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ALADDIN 3127; MARCH 1952

 
 

 

It would be difficult, if not downright impossible, to be less competent in a given field than record companies were when it came to rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s.

That the whole genre didn’t sink into the abyss is a testament only to the artists and a few stalwart producers who took matters into their own hands when it came to crafting their own material and of course the listeners themselves who were smart enough and selective enough to bypass the drek that labels threw at them, somehow thinking that a young black constituency was suddenly going to have the gawdawful tastes of white middle-aged squares.

But what do you expect when the owners were that very thing themselves? So at every turn we find every single label, including those who people have come to praise as all but infallible, falling prey to the inbred trait shared by all of these men… utter stupidity.
 

 

Be A Fool
The problem starts when people who have only a peripheral connection to music, maybe through owning an electronics store (Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky and Dot’s Randy Wood), operating a nightclub (Leonard Chess) or servicing jukeboxes (Aladdin’s Mesner brothers) decide that the record business presents a prime opportunity for them to make money and so they jump into the field with absolutely no interest in, experience with or knowledge of music.

They feel that their business sense – or rather their brazeness when it comes to thievery – will make up for this, and granted in some cases it did, primarily because the competition was so weak, but when it comes to putting out good product they are clueless and therefore have to either hire someone who isn’t, giving them far more power than they’d like to… or they wind up taking their cues from other more successful companies in the industry.

Namely the major labels.

Which leads to the second problem. While it may be true that Columbia, Decca, RCA and Capitol have more or less succeeded in building recording empires, they did so in a much different era and in an entirely different market than what indie labels like Aladdin were trying to accomplish.

But did that stop them from imitating their more pretentious rivals? No, of course not. So they gave Amos Milburn pop and country songs to cover and watched incredulously as they failed to sell half as much as his original rock material.

Now they’re back at it with The Five Keys, forcing them to cover an Eddy Howard pop hit called Be Anything But Be Mine, making them the second storied indie label to put a version of it out this winter, as Ruth Brown cut a desultory version for Atlantic who apparently had the same misguided view of what good music – and good business – was as Aladdin did.

It sure wasn’t this… a record that was currently being used by American forces in Korea as the primary means of torture on captured NKA soldiers to get them to reveal where Chinese troops were delivering them supplies.

With its church-like chorale backing Howard’s sterile romantic plea, you wonder how an entire generation who bought this shit managed to figure out how to procreate because this is the musical equivilant of a chastity belt.

Naturally the Mesner Brothers, wanting to kill the career of The Five Keys and stop them from spawning more authentic rock groups that might take over Western Civilization, thought it ideal for their sinister purpose.
 

Be The Devil
Even if The Five Keys weren’t comprised of great singers, it’d be hard for anybody to sing this worse than it already had been on Howard’s turn at the wheel.

Rudy West deserves a purple heart for this performance, for while once again he’s given a song with all the depth of a puddle he does manage to redeem the composition by internalizing the emotions it’s supposed to represent, in the process making you almost buy into his despair over his unfulfilled longing for this anonymous woman.

But while he may let you forget these lyrics are nothing more than fairly generic cheap quasi-poetry, the framework they’re placed in accentuates the subservient quality of those lines which negates his yeoman effort and makes it hard to relate to it unless you’re a perpetual wallflower yourself.

But why should we be surprised? Pop music reveled in asexual stories, treating love as little more than a polite social contract. Be Anything But Be Mine makes the narrator’s persona irrelevant to the woman’s decision because he’s merely putting in his bid for her in a respectful way while she’s apparently going to choose the best candidate like she was picking out dinnerware patterns.

Rock ‘n’ roll – by which I mean the music The Five Keys were supposed to be singing – saw matters of this nature far differently most of the time, with love being an unquenchable desire to be gotten by any means necessary. In its most uninhibited form it was about teasing, flirting, propositioning, pulling back, charging ahead and laying claim. Even when it resorted to begging there was always the underlying sense that it was done as a devious ploy. The internal need for the object of someone’s affections could be so agonizing that declaring it was often messy, lacking in decorum and was frequently out of control… but it was always honest.

But THIS song is insincere to the core. It’s designed to live up to an image of maturity, respect and social discretion, where “hope” is as much as you’re allowed to show and at no point can you discuss the emotional consequences of failure. As much as Rudy West tries to subvert this edict in small ways it can’t override the overriding mentality of the song itself and the insipid arrangement that forcibly keeps him in line.

Maybe you can credit Dickie Smith’s spoken interlude as knowingly turning this to farce, essentially flipping off Eddy Howard, Leo and Eddie Mesner and Mr. and Mrs. Apple Pie on Main Street U.S.A. in one fell swoop, but while we’d congratulate him if that is his intent, his performance is terrible on a purely aesthetic level and subversive or not, it doesn’t make the record sound any more appealing.

Yeah, so go ahead and praise the singing and try claiming these rants against this kind of record doesn’t appreciate the quality of the performance itself and thus in a way might even be denigrating The Five Keys.

But then remember that in 1952 The Five Keys career sputtered to a halt precisely because of their insistence on putting out this crap while the songs like Rockin’ & Cryin’ The Blues, which had the ability to make them stars, or at least position them as leaders in this field going forward, were going unreleased because Aladdin Records were trying to appease the people who wanted all of rock ‘n’ roll to die a bloody death.

If you’re among those defending this song you’re also defending their decision to focus on this at the expense of the real stuff left laying on the shelves and try as you might you can’t wash that blood off your own hands so easily.
 


 

Fail And It Still Doesn’t Matter
Though both sides of this single show The Five Keys to be good singers, that’s information we already had.

Maybe when examined in a much larger catalog where the pure rock sides, uptempo and ballads alike, overwhelmed these offerings in number, we might see fit to acknowledge the vocal skill shown on Be Anything But Be Mine a little more enthusiastically, but the fact remains that we’re not judging these records based on that component above all else.

What we’re doing is trying to determine what records helped their careers and which hurt them… not to mention which defined rock at the time and which tried to subvert rock.

This single, so beloved by collectors, irrevocably hurt their career and essentially showed disdain for rock ‘n’ roll as a whole.

Whether or not they were responsible for that themselves doesn’t matter, as they were the ones who suffered for it. This was the worst thing they could’ve put out at a time when their peers The Clovers and The Dominoes were issuing groundbreaking, game-changing, guns-blazing records that were raising the bar to impossibly high levels.

Meanwhile The Five Keys – with shovels put in their hands by Aladdin Records – were digging their own graves.

What a waste.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUANCY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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