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OKEH 6926; NOVEMBER 1952



The policy around here on what records we review is clear as day… if it’s rock ‘n’ roll and was released as a single, it gets reviewed.

But this… I’m not sure WHAT this is stylistically.

But Larry Darnell is a rock singer, OKeh Records is a rock-based record label and this was indeed released as a single and so it’s being included for those reasons along with one more reason which makes it impossible to leave out… the fact that it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve heard before in this genre, a quality which is always worth our time and attention.

Besides, how else are we going to live up to the lunatic sign hanging in the window?


Am I Forsaken?
When a talented artist doesn’t seem to be able to find their niche, or if that niche does get found isn’t capable of sustaining commercial interest with it for long, there’s always a tendency for us to become armchair quarterbacks and offer suggestions as to how they could’ve overcome these problems with the benefit of hindsight… and our vastly superior musical tastes and instincts.

But Larry Darnell has proven to be resistant to our brainstorming when it comes to finding the right path for him to follow.

Primarily a balladeer with a supple voice and dramatic style, he tended to avoid the types of crooning love songs other artists made their stock in trade. Since his faster paced efforts were equally quirky we’ve yet to see enough signs that he’d be able to tackle the uptempo rockers that we tend to favor as a solution for someone’s problems.

Of course had we been in Danny Kessler’s place at OKeh Records the issue could’ve been tackled pretty easily just by having Darnell come in and woodshed a little by singing a few recent hits by other artists… not for release mind you, but simply to hear how he sounded in various approaches. Then when you get a better idea of how comfortable he was in these different settings, then start writing new material using those as loose templates.

But those overseeing record companies apparently can’t be bothered doing such trivial things as assessing an artist’s strengths and so they stagger around blindly hoping to luck into something as if they were… well, as if they were a bird looking for a few seeds in a barren wilderness.

It’s hard to believe however when you haven’t had much luck finding anything else of sustenance you might actually think that I Am The Sparrow was just such a song. Then again OKeh Records did seem to be on the brink of starvation when it came to landing Darnell a hit so they were in no position to be choosy.

Avant Garde experimentalism, at least in a rock setting, is generally not the surest bet to make, but since there seems to be nothing but promo copies out there, and since the flip was a re-release of his Christmas Blues from his days on Regal, maybe this was just something to give to radio stations in the hopes of reminding them Larry Darnell existed.

Yet by the sound of this one, it might seem to some that he’s died and crossed over to the other side.

I Heard The Thunder Rumbling
Your first thought seeing the title is that this must simply be a reworked take on the gospel song His Eye Was On The Sparrow, but that’s definitely not the case.

Different melody, different text, different meaning altogether.

But it’s still hard to disassociate that image of the sparrow in a song that has a quasi-spiritual atmosphere as its calling card.

Of course I Am The Sparrow also contains a semi-folk vibe to it as well thanks to its makeshift arrangement that sounds as if it might have been worked out in a camp of gypsies or at a coffeehouse by the first musicians to sprout goatees, giving it an unlikely claim as to being an early folk-rock effort.

As such that unusual framework is both its most intriguing aspect, as well as its commercial undoing, as this is something far more curious than compelling even as Larry Darnell sings it with all the sincerity he can muster. As usual his voice exhibits great technical command of the song’s dramatic bent, but that drama is almost certainly not something that will connect with a rock audience which makes this all the more bewildering a release.

But taking it at face value, there’s plenty here to catch your ear, from the perverted waltz tempo that seems almost to be mocking the seriousness of the subject, to the tantalizing guitar work (perhaps by arranger Leroy Kirkland himself) that at times manages to squeeze out two dozen or more notes in the span of a few seconds while the drums sound like they’re getting ready to head out on the warpath.

In the midst of it all sits Darnell, his voice tinged with a somber hue, slightly nasal in tone with the faintest trace of echo, singing in despair over… what exactly? He seems to be yearning for romantic love at various points as he specifically refers to a girl more than once, but he’s almost presenting it as if it were an apocalyptic vision with himself cast as a fallen sparrow having been abandoned by a cruel and heartless god.

Maybe there’s some reason for that which can be found in the cheap tawdry melodramatic book they used to try pawn off on weary travelers in hotel rooms, but whatever the point is, it has little or no relevance to our worldview in rock ‘n’ roll which makes the record as out of place on the market as it is fascinating for curious souls to delve into… once or twice at least.

The Last Bell Toll
Usually when a company releases a record it’s for one of maybe three reasons. The first of course is to try and get a hit, which doesn’t apply here as they had to know this had no chance of scoring big unless the earth spun off its axis because of the amount of atomic bomb testing going on and we traveled to an alternate universe.

With that being unlikely, though sadly not impossible in 1952, the other options a company was weighing included unloading old masters onto the market when an artist’s contract was up just to get rid of them… which is not the case here as Darnell had a ways to go with OKeh.

Which means we’re down to the final explanation for putting the truly unclassifiable I Am The Sparrow into the market… which is they did it just for the hell of it!

That’s never a bad thing, is it? I mean, if you oversaw a record label and had something this weird on your hands and the artist was having trouble recapturing their past success, why not just throw it out there and hope that maybe it became some sort of underground cult hit among rock fans who were jaded enough by now to no longer be able to lose their minds through normal means.

Chances are that’s a pretty tiny constituency and those belonging to it may not even see daylight for weeks on end and probably don’t have enough money to buy food, let alone a record. But as crazy as this release is from a business standpoint and as irrelevant as it is to the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, I’m glad we get to hear it and ponder just what the hell they were smoking when they laid this down and where can we get some of those drugs to see what else we might come up with.


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