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LEE 202; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Lee Records had chosen for their label’s colors black with gray lettering, but perhaps gray with black highlights would’ve been more appropriate.

Though The Shadows, the company’s primary artists, were black, the music they performed fell into the gray area between genres. They kept one foot firmly in the rock world which is what gave them their best chance of standing out, but since they’d started out as a club act singing pop styles that background inevitably shaped many of their musical choices and with rock’s membership becoming ever more stringent they would always struggle to keep up with the current trends.

So for a record whose title adds yet another color to the mix, blue, though it has nothing whatsoever to DO with the blues, let’s call this release Shades Of Gray as we try and pick through their choices and see where they chose right and where they chose wrong in a world that was no longer so cut and dried… or black and white as it were.
 

 

To Thrill To All Your Charms
The first time we met The Shadows in December 1949 we couldn’t have been more surprised by the results. Though we recounted their split personnel – three older singers with a long track record trying to achieve pop success who then recruited a younger lead who helped them court rock interest – we still were caught off guard that they managed to balance the two divergent styles so well on I’ve Been A Fool.

Pop-slanted though it may have seemed in comparison to some of the more “authentic” rock vocal records of the previous year, this was still a stellar effort wherein lead singer Scott King managed to inject a strong emotional undercurrent that pulled the others and their more mannered approach into his realm with their breathy harmonies, all of which was helped enormously by a haunting sax that further removed the pop-stain from its fabric.

But of course we know that oftentimes through the years we’ll wind up seeing otherwise incongruous acts catch lightning in a bottle and then be unable to come close to doing so again. Truthfully that’s what we expect here as well… we’d be naïve not to expect that outcome in fact.

Yet that doesn’t mean we won’t be receptive to what they try… every artist appearing on these pages are given the benefit of the doubt going in and it’s up to them to convince us of their authenticity. But while The Shadows manage to at least show glimpses of their potential to become entrenched as a rock group with I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Blue they also show why our continued skepticism, even after that stellar debut became a legitimate hit, was well founded.
 

My Head Going Round In A Whirl
As with so many vocal groups in history it’s the lead singer where the majority of the responsibility lays and in the case of The Shadows it’s something they can be thankful for because Scott King again provides them with their ticket to the rock ‘n’ roll dance with another fairly solid turn at the microphone.

That doesn’t mean his choices are all flawless by any means. I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Blue is a much more uneven performance than what we’d like to see, even if he doesn’t veer wildly between two approaches that are seemingly incompatible with one another.

At its worst there are passages where his pop leanings become all to apparent – the careful enunciation and rounding of the vowels, his easing back on some of the more urgent emotions and, worst of all, his leaning heavily on the silliness of the lyrics about the “grandfather clock” in the bridge – and sure enough those choices can’t help but have you questioning his commitment to rock aesthetics.

But just as you’re ready to toss the baby out with the bathwater here he comes at other junctures with renewed vigor, his voice soaring, his emotions laid bare, his desperation apparent, and you forgive those earlier transgressions… at least until he reverts back to them the next line and promptly dashes your hopes that he’ll be able to overcome his worst instincts and pull this record out of the fire.

That’s what makes those acts who are (pardon the pun) “living in the shadows” between genres so endlessly frustrating to deal with. They give us just enough of what we crave to want to hear more but inevitably when we DO hear more we wish we didn’t because they can’t shake loose of those older habits, almost as if they don’t fully trust in the new sounds even as they remain aware those new sounds are what give them their viability in this era.
 

Make Me Sigh, Make Me Cry
If Scott King – the most youthful of the group – is uncertain about which direction to go then surely the others, a full decade older, are probably not going to help matters much so we find ourselves rooting for their roles to be downplayed here.

For much of this performance that’s indeed the case. They add some wordless distant harmonies behind King’s lead, some humming in the transitions and only a few sung lines in unison with King on that aforementioned bridge which is the weakest point of I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Blue, but the barely audible melodic bed they spend much of their time serving up DOES sound fairly nice… not cutting edge in any conceivable way but certainly not off-putting either.

So with them sort of relegated to the sidelines altogether we look to the song’s arrangement in the hopes that the backing musicians will somehow lift this up and allow us to feel less conflicted about showing an interest in this group and their still-unlikely chances of making a go of it in rock.

On their best side the saxophone was almost a co-lead voice alongside King, providing all of the subtle emotional shadings required to really sell the sentiments regardless of what the other voices were contributing. The flip side of that, Nobody Knows, while not as good of a song or performance, added piano and guitar to try and give it a different feel, so they seemed to have at least some awareness of how to make each track distinctive behind the voices.

But here where it becomes even more necessary since this is the weakest material they’ve had to work with they manage to downplay both of those things to the song’s detriment. Howard Biggs’ piano is only keeping time, prancing along without much energy or distinctiveness, and though the horn is given the crucial task of answering King’s lead it’s kept well in the background – to accentuate the haunting nature probably – but that only makes it sound remote and fleeting.

As a result you never get a sense you’re listening to a complete record. It almost seems like a well-rehearsed run-through. They all sound okay, we can’t criticize them for hitting the wrong notes or missing their entrances, if nothing else it’s certainly a professional appearing session from the vocalists on down, but then again there’s absolutely nothing about it to make you want to pay much attention.

Basically it’s a sleepy non-essential record, pleasant at best but utterly inconsequential.
 

If It’s Wrong To Do The Things I Do
The gray areas on the edge of rock are always going to be at risk of being forgotten in any style. The jazz-based acts peeking over the edge of the rock territory are never going to connect in rock if they keep their feet on the other side of the fence, yet by leaning over it they’re also going to be more likely to get dismissed by jazz fans. The blues artists who flirt with a saucy rocker on the corner are going to be razzed by their compatriots in blues-land for letting one of these younger hussies catch their eye and we know few rock gals are going to be willing to give a weary bluesman a tumble even if they do show interest in making the leap.

Likewise groups like The Shadows – though they did in fact win us over wholeheartedly the first time around – are going to increasingly find it hard to keep our attention if they quickly give back those gains the next time around and have us start to second guess our gullibility for falling for their initial masquerade in days gone by.

Maybe because it had been the first time out for them as a recording outfit we were able to be so easily swayed, but now when they need to build upon that good will with I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Blue they promptly fall back and have us reluctant to give them another chance in the future.

If they’d rather be pop than rock that’s certainly their choice to make but we’d rather be safe than sorry and leave none of us blue by hanging out for too long the gray area between genres where nobody is apt to be satisfied musically, nor is anyone plying their trade in that nether region of indifference likely to be remembered very long.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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