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Here’s the tipping point for one of rock’s greatest and most important groups.

It’s not the moment where things necessarily start to go wrong mind you, but it IS the first sign where you can begin to see the seeds being sewn for their ultimate destruction.

At the time this came out however without the general populace knowing anything about the behind-the-scenes intrigue, this actually appeared to be another interesting, effective and rather unexpected B-side, thereby further cementing The Dominoes status as the leaders in the field.

But if you knew what was happening behind the scenes, maybe you’d have started to feel a little nervous even if you were enjoying what you heard.


A Sign So Big And Black
We mentioned this in passing when wrapping up our look at the great A-side, I’d Be Satisfied, featuring another dynamic Clyde McPhatter lead on a gospel-fueled rave-up that may not have quite measured up to their previous highs, both as a written composition and in the performances, but was stellar enough to hardly matter, but this single was the first of their releases to use the name Billy Ward And His Dominoes… a bad omen.

Now to be fair, Ward – for all his faults as a human being, treating the group as if they were grunt privates and he was a five star general – had done everything we could’ve asked of him thus far. Though he had no real affinity for rock ‘n’ roll, he responded to the demand by Federal Records that he write rock songs for his group in order to better sell them to the public.

Not only did he do so, but he did it with a flair that was unmatched by any other group, giving them a succession of uptempo racy material with great arrangements and lyrics that took full advantage of McPhatter’s – or now departed bass Bill Brown – gifts as singers.

He balanced those sides with quality ballads that didn’t compromise on style in an attempt to court pop audiences as so many vocal groups had done, and was even able to reimagine standards to make them suitable for the emotional qualities rock fans sought in their records.

But Ward’s stifling control over them all personally had already led to Brown quitting and forming The Checkers, and McPhatter would soon follow him out the door. But it’s on the otherwise good, if innocuous, No Room where we, the public, first get to see Ward’s psychological mind games at play.

The lead on this is not McPhatter, nor Brown’s replacement on bass, David McNeil. It also wasn’t Charlie White, who’d sang lead with Little Esther on the rollicking The Deacon Moves In, before White became the first to move OUT of The Dominoes, unable to take Ward’s discipline.

Sadly, the lead here also wasn’t Joe Lamont, who never got a chance to be out front even once during his tenure. So just who is left, you ask? Was it Ward himself who occasionally sat in? Nope, it was their VALET!

Johnny Oliver was actually a good singer who had some later solo sides, but he was an employee of Billy Ward, someone who not only drove them, handled their baggage, etc. but he also spied on the singers for Ward and reported their indiscretions back to the leader… such as not drinking milk before bed (that was cause for fines) or sneaking out to get laid by groupies (that resulted in castration… just kidding… I think).

So while Oliver actually performs this quite well, one has to believe that Billy Ward gave him this very public reward as a way to stick it to his charges who were beginning to rebel against his leadership.

It wouldn’t be long now before it all fell apart… but on the whole, this side is not the worst way to fall from grace as records go.


Really A Work Of Art
The stentorian metallic baritone of Johnny Oliver sounds downright alarming when it bursts from the speakers in methodic fashion, squeezing the melody out like stubborn cake frosting from a tube… slow but steady.

He’s got a strong distinctive voice if nothing else, he’s certainly not lacking for confidence and he’s using good judgment in how he delivers this, clearly giving great thought to connecting emotionally on each line without being overly theatrical.

While there should be no doubt this is a B-side, not just because it doesn’t feature an actual member singing lead in a group that houses Clyde freaking McPhatter, No Room is maybe a bit more weighty than your typical flip side that gets thrown off in one quick take and never thought of again.

Much of that of course comes down to the serious nature of Billy Ward himself, who was out to prove his abilities with each record – and maybe that was part of his reasoning in giving his personal lackey a lead vocal… to show that it was he who was most responsible for their success, not the actual group members with their prodigious vocal talent and flashy looks.

Regardless, it’s an effective vehicle for accomplishing all of those things. Ward proves he’s got more good songwriting ideas up his sleeves, as this is a definite change of pace from his usual output, both more melodramtic and drawing from gospel in a much different way than the holy-roller style that McPhatter typified.

Ward also shows that he isn’t reliant on the faster tempos and exhilarating backing to get your attention. Here he uses the others voices humming seductively in a way that is much more creative and interesting than their nondescript humming on the better top side. He also gives No Room some unexpected sizzle to offset the glacier-like pace thanks to a squiggly guitar solo that fits perfectly and sounds great against their buzzing moaning voices.

Normally you’d say there wasn’t much chance of a record this moody, this bleak, this dark becoming a big hit, but with The Dominoes name – if not The Dominoes primary voice (is Clyde even singing background on this?) – Ward may have thought it had a chance.

Federal actually promoted this initially as the A-side before wiser heads prevailed and the audience gravitated naturally to hearing more Clyde-based excitement. But even if it WAS just a flip-side done as much for spite as for any artistic aspirations, the entire crew from Billy Ward on down were still operating at such a high level that this remains something more than a meaningless throwaway.

In fact, it may be far more meaningful than we’d like it to be when it comes to The Dominoes ultimate fate down the line.


Might Have Known Love Would End
Though we have more Dominoes releases to come – sooner than you think! – with the original core mostly intact, the circumstances surrounding this record, cut at the last session featuring Clyde, makes it seem appropriate for our occasional sidetracks into human psychology when it comes to people in the music industry.

Billy Ward was undoubtedly a musical mastermind. He may not have been any great shakes when he tried to sing, his instrumental ability may have been only passable, and his personal taste in music was… to be kind… woefully out of date. But he was remarkably adaptable, a tremendous songwriter, arranger and vocal coach who put together one of the best groups to ever exist in rock.

The fact he could write a song like No Room and give it to his groveling toady to sing and have it come off so good is a testament to his abilities.

But while highly thought of for his music, he was largely despised for his personality. Many writers have passed off his need for rigid control to his Army training, but that gets it backwards. People like him, controlling and insecure, always gravitate towards conservative values and institutions which feature excessive rules and regulations, tough talk, harsh discipline and blind respect for authority.

Respect and trust can only be earned, not demanded. When a person is truly comfortable in their own skin they have no problem getting others to gravitate towards them naturally, simply because they’re generous with their gifts and make everybody feel special just being around them.

By contrast those such as Billy Ward take comfort in the rigid structure of organizations like the military or industry where the charm and charisma they sorely lack won’t hurt their advancement and who believe the way to get others to follow is to lead through fear and intimidation.

For awhile it worked for him and we were the unlikely beneficiaries with the records that totalitarian system briefly produced, but whenever you value servitude over relationships, the foundation you think you stand on is bound to crumble under your feet and leave you buried in the rubble of your own making.


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