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It’s appropriate, isn’t it?

What better way to close out the year of 1952 with our final A-side being a radical sounding record that became a phenomenal hit in the process, signaling just how far the genre was pushing the creative boundaries and how accepting of new ideas and presentations the rock audience had become. That it was being done by a group who had excelled at that sort of thing for their first two years on the scene is equally significant, as it shows that fate rewards the bold.

But unfortunately in this business the bold often become timid when they taste nothing but success, as soon they would take the song’s theme to heart and commit ritual career suicide before our very eyes in the coming months when they shift to output that was much less experimental to satisfy their leader’s quest for mainstream acceptance.

Suffice it to say you’d be hard pressed to find this much psychological drama in mere pop music of the day!


Eyes Of Flaming Red
Let’s start by restating the obvious, which is Billy Ward was an immensely talented musical visionary, moving into rock ‘n’ roll with no previous interest in the genre and not only immediately coming to grips with it, but actually redefining what it could be with remarkable artistic instincts.

He, or rather Clyde McPhatter, pushed the gospel-fueled emotionalism to the forefront while beefing up the musical side to be more aggressive and by also giving the rest of the voices more exciting roles on songs that were uniformly deep, diverse and frequently racy as all get out, they scored two of rock’s biggest hits ever while influencing much of what followed throughout the field.

For that alone Billy Ward should be immortalized and while he may not reach his creative apex with The Bells, the record definitely hits new heights when it comes to just how experimental he was willing to be.

Unfortunately this “genius” was also an egotistical piece of shit as a human being who wasn’t content to be the creative force behind the group, he also wanted to be the face OF the group itself even though he really didn’t sing or play an instrument on the records… at least not with any distinction.

As if that desire for credit wasn’t bad enough, he was also was an insecure tyrant whose insistence on the group following pretty rules of his own making showed he was more interested in exerting power and control than fostering a healthy creative environment for those he relied on to perform… consequently two of them have left already with more soon to follow.

Then, almost to prove that he didn’t need ANY of them to be successful, he let his valet sing lead on two songs, though to no one’s surprise neither of them became hits. Sadly he was similarly determined to show that he didn’t need rock ‘n’ roll itself and so he insisted on releasing a pop–oriented single to be heavily promoted as such… which quickly became the first commercial flop of The Dominoes career last time out.

So much for those artistic instincts we just raved about.

Recently, just to drive home to the public that he considers himself the sole reason behind their success, he’s changed the billing of the group to Billy Ward And His Dominoes (which we refuse to do in our headings out of sheer vindictive spite) and on top of it promptly took out a full page ad in the trades with his name and face dominating the page to gloat about it,, in the process indicating the singers whose voices the public adored were altogether unimportant by using cartoon images that were made to seem as if they were anonymous hired hands.

But as much as we’re looking forward to going to Ward’s metaphorical funeral, drinking heavily in celebration of his demise so we’ll have plenty of “ammunition” stored up to piss on his grave as they lower his rotting carcass into the ground, we still have a ways to go before the hearse pulls up to the cemetery gate.

Besides this record provides us with something to actually praise, so for the time being we’ll keep our flies zipped and the drinks on ice.


Replace Your Tears With Diamonds
This is the kind of thing that by all rights should fail miserably, even if we admire the attempt to do something decidedly different.

Sad songs are nothing new in rock ‘n’ roll, but this one takes it to the limit and then some as the sadness isn’t over a mere rejection, a partner’s infidelities or a break-up, but rather about losing the one you love to the grim reaper.

Just another typical rock song that’s ideally suited for… what exactly? Dancing? Seduction? Tapping the keg at a house party? Or simply a form of voyeurism mixed with morbid fascination topped with a healthy dose of incredulity.

Surely the latter was the driving force for the single itself hitting #3 on the charts, but when the live rendition saw Clyde McPhatter’s over-the-top emotional display sending women in the audience into hysterics there was something more to it than just curiosity too. Listening to how authentic he sounds in the sterile confines of a studio it’s not hard to envision how much more effective it’d be with visual accompaniment as Clyde ramps up the wailing and crying every step of the way following the “preacher” solemnly introducing the record as if it were an actual funeral replete with organ and The Bells that ring out over his intonement.

In that sense the record is brilliantly produced, making it almost like a movie scene set to wax and is a testament to Billy Ward’s chutzpah to deviate from what they did best (though let’s face it, clearly he got the idea from Little Caesar’s success with similar death-themes, so we can hardly credit him with much innovation here).

Yet it works brilliantly because the song itself, though stark and with just the faintest wisp of a sustainable melody, is strong enough in its own right to sustain your musical interest. After the choked sobs of McPhatter delivering the verses in a rhythmic cadence he soars when singing the chorus using a style that could easily be altered on stage to emphasize either the drama of his despair, or conversely the singing prowess he always held in his hip pocket.

The record sort of splits the difference between the two, but it’s got enough traditional vocalizing in those sections to make do, though by now it scarcely matters as you’re riveted to the sheer spectacle of it all as the others come in with haunting harmonies that sound like the specter of death personified.

Even the sax solo while Clyde cries behind it – “No, no, no!” – gives that eerie impression and the lyrics wherein McPhatter is essentially taking blame for her death – we’d like to hear THAT backstory – makes this one of the most macabre record ever to land on the charts.

Granted, the suitable environment for hearing a song like this is hard to imagine, but like some paintings are best appreciated hanging in a museum, this is a record that seems to be made for just such a purpose… art to be admired from a safe distance behind velvet ropes.


Roses Tied With Ribbons
Life and relationships of all kinds are precarious by nature and require constant give and take, mutual respect and a clear view of the bigger picture to remain intact.

If one participant begins to dominate the proceedings and holds too much weight the delicate balance will get out of whack and begin to topple. When you bring money and fame into the question, as with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s far more likely that a group will fall apart when the hits start rolling in rather than wind up being The Four Tops whose partnership endured their entire adult lives.

But The Dominoes stand alone in their self-destruction because it wasn’t infighting among the members each vying for more credit, more leads, more time at the front of the stage that did them in By all accounts they got on together rather well. Instead it was their founder who was the problem, the man both responsible for much of their success but clearly envious OF that success.

Rock fans knew nothing about this at the time, and when they get a record that was as dramatically shocking as The Bells they hardly cared what kind of internal strife was going on behind the scenes, especially when The Dominoes’ live shows were every bit as dynamic as their records.

But when that domineering personality began to cause disruption in the group with members leaving en masse, and when the focus of the press began to credit the guy standing at the piano onstage rather than ones singing, and especially when the records being made started reflecting the tastes of Ward rather than the tastes of the fans, that’s when they suddenly no longer seemed immortal.

We’re not quite to that point yet, but we’re getting closer every day and so in that regard a song about breaking down over somebody’s unexpected demise was actually very prescient.

Too bad Billy Ward didn’t realize those in the pine box would soon be his own group and the one holding the shovel and digging that grave would be Ward himself.


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