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FEDERAL 12068; APRIL 1952



They’d been a professional recording group for all of seventeen months which encompassed only five singles (plus two sides with Little Esther), but in that time The Dominoes had already established a legacy to be envied.

Though he had to be talked into taking his group into rock ‘n’ roll when what he really wanted to do was conquer the pop field, Billy Ward had accepted the challenge made by Federal Records’ chief Ralph Bass and wrote some of the most scintillating rock songs ever heard which made The Dominoes the biggest stars in the field overnight and created artistic templates which would be followed for generations to come.

All but one of their releases to date were hits whether the group was fronted by the groundbreaking tenor vocal gymnastics of Clyde McPhatter or the rolling lecherous bass of Bill Brown, while the tracks they cut, be they ballads or uptempo rockers, sparkled with melodic, rhythmic and instrumental highlights.

Having shown they were the best rock act in the world they had nothing left to prove… so naturally they decided to prove it again just in case anyone still had some doubts.


Take Me Back Where I Belong
Careers, especially in the singles era, are defined by hits. The more an artist has and the longer the span they cover, the more towering they appear to be.

But even so it’s not just the number of hits, but the size of them, especially the further out from their reign we get. Time has a way of whittling down even the most prolific career to a handful of enduring sides. Bing Crosby has close to four hundred charted hits, almost twice as many as Elvis Presley and The Beatles combined, but over the years the familiarity of his catalog has dwindled to where only his Christmas classics live on – and even those for just one month out of the year.

It happens to everybody eventually.

Most of the time it’s not hard to guess what song will survive this purge… it’ll surely be an artist’s biggest hit, their only chart topper for instance (Del Shannon’s Runaway or Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back), or if they have multiple #1’s, like The Rolling Stones, one by one you’ll see them fall off the radar until – at some point – only one will be left standing (Satisfaction).

For those who never reached the top but have a bunch of Top Tens, they too will be thinned out until one remains the go-to song with the wider public like how Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire finally burned out his other huge hits when it came to mainstream spins.

Usually though you’re all but guaranteed of having any song that was as dominant for as long as Have Mercy Baby – 10 weeks at #1 in one of the most competitive years for hits in rock history – to serve as your historical calling card.

However in the case of The Dominoes this record takes a distant second to an even bigger hit (14 weeks at #1 while crossing over into the Top Twenty on the Pop Charts, an unthinkable feat in 1951) with Sixty Minute Man that has the added appeal of being so overtly racy that it pulls in a lot of people more interested in hearing the subject matter than the musical attributes.

Where today’s song doesn’t take a back seat to it though is in the record itself, as this, far more than any other in a catalog overflowing with classics, remains their definitive performance seven decades down the road.


I Reaped It All, My Darling
If you’re looking how to construct a rock classic in 1952, look no further than this record. It’s a snarling beast of a track, all streamlined muscular power hurtling along at top speed with long graceful strides, able to turn on the dime and still maintain perfect control.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s source materials from the start held the promise of such results, from Roy Brown’s emotional gospel-laden singing to the rolling vocal harmonies of The Ravens, the honking sax of Paul Williams and the careening joy of Jimmy Liggins, all founding fathers of the genre who first laid down those specific blueprints in the waning days of 1947.

Here, four and a half years later, is the evolutionary peak of all of those components mixed into one intoxicating brew.

Though Have Mercy Baby is above all else an iron-clad case for Clyde McPhatter as rock’s preeminent vocal star, everything else involved here heightens his impact immeasurably. The saxophone blasts that kick off the record sounding like four alarm fire leading into the group’s hand claps and deeper voiced echoing replies to Clyde’s every line gives it the feel of a a party in full swing as soon as the needle drops. There’s a sense that should a rumble break out these guys are going to swarm you and knock you unconscious before you realize what happened.

We’ve said it before but that communal feeling of excitement that inhabits so many rock songs is one of the things that set it apart from virtually every other style of music and this record embodies that concept to the fullest. The sound hits you from all sides, enveloping your senses while battering you senseless and electrifying every fiber of your being in the process.

At the center of the storm is Clyde… riding the gale force wind, harnessing and controlling it and ultimately bending it to his will, a force of nature unto himself.

He comes charging in with guns blazing from the start, his voice injected with a throaty gravel on the first line that seems to be laying down the take no prisoners attitude the song will embody for eternity. Though he’s singing to get back into his girl’s good graces, begging and pleading for her to forgive him for whatever transgressions he’s guilty of, there’s absolutely no question he’s the one dictating the rules of their relationship and this mea culpa is merely the cost he occasionally must pay for that privilege.

Despite its accelerated tempo Have Mercy Baby is a extremely sensual song, one which continually heightens the drama and anticipation until it conveys a purely sexual release. Though he never brings up the topic itself, the performance is dripping with testosterone and that promise of what awaits her is the obvious allurement he’s using to get his baby to forgive him.

If there’s any doubt that it worked – or that she was the one whose defenses crumbled until she broke down and ravished him – one only has to listen to the raucous sax break where Clyde is shouting and screaming encouragement and after an orgasmic cry of exultation he simply launches into a repetitive “Yeah, yeah, yeah” down the stretch as the lights flicker and the walls shake.

By the end he’s the one crying for mercy, but trust me when I tell you that it’s for an entirely different reason than the one he started out seeking… now he’s simply pleading for more time to recover before they start up again later that night.


I’ll Never Be The Same No More
Earlier this month we reviewed an all-time classic in Lloyd Price’s debut, Lawdy Miss Clawdy in which we said that for as great as it was – and remember around here (9)’s are perfect records – it wasn’t even the best release of the month.

For some reason, maybe because it was revived a few times by big names down the road, or maybe just for the reasons alluded to in the opening section where each artist is entitled to only one immortal side, that one has had a much more lasting reputation than this.

While both are flawless records, Have Mercy Baby had a bigger stylistic impact at the time and more influence in everything which followed… it’s the epitome of rock as a bastardized form of religious ecstasy, one which encompasses the flesh as well as the spirit, a veritable orgy of shared emotional liberation that would define rock concerts forever more.

That such heights were achieved not on a stage but in a studio (though reportedly their live versions of this took it to an even higher level night after night), makes it all the more remarkable – proof positive that this music, first ignored, then dismissed, criticized and eventually patronized by the establishment, was breaking every rule in the book and re-writing them to suit their own agenda.

For all intent and purposes Have Mercy Baby is the very definition of rock ‘n’ roll, past, present and future. The styles have changed from its first appearance on the scene in 1947 and will change countless times in the years to come, but what made the music so endlessly captivating throughout that evolution has been distilled to perfection here.

It goes without saying that this is the best rock record of 1952 and it’s just as certain that it’s the best to be released in the genre’s first six years. While we still have seven and a half years to go before reaching the end of the decade it’s got the inside track for the title of the absolute best rock record of the Nineteen Fifties… and yeah, in case there was any doubt, it definitely is in the running for the greatest rock single ever released too.

And now The Dominoes truly have nothing left to prove.


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