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CORAL 65023; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

One look at this title in late March 2020 and you know right away this record qualifies as a most inappropriate review for this day and age. So let me start off by issuing a strongly worded disclaimer so I’m not at fault for your stupidity if you take song titles and the instructions they give at face value…

Don’t NOT shake hands, not MY hand for damn sure, nor anyone else’s. Social distancing, isolation, quarantine… these are the key words for this time regardless of what a spray tanned empty-headed sock puppet in charge of the country might be inclined to tell you.

But while you’re locked down and sheltering in place you’ll have plenty of free time to look for ways to take your mind off such things as catastrophic worldwide medical calamities and what better way to wile away your hours than by reading about long forgotten records by barely known figures on the fringes of early rock history.

Well, you’re in luck… we just happen to have plenty of those here at absolutely no charge. Tell your friends, tell your neighbors… just make sure you tell them without getting anywhere near them and remember, no matter how grateful they are for you informing them of this delightful website, don’t let them shake your hand in gratitude.
 

 

Say Hello To Big Al
Chances are if you’ve listened to a smattering of 1950’s rock vocal group records then you’ve heard Big Al Sears and his mighty saxophone. His presence in the studios of New York over that decade was ubiquitous, taking a backseat to only Sam “The Man” Taylor and maybe at various times one or two others.

Al Sears was hardly some wet behind the ears kid in the 1950’s when rock ‘n’ roll ensured his steady employment. Born in 1910 he turned professional before his 18th birthday and was a staple of the New York jazz scene starting around 1930, playing with legendary drummer and bandleader Chick Webb during this stretch. A decade later he did time with Andy Kirk, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, three of the most widely known and respected jazz bandleaders of all-time.

Of course nobody reading this site needs to be reminded that as the 1940’s wound down the big-band jazz scene that had thrived for years was going through a commercial downturn as the younger ambitious jazz musicians were turning to bop and other experimental styles while a far more rowdy illegitimate bastard child called rock ‘n’ roll was drawing away even more young artists, and more importantly young fans, to join their growing cult.

For a guy like Sears he was well-respected enough to be able to still get gigs and could’ve probably remained entrenched in one of the bigger – still solvent – bands that were popular enough to weather the storm, but he’d gone out on his own a little earlier and probably didn’t want to be seen as crawling back to the powerful units he’d left and so he was scratching out a living playing clubs and looking for something to come his way.

Naturally that something was rock ‘n’ roll, a style of music that may have seemed beneath his talents but which would take full advantage OF those talents in ways that even jazz never quite had. In a few years time he’d be – along with the aforementioned Taylor – one of the anchors of the house band for the huge multi-act shows put on by Alan Freed that brought New York traffic to a standstill for much of the 1950’s.

It’s his connection to Freed that probably is what keeps his name afloat in rock histories, but this is where he first gained entry into that field, years before Alan Freed ever was aware of rock’s existence as the most popular form of music in black America.

But if you were judging Sears’ long term prospects in this style by the awkward and clumsy Shake Hands, his move into rock was shaping up to be something that would surely be just a temporary thing, not the start of a musical reawakening that would soon lead to an unlikely second act at the forefront of a musical revolution.
 

Nothing Like Your Friends???
In the fall of 1949 Sears was playing the famed Baby Grand club in New York where he was appearing with an equally long-in-the-tooth group of singers called The Jive Bombers. Despite their interesting name this foursome were ill-fitting in almost any style, though they’d have one hit nearly a decade later on Savoy that I suppose qualifies as rock ‘n’ roll, but just a fair warning here for anyone interested in peaking ahead, it’s not likely to get a positive review.

Anyway, the group and Sears decided to try and record together and perhaps seeing as how Sears was known to the major labels through his jazz associations, they got signed by Decca, who hadn’t exactly warmed up to this rock ‘n’ roll stuff by now and so they’d started a subsidiary label called Coral where they stuck their ragtag assemblage of rock acts so they didn’t taint Decca’s sterling reputation, which is where we find Sears and The Jive Bombers today.

Except The Jive Bombers saw the only aspect of their act that was worth a damn – their cool name – changed to The Sparrows for some inexplicable reason that record companies are known for.

They cut a standard session consisting of four songs featuring the group’s jazzy quasi-hep-cat vocals with Sears prominently backing them, but of the four cuts it was Shake Hands which saw the group pushed to the rear a little more so Sears could have the spotlight to himself, taking this in the direction of rock if not all the way through the door.

We’ll get to Sears’ contributions in a minute, which are quite good, but the same can’t be said of the record overall as it is unquestionably plagued by the presence of The Jive Bombers… or Sparrows, or whatever you wanted to call these talentless derelicts, not to mention weak lyrics and… well… particularly obnoxious caterwauling to put it bluntly.
 

The Feeling Starts To Move
The introduction with Sears blowing his tenor at the top of its range paints a pretty interesting picture. It winds its way up the scale, unsteady on its feet by design maybe, starting and stopping like an impressionistic piece of performance art. There’s a haunting anxious quality to it, like the build-up to some calamity in a black and white film noir… maybe someone falling out a window to their death, or seeing the face of someone they were trying to elude and had thought they’d escaped…

Kinda like us with the Sparrows who make their presence known with some intermittent shouts behind Sears, almost acting as a warning for us to flee.

If that was all they were doing, trying to add some atmosphere, as ill-conceived as it was, we could tolerate it, but when Sears winds down they start up, Clarence Palmer, their leader, wailing in a rough sandpapery voice like a corrupt preacher trying to fleece a flock of parishioners by issuing fire and brimstone warnings, except Palmer tells us something designed to bring us together rather than send people running.

He tells us to Shake Hands.

Okay, it’s a gimmick, not an altogether original one but tolerable I suppose. But once he’s got us in his clutches he and the others start a back and forth exchange on a sing-songy rudimentary gospel refrain that I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times even without stepping into a church. Like most of those group revival meeting songs it’s simplistic but catchy in its supposedly uplifting cadences.

At this point you still aren’t happy with their arrival but you aren’t heading for the exits just yet… but give them time, because once that initial stanza is over they start to moan and wail in such a way that you think they’re either all passing gallstones simultaneously, or maybe have a chicken wing lodged in their windpipes and are gasping for air, or else they’ve been stealing too many sips from the sacramental wine and are feeling its effects all at once.

Any way you interpret it, this stretch is awful! This is an abomination masquerading as “singing”. It sounds like some lodge meeting where the members are practicing their Indian chants for a weekend pow-wow they have planned, unaware and unconcerned of who it offends.

And of course THIS dreadful display comprises the bulk of the song as written!
 

Brothers And Sisters
At this point you may wonder why we bothered to include such offensive garbage, especially since poor Al Sears presumably isn’t taking part in this musical genocide. In fact I think we can see him standing off to the side, turning his face to the wall in shame and wondering how many highballs he’d consumed at the Baby Grand that night he agreed to cut records with these boorish oafs.

But once they finally stagger away from the microphones around a minute and forty five seconds in (though they never get far enough away for our comfort) you realize why Shake Hands made the cut around here. That’s when Big Al Sears steps to the plate and does all he can to rescue this mockery of a song.

His playing features everything there is to admire in the saxophone, save a crude honk and squeal or two. His tone is strong yet supple, he’s got a good melodic instinct but doesn’t resign himself to following a strict progression that would leave him with no room to improvise, and best of all he’s got the lung power to almost drown out the buffoons in the studio with him and allow you to focus on his parts, not theirs.

That in of itself might be his most impressive feat, one almost worthy of a purple heart after being wounded with so much shrapnel from their earlier bombs (I guess we know now why they earned The Jive Bombers name to begin with). Once the voices mercifully shut up he even manages to blow a semi-exotic coda that can stand with most anything we’ve heard to date when it comes to bringing records to a close.

The final forty seconds of this record can’t completely salvage it of course, not when so much of the first half is taken up with the most unmusical sounds you can possibly imagine, but Sears is so good, so confident in his playing, so focused in WHAT he’s playing, that it raises this record up a couple of points and has it almost vying for another.
 

We’ll All Join In
In the end we can’t go THAT far, not when The Swallows/Jive Bombers are desecrating the record for more than half of its total playing time, especially when a full fifty seconds of their time on mic causes internal pain that arguably rivals the coronavirus.

But none of that is Al Sears fault, other than perhaps for giving them a lift to the recording studio rather than telling him to meet him there and giving them the address for the zoo or the town dump instead.

If you were to do some creative editing and splice the first 15 seconds featuring Sears on the intro to the last 45 seconds you’d have a very good, albeit very short, record. Even if you were to include the “singing” part of the mid-section, about 35 seconds more, you’d have a rock record that would at least deserve to be called average and that’s a deal we’d gladly shake on… in normal non-contagious circumstances at least.

But all records are the sum total of their parts and while Al Sears is far above average when he’s featured on Shake Hands the rest of this is a convoluted mess that is as grating to hear as it is troubling to even contemplate.

This certainly isn’t the ideal way to introduce someone as crucial in rock’s development over the next decade as Sears will be, but then again maybe by showing him amidst such worthless junk as the four wayward souls he finds himself paired with here is one way to make sure he stands out. If he can somehow manage not to have his own reputation tarnished by appearing with these lunkheads, imagine what he’s capable of once they’re put in quarantine with the doors locked and bolted shut to make sure they don’t infect the rest of rock ‘n’ roll with their deadly disease.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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