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Closing out 1952 with a song designed to conjure up early to mid 1951 hardly sounds like the best way to wrap up a pretty eventful year in rock ‘n’ roll with so many new and exciting plateaus being reached over the past twelve months.

Even though the record The Dominoes were referencing here had been one of the most enduring hits of the previous year, not to mention their defining performance, it’s not as if they were struggling since then and needed to recall their last moment of relevance before they slipped off the radar entirely. They’d reeled off hit after hit since that time including another massive chart topper last spring. Why revisit the past if you’re future still seemed bright, especially when you could still make claim of being rock’s premier group?

But in a way this is actually the perfect way to close out the year, as this record – depending on your point of view – codifies the huge gains made by rock ‘n’ roll over the past few years, or provides a friendly reminder that even the most celebrated acts are on borrowed time.

Both are crucial lessons to be learned by everyone.


He’s A Killer
I’m sure that there are those out there who wonder why we take such joy in tearing down certain rock icons… be it overrated record owners like Sam Phillips or Ahmet Ertegun, or innovative songwriters and group founders like Billy Ward.

Okay, here’s why…

Above all else we want credit properly bestowed on those who’ve earned it and when too much is given to those undeserving of it, in the case of the label heads who systematically cultivated writers over the years to get a greater share of the glory… or in Ward’s case, who forcibly tried wresting that public credit during The Dominoes’ career, in the process breaking up the best edition of the group… well, why WOULDN’T we call them out on it?

Our job here isn’t just to review the records but to tell the story OF those records and the people who made them. That means praising them when they deserve it and conversely ripping them to shreds when it’s called for.

Billy Ward has received a ton of praise around here for the majority of their records to date, but recently we’ve started to throw get plenty of criticism his way because his outsized ego, underlying insecurity and pathological need for maintaining rigid control over people has created insurmountable fissures within the group. With his own growing personal distaste for rock ‘n’ roll itself becoming more apparent, it’s inevitable that their records will soon be far less vital for our needs.

Pedal Pushin’ Papa sort of sits on that fault line just as it’s about to rupture.

On one hand it is a definite rocker, but it’s one built entirely on past triumphs. It has a decent feel to the record because of what it recalls, yet the song features a lesser vocalist in the lead because the original voice in this role left the group due to Ward’s autocratic persona. It hints at suggestiveness in both the lyrics and performance but those inferences are drastically reduced in an effort not to be pegged as an act that relies on shock value for their success.

As a result while this still is a good record, it’s one where the warning signs are all more prevalent than they were last year, telling us that things were changing with The Dominoes and not for the better.


You’ll Know That I Was There
The voice of David McNeill is no Bill Brown who had taken the lead on the classic Sixty Minute Man, and despite the rumors to the contrary DID sing lead on the unreleased version of this song cut back in January before Brown departed… which is surely why it wasn’t released. Voices don’t change, the tonal qualities are identical and in fact this version is probably the more widely known now because it’s much better sung, even though it remains nothing more than a de facto sequel at best, an outright rip-off at worst.

That’s perhaps another reason why Billy Ward didn’t want that one out a year ago, because it shows no creativity. It’s got the same exact melody as well similar instrumentation and vocal arrangement, yet in spite of a likeminded theme, it has nowhere near as much vitality to it mostly because this record lacks the proud, almost defiant, raciness of the “original”.

Whereas that song pulled no punches with either story or performance, as Clyde McPhatter’s orgasmic cries in the background were meant to suggest the woman being enthusiastically ravished by her man, on Pedal Pushin’ Papa they’re keeping things decidedly PG rated, something not helped by McNeill’s lack of sly intent in his singing that might otherwise imply something that wasn’t present in the lyrics.

If this were merely foreplay to an expected bed-rocking finale later in the evening that’d be one thing, but no, this is definitely the main event and as such he’s not even trying to go past second base… and frankly, I think he’s going to be held to a long single if not thrown out as he breaks into a self-satisfied jog after rounding first, assuming he’s got it made.

Provided you care more about the overall rhythmic qualities of the recording which remain solid, you still may get a lot out of this. They still can sing of course, and if Clyde’s not as rambunctious behind the lead, he’s still a notable presence. Meanwhile McNeill may never get his own pants off in the story and doesn’t embody the Lothario that Brown perfected, at least he’s attempting to strut around the room with his belt unfastened as if he’s got plenty of notches on his headboard.

The fact that he’s assuming the persona of “lovin’ Dan” makes this seem more familiar, even with a different actor in the role, but it also makes the attempt seem a lot lazier, even if you DO like the results just fine. I guess it helps the first song just happened to be one of the catchiest songs in rock ‘n’ roll to date which goes a long way in getting past any complaints of musical recidivism.

Much like we criticized Aladdin Records for forcing Amos Milburn to effectively re-work Chicken Shack Boogie a couple of times, even as some of them came out pretty well, we may dislike the intent of Pedal Pushin’ Papa but we still can appreciate the results to a degree… how it sounds rather than what it shallowly is trying to do.

But that still has it’s limits. Though we may like the overall feel of the record, it’s nowhere near as thrilling as the first go-round with this basic premise. The lyrics are much weaker, the lead singer comes up short by comparison, the excitement – both musically and vocally – is toned down considerably, and as a result the message it sends is that they’re content to rehash what worked in the past rather than try and come up with something new for others to copy in the future.


When That Trip Is Over
The public sort of disagreed with me, which is their right of course and I defer to their tastes with one small caveat… namely after the attempt at pop crossover success their last time out, there’s a chance that their fans’ enthusiastic response to this was in a sense trying to implore The Dominoes not to stray too far from the more authentic rock framework.

Surely that is something that should’ve been apparent to Billy Ward… the recent pop-leaning sides were their only commercial missteps and now as soon as they reverted back to solid rock footing they hit #4 on the charts even though Pedal Pushin’ Papa was little more than a facsimile of their best efforts. I’ll even go so far as to say if the Brown-led version had been put out in its place it might’ve topped the charts… I’d go another point higher with it myself… maybe even two on a good day, albeit with reservations because it’s not fresh enough. But it’s demonstrably better than this, and this one still isn’t bad.

Remember too, Federal Records were very stingy in their releases for the group, which is a GOOD thing, not flooding the market with subpar material just to take advantage of their popularity. But the result of that is the audience hadn’t gotten their fill of The Dominoes over the past two years, even if most of that work had been voraciously consumed by the masses.

That meant they were eager for a new record in their preferred style, even if few of them would’ve said this matched their peak performances.

Still, commercially speaking this is an unquestioned success and it remains a fairly well-made, rather enjoyable and at least an appropriate record for rock’s needs, even if at the same time it was a troubling record for the future prospect of Billy Ward’s Dominoes because it allowed us to see the approaching storm clouds as we get ready to enter a new year.


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