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They say hindsight is 20/20, which is generally true because when you know how things went astray you can usually identify the wrong step you took along the way to get you to that point.

But what about looking backwards when you know where things went right down the road? Does it make the earliest uncertain steps easier to take in stride, or do you have an urge to stop the proceedings and hope to set them on the right track before they even reach that fateful juncture?

We’re about to find out…


I Hope And I Pray
Considering the rise of The Vocaleers was rather quick, we don’t have much time to study their journey. They scored a regional hit with the top half of this, their debut, and three months later released their follow-up which became a national Top Five hit.

But for those who’d bought this first single, it was pretty obvious they had it in them to reach those heights… not for the very good Be True on the A-side, but rather for this slightly conflicted effort on the B-side.

How’s that, you ask?

Well, because the song which will propel them to brief stardom when it comes out in the spring of 1953 was in fact a much improved version of THIS song, a sometimes unsteady attempt awkwardly called Oh! Where.

Going back to the drawing board and improving upon an idea is a sign of creative growth and ambition… evidence that The Vocaleers weren’t going to settle for something underwhelming if they could help it.

But for those of us from the future who know what those changes will entail, it’s kind of difficult to go back in time beyond that point in their story and pretend we haven’t heard what will follow.


While I Sit Alone
The fact of the matter is Joe Duncan, whose real name was Alfred Martinez, wasn’t a good singer. He more or less admitted so himself, as his nasal tone is about as extreme as we’ve heard so far in rock, which is saying a lot when Floyd Dixon and Goree Carter have been two of the most prolific artists in the genre’s first half decade.

Now as we’ll see down the road lots of acclaimed artists suffer from this malady. Heck, the three biggest rock groups of the sixties – The Beatles, Supremes and Beach Boys – all had frequent lead singers who used their nasal passages more than their larynx to deliver a song and it didn’t seem to hurt their popularity. But it helps to be able to frame those technical shortcomings properly so that your voice doesn’t dominate the proceedings to the exclusion of everything else… and on a pure vocal group record that might be more difficult than with elaborate instrumental arrangements to buttress that voice.

That’s where Duncan makes a smart move with Oh! Where by using a breathy delivery, putting dramatic pauses in between almost every syllable making staccato patterns out of what normally would be a much more flowing melody.

It’s a clever solution to the problem, adding a touch of uncertainty into his reading which fits the theme of romantic insecurity.

But while that does make it slightly less grating than hearing long stuffy passages coming out his nose, there’s another issue that can’t be fixed this way and which tends to be kind of important for most listeners… you can barely make out what he’s saying! Maybe if you had the lyrics in front of you and read along the first dozen times then the song would go over better, as your own mind would clear up the confusion.

Considering this song is really just tapping into a vague unsettling feeling that the girl you like isn’t as devoted to you at least means you aren’t missing out on some shocking plot twist along the way, but that also ensures the picture it paints isn’t as impactful when you’re trying to guess what he’s actually telling you.

Thankfully the others are doing just enough behind Duncan to give this a little cushion, though what they’re delivering this time around is far less complex as they’re singing in unison rather than each taking their own distinct part. But they handle it well and without more prominent musical support after the intro their presence is essential to give this a fuller and more pleasing sound.

In the end you might not be too disappointed by this, after all it’s just a B-side by a new group with no expectations, but it’s hard to envision anyone but the most obsessive vocal group aficionado getting too much out of this effort either.


Past, Present And Future
Wait a minute, you must be saying, what about the that bit about this record foreshadowing something in the future? Wasn’t that going to be make up a big part of this review?!?!

Okay, okay… though in the waning days of 1952 we wouldn’t have any idea about that aspect obviously. But now that we’ve analyzed Oh! Where as a singular entity we might as well address the issue a little, without giving too much away for a future record, as this is kind of hard to avoid talking about.

The fact is Joe Duncan clearly liked this melody and delivery because he immediately went back and more or less re-wrote it for their next single which became their first – and only – big hit. Now don’t get your panties in a bunch… it wasn’t a strict rip-off by any means, but it does share more than a passing resemblance. The difference is on Is It A Dream he fleshed it out with prominent piano triplets, much improved backing parts and far more structural diversity, while utilizing the same melodic thread intact and returning to the same unique vocal delivery to overcome his weaknesses in that area.

In retrospect we can admire him wanting to improve upon an earlier effort, but that also makes it hard to evaluate THIS record on its own merits without thinking of what was to come. Since they’re not going to have a lot of singles in a relatively short career, this almost removes one side from consideration… after all, why would you bother with this when it’s essentially an inferior rough draft of their biggest hit?

But while that’s the natural way to look at this now, it’s something we have to resist doing. We’re supposed to be taking each record “as they come” with this project rather than assessing an artist’s entire career at once and then parsing out scores to fit the larger narrative. Because of that we can be a little more generous with this side even if it still does have some issues.

Maybe the best way to assess it then is to say this one shows promise but needs some work, thereby fairly judging it for what it IS while at the same time hinting that we know it could be made all that much better with a little effort.


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