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JUBILEE 5017; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

When you stop and think about it there really aren’t many Labor Day Songs that have entered into the public’s consciousness over the years for some reason… and for that matter we don’t have an abundance of Thanksgiving Day carols we sing around the turkey either.

While Valentine’s Day is a boon for florists, candy manufacturers and restaurants seeking a respite from a slow winter season the same can’t be said for radio stations who’d surely love to flood the airwaves with a few weeks of valentine music to serenade you while you shop for expensive jewelry for the girl you’ll break up with before Memorial Day rolls around three months later. And although it’s true you may get slightly ill eating corn beef and cabbage and downing a few pints of Irish ale in the third week in March you surely won’t get sick of hearing a steady stream of St. Patrick’s Day songs everywhere you go that week.

I’m sure there are some who try and rouse interest for patriotic hymns on the Fourth Of July but you’d never hear them of over the din of fireworks exploding in the sky, and truth be told the number of classic Arbor Day songs equals the number of people who immediately can name what day of the year Arbor Day actually falls on.

When you get right down to it the list of widely known holiday songs isn’t very many once you set aside the few thousand Christmas carols everybody hears nonstop for a month or more at the end of each year. Outside of that however all you really have is an Easter song or two and a few tunes that have been appropriated for Halloween because of their macabre content but which had no intention of being connected to that day when they were made…

Oh, and two eternal chestnuts for New Year’s Eve.
 

 

Welcoming In The New Year
Surely everyone at one point or another has drunkenly sung Auld Lang Syne while the bells ring in the New Year, but that hardly qualifies as a modern song in any way. It was actually a Scottish poem from the early 1700’s and while it’s remarkable that something so old is still well known more than three hundred years later, the only part that gets sung are the first verse and one chorus, which makes it more of a brief refrain than a full song at this point.

Though we did just came across a rock version of that called Auld Lang Syne Boogie by Freddie Mitchell last month which wasn’t bad, it wasn’t much remembered long after the hangover wore off sometime around 5 PM on January 1, 1950.

A year earlier Johnny Otis gave us Happy New Year Baby which was well done but Excelsior Records took it off the market and replaced it with another song on the single as soon as January rolled around and it hasn’t exactly enjoyed annual revivals since then.

There’s actually been more songs that have tried their hand at defining this day but never quite became dyed in the wool classics associated with the holiday year in and year out. In rock circles we have The Eagles Funky New Year, which is alright I suppose, but let’s face it, it’s about the after effects of the previous night’s celebration and consequently it’s not something that you really want to be listening to while you’re still boozing it up on December 31st.

Snoop Dogg’s New Year’s Eve might’ve been the one to break through but it features too much Marty James singing and not nearly enough Snoop. Actually the most famous songs for this time of the year are sort of ill-fitting in the season, as U2’s iconic New Year’s Day isn’t about New Year’s at all, but rather politics using New Year’s as a symbolic device. Prince’s immortal 1999 is another one that merely takes the celebratory mood of New Year’s Eve parties in general and transposes it to a one night stand.

But hey, it’s still fun to dance to as the clock ticks down.

So what’s the song that actually DOES endure as a New Year’s standard?

Well, it’s a song that began in the pop world in 1947 and was also famously cut by one of the most legendary jazz singers to ever open her mouth, which surely was the one which would’ve seemed to have had the inside track on becoming the definitive version.

Yet in spite of that competition it’s actually a rock group from that same era, The Orioles, who made What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? their own and thanks to their rock Christmas standard from the year before they were able to see to it that both sides stayed fresh in the public’s mind for a lot longer than might’ve happened if this had been left to sustain interest for 364 days that fell between.
 
 

 

Exactly Twelve O’Clock At Night
Some of you may have noticed that we’ve occasionally been critical of record companies on these pages… okay, okay, we’ve been MOSTLY critical of record companies in the first five hundred plus reviews and that’s not something likely to change in time. Record execs didn’t suddenly all get smart and start making good decisions. For the most part they’d continue to use poor judgement and steer their artists in the opposite direction from the one which would get them hits more often than you’d think possible while remaining in business. In fact most artists who found success did so by overcoming their label’s misguided instincts over the years.

But far from being merely champions of the proletariat we do have some sympathy for the owners of these companies, most of whom had no musical talent of their own, who had to not only handle the entire business side of the operation – the contracts, the recording studio, dealing with pressing plants, distributors and then trying to promote the records and collect money due if and when those records sold some, all while paying for the rent, the electric and hiring the creative personnel to make records worth buying – but then, on top of all that, they had to assess the market and make decisions as to WHAT to release from among the songs being cut.

That would seem to be the easiest chore of all, and it probably should’ve been, but this is where their lack of musical vision usually did them in, as rather than trying to survey the market as it evolved they seemed to prefer to use past performance, often in other stylistic fields, to try and predict the future of rock ‘n’ roll… and promptly failed miserably at it.

Oh well, nobody’s perfect I suppose.

Jubilee’s Jerry Blaine, who ran one of the most successful record distribution companies in the business, found that his expertise in that area didn’t necessarily translate to record company president duties as when he scored big out of the gate with heart-wrenching ballads by The Orioles he kept returning to the same well until it ran dry. Both sides of most singles were cut from the same cloth, interchangeable in almost every way – thematically, tempo, instrumentation, even the vocal arrangements with Sonny Til’s lead over rough harmonies topped with a soaring falsetto by Alex Sharp and a bridge that was always delivered by baritone George Nelson which merely repeated the same lyrics that Til already had sung earlier. Needless to say it could make for some very repetitive listening experiences.

But when the group had a first rate song to handle, particularly those written by their manager Deborah Chessler, such as their debut It’s Too Soon To Know, or their second #1 hit Tell Me So, the results were magical. They’d also managed to strike pay dirt with some astute choices for cover songs along the way, nailing a good version of A Kiss & A Rose last summer and then following it up with the even better Forgive & Forget.

All of which, as good as they were, still shared the same ponderous pace and forlorn perspective. So maybe you can’t criticize Blaine too much after all when his somewhat shortsighted decisions kept paying off as steadily as this approach was doing.

Here on What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? we’re met with the same type of song – a heartfelt ballad full of emotional uncertainty as it applies to someone who fears their love isn’t reciprocated, delivered in halting tentative fashion by Sonny Til’s wounded vocals yet which wisely leaves the girl’s response to his pleas unanswered, allowing the ambiguity of the results to give listeners a rooting interest that never resolves itself. All of the emotional and musical components they’d built their careers on were present and accounted for right down the line.

But not only is this a great song with a setting that puts such feelings in perfect focus, the somewhat unorthodox decision by Blaine to pair this newly recorded song with the group’s hit It’s Gonna Be A Lonely Christmas from last year means that it didn’t have to stand on its own to get noticed, but rather it had the built-in appeal for seasonal spins that a non-holiday cut wouldn’t.

Whaddaya know, a record exec who actually did something that helped his artists rather than hurt them. Don’t let this get around, it may catch on!
 


 
 

The Jackpot Question
What makes this such a perfect record isn’t JUST that it’s got an appropriate flip-side to ensure it got a few spins, but the fact that once it did get put on the record player the sounds coming out of the speaker show the Orioles in their best light, even if the sentiments and style are nothing new. Maybe because they’re nothing new it works all the more in this instance.

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? was written two years earlier by Frank Loesser and recorded by Margaret Whiting, a pop vocalist we’ve encountered a few times in our monthly overviews that focus on the songs and events of the outside world as we go along.

Whiting was quite popular, if hardly very distinctive, and by all rights this should’ve been a song that did quite well for her, even though coming from a female perspective the lyrics are a little more desperate sounding than might be recommended, though that could just be something more noticeable because it’s not what we’re used to hearing. But as with so much pop music of the day it marries tender sentiments with a pleasant melody, although – and this may be the rock fan overpowering the pop listener in me – without much depth to her emotions.

Sonny Til has no such problems as his entire style is built on mining those emotions for all they’re worth, wringing every bit of pain from his soul and serving it up on a platter to pull at the heartstrings of everyone listening. For girls in the audience they’d hear his trembling voice and want to comfort him and provide him with the love that the one he loves in absentia seems unwilling to reciprocate. For the guys listening, always a tougher crowd to win over when you act vulnerable on record, it provides them with the chance to grapple with their own romantic insecurities while at the same time distancing themselves from the implications of it because it’s Sonny who is dealing with these problems.

Til, as usual when he tackles this dilemma, does so with an authenticity that suggests he’s had his heart broken in each and every relationship since he hit puberty a decade earlier. The genius of his delivery though is how he caresses the lyrics with just enough hope to suggest an underlying confidence… buried deep inside perhaps, but the mere fact he’s got the courage to offer himself up to this girl who more likely than not will turn his request for a date on New Year’s Eve down shows that Til’s heart is more resilient than we’ve been led to believe.

For some reason Til’s voice isn’t quite as polished here as he normally sounds, it’s not ravaged or anything but it’s showing signs of fraying at the edges as if the night before the session he sung a little too hard on the bandstand or something. Rather than make it a shoddy performance though it gives What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? even more of an edge, lending dramatically increased poignancy to his words. You picture him breaking down in the dark before pulling himself together to make this call in the hopes he might salvage things with the girl whose heart has proven to be more elusive than he’d been hoping.

The song in its other renditions, including Fitzgerald’s stately version, are lacking the emotional gravitas that The Orioles bring to it. Ella, who certainly is in the running for the best female vocalist of the 20th Century, sounds typically radiant throughout… but that’s the problem. She’s in the position of almost begging this guy to take her out and yet you get the idea if he says, “Sorry, babe, I have other plans”, she’ll be disappointed but not broken up over it. She’ll swallow the lump in her throat, maybe sniffle some when she gets out of sight, but then will straighten her dress and fix her mascara and hold her head up and move on.

Sonny Til on the other hand will go to pieces and we won’t see him out in public again until the crocuses bloom in the spring. Because of the consequences he imparts we have a rooting interest in the outcome and that allegiance to him never wavers no matter how many years we’ll be listening to this.
 

Holding You So Tight
For all of our frustration with the misguided career choices The Orioles fell victim to starting with the all-too similar sounding records and arrangements, here’s their defense of that policy in living breathing color.

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? is proof positive that when everything fell into place they couldn’t be beat using that approach. Here they’ve taken what is simply a decent song and made it into a standard, turning in the definitive take on it which renders all other attempts, including by such luminous names as Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine… and in the rock world Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, The O’Jays and The Whispers, all but irrelevant.

It may not be a Christmas song, though it gets lumped in with that holiday’s playlists since they’re separated by only a week, but it is the first seasonal evergreen where the most iconic version is by a rock act. To do so in the days before rock itself commanded a broader audience makes that accomplishment all the more remarkable.

Over the next decade the two-sided Orioles holiday pairing would be re-released (and It’s Gonna Be A Lonely Christmas would chart again this year), even getting a picture sleeve to go along with it in 1954, showing that rock fans identified with these two cuts in a way that ran as deep as pop fans enduring love affair with the Crosby and Como holiday canon.

It’s no wonder they were met with such adoration because these songs, especially the one focused on the last day of the year, served as the capper to a magical two year run where Sonny Til And The Orioles captured the hearts of rock fans like few groups ever would.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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