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MODERN 20-550; DECEMBER, 1947

 
 

 

The intersection of rock ballads and pure pop fare at the beginning of rock’s ascent was a crowded and confusing one, with little in the way of street signs or helpful traffic cops to steer you in the right direction. Finding your way down the right thoroughfare was often left up to the artists themselves, armed with little more than an outdated map and a broken compass. Consequently many an artist got lost trying to navigate the busy crosstown traffic and wound up wandering down a side road or dead end alley never to be heard from again.

 

Memories That Never Die
The Scamps had formed a little too soon for their own good when it came to having a leg up as rock ‘n’ roll emerged. The origins of the group dated back to their time in the Army in the late 1930’s and they reformed in 1946 after the war with the addition of a new member, a music major who was still in college and who hoped to make a career out of performing.

They were a skilled group, playing their own instruments as well as dancing and with the talented Earl Robinson on lead they had done a good job on their debut from the previous January, “Don’t Cry Baby”, showing the emotional qualities that would come to define rock ballads even while being hampered by the somewhat more staid instrumental arrangement that was standard for the era. Since the group themselves played the instruments as well they can’t very well pass the blame on this. But then again we can’t expect someone to be able to look into the future and predict what changes will occur throughout music around the bend. Suffice it to say their first side was at least cautiously pointing in the right direction and so now, almost a year later when the new sounds were emerging, their navigational choices would be crucial in determining their fates.

Sadly, they got lost on the way.

 

You Haunt Me With Reverie Of Days Gone By
For their fourth release – like their debut all covers of recent hits or familiar older songs – they offer up another ballad, and yet another warmed over song already made famous by others. The flip (“Chicka Biddie Boogie”) at least tried to be a bit more contemporary in theory but was far too contrived to be effective and frankly actually sounds even more dated, as the differences between yesterday and tomorrow were always far more apparent on uptempo material. Here though, on Solitude, a ballad originating with Duke Ellington and recently a strong seller by Billie Holiday which is surely why The Scamps cut this now, they seemed to hedge their bets, keeping their presentation respectable to the older gentry while serving up just enough soulful yearning to hint at the way in which rock music would effectively deliver romantic longing in the future.

It opens strong, offering up its best attributes in the dramatic, if overly long, group vocal intro. The tight harmony is then joined rather unexpectedly by a saxophone that straddles the line between jazzy cool and emotional grit and your hopes start to rise. Almost thirty seconds in Earl Robinson takes over, his vocals at times straining to break free and you can definitely hear hints of what would go on to become the dominant early doo-wop sound in how he approaches this.

As he starts to ramp it up a bit you hold your breath, waiting to see if he’ll fully plunge into the emotional side of it, perhaps even shedding his composure and singing the lament as a form of emotional catharsis. You sense he has it in him and a few times he comes close to wailing with more unrestrained passion, but we quickly learn he hasn’t got a chance. The era they all came of age in just a few years earlier and the musical realities they were accustomed to frowned upon such gaudy sensationalistic displays, treating them as cheap novelties that few self-respecting acts would stoop to. Even if Robinson himself is willing to try the others are not, weighing him down with their tepid and unimaginative backing, undercutting his attempts to build to a more fevered pitch at every turn.

Throughout the majority of the song the piano is far too prominent, too restrained… too tinkly for lack of a better adjective. It’s supper club accompaniment, bland by its very conception, and it shrouds the entire record in an all-too polite dreamy haze. Oddly enough group member Rudy Massingale may have played both the sax and piano and while the former looks forward the latter stops in its tracks, turns abruptly around and heads back into the shelter of the past.

Robinson for his part seems unsure of how to forcefully steer it into more earthy terrain, the few times he goes off road to try for something more passionate he takes his foot off the gas, getting stuck in the mud until he’s forced once again to get back on the safer well-worn path trod by countless other sedate pop singing groups.
 

 
This is the curse of a good many artists who find themselves squarely in the midst of a musical revolution they neither instigated nor probably even saw coming. As skillful professionals they were certainly adaptable to changing trends but would almost always be three or four steps behind those trends, unsure of its staying power, unconvinced of its musical merit, or simply unwilling to commit to it wholeheartedly. When anyone comes of age under one set of ground rules they learn to accept that as the standard from which to base everything. When suddenly the landscape changes rapidly around them there’s always a tendency to cling to the crumbling monuments from the world they knew and felt comfortable in rather than intrepidly set out and explore the new uncharted terrain.

Robinson’s brief flashes of inspiration thus aren’t enough to get us very far. A year or two earlier the same performance might’ve been seen as daring, even cutting edge, at the forefront of the changing times, but now, once those changes have already gotten underway and were actually much farther along by this point, this can’t help but seem archaic by comparison.
 

I Sit And I Stare
So here we are, back on the busy intersection of musical eras. Cars zoom by incessantly, the steady hum of constant movement growing louder. On the other side of the street is the future. The more adventurish make a break for it, darting through traffic recklessly, needing to reach the other side, for that’s where they know their opportunity lies. Not all will make it across, many will be hit by the whizzing traffic, as roadkill litters the street. But sometimes that’s the risk you have to take in order to make it.

It was a risk The Scamps were unwilling to take, as instead they stand expectantly on the sidewalk, craning their necks out, looking for a break in the flow for which to head across. At times they seem to take an apprehensive step off the curb but quickly pull back as the next taxi or delivery truck roars by, horns blaring, obscenities hurled in their general direction. Unlike some others they actually take heed of the blinking Caution signs. Their hearts are not quite up for the harrowing journey.

The promise of glory rumored to exist on the opposite side of the street can’t lure them from the security of the sidewalk they’re standing on and so they patiently wait for the light to change so they can cross safely. By the time it does – and yes, after spending 1948 without a recording contract The Scamps do eventually make it to the other side, changing their name to The Five Scamps while revving up their deliveries quite a bit – it’ll be almost too late. By then they’ll simply be one of many caught up in the crowds, jostling among the other pedestrians for a spot of their own, one they’ll never quite secure.

Maybe that will wind up being the overriding lesson learned here on Spontaneous Lunacy. Culture, society, music… life itself… changes rapidly. In 1947 radio was just starting to give way to television. Black and white films would soon make way for more and more in color. What was long segregated now was facing growing demands to be integrated. The established values are being upended by those seeking new freedoms. The old are continually getting replaced by the young. Time doesn’t stand still for long and it never goes backwards. The musical artists that intuitively understand this and don’t wait for the light to change but instead made a mad dash to be first on the other side are the ones who history rewards.

The ones who don’t will have a long, albeit relatively safe, journey into obscurity and thus plenty of time to look back with a measure of regret over their timid choices.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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