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FEDERAL 12059; FEBRUARY 1952

 
 

 

Over the course of seventy plus years of rock ‘n’ roll there are bound to be records that manage to comment on the past, define the present and predict the future. They may be few and far between, but those which pull this off are generally pretty legendary.

Then there’s this one, which despite being a hit by a incredibly popular group with a ton of influence, is never mentioned in the same breath as any of the records qhich qualify on all three counts.

But if you needed an instant update on rock ‘n’ roll music in the winter of 1952 to get you up to speed as well as to give you some idea of where it’s all headed, this was the single that would give you those answers.
 

 

I Really Got It Bad
Of those three components, past, present and future, it’s the connection to the past which is most tenuous here… and in fact musically speaking it’s virtually nonexistent. This has no outdated concepts, no nods to past styles or awkward arranging touches that jolt you out of the moment.

But what it DOES have is some much needed insight into the mind of Billy Ward, the founder of The Dominoes, a classically trained musician, vocal coach and songwriter with much higher aspirations than rock ‘n’ roll who nevertheless was talked into making a go of it in this field when he approached Federal Records producer Ralph Bass in the hopes of pursuing pop music stardom with his group.

Bass knew that was a commercial dead-end no matter how talented they might be and gave Ward some of the latest rock records from late 1950 and told him to write those types of songs. Ward took him up on the challenge and immediately began scoring hits, re-defining the possibilities for vocal groups in the process. But now, thanks to that success, he may have had the power to start moving away from this kind of pure undistilled rock output if he pushed for it.

Instead Ward came up with yet another scalding rocker with That’s What You’re Doing To Me showing that he genuinely was embracing this music and intent on perfecting it each time out.

It’d be hard to argue he doesn’t come close to doing that here, giving The Dominoes their first truly uptempo masterpiece with Clyde McPhatter out front, letting his flexible tenor provide the nitro fuel for the entire record.

A year from now another vocal group, The Crows, would take this song’s bridge and build an entire hit of their own out of it which – almost a full year later – would become one of the first rock records to infiltrate the staid white pop charts, launching the crossover era in short order and changing the entire future of the industry.

But here in the present this is already yet another sign of just how unstoppable rock ‘n’ roll has become.
 


 
 

I Wanna Rock, I Wanna Roll
What you realize right away is just how quickly the tenor sax has made a resurgence in rock following the instrument’s heyday in 1948-49 on purely instrumental records. Once that trend died down on the charts, there was a period where it sort of lost its way.

You still had it contributing behind solo singers on slower and medium tempo cuts, but where the sax had excelled was in songs that were designed to create excitement and though it was introduced behind vocal groups on The Clovers slinky Don’t You Know I Love You, hardly a fast song, the light finally went off in producer’s minds and they saw how it could be utilized to make a transition between rousing group vocals and an instrumental break without lessening the energy.

That’s What You’re Doing To Me might just as well be what a listener is saying to the saxophone that kicks off this record in high gear, delivering a buzzing compact riff while hand claps set the beat before Clyde McPhatter drops in for his vocal run with a series of contradictory statements that are intended to reveal his state of mind after a girl turns his head.

Surprisingly he admits the girl isn’t even interested in him, yet his enthusiasm remains undiminished. It might not seem like a big deal, but considering that 98% of songs either find the guy head over heels in love with someone who he is determined to win over (or already loves him back), or conversely has him distraught that the girl doesn’t want anything to do with him, this combines the two in a very unique manner, keeping the spirit of the former which overwhelms the revelation of the latter.

I’d question whether he’s even pursuing the girl, because his attention doesn’t seem riveted on her as much as the music surrounding them which clearly is what inspires his true devotion by the sounds of it.

Granted, seeing a knockout stroll by might have a tendency to elicit that kind of heart-pounding response, but it’s clearly fueled by the musical wave they’re riding as they offer no details of the girl other than her basic presence while the reactions are just as applicable to the heady mixture of sounds being generated by the band and their own interlocking vocals.

That’s the real object of affection Ward is focused on in his writing it seems. He’s clearly trying to create an effervescent vibe here that will allow the kind of musical concoction he’s brewing to seem natural and a pretty girl does the trick. But my guess is he was far less concerned with telling a story than delivering a killer track and giving McPhatter the chance to wail in a more uninhibited fashion than we’ve seen to date.

When Clyde comes stammering out of the instrumental break, his voice locked into that peerless high-pitched whine, it’s like being up close for a missile launch. If anything his performance was so intense that it showed them that while the saxophone adds a lot to the record, it still isn’t enough to match the vocalist and this will encourage them to ratchet that aspect up even more the next time out just so that Clyde doesn’t overwhelm the instrumental racket.

So maybe you’d be wise to call this the fuse rather than the full explosion, but compared to what preceded it in even the best rock of the last few years this is still creating a pretty big bang on its own.
 


 

A Thrill Deep Down In My Soul
Though you should naturally take the scores we hand out with a grain of salt, it is notable how consistently great The Dominoes output has been thus far – with just one exception it’s been nothing but green numbers – and how stylistically diverse it’s been at the same time.

Dramatic mid-tempo torch songs? Check.

Re-imagining standards in a unique and innovative way? Check.

Racy rockers with a bass vocal lead? Check.

Stark ballads with a tenor vocal lead? Check.

Now with That’s What You’re Doing To Me they check off the uptempo tenor lead too, something you’d think they’d have done already but apparently with everything else they’ve delved into so far they just didn’t get around to it until now.

As great as it is though it’s not quite perfect. Ward is still a little too conscious of fitting it into the standard structure and the bridge by low tenor Charlie White is somewhat stilted which slows the record’s momentum ever so slightly. Maybe you could even claim that the song itself is slightly repetitive in how it’s put together, but damn, those are minor complaints. Since it gives us the one thing we’ve been waiting for out of them, an unfettered McPhatter on a high stepping lead, and blows the doors off the rest of the vocal group records out at the time in the process, how much can you really complain?

Any thought that rock ‘n’ roll was going to sit still for long and rest on its laurels is put to rest here. Though the genre itself wasn’t desperate at this stage to have another huge hit in a no-holds barred style to get attention, the vocal group idiom within rock definitely benefitted from further expanding the possibilities of what could – and should – be done going forward.

It’s plainly obvious that The Dominoes have been staking their claim as rock’s best act since their arrival and this is just another feather in their cap. The scary thing is they still haven’t hit their peak.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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