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They couldn’t have known that they were poking a bear with a stick.

All The Ray-O-Vacs were doing was trying to find some moderately familiar song with a nice enough melody that they might possibly be able to do justice to.

It wasn’t as if they thought the song might actually get them a hit. After all it was intended to be nothing more than a recognizable title for a B-side, and since it wasn’t going to turn any heads, certainly not in the rock community, there was no reason for them to fear that another more potent group might see the record as a prime candidate for a quick cover version to steal some sales.

Heck, they did it in such a listless manner it’s hard to believe a livelier rock group would be able to stay awake for the entire record, let alone be inspired to actually take it as a challenge and set about blowing up the tame version delivered by the older group who were clearly on their last legs by now.

But that’s what you get for underestimating the competitive drive of Billy Ward and The Dominoes.


Come Back To Me
We’ve already told you how group founder Billy Ward – Julliard trained with aspirations to stake his claim in popular music with impeccably rendered standards dripping with class – had to be talked in to cutting rock ‘n’ roll by Federal Records’ boss Ralph Bass.

We’ve then shown you that unlike most put in that position who continually fought against slumming in this neighborhood, Ward actually took that opportunity seriously and reeled off a string of vibrant originals that produced hit after hit and expanded the possibilities of the entire genre in the process.

We’ve even hinted at the eventual strain these two divergent aims would have on him as conquering rock music vindicated his abilities to succeed in the business without satisfying his urge to prove he could do so in a more respectable genre which appealed to a more cultured listening audience.

Eventually of course he was unable to resist the siren’s call of mainstream adult success and veered far off the course he was on now, eventually destroying the reconstituted group’s credibility with rock audiences altogether. But that shouldn’t have been too surprising because right from the start he kept at least one eye on pop music by having The Dominoes tackle standards like Harbor Lights, which in the hands of lead singer Clyde McPhatter was rendered almost into an entirely new song, alien to those who had appreciated the subdued renditions by the pop stars of the day.

It hadn’t been a hit, but it HAD shown The Dominoes could deliver startlingly new arrangements to older material which spoke well of Ward’s skills as a visionary, even though he surely would’ve preferred the group sing it straight.

So when the aforementioned Ray-O-Vacs, a group that straddled the border between rock and supper club pop but were able to parlay an early rock hit into a contract with a major label, released When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano last month, Ward saw in it an opportunity to show companies like Decca which housed The Ray-O-Vacs, that HIS group were vastly superior as singers.

By extension Ward would be able to show that if they brought him into the fold he might give those venerable companies the means with which to bridge the gap between the music they understood, thereby satisfying the older gentry, and the rising tide of rock ‘n’ roll by shaking up those songs in a way that would give them access to the group’s younger fan base.

Thus, the last week in January, just a week or so after that version hit the streets, Ward hauled The Dominoes into the studio to prove his point.


The Happiness You’ll Bring
You wonder if Federal records were eavesdropping on Jubilee records who’ve been experimenting with an organ on some of their recent rock sessions, as this too opens with what previously had been an alien sound in rock ‘n’ roll.

Though it’s not a religious song it does have a setting befitting of a churchy sound like an organ – and bells for what it’s worth – as the famous Capistrano mission is (or was until recently) the home of migrating swallows each year until urban sprawl sent them elsewhere.

As such the song has kind of an ambiguous message. On one hand it’s a love song, as the singer is holding out hope that his sweetheart will return along with the birds as the woman promised when they parted. On the other hand this is probably a fantasy because what woman would do such a thing outside of poem or a song.

But to his credit Clyde McPhatter not only sings it straight, but invests so much emotion into When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano that you might be inclined to head to California with a bagful of bird seed in order to entice the swallows back yourself to help his cause.

His supple high tenor plays with the melody, stretching out notes until you almost can’t remember when they began while the other Dominoes add sparse shading with intermittant harmonies. Unlike The Ray-O-Vacs who played but didn’t sing behind lead Harold Miliner, here the group joins McPhatter for the bridge as bass singer Bill Brown caps it off with a resonant line of his own.

Strangely there’s barely any musical arrangement behind them. Ward’s piano is providing only a guide track for them while the drummer is keeping time from another room it sounds like, but otherwise it’s as empty as a night sky until bells answer the group when they reference them in the lyrics.

Yet as an exercise in what the human voice – or voices – can do, this remains pretty special. The slow pace doesn’t trip them up, even with such little instrumental support, and though it’s hardly an ideal song for rock appeal, the sublime effect of Clyde’s crystaline voice trembling in the darkness is enough to draw almost anyone in.

Ward knew this wasn’t the hit side going in so he crafted the bare-bones arrangement to highlight his singers collective abilities and in the process show Decca Records, or any major label seeking a mild group like The Ray-O-Vacs to get them some passing interest in the rock market that there were far better options out there if only they’d look in another direction.

Needless to say, Ward had effectively made his point with this.


Live In My Memory
As much as we can admire the egotistical aims of Billy Ward in showing up a rival act and leaving no doubt as to the talents of his own charges, we can only be grateful that their contract with Federal Records was ironclad and he’d be forced to stick it out rather than make the jump to the so-called promised land he probably fantasized about each night.

But even though their turn with When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano is beautifully sung, emotionally charged and provides a remarkable contrast to the rousing top side, this is still something we appreciate more in moderation when it comes to rock groups like The Dominoes.

Though they, and other vocal groups, can and will deliver radical reinterpretations of pop standards that will help further rock’s cause, that avenue is a dead end for long term success of the genre as a whole if for no other reason than you’re always limited in what you can offer a newer audience seeking their own standards designed for their needs, not recycled ones originally intended for an entirely different type of audience from days gone by.

Here they at least take advantage of reputation of the song itself by going against your expectations with their stark musical arrangement, halting group vocals and its tremulous lead, all of it increasing the emotional stakes with their reading. Beyond that though it’s still a song that speaks more to another generation’s sensibilities and as such while we might appreciate the effort it’s harder to feel a connection to it on a more personal level.

But that’s what flip-sides are for every once in awhile, just to show the non-believers that there are new ways to interpret old material and to scratch a competitive itch that otherwise might drive Billy Ward to do something really drastic and re-think his entire approach and take his group to Vegas or something to try and make it on somebody else’s terms.

Oh wait, that’s not off the table yet, is it? But until that turn of events brings them crashing down we’ll consider ourselves lucky that this is as far as they were willing to go for now.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
The Ray-O-Vacs (January, 1952)