In 1951, Billy Ward and the Dominoes made popular music history when their "Sixty Minute Man" crossed over from the insulated, black, R&B charts to the pop charts. Bill Brown's boasting bass vocal proved as irresistible as the sexual superman he portrayed.
This was vocal group music that moved past the smooth sounds of the popular Ink Spots and Mills Brothers. The music had a beat, the lyrics traded the romantic formulas of Tin Pan Alley for the nitty-gritty, and the singles were given to shrieks and sobs. As such, "Sixty Minute Man" became a leading contender for the first rock 'n' roll record, ever. It is one of the 14 Dominoes' hits collected on "Billy Ward and the Dominoes: Volume 1" (King-5005X), part of a 10-album series of rhythm and blues reissues culled from the vaults of King Records and its subsidiaries, Federal and DeLuxe.
King was a Cincinnati-based independent record company that, along with a number of other independents, played a critical role in the development of rhythm and blues in the late '40s and in its at least nominal transformation to rock 'n' roll in the early '50s. In addition to three other Dominoes albums, the series contains albums devoted by Ray Charles, Bill Doggett, Little Willie John, Earl Bostic, and the Midnighters. It is the album of Dominoes' hits, though, and the one devoted to the hits of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, that are essential listening for anyone interested in the emergence of the sound of rock 'n' roll.
If "Sixty Minute Man" was a historical breakthrough, the Dominoes' next hit, "I Am With You," was a musical one because it featured the impassioned tenor of an 18-year-old Clyde McPhatter. Billy Ward's use of the church-trained McPhatter was probably the first explicit contact of gospel singing and R&B. With McPhatter yanked out of a choir and into the lead, gospel was sent rockin' and reelin' and took its first steps toward the soul styles that would dominate black music in the '60s.
The Dominoes' "Have Mercy Baby" was a good example of the secularization of gospel. The song's call-and-response vocal pattern, handclaps and McPhattern's emotion-laden vocals were right out of the church, but McPhatter's pleading was directed at a woman, not God, and a honking sexophone had replaced the organ. Better yet was McPhatter's almost satirical emotional catharsis in "The Bells," an eerie ballad introduced by a solemn organ and interrupted by McPhatter's piercing, almost hysterical crying.
It was only a few years after McPhatter left the Dominoes for the Drifters that R&B would find its apotheosis in the slushed-mouth vocals and erotic exhortations of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Here was R&B that evoked all the bawdy times of a Saturday night dance party where perspiration flowed as freely as beer. "Hank Ballard and the Midnighters" (King-5003X) contains all 20 of their R&B and pop hits, including the legendary "Annie" series.
When the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie" became a No. 1 R&B hit in 1954, it also became a target for a white culture (and record industry) that felt things had gone too far.
In 1960, the Midnighters would score big on the pop charts with the exuberant "Fingers Poppin' Time" and "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go" - songs that differed little musically from their earlier R&B hits. They also scored a minor hit that year with a simple dance song, "The Twist."
A month after it hit the charts, a Philadelphia chicken plucker named Chubby Checker entered the charts with an almost identical craze. After that the Midnighters' career ran out on a parade of dance songs that attempted to create by designs what had always been tha Midnighters' natural gift - a sense of good and careless times.