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Transitions – Part Two.

Rock ‘n’ roll is like a vast ocean, it stretches as far as the eye can see and is a lot deeper than it might appear from a distance. The tide ebbs and flows steadily day after day and if you watch it long it enough it can lull you into thinking it’s almost peaceful, as if nothing is happening under the surface.

But every so often the sea becomes choppy, the wind whips up and the waves come crashing down on the shore, pulling everything in its reach along with it in the powerful undertow.

At the tail end of 1950 there were some huge waves breaking over the vocal group idiom and when the storm passed nothing left in its wake would be the same as it had once been.


Can’t You See?
A few days ago we covered the first record in this vocal group upheaval, The Four Buddies debut, I Will Wait, a slightly bigger hit than today’s record but one with a more modest impact on its surface.

That choice to place it first was intentional, for while it may have indeed come out a week or two earlier, it also might have been issued a week or two later in December, or perhaps the competing record companies were thoughtful enough to release them the very same week.

The reason why we went with The Four Buddies record first was so it wouldn’t be obliterated by today’s offering, for when discussing the “seismic events” (as we put it) in the vocal group landscape, the initial efforts of The Dominoes tend to dwarf all competition, and for good reason.

What they brought to the table appeared revolutionary, both at the time and in the seven plus decades since and because the group and its lead singer both had much longer reigns as stars their legacies are more or less set in stone.

But that’s not to say The Four Buddies’ most indelible contribution wasn’t hugely impactful in its own right, for while they were nowhere near as talented, nor did any of them have the vocal charisma of The Dominoes’ core, they DID pioneer a specific approach to ballads that would serve as a prototype for countless others over the next half decade.

It’s just that The Dominoes work on Do Something For Me was so dynamic by comparison, so influential in setting all lead vocalists free – both in and out of the group setting – that it tends to render everything else a mere afterthought.

That’s not fair of course, but listening to this record it might in fact be totally understandable all the same.

I’ll Never Sleep A Wink Tonight
Billy Ward’s ambitions knew no bounds. A prodigiously gifted musician from a young age, a Julliard student and an Army veteran, Ward was not yet thirty years old when he went to work as a pianist and composer for Rose Marks, an older white woman who ran an advertising agency and would soon become his manager, co-writer and guiding light. She was the one who seems to have given Ward focus after he’d tried his hand at a number of jobs on the periphery of the business, encouraging him to form a group to channel his ideas.

Having been working on the side as a vocal coach he chose some of his best students to form a group which eventually took shape as The Dominoes. They were led by Clyde McPhatter, a 19 year old tenor with a startlingly pure voice, and he and the other members brought with them their more emotional gospel style to what Ward had initially envisioned as a pop-styled group.

After winning an Apollo Theater amateur show and appearing on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts they were signed to Federal Records, new subsidiary of King Records which had been started to give Ralph Bass (who’d discovered and/or produced Big Jay McNeely, Little Esther and others for Savoy Records), a label of his own to run making him among the few employees in the business with a production deal.

Ward was trying push The Dominoes in a refined pop direction, something he later accomplished much to the detriment of their sales and reputation, but Bass was having none of that and reportedly played him a stack of rock releases to show what he was looking for. The classically trained Ward scoffed at their simplicity, saying he could write dozens or hundreds of those if he cared to. Bass’s reply was, “Write me one!” and Ward complied.

Of course colorful stories, while they may have an element of truth to them, are often exaggerated for effect. We do know Ward had loftier aspirations, but it’s hard to believe when listening to how perfectly Do Something For Me comes off that he had no prior awareness of, or interest in, this kind of music.

Then again when Clyde McPhatter is at the helm even the most solemn of hymns could be turned into a fiery rocker at a moment’s notice.


‘Til I Hear My Poor Heart Pound
As written, this song is pretty basic. Thematically it’s mildly racy, at least for the kind of Ink Spots-derived pop that Ward might’ve initially envisioned, but it still falls safely on the side of decorum as the lyrics hint at sexual favors without making anything too explicit. With a more restrained lead singing the same lines it could easily come across as merely asking a girl to show a sign of her affection and nothing more.

The instrumentation is exquisite with a slinky guitar that adds tremendous melodic color backed by light steady drums and bass, but there’s no solo, no moments for it to step out front in between lines, as the musician’s goal is merely to set an atmosphere, not grab your attention, a decision that pays off by letting the singers bask in the spotlight instead.

The backing vocals are definitely well conceived and take advantage of their natural blend and their gospel backgrounds and are in no way skimping on the rock attributes. Bill Brown’s stuttering bass adds a subtly rhythmic element to the equation that makes the record seem faster paced than it really is. But let’s face it, much of the time they’re just shading the lead with discreet “oohs” and “ahhs”. When they soar to match McPhatter a minute in their sound is captivating but you’re still focused largely on him.

Their standalone spot on the bridge is really nice but we’ve heard more emphatic work in the past by The Ravens and Robins, the two acts in the triumvirate of first generation rock vocal groups who featured the kinds of uptempo material that called for such displays.

Which means that while everything about Do Something For Me is pretty good… even really good in the context of this particular type of rock, which too often still pulled up short on how much they wanted to accentuate the more suggestive aspects… what sets this record apart and makes it so captivating comes down to Clyde McPhatter who immediately stakes his claim as the unicorn of rock ‘n’ roll singers.

Give Me Your Heart
Because for years the wider entertainment community looked down on this music, if they even acknowledged it at all, and because few writers interviewed the participants of the movement that revolutionized popular culture, we’re left with just a few far-flung quotes from McPhatter to try and put his approach into proper perspective, the most famous of which is his assertion that he felt more comfortable “taking liberties with the melody”.

If you needed a crash course in what that meant, Do Something For Me provides just that, as he takes what is a straightforward composition and embellishes it with vocal runs that warp the meaning of the words themselves, adding emotion, anguish and desire to lines that would – if delivered by say Ivory Joe Hunter – express resolute sadness tinged with a small glimmer of hope.

McPhatter however is tortured by these same lines and spends the entire song struggling to free himself from their implications. He may just be apart from the girl he craves for a few hours, maybe their date ended at midnight, they kissed and he went home and will see her again tomorrow, but by the way he delivers this you’d think he was being sent to prison for twenty years as he pulls each word from his tortured soul, offering them up in a fashion that is far too dramatic and ostentatious for proper society… IE. adult decorum… but is perfectly appropriate for the perils of young love, where raw emotion tends to overwhelms your senses.

But it’s not only the added pathos he brings to the table that sets this apart, it’s also the technical qualities he uses which shook up the rock scene and established a new template that would remain in place forever after. Though Roy Brown had already introduced much of the gospel-derived passion to the secular realm on Good Rocking Tonight with his vocal swoops and sustained notes that established the ground rules for rock, the techniques McPhatter uses here goes far beyond what we’d heard before in rock ‘n’ roll.

He’s like an impressionist painter with his approach on Do Something For Me, his hesitation moves alone are worth the price of admission, drawing out the suspense in ways that nobody had done before, then exploding with a sudden display of power that was never out of control. He rode the expected notes with such ease before unexpectedly veering off to reach for an improbable one and he not only nails them every time but makes it seem so natural that you would never be able to envision a more tempered approach on the same song after this.

Every trick in his bag is used judiciously, from repeating notes in perfect pitch, rising and falling in volume like someone was electronically turning the knobs on his voice, all while he choked, sobbed, cried and soared as if he were living out each sentiment in real time, imprinting his soul onto the record by never sticking to what was on the lead sheet. Yet in doing so he never betrayed the music simply in an effort to show off, his choices were inspired, his passion was unquestioned and the results were astonishing.

In effect he’d reinvented the wheel when it came to how to deliver a rock song.


We’ll Never Part
Nineteen-fifty has been marked by many high points in rock’s march to the sea. There’ve been new artists – Fats Domino most prominently – who’d have careers that would far surpass both The Dominoes and McPhatter individually, while others who seemed minor entrants at the time, Rufus Thomas and Sylvia Vanterpool, would actually still be having major impact on rock decades down the road long after this group and its members were but a memory.

We’ve seen shooting stars like the precocious Little Esther emerge who became the year’s top story, while other enduring acts like Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, The Ravens and Amos Milburn have re-affirmed their stature with some of their best work to date. We’ve seen some really good artists like Jewel King, Archibald, Kitty Stevenson and Professor Longhair, hit remarkable highs early and then fall off the map before the year was through.

What it showed was that rock ‘n’ roll was a living breathing organism, one that was subject to countless external factors that kept it interesting, unpredictable and always exciting.

With Do Something For Me rock ‘n’ roll had a new component to come to grips with, one that would, in various forms, never loosen its hold on the basic concept of how to sing this music in ways that had the strongest emotional impact on listeners.

Though it was a sizable hit (#6) it certainly wasn’t the biggest to come out during these last twelve months, yet more than most of those this was the song that would change rock’s basic ground rules.

This was the sound of the future and with it the second stage of the transition from one era to the next was in the books.


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