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FEDERAL 12010; JANUARY 1951

 
 

 

When someone is analytically trying to define what rock ‘n’ roll “is” you’re likely to get a lot of talk about song structures, instrumentation, vocal textures and attitude… none of which are exactly wrong maybe but which aren’t universally true either.

There are plenty of ballads that sound nothing like an uptempo raver, dozens of rock styles from rockabilly to disco and metal to hip-hop that would never be confused for one another.

But ultimately what sets it apart from every other major genre of music no matter the particular era or brand of rock we’re talking about can be boiled down to one overarching concept:

Rock ‘n’ roll is about self-expression.

Though it’s evident in all great original material through the years, maybe it’s best illustrated with a cover song of a pop hit from 1951 by a group just emerging onto the scene who promptly took that politely mannered tune and wantonly destroyed it so they could re-craft it in their own image.
 

 

Goodbye To Tender Nights
Over the years here there have been many – far too many in fact – examples of rock vocal groups cutting their version of a recent pop record hoping to a) appeal to their own fan base with a song originally meant for an entirely different constituency and b) at the same time to try and court that different original fan base in order to “move up” in the world.

With very few exceptions these are ill-advised and counterproductive, not just to the artists own careers by trying to appeal to a demographic who looks down on them as human beings and regards their natural musical inclinations to be unworthy of respect, but also because these attempts have the potential to undermine rock ‘n’ roll’s identity and future prospects as a whole.

After all, if conforming to the established pop sensibilities actually wound up working and got them more sales and even some modest praise from mainstream society then what incentive is there to ever do anything new and innovative or for that matter why bother making music for your own under-served community and their distinctive needs?

So while we can appreciate some of the technical qualities of these performances purely as singers rendering a song, more often than not we’re going to criticize the attempts themselves and skewer the resulting records for their shallow and misguided aims.

Billy Ward, the overseer of The Dominoes, had such aspirations his entire life and after the group made their name as rockers he increasingly tried to parlay that fame into more respectable musical avenues, eventually succeeding at doing so in the mid 1950’s, getting some pop hits with more mannered performances and taking up residency in Las Vegas… where let’s not forget they were still forced to enter buildings through kitchens and ride freight elevators to go to their own performances… yeah, that’s the reprehensible white America that he was trying to pander to!

But when he and The Dominoes signed to Federal Records in late 1950 it was ironically a white man, Ralph Bass, who steered him away from that course to start with and had him write authentic rockers, which to his credit Ward did exceptionally well as evidenced by their debut from a month ago, Do Something For Me.

So just weeks later when the group was asked to cover Harbor Lights, a pop song that was currently one of the biggest hits in the nation, the fear was that Ward would take this chance to show how respectfully he could adhere to the dominant pop aesthetics of the day, maybe in the process even convincing Bass to let him give up this seamy rock junk altogether and venture into the pop music world that he longed to conquer.

But Ward did no such thing. Instead he turned The Dominoes loose and they promptly desecrated the song in the most brazen act of self-expression imaginable.
 


 

How I Could Help If Tears Were Starting?
When asked about his performing style Dominoes lead singer Clyde McPhatter famously said that he liked to “take liberties with the melody” and on this song he shows in explicit detail just what he meant.

Harbor Lights was a song by an Austrian composer which framed the lyrics by an Irishman in an exotic south seas motif that had an alluring appeal to people from all over the world for generations to come.

The first renditions came in 1937 with the Roy Fox original and the Frances Langford hit version in America, both of which are typically mawkish affairs as befitting the pop styles of the late 1930’s.

The song itself though is a strong one in spite of that, featuring a lilting melody and, in almost every version including later rock takes by Elvis Presley and The Platters (who went to #8 with theirs in 1960), it has a wistful vocal to reflect the story about saying goodbye to a lover as they depart, worried that they will find another to take your place in their heart before you see them again.

In late 1950 it had been revived by countless artists led by Sammy Kaye’s smash hit, as well as Ray Anthony, Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo, all of which featured more modern styled pop singing, which is to say pretty bland and soulless, relying primarily on the melodic beauty and the phonetic qualities of the words to make an imprint on listeners rather than a deeper psychological interpretation of the actual plot.

McPhatter and The Dominoes however zero in on the psychological aspects of the song, showcasing the emotional havoc rendered by the fear of potential heartbreak as the story suggests is imminent.
 


 
 

You Were Gone… And I Mean REAL Gone!
With a simple guitar setting the scene and drums drenched in echo, this is a very stark barren recording in terms of instrumentation, far less busy than most of the versions on the market at the time, yet it sounds remarkably full because of how McPhatter’s voice is mic’ed, presenting him in stunning clarity way up in the mix letting you hear every inflection of his voice while the others add ghostly distant backing for the first half of the record.

Clyde is approaching Harbor Lights as an actor would, starting off the story while still reasonably in control of his emotions… expressing worry in his tone but still holding it together for appearance sake even as his fears start to get the better of him as he goes along. Soon the tension and strain start becoming more and more apparent in his delivery as he begins to bear down harder on the lines which raises the stakes considerably. He’s also deviating slightly from the basic melodic approach, doubling up words like a gospel singer – worrying the lyrics as it was called – but not yet departing entirely from the accepted structure.

When Joe Lamont comes in for the bridge in his more stentorian baritone the genius of the arrangement is to have McPhatter jump into the background and start to soar wordlessly, in the process setting up the fact he’s about to reach his breaking point before discreetly bowing out and letting the others provide a harmonic bed.

But then Clyde reappears like a bolt of lightning coming out of the break and delivers what can only be called a frenzied assault on the song, repeating a single word “Now, now, now, now” over and over with unerring precision. If you were to have first heard this in the CD era you’d be convinced the disc was skipping, that’s how exact his vocals are.

It’s as stunning a display of vocal anguish and passion as we’ve yet seen in rock and in the span of a three minute song he ran the gamut from sad and hurt to utter despair, gradually becoming unmoored from any vestiges of decorum until he was simply emoting like a man possessed.

Bing Crosby sure never sang it like this!
 

Once Brought You To Me
You could certainly argue that the decision to release a second Dominoes single right on the heels of their first record which was just starting to climb the charts was a miscalculation from a commercial point of view.

Granted the commercial considerations were the reason they DID release it now, to try and jump on the bandwagon before the song’s popularity began to wane, but as startlingly good as this was it didn’t wind up connecting with listeners nearly as much as their debut had… though ironically that became a good thing for their future direction, ensuring they stuck with original material for awhile longer.

But that doesn’t mean Harbor Lights wasn’t a worthwhile release in its own way, for what it showed was that vocal groups… indeed all of rock ‘n’ roll… didn’t have to dilute their style when tackling pop material, but instead could force pop material to contend with their radicalized re-interpretations.

It would take awhile for the mainstream to acknowledge this and take futile steps to try and ward off that shift in accepted approaches as rock’s potency grew, but the writing was on the wall and it was just a matter of time before that wall came tumbling down in a cacophony of unrestrained yet passionate noise.

As for this record however not only did you get the full genius of Clyde McPhatter unveiled in a way that would allow everyone to see the stunning contrast between him and everything that had gone before him, but you also got the first definitive signs that even when being asked to adapt themselves to a more respectable music this generation of rockers weren’t going to compromise their artistic integrity to do so any longer.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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