SONG: Riot in Cell Block 9
ARTIST: The Robins
Listen to it here:
“Riot in Cell Block #9” was written in 1954 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and was recorded by The Robins that same year. It’s important partially because it was the first R&B hit to use a stop-time riff, which is when the band plays an accented chord, followed by silence for a bar or two. It’s a very pervasive thing that I had no idea was something that was a big deal in any way! If you need a more solid example, the beginning of Rock Around the Clock uses that same thing.
The song takes place in a jail, where a man is serving his prison sentence for armed robbery. He wakes in the middle of the night to a jail riot, which escalates to a point where the warden, armed with a submachine gun, threatens to execute all the prisoners if the riot doesn’t stop soon. One of the prisoners retaliates by carrying dynamite, and forty-seven hours later, the security lets loose the tear gas, which forces the inmates to return to their cells.
The Robins emerged on the American R&B scene in the late 1940s, and had already produced many hit singles before they recorded “Riot in Cell Block #9”. They are one of the earliest vocal groups to start establishing the doo-wop sound. The original members were Ty Terrell, and twin brothers Billy and Roy Richards who all met in high school. Bobby Nunn also joined the group soon after it was formed. For some reason, they started off as The Bluebirds and then changed their group name to The Robins in 1949. I have no idea why.
In 1955, shortly after this song was recorded, the group had a disagreement over whether to remain on the West Coast, or to sign with Atlantic Records and move to the East Coast. This disagreement eventually led to a split within the group. The writers of this song took Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn, recruited a couple of other singers, and formed The Coasters. Tyrell and the Richards brothers continued to record as The Robins until 1961.
- The Bluebirds were the third bird-named California group to emerge on the scene, after the Cardinals and the Orioles.
At first I was like “oh fuck yes, another doo wop song! But this is not your mother’s doo wop! It’s definitely some raunchy bluesy sounding stuff going on here. First of all, I really like the band – they’re pretty tight, nice splashy cymbals with the drum kit and an appropriately wailing sax solo! I think this is the first instance we’ve had of the ‘repeat and fade’ ending, which to me always seems like a bit of a cop out. Anyway, I really really like the lead singer’s voice. It had to grow on me, because at first I was like ‘whaaaat is happening here??’, but as the song went on, I really enjoyed how playful it was and it sounded like he was having a lot of fun singing it. I think my only real complaint is it sounds like the backup singers were either an afterthought or are standing way far back from the microphone. I wish they were more present! As I much as I love doo wop, this one isn’t really my bag, so I’ll be giving it a pass. I would recommend the Blues Brothers version though, but I wouldn’t label it as doo wop.
I have to say, when I saw that this was a doo-wop song, I expected something completely different from what I got! Something about the menacing quality of the lead singer’s voice and just the way the introduction to this song goes – it sounds aggressive in a way that doesn’t jive with both my conception of 50s music, or my conception of doo-wop. I do like the lead singer’s voice, though it has a quality to it that reminds me of novelty songs. The one thing that really bothered me about the song is that some things seem overdone in a way that makes me question whether it’s supposed to be funny or not. The backup vocals are good, just not what I think of when I think of doo-wop, and the tenor sax sounds great! I don’t know this guy, Gil Bernal at all, but I really like his sound and will keep my eye out for other things he’s done. Also, somewhat hilariously, the guitar player’s name is Chuck Norris! One thing I really really hate is when people don’t take the time to craft a good ending to a song, and this is one example of a song where the fade out is employed simply for lack of a better idea, and I hate that! This has been a really interesting listen that probably won’t be joining my collections anytime soon.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
I LOVE the Blues Brothers version!
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