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DERBY 732; MARCH, 1950

 
 

 

Back in the fall of 1949 we met The James Quintet, a vocal group that like many acts of the time who’d yet to make any sort of breakthrough with their careers found themselves dragged in the general direction of an increasingly popular style that they probably would never have ventured into on their own.

Whether it was the record company pushing them to do something a little more lively in an attempt to appeal to the rock market, or if it was the group itself surveying the landscape and realizing that this might represent their best shot at success, The James Quintet gave in to the commercial realities of the day and turned in a fairly competent two-sided single as rockers.

But even as we complimented their effort in measured tones we already knew that it couldn’t last.

Now here’s your proof that it wouldn’t.
 

 

A Million Years
To briefly reacquaint ourselves with The James Quintet as it’s been awhile since we last encountered them, the group in all likelihood would’ve been a tough fit in ANY established style of music as their instrumental specialties – tenor guitar, mandolin and tiple – were hardly common sounds in mid-Twentieth Century America.

Yet they had decent voices as they showed in I’m Just A Fool and even tackled the more outrageous side of rock with enthusiasm and good humor on Paw’s In The Kitchen. Yet while admirable in their intent neither side gave any indication that they were destined for a long run as rockers… and sure enough it didn’t take long for their true colors to come out with this, their follow-up release.

But before we delve into the many shortcomings on Don’t Worry, we should at least remind people that it was harder for singers to “fake” the requirements for rock than say a sax player could. So it wasn’t surprising when Derby Records was trying to make inroads into this promising field with many of their artists that they had much better success letting sax player Freddie Mitchell honk away than in trying to get the James Quintet to alter their voices to suit rock’s requirements.

 

 

In fact, maybe that’s why Decca Records, a major label who were no fans of this noisy upstart music, probably viewed them as a good compromise act when they signed them soon after this, precisely because they were too classy to make for authentic rockers, yet game enough to at least make the effort to fit in.

But rock fans themselves aren’t willing to compromise and so the group’s mere willingness to give rock ‘n’ roll a try won’t give them a pass when it comes to judging their output.
 

Everything Is Alright… Well, Actually No It’s Not
Let’s begin by saying this is one of those records being included primarily to just continue a story that we’ve already begun.

Notice I didn’t say “just to wrap up a story” , which is the other reason we’re being exceedingly lenient with allowing this to take up space on these pages, because The James Quintet will eventually land at Atlantic Records where they’ll briefly be enlisted to sing backup for Ruth Brown. Since it was inevitable we’d talk about them again when that occurred, we figured it’d be best to show just how dubious their rock credentials were from the start, in spite of that halfway decent earlier release we reviewed.

Truth be told though no matter which side of Derby 732 we chose – and rest assured we had no intent to pick both… we’re not musical masochists here after all – the choice would make for one of the most tenuous records to rock’s main story that we’ve reviewed.

How’s that for an enticing promo on what’s about to follow?

The flip side of this, Let’s Put Our Hearts On The Table, got disqualified for inclusion not just because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t seem to know it’s bad… for rock ‘n’ roll that is. Though the wordless harmonies throughout that song are rather interesting – not exciting mind you, but at least shows some skill – the lead vocal is so excessively mannered, so lacking in emotion, so steam-cleaned for harmless consumption that it would be laughed off stage in the presence of more authentic rock groups.

So that leaves Don’t Worry to stand in for their ongoing attempts to pass muster in rock. It’s similarly wimpy, don’t get me wrong, but at least there’s some modicum of soulfulness in the lead. Not much maybe, but it’s not completely lacking either and that will have to suffice.

The song itself however had little chance to even be turned into an acceptable rock single due to the fact it’s so serene even as it is expressing heartbreak because the one he loves doesn’t love him.

Normally rock songs with this topic feature guys devastated over their girl breaking up with them, allowing the vocalist to express themselves in a more unrestrained fashion – be it sorrow, pain, anger or disbelief. Yet here, if you were not following along closely to the lyrics, you’d actually come away thinking this guy is blissfully satisfied, maybe even was making a bland toast to his wife on their Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary rather than showing incredulity that she doesn’t love him despite his devotion.

To be honest, I don’t blame her. How could she have KNOWN he was head over heels about her in the first place if he’s always this placid? It’s one thing to be laid back but he’s almost comatose when it comes to expressing his feelings in an unambiguous fashion.

Rock is largely about emotion, the more powerful that emotion the more potent the song in most cases. Whether it’s utter heartbreak or unbridled desire the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum have more opportunity to let yourself go. Here the lead singer (whichever one of them it is – he’s probably too embarrassed to let us know) keeps everything under wraps so much so that he might as well have sent this message to her in a telegram for all of the good it’s doing him.
 

It Almost Made Me Cry
Naturally any song this vocally demure is going to be presented musically in a way that doesn’t look to ruffle any feathers either, and sure enough for most of it that’s just what happens.

The group’s own accompaniment is kept well in the background – sublime maybe if you want to be generous, but hardly gripping. Danny Johnson’s guitar is most prominent and while it might sound fairly nice drifting out into the street, it’s certainly not going to draw you into the club to check it out.

The one moment of arranging inspiration comes when they step up the pace for the vocal bridge, giving it just a bit of pep that momentarily fools you into thinking they might actually turn this desultory affair around.

But not surprisingly it’s mostly a mirage, something that stands out only by contrast to everything else as it involves little more than their voices sounding as if they’re attempting to keep them muffled so as not to awake the R.A. or something and rather than contribute any verbal lines they merely “chant” a few rhyming nonsense syllables… “huffing” them almost as they use an awful lot of excess breath for what little they produce.

When they close that section out with a group vocal that uses actual words you probably will respond with more enthusiasm than it deserves simply because it confirms they’re not being forcibly told to not utter a single word on their own record… Don’t Worry though, even that doesn’t last long.

Actually that last line I wrote – which isn’t as clever as I was hoping – is at least far more inventive than anything they show here. Aside from some of the first lines where digs a little deeper and almost convinces you he’s got actual feelings for this women, you don’t care much what their relationship was, why it went wrong or what will become of either of them… nor do you have any concern for the future of the group that delivered such a song.
 

When That Day Rode By
Derby Records wasn’t going to ever become a major player in rock in spite of their high hopes, in large part due to their limited roster. With so little margin for error since they didn’t have enough talented artists to make up for a handful of non-commercial sides they could hardly waste releases on a group that couldn’t offer more than this.

Or rather, who COULD offer more than this, as evidenced their first time out, but who apparently were’t inclined to without a lot more prodding than they received here.

Don’t Worry and its abysmal flip side were the leftovers from that one session which tells you that they’d already reached their creative ceiling which wasn’t very high even if by comparison to this dreck it was up in the clouds.

Even the grade here – for rock standards anyway – is probably a point too high, but rather than pile on them any more for their timidity, we’ll have pity on them as they basically announce to the world that they’ve given up the fight altogether and are content to sit back in their easy chair looking out at the world through their window as the excitement passes them by.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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