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LEE 200; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Each era in rock has its dominant sound. It may not even be the most widespread or commercially successful style of rock at that time but its image becomes emblematic of that time period and for many it remains the open door providing the gateway into the past.

The 1950’s have a lot of enduring images – the swiveling hips of Elvis Presley, the rolling boogies and warm creole vocals of Fats Domino, the sight and sound of Little Richard screaming in perfect pitch underneath a towering pompadour and mascara, the duck-walking Chuck Berry, the intertwining country-tinged harmonies of The Everly Brothers – but the most widespread sound of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll in memory and thus the backdrop to a thousand and one stereotyped images seen in movies and on TV, is that of vocal harmony.

As we know that sound began, like rock itself, in 1947 but only now, two years and a couple months later, was it really starting to gain traction beyond one or two big name groups.
 

 

I Never Knew What Love Would Do
The Shadows were hardly a big name group even though this, their debut record, would be a Top Ten hit, something which was still a rarity in the field as the decade came to a close. Far more noteworthy than simply putting the group itself on the map, however briefly, the record’s success was a sign of bigger things to come for the style as a whole.

By the time the floodgates opened and the sound became ubiquitous on the landscape The Shadows themselves were finished, disappearing as it were into the shadows, a relic from a not so distant past as the music they helped to spawn quickly passed them by. Yet the transition from that first era to the second in vocal harmony circles in rock, and the transition from the 1940’s into the 1950’s which mirrored it, couldn’t have been done as smoothly without them. Though they were on the recording scene for a little over five years – and with a long sabbatical in the midst of that – they had an interesting road just to get to the starting gate in the first place, one which began in the days before rock ‘n’ roll and in a style far removed from it, something which inevitably would help to precipitate their commercial downturn once the rock sounds advanced beyond what they were used to.

…So the background, in brief terms, is this: Three of the four members sang as The Melody Kings in New Haven Connecticut in the mid-1940’s and got a huge break in 1946 when they were enlisted to replace The Jubilaires on a national tour with Andy Kirk just after the Jubilaires had scored a legitimate hit record of their own. Since that group was contracted to appear on radio five days a week in New York they were unable to travel and missed out on the gig that they hoped might turn them into national stars.

The Melody Kings, their members already in their thirties but without a recording contract, therefore stepped in – how they were found I don’t know – and they joined with one of the authentic Jubilaires who was allowed to go on the road and lead them, and they did the tour instead, masquerading as the group who’d sung the hit record. When the tour ended so did The Melody Kings prospects since they were no longer needed.

Not wanting to call it quits after such a heady experience they found a 19 year old named Scott King to step in as their lead singer, something which enabled them to have a connection to the up and coming music that was just around the bend. They still sang pop-styled arrangements, following the footsteps of the big name black vocal groups of the day, The Ink Spots, Mills Brothers, Delta Rhythm Boys, et. all, but as the rock era began the types of vocal groups hitting the charts began to move away from that more mannered traditional approach.

The Ravens as we know kicked off this novel trend but seeing as how they had the most superlative bass voice ever heard in Jimmy Ricks fronting them they weren’t easily emulated. But then the next summer along came The Orioles with tenor lead Sonny Til which proved to be more of an achievable goal for others to imitate and with that the wheels of a musical revolution were set into motion.

In spite of the promise of stardom that these groups had achieved it still took awhile for others to emerge. After all a group was something that had to be created over time, for unlike a solo artist who can just walk in off the street by themselves and be ready to go, groups need find the right members to gel, then need to become cohesive, learning what parts for each song they’ll be singing and in the process figuring out how to best utilize each voice and determine what types of material they’re best suited for and then, conceivably, how to blend their voices in with a musical backing that will showcase their skills without clashing or being overwhelmed.

The Melody Kings however had the experience to do just that, what they needed was a record label. What they got was a label and a new name, both courtesy of their manager.
 

I Opened Wide My Heart To Let You In
These start-up vanity labels were fairly common back then and the common fate of them was to die a quick death with few sales to show for it. But as we’ve already stated the newly named Shadows – taken from a line in one of the songs they sung – got them an actual hit right out of the gate.

This one.

But oftentimes in the independent record biz that was as much of a curse as it was a blessing since a hit meant the company had to keep printing records to send to eager and impatient distributors, yet the distributors weren’t so eager to pay for them once they got their hands on the goods. Whereas the printers required money up front to get them made, distributors got their shipments on credit and weren’t always rushing to pay those debts off until the label came up with a second hit they could conceivably threaten to withhold unless past due bills were sent pronto.

So that’s the run-down leading up to this and now the question was which direction would The Shadows head in? The sounds of the recent past which they were presumably more comfortable with, or the sounds of today and tomorrow which were the songs eliciting the most interest.

In a way they split the difference, but in the case of I’ve Been A Fool the compromise didn’t matter all that much because they sound terrific.

What really sets this apart from other vocal group records to date, as well as your own wary expectations heading in perhaps, is how subtle everything is. They’re content to make most of their points discreetly rather than call attention to them and so the overall vibe of the record has a much more subdued aura to it, something that washes over you rather than hits you between the eyes.

The focal point is Scott King and it’d be hard to find someone more suited to this overall approach than him. A tenor with a crystalline voice strongly reminiscent of Andrew Tibbs, consciously so I’d venture to say, both in his vocal tone and his inflections, he’s a revelation. Like Tibbs he employs a breathy halting delivery, rising in power at times to ratchet up the drama and the tension before dropping to a whisper, almost so his words seem suggested rather than sung. You remain fixated on each inflection, trying to pick up on every nuance and emotional undercurrent as he bares his soul.

It’s hard to imagine singers in the pop vocal group idiom of the previous era being so uninhibited in revealing themselves this way. That of course is what set rock ‘n’ roll apart from pop music right out of the gate, as this wave of young singers in rock didn’t simply ignore the general edict of reining in your emotions when singing, they obliterated it.

Because of this the others – the older singers in the group we should remind you – are somewhat incidental at first, unless that’s because you’re so riveted by King that you forget to listen for them. But they’re there, albeit remaining in the background, shading his words with soft harmonies, light and airy but well back in the mix.

Not surprisingly there’s a little bit of their pop-leaning background apparent here but the perception feels different thanks to King’s more dramatic lead. Instead of being seen as acting complicit in keeping a damper on the song’s power, the emphasis of King’s unshackled majestic voice out in front makes the others seem as if they’re providing something of an emotional grounding. The effect is like that of a hot air balloon, letting King enjoy the flight while they keep their hands on the controls to keep the propane from heating it so much that he soars off into the stratosphere.
 

Someday You’ll Find A Love Like Mine
As will be the case throughout rock history the more celebrated extremes on the other end of the spectrum – the louder, more aggressive, rebellious and demonstrative side of rock – often dictate the terms with which the genre itself operates under and that in turn frequently threatens to diminish the importance of songs of quiet reflection which run counter to that dominant image.

As a result of that there’s always a lot riding on these types of songs at each juncture of rock’s journey because if they lean too far backwards – into the pop realm in this case – or are just generally too cautious and timid, or even too self-conscious about their presentation, it tends to call into question the legitimacy of it being a major part of rock ‘n’ roll.

The Shadows don’t fall prey to this thinking, which is frankly amazing considering their own vague pop-rooted background and their utter lack of experience in the studio. It’s even more notable because it’s not the content of the record which enables them to keep this on course, since I’ve Been A Fool is pretty basic in its story, re: Guy waxing poetic over a girl whom we never get to know.

What sells it is their conviction. You believe they are sincere in these sentiments because they show absolutely no signs of conflict in expressing them publicly. Each word seems to come from the heart and so you feel his urgency at every turn. When his voice swells it does so with emotional authenticity, when he tones it down just as suddenly it never comes across as contrived.

Helping immeasurably is the minimal, but deft, backing of the musicians, most crucially the saxophone which acts as the primary responsorial voice to King, even more so than the other singers.

Like the voices themselves the horn is used with discretion and expert judgment, offering a tonal backdrop for the singing for most of it, rising with cool self-assurance at times but largely laying back and just adding to the haunting aura of it all. When it DOES step up it’s not with an ostentatious display as you might expect, simply to off-set the mordant singing, but rather it delivers a melodically inventive retort to something that had just been uttered. These are short interludes, one bar at the most, but vital in our attention momentarily to allow us to be drawn back into the next vocal line rather than waiting for it expectantly.

This “depth of vision” approach, or a changing of the sight-lines, guarantees you notice each standout moment because the same tactic isn’t constantly being used until they start piling up on one another. Instead we look from side to side, adjusting our focus as something slightly different comes into view before it disappears.

The same is true with King who drops in moments of sheer vocal delight, most notably his dramatic pause between the words “to let” and the line’s conclusion, “you in”, which works so well because earlier he’d hesitated in similar, but far more brief, fashion on other lines. Now, just when you expect him to do the same he leaves you momentarily hanging before resolving the thought, leaving you breathless.
 

It’s Hard To Find…
But it’s not hard to see how a record so well sung and guilelessly vulnerable was a hit, even from an unknown group on a tiny label with a presumably shaky distribution network. What’s not surprising is the first rock vocal group, the mighty Ravens, quickly sought to cover this and crowd The Shadows out of the market altogether, just as they’d tried to do when The Orioles first came along by covering their first record as well.

It didn’t work then and – spoiler alert – it didn’t work now either, though we’ll get to The Ravens take on this when it’s released in January. But at risk for letting the cat out of the bag prematurely The Shadows were competing with nobody here but themselves. Though their overall stylistic subgenre of rock would indeed be the one they’d have to share with those Ravens, Orioles and other bird groups like The Robins who were soon taking flight commercially, the aesthetic qualities The Shadows brought to the table were different enough to set them apart. You might cut the same song but you couldn’t easily replicate their approach, so delicate and ethereal that it was at risk for vanishing into oblivion like a shadow once the sun rises.

I’ve Been A Fool unquestionably sets a high bar for the vocal group realm going forward, but more importantly than just raising the bet at the table for other acts, this opened up the game for more varied approaches. Whereas The Ravens had skewed too close to pop when they let Maithe Marshall handle the similarly high tenor leads that Scott King displays here, The Shadows keep the emotions at the forefront rather than disguise them and that makes a world of difference.

Its tranquil feel might not be as gripping for those disinclined to appreciate the dreamier moments found in musical reverie, but I don’t know if even the most hardhearted cynic or head-banging adrenaline junkie in rock would dare say this record is anything but spellbinding.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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