it is working together to whip up excitement. But instead of building to one peak, or possibly two, it’s one long extended run of highlights that never ceases.

Whaddaya know… a song about raging hormones with countless musical climaxes manages to somehow sidestep the more blatant lyrical orgasms we’re accustomed to hearing and still winds up fulfilling all your needs as a rock fan.

If that’s not a notable change in how these things are done, without even taking into account the massively influential ways in which they manage it vocally, I don’t what is.


I Wanted You To Know
The strange thing is, with all of the obsession by a generation of… let’s call them “posthumous” vocal group fans for the way in which they came of age well after this music was new… nobody seems to know who these guys were, or for that matter seem to care much about them.

Obviously with just one single to their name there’s not much to go on and the other two names connected with them – Norman Hardy and John Bizant – MAY be The Hearts, or just the songwriters (at least Bizant on the flip side). In that regard it’s easy to see why confusion reigns and by now it’s unlikely they’re still around to set the record straight.

But considering that Angel Baby sounds as if it’d be right at home in 1955 or ’56, if not later, and yet it was cut in the fall of 1952, that seems to be a pretty important stepping stone for the sound as a whole and they’re not getting any credit for it historically.

Granted, like 60’s garage rock, part of the thrill of early to mid-1950’s vocal groups is the presence of these one-off artists who drop a sizzling record out of nowhere and vanish from existance without a trace. It’s part of the lore after all. But at least give these guys their due, because with this record they definitely earned it.

The future has arrived, even if nobody knows who the delivery drivers are.


(Visit the Artist page of Billy Austin & His Hearts for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)