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When Billy Ward’s group The Dominoes were signed to newly formed Federal Records at the tail end of 1950 he was persuaded – a nicer way to say forced – into forsaking his hopes for a pop music career in favor of rock ‘n’ roll per the orders of Ralph Bass, the company’s president.

Famously Bass played Ward some rock records to give him an idea of what he was after and Ward confidently replied he could wrote a hundred of those if he wanted.

Though the number he churned out over the next few years may have fell a little short of that boast, the quality of those compositions exceeded everyone’s expectations and in this song he seemed to have re-written the rules of rock songwriting in ways nobody had anticipated.


I Guess You Can Imagine
Considering how many successful songwriters, bandleaders and musicians in other fields in the early 1950’s turned to rock ‘n’ roll as a way to prop up their sagging careers and promptly failed in both a commercial and artistic sense, you’d be justified in saying that despite its surface simplicity as a style, rock ‘n’ roll was more difficult to effectively pull off than it appeared at a glance.

But then when you examine the meteoric success of Billy Ward who not only wrote the songs The Dominoes took up the charts, but also had to first re-shape the group from the more mannered performers he’d envisioned when recruiting them, you might be inclined to reconsider that position and say that it must’ve been far easier to pull this off than met the eye.

But that’s always been the most vexing question surrounding Billy Ward… how could someone who clearly had such a preference for mannered pop write such great rock songs with no previous interest in, or experience with, this style of music?

On its surface Weeping Willow Blues fits no established precedent and contains many apparent contradictions. A slow song with a subtly churning rhythm… a tale of heartbreak that finds the singer cautioning against feeling sorry for him… all of which seems headed for an emotional breakdown only to find him celebrating his loss because of the new start it provides him.

Nothing quite like this existed before in rock and yet rather than sound alarming or out of place, somehow it fits seamlessly into the program.

It’s natural to want to chalk a lot of this effectiveness up to the performers obviously, as Clyde McPhatter in his prime was almost unparalleled in his abilities to delve into a song’s emotional core, yet without a composition that had all of the requisite parts in place – melody, tempo, lyrics and a first class arrangement – there’s only so much any group can do, no matter how talented they were.


Please Don’t Cry For Me
With the deliberate electric guitar that opens the record, taking its sweet time as the drummer lazily provides a gentle beat, this is the kind of song that seems to have been carved out of granite more than scribbled on paper.

McPhatter’s arrival a few seconds later – calm and almost reserved in his delivery at first – throws your senses off just a little, especially the more he reveals in the story. Weeping Willow Blues uses the image of the tree metaphorically as a way for McPhatter to cope with the loss of his girl – a risky move perhaps if there are many music fans who don’t care to think too deeply when they’re listening to records – yet because of how he’s addressing the tree as a character device without a hint of theatricality it manages to somehow not come off as pretentious even though if taken more literally it’s practically asking us to imagine a tree has feelings.

Maybe they do, but even if your love of nature doesn’t extend quite that far, Clyde sells it so effortlessly that you find yourself never doubting his sincerity and with Ward’s light touch lyrically, what may have been a stilted concept becomes transfixing.

As the song goes on Clyde gradually ramps up his intensity which becomes even more haunting thanks to the stark arrangement, allowing you to see everything coming together before your eyes. For starters there’s the way the other Dominoes are used so sparingly to start with, slowly making their presence known before jumping in for one line that throws you back in your seat, only to have them recede into the background again until the bridge when Bill Brown trades off briefly with McPhatter.

Instrumentally it’s just as judicious in its choices as that guitar and drums are virtually alone for much of this… or so it seems, until you pick out the bass plucking away and then, just to shift things into a different gear, you get the piano playing the changes which somehow sounds a lot more dramatic because of how it seems to appear out of nowhere.

Bass probably gets official credit for the production, but there’s no way Ward didn’t map this out, simply because of how minimal the song is which requires the writer to know exactly how he’s going to build tension and offer release.

Considering The Dominoes were coming off the biggest hit of the year from last April in a racier tableau with a different lead vocalist, a faster pace and a much fuller vocal arrangement, the fact this seems to almost be repudiating that song by heading so dramatically in another direction was a ballsy move for him to make.

Then again, maybe they’d earned the right not to have to be overly concerned with commercial considerations on this one and could show off their artistry in a much different approach that still couldn’t be called anything but rock ‘n’ roll when all was said and done… no matter how alien it sounded to everything that came before it in the genre.


Spent All My Money
I can’t imagine those fans who thrilled to the more raucous stuff were anticipating something so far outside that realm here, but when any artist is so adventurous, especially coming off hits that we’d expect to be regurgitated in the most crass and shallow method imaginable, how could anyone complain?

About the only questionable decision with Weeping Willow Blues was pairing it with another song that falls roughly into the same bag rather than backing it with a song using a far different approach.

But I suppose that’s like a kid complaining they got the same type of candy bar at two houses in a row on Halloween.

The real story here though is one that only became more interesting as time went on and Ward began to abandon this kind of risk-taking after McPhatter left and moved the group further and further into pop territory where instead of trying to re-imagine that field he largely ceded to the increasingly stale creative models already in place.

How someone who constructed such an innovative song as this, tweaking all of the established ideas of the form in the process, could seem to lose his artistic ambitions in a quest for critical and commercial success in a world he’d been excluded from just shows that whereas one musical genre values conformity to the point of soul-crushing blandness, there was always another genre that rewarded experimentation in ways that let those musical souls soar free.


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