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CORAL 65029; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

As a timely public service announcement courtesy of the management, we offer you a record that only barely qualifies as rock in order that we may bring you a walking tour of Harlem, circa 1950, just in case any of you are looking for a place to hang out once you get your time machine up and running.

However, as a disclaimer to that announcement, we have to say that if you ARE heading back to 1950 to check out the music scene this is definitely not the one we’d recommend you visiting.
 

 

First Stop
Time to air out a mild complaint here but sometimes this unwavering commitment to presenting the entire history of rock ’n’ roll as it evolved is not all beer and skittles, as I believe the saying went back then.

It sometimes can even be a bit of a tedious chore when it comes to trying to cover artists who in some form or fashion will add greatly to the music down the line, but who at the time we meet them are anything but vital to the progress of rock as the most transformative music to come along since the advent of jazz a few decades earlier.

Take Al Spears for example, the guy who is getting the primary credit on 125th Street, New York.

In the future Sears will be one of the cornerstones of the backing bands on stage during the heyday of the multi-act shows held in New York put on by dee-jay Alan Freed. In addition he’ll get his share of credits working in the studio as a sessionist on some prominent records and while he’ll get a chance to release some instrumentals along the way in that vein, none of them will catch on and as the logistics surrounding the touring model begin to change he’ll drift back out of the scene, a largely forgotten figure in the big scheme of things when it comes to rock history.

That’s patently unfair though because it was precisely the skills of guys like Sears, a veteran jazz sax-man turned rocker out of a sense of career survival, who bolstered the sound behind countless untutored singers who suddenly found themselves under the bright lights, left to fend for themselves. Without Sears, and those like him, the chances that many of them would’ve fallen flat on their face becomes much higher and thus for Big Al Sears to not get much – if any – long term credit for his contributions to their success is patently unfair.

That improbable and enduring marriage of rank amateurism and sturdy professionalism in rock’s early crossover years is what catapulted the music into a higher stratosphere and that’s as much a part of the story as many of the records themselves are.

So that’s why when Sears has an early record under his own name coming out we dutifully add it to the playlist even if in the final analysis it may wind up undercutting his legacy a bit when it fails to live up to anyone’s expectations based on his later contributions to the music.
 

Let Me Get My Bag
Once again with Sears we have two issues to contend with. The first we already touched upon somewhat when bringing up the fact that he was another refugee from the jazz world and so his musical style was still in the process of transforming from one set of rules to another.

He does that well though on 125th Street, New York… when he gets the chance to actually play that is. Which brings us to the other, far more troubling, issue with his early releases in this field – the presence of the entirely unwelcome vocal group, The Sparrows, otherwise known as the Jive Bombers, who have a tendency to taint every song they come in contact with.

We’ll refer you back to the first appearance of this pairing on Shake Hands for the details of their brief partnership, but essentially Sears was stuck with them whether he liked it or not while they were cutting this session.

If you’re listening to them dominate this track as well and bemoaning their awkward attempts at feigning hipness you likely won’t be mollified to say that it’s actually one of their least annoying performances on record. Not that it’s good by any means, but there’s at least a few moments when they add something nice.

The majority of their role however is spent taking us even further back in time – say the early 1940’s – with their intentionally choppy vocal patterns that recall a different milieu than rock ‘n’ roll, something which the travelogue lyrics emphasize rather than disguise. In them they’re leading a tour of all the old hot spots of the jazz world that lined that famous avenue where you’d be sure to see sharp dressed men and elegant ladies sipping drinks while a band played unobtrusively for much of the night in posh surroundings.

Compared to the hole in the wall places that hosted rock bands this understandably is alien to us, and so even if we can respect the old forms and fashions we can’t find ourselves wanting to revisit them in a record aimed as much at our tastes as theirs.

The singing – or “unison chanting” as Billboard referred to it in their review – is compromised by that stilted approach, not melodic enough in their deliveries to be appealing, nor exciting enough in their deliveries to justify the manner in which they try to put it across.

At one point they give themselves a shout-out by telling us, “The Sparrows wailing in the Baby Grand” and you want to tell them they got the lyrics wrong, because it should be “The Sparrows FLAILING in The Baby Grand”… as in flailing away without a clue of how to sing.

But then, just as you’re about to dismiss them – and the record – entirely, something changes to make you reconsider your earlier assessments. One is the arrival of the mighty Sears, which is most welcome, but the other is the sudden transformation of The Sparrows themselves into competent vocalists, a turn of events that nobody saw coming.
 


 

Makes The Follow Rock
We all know that this record’s justification for inclusion in the roll call of rock singles will rest on Big Al Sears contributions to the song and in that way he doesn’t disappoint.

Though his parts, which don’t start until – ironically 1:25 in – are by no means the kind of gaudy displays of honking and screaming sax that has defined so much of rock to date, that doesn’t mean those are the only ways the instrument is tied to this brand of music. There have been plenty of other approaches, from sultry moaning to repetitive grooving, that qualifies as well and Sears manages to impart a mesmerizing tonal quality to his lines which gives him an outsized presence even when they remain largely in the background.

The riffs are pretty good too, somewhat jerky motions fit for dancing without going overboard in their efforts to get you moving, with just enough grit in them to take them outside the jazz field and safely within rock’s borders.

You’d think however that because he doesn’t get the stage to himself during his time in the spotlight, which lasts just under a minute, we’ll be critical of the decision to let the Sparrows hang around, elbowing him out of the way so more of that spotlight can fall on them.

Normally that’s exactly what we’d do, but not on 125th Street, New York, where The Sparrows manage to actually show why someone allowed them to get on stage in the first place. Here they contribute some sublime wordless harmonies throughout Sears’s appearance, sounding tight, under control and with a surprisingly intuitive sense of how much to emphasize their parts… too much and it’d come across as intruding, too little and it’d lose the ambiance they were trying to create.

Yet they nail the attributes this kind of vocal demands with unerring accuracy, a shocking turn-about for them considering their usual ham-fisted methods. If you wanted to take their initial eight second ”Ooh wahh” refrain and splice it onto the tail end of a couple dozen doo-wop classics from five years down the road nobody would complain, nor would most notice it was taken from a record from a half decade earlier and done by a bunch of guys who would be laughed off most street corners if they tried to harmonize at the height of the vocal group era where cutting contests in the park between groups was particularly ferocious.

I know… I can’t believe it either, but no matter how often you listen, looking for some sign they were about to screw things up, that mid-section holds up well enough to make you shake your head in wonder.
 


 

Must Be On My Way
Of course no three minute record can make up for nearly two minutes of aimless wandering in a part of town we want little to do with – by that I mean past musical styles, not Harlem itself – and so the sum total of the three distinct sections when added up still won’t come out with a winner.

But if you want to hear one third of a really good record, then cue up the middle of 125th Street, New York and let that play, envisioning the scene in the mid-fifties when Big Al Sears would be discreetly offering up some similarly tasty sax lines behind a vocal group that would easily replicate this kind of harmony singing, and you’ll be pretty satisfied.

The other two minutes however you’ll be glad you have GPS on your phones these days and thus don’t have to follow The Sparrows clumsy and outdated directions for finding a place to drink and dance when you’re in their part of town.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Al Sears for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)