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What exactly are some qualifications for a “landmark recording”?

Commercial success, musical influence, immediate cultural impact… yeah okay, those probably go without saying but that alone doesn’t make anything a landmark. Those achievements are actually fairly common, not necessarily percentage wise of all releases, but lots of songs reach that criteria each and every year.

So beyond that what is it that separates the merely important hit records with those that are Landmark Recordings ?

How about introducing a major artist to the scene and doing something which adds a new wrinkle to the popular music lexicon? Well, this record does both of those, twice for each in fact.

What’s more though the record goes a long way towards tying up a lot of loose ends of 1940’s rock, bringing things full circle back to the time two years earlier when a New Jersey record label owned by the Braun brothers ventured to New Orleans and recorded a local artist who launched a revolution.

This didn’t quite accomplish that – the revolution in question was already well under way by late 1949 – but in every other way this was definitely a Landmark Recording.


Just A Picture Of You
In the fall of 1949 when Larry Darnell burst onto the scene with two massive and influential hits he was just twenty years of age and as a result of this meteoric success he seemed poised to dominate the next few years of rock ‘n’ roll at the very least. But while Darnell had a solid twenty year career with some great work scattered throughout nothing he did would ever match his first two records. Thus for all intent and purpose his enduring legacy comes down to this specific moment in time.

Larry Darnell wasn’t born Larry Darnell at all, he actually came into the world as Leo Edward Donald in December 1928. Furthermore while he became known as a New Orleans artist he wasn’t from Louisiana either, he was from Ohio where he lived until he was 15. Continuing this theme of contradictions Darnell became a sex symbol with his good looks, sly smile and songs of romance and heartbreak, yet he was fairly openly homosexual.

It must continually be pointed out, since it’s one of the overriding themes of the music through the years, that rock has always been the ultimate melting pot and a welcoming destination for those seeking their own place in a world that – let’s face it – more often than not frowns upon non-conformity. There’s a reason why rock ‘n’ roll was born and flourished in the African-American community, just as there’s an equally obvious reason why generations of teenagers have embraced it when looking to define who they want to be when breaking away from their parents ideals. Rock music provides an avenue for self-expression – boldly defiant at times, yet also reassuringly communal with others who are on the same journey in their life – that makes it hard to beat for outsiders looking for a place to call their own, and that’s something which pop music (or mainstream jazz, post-modern blues and country for that matter) can’t quite tap into, that is if they’d even want to.

For teenaged Leo Donald it was a place to create a new identity, to re-invent himself and be celebrated for who he was rather than be ostracized for it.

As with others we’ve met, Billy Wright for example, and others we’ll be meeting in the future, most notably Little Richard, it was with a traveling burlesque show that Darnell got his start when he joined them in his mid-teens as a dancer, dropping out of school and traveling the country.

The Brownskin Models Revue was one of the most successful ongoing shows in black culture, one which ran forty weeks each year for three full decades, 1925-1955. Run by Irvin Miller whose idea was based on the famed Zeigfield Follies, a wildly popular stage show begun in 1901 and running until Florenz Zeigfield’s death in 1931 which included skits, songs and elaborate costumed productions. In an era that pre-dated radio and film it was seen as the height of show business.

The Brownskin Models Revue was naturally a bit smaller in its scope but by presenting African-Americans in glamorous trappings – singers, dancers, comedians and beautiful models often just posing on stage – it elevated the image of the community itself to both black and white audiences, presenting the culture in a decidedly upper class manner making it one of the more socially progressive depictions of black life there was at the time.

Somewhere along the line, whether he’d been with the Brownskin Models for months or years, Leo Donald grew tired of the lack of pay and relatively poor accommodations and when the tour left their latest stop in New Orleans he remained behind, getting a job singing at The Dew Drop Inn, one of the most well-known nightclubs in the city. It was here that Leo Donald morphed into Larry Darnell and became arguably the biggest musical draw in a city with music coursing through its veins.

When David and Jules Braun found themselves ousted from their own company, DeLuxe Records who’d introduced the fledgling sounds of rock ‘n’ roll to the world via their signing of another New Orleans artist, Roy Brown, two years earlier in 1947, and virtually cornered the market on artists from the Crescent City after that, they started another label, Regal Records, and headed back to New Orleans to draft more talent.

Larry Darnell was their first new signing and I’ll Get Along Somehow was his first release. It’d be hard to imagine a better return on their investment than this.

I Hold In My Hand Three Letters
The song itself wasn’t new, nor was its most revolutionary aspect of the recording something that had originated with Darnell, or for that matter anyone at Regal Records.

I’ll Get Along Somehow was written by Buddy Fields and Gerald Marks and first cut way back in 1932 by Ted Black’s Orchestra. The song is told from the perspective of a guy who’d been dumped by a girl whom he quite naturally thinks was cruel and heartless and never really loved him. Chances are he’s just feeling sorry for himself and needs to shift the blame to the girl for breaking up with him rather than look in the mirror and admit to his own faults that contributed to the relationship hitting the rocks, all of which makes the narrator something of a sad sack if you want to be honest about it, someone who’s not too appealing unless you’re gullible enough to buy his rather unfounded explanations.

Due to the nature of the era in which it was written the vocal refrain is rather short, coming in following a long musical passage as was the standard operating procedure of the times, and thus not allowing for any background information to be conveyed to flesh the story out. It’s got a passable melody but is hardly anything particularly gripping in that regard either, yet the downbeat sentiments pull at the heartstrings just enough to make it a song that others would return to over the years with such diverse artists as Andy Kirk And His Clouds of Joy (1937), Jazz Gillum (1938) and The Basin Street Boys (1947) all cutting renditions.

It was almost certainly Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers take on it in 1946 which led indirectly to Darnell copping it for himself through a third party. The leader of The Three Blazers, as we’ve mentioned before, was pianist/vocalist Charles Brown who was the leading exponent of the cocktail blues sound that was so popular in the mid to late 1940’s. Brown was already something of an icon for his mellow vocals and he became widely imitated by those coming up through the ranks, among them Ray Charles… and someone named Bobby Marchan. If his name sounds familiar it’s because he was a singer who’d rise to fame first as the frontman with Huey “Piano” Smith And The Clowns in the mid-to-late 1950’s, then as a solo artist who scored a #1 hit on his own in 1960 on a cover of a Big Jay McNeely song. Marchan may be just as well remembered historically however for being a cross-dressing star of The Powder Box Revue, a group of female impersonators who were wildly popular over the years.

Marchan was two years younger than Darnell, was also originally from Ohio and down the road would get his professional start at none other than The Dew Drop Inn and of course both were gay and thus they had plenty things to connect over.

Wait, there’s more. The showstopping addition to Darnell’s version of I’ll Get Along Somehow was a spoken interlude not found in any of the previous recorded versions of the song, wherein Darnell spins an elaborate backstory in which he recounts how his girl went from being dependent on him when he gave her the first professional break she had to being dismissive of him once she was on the road to success and finally pushing him out of her life altogether when she was a star. It was over the top – a mixture of tawdry gossip and melodrama – just the kind of thing that would go over great at clubs, particularly those with some gay clientele.

In later years it was reported that Darnell got this bit from a singer named Bobby Marshall (who WAS a singer at the time it should be noted), but it was a spoken interview that he gave to someone not overly familiar with these artists and Marshall is a more common name than Marchan (pronounced Mar-SHAHN). In other words the reporter misheard and thus misspelled the name in his story, the real innovator in all this was of course none other than Bobby Marchan.

Though he wouldn’t get proper credit for introducing the idea – in fact rumor has it Marchan himself had turned down making a record of this song we’re covering here back around this time – he revisited the concept when he did begin his own studio career down the line.

So while the lineage of the idea itself was always shrouded in some degree of mystery, what was never in doubt was its potency when used, something audiences discovered when first hearing from a young singer named Larry Darnell on an absolutely killer rendition of a song that would quickly create the biggest buzz in the industry.

A Mere Sensation
The song is framed with chimes, a distant mournful trumpet and a mixture of elegiac horns. Paul Gayten is leading the band and gives this a haunting framework to set off Darnell’s rueful vocals. Though a decidedly old school arrangement in terms of instrumentation it’s fitting for the theme and each aspect is played discreetly enough that you become so caught up in the general mood that you hardly notice the fact it sounds somewhat outdated.

All of that works brilliantly to showcase Darnell, and right from the first notes you know that he can flat out sing. He’s got a supple tenor voice with a lot of range, a light touch and a natural feel for drawing out the emotional turmoil in the lyrics.

Incredibly for a song that was such a showstopper in clubs I’ll Get Along Somehow loses none of the dramatic thrust on record. Part One is the song as written by Fields and Marks seventeen years earlier, albeit delivered with far more authenticity as to the emotional currents the words touch upon. He’s in anguish throughout this performance, alternately holding back his true feelings and then briefly losing control as he’s overcome with sorrow before reining it back in, as if he’s afraid of fully letting on how much this loss has affected him.

We know of course that he’s devastated, and he knows that we know, but he’s clinging to his pride because that’s all he’s got left. The first half is masterful, a clinic in vocal control, his voice rising and falling with the sentiments as he ruminates on his lot in life. But as good as that is it’s not even close to the most memorable portion of the song because once the record turns over he hits you with the selling point – that spoken playlet where his acting is worthy of a Tony Award and which puts the rejection into the proper context to get us to finally sympathize with this forlorn character looking back in dismay at losing the one he loved.

Not only is this addition written beautifully, cramming in as much information as possible without overloading it with details all while still having it read well, but its flow and the cadences are somehow every bit as musical as the sung lyrics found in the rest of the song.

His performance borders on the flamboyant, skirting the edge of a stereotypical gay persona, as his voice takes on some affectations that would leave few doubting his sexual preference, yet maybe because this was a more hush-hush era, and certainly because the focus of his mournful invective was clearly a woman, he “gets away with it”, the record not only pulling in listeners of all backgrounds, but it’d quickly get covered by Ruth Brown who flips the genders, showing that people at the time didn’t immediately connect it with the undercurrents Darnell – and surely Marchan, who’d been singing as a female impersonator in Ohio since the mid-1940’s when Darnell would’ve first known him – inject into the song.

What’s amazing about this performance is that even if you think of the entire set-up and structure on paper as painfully artificial, it STILL works. Darnell sells it with everything he has, his emotional breakdown coming across as entirely authentic and so when his voice swells back into almost baritone range for the reprise of the song’s original chorus you’re just as invested in his despondency as he is.

Much Too Good
This record became a sensation, its components sounding fresh and innovative, from the spoken recitation and the almost campy drama Darnell had infused in it, right down to the two-part nature of it which required you to hear both sides to get the full effect (and which boosted their revenue since you needed to deposit two nickels in jukeboxes to hear the whole thing). You couldn’t have chosen a better way to launch a career and make a name for an artist than this, though oddly enough I’ll Get Along Somehow wasn’t even the biggest hit of Darnell’s that came out this month! For some inexplicable reason Regal Records issued two singles pretty much simultaneously on Darnell to launch his career and it’d be the second one which topped the charts in December, while this stalled – if you can call it that – at #3.

It also was vital in expanding the scope of New Orleans’ sound in the marketplace, or rather a slightly different type of sound than the one which had established rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. While neither Darnell or Marchan were originally from New Orleans both would go on to be associated with the city’s musical heritage and Darnell’s arrival gave the region a much needed bridge to the next era led by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew’s productions a few months down the road.

There’s so many reasons you can point to for why this record is so important historically, from its influence in turning a mere song into a staged drama, to the word of mouth impact it had in launching a major career and its ensuing commercial success which helped to establish Regal Records as an important company in the ever more competitive field of rock ‘n’ roll… all true enough. But those reasons – as impressive as they are – still pale in comparison to the sheer power of the performance itself.

This is the record which stands as Larry Darnell’s masterpiece, a landmark recording in rock’s lineage and as good of a debut as we’ve seen to date. Over the top for sure, but all the more perfect because of it.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Ruth Brown (October, 1949)
Ruth Brown (September, 1952)