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REGAL 3298; OCTOBER 1950

 
 

 

Here we go again.

After just having reviewed The Orioles tackling a current pop song that was stirring a little bit of action we have another rock artist specializing in ballads covering a current pop hit in an attempt to steal some thunder from the original.

Unlike The Orioles who missed on their attempt at a less dynamic song, Darnell managed to score quite a big hit doing the same which surely meant this kind of thing which proliferated the music world in 1950 was at no risk for slowing down any time soon… unfortunately.
 

 

Singin’ And Zingin’
Just a fair warning to those who have an aversion to rock cover songs of pop hits, we’re going to be encountering this a lot over the next few weeks… as in this same exact song!

Three major rock acts will all be tackling it before the month of October is out and so we’re going to have to find different things about the song to focus on in each rendition aside from simply studying the respective performances themselves.

Since this is the first time we’re seeing Oh, Babe! (though it may not have been the first released… though they came out within a week or two of one another), it’s probably best that we use this review to focus on the source of this material, a major figure in mid-century music who was a jazz bandleader, trumpeter and vocalist by trade, but more than anything was a master showman who sometimes skirted the line between genres as well as skirting the line between serious music and farce.

We’ve delved briefly into the phenomenon that was Louis Prima when reviewing Chris Powell’s version of On The Sunny Side Of The Street back in the fall of 1949 but here we can get into him a little deeper, because regardless of your taste in music – styles, eras, whatever – Prima is somebody you really owe it to yourself to explore… whether for a better musical education or for a laugh.

Prima was the son of Italian immigrants who was raised in New Orleans and got his start playing professionally around The Crescent City just after high school. By the mid-1930’s he’d landed a record contract and the band played off his New Orleans and Italian roots while Prima himself went about creating an unforgettable character to boost his own notoriety.

What set him apart from other bandleaders was his out-sized personality, exaggerated in every conceivable way. He was a ham on stage, mugging for audiences and delivering his vocals in an odd rapid-fire manner, a step beyond jive into the realm of gibberish if not sheer lunacy.

His belief was music is supposed to be fun, so even while he wrote the acclaimed Sing Sing Sing for early benefactor Benny Goodman, he was creating a racket on his own records. Because of this Prima was much better situated to make the transition from the big band era to the post-war sounds that were less refined.

This coincided with his greatest discovery, 20 year old Keely Smith, whom he then married, and whose sophisticated vocals and deadpan expression on stage played perfectly off his gregarious cut-up image. They scored big with Oh Babe!, trading off vocals as horns riffed behind them, a rollicking rhythmic exercise that was ripe for even more frantic interpretations which is why it was the non-rock song that more prominent rock ‘n’ rollers tackled this year than any other.
 

Got To Be Crazy
We know WHY it was so appealing to independent record labels seeking to expand their reach beyond just the black community which was the exclusive audience for rock – it was a lively song but still structurally sound where the slightly gimmicky nature of it was seen as a positive, not a detriment and so of course to their thinking a song like this had lots of potential.

But did it have potential for Larry Darnell, a singer who was virtually the complete opposite of Louis Prima in every conceivable way?

Prima was a serial womanizer, Darnell was openly gay. Prima was a boisterous loudmouth, Darnell subdued and reserved. Prima specialized in somewhat nonsensical songs that accelerated the tempo, Darnell’s hits had been mostly melodramatic ballads.

Maybe they were thinking of him more in the Keely Smith role here, but even she had been incredibly lively during her parts on the original. Considering that Regal Records had Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie, a male and female pairing coming off some big records of their own and both were from New Orleans besides, the fact they went with Darnell is downright baffling.

But then again we hate seeing artists stuck in the same stylistic bag, always mining the same emotions, playing off the same sentiments and adhering to the same tempo and mood in every song. With that in mind why not see if Darnell can stretch out on something as atypical for him as Oh, Babe!?

Who knows, this might wind up being something unexpectedly good… or predictably disastrous.
 

The World Turns Upside Down
Let’s start by reminding people that Larry Darnell has a really good voice – clear and strong with good natural resonance – but as Oh, Babe! starts he sounds a little uneasy at first, trying to get his footing. He’s working harder than he has to in an effort to create excitement, pushing his delivery too much on some of the words, struggling to find his own voice while referencing Prima.

But give him credit, he’s working through this as he goes – which frankly should have you wondering why they didn’t call for another take after playback, pointing out where things started to come together and having him take that approach from the start.

As he gets his sea legs under him his confidence grows, the strident artificial nature of his projection relaxes yet he still retains its power. He may never fully inhabit the suit he’s given, but he does a pretty fair job of not letting the seams show.

When he delivers the final chorus as the instruments mostly drop out he’s recovered from his initial stumbles entirely and has his swagger back, overcoming whatever doubts we had that this was a good idea to begin with, showing that with his dynamic voice virtually anything was possible.

Of course the song itself is less a composition and more a series of exclamations set to rousing music. Though a succession of rapid fire climaxes without much foreplay might seem exciting it definitely requires some mental readjustment listening. There’s no story to follow and even the “instructions” that form the verses are completely contradictory leading into the chorus, but they know none of that is the selling point.

But what matters now that Darnell has passed his exams is whether the band can work things into a fevered pitch without derailing the entire thing.
 


 

You Romp It And You Stomp It
We mentioned that heading into this Regal Records might’ve been smarter to use Paul Gayten to record this song, but it turns out they were one step ahead of us because he IS recording this – as bandleader.

Of course Annie Laurie is nowhere to be found, but the job he has before him remains the same no matter the vocalist, which is to frame this in a way that maintains the brassy strut of the original while at the same time re-contextualizing Oh, Babe! for rock audiences.

Thankfully they seem to be following that game plan pretty closely at first for while the horns definitely have the older mentality of the Prima vibe to them, the solid rhythm underneath with some nice rock touches – that guitar accent in the intro, the strong turnarounds on drums – means you tend not to notice the incongruity as much.

Of course because this is a record – in all of its many versions – designed to hit you over the head they need to push the energy yet still manage to stay out of the way of the vocals.

For the first half of the record they more or less accomplish that. The precise instruments they highlight might not be in their best interest when trying to connect those who could care less about big band showpieces, but they keep it grounded enough to work.

But in the second half things start to unravel, for while they make a big enough racket, they’re not only straying further from rock’s aesthetics (Where’s the guitar? Drums? Rhythm?) but they’re also losing focus. It winds up being a commotion without remembering to be compelling.

You understand why Gayten followed this path of course… he had broader ambitions than simply being a great rock bandleader and while this record was still aimed squarely at that market, the fact it came from an outside genre meant he felt a little more free to indulge in some of his loftier musical aspirations even though they didn’t quite have the effect he was hoping for in the end.
 

Shuffle And Stumble
I’m not sure if we’ve ever used the term “mixed bag” to describe a record here before, even though that’s a fairly common explanation for things like this.

When Larry Darnell is in over his head at the start, the band picks him up, or at least camouflages his weaknesses to a degree. Then when Darnell gets up to speed the band starts to fall off and its up to the sheer conviction of that voice to distract you from their overindulgent striving.

Of course why should you expect anything but a mixed bag when it comes to rock acts covering pop-jazz material hoping to jump on a bandwagon that they really ought to know enough to let pass by.

But when they were rewarded for their decision as Oh, Babe! became a Top Five hit – the final hit of Darnell’s long career no less! – it meant they were pretty satisfied with how it turned out, mixed bag aesthetically or not.

As for us, let’s just say while we’re happy enough it exists to see Darnell stretch out a little stylistically, we’d much rather have seen him cut an original uptempo rocker with the band looking to draw blood from any unwary eavesdroppers from another genre who happened to stick their head in the door to see what all the ruckus was about.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(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:
 
Jimmy Preston (October 1950)

Wynonie Harris (October 1950)