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FEDERAL 12036; JULY 1951



When Federal Records began last winter they had one artist who was coming off a year in which she – at just fourteen years old – had been the single biggest star in all of rock.

They had another group in The Dominoes who were completely untested, many of whom came from amateur gospel upbringings, formed by a vocal coach who envisioned them as a classy pop act and who had no prior affinity for rock ‘n’ roll.

If you were taking bets on which act would establish this new King Records subsidiary as major players in the field few would’ve felt truly confident going against the heavy favorite unless they simply found the long odds of the underdogs too hard to resist.

We know how this turned out, as The Dominoes became instant stars while Little Esther’s star dimmed almost immediately with a succession of poorly conceived flops. So by the summer of 1951 in an effort to turn around her sinking fortunes they paired her for the second time with their new stars in the hopes it might remind listeners what had once made her so special.


Fair Or Stormy Weather
It’s hard to point to the reason for Esther’s sudden fall from grace.

You could argue that on Savoy where she wracked up seven Top Ten hits including three chart toppers, that she was merely a product of Johnny Otis’s handiwork, as he’d crafted songs to suit her rather mousy vocals and surrounded her with an all-star team of musicians and frequently co-lead singers to off-set her more quirky characteristics… except Otis had been working in conjunction with Federal producer Ralph Bass on most of her first singles on Federal as well.

You might think this meant the songs and performances themselves were fine but maybe fans hadn’t thought to look for her on a new label and were still searching out Savoy platters for her latest sides… except the majority of interest in rock came from jukeboxes where it was the artist’s name, not record label that identified them. Which means it was the subpar quality of these sides which sank them far more than any confusion over what company was bouncing her royalty checks.

The better question might be how this girl who did not possess a traditionally beautiful voice had made this far to begin with. But when you hear her at her peak there’s no doubt as to her legitimacy. She had a way of inhabiting the essence of a song that was every bit as alluring as more powerful singer with a smoother, more polished sound.

To that end Heart To Heart shows her in something close to her best light. It’s not a perfect record by any means, but in its own modest way it does get to the root of her appeal by letting her win you over with subtlety, while at the same time borrowing a page from Otis who seemed to grasp that she was always at her best when paired with someone else to lessen her burden.

Whether Clyde McPhatter is the right choice for that role remains something of a debate seven decades later.


We Can Face The World Together
The talent accrued on this single is truly impressive, as the aforementioned Johnny Otis has his band, under saxophonist Earl Warren’s name, backing them here, while the vocal talent of course were some of the most acclaimed artists in rock.

But the real glory for this rests with the song itself by Billy Ward, who was being tasked with helping Esther’s cause as much as his own group and comes through with an understated winner.

Far different than the uptempo and raunchy The Deacon Moves In, a side which despite its lack of commercial success stands as one of the best things either artist ever did, this one is a reflective love song that paints a picture of two singers on a split screen singing this to themselves as if it were a film scene before the couple finally get together and confess their love to one another in the final act.

Everything about Heart To Heart suits Esther’s vocal traits… the tempo is perfect for her, just quick enough to leave her no room to deviate from the melody, yet slow enough to give her time to invest in its emotional qualities… the lyrics are broad enough to be relatable to people looking for love regardless of their own circumstances, yet still provide her with a strong sense of character… all while the melody itself flows effortlessly, carrying her along with it to their shared destination.

There’s nothing revelatory about it though. No dramatic lyrical surprises, no melodic twists or unexpected musical interludes. It’s a discreet song, not one designed to seize your attention.

Even the arrival of McPhatter who sings of his own longing in a far more breathtaking voice and inherently dramatic delivery, even within these narrower confines, is still handling this with a sense of moderation… straining at the seams without seeking to rip them completely open for the most part – though he comes perilously close a few times.

The other Dominoes are even more measured in support, though no less vital, from the magnificent opening with Bill Brown’s heavy bass voice rising to the surface from out of the group’s harmonies that kick it off to the way in which Ward crafted their wordless backing vocals to feature each voice singing a different pattern that weave in and out of the others like vines on a fence.

Their stand-alone spot, a common feature in pop songs where a usually nameless chorale would handle the middle eight in a way that showed no personality, is really soulful here, allowing the song to touch on things that neither lead alone was asked to do, and while few would say this was a crowning achievement by the group, fewer still would claim it does nothing to help reveal the breadth of their talents.


Make Our Joy Spring Like A Fountain
It’s really hard to fathom why this didn’t make a dent on the charts at the time. Esther’s name recognition was still really high – her last national hit left the charts right after the new year dawned only seven months ago – and of course The Dominoes were currently ruling those charts with a song that would hold down the Number One spot for the entire summer.

Now granted this was far different in style than Sixty Minute Man, a raunchy sexual boast led by Brown as opposed to a heartfelt love song by McPhatter and Esther, but surely curiosity alone accounts for something, yet the only place Heart To Heart made any noise was in Savannah, Georgia where it landed in the Top Ten for a few weeks.

Long term views on it seem to fall into the same category of… “eh… nothing special”… and while it’s definitely not top shelf for either The Dominoes or Little Esther, it’s far from being just mediocre too.

There are some who feel that McPhatter wasn’t a perfect fit with Esther, that he’s being reined in by having to acquiesce to someone else’s style, but before long he starts to soar in his usual way and he owns the second half of the record far more than Esther whose best moments come early.

Was it a good idea to pair them together? The underwhelming reception it received at the time would suggest it wasn’t, but from a vantage point seventy years down the road this remains a good song with a good arrangement and good performances all around. Is it great? No, probably not, but it should’ve been more than enough to keep Esther a star a little longer.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Esther and The Dominoes for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)