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APOLLO 1159; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

Sometimes in music you can have all the talent in the world and none of the success to go with it.

A lack of commercial success may be somewhat understandable, as the reaction to your work is largely out of your hands, but a lack of aesthetic success is a different story. There it’s your own choices, as well as your own background and experience, that will shape the results and if any of them are a little bit off, misjudged or undersold, then the failure to connect with an audience you were aiming for suddenly makes a whole lot more sense.
 

 

Where Is My Love To Be Found
Though they had a good name for a rock group – which not so coincidentally was because the members were brothers with the surname Strider – they were only tangentially related to rock.

Vocal group historian Marv Goldberg called them a “transitional group”, a term we’ve used around here from time to time which describes the acts and musical styles with one foot in the past and the other treading lightly in the present, yet unsure of whether to take that next step into the future.

The Striders never did. Like many before them who faced this same decision their roots in the previous era were a little too deep for them to intuitively understand the changing landscape and be confident enough about those changes to pursue it wholeheartedly.

The oldest of the Strider kids, James, their bass singer, was already thirty years old in 1950 and while the youngest, Eugene, their lead, was only just turning 23 that year, he and middle brother Charles had already been around the world during the war as teenagers as part of the Wings Over Jordan Choir, so it wasn’t as if they’d had their musical education formed by listening to rock vocal groups like The Ravens and Orioles the last few years… these guys already had an identity of their own by the time rock came into being in 1947.

Their distance from rock, both musically and culturally, is evident in that in 1948 they signed with major label Capitol Records, for whom they cut a lot of sides but only one single was released – a very poppish version of bluesman Lonnie Johnson’s Pleasin You, albeit with the slightest hint of doo-wop flavored backing. The flip is a rather by-the-numbers take on Somebody Stole My Rose Colored Glasses which is nicely sung, showcasing good voices and a nice blend, but it has no stylistic character, certainly not rock in any way, but it even falls short as a pop number because it vacillates between different approaches too much.

Yet this was the late 1940’s remember and a crisp sounding pop-leaning, clean cut black vocal group had some appeal still and so they wound up making TV appearances and some short films as television was new itself and in need of material to fill the airwaves. (These shorts are on YouTube and are great to see just for the sheer rarity of clear video of non-famous black groups singing at the time… in particular check them out doing the spiritual High, Wide And Low).

Surely this kind of opportunity means they’d never venture into anything as sundry as rock ‘n’ roll… right?

Wrong… sort of.
 

The Breeze Is Soft And Light
The times were changing and even if they weren’t prone to head in that direction on their own that didn’t mean record labels weren’t seeking artists who could be persuaded to give rock ‘n’ roll a try and Apollo Records, who’d been a little slow on the uptick when rock first kicked off, had recently been making a greater effort to join the party and signed The Striders to a contract in late 1949.

It took six months before they got their first release though with Cool Saturday Night a title which seemed tailor made for rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately the group themselves were not quite tailor made for it although they give it a good shot at times nonetheless, in the end their own uncertainty as to rock’s parameters hold them back.

Just as there are far different connotations for various times of a Saturday night (seven PM is hardly the same as 11:45), there are different approaches to the rock vocal group technique and The Striders choose a relatively tame one, which is hardly surprising given their background.

Yet it’s not all bad, in fact some of it is quite lovely starting off with an interesting stand-alone bass pattern by James before the others fall in faintly behind him as Eugene steps to the forefront to try and pull things together.

He’s not altogether successful. Make no mistake about it, he’s got a nice light feathery tone, a pleasant voice by any criteria, but that’s also part of the problem. “Pleasant” is not exactly what this song really needs in order to put across the story he’s telling.

Because he’s so emotionally removed from the deeper sentiments Eugene turns this into a detached daydream… a seventh grader sitting in class staring into space thinking about the cute girl from his homeroom while the teacher drones on… wishing he had the nerve to talk to her but still pretty content just to occasionally walk past her close enough to smell her hair. In other words he’s wistfully longing for something, not intensely burning for it, and that as much as anything is what keeps it from being altogether successful in rock.

If you’re skeptical of that description just try singing these same lines using a far more emotional tone of voice than Eugene does. Forget about the fact you can’t really sing, just sing it as if you really MEANT it, as if your happiness depended on convincing this girl that you are the right one for her.

Whether or not you understand the technical aspects of singing you’d be able to FEEL the difference in your throat. The strain on your vocal chords, the added resonance in your voice, the different breathing techniques required when you’re reaching for that kind of payoff are all completely absent in Eugene’s reading of this.

He sounds nice for sure, but not desperate… floating on its surface rather than diving into its depths and that’s the reason why this girl will never even notice he’s singing these words to her specifically, they’ll just drift past her without landing in her consciousness.
 


 

It’s Wasted On Me
Even had Eugene Strider put more of his soul in his performance… even had he torn the sentiments from his still-beating heart leaving a gaping hole in his chest as evidence of his longing for her… it probably would’ve fallen short anyway because the words themselves just don’t convince you of his desire. The lines convey a vague impression rather than a distinct image and so it holds no weight.

There are fleeting moments when Cool Saturday Night hints at a deeper yearning for this girl but remains reluctant to put it into words and since Strider won’t let his voice suggest what the lyrics refuse to admit, that leaves this without as much impact as a song like this demands. It’s like he’s sending her a postcard to let her know he’s thinking of her but not writing a letter pouring out his heart to her and so if you were the girl receiving this you’d be glad he sent it but unless it had a nice picture on the front you wouldn’t bother saving it.

The other Striders, and non-brother Ernest Griffin who was the fourth member of the group, don’t do much to stand out even if they also don’t do anything to detract from what you’re hearing. James’s slow clip-clopping bass-vocal is still the most notable thing about the record and even though it never sounds tedious it also never changes which allows you to stop paying much attention to him after awhile. The others are filling in the blend with some warm harmonies but hardly are adding much to catch your ear, understated to the point of being overlooked.

Instrumentally… well, there ARE instruments here, we’ll say that much, but beyond just naming them we couldn’t possibly offer anything else to describe how they’re playing because they too are so discreet that you have to listen a half dozen times to isolate each one. The guitar is probably the most distinctive but that’s as much because the strings cut through the haze more clearly than the piano or bass.
 

Lonely Without You
In spite of the sometimes underwhelming choices being made it’s hard to say any of the arrangement is poorly done and for the mood they’re aiming for it’s pretty successful at wrapping this all in lace and brightly colored tissue paper, so on that level Cool Saturday Night isn’t a failure by any means and I actually DO like it in a lot of ways. It’s a good performance of a really pretty song with some doo-wop touches that connect it to rock in ways that are admirable for a bunch of guys who came from another setting entirely.

But as enchanting as it may be at times the whole production gives off the impression that they didn’t want to truly commit to the sentiments, fearful of revealing too much of themselves – a definite pop music hang-up – and so if you’re a devoted rocker whose Saturday nights are generally a lot more lively than this, who doesn’t shy away from expressing their passions and expect the music they dig to do the same, this runs the risk of being something you’ll barely notice.

That being said, if you’re in the right frame of mind – maybe sad and alone on a Saturday night yourself – you may still be moved enough by the gentle grace of the vocals to find it far better than it appears in the harsh glare of the day.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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