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RCA 22-0072; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

Sometimes in life putting off a seemingly tough decision can be for the best. It gives you time to better assess the situation, to judge the consequences of each possible outcome and to avoid making an impetuous snap decision which you could later regret.

Generally speaking you’ll usually find that a degree of caution is a safer route in all walks of life than taking reckless chances.

Except perhaps when it comes to music that is, which is why The Four Tunes, a group steeped in pop who increasingly had to deal with the growing specter of rock ‘n’ roll, were perpetually stuck in limbo as they kept delaying their decision whether to join in the rock festivities wholeheartedly or turn their back on them entirely.
 

 

Each Plan Done Fell Through
Over the past few years The Four Tunes had been inching their way towards rock at times and even coming up with some pretty good records along the way, showing they were more than capable of handling the different aesthetic requirements if need be. Yet it always seemed as if doing so flew in the face of their better judgement (and that of their stodgy major record label RCA) and as a result they focused inordinately on the pitfalls of abandoning pop completely without always recognizing the advantages of jumping into rock with both feet.

Because of this they never truly made up their minds as to which style to devote themselves to, remaining skeptical of rock’s long term potential even as pop’s short term benefits were becoming more inconsistent with each passing month.

Am I Blue? would seem to make for another entry which rested firmly in the traditional pop field, a standard already twenty years old which had been made famous by Ethel Waters in the film On With The Show and in the years since had been done by such established stars as Billie Holiday and Eddy Duchin.

Yet it was such a versatile song with a good melody and simple straightforward lyrics that made it easily adaptable to any style or era and as a result a number of rockers would dig this up from time to time with everyone from Eddie Cochran and Ray Charles to Fats Domino and (in arguably the best take on it for rock) Ricky Nelson doing versions over the next dozen years.

Even today it remains a fairly well known song that most people have come across in one form or another (oddly enough for many it was through Batman singing it… and no, if you don’t know, don’t ask) and so The Four Tunes at least had something interesting to work with as they once more tried to straddle the stylistic fence without coming down firmly on either side of the ever-widening musical divide.
 

‘Til Today
Let’s start of by saying that of all the rock artists who tried this The Four Tunes’ version features the purest vocal delivery, or at least the lead voice anyway, as Pat Best is… well, there’s no way around this I suppose… the “best” thing about the record.

Am I Blue? seems ideally suited for the gravity of Best’s voice as he delivers this in a very measured, yet achingly soulful, way that forces you to pay close attention to the lyrics and the sentiments behind them. He’s a joy to to listen to, his voice highlighting the strong melody by its shadings, alternately leaning hard on certain passages to impart their emotional importance and then easing back as if to allow you to have enough space for the words to get from your ears to your soul so their meaning can be fully absorbed.

At times he does hint strongly at a more traditional pop delivery as some of the verses are a little too delicately shaped as if to sand off any rough edges. Yet even then listen to how he closes those lines, rising and falling with a notable throb in his voice, modulating certain words that make your hair stand on end.

He slips a little in the bridge, again veering perilously close to the pop ideals rock was trying to abandon replete with ill-advised whistling behind him, but even there he wraps it up with a surprisingly heartfelt semi-spoken “Lawdy” which sounds sublime. Of course that interjection was in every version of the song from the start but the way in which Best throws it in gives the impression that it was ad-libbed and as such adds a dash of character to this that makes it feel authentic, as if he were expressing his own feelings rather than singing the same carefully constructed words that countless others had delivered before him.
 

Now She’s Gone
If you somehow had been able to take Best’s lead and strip the rest and replace it with more appropriate backing you might really have had something special here. Granted it would still be too antiquated a composition to make a deep impact on rock no matter what it was surrounded by, but as an updated standard it would more than suffice.

However the three other Tunes, not to mention the musical arranger or producer, undercut it by emphasizing the poppier aspects of it almost as if they felt they had to offset Best’s more expressive lead, not trusting him to draw a suitable response from an audience, especially those not used to such honest emotional undercurrents as rock thrived on.

For starters there’s the group humming which backs him on most of the verses and seems perfectly modest and unobtrusive at a glance but which fails to add anything of note to Am I Blue? to make this version stand out and distance itself from the more sedate renditions that preceded it.

The deliveries are so demure by nature that as soon as you focus on them you roll your eyes at their timidity, knowing they don’t want to rock the boat in any way for fear of tipping over. Yet had they done so, giving it a more complex arrangement, one that starts off slow but ramps up into a bouncy interlocking pattern as it goes on, then you’d have accentuated the song’s greatest points in a way that would draw attention to them while not upsetting what Best was busy doing, making this a true group effort in the process.

Watch Ethel Waters’ definitive take on it in a video clip from 1929 and you can see how she does this to great effect giving the impression that the song itself is taking you on a ride through the disparities of human emotion. The lyrics are the same, the melody is the same, but the reaction to it is different as a result.

Worse than the modest aims of The Four Tunes in those sections however is their all-too safe choices when the others step to the forefront with a sickeningly pop sounding group harmony section, followed by an ill-conceived high tenor bridge and then the bass-led segue back to Best to close it out.

In those instances you know damn well they were inspired by The Ravens and while that group could also be beset with a troubling inclination towards pop-blandness, especially with Maithe Marshall’s tenor passages, they had such a powerful force in Jimmy Ricks’s bass voice that it frequently rendered those unfortunate missteps irrelevant once he appeared.

The Four Tunes have no such magic trick up their sleeves and so the second half of the record suffers greatly from their attempt to refute much of the message the first half imparted. When Best returns you’re thrilled to hear him again but that only makes you angrier over his prolonged absence when they seemed intent on sinking the entire production with their ill-conceived notions of what was “proper”.

It’s still a nice sounding record for the most part but one that increasingly isn’t suited for our purposes. It’s a great lead performance weighed down by the fact that nobody involved wanted to take any undue risks and at this date, when most of rock had shed that habit of hedging their bets, this type of stylistic compromise no longer passes muster.
 


 

Tears In These Eyes
We’ve covered much of the same ground with each release by The Four Tunes so the criticism – as well as the praise – remains largely unchanged. They haven’t been fully convinced that their days as an upwardly mobile pop act were over yet and so to remain relevant they’d need to fully embrace a different path. Instead they hint at joining the newer brigade while holding back on making that decision for another day.

Am I Blue? is good enough that it kept them viable, showing that there was still reason not to give up on them entirely, but even at the time you had to know they were too set in their ways, and RCA too conservative in their outlook, to make a more radical departure than this.

So enjoy it for what it does well – Pat Best’s stellar lead and the quality of the song itself – but don’t expect more than they’re willing to give you. Maybe in that context the grade won’t seem like an insult but rather an inevitable outcome for those who still can’t seem to make up their minds.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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