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Clarence (Magic Drumsticks) Steele

Clarence Steele: Drummin' Away To Acappella (1999)

1.8

March 25, 2000

Tuning / Blend 2.0
Energy / Intensity 2.4
Innovation / Creativity 2.2
Soloists 2.2
Sound / Production 2.4
Repeat Listenability 1.2
Tracks
1 BQE::I Count The Tears 2.0
2 A Moments Pleasure::Finger Poppin' Time 2.2
3 BQE::Pretty Little Angel Eyes 2.2
4 BQE::The Lion Sleeps Tonight 2.2
5 Rick & The Masters::Oh But She Did 2.0
6 A Moments Pleasure::Lovey Dovey 1.8
7 The Arrogants::Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me 1.8
8 Now & Then::Barbara Ann 1.8
9 BQE::Chain Gang/Cupid Medley 2.0
10 Now & Then::Happy Days 1.8
11 Now & Then::Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do 2.0
12 oys::Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Kimberly Fox & The Ro 2.0
13 BQE::Sixteen Candles 2.0
14 Bravados::Earth Angel 2.2
15 Vito & The Twilights::December '63 (Oh What A Night) 1.8
16 A Moments Pleasure::When I Fall In Love 1.6

Recorded 1999
Total time: 44:06, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 BQE::I Count The Tears 3
2 A Moments Pleasure::Finger Poppin' Time 3
3 BQE::Pretty Little Angel Eyes 3
4 BQE::The Lion Sleeps Tonight 3
5 Rick & The Masters::Oh But She Did 3
6 A Moments Pleasure::Lovey Dovey 3
7 The Arrogants::Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me 3
8 Now & Then::Barbara Ann 3
9 BQE::Chain Gang/Cupid Medley 3
10 Now & Then::Happy Days 3
11 Now & Then::Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do 3
12 oys::Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Kimberly Fox & The Ro 3
13 BQE::Sixteen Candles 3
14 Bravados::Earth Angel 3
15 Vito & The Twilights::December '63 (Oh What A Night) 3
16 A Moments Pleasure::When I Fall In Love 3

My husband offered to write this review for me. My husband barely tolerates RARB, so the fact that this album moved him so much that he offered to write the review tells you just how special Clarence Steele's Drummin' Away to Acappella really is. Just to set the record straight, the person who is featured on this album does not sing a note of a cappella. No, Drummin' Away to Acappella is sixteen tracks of prerecorded doo-wop by various groups, used as a backdrop and showcase for the drumming talents of young Clarence Steele. Not vocal drumming, mind you, and for that matter, not even the old-fashioned acoustic kind, but drumming using the unlimited possibilities of an electronic drumset.

So what am I supposed to review here? The doo wop on the album is fine, though some of the groups represented are better than others. But of course Clarence and his dad would prefer I review his drumming. Well, despite the fact that in the past I've dated two drummers (before I met the wonderful, guitar-playing man I made my husband), I don't really know the first thing about drum technique. Sad to say, I've never even performed vocal percussion. That said, my overall impression of Clarence's drumming is that it's pretty good. He seems to be a talented kid. Sometimes it's obvious that he's working with an electronic drumkit, which can be a little distracting, but that's the price you pay for having all of the popping, hammer, whistle, chiming, and clanging sounds you'd ever need at your disposal. Anyway, I'm thinking that Clarence's talents would be best put toward a band made up of real people, since I don't think there's much of a niche for albums by teenage drummers playing along to canned a cappella.

As for the actual a cappella on this CD, if you're a fan of doo wop, you might want to locate an album by B Q E, a group represented by five strong tracks on this CD. Much of the rest of the doo wop didn't rise to as high a level, and many groups only had one or two tracks — not enough to really say what they might have to offer outside of the world of Clarence Steele. If you find that my numeric ratings of this album seem somewhat arbitrary, they are — I don't feel qualified to review drumming, and I don't know if the a cappella groups on this disc even *care* if I'm reviewing it. Compared to other albums I've heard of live drums played along to canned a cappella, I guess this one's...average?

And even though I wouldn't seriously recommend this CD to a cappella fans, I wish that each of you could see and read the extensive liner notes.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 BQE::I Count The Tears 2
2 A Moments Pleasure::Finger Poppin' Time 3
3 BQE::Pretty Little Angel Eyes 3
4 BQE::The Lion Sleeps Tonight 3
5 Rick & The Masters::Oh But She Did 2
6 A Moments Pleasure::Lovey Dovey 2
7 The Arrogants::Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me 2
8 Now & Then::Barbara Ann 2
9 BQE::Chain Gang/Cupid Medley 2
10 Now & Then::Happy Days 2
11 Now & Then::Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do 3
12 oys::Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Kimberly Fox & The Ro 2
13 BQE::Sixteen Candles 2
14 Bravados::Earth Angel 3
15 Vito & The Twilights::December '63 (Oh What A Night) 2
16 A Moments Pleasure::When I Fall In Love 1

Clarence Steele's Drummin Away to Acappella is a strange beast. Imagine if you will, these two heads: one "head", a collection of well-sung but extremely traditional doo-wop; and the other "head", a talented 14-year-old drummer playing on a midi-triggered drum set. This CD is a bit of a Frankenstein created in the sonic laboratory. The amazing creation lives, and that is an accomplishment, but like the Shelley creation, something is not quite right.

To start with, the drum sounds themselves are canned. They are played by a human but they sound like a drum machine. That's because the sound comes from a drum machine. The sounds have a definite continuity to them, but they lack dynamic finesse. Real drums have a nearly infinite variety of timbres and volumes. This drum machine appears to come in soft, medium and loud. So while the CD totes the singing as canned, it appears to this listener that it is the drumming which is canned. This is through no fault of Clarence, by the way. It's just the limitation of the technology. But it does raise the question: if you want to make a CD featuring a drummer, why artificially constrain his ability to play expressively?

Perhaps the answer is that the drum machine provides an extremely wide variety of different sounds. To young artists, variety of palette is a temptress. Beware! These Sirens will crash your ship, young Clarence! Alas, the well-worn advice of "less is more" goes unheeded here. Much like the CD's cover, featuring a full twelve different fonts, the songs are a bit overdone. I happen to be a big fan of the a cappella and percussion mix, but Clarence shows off his wunderkind percussion skills to the detriment of these songs, despite a real effort to (in the words of the CD jacket) "stimulate, via musical gesticulation". Hardly a beat four goes by without one of Clarence's creative fills adorning it.

Still, there are moments where Clarence finds the perfect groove, and creates a a nice complement for the doo-wop. The problem is that not a single song maintains that groove and balance throughout. The seeds of greatness are here, but they have not yet matured.

Family and friends should hear Clarence's achievement. Few musicians his age have the perseverance and talent to have accomplished so much. I hope Clarence sticks with his love of a cappella and percussion; he shows great promise. But for the rest of us, I recommend letting the recording go back gently, from whence it came.


Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 BQE::I Count The Tears 3
2 A Moments Pleasure::Finger Poppin' Time 3
3 BQE::Pretty Little Angel Eyes 3
4 BQE::The Lion Sleeps Tonight 3
5 Rick & The Masters::Oh But She Did 3
6 A Moments Pleasure::Lovey Dovey 2
7 The Arrogants::Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me 2
8 Now & Then::Barbara Ann 2
9 BQE::Chain Gang/Cupid Medley 3
10 Now & Then::Happy Days 2
11 Now & Then::Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do 2
12 oys::Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Kimberly Fox & The Ro 3
13 BQE::Sixteen Candles 3
14 Bravados::Earth Angel 3
15 Vito & The Twilights::December '63 (Oh What A Night) 2
16 A Moments Pleasure::When I Fall In Love 2

"Clarence Steele — Drummin' Away To Acappella — Percussion Wizardry and Acappella Harmony — Magic Drumsticks Presents Earth Angel And Other Great Oldies". Now, there's a mouthful. It is only half of the text on the cover of this album, yet it provides a fitting metaphor for the disc as a whole — too much. As you listen, you will get the sense that young Clarence is using every drum or percussion sound ever digitally recorded. In each song.

There is a lot to absorb on this disc — tracks from eight different doo-wop groups, each one smothered with gobs and gobs of over-balanced percussion. I get the sense that Clarence is trying, very hard, to show all that he can do. But, really, does Happy Days need a gong? (Maybe it's not supposed to sound like a gong, but it's pretty close.)

There are plenty of issues with balance and "blend" and synergy and locking into the same rhythm as the singers. In Clarence's defense, it is widely recognized that, when making an album, it is extremely difficult to record percussion, of any kind, last. That's why nobody does it. But, he does an admirable job of making some of his power-fills and tom rolls fit. Too often, however, the groove just does not lock.

And, too often, the songs don't warrant what he is doing — giving a sense of the anachronistic. Most of the tunes on the album are doo-wop classics from the 50's and 60's, when the average drum kit consisted of snare, kick, hi-hat, maybe a tom or two, and some crash cymbals. So, that's what I would expect him to use. Two exceptions, Earth Angel and Sixteen Candles, in this light, work for me. But, Pretty Little Angel Eyes feels like a frenetic race to use every piece he has by the second chorus — wind chime, bongos, castanets, wood block, synth toms, etc...

The liner notes admit that this album is a "rare first of its kind". I applaud the innovation and the obvious talent displayed by Clarence, who was 14 at the time of the recording. However, as a musical experiment, I believe this album fails.

I am tempted to go into detail about the performances of the doo-wop groups themselves (BQE, A Moments Pleasure, Rick & The Masters, The Arrogants, Now & Then, Kimberly Fox & The Rob-Roys, Bravados, Vito & The Twilights), but really, the way this album is set up, they are just vehicles for Clarence. The album is clearly all about him. I would suggest that if you want to hear any of these groups, look at the Starlight Serenade discography and get the original tracks, a cappella.


Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 1
Soloists 1
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 BQE::I Count The Tears 1
2 A Moments Pleasure::Finger Poppin' Time 1
3 BQE::Pretty Little Angel Eyes 1
4 BQE::The Lion Sleeps Tonight 1
5 Rick & The Masters::Oh But She Did 1
6 A Moments Pleasure::Lovey Dovey 1
7 The Arrogants::Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me 1
8 Now & Then::Barbara Ann 1
9 BQE::Chain Gang/Cupid Medley 1
10 Now & Then::Happy Days 1
11 Now & Then::Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do 1
12 oys::Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Kimberly Fox & The Ro 1
13 BQE::Sixteen Candles 1
14 Bravados::Earth Angel 1
15 Vito & The Twilights::December '63 (Oh What A Night) 1
16 A Moments Pleasure::When I Fall In Love 1

This album is not like any others I have gotten to review for RARB. In fact, it's not really an album at all. It's an exercise. A set of drills. A project. But I would not really consider it an "album".

This CD features the one and only Clarence Steele. "Clarence who?" you might ask. Well, the reason you probably have never heard of him is that he's a 14-year old from Walla Walla, WA. Young Mr. Steele has put together a compilation of recordings in which he has accompanied canned a cappella doo-wop with his drumming/percussing. This drumming & percussing is not vocal but using actual drums (acoustic and electronic).

The only a cappella aspect to this album is the canned doo-wop in the background. I say background because the doo-wop seems to be incidental to his drumming. The drums are WAY too loud and obtrusive. His drumming may be very good for a 14-year old, I'm not one to judge. Although, I don't find the electronic drums and cheezy '80s-esque drum-machine fills to be appropriate for doo-wop. If you look at this CD as an exercise or project, then the appropriateness of the sounds may not matter. The a cappella that I can hear seems to be riddled with pitch problems.

The CD is accompanied by a booklet that contains text written by Clarence's father. The text serves to pump up the abilities and experiences of Master Clarence in the mind of the listener. If you're going to hype a recording, then the recording better live up to the hype. Otherwise the listener will simply hate the recording despite its merits. It is quite a big accomplishment at the age of 14 to learn how to use his father's recording equipment and record as many tracks as are contained on this CD. I wish I had access to such resources at his age.

I do not wish to discourage or bash Clarence Steele, only to warn the RARB readers about this CD. I would highly recommend that his close friends and family listen to the album and be very proud of the young man and his accomplishment. I do not, however, recommend that the a cappella audience at large spend money on a project CD such as this.


Tuning / Blend 1
Energy / Intensity 1
Innovation / Creativity 1
Soloists 1
Sound / Production 1
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 BQE::I Count The Tears 1
2 A Moments Pleasure::Finger Poppin' Time 1
3 BQE::Pretty Little Angel Eyes 1
4 BQE::The Lion Sleeps Tonight 1
5 Rick & The Masters::Oh But She Did 1
6 A Moments Pleasure::Lovey Dovey 1
7 The Arrogants::Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me 1
8 Now & Then::Barbara Ann 1
9 BQE::Chain Gang/Cupid Medley 1
10 Now & Then::Happy Days 1
11 Now & Then::Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do 1
12 oys::Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Kimberly Fox & The Ro 1
13 BQE::Sixteen Candles 1
14 Bravados::Earth Angel 1
15 Vito & The Twilights::December '63 (Oh What A Night) 1
16 A Moments Pleasure::When I Fall In Love 1

Clarence, Clarence, Clarence ........ why?

Before I get to the negative, I'll start off by saying that young Clarence "Magic Drumsticks" Steele has a lot of potential as a drummer. He needs to wait, though.

This is a collection of a cappella standards being played while Mr. Steele goes crazy on his drums. Most of the time, however, the drums are so loud and busy that you don't even notice what song is being sung. The songs have that old street corner sound being sung by a bunch of guys just having fun. On top of it is thrown a variety of drums, whistles, gongs, cymbals, and just about anything else that the drummer could get his hands on. The majority were inappropriate and distracting. The beats themselves were often too fast or too slow. This is probably because when these songs were recorded, they weren't meant to have drum tracks with them. Singers are known for changing tempo at a whim which is impossible to follow unless everything is done together live. There were some nice fills, but they were never at spots that they should be in.

Overall, this album was horrible. Clarence, what you need to do is: 1) stop calling yourself "Magic Drumsticks", 2) find some real people to play with, and 3) wait. Don't try to force anything. If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen.

Good luck.

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