Liner Note Authors: Hank Davis; Scott Parker ; Roy Forbes.
Illustrators: Hank Davis; Betty Johnson.
Photographers: Hank Davis; Betty Johnson.
The first two volumes of Bear Family's They Tried to Rock focus on the Hillbillies, but the second two discs shine a spotlight on the Popsters, the big-band singers and polite vocalists who wrestled with the rise of rock & roll. Where country cats often didn't see a dividing line between rockabilly and country boogie, these pop singers had a much tougher time singing rock & roll, as this 33-track compilation and its simultaneously released companion (They Tried to Rock, Vol. 4: The Popsters) prove. Usually, the songs here fall into two camps: covers of rock & roll smashes and songwriting professionals attempting to ride a craze. Both approaches are time-honored traditions in the record biz because they worked. In the '50s, the charts were littered with quickly cut covers intended to leapfrog over the original, and fads gained momentum via rip-off records, but with its wild rhythms and buzzwords, rock & roll wasn't well-suited to this approach. That doesn't mean singers and bandleaders didn't try, however, and They Tried to Rock, Vol. 3 is filled with examples of squares trying to be hip. Unlike Rhino's legendary Golden Throats series, there's nary a trace of snark here, not even when the records rightly generate a smirk. Alan Dale may have squeezed all the lasciviousness out of "The Girl Can't Help It" and Jerry Mercer sounds overly starched on "Blue Suede Shoes," but the most interesting moments on this collection arrive via accidental collisions of worlds. The Mills Brothers are simply too polite to give "Get a Job" the humor it needs, Vicki Young deliberately drains the danger from "Riot in Cell Block Number 9" and, in what's the wildest moment here, Joe Reisman rearranges "Bo Diddley" so it no longer has Bo's signature shave-and-a-haircut rhythm but plenty of mamboing big-band swing. Some of these covers were deservedly hits: the Crew Cuts breeze through "Sh Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)," the McGuire Sisters' eased into "Sincerely," tellingly, two singles that veer toward the sweeter side of things, but Louis Prima also performed with rock & roll gusto on "Jump Jive and Wail," later turned into a hit by Brian Setzer in an identical arrangement. But the most interesting moments here might be the acts that walked right down the middle, like Ella Mae Morse giving her all on "Money Honey," Georgia Gibbs gamely riding a rollicking beat on "Great Balls of Fire," and even Frank Sinatra, who barely hides a sneer on "Two Hearts, Two Kisses (Make One Love)." These are the cuts that show that nobody knew what they were doing in the wake of rock & roll, and that's the very reason this compilation exists. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine