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KING 4533; MAY 1952

 

 

The number of legitimate pop standards that have had the definitive rendition turned in by a rock act are somewhat few and far between all things considered, simply because rock ‘n’ roll increasingly avoided recording pop classics as time went on.

They do exist though, particularly in the genre’s first fifteen years, and the thing about them is that unlike songs which remained firmly within pop music’s parameters, the rock acts typically reinvented them, whether it was re-shaping the vocal delivery, adding instrumental touches not found elsewhere or completely overhauling the arrangement.

When this happens, especially if you’re not much of a traditional pop fan to begin with, it tends to make all of the more typical approaches of that song sound completely and utterly wrong… even if the version in question came out by another rock act years before.
 

 

A Crowded Avenue
The entire premise of this site is to chronologically retrace rock ‘n’ roll’s path from the beginning, taking it one step – and one release – at a time, meaning we try not to think about, or even acknowledge, what is to happen down the road until we get to it.

After all, someone buying this record in 1952 had no way of knowing what would become of the song in another artist’s hands in the future and so they’d be judging it strictly against the competing rock releases at the time using the accepted stylistic evaluations of the day at hand.

But the fact you’re reading this on the internet on a computer or on your smartphone tells you that it’s NOT 1952 because that technology didn’t exist then and so it’s inevitable that you’re at least aware of the defining version of this song that would come along in 1959… a record that completely transformed the composition that had already been recorded by fifty or so artists since its debut in 1934 by Dick Powell.

Chances are nobody reading this and seeing the title I Only Have Eyes For You is thinking of any of the others who cut this. They aren’t recalling Ben Selvin who had the biggest hit with it at the time, or Frank Sinatra who cut it a decade later, or Billie Holiday whose version came out soon after The Swallows in 1952.

Likewise though some may be more aware of Art Garfunkel’s hit version from 1975, his take on it was modeled on the one that you ARE thinking of, that of The Flamingos from 1959, widely considered the most magical vocal group record of all-time.

So even with more than five hundred versions on record, how can other artists from any era or style hope to compete with that? Hearing anyone, The Swallows included, delivering it in their own manner is bound to seem… strange. Where is the ethereal echo, the shimmering guitar, the haunting backing voices mesmerizingly chanting, “Doo-Bop-Shoo-Bop”? Without these attributes the song seems somehow incomplete, a virtual demo waiting to be spun into magic by The Flamingos.

Yet here it is all the same, just a lovely melody with touching evocative lyrics by a different bird group, one who actually inspired The Flamingos to cut it when George Goldner suggested doing an LP of standards.

If we can look at it that way, maybe it’s got a chance to defy the odds and render the later version irrelevant to considering this performance for its own merits.
 


 
 

I Don’t Know If We’re In A Garden
To start with, this has noticeably less flow, less melody, less MUSIC than what we remember from its later incarnation in other hands, or other wings as it were. The Swallows strip this down to its frame, delivering the lines in halting, breathless cadences. They sound tentative, almost as if they’re trying not to scare off the object of their affections with their declarations of love.

It’s a decent idea maybe, but Junior Denby however was the wrong choice to sing lead on this, his nasal tones can’t help but stand out on such a slow song with minimal accompaniment and as a result he becomes far too distracting, robbing the lyrics – which are exquisitely crafted – of much of their pull, sounding not just pensive, but confused in the process.

Of course looking back at a lot of the first wave of recordings of this song in the mid-1930’s they did an even greater disservice to the lyrics, as it seems very few singers of that era were aware they needed to actually pretend they were feeling the sentiments they were spouting. At least Denby does that much.

What’s interesting about their decisions is that they’d turn to a standard after recording mostly original material prior to this. I Only Have Eyes For You had gone more than a decade without being touched before there was a flurry of activity at the tail end of the 1940’s but it really picked up in the early 1950’s. Obviously it was a song that had lots of promise to thrive in this style, but The Swallows – and more pointedly Henry Glover, who produced it – almost downplay its best attributes too much with the crawling pace and dry arrangement.

The guitar unobtrusively plays chords behind them while the rest of the group wordlessly lends a vocal pillow to float along to, yet the tempo is too slow forcing them to hold notes longer than they’re comfortably able to and because of this they frequently drift slightly off-key. The fact that there’s also not much to distract you from that doesn’t help either, as the chimes are the most notable instrumental accompaniment, opening the record and constantly keeping pace with the lead, even outrunning Denby in terms of urgency.

Like many Swallows performances, they rely on creating a gentle delicate mood, singing discreetly, if such a thing is possible, as if they are trying not to be noticed as much as they are hoping to establish a background for someone else’s romance. It’s almost as if they were letting you know that if you turned the full glare of the spotlight on them they’d fly away.

It’s effective in that regard – to a degree – but what makes it so is also what makes it somewhat forgettable. In stepping back from center stage, retreating to the shadows, insisting almost that you avert your eyes from them, they fail to put their stamp on it, to seize your attention and win your complete affection. As a result it all becomes somewhat disposable. A great song turned into pleasant background music rather than something that demands you sit up and really listen as if their happiness in life depends on getting this message across to the one they love.
 


 

The Moon Hangs On High
Of all of the vocal groups in rock’s pre-crossover days, The Swallows, at least in some of their ballads, seem to be the ones who cling to that pre-rock mentality that viewed black groups as something less vital.

Is it an inbred cultural embarrassment? Professional modesty? An outright fear of offending? Or is it really any of these things at all, or is it simply a stylistic shift they found themselves in danger of not quite catching onto quickly enough to keep pace? Sticking close enough behind the trends to never quite fall out of the race, but never taking the lead and setting its direction for others to follow either.

I don’t know.

Am I reading too much into their possible mindsets? Absolutely. Is that conjecture at all fair? Probably not.

But I guess that’s another difficult aspect of writing in the present while looking into the past, we tend to want answers to questions they may never have asked of themselves.

What I DO know is that The Flamingos had no such questions raised with their work. When they stepped to the microphones to lay down their rendition of I Only Have Eyes For You, they DEMANDED you focus intently on them as they radically re-imagined it and in the process claimed the song for themselves forever after. They made all of the pop vocalists who’d done this in the past sound irrelevant and they did the same to The Swallows who despite introducing it into the rock lexicon seem locked in their cages by comparison as The Flamingos flew by, free as a bird.

In 1952 though none of that was known yet. This record was left to stand or fall on its own within the context of its own time and its own rock ‘n’ roll reality. It’s good enough I suppose, but it’s hard to imagine that hearing this in 1952, unburdened by any weight of future perceptions and regardless of how much you enjoyed this in the moment, that you would ever think this record was something that would have truly lasting importance. Something that would be remembered even a year later, let alone for another couple of lifetimes.

In 1959 when you heard The Flamingos version however, it’d be hard to imagine that you WOULDN’T think their record would endure for eternity.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Edna McGriff & Sonny Til (July, 1952)