Tuesday, April 03, 2007


The Drifters, There Goes My Baby.
Jim Reeves, He'll Have to Go.

These records, colossal hits of their day, are perhaps not as groundbreaking as legend has it, but you can still hear the future in them.

"There Goes My Baby," contrary to official record, wasn't the first R&B song to use strings (which was, you ask? Well, the Cardinals' "Offshore" from '56, has strings, and I'm sure you could come up with heaps of other candidates). And "There Goes My Baby," for some purists, was The End, the collapse of pure R&B into "arty" studio pop. One enthusiast I used to read on Usenet in the '90s would only refer to "There Goes My Baby" by its catalog number, as if he couldn't bear to say its name, writing things like "it all went to hell after Atlantic 2025."

The Drifters had never quite recovered from the departure of Clyde McPhatter, and while they still made some solid records, the group had basically ceased to exist--"The Drifters" was a studio brand, their records performed by a rotating group of singers generally stuck with second-tier songs. Finally, in May '58, the current roster of the Drifters was sacked and replaced by members of a group called the Five Crowns, whose lead singer, Benjamin Earl Nelson, went by the name Ben E. King. Atlantic asked Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to get some material and record them.

It was a terrible night. The session began falling apart early on. On "There Goes My Baby," Leiber and Stoller were attempting a variation on the Brazilian baion rhythm on an out-of-tune timpani. The arranger Stan Applebaum had the string players sometimes doing what sounded like brass charts, other times pastiches of Rimsky-Korsakov, with the players introducing, halfway through the song, a new melodic line that had essentially no harmonic relation to anything else on the track.

And Ben E. King was so green that when Leiber and Stoller told him to start the first verse after the four-bar intro, King didn't know what they were talking about. You can imagine Leiber and Stoller about to lose it at this point. Jesus Christ. Listen, kid, just count to four four times and then start singing. Okay?

Many years later, King recalled the session on a TV documentary. He had the song (which he had co-written) completely sewn up, every line memorized, every phrase considered, and then he walked into a studio with some twenty string players and some guy fiddling with kettle drums. The arrangement was going to have King sing high above his usual register, which rattled him. "I was a bit off, but I knew once I started singing, it was their problem to fix, not mine." So King counted down, and delivered that vocal: searing, haunted, aching and completely out of sync with what the musicians were playing, or so the producers thought. "The date was considered a total fiasco," Leiber told Ed Ward decades later. "Everybody thought it was a terrible waste of time and money."

A while later, Leiber and Stoller played the tapes for Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Wexler, eating his lunch, simply hated "Baby": "It's out of tune and it's phony and it's shit and get it out of here!" Stoller, however, kept playing the track: "It's a fucking mess but there's very something magnetic about it." Ertegun at last gave them the okay to release it, and the track exploded--hitting #2 nationally, reestablishing the Drifters, and helping to create the pop music sound of the early '60s. Leiber, hearing the song played endlessly on the radio, still thought it was a wild mess. "It sounded like two stations playing one thing."

Recorded March 6, 1959, with Stoller on piano. Released as--of course--Atlantic 2025. On All Time Greatest Hits and More. (Session details are from either Ward's account in Rock of Ages, or "In the Groove," the second episode of the great, lost 1995 documentary Rock & Roll.)

"He'll Have to Go" had a much milder birth. Jim Reeves had begun his career singing stuff like "Mexican Joe" in a loud and strident tone--it was a voice meant to be heard across a prairie. But by the late '50s, Reeves had begun moderating his singing: he lowered his pitch and brought his lips so close to the microphone that he could kiss it. There was some resistance to this move from RCA, his label, but his producer Chet Atkins backed Reeves, and by '57, with the success of "Four Walls," the formula was in place.

Standard history has it that tracks like "He'll Have to Go" essentially turned country music into an adjunct of pop, replacing the wild rockabilly of the '50s with a more adult music bordering on the soporific. While that's far too broad a statement, Reeves' own transition--he went from wearing cowboy suits to the sort of evening attire Louis Jourdan would have sported in Nashville, while his records dropped the fiddles and added a wall of swooning backup singers--does embody a change in country's aspirations, if not in its artifacts.

"He'll Have to Go," Reeves' enormous country/pop hit, begins with Reeves in a bar somewhere, calling his lover. "Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone," he purrs, though his erotic banter is being drowned out by the jukebox, bar chatter and phones ringing. The man his lover's with--the one who has to go--is likely her husband, and it's hard to say whether Reeves makes the woman change her mind. David Cantwell, in his essay on the song in Heartaches by the Number, thinks Reeves scores. "He delivers his lines with the smooth air of someone who sounds pretty damn confident he'll get the answer he wants." Maybe I'm more cynical, but I think she finally hangs up on him, or maybe he never even called her in the first place. As smooth as the singer is, he's still a desperate creep who's trying to seduce someone on a pay phone.

Recorded in Nashville on October 15, 1959, with Hank Garland (g), Floyd Cramer (p), Bob Moore (b), Murrey "Buddy" Harman (d), Marvin Hughes (vibes). Released as RCA 47-7643. On The Essential.

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