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FEDERAL 12022; APRIL 1951



As the career of artists begin to take shape how do you evaluate their prospects when it comes to trying to assess how potent they’re going to be as time goes on?

Is it determined by their commercial returns so far or the artistic quality of their work to date?

Do you focus mostly on the high points they’ve reached or are you more concerned with consistency from one side to the next?

Is establishing a signature style more or less important than showing versatility in their output?

Whichever of those options you favor The Dominoes come out on top thus far in rock’s evolution. Consistent artistic quality?… To date there’s been five sides released under The Dominoes name – plus one co-starring Little Esther – and every single one has been great. Success?… Their first release was riding high on the charts as we speak and the top side of this one would go on to be the single biggest hit of the entire year for any artist. Versatility?… Three different members of the group have sung lead on a single and their songs have ranged from radicalizing standards to perverting gospel techniques for love songs and cutting sexually explicit material with equally good results.

But maybe there’s an even more reliable way to predict their long term viability and that is asking just how good is their weakest side? Is it something that falls flat, a complete misfire, or is it something that might not reach the level of their best work but still sounds pretty good all things considered?

Here’s your answer.


Tell Me Why Do I Love You
Though The Dominoes today are primarily known for the trendsetting leads of Clyde McPhatter, when they started out they were aiming to be a much more democratic outfit as evidenced by the songs that have featured bass Bill Brown or second tenor Charlie White on lead.

As transformative the vocals of McPhatter were, it’s hard to say that spreading the wealth around was a mistake since Sixty Minute Man, their biggest hit, was led by Brown and the different textures and stylistic influences each of the singers employed gave their respective songs a uniqueness that ensured the group wasn’t going to settle into formula without a fight.

But as we’ll see over the next two years when all three of the other singers depart and replacements fill in admirably, McPhatter was the truly singular talent whose style was such a radical departure from what was accepted in rock – and whose voice alone was so distinctive – that it was inevitable that he’d become the centerpiece sooner or later to take advantage of those qualities and provide the group with a signature star.

While I Can’t Escape From You is hardly his best work it still manages to show as well as any of his leads to date just how idiosyncratic a singer he really was.

Though most of what makes this work stems from his utterly unique delivery rather than the quality of the song itself, the record does serve notice that as soon as Billy Ward began to really craft material to play to McPhatter’s strengths there might be no limit as to how high he could take them.


Like A Leaf In A Windstorm
It doesn’t require any detailed biographical knowledge of Clyde McPhatter’s background as the son of a minister and whose mother played organ and oversaw the church choir to be able to figure out he was gospel educated once you hear him sing.

The gospel mannerisms define him just as much as the operatic ambitions defined his replacement in The Dominoes, Jackie Wilson. Even when both were tackling music far away from those origins, their instincts in how to phrase, how to stretch notes, how to build to climatic payoffs come directly from those far-flung sources.

In McPhatter’s case his gospel technique that he had further honed with the Mt. Lebanon Singers scuttled Billy Ward’s plans to use his high tenor in a similar role to The Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny as Clyde said pretty succinctly, “I had been so oriented to gospel that I couldn’t sing along those lines”.

That – along with Federal Records insistence that Ward not write pop rooted material in an Ink Spots vein – turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened for The Dominoes, giving them a new sound to spring on the public, or at least a new sound outside of the confines of a church. Since their songs obviously had themes that no reputable church would glorify, the juxtaposition of the gospel delivery of secular themes took what Roy Brown had started to the next level.

I Can’t Escape From You is the closest McPhatter may have ever gotten to pure gospel… not in terms of content as he’d tackle things on Atlantic that had quasi-religious themes or undercurrents which this song does not have, but rather in terms of how he’s approaching the song. This is almost a textbook case of how gospel singers (over)emoted, worrying lines to build to an almost unbearable peak before offering release.

The problem is the song itself isn’t worthy of that kind of passionate display, but to his credit Clyde almost makes you believe otherwise. His voice trembles throughout this and he doubles down on certain words, agonizing over their implications until you’re convinced this is a life or death matter to him.

It’s not of course, his lovesick heart has been rejected and he’s merely reiterating his devotion to the girl, knowing in his mind it will do no good but in his heart he believe otherwise. It’s a little over the top, as much of gospel is when you strip away the implied consequences of the stories, but in terms of displaying those specific skills this still qualifies as a bravura performance nonetheless.


Can’t You See What You’re Doing?
Having just given credit to McPhatter for elevating a slightly subpar song it stands to reason the “blame” (relatively speaking) for it being subpar to begin with would lay with Billy Ward, who wrote and arranged it, but I don’t know if that’s fair.

The record actually has a really good vocal arrangement as a whole, giving Bill Brown a quality part to sing in bridge, not merely repeating earlier lyrics as so many vocal group records tended to do until this point, but rather he adds new sentiments that flesh out the story. The way in which McPhatter backs him wordlessly during this stretch brings great tension to the record which resolves itself when Clyde comes soaring back in and takes up the lead again before Brown’s final notes have even faded from the room.

Musically I Can’t Escape From You is admittedly pretty sparse but that at least fits with the story, as the outlook itself is bleak and so a desolate setting is appropriate for that point of view. The guitar makes good use of limited opportunity in between the vocal lines making each note or slightly extended run stand out, while the intentionally plodding piano gives it a heavier bottom that balances the sound out effectively. Even the wordless ”Oooh”ing from White and Joe Lamont gives this a ghostly quality which is an eerie touch that adds to the ambiance nicely.

So what’s the problem, you’re asking? If everything we’ve mentioned is notable and well conceived and carried out, how is this not at least as strong as the rest of The Dominoes output so far?

Well, the answer is (cringing)… it’s Clyde McPhatter’s fault.

I know, I know, he’s the best thing about this record, but in a way he’s also it’s biggest flaw, at least when it comes to putting it across.

He’s so over-the-top in his strangulated emotion that it lays bare the minimal plot behind the rather generalized lovelorn outlook. You can certainly say that had Ward crafted a more devastating narrative that matched Clyde’s delivery it would’ve been a knockout, but the truth is the song was written first and McPhatter is the one who chose to tackle it this way after being given the song despite that approach being a little TOO much, both for the storyline and for the stark melody.

Like opening a jammed closet door with dynamite, this is too much vocal artillery for the job and even though his technique itself is masterful and his voice as sterling as ever, it needed to be dialed back just a little to work best.

Like A Prisoner Too
Don’t get alarmed at this assessment, any time your “worst” side is something that’s still above average and merely falls short of earlier benchmarks because you pushed a good thing a little too far is hardly cause for concern.

In fact I Can’t Escape From You might just be the final piece of evidence needed to show the rest of the rock world just what they’d have to contend with going forward as The Dominoes were still in their formative stages and just starting to figure out how to best utilize the powerful components they had to work with.

They might not have found the perfect balance on this song but in spite of those slight missteps this was still a performance to be envied if for no other reason than just the sheer abilities being exhibited within.

If they were this good on an off-day you couldn’t help but wonder how great might they be when they manage to harness McPhatter’s brilliance on a song ideally suited for him.


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