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SELECTIVE 113; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

In the annals of rock history there are a lot of artists whose career arcs are somewhat convoluted, those who don’t follow a sensible course that makes their progression easy to trace but who instead wind up with plenty of twists and turns along the way.

This can encompass lots of issues from label hopping to using different names and of course there are always plenty of membership changes within groups to take into account.

With all of the name changes, personnel changes and label changes, and sometimes wholesale stylistic changes as well, these types of stories sometimes wind up being more suited to the mystery section of the bookstore than the biography section.

For those who prefer all stories – whether fact or fiction – to have a tightly structured plot and consistent characters these deviations from the norm can be annoying, frustrating, confusing, even maddening at times, but in rock ‘n’ roll they’re par for the course and often what makes it so damn interesting.

Few in rock history ever were more confusing than this group, most frequently known as The Hollywood Flames, whose twisted odyssey starts here.
 

 
Where Are You Goin’?
Though they wouldn’t have “Hollywood” amended to their name on record until 1951 that location is the first tip-off that this is going to be a tangled tale, not because of some scriptwriter’s imagination, but for as any fan of rock’s first decade or so knows membership in Los Angeles based vocal groups seemed to forever be in flux with everybody in town singing at one point or another with everybody ELSE in town on each other’s records on any one of a few dozen labels that had open door policies which drew them all in like flies.

This communal society would make for some interesting work over the years but is hell on the likes of anyone trying to keep it all straight for posterity.

The Flames, as they were first known, got together in 1949, a crucial point in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll as we’re about to see a sudden influx of vocal groups appear after two major groups, both East Coast – The Ravens from New York and The Orioles for Baltimore – had defined the early sound.

But when The Robins appeared in mid-1949 things started to progress fairly quickly and whether their arrival on the L.A. record scene was the impetus for groups such as The Flames to get together, or it was just inevitable that young kids with musical talent would form groups to show off their singing, the opportunities available made their chance at success much greater than it might’ve been just a year or two earlier.

As with The Robins before them it hadn’t been The Flames’ initial intent for join forces and once again a talent show was responsible for their formation. Bobby Byrd had entered an amateur show primarily for high schoolers around L.A. that took place at The Largo Theater in Watts and because of the sheer number of solo acts as entrants they were all encouraged to form groups if only to cut down on the number of contestants.

Byrd recruited David Ford, Willie Ray Rockwell and Curlee Dinkins to join him and soon they’d made their way – like so many others would – to Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club where they were hired for five bucks apiece to perform there regularly. Surprisingly that was the extent of their association with Otis, though it was probably due to the fact that his own career, and that of The Robins, was about to take off. Thus it was left to others around town to pick up the scraps which is how The Flames landed at Selective, a repository for a lot of the local hopefuls at the time.

Enthusiastic but still somewhat ragged around the edges, qualities which in the past would’ve marked them as needing more time in the amateur ranks, they were ideally suited for the rock era where those attributes were increasingly seen by fans as a sign of authenticity.
 

Walking Down The Street
It’s fitting that the focal point of their first release is Bobby Byrd since he was the one who put the group together and was their most versatile member, able to move from his normal bass role to baritone or tenor when the need arose as well as being their primary songwriter. With his wavy hair and narrow facial features he had an almost exotic look to him making him someone you’d surely remember seeing. If the visuals weren’t enough to make an impression on you he made sure he wasn’t at risk for being overlooked on record either thanks to the bellow he starts off Young Girl with.

Everything about this record is designed to grab your attention from the hammering of the piano on the intro to that sudden exaggerated vocal grenade Byrd drops in to kick off the singing. The effect of this “in your face” approach is perhaps more jarring than it is inviting but the energy they all display, the group and the musicians alike, pulls you in rather than pushes you away.

That’s not to say you ever fully feel comfortable listening to Byrd but maybe that was the point considering the topic. First off he’s not actually doing much since the lyrics proper don’t start for nearly a minute, as he’s just repeating a question bordering on harassment to the alluring female subject of the song while the others leer behind him. Hopefully she’s got some mace (if not a brick) in her purse to fend these cretins off, but that being said you don’t quite take Byrd seriously for he sounds as if he’s trying to hit on her before her big brother comes out of the men’s room and chases him down the block.

Byrd is singing this in his lowest register, something that was surely deemed a smart bet by all involved, for ever since Jimmy Ricks had made such a splash with The Ravens the bass lead had instant appeal in rock. The problem is there’s only one Jimmy Ricks and while he was adept at sticking to groove that allowed him to always remain in control, Byrd by contrast just stomps on the pedal from the get-go without taking in his surroundings and as a result he careens all over the place at times.

Yet in spite of this he’s so shameless in his approach – helped no doubt by some of the outlandish come-ons he tries once the lyrics do kick in – that he can’t help but be somewhat endearing. Maybe because you’re almost laughing at him for thinking this crass approach might work the threat he poses is removed and it becomes a farce rather than anything potentially troubling. With the other Flames riding shotgun and sounding just as woefully inept in their attempts at love as Bobby the song manages to transcend its cruder aspects and soon borders on infectious.
 


 

Let Me Be Sweet To You
The four voices dominate the arrangement so much at times that you’d be forgiven if you barely heard the musicians playing behind them, but in fact their presence helps hold this ragtag affair together. Since it was cut for Selective Records who hardly had a deep roster of talent it could be some of The Rhythm Riffers – at least Dick Lewis on piano and possibly Jesse Ervin on guitar – who add to the chaotic feel yet keep it from getting too out of control so that it loses its musical sensibilities in the process.

The piano is really doing the work here of the entire rhythm section, his left hand handling the basslines while his intermittent choppy right hand is providing some semblance of what normally would be the role of the drummer to deliver. When the guitar gets a solo it eases off on the pressure giving Young Girl its only real melodic identity and it’s a good one at that, stinging notes that climb, twist and curl into interesting shapes to give you a chance to catch your breath before Byrd and the others come rampaging back into the picture, their libido leading the way as always.

By now though you’re used to their half-serious/half-comical approach. At his most flamboyant Bobby runs the risk of seeming almost buffoonish, but then just when you’re about to write him off he’ll pull back and offer a great wordless moan or slow the tempo as the others drop out to give him a few stand-alone verses that are comical in his desperation yet somehow still soulful in their delivery.

Maybe none of this should really work, the individual components outside the guitar are average at best and at their weakest moments the whole thing takes on a recklessly slapdash feel, but this is a record that manages to add up to slightly more than the sum of its parts. It may represent little more than a combination of the power of teenage hormones and equally unbridled musical exuberance but isn’t that what helped set rock ‘n’ roll apart in the first place? Local teens in Los Angeles thought so, supporting it just enough to crack the regional charts for a week in Cash Box at the end of February.

Clearly this wasn’t meant to be listened to with rapt attention and with subtle appreciation for the nuances of the performance, it was designed to serve as a way to get you moving, boost your confidence and break the ice with members of the opposite sex. Now granted, if you come onto the girl as wild-eyed as Bobby Byrd does here, you’ll probably end up getting kneed in the groin, but even then you’ll be the center of attention and everyone will go on having a good time, so in that spirit, what’s the harm?
 

Come On In
As suitable as this record – and this cockeyed style in general – may have been for the rock audience enjoying the first rays of the sun in the 1950’s there’s no way anyone listening to Young Girl back then, even the most ardent supporter of this type of music, would guess that these guys would stick around as a reasonably viable rock group for the next 17 years.

But what this showed is that the not only were the musical standards changing rapidly with rock’s ascent over the past three years but that the requirements for longevity in the field were changing with it. Rather than needing to mature as you got older so you could play the classier joints to appeal to the blue-bloods, the thing that would matter most in the future was being to be able to keep rocking with total conviction in order to keep the next generation of teens – and the generation after that – satisfied that you were speaking for them and not talking down to them.

Call it the blessing of never having to grow up, or if you prefer you can call it the curse of eternal immaturity, but either way the young girls… and young guys… they were singing about, singing to and singing with were here to stay and as the Nineteen Fifties dawned the music which seemed to many that it would be the least likely to endure would in fact outlast everything else on the scene.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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