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ALADDIN 3158; OCTOBER 1952

 
 

 

With hundreds of thousands of rock singles to sort through over seventy-six years of this brand of music it’s unlikely most people will immediately recognize every song at a glance.

So collectively we tend to look for certain signs that the content of the record might be something worthwhile before cueing it up to listen. Obviously the name of the artist is the biggest consideration, followed perhaps by the era and the label it came out on.

But with The Five Keys, a very skilled vocal group whose record company undercut their credibility by having them record a succession of stale twenty year old standards, we tend to have to look for something else to tell whether we’re likely to be disappointed again, or if we might actually be pleasantly surprised by the results… namely the title of the song and the composer.

This one, an ode to drinking in excess written by Rudolph Toombs, one of the most accomplished songwriters in rock, has us finally looking forward to reviewing one of their records rather than dreading it.

But maybe that’s expecting a bit too much from artists whose output on record rarely lives up to their obvious talents.
 

 

Do It Right, Give Me Love, Keep It Tight
Rock histories generally tend to favor artists who write their own material, even though technically that’s a separate consideration from judging someone strictly as a “performer”.

This tendency we have when passing judgement on artists of all kinds varies widely across the entertainment spectrum. Actors usually don’t write the screenplays of the movies they star in, nor do we expect them to, but we’re probably less impressed with a comedian who buys jokes from an outside writer rather than come up with them himself, even if they deliver the jokes brilliantly.

That largely comes down to perception of course, the belief that certain things should be a form of self-expression and while music rarely had been that over the years, it suddenly became one with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. Since rock needed material that spoke to their specific audience’s own experiences in life, something rarely found in old Tin Pan Alley material like The Five Keys were all too frequently saddled with by Aladdin Records, they had to either write their own or get songs from credible songwriters for hire.

Though The Five Keys had shown they were in fact skilled songwriters when given the chance, they didn’t necessarily NEED to have self-composed material as long as there was a consistent artistic vision in their work, giving it the appearance of being a singular form of self-expression.

The Clovers for example are in the midst of one of the greatest runs of releases in rock history and they didn’t write a single word of it themselves. But the reason they excelled was their songs had come from the same handful of writers and were all based on the prototype established their first time out with Atlantic – sly commentary framed by slinky music and delivered with a slightly lecherous intent by the singers.

Among those who notably contributed to that group’s catalog was Rudolph Toombs, whose songs often focused on drinking. But unlike his Clovers material which valued suggestive wit, Serve Another Round which he wrote for The Five Keys is a much more straightforward song without much plot or lyrical cleverness compared to his best work for others.

It IS however a long ways off from the usual array of ancient standards with decidedly pop-styled arrangements that had ensured the increasing irrelevancy of The Five Keys in the rock realm. So if anything had the potential to revive their careers, this was going to be it.

…Orrrrrrr maybe not.
 

Gotta Do My Celebratin’
That’s the vexing thing about this record. It’s a marked improvement conceptually to the attempts to recraft The Five Keys as a bland pop group. Certainly the song itself, with its weary acceptance of the singer’s drinking problem, was not something a pure pop group would cut in 1952. That alone makes it promising.

Furthermore there’s a much different musical slant to the arrangement than we’ve heard from them of late, as it prominently features a tenor sax, both in between the verses to add color and during a very effective solo, which keeps it strongly tethered to the brand of rock ‘n’ roll that we once thought The Five Keys were destined for.

Likewise the backing vocals here are far more involved than they’d been lately on the bland ballads they were obligated to cut, where the other four Keys were largely resigned to “oohing” or humming for atmospheric considerations and little more. But on Serve Another Round they actually get to contribute in more substantial ways to the record, both delivering verbal responses to Maryland Pierce’s breathy lead and adding wordless embellishments along the way, as well as harmonizing with him on the choruses.

But what’s more interesting – and maybe more frustrating if you were expecting a more typical rock vocal group arrangement out of them – is the way all of this is presented. It’s almost jazz-like in certain ways, from the sparse musical track with just piano and bass for much of the time, to the way in which the group themselves are adding to that almost detached late-night ambiance with their series of stuttering sighs, almost as if their rising and falling voices were an instrument unto itself.

Maybe this isn’t quite radical enough to be called experimental, but it’s definitely out of the ordinary, especially for rock ‘n’ roll and while it’s obvious that this kind of thing has no chance to become a trend and shape the future of the genre in any way, as quirky outliers go this is still pretty appealing.

Yet in spite of that you can’t help but ask yourself whether this was the best approach to use considering the group’s alarming lack of more suitable rock tracks prior to this. For a ballad heavy act, especially one burdened with outdated material, the chance to cut a thematically appropriate original by one of the great songwriters in the field was too good of an opportunity to risk missing the mark with an arrangement this out of the ordinary.

Though the plot doesn’t progress much past the initial premise, the lyrics are quite good, especially their acknowledgement of – and perhaps stating their allegiance to – this brand of music in the line “Rock ‘n’ roll all night long”, which must’ve come as quit a shock to Aladdin Records who were trying to convince us they were anything BUT rock ‘n’ roll with their misguided handling of them the past two years.

Certainly that kind of thing would seem to beg for a more traditional rock approach for Serve Another Round, as the most obvious alternative to the way in which this was presented would be getting Pierce to sing with more hard-edged authority to his voice rather than the somewhat dreamy buzz he’s got on here (as appropriate as that may be to the plot), then beefing up the arrangement with more sonic firepower.

Maybe it’d be far more generic, thus less memorable unless they all knocked it out of the park with particularly wild performances, but considering how much The Five Keys needed to reassert themselves as rockers, the esoteric nature of this recording clearly won’t accomplish that.

As a result this becomes a fascinating, but somewhat self-defeating, entry in the catalog of a group still desperately in search of another hit.
 


 

Look For Me At The Break Of Day
This is still a good record, even if it’s one that has few precedents and won’t have many following its lead down the road, thereby not really contributing much to the advancement of the group’s prospects or rock ‘n’ roll in general, two of our prime requirements for unconditional praise.

Our biggest complaint is that it came at a time when they could least afford such an unusual offering. Had they had a string of better selling records done in more typical fashion, the usual mixture of more emotional ballads alongside some rowdy uptempo rockers, then Serve Another Round would be a somewhat daring anomaly, showing creativity and independence from the prevailing trends in rock.

Without that track record to fall back on however, this becomes a curious choice, something almost intentionally non-commercial, even if it’s much more compelling as an artistic statement than the bland pop material they’d been forcing on the increasingly disinterested public.

So, trying to balance those perspectives, we can’t be too harsh on it for failing to take into account their sinking fortunes caused by an endless parade of archaic standards, yet we also can’t get overly excited about something whose greatest mark is its iconoclastic nature.

Still, we’ll always take records that attempt to catch our ear than something that doesn’t bother even trying to stand out and while this is not going to improve The Five Keys’ chances for regaining their spot in rock’s starting rotation, it does give us a little more hope that they’ll at least be able to work their way out of the bullpen at some point in the future.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDIDT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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