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APOLLO 429; AUGUST 1951

 
 

 

Continuing the theme of the versatility of The Larks being both their greatest advantage as artists and their most self-defeating attribute when it comes to creating a consistent commercial image to build in the public’s mind, comes this song, one that gives us yet another image of theirs to reconcile with our previous views on just who they were and what we could expect from them each time out.

That they were legitimately good in all of these wildly divergent approaches shows why Apollo Records were never shy about getting them to try something different, even if it meant from one record to the next – or one side of one record to the other – they appeared to be entirely different entities that would mean a fan of the last song might have no interest in what they did next.

Oh well, their loss.
 

 

Too Many Drivers At The Wheel
Most artists, although we’ll confine ourselves to vocal groups for this case study, tend to stick with one, maybe two, stylistic identities when it comes to their records. You might get different uptempo and ballad characteristics, but generally speaking you know how the subsequent records are going to sound based on their previous work.

In early rock ‘n’ roll you had extremes on both ends of the scale. On one hand you had The Orioles who were balladeers using the same structure each time out which featured Sonny Til’s soulful crooning, George Nelson’s baritone bridge and light instrumentation on songs of perpetual heartache.

On the other you had The Larks with multiple lead singers, arrangements using entirely different instruments and songs of all different kinds taken from across the musical spectrum – gospel, country, pop, blues, jazz – all trying to be shoehorned into rock which is where black vocal groups had their best chance at finding success.

Their verifiable success ironically enough came with their blues-based material. Their cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Eyesight To The Blind was in the process of climbing onto the charts as we speak, and the only other national hit they got in their career came with its follow-up, Little Side Car, which was a re-worked version of a Smokey Hogg blues record from a few years earlier called Too Many Drivers but which the group surely got from the recent release by Willie Love & His Three Aces on Trumpet as Little Car Blues since that’s the same label where they got the Williamson record.

In both cases the lead for The Larks was Allen Bunn whose slightly scarred vocal tones along with his down home style of guitar lent a certain amount of authenticity to the performances that surely had some appeal to the pure blues fans, even as the vocal harmonies behind him might’ve sounded odd.

Here though his voice, while still retaining that same quality, is overshadowed to a degree by other the other elements of the record, not just the far more prominent group vocals, but also the jazzy rock arrangement making this yet another virtually unclassifiable category to slot them in.
 


 
 

Let Me Ride In Your Automobile
There are definite similarities to the Love record here in the prominent piano as well as the presence of a saxophone, whereas the Hogg original was pure downhearted country blues with guitar as his accompaniment.

Yet rather than just replicate the Love arrangement all down the line though, Bobby Smith – a jazz musician at heart – comes up with something that gives this a more modern edge, hinting at jazz, incorporating rock and leaving the blues to be conveyed almost exclusively by Bunn’s vocals.

It’s a great decision, not only making it sound utterly distinctive compared to what came before it on the many other versions same composition (Rosetta Howard also did one with The Big Three Trio), but also because it allowed the other Larks to feel more at home on their own record.

That’s where Little Side Car stands out… the full sonic experience. After that vibrant intro where the piano and drums set the scene Bunn comes in with a jazzy vocal turn – at first. When he goes down to deliver the ”too many drivers at the wheel” line his voice shifts just enough to conjure up its blues source, but by then the rest of the group is harmonizing loudly behind him in a way that the blues never considered, removing it from that context entirely and firmly re-establishing it as a rocker.

From there Bunn starts to sing with more verve himself and the others are answering him, echoing him and shading him at every turn. Only when he goes down the scale again does he inject that bluesy vibe into his delivery but for the most part it only suggests its influence rather than adamantly declares its allegiance.
 

A Good Little Car
Smith’s job as bandleader is to downplay that connection even further without completely removing it from the equation so as not to alienate the blues fans who helped to break the last release (and this was definitely on their minds since they recorded this just days after “Eyesight” first started moving in late July).

To do this Smith is squealing behind them with his alto, while the guitar – probably NOT Bunn, by the sound of it – is adding discreet glassy licks in the background while the rhythm section never lets up even as they’re careful not to overwhelm the vocals which are carrying plenty of rhythm of their own behind Bunn’s lead.

The one thing that remains the same on Little Side Car however is the story, which is a good one (where they got the title change however is up for conjecture), as he’s using a car metaphor to criticize a girl who he feels is spreading her affections too widely among the men in town. He makes no secret of liking her too and clearly just wants less competition, but is using the pressure of suggestion rather than the more brute force of scorn to get her to be the one to change her ways and open the door for him.

By the end he’s revealing his desire with more insistent begging, but unless she’s completely dense she knew all along his motives weren’t to get a lift to the corner store in the daylight but rather to park his own car in her garage overnight.
 


 

You Said You Wanted To Know Just How I Feel
Though we could save time by just directing you to the artist bio and the capsulized recaps of all of their songs to date found at the bottom of the page, we’ll expand on that just a little by recounting just how broad the ground the group has covered in less than a year on the scene.

They began cutting pure gospel under a variety of names – and for a variety of labels – last fall, then under the name The Four Barons they cut a racy double entendre rocker which sent them on their way to a secular career.

From there they’ve released a string of really good records that ran the gamut of styles and moods, from a country tune to poignant social plea… an ethereal pop-rooted ballad to a blues song – which WAS good, despite our low score for it in a purely rock context – and the bluesy-rock hybrid on the flip of that. Now on the other side of this one they delivered a full-on mellow harmony record.

Though you could make connections between a few songs maybe, none of them were similar enough to be obvious and all had totally different aspects at the heart of their appeal.

Little Side Car continues that theme, as it’s another song with an atypical source, using a lead that vacillates between jazzy and bluesy with backing vocals that are essentially rock meets gospel and backed by jazz musicians giving it a full-on rocking demeanor.

Talk about covering all your bases, not just in one song but in their career over the last ten months.

Though this managed give them that coveted follow-up hit which was vital in establishing them as a draw for live dates, it’d be the last of their singles to chart. What this probably indicated was that while audiences knew they were always ensured of getting something worthwhile on their releases, they just were never sure WHICH audience it was going to appeal to.

This one appeals to us though which ultimately is what matters most. As always your own mileage may vary.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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