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DECCA 48100; MARCH, 1949



In rock history one thing is all but assured. No matter how big an artist gets singing the devil’s music rife with songs about booze, sex and sin there’s surely going to come a time when they want to deliver a song with class.

It may be a self-conscious yearning for respect from those who looked down on rock as less than serious music… oftentimes in rock’s first two decades it’s a record label directive intended to establish the artist as a serious performer suitable for nightclubs and Vegas should this rock ‘n’ roll fad fizzle out (as many felt it would as late as the early 1960’s)… or it could just be an artistic restlessness a performer feels the need to explore just to see how they might fare with something a bit weightier.

In almost every case though the results are compromised and even when they succeed commercially, often due to the artist’s sheer overwhelming popularity (say… Elvis Presley’s forays into pop over the years, or Jackie Wilson’s operatic aspirations), the residual effect in terms of their relationship to their core fan base somehow weakens. Rather than broadening their appeal as they surely hoped it would it frequently plants the seeds of distrust, almost as if the audience can sense the fervent adoration they placed in the artist is at risk of being forsaken in an effort to move up in the world.

Yet the pull towards mainstream respectability remains strong and in a case like Albennie Jones, an artist without a hit to her name in rock despite some stellar efforts, the attempt to climb to a classier vista might have been nothing more than a move based on sheer survival instinct.

You Take My Love From Me
It’s worth stating – or rather re-stating – that Jones had been around before rock reared its beautifully ugly head in 1947. She had always been a highly regarded singer, enough to get her signed to major label Decca no less, and had been paired with a wide variety of major players from Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas to Lester Young, major jazz musicians all. Yet as good as she sang, as strong as her voice was, she may have been too intense for the jazz scene and so it was left to rock ‘n’ roll when it came along for her to find her true voice.

But without the sales to back up the artistic achievements in that realm there was probably some concern from both herself and the label that maybe this wasn’t the right setting for her talents either and so with Song Man they hedge their bets a little, pairing the torch ballad with her most defiant rocker in the hopes that by offering two such contrasting performances maybe one would find an audience.

It’s a solid idea in principle, after all we’re constantly proclaiming that having two-sides to a single means that variety should be all but mandatory when it comes to the content on the flip-side of a record. In that regard we certainly can’t fault Jones for stepping further outside her primary métier, especially as the returns on some of her more assertive outings have been decidedly limited.

Furthermore it’s not as if Jones is a novice in the field of torch songs in a rock setting, as the brilliance of The Rain Is Falling so definitively proves. That was her crowning achievement, well at least until the A-side of THIS record, the storming Hole In The Wall, and so to try and recapture some of that feel on a new release wasn’t just predictable but smart as well.

But Song Man is a different kind of torch song, far more pop-rooted and jazzy than her past efforts since her move towards rock, even though it still fits well enough within rock’s growing boarders to not be completely out of place here. Yet even so I’m sure those who were fans of Jones as of late listened with some trepidation as this side played, knowing that if it, not the more appropriate rocker, wound up making the most commercial noise that she’d be increasingly steered in this direction and away from the rock field entirely over time.

This is always the dilemma when it comes to rock artists who take this step along the way. A Supremes fan in the sixties was likely just as torn in their hopes that Diana Ross and company performed credibly on albums intended for adult consumption such as At The Copa and Sing Rogers & Hart, yet knowing all along that the better they were in those high class endeavors the less music that followed would be intended for their rock-attuned ears.

So it is with Albennie Jones, maybe even more so as she’s certainly not someone who had the benefit of a track record of Number One rock hits to stave off the move towards supper clubs engagements should this show even a glimmer of appeal.

They need not have worried too much.

Put It All In A Song
It’s probably no secret that I would’ve been one of those in 1949 secretly (or not so secretly) hoping that this missed its mark, certainly in a commercial sense. If that meant Jones had to take one on the chin in an artistic sense to guarantee that it’d fall short of Decca’s commercial expectations, then so be it. Especially after hearing her tour de force performance on the unequivocal rocker (that was in fact labeled as the B-side of this record, for what it’s worth), any song that threatened to derail what was surely her ascent to rock stardom after that torrid display would have to be sacrificed for the good of her career, for the good of rock and for the good of humanity itself.

Yet even I would’ve been – and am now, almost sixty-nine years into the future – a bit let down to hear that she missed her mark as badly as she does here. Almost like seeing a gorgeous starlet without make-up on and finding her distinctly ordinary, Song Man is at times almost an unwelcome peek behind the curtain that finds Jones and the material never quite in sync.

The theme is right up her alley, that of a woman who’s dealing with heartbreak in a rather ambiguous way. Do the lyrics which have her bemoaning a singer/songwriter’s lack of fulfillment in his written promises, speak literally of the situation? In other words is she herself in a relationship with this artist who sings such brilliant pledges of devotion on stage, yet fails to live up to them in real life when it comes to satisfying her? Or is she merely speaking figuratively of a singer she doesn’t know offering up declarations of everlasting love which are but mere illusions in life as she tries in vain to find someone, ANYONE, who can live up to the expectations for such idyllic affairs in everyday life?

Either way it’s a poignant look at how everybody’s hopes for romance never quite live up to their most ardent dreams. The yearning, heartbroken sentiments themselves may at times use language that was a little florid for the type of settings rock would thrive in, but they’re not without potency all the same. They paint a picture of somebody who is equally crushed at being let down in life as they are of coming up short in love, as if they discovered that humanity is as much about survival as it is about truly finding happiness in the context of that tenuous existence.

Based on her earlier returns wherein Albennie Jones mined the sentiments of each song she sang with laser-like proficiency, oftentimes trying to extract deeper meaning from shallower material and pulling even that off with amazing skill, you’d think that a song where the emotional content was placed front and center, where the lyrics were if anything TOO weighty rather than too lightweight to carry any emotional heft, that she’d turn in a bravura performance, one that brought all her powers to bear and left the listener utterly drained.

You’d think so, but you’d be mistaken. The thing about it is, I can’t for the life of me understand how she missed.

What Made Our Love Go Wrong?
I don’t want to suggest that Jones completely whiffed on this one and turned in an utter dud of a record… that she was ill-equipped to handle the material and that it was somehow beyond her capabilities to properly convey. There are times within where she nails a line and you expect it to continue, for it all to somehow come together, but like the song’s topic itself you’re bound to be disappointed when you start wishing for a stirring outcome.

At each turn something fails to click, pulling the song back down to pedestrian levels that become all the more apparent when contrasted with its lofty aspirations.

When she was hampered by subpar material in the past on her pure unadulterated rock sides, songs that substituted a racy theme for more detailed revelations, she was often the one pulling the song past its content. Even in her pre-rock years she was frequently held back by conflicting ideals between the high-powered bands and her own vocal instincts.

Not so here.

While the band – led again by the great Sammy Price on piano – doesn’t lift this much higher than she does, they’re also not undercutting her decisions by playing in an ill-advised supporting role. Their pacing is dirge-like but that seems to be what the song calls for, or at least it’s certainly not at odds with her own delivery. It sounds as if it were worked out well in advance, each one remaining within sight of one another as it goes along, yet neither party is doing a damn thing to elevate this, almost as if each is waiting for the other to ramp things up. Yet instead of either side taking the lead in that regard and enticing the other to follow, both remain at a standstill throughout the recording, each one frozen with indecision.

Let’s start with the music which, appropriate though it may be, utterly drags from start to finish and leaves you less enraptured than is recommended for this type of song. In fact you wind up more bored by their playing than anything, which is hardly something you’d think would happen considering the talent involved. You’re waiting desperately for an injection of some life to it all, not an ill-conceived sweaty sax solo or loud drum fills but certainly a slithering guitar line wouldn’t be out of place and might add just enough subtext to make it more interesting. Yet Billy Butler, more than capable of making such a contribution, remains in the background, that is if he’s even heard at all.

Price’s role too seems to be merely to keep the basic melody on track as he offers no moments of greater resonance with his left hand nor any wistful contemplation with his right. The trumpet maintains its morose stoicism throughout, again this is the mood they settled upon and so it fits into that motif, yet it hardly adds anything of interest. It all takes on the air of a wake, the mortician grimly nodding to each person duty bound to enter the stuffy funeral parlor to pay their last respects to the dearly departed, knowing full well that none of them really want to be there and are looking forward to stepping back out into the night air after putting in their appearance out of a sense of obligation, pulling off their tie and heading to the nearest bar to unwind.

As for Jones herself, she comes across as not just despondent, as the theme might warrant, but weary. It’s a listless performance for the most part, agonizingly drawn out but without delivering any tension that might make that approach more palatable, even gripping. She’s not so much aching with despair as merely worn down by circumstance, too tired to offer more than hollow pleas without any emotional resonance behind them.

That’s the most surprising aspect of all this, how there seems to be no sense of commitment from anyone involved. You can envision this working with just a little more concerted effort. If they picked up the pace just a little to let Jones be able to lift her voice and wail at times, as if the grief is really overpowering her rather than just letting it numb her senses and snuff out her will to carry on.

It’d take no radical re-thinking of it, no grand adjustments beyond just those already laid out. A shift in the tempo mid-way through, a few notable fills to add more textures, a more impassioned reading that dug into emotional truisms the lyrics hold rather than just letting the words themselves stand as the final statement.

Use It Carelessly
This isn’t case of having a bad song to work with, a mismatched pairing of singer and musicians, a completely outdated arrangement or misguided aims by the record company in search of a different audience. Those are far more glaring problems to be faced with yet much more excusable as well.

In those cases you knew it had no chance going in and so, as annoyed you might be that nobody spoke up at the time to nix the entire production, you understand the realities of the circumstances and can simply dismiss it outright and quickly move on.

But here the goals seemed to be realistic and achievable. The band had proven their worth backing her in the past and Jones had shown herself capable of handling almost any material with a greater insight than much of it even called for. On paper Song Man is something that certainly could work… should work in fact.

Yet it doesn’t. Far from being on the verge of delivering something that appears tailor made for her, even if it was slightly out of step with what she should’ve been concentrating on – nothing clicks. There’s no ambition in their reading of it, no reaching for something that might be just out of their grasp but at least shows they were striving to make it work… to make it great.

Instead they’re all content to let it be. For the first time they all seem to willingly settle for mediocrity.

Sometimes a record adds up to more than the sum of its parts and while it might still have flaws you admire their effort to overcome them. Here, this wonderful assemblage of artists somehow combine to make something less than the individual parts are worth on their own, leaving us all scratching our heads and invariably turning the record back over to listen again to the performance where absolutely everything worked to perfection.

Ultimately that’s the Albennie Jones we’ll remember best and this misfire will be left to fade into the darkness and be forgotten.


(Visit the Artist page of Albennie Jones for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)