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It’s not as often as you think, but occasionally in rock history there’s a record that comes along that has unexpected reverberations across the musical spectrum. The gigantic hits and the groundbreaking sounds are the ones which most frequently are pointed to when discussing what tracks tilted rock on another axis, but more often than not it’s songs that never quite got the acclaim which actually produced many of rock history’s most lasting effects.

Obviously this is one of those records even though on its surface it would appear to have little going for it to be considered a critical release. It wasn’t a debut for the artists, nor was it an entirely new sound for rock in general and while it was a Top Ten national hit it was quickly overshadowed by other tracks cut by associated artists at the same time on the same label which went on to be far bigger sellers.

Yet if the ramifications of this record don’t seem monumental at a glance it nevertheless managed to alter the landscape in three distinct ways and coming when it did as 1949 wound down the success of it helped to highlight the transition from the 1940’s to the 1950’s. Maybe that was only in terms of perception, but when it comes to history perception often matters as much as anything.


Just so nobody thinks we’re stringing them along to get them to read two thousand words before springing the answers on them for these teasers, the three ways in which this record sent ripples into the future were pretty simple, but pretty significant: First, and most importantly, it shifted the vocal group approach to something which sounded more ragged and do-it-yourself by nature, attributes which would define the 1950’s “doo-wop” aesthetic as much as anything.

Secondly it established Johnny Otis as a rock ‘n’ roll operator of the highest order, someone who was capable of overseeing a vast kingdom of artists utilizing a wide variety of stylistic techniques, something which began to shift the power balance from the record label where it had always been situated to the artists where increasingly it would reside as time went on.

Lastly it quickly turned that last fact on its head when Otis himself fell prey to the same pitfalls of so many who suddenly find themselves in positions of power, where their benevolent intentions that got them there are now usurped by their ambition and greed to keep them there at the expense of those that helped lift them to that lofty perch to begin with.

That’s a lot of ground to cover for just one record, so let’s get right into our usual overview recap to bring everyone up to speed before jumping into the fire.


Why Should I Worry?
The Robins you may remember began at Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Watts where his main interests still lay in the late 1940’s. There he held weekly amateur talent shows which drew in crowds eager to see the hopefuls strut their stuff on stage but which also had the benefit of giving Otis first pick among the most promising figures to add to his own growing revue which not only performed each night at the club but also allowed him to craft material to take advantage of those diverse talents for his own recording career.

Since Otis himself was not yet a singer, just a drummer, songwriter and bandleader, he needed others to fill out the roles. He found many of those who would do so at those amateur shows, among them saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, guitarist Pete Lewis, drummer Leard Bell, vocal group The A-Sharp Trio and singer/comedian Bobby Nunn.

It was Otis who decided to pair up Nunn, a natural baritone who was more than convincing dropping down to sing bass, and the A-Sharp Trio who had good harmonies but lacked a distinctive lead. Otis’s goal was rather shallow at first, to emulate The Ravens with their superlative bass lead singer, Jimmy Ricks, who just happened to be one of the hottest acts in all of black America and the first true rock vocal group who were scoring national hits with regularity.

When Otis got a deal with local Exclusive Records to cut sides in the spring of 1949 he brought this newly formed group with him, dubbing them The Four Bluebirds, which resulted in one single, My Baby Done Told Me.

It went nowhere.

But that in turn gave the group the belief they might have something if they continued working together and they promptly looked elsewhere for another recording opportunity and got one rather quickly when Aladdin Records gave them a one-shot deal which resulted in the decent Don’t Like The Way You’re Doing backed with Come Back Baby, two obvious Ravens pastiches which is still where their best bet seemed to lay for them making waves on record.

Meanwhile they still were working at the Barrelhouse Club and in the fall of 1949 Savoy Records’s West Coast liaison Ralph Bass came calling. A year earlier Bass had already grabbed McNeely and Otis’s stalwart pianist Dee Williams to cut their debut sides for the label. They promptly lost Big Jay after two hits and they never fully exploited Williams’s vast potential, but not one to be denied a plum opportunity when he saw it Bass decided to try and score a coup by getting the entire Johnny Otis Revue under contract, thereby giving the label multiple acts to draw from and fill out their dwindling roster of rock acts.

So in late November he inked them all to deals and the first day of December The Robins cut their initial sides for Savoy, among them If It’s So Baby which would make them, shortlived though it may have been, verifiable stars.

You Better Be On Your Way
Here’s where we have to start chipping away at the reputation of a true legend, someone who did as much as any one, certainly any white man ever, to promote and popularize black music. Johnny Otis, though a renaissance man in many regards with a skill set that was as widespread as anyone in music, was also a hustler, albeit far less crude than many you’ll find soiling the industry, something The Robins found out firsthand the night they were all signed to Savoy.

The label’s tightfisted owner Herman Lubinsky had come to California to get their names on the contract himself and according to esteemed researcher/writer Marv Goldberg, ol’ Herm gave Otis twenty bucks to buy The Robins drinks, a fairly cheap goodwill gesture on Lubinsky’s part. But Otis in turned tried to keep 18 of it for himself without telling the group when he slipped them just two bucks, something which Nunn found out about only after Herman mentioned it to him seeking credit for the handout. That resulted in a comedic chase down the street, The Robins going after Otis for stealing their money, as Johnny was chasing after Lubinsky for informing the Robins that he’d given them the twenty dollars in the first place.

Funny though it may seem, it also sowed the seeds for a rapid breakup caused by Otis’s perfidy as two months later, as January turned to February and If It’s So Baby was one of the hottest rock songs in America, Johnny fired the group from the national tour Otis would be leading that was about to get underway simply because The Robins had the audacity to object to the fact that Johnny was ripping them off financially for the tour… if not the record itself.

Not to spoil a few years worth of reviews when it comes to these figures but The Robins and Otis would mend fences in the future, even work together again down the road, but the damage was done for both of their careers. The Robins became well-traveled vagabonds, appearing on a half dozen labels without a consistent musical vision and backing that Otis could’ve provided before finally hooking up with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who refined their act for their best records and biggest hit in the mid-1950’s.

Meanwhile Otis was irreparably harmed as well, despite having the best year of any rock act in 1950, because he deprived himself of a versatile first rate vocal group to work with just as the vocal group boom was about to happen in the early 1950’s. It’s notable that Otis, though a fixture in rock into the 1960’s, never managed to make much headway in doo wop, something that almost certainly would’ve been averted had he not tried to skim a few measly bucks from The Robins at every turn when starting out.

The lesson in all this is simple, kids: Keep what you earn, let others do the same and above all keep your damn hands out each others pockets because it’ll always cost you in the long run.


Baby It’s All On You
All of which brings us to… the record itself upon which this whole convoluted tale rests.

Any thought that such a dramatic build up wouldn’t be worth the time or trouble is eradicated once you hear Devonia Williams’s subtly slinky piano leading into the swelling voices of The Robins who promptly open the door to the Nineteen Fifties.

”I mayyyyy beee wrong” the group slyly croons as Nunn responds in his most stentorian tone, ”May be wrong, bay-bee”, beginning the masterful trade off between the two. The former A-Sharp Trio, Ty Terrell and brothers Billy and Roy Richards, are harmonizing in a far more soulful fashion than we’ve heard out of the scant few vocal groups on the scene to date, and the bass of Bobby Nunn, imitative though it might be of Jimmy Ricks, adds a much needed flair to the proceedings.

It’s the sound the recent past being re-imagined for a new tomorrow as The Ravens more refined style is getting a shakedown by a pack of more aggressive birds in the park. The polished crooning suitable for pop consumption the other Ravens frequently used is replaced with a leering tone delivered by The Robins, almost taunting the object of the song as they sing ”Baby it’s all on youuuuuuuuu”.

Nunn obviously can’t match Ricks, either vocally or in terms of nuance, so instead he distances himself ever so much by emphasizing the sneering undertones of the lyrics in telling this girl off. Maybe Ricky would’ve done the same thing if given the opportunity, I wouldn’t put it past him, but the difference was The Ravens weren’t delivering songs with this much bite.

Though If It’s So Baby leaves the particulars of this spat at the door, the breakup was obviously a bitter one from the guy’s point of view and he, or they in this case, aren’t taking the high road. The barbs might not be vicious in what they say but they’re sharp in the way they deliver them as Nunn’s voice rises as he spits out the demand, “Get out, baby, find yourself somebody else!”.

Just in case you thought he was bluffing, trying to get her to break down and admit her transgressions with a plea to reconsider and take her back, the others put the kibosh on that by chiming in that this time – which alludes to previous offenses – they hope she stays the hell away. Yet if nasty sentiments can be delivered in warmly resonant and mesmerizing tones then this is surely it because they sound absolutely sterling throughout.


If It’s Really So…
What makes the breakup such a tragedy – not the guys and this girl, but rather the guys and Johnny Otis’s crew – is how the music bolsters this attitude rather than tries to scale it back or downplay it altogether.

Pete Lewis gets the solo here on guitar, slow paced but menacing, as if he’s had enough of this girl’s lies and is pacing the floor behind his buddies waiting for her to try and pull another excuse out regarding her deceptive practices. Pete’s simmering slow burn virtually ensures that she’s going to keep her mouth shut rather than try and feign ignorance over whatever Lothario just called to see if she was alone yet so he could come over. You get the idea that he’s hoping that this other guy didn’t realize the apartment was still crawling with her boyfriend’s crew who are ready to lay some wood down on his sneaky ass if he dares shows his face there.

There’s a good stop-time section that raises the drama accordingly, but wisely Otis doesn’t try and force any ill-fitting musical interludes into the breach like a saxophone – or any horns for that matter – and even keeps Williams’s role to just handling the intro. It’s a sparse sound but an appropriate one and it has the effect of making sure the tension never dissipates, allowing each part to play off the others without distracting from them, making what is really a difficult balancing act to pull off seem effortless.

If It’s So Baby is a perfect record in every way, the group, who wrote it themselves, get all in of the relevant information with a minimum of words realizing it was just as important to focus on establishing the mood which their vocals carried off with aplomb, while the music backing them adds all the right touches without making so much as a single wrong step. Everybody was on the same page from start to finish here and the possibilities of what they all might contribute to the genre together in the future seemed truly limitless.

Instead this – and a handful of other songs cut at this same time – would be all we’d get from them, providing us with just a tantalizing glimpse of what rock fans had to do without once the promising union dissolved before it got far off the ground.

Sometimes – most times in fact – it’s best for people to take a step back and look at the big picture, to put their egos and personal aspirations aside long enough to see what was best for themselves going forward.

We sure as hell aren’t going to blame The Robins here who took a moral stand to defend their rights yet I’m sure even they would look back and wonder what might’ve happened if before it came to this they shoved Johnny’s drumsticks up his nostrils and told him that it was in his best interest, as well as theirs, to just respect each other’s turf which would wind up lining BOTH of their pockets and let us – the rock fans at the time and in the future – get a lot more out of their partnership than one great record and a helluva lot of “What Ifs”.


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