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There are times in music when things just seem to come together… the right artists on the right labels at precisely the right time.

What makes this particular occurrence of that phenomenon most notable however isn’t the any of the major names involved, nor the ensuing string of huge influential hits that came from this partnership, though of course they don’t hurt when it comes to establishing the notoriety of the event in question.

Rather the thing that stands out about the arrival of The Clovers at Atlantic Records just as the company had begun to get its footing at last and head in the direction that would help to define rock ‘n’ roll over the next few years is the fact that the group itself were completely unsuited for the job going in and seemed to want no part in helping to shape a musical revolution.


You’re My Thrill
Over the past few months we’ve seen the arrival on the scene of a handful of transformative vocal groups in rock ‘n’ roll… some, like The Dominoes, who’d have no shortage of lasting acclaim for their contributions, while others like The Four Buddies and The Larks whose recognition seemed to mostly fade when their hits dried up outside of a fervent community of fans of the style.

Meanwhile the original trendsetters, The Ravens, The Orioles and The Robins were all still on the scene and releasing good records and there were more groups on the horizon who were poised to make a big impact soon as well.

Yet with all due respect to each of those names, none of them were as successful in their day as The Clovers… and it’s not even close.

Once ensconced at Atlantic Records The Clovers reeled off a whopping twenty hits in the next five years, their first ten singles all went Top Ten including five of which where BOTH sides hit the Top Ten. Then after one release failed to click they rebounded with four more Top Ten hits spanning five singles. Not even The Dominoes could match that success rate.

Yet when Ahmet Ertegun first heard them he didn’t like them. Who could blame him? They were singing dry emotionless pop music which was hardly worth much in the black community in 1951. It was no surprise that their debut on Rainbow Records back in November in that style had impressed no one. Yet vocal groups in rock were suddenly stirring up lots of action and Ertegun knew it might be time for Atlantic Records to jump on board… just as long as he could convince them to lay off that pop garbage.

So he wrote Don’t You Know I Love for them, intending it to be sung with bluesier inflections than they were used to and tried teaching it to them in his untrained nasal voice. In spite of that frightful introduction to the song, the record that ultimately resulted from it would make them immediate stars and set rock on its collective ear.


Someday You’ll Understand
Though The Clovers claimed to have no interest in, or experience with, singing this way, they proved to be remarkably quick studies.

As written Don’t You Know I Love You is nothing special. It’s simplistic, repetitive and incredibly skimpy in terms of revealing anything beyond just the basic outline of a plot… lead singer Buddy Bailey is expressing his love to someone who is resisting his entreaties. He’s admirably insistent but he gets nowhere with her by the time it fades out.

Where it comes alive though is in the telling. It’s a record that’s 90% atmosphere and even that might be selling it short. Every sound oozing out of the speakers has been crafted to perfection to create a mood that is one part leering, one part seduction and one part foreboding. Wooing somebody rarely sounded so ominous.

Let’s start with the other Clovers who, following Bill Harris’s guitar trading licks with the piano, kick things off with slightly lazy, but also slightly menacing, “ooh diddley-doo-wah-doo-day” chant that means nothing and means everything at the same time. When Harold Winley caps it off with his bass voice delivering actual words rather than gibberish you still have absolutely no idea where this might be headed, though a love song would hardly be anyone’s first guess.

Bailey’s arrival changes your impression only a little because while WHAT he’s singing is standard fare, telling this girl he loves her again and again, becoming a little more urgent with each recitation, he also sounds just a little… well, drunk really. He’s not slurring the words exactly, but he’s definitely not enunciating each word with care as he would if this were a pop song.

Undoubtedly that helps put it across. You can see him in your mind’s eye, his lips halfway between a smirk and a smile, his lids at half mast, his breath potentially lethal around open flames, trying to convince this girl he’s right for her. Maybe he was caught fooling around at a party with someone else and he’s claiming that despite what she saw it’s her he really loves. Or maybe she’s already rejected him and he’s just buzzed enough to try again and seem as if he doesn’t care about the outcome, which gives his come-ons added confidence.

To his credit Bailey never breaks character, even when he speeds up his delivery for emphasis he’s not pleading as much as he’s insisting and there’s a big psychological difference between the two and the latter mindset is what rock increasingly thrived on.


Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me?
As evocative as the vocals are, they’re only part of the allure of this record, because equal – if not greater – credit has to go to the band, or the guy directing the band to play in such a manner.

The story behind this is already well known but needs to be stated because it’s so crucial to how the song took shape. Frank “Floorshow” Culley’s group was recruited to back The Clovers in the studio based on charts Jesse Stone had already written out, but he hadn’t included a saxophone part since rock vocal group records did not use horns.

Culley demanded he be paid his leader fee regardless of whether he played or not, as was his union negotiated contractual right. Atlantic could hardly afford to throw loose change around like this so Stone incorporated him into the arrangement on the fly, giving Culley the task of alternately echoing and responding to Bailey during the verses.

To his credit Floorshow was definitely up to the task, giving his tenor a haunting echoey sound as if it were being heard through the fog down at the docks, adding to the darker ambiance lurking under the surface. Meanwhile the piano is loping along behind them giving the slow song a noticeable skip which makes the entire record seem faster than it’s actually paced without forcing the Clovers to adjust their deliveries in the process. When Culley gets handed a solo he makes the most of it, never trying to overwhelm the laid back cool Bailey had projected, but rather playing a pattern that uses far fewer notes to create a memorable melody than was typical for such interludes.

The result is the whole record messes with your sense of time and space. It’s the pauses between Culley’s lines, the surging bass-line that fills those spots and the creeping drums that seem to be closing in on you that give Don’t You Know I Love You its sinister edge.

This isn’t a record for the daytime, for dancing to under bright lights where friends are plentiful and laughs flow freely. Instead it’s ideal for small groups up to no good, commiserating in the darkness.

I’ll Never, Never, Never Let You Go
All of the disparate factors with this could never have been planned. A group who’d sung with more “authentic” street vibes before this session would’ve had an established sound that would’ve surely been much different than this – good perhaps in its own right, but not nearly the same unique brand of portentous cool detachment The Clovers hit upon.

Needless to say that had Culley not insisted to be paid if he didn’t play and instead went to flirt with a girl on the corner the record would’ve had a much different feel to it and two decades of vocal group records might never have had sax solos added to the mix.

More than anything though with this one record Don’t You Know I Love You established The Clovers as voices from across the tracks (much to their chagrin) by featuring a mood that rock hadn’t hit on before, not with vocals anyway, but in doing so they added yet another wrinkle to the ever expanding sonic fabric this music was busy stitching together.

Just when the increased popularity of rock ‘n’ roll might be poised to attract mainstream attention which would inevitably lead to it being watered down, the arrival of records like this made the entire genre seem dangerous once again.


(Visit the Artist page of The Clovers for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)