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When independent labels took off in post-War America it was largely by focusing on music made by and for those outside the white mainstream market of which rock ‘n’ roll was soon to become the most prevalent and profitable.

But now in the early 1950’s the genre had gotten so big that practically every independent label devoted a large part of their output to rock which made it increasingly hard for newer companies to get a commercial foothold with that much competition.

So now we start to see newer labels narrowing their focus so they can zero in on one specific style within rock ‘n’ roll, something which arguably began when Imperial Records centered their operations on New Orleans artists and promptly took off as a result.

In New York start-up labels like Red Robin would take increasing advantage of the preponderance of teenage vocal groups like The Vocaleers to establish their own niche in the market and the process provide the means for which one of the most lasting rock subgenres was to thrive.


Don’t Wander Far
It must be something about the season… maybe the rock gods were inclined to bestow Christmas gifts to music fans via new vocal groups appearing for the first time during the last month of the year.

In 1950 we saw both The Four Buddies and The Dominoes debut, each bringing something new and influential to the table in the process.

Last year we encountered the start of the kiddie-lead styled record with The Mello-Moods on the first iteration of this very label, then known as Robin Records before having it changed to Red Robin who keep this seasonal trend going this December with the first record by The Vocaleers.

Though Be True doesn’t break as much new ground stylistically as those previous three releases over the last few years did, that doesn’t mean its arrival was just an incidental blip on the radar.

Instead consider this record more of an affirmation that this brand of rock was growing in importance and expanding its reach beyond anyone’s expectations as more and more kids who’d grown up on this stuff were now taking matters into their own hand and shaping their own destiny while still in their teens. In the process they were RE-shaping an industry as old as their grandparents… and in many cases one being run by those even older than that who were proving to be decidedly out of touch with this music and its audience.

Bobby Robinson of Red Robin Records however was different. Black in an industry controlled by whites and still relatively young (35) with an ear attuned to the streets, his company, small and unimposing, provided natural gravitational pull for groups like The Vocaleers… local kids from Harlem who were in their mid-teens and still in school, and who started singing together because so many other neighborhood kids were doing the same.

With so much competition taking place throughout the city’s enclaves, it wasn’t long before the best of them began to make their presence known outside city limits.


Will It Last
The idea that these smaller labels were predatory by nature, ushering in novice groups through one door and quickly cutting their songs, then shoving them out the back door to make way for the next act, may be true in many cases but there were definitely times when more care was shown by certain companies, such as Red Robin initially did with this group.

They’d come to Bobby Robinson’s attention when they’d cut an in-store demonstration record for their own vanity after appearing on – and winning – amateur shows at The Apollo Theater as The Rainbows. The store’s owner was so impressed he took the recording to Robinson who asked to meet with them and then, over the course of a few months, monitored their progress by visiting their rehearsal sessions until he – and the group, now re-dubbed The Vocaleers – felt they were ready to record.

In mid-December they cut just two songs, including the self-written Be True that featured Joe Duncan’s nasal lead, which combined with his Elmer Fudd or Marlene Dietrich-styled pronunciation of “twue” gave this a unique identity.

Normally such vocal flaws are reason enough to discard a record, but Duncan is so sincere in his delivery that you almost are inclined to overlook it, or at least downplay his weaknesses. You might even say that it gives the performance the kind of amateur shadings that were becoming almost a sign of credibility for those coming of age who were the most deeply invested in this brand of music.

Like the unrestrained wailing vocals of rock’s first five years that had distanced it quite markedly from pop music, these youthful untrained leads of mid-50’s doo-wop were yet another step away from the mannered pretention of pop vocals.

It also helps that Duncan came up with a good song which rings true for his own demographic, perfectly depicting that stage in life where you tend to long for girl so completely that it overwhelms you. Duncan conveys this feeling in words as well as in voice, where he hopes that the image he has of this girl won’t be shattered if he manages to get to know her better… “stay sweet, don’t ever change” he pleads.

That’s the real takeaway from this, the accurate depiction of the emotional storm brewing inside kids at that age which hadn’t been shown, or at least treated with respect, in music before. Teenage love is a distinctively different sensation than adult love because once you hit your twenties you’ve probably acquired a suit of armor to protect your heart in matters of romance, one which is built out of some form of cynicism to keep the prospective partner at arm’s length emotionally so as not to be wounded if it doesn’t turn out as you expected.

But here on Be True the overriding emotions are a combination of hope and fear, all delivered with an abundance of sincerity.

Though Duncan is the one tasked with projecting that, the other Vocaleers chip in with atmospheric touches, notably the falsetto trills of Herman Dunham and the intermittent bass interjections of Teddy Williams. Overall though the record gives us a very sparse sound even as they do have a full band working behind them, yet aside from the piano at the front end most of their contributions are buried in the mix… felt more than heard.

It’s not a record that jumps out at you, maybe not one that easily lodges itself in your memory bank either, but while it plays the song fully commands your attention and the general impression it leaves is a good one that has you wanting more… both from the group itself, but maybe even more crucially it makes you want to hear more from this generation coming of age who are bringing something decidedly new to the table.


Stay As You Are
Though this didn’t make the national charts, it definitely was a hit, scoring big in New York throughout the winter followed by Philly in the spring and months later soaring up the San Francisco charts, sort of a delayed reaction even as The Vocaleers’ follow-up was starting to break elsewhere.

Though we have very obvious signs over the next few months that this commercial response didn’t go unnoticed by record companies, as more and more young vocal groups were signed to various labels, you wonder if any of them were actually aware of the reasons WHY something like Be True connected with this audience, or if they simply passed it off as an appealing sound and little else.

That’d be typical, but I suppose if anyone in the industry would have a sense of the cultural relevance of songs like this, it’d be Bobby Robinson even though he too would fall prey to many of the other fatal flaws of label owners, such as stealing half the credit for writing this and various moves more concerned with the bottom-line than musical integrity.

The inescapable of fact of all popular culture with large youth followings, but music in particular, is that adults may have the business experience to oversee a label but they are unquestionably the worst choice to do so in every other conceivable way.

As a result, until this world comes to accept that those under twenty-five are the only ones truly qualified to run the music biz from top to bottom, we’re going to have to be satisfied with small, incremental advances like this.


(Visit the Artist page of The Vocaleers for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)