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OKEH 6902; AUGUST 1952



This is a story about a great songwriter who despite some crucial hits still sees his role in rock history underappreciated.

That we’re telling this in a review about a song which wasn’t a hit and few are aware of today might seem counterproductive until you hear just how subversively influential it was.

Now whether that was the work of Rudy Toombs, as we’re suggesting, or Larry Darnell who sang it in the way which was widely imitated, isn’t entirely clear, but one thing is for certain… just where you least expect it, you’ll find a record that seems to have far-reaching tentacles in ways you would never have imagined.


Tired Of Hanging ‘Round Here
Since bursting on the scene at the tail end of 1949 with two massive hits, Larry Darnell has failed to come close to matching those successes, either commercially or aesthetically.

He was such a unique singer in those roles – a balladeer with a melodramatic style which appears gimmicky the more you hear it – that it was hard to follow those up with something able to capitalize on what he did so well without merely ripping them off in the process.

Yet he wasn’t JUST unique, he was also very good. He had a strong supple voice that was far more versatile than his material often suggested and finding a way to emphasize that had proved to be the stumbling block of many a producer and songwriter thus far.

Enter Rudolph Toombs, one of rock’s best and most successful independent songwriters who’d made his mark mostly with Atlantic artists, among them Ruth Brown and The Clovers, and who had a knack for tight stories backed with catchy melodies and memorable riffs.

Better Be On My Way has all of that, albeit somewhat subdued compared to his best hits. The spurned man who firmly announces he’s done with the woman who caused him so much grief set on an earworm of a hook that sticks in your mind just as it did countless other songwriters, arrangers or producers over the years.

Darnell’s in good voice and sells the story well, the band is first rate, and while it’s nothing so spectacular as to have you wondering why it wasn’t a hit, you won’t be much focused on that aspect of it as this plays.

The reason being you’ll be far too busy substituting other lyrics to see which future songs adapted the melody, or at least melodic aspects of it, not to mention the delivery, to score on their own.

Ain’t Thinkin’ Of Nothin’ But Getting’ Back Home
Before we look ahead, we should look backwards, because as they always say “there’s nothing new under the sun”.

Sure enough you’ll find very clear prescendent with this tune in Jump Jackson’s Hey Pretty Mama which we dutifully covered in rock’s earliest days back in November 1947. Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis on Imperial also cut a version of that which got released a year and a half later.

But melodies are always recyclable and so Rudy Toombs hauled it out of mothballs, maybe figured nobody remembered it but us and we weren’t even around then, and reconfigured it as Better Be On My Way to try and reverse the struggling fortunes of one Larry Darnell.

It’s a good idea too because it gives Darnell a bouncier rhythm to sink his teeth into… which is where the influence stems from. That’s what makes assigning credit for it a little more difficult. Chances are Toombs wrote it as such, but Darnell’s interpretation of it is what we hear and what makes it similar to a lot of mid-tempo songs that follow… from a lot of (mostly white) rock acts.

Now maybe that tells you that when it came to music back then, Elvis Presley wasn’t the only Hillbilly Cat turned on by black rock ‘n’ roll, but chances are it was one person, maybe behind the scenes, who keyed in on it and spread it to the masses, as a lot of rockabilly, or more accurately rockabilly-lite, artists used the same sing-songy patter with Darnell’s distinctive “surging” vocal technique on their own records.

What that means is the tempo of the song remains more or less the same throughout the lines, but it’s given the impression of picking up and dropping down by how the words are emphasized. They seem to surge ahead on two words in the middle of a stanza then fall back on the next ones, a simple rise and fall pattern that adds untold emotional implications.

Carl Perkins did this on Your True Love , Gene Vincent on Lotta Lovin’, Elvis Presley on That’s All Right, The Everly Brothers on Wake Up Little Susie, Ricky Nelson on Be Bop Baby. Buddy Holly did it all the time, accentuated by his trademarked vocal hiccup. Sometimes it’s more pronounced, other times we tend not to notice because the songs – and the singers – are so familiar we take it for granted, but it’s an effective approach because it enables the singers to imply restlessness without significantly altering the song’s structure to bring that out.

Darnell does that very well here, adding urgency to his woe-is-me report on why he’s had enough after his heart’s been broken. There’s a decent backstory to Better Be On My Way and if Toombs ran out of ideas which necessitated him coming up with the nonsensical “tra-la-la” interlude, it still works okay in the flow of the song, even if we wish the plot was rounded out some more.

Where it makes up for it though is in Leroy Kirkland’s arrangement, specifically the atmospheric horn work which provides us with two solos that are more beguiling by design than they are exhilarating. Their tone, combined with how the echo makes it sound is as it were recorded at a dance in some high school gym for ambiance and the way their pace is also discreetly toying with your sense of tempo give it a quality that transcends the notes on the lead sheet.

Though in many ways it’s merely a catchy number with good performances in every department, nothing to write home about, it’s unnerving because you know you’ve heard it before in another context even if you can’t put your finger on just where.

I’ll Be Knocked Out Loaded If I Stay Around Here
For an artist who so often seemed to be hamstrung by the songwriters and producers he was working with, all of whom were trying to artificially replicate his earlier work and keep him confined to the same stylistic and performative box, the chance to hear Larry Darnell stretch out a little and find new ways to put a song across would be worthwhile even if this record was as far as it went.

But that certain elements of Better Be On My Way would resurface down the road with a wide variety of artists makes this more intriguing than your run of the mill commercial misfire.

Maybe you don’t hear it quite as much, or maybe it now just seems so ubiquitous after years of having it be so prevelent, that it seems as if we’re making too much of it, but if you find yourself wracking your brain trying to plug in other songs while hearing this, even against your will, that probably means your subconscious is trying to tell you something.

If nothing else maybe it’s just telling you this is a song worth a bit more than it might appear on the surface.


(Visit the Artist page of Larry Darnell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)