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ATLANTIC 963; FEBRUARY 1952

 
 

 

One of the defining sounds of the 1950’s rock scene was the “comedic playlette” as they became known years later.

These songs by groups such as The Robins, The Coasters, The Olympics and others – contained a fully realized plot with distinctly drawn characters acted out by the vocalists replete with drama, action, humor and social commentary a top a catchy melody with an instantly identifiable hook.

Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller perfected this approach but they didn’t invent it. While you could argue the basic concept went back to Louis Jordan or earlier, the rock version, which took advantage of groups with multiple singers to embody specific roles like a stage play, came into its own with this record… arguably the best single of The Clovers storied career.
 

 

I Don’t Remember Just How It Started
Of all of the rock stars we’ve covered to date none may have been more unlikely to reach that status than The Clovers… not in terms of skill, for they were obviously really good singers, but at least when it came to their artistic identity.

The group had wanted to sing classy pop when starting out but immediately had those plans cast aside by Atlantic Records who knew that pop didn’t sell, not in their market anyway, and course-corrected them as soon as the group was in the fold.

Once they made the change the interesting thing was (and maybe it was intentional, maybe it was simply because they didn’t know any better) The Clovers wound up filling a previously unoccupied space within the rock vocal group realm, that of slightly ominous laid-back hipsters.

The stories found in their first two releases, both allegedly written by Atlantic President Ahmet Ertegun, were pretty standard plots revolving around a guy chasing a girl in the first and a guy reeling from being with the wrong girl in the follow up. Those perspectives are obviously nothing unusual in rock songs and other than the first ever prominent sax solo in a vocal group record on Don’t You Know I Love You, which itself was a last second addition on the studio floor, you wouldn’t think these records would’ve stood out much compared to what else was on the scene at the time.

But their performances altered the entire image of the records by how atypically they delivered them. The languid vocals and the adjoining slinky vibe created by the backing track gave the impression that The Clovers weren’t your usual desperate guys thirsting for a girl out of their grasp. Instead it seemed to suggest that while the circumstances might not currently be in their favor, they had no doubt the girl would suffer more in the long run from not being with them. Somehow, incidental though it may have been, they found an entirely new way to inject attitude into a rock song.

As perfect as those records were however, One Mint Julep does them one better by leaving the more traditional plot devices on the shelf. Instead Rudolph Toombs creates a scenario that is so vivid, so multi-dimensional, so utterly unique, not to mention so seductive in its framing, that they created an entirely new archetype that would remain a steady presence in rock ‘n’ roll for years to come.

Before music videos were even a gleam in someone’s eye, The Clovers essentially created one for your own mind’s eye that was every bit as visual as anything put to film.
 


 
 

The Cause Of It All
The record starts with the right hand of Harry Van Walls tinkling the piano keys sounding like icicles dropping on the pavement after the sun comes out on a winter’s day.

It’s a perfect introduction because of how gradually it unfolds, all while letting you know that something else will fall shortly. The left hand and faint drums are there to provide some rhythmic grounding but they too are taking their time, not rushing through their parts to get to the… ahh… intoxicating story that follows.

Lead Buddy Bailey is playing someone who on one hand seems less self-assured than he did on their first two hits, his voice just a shade lighter, his pace – though still relaxed – has an undercurrent of anxiousness to it for reasons that quickly become apparent.

It seems this self-professed ladies man got himself entangled with a cute girl who he took back to his place for some hanky panky. But as many girls are in need of lubrication – literal and metaphorical – for such romantic assignations, he gets her a drink to loosen her up some. Now while he makes a big deal out of the fact that he was out of his usual array of spirits, it really isn’t the drink’s fault as to what happened next, though he conveniently places the blame on it all the same, saying One Mint Julep ”was the cause of it all”.

The truth is more ambiguous. She was down for getting down as it were and he was eager for it as well, “the lights were burnin’ low” and they were getting busy when her father – indicating that she was either not yet of age, or at the very least still living under his roof – busted in, caught them in flagrante delicto and all hell broke loose.

But you know the plot, I’m sure, and if not it takes just one listen to get up to speed and see how the poor guy went from an afternoon quickie to being married with six kids in the blink of an eye. The genius of the song though is how naturally it progresses and how Bailey could see his control starting to slip once his shortage of more “appropriate” liquor became apparent and yet he still pressed on, hoping for the best.

The ice in the drink however – what really makes the story work so well in other words – is how subtle the humor is throughout the story. He doesn’t lose control and get hysterical as things fall apart as lesser writers would feel the need to do just to sell some cheap laughs. Here none of the lines are meant to be laugh out loud funny, other than maybe Harold Winley’s bass interjection about the aftermath, but instead it all comes across as a logical worst case scenario playing out, with each obstacle another domino is being toppled leading to his ultimate downfall.
 


 

I Didn’t Mean To Take It Further
Meanwhile the music backs all of this up with a smirk even as it largely remains above the fray. That infectious piano lick never lets up, almost warning you to tread lightly at every turn. The throbbing bassline may seem harmless on the surface but speaks to what happens when you let that warm sensation spread over you to the detriment of your other senses.

The saxophone, normally such an asset when it comes to setting the right mood for these kinds of scenarios, is used sparingly and yet becomes all the more effective for its prolonged absence, making you realize that the ecstasy it potentially offers remains tantalizingly out of reach, each time appearing out of the dark momentarily before fading back into the shadows before you can get to it… a musical metaphor regarding sex between virtual strangers that is remarkably true to life.

All told, it’s one of the most effective understated arrangements in rock history, so mesmerizing even without the accompanying story that future legends like Ray Charles and Booker T. & The MG’s tried to elicit the same response by turning in instrumental versions of One Mint Julep, the former of which was a huge hit in its own right a decade after this… long after listeners had forgotten the hangover the original caused.

But those versions are merely the equivalent of trying to figure out a plot by staring at a movie poster rather than watching the film and there’s so much here that demands your attention, from the almost taunting “Doo-diddley-doo-dah-doo-day” backing vocals to the way in which the guitar makes only limited appearances yet each time feels as if it’s pulling back the veil on the next humiliation, that no other rendition could ever compete.

It’s not a boisterous song, it’s not a record to sing-along to or harmonize with, it’s got no moments designed to knock you off your feet either vocally or instrumentally, it even has a message that warns against TWO of rock’s favorite pastimes – booze and sex – and yet every piece falls into line so perfectly that you can never get enough of it.
 

From Now On I’ll Be Thinkin’ Double
If one hit out of the gate establishes an artist as somebody to watch and a second hit on its heels gives that artist and label certain leeway when it comes to expanding their sound, a third hit in three tries means they’re the ones setting the pace and other acts will have to either follow suit or move further away to differentiate themselves.

Oddly enough the majority of rock took the latter approach, at least after lifting the sax break from their first hit and mining that for all it was worth, but that’s what makes One Mint Julep all the more special in the end… the fact it DOESN’T sound like so many other records of its time, even as it remains inextricably of that era.

That this single stalled at #2 seems almost cruel in retrospect, denying them the chart topping threepeat distinction that would’ve put them on par with Elvis Presley once he arrived at RCA or The Beatles on Capitol in America and The Supremes breakthrough on Motown after floundering around before landing on their hit formula.

It’s all but assured that The Clovers, by virtue of rock ‘n’ roll still appealing to a smaller, segregated audience, wouldn’t be held in quite the same regard as those acts, but their feat here is no less impressive… and in some ways maybe it’s even more so.

This was a group who completely changed their musical outlook overnight and hit upon a sound so immediately distinctive that it ensured their reign would last for years, the best selling rock act by far of the early fifties.

But this… THIS is where they began to exert their long-range influence even more, presenting the idea that rock records could in fact go beyond merely relaying concise vignettes and instead tell vivid intricate stories in under three minutes without losing any of their musical appeal in the process.

Drink up! They’re now three for their last three when it comes to absolute perfection, a mark that no other rock act can touch so far… and few – if any – would be able to match in the future.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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