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ATLANTIC 944; AUGUST 1951

 
 

 

The Ames Brothers…. The Four Aces… The Four Lads… The Gaylords… The Hilltoppers… In case their names are unfamiliar to you today, those were the most popular male pop vocal groups of the early 1950’s.

They had a lotta hits between them and were widely respected for their professionalism, their smooth harmonies and frankly, for their bland sound.

Despite the fact that they collectively sold more records than rock vocal groups at the time and certainly were more widely known among the broader U.S. populace, they became almost instantly forgotten when the hits dried up. Their long-term impact on the course of popular music was rather slim and they didn’t inspire many to go digging through their catalogs to champion their careers in the coming decades or to try and bring about greater historical recognition for their entire style.

By contrast The Clovers were a rock vocal group whose hit-making years lasted much longer, whose impact on the evolution of their genre was immense and who remained surprisingly well known until the end of their lives despite their original fan base being proportionately a lot smaller, yet at this point in time were apparently hoping to be quickly forgotten like those pop groups.

How else to explain their repeated attempts at musical irrelevancy when left to their own devices?
 

 

Even A Fool Can See
It is a strange quirk of music that finds a lot of the most transformative and forward thinking artists of their generation more enamored with music from past generations.

Roy Brown wanted to be like Bing Crosby and croon for a living. Ruth Brown saw herself as an Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, singing classy ballads. Clyde McPhatter wished he were Perry Como, backed by lush strings and choirs. Fifteen or twenty years down the road a generation of rock icons – Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Ronald Isley, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed and George Clinton among them – still harbored fantasies about being in doo wop groups like the kind they’d grown up listening to.

It’s only natural. You rarely will connect with music more intensely than that which you hear in your youth, but you’ll never matter artistically if you try and revisit those styles once you come of age. You can’t look back if you want to move forward.

The Clovers in their heart of hearts did not want to move forward, not if it meant leaving behind their aspirations to sing tepid pop. Yet they had no choice, Atlantic signed them to give the label something new to compete in the rock field, not to make records that weren’t going to make a dent in the pop world where they would never be welcome for fairly obvious reasons.

When their first two singles for the label, both done in a wholly original, and somewhat suggestive, laid-back vocal style topped the charts The Clovers’ appeals to cut more refined pop numbers fell on deaf ears. Rock sold, pop didn’t… at least not in any great numbers in Black America to make it worth their while.

So it was with the B-side of that second hit that they saw their last opportunity (at least for the next half decade) to try and see if they might win over the disinterested with another tame song… albeit an original composition by group members Matthew McQuater and guitarist Bill Harris.

Needless to say nobody at the time bothered to give it more than one spin when it so clearly paled in comparison to the sultry harmonizing on the top side that had opened the door into the future, both for the group and the audience alike.
 


 
 

You Can’t Imagine
If you had to make a guess on their intent with this song and performance, you’d be on the right track to say that The Clovers were hedging their bets just a little after the respective response to the two sides of their first Atlantic single.

The erotic rock original, Don’t You Know I Love You, got heavy play, the straight pop reading of Skylark got rightly ignored.

Since their pre-rock stage repertoire contained a lot of pop standards they must’ve figured that an original composition would stand out more, both to the public, but also Atlantic’s hierarchy, allowing them to show their creativity and thus maybe affording them a little more leeway when it came to their stylistic direction, at least on their own self-penned sides.

To make sure it was given a fair shake they approached the vocals in a slightly more soulful way… not enough to catch any self-respecting rock fan’s ear mind you, but rather to distance it just a little from the more button-down pop they preferred.

They needn’t have bothered because however you may try to make excuses for them, the DNA of Needless belonged to yesterday.

That being said lead singer Buddy Bailey doesn’t sound terrible for the most part. His voice is fine at least, but it’s his choices that are all wrong… unless they were singing this on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts or something, where the stuck-up white audience would be more inclined to appreciate a modest vocal approach rather than one that showed any sign of emotion.

Despite their stab at pop appeal it’s not a complete waste of our time because in order to placate the Atlantic brain trust Bailey adds a dash of soulfulness into some of his lines, bearing down on the thoughts being expressed far more than he’d be allowed to at a major label, where they reportedly used hot branding irons on vocalists bold enough to show any sign of libido in their performance.

The few moments where Bailey lets himself get carried away is when he comes closest to making this record mean something, but that spark of passion is quickly doused and he and the others revert back to singing in a lifeless manner. Bailey’s futile attempts to sing certain lines in falsetto are particularly egregious as he just can’t comfortably reach those notes and since there’s no musical need for it in the song, it comes across as someone desperate to distance himself from his groundbreaking work on the top side.

Even the group vocals in the middle eight featuring a nice lead by bass Harold Winley doesn’t drip with the kind of urgent eroticism it calls for. By the time Bailey wraps the song up they’ve all given up even trying to make the record meaningful beyond their own misguided dreams for stardom in a world that no longer exists.
 


 

It’s Plain That You Don’t Love Me
Though individual opinion on the merits of a particular record – or entire style – is essentially meaningless, mine included, the same can’t be said about the collective opinions of a huge market.

That’s what determines hits and hits are what determine future developments and thus are responsible for the changes to the dominant sound of an era.

The sound contained on Needless might be modestly pleasant to even a critic of that pop landscape they were striving for, but it was in no way appealing to the market that determined The Clovers’ fate or would shape the music’s future.

Why would a young black audience who’ve been continually told your individual AND collective views are meaningless want to reward a group for trying to win over those who laid down that decree in the first place? The rock fan of the day, the ones who were in the process of stealthily subverting the entire music industry with their fervent interest in the more progressive sides of The Clovers’ first two singles, did not like these pop efforts and clearly did not want the group to pursue them, full stop.

Years later the lingering niche appeal of these sides exists not among THAT constituency at all, but rather the retroactive white fans who came along later and are simply more comfortable with rock groups leaning heavily into pop styles than they are with the grittier, culturally dangerous and more revolutionary rock records that turned music on its head. In other words, the very thing that would’ve stopped rock in its tracks had it prevailed.

But thankfully the actual community that mattered then were not so timid in their choices and with the failure of this to stir their interest and the overwhelming success of Fool, Fool, Fool on the other side, Atlantic now had all of the evidence they needed to nip this in the bud and focus entirely on rock material for both sides of every subsequent single and if The Clovers couldn’t see the writing on the wall then maybe they just had a commercial death wish.

As always everybody is free to appreciate whatever songs they wish for whatever reasons they like with no need to apologize for those tastes. Furthermore all styles have their place in the larger musical universe and it’s never a bad thing that there’s so much to choose from.

But that being said if it’s these kinds of vocal group records that tickle your fancy most, maybe it’s time to admit that you’re simply a pop music fan who has just an occasional mild hankering for authentic rock rather than the other way around.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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