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OKEH 6848; DECEMBER 1951



Two years ago there was no hotter name in rock ‘n’ roll than Larry Darnell who scored huge hits with each side of his first two singles and seemed poised to be a dominant artist for years to come.

He was young and good looking, his vocals were dripping with a soulful quality that was hard to beat and he presented a melodramatic aura on ballads that set him apart from his peers yet could still rock harder when called on.

In spite of these gifts those early cuts have remained his artistic and commercial high point to date as his subsequent work suffered from mismatched arrangements and a sense he was always just a little out of step with rock’s direction.

Now he finds himself on OKeh Records hoping for a revival of his fortunes… unfortunately they brought with him the same people responsible for the confusing outlook he’d had the past two years, meaning once again it’s up to Darnell himself to make something memorable happen.


As Long As I Stay On The Job
We’ve talked about composer, pianist, arranger Howard Biggs before as he was instrumental in The Ravens early success – penning some of their songs as well as arranging all of their records – and then undertook the same role for The Blenders, a Ravens-knockoff, before being named musical director for Regal Records in 1950.

His credentials within rock in other words are fairly solid, but a look at his background as a child prodigy on piano which led to opportunities writing music for “serious” theater productions where he followed the lead of white composers and arrangers in his approach, albeit with all black casts, gives a good idea of the musical qualities he had come to appreciate.

Later on his own club work as a performer found him specializing in classier music… not jazz, boogie-woogie or blues based idioms, but rather show tunes and pop songs with a smattering of classical music thrown in.

He obviously was versatile enough to make the switch to rock ‘n’ roll with The Ravens, penning their breakthrough hit Write Me A Letter, so he obviously didn’t think it beneath him, but in Larry Darnell, a singer whose theatrical performance on I’ll Get Along Somehow showed he was a unique talent for rock, Biggs surely saw the chance to bridge a rather wide stylistic gap, using Darnell’s rock credentials and impassioned vocals over more sophisticated backing tracks.

Unfortunately that’s not always the best idea. In fact it rarely pays off simply because rock fans don’t appreciate the qualities that Biggs is trying to imbue in these records, while the potential audience who might like that sort of thing is far too small to actively pursue and probably wouldn’t care to sully their reputations by embracing a gay rock star.

All of which leaves Darnell in a rather difficult position. Work Baby Work has the kind of vaguely sexual theme with a slightly humorous bent to it that would work pretty well for re-establishing Darnell’s rock credentials (maybe because Biggs didn’t write it), but the arrangement sounds like it’s showtime on the Vegas strip.

Sometimes ambition makes you reach creative heights you never would’ve imagined had you played it safe.

Other times it sabotages the career of the artists you’ve been hired to help.

Care to guess which of those definitions fit here?


You Should Provide The Enjoyment
Let’s start with the offending party, Biggs’s brassy ostentatious arrangement which features about 113 horns which crowds out the rhythm section forcing them to play in the hall where there were no microphones.

Actually there are “only” seven horns on this, but seven is a helluva lot in 1951 for what is supposed to be a rock record! Not only is the total amount overkill, but the types of horns we have show that Biggs wasn’t thinking about such things as creating a groove or establishing a bottom with these guys, but rather his intent was to wake the dead with the brassy explosions coming from two trumpets, a trombone, two alto saxes and finally two tenors who frankly get overwhelmed by the others and never get much of a chance to stand out in this crowd.

The result is like walking out of a warm house into a bone-chilling stiff icy wind that freezes your face instantaneously. It’ll get your attention for sure, but if you’re smart you’ll turn around and head back inside.

At every turn those horns intrude on the song in a variety of ways, from the shrill opening to the cacophonous free-for-all behind Darnell in the choruses that derail the melody. Even the instrumental break where the tenors DO get a chance to rock things up, honking and screaming with genuine enthusiasm, the other horns can’t help butting in.

The entire record is noisy, annoying and frustrating as hell because buried underneath the rubble they create is Darnell trying his best to make Work Baby Work… well… work I guess.

The song as written is hardly brilliant but it’s got the right idea at least, as Darnell is imploring a woman – any woman by the sound of it – to cater to his whims. He’s charming in a smug sort of way, giving these instructions with a smirk on his face that takes just enough of the edge off to make it palatable.

He seems to realize that a prospective partner is out for herself as well, referencing the fact that he’ll be the one expected to hold a job and provide the money in the relationship and so it’s only fair that she brings something else to the table and satisfy him behind closed doors.

It never delves into the particulars unfortunately but it doesn’t leave up for debate the topics he’s referring to as there’s plenty of hints dropped along the way and what’s not there you can surely conjure up in your own depraved imaginations.

Throughout it all – and despite being distracted by the band – Darnell holds steady in the eye of the storm, delivering a credible vocal that manages to balance the confident attitude, the undercurrent of humor in that he’s not exactly taking his own demands seriously, and the right rhythmic qualities needed to give the song some structure.

As for everybody else involved? They only get in the way.


If You Want My Heart You Know What You’ve Got To Do
There comes a time in most artists career where they lay down a song with some potential and during playback the people in the room – be it the behind the scenes figures (engineers, producers or company executives), or the talent involved (artist, band and songwriters) – realize that changes are needed to make the record palatable.

Sometimes it just requires a slight tweak where something is added or taken out. Other times it’s a more thorough revision like a re-write of the lyrics or arrangement.

Occasionally though you run into a situation like Work Baby Work where the only reasonable solution would be to take Howard Biggs and the majority of his horn section, buy them one way tickets to Tijuana and tell them to look for a burlesque joint with a Help Wanted sign in the window. Give them letters of recommendation so they can join the band playing for half-drunk Americanos who crossed the border looking for a flash of skin, cheap booze and enough musical clatter to keep them from passing out and having their pockets picked as they lay drooling in the gutter.

Then back in New York, with the remaining rhythm section and two tenors, re-cut this song immediately in a more appropriate style and see if you can’t get a minor hit out 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:
Eunice Davis (December, 1951)