2 September 2004
Doesn't need more cowbell
Rock orthodoxy holds that black R&B = good, while white attempts at same = somewhere between pathetic and insulting. This pronouncement today is considered every bit as obvious as, say, there being four other guys in the Dave Clark Five; after all, Alan Freed never played those awful white cover versions. The argument can usually be summed up in two words: Pat Boone. Well, okay, I can go for years without hearing "Don't Forbid Me," but Mr. White Bucks had more groove than you think (cf. "Moody River," his fifth Number One).
But if Pat Boone was the Great White Hopeless in this version of rock chronology, the Diamonds were the smirking frat boys. Signed to Mercury, they churned out some decently-charting cover versions of R&B hits all through 1956, none of which got any respect from the purists; even Dave Marsh, as determined a revisionist as exists in this realm, characterizes the Diamonds' approach as "dripping sophomoric contempt."
Dave Somerville, who sang lead on most of those records, begs to disagree. From Dawn Eden's liner notes for a mid-90s Diamonds compilation: "We weren't putting anyone on," said Somerville. "It was serious stuff."
I'm inclined to believe him, not only because he was there, but because Clyde Otis, who started hanging out his shingle at Mercury in late '57, wrote the stunningly lethal "The Stroll," based on a dance theme that owed something to Chuck Willis's "C. C. Ryder," and offered it, not to a respected black R&B outfit, but to the Diamonds. I'd say Clyde clearly took them seriously, and the Diamonds responded with a brilliant recording.
What you remember them for, though, is "Little Darlin'," their biggest hit ever (#2 in Billboard as Mercury 71060), and here, the Diamonds did something unforgivable: not only did they cover a black act Maurice Williams' pre-Zodiacs Gladiolas but they had the temerity to improve on the product. I've spun the Gladiolas disc (Excello 2101), and it's a decent, but by no means inspiring, piece of R&B boilerplate, its modest merits overwhelmed by the crappy acoustics of the back room of Ernie's Record Mart in Nashville, where it was recorded.
The Diamonds, with a track record at a big label, could afford more gimmickry, and they threw everything but the kitchen sink into their revamping. The experts howled. Marsh complained that it was "mocking and cruel," but admitted: "I don't think I've ever played it once without wanting to play it twice." And shed no tears for Maurice Williams: not only did he make a ton of money off this cover version, but three years later he brought forth "Stay," which not only made it to Number One but inspired a lovely late-Seventies live version by Jackson Browne, one of the whitest guys ever to rock and/or roll.