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SAVOY 726, DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The brief working relationship between The Robins and Johnny Otis on Savoy Records lasted for a total of about two months and one recording session which resulted in only one hit under The Robins own name.

The flip side of their hit, that would be this song in case you were wondering, may be flawed but it provides an opportunity to see just how much promise the group had while working under a skilled bandleader in Otis who might’ve otherwise been able to harness their strengths, shore up their weaknesses while providing the type of sympathetic and cutting edge musical backing with his unrivaled band.

But as we know it wasn’t to be. The two sides split acrimoniously over Johnny’s unfortunate hand-in-the-cookie-jar actions following their breakthrough and even their valued presence on a concurrent hit headlined by Little Esther cut at the same fateful December session which soon vaulted to the top of the charts, Otis foolishly thought The Robins were replaceable… reasoning that anyone, including his own band members, could do the vocal asides in that number.

If he was right about that (and for the record he probably wasn’t, even if he got away with it on tour) he sure as hell underestimated what The Robins brought to the table on their own.
 

 

I Would Just Let You Go
Yesterday in the midst of regaling you with all of the sordid details of the breakup between the group and their original benefactor Johnny Otis, who’d gotten The Robins together in the first place, giving them their start with regular gigs at his club and then on record in the spring of 1949, we also tried to detail what it was about them which made them such an important transitional vocal group in rock. The bridge between the sound of the 1940’s and the 1950’s as it were.

As evidenced on the brilliant If It’s So Baby the “new” sound they exemplified was looser and more suggestive than that of The Ravens, the group they were initially modeled after. The difference to those listening today to the two acts might seem fairly slight but it helps to think of things like a progression.

The Ravens in 1947 had taken a giant step away from the pop-slanted vocal groups like The Ink Spots, Mills Brothers and even The Delta Rhythm Boys who also had a bass lead in Lee Gaines whom The Ravens Jimmy Ricks greatly admired. Rather than tailor their sound to appeal to white audiences, as had been the accepted practice among black vocal groups prior to this, The Ravens had played UP their natural sound to first appeal to black listeners specifically and with the advent of rock in the fall of 1947 their more rhythmic vocal style fit in perfectly with that burgeoning sound. Throw in a handful of songs that were a little more racy than anything the earlier groups dared feature and you can see why the first generation of rock listeners embraced them so wholeheartedly.

But even as they were finding unrivaled success in this new field, old habits were hard to break, or rather aspirations of making it in a world defined by old musical and cultural standards was hard to ignore, so The Ravens tried balancing their output by loading up on dainty pop standards, often sung by the tenor lead of the group Maithe Marshall with Ricks only getting a prominent interlude to remind listeners who their leader was. But as well sung as these songs might’ve been, they were clearly aimed at another audience – another GENERATION – altogether and so the rock fan’s devotion wavered, especially when another group, The Orioles, came along and brought another new wrinkle to the field.

Though The Orioles would be guilty themselves of striving to cross into the pop field with a succession of tepid ballads, their best sides showcased the startlingly tortured emotionalism of lead singer Sonny Til who drew women like flies and inspired hundreds if not thousands of aspiring male singers with the attention he garnered for wringing his soul dry in song after song. This was the second step in the progression, trying to make a personal internal connection to the younger audience.

Now we have The Robins who weren’t capable, or at least not inclined, to sing in the manner of The Orioles, and who couldn’t compete on level ground with The Ravens if they stuck to the same type of song that merely allowed Nunn to emulate the playful bass lead of Ricks while the others kept things reined in so as to not upset the apple cart.

That meant The Robins simply used the basic structure of The Ravens, Nunn’s deep voice leads being the primary link between the two, while the others took on a more ragged supporting role. It was somewhat amateur sounding perhaps, in a way making it like The Orioles whose harmonies were known to drift, but the key was that it was perceived as being more authentic because it was entirely stripped of the pop aspirations those two earlier groups still clung to in spite of their success in rock.

In other words, the difference comes down to this essentially: The Ravens and Orioles in the late 1940’s were certainly happy with the rock market’s enthusiasm which made them stars, but they, or their record labels, still believed the pop market was more reliable and more profitable long term and kept at least one eye on that field, whereas The Robins believed the rock market was more than enough to sustain them.

Unfortunately their split with Otis led them to years of futile wandering in search of the right situation to prove this instinct right.
 


 

But It’s That Thrill I Get From You
Rock eras are incredibly short periods of time, three or four years at the most, or the most obvious way to look at it, the exact length of time it takes one generation to forcibly kick their older brothers and sisters tastes to the curb, apprehending the movement for themselves before their own even younger siblings toss them overboard when they too come of age.

Your time on top therefore is destined to be short-lived and so you had better not waste it.

The Robins of course did waste it, or rather Otis’s shortsighted maneuvers to abscond with a few more dirty dollars wound up wasting it for them, but the transition of eras had already taken place thanks to the top side of this record, the aforementioned If It’s So Baby.

That transition wasn’t complete after just one song however and so with them on the sidelines it’d be left to other vocal groups to come along and move the chains a little further down the field. But as the conflicted results of If I Didn’t Love You So plainly illustrates, The Robins themselves definitely had it in them to do it themselves with just a little more work.
 

 

In some ways this is more of a leap than their hit on the other side, which shook up The Ravens prototype with an attitude injection but otherwise kept the recognizable signposts intact. By contrast If I Didn’t Love You So stakes out entirely new ground that has far more in common with the mid-1950’s, at least up to 1954 or so, than it does with what else we’ve heard in 1949.

It opens with Otis making his first appearance on vibraphones, a concession to injuries recently sustained while building a chicken coop that severely damaged two fingers on his hand which left the drummer unable to handle the rigors of that instrument on a sustained basis. So he picked up the mallets and became – after Lionel Hampton – the most prominent vibes player in music.

It was a delicate, almost ethereal sound by nature, one which could add tremendous atmospheric touches to certain songs, yet because he would often include them where their presence wasn’t required, at times they’d limit certain songs appeal when it would have been far more prudent to let other instruments handle more of the supporting load. But HERE, where they sound so fresh and otherworldly precisely because we haven’t encountered them before in rock, the effect is mesmerizing, allowing us to ease ourselves into the ballad like someone sliding their sore, tired body into a hot tub.

Nunn takes center stage after that, providing some of the song’s best moments with his halting croon that is surprisingly tender, and he also contributes most of the weakest moments as well when Otis unwisely leaves him stranded alone for too long in the slightly too sparse arrangement.
 

By Just Hanging Around
So take your pick, do you want the highlights or the low lights, because frankly they alternate with alarming regularity here.

Nunn seems unsure of himself with the languorous pace throughout this, which unfortunately results in the the song’s most glaring missteps as he doesn’t have the confidence, let alone the ability, to hold notes when they need to be held, to cut others short with a flourish when no other move is left him, or to inject some slight of hand maneuver like Jimmy Ricks would’ve, or in the future like Clyde McPhatter, Elvis Presley, Dion, Solomon Burke or Michael Jackson might’ve conjured up to draw attention away from the structural flaws, enabling them to turn those compositional defects into the most memorable moments of their performances.

But then again those names mentioned were six of the greatest singers in rock history while Bobby Nunn, a baritone masquerading as a bass singer, was good but still altogether mortal.

The primary issue is that he’s really asked to carry too much of the weight here, unlike the other side where he was allowed to trade off more with the others which allowed each to focus on their strengths and conceal their weaknesses. On If I Didn’t Love You So Nunn’s bass would be better used in limited fashion as he loses his grip on the somewhat ponderous melody the longer each line goes on. Yet the slow trawl through each line that he’s forced to adopt also gives him the opportunity to really dig into the emotional gravitas of the lyrics, as through either luck or design he turns his hesitancy into contemplation and wins you over early on, so much so that you cringe along with him when he’s left to dangle on the limb a line or two later.

How this could’ve been avoided is up for debate. Certainly the obvious solutions both have drawbacks which would’ve altered the overall ambiance which explains why Otis was probably reluctant to commit to either one and left things as they were. The one way, and perhaps the easiest considering the personnel he had already cutting the track, would be to let the other Robins join in earlier on the offending sections when Nunn has to hold the notes for a few bars. His pitch wavers too much on almost all of these and so you can envision the others supporting him and turning those into stellar harmony transitions.

But doing so would throw the song’s balance into disarray, because as it stands The Robins join in only when doing so can be done without drawing attention to their presence. Their wordless harmonizing is omnipresent on the verses, yet never steps into the forefront and so to suddenly shift into a more prominent supporting role as the stanzas are about to break down might make it far too noticeable and awkward to really work effectively.

The other solution would be to bring a saxophone in. They certainly had plenty to choose from in their ranks so let’s give the job to James Von Streeter’s tenor and tell him to lay back a good 6-8 feet from the microphone and blow a warmly resonant held note for Nunn to ease into and as he does have Nunn slowly pull away from the vocal mic so Von Streeter’s horn is allowed to subtly take its place.

That might work best but would the presence of a horn alter the song’s textures too much? It very well could because without it we’re focused entirely on Otis’s vibes and Pete Lewis’s haunting guitar which together manage to frame the lyrics perfectly. So all of the potential solutions raise new problems and unless we can go back and try each alternate approach – along with any others you might suggest – and let the results speak for themselves, it’s ultimately an unanswerable question.
 

Sleepless Nights And Endless Days
But what DOES work here is remarkably prescient when it comes to how the next few years will shake out. Take for instance Nunn’s reading of the two lines that feature The Robins in strong support, “But you’re my guiding light” and later “But it’s that thrill I get from you…” which leads into the joined “That makes me love you so”.

Those passages seem taken from a song from 1954, not something cut in the waning days of 1949. They’re beautifully understated and stand in stark contrast to how naked Nunn sounds when left to himself to warble other lines with faint minimal support by the other Robins and the musicians, almost as if it were a hazing ritual they were forcing him to go through to join their club.

The song itself, as written, doesn’t help matters much in this regard, as its heartfelt tributes to a nameless girl are frustratingly non-specific, generic and repetitive. There are no lines that stick in your memory for their wordplay, so while you’ll find the overall sentiment they’re imparting to be nice, you aren’t going to be reciting any of this to your own sweetheart under a pale moon one romantic evening.

Maybe that lack of poetic grace wouldn’t have been as noticeable with a fuller sound behind him, but a fuller sound also would’ve obscured the tenderness he’s emoting so you’re trading one flaw for a different one no matter what you decide.

But while the flaws undoubtedly keep If I Didn’t Love You So from greatness, it shouldn’t keep anyone from missing what stands out so well even among the shortcomings, which is this record has its finger on the pulse on the next five years of vocal group ballads. Others would refine it, improve upon it and be more technically capable of pulling off the very things that The Robins can’t avoid stumbling over, but the progression that we spoke of earlier which leads us from one era to another is underway already and with this we’ve just turned the corner on the Nineteen Forties and are about to step into the Nineteen Fifties and in the big scheme of things, that’s pretty noteworthy any way you look at it.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUANCY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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