Various Artists – Please Mr. Disc Jockey (review)

Various Artists – Please Mr. Disc Jockey: The Atlantic Vocal Group Sound (Fantastic Voyage) review

Three discs of stone-cold classic R&B vocal glory

When it came to R&B vocal groups, nobody could touch Atlantic Records in the Fifties. There was something magical about that red & black label that meant you were getting music that was a cut above the rest. From the Clovers, the Drifters, & the Coasters, to lesser-known artists, the high points have been collected in Please Mr. Disc Jockey from the British Fantastic Voyage label.

The Clovers kick off disc one with their debut single – “Don’t You Know I Love You” backed with “Skylark” – the former showing off their harmony prowess, the latter retooling a pre-rock vocal standard into a sweet R&B ballad. The Clovers always had a grittiness to their singing that set them apart on songs like “Fool Fool Fool.” There’s a great mix of ballads with upbeat numbers – the vibroed guitar on the Cardinals’ “I’ll Always Love You” is particularly nice.

Midway through disc one, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters arrive, and bar is immediately set higher. On tracks like “Let the Boogie Woogie Roll,” they groove like nothing else before it. We’re also introduced to the Chords with several tracks, including their ubiquitous “Sh-Boom,” which every child in America knows from the Cars movie. The set gets its name from the Sensations track, pleading with a radio announcer to help salvage a relationship.

Disc two kicks off with the Royal Jokers, who have good fun with “You Tickle Me Baby,” while the Cardinals turn in the gorgeous “The Door is Still Open.” We see the Drifters evolving with “Adorable,” the sound effects-laden “Steamboat,” and the rockin’ “Ruby Baby,” while there’s a new level of sophistication to “In Paradise” by the Cookies.
The Coasters join the party halfway through the disc, guised at first as the Robins, with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” – there had never been a narrative style as unique as Leiber & Stoller’s, and the teaming would result in a barrelful of hits. The girls finally get in on the action with the Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee.”

Disc three brings together the peak tracks by the Coasters, like “Young Blood,” and “Searchin’” – songs that would go on to define the early rock n’ roll era. Nuggets on this disc include the little-known Flyers’ “On Bended Knee” and the pretty “I’ll Be Seeing You” by the Crescendos. “There Goes My Baby” by the Drifters ushered a slick blend of pop and R&B, which would make stars out of the group, and especially vocalist Ben E. King. The Isley Brothers, who had had a minor hit with their song “Shout,” had signed to Atlantic, certain that fame would come their way. Alas, it was not to be, as tracks like “Standing on the Dance Floor” failed to connect with an audience. But the Isleys’ tenure at Atlantic was not without merit. They were introduced to “Twist and Shout” by the Top Notes (included here), and were able to take that over to Wand Records for their first major US hit. One final note, “Shine on Harvest Moon” by the Isleys was taken from a questionable source, as it speeds up and slows down – rather odd.

This set is meant to be a companion piece to the earlier Fantastic Voyage release, Right Now: Atlantic Club Soul and Deep Cuts, which would explain the omission of several key tracks by the Coasters and Drifters. Any fan of early R&B will find this an indispensable addition to their collection. —Tony Peters