Four Classics With One Foot in Late 40s Pop and the Other Foot in Early 50s R & B
1.) Mad About 'Cha / I Don't Know Why (I Love You Like I Do) - The Billy Williams Quartet (Mercury) : This 1952 recording has been largely forgotten through the years, much as the main body of work by lead singer Williams has been. Starting with a long series of recordings on Columbia with The Charioteers, his ground breaking TV stint with the quartet under his own name on Your Show of Shows beginning in 1950, and solo recordings in the late 50s (he was the very first in person guest on the ABC network telecast of American Bandstand), he has been a neglected figure in the history of rock & roll and modern American pop music. This particular Mercury release was a moderate two sided hit and gave a good representation of the style of vocal group singing that was to come in a short time. The ballad side shows superb ensemble harmony by the group, and although I have never seen documentation about the record I have a strong suspicion that it was multi-tracked. Other than Les Paul on Capitol, Mercury was the one place that enlisted multi-tracking to good advantage especially on the string of successful ballads by Patti Page. "I Don't Know Why" is a lovely pop standard and the arrangement weaves the background harmony in and around the fine lead by Williams. The flip side is a different case altogether. An uptempo pounder with a hypnotic chord structure, this song was definitely a bit out of the mainstream for the early fifties. The last chorus is downright frantic and Billy almost loses it going into the windup. The enjoyment of listening to this tune would certainly lead to others in that style and to the work of the "bird groups" and the coming musical revolution.
2.) Trying - The Hilltoppers (Dot) : This quartet of white college students on the campus of Western Kentucky University made a big entrance onto the music scene in 1952 with this tune recorded in a corner of the school's auditorium with just a piano accompaniment. The strength and style of lead singer Jimmy Sacca was a major part of the success of this group. A great number of would-be singers of the day, listened hard to this tune and had the style down. The harmony behind the lead is good especially in the final chorus with a nice descending bass that adds greatly to the sound. This group was a lot closer to the R & B doo-wop style than most other white pop groups of the time such as the Four Aces, Crew Cuts, and The Four Lads. Later tunes such as Must I Cry Again, Till Then, and especially P.S. I Love You (not the Beatles tune) showed this aspect of the group in a good light. The later years of their success were spent unfortunately, as part of the Dot Records cover gang. They did a good turn on the Cardinals' The Door Is Still Open, and others were Ka-Ding Dong, Only You, and The Joker. But it was "Trying", with Jimmy Sacca's emotional lead that set the tone for the Hilltoppers and the influence that followed them.
3.) I Get So Lonely (Oh Baby Mine) - The Four Knights (Capitol) : This up-tempo tune was a huge hit in both the U.S. and England in 1953. Originally a gospel group, they turned to pop music and became adept at that somewhat distasteful practice, the cover record. Some of the covers that they were successful with were Sin, In The Chapel In The Moonlight, Charmaine, and Oh Happy Day. In late 1953 they hit the top with "I Get So Lonely" a rhythmic up-tempo tune with a catchy "oh baby mine" bass lead-in to every chorus which really made the tune into the big seller that it was. The Knights certainly did not do the tune in the R & B styling which is one of the reasons that they were on a major label in 1953 (it would be a year before their label would sign the Five Keys). It is a pleasant bouncy tune that gave listeners a reason to search out other black vocal group records during this time in the early fifties. The song is done without a lead singer but all four members share the lyrical turn, and the song's signature sound, the bass intro to each chorus. A very nice performance during this period of musical transition.
4.) Marie - The Four Tunes (Jubilee) : This tune, a huge hit in 1953, serves as a perfect lead-in to what was to follow. The old Tommy Dorsey swing era song is given a supersonic rendition by the Tunes. The group with its roots in the Inkspots and The Brown Dots, recorded a number of songs with Savannah Churchill in the late 40s, and continued on their own into the 50s. On "Marie", great instrumental backup is provided by the Sid Bass combo which lays down a stomping shuffle without the heavy backbeat so prevalent on R & B recordings of the time. The lead and backup are in synch on the first run through. But the tune moves into passing gear in a big way on the alternate lead by Danny Owens. Complete with elongated trills, jump yodeling, and syllable bending of the first order, the vocal is on top of a frantic boogie shuffle leading into the final wordless scat singing. This performance was a singular styling, one that has stood up to the test of time in a big way. It sounds as fresh and original as it did when it was introduced some 45 years ago. It was a short journey from here to the R & B vocal groups of the fifties that played such a big part in all our lives and have been in our memory banks for all these years.
For those that weren't there at the dawn of an era, these recordings will provide the beginnings of a trip down to the foundations of the musical style that we call (for better or worse) doo-wop. These were four records that helped pave the way for the proliferation of all those wonderful vocal groups that followed-they were really four sides that served as a transition to the future.
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