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ALADDIN 3018; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

What do you do when you have a record that you KNOW is gonna be huge before you even release it? A song that is already catching spins by another artist – which in the 1940’s meant it was gonna get covered by everybody under the sun within 36 hours of its release – and seems as though it was tailor-made for your own number one star?

That was exactly the situation that Aladdin Records found themselves in when they entered a studio in Chicago in October 1948 to lay down a quick take on Bewildered, a song already a dozen years old which had just been re-arranged and issued by the Red Miller Trio on Bullet Records and was drawing immediate attention. Time was of the essence to get their take on it out and since Milburn was on tour they made due by booking studio time in the Windy City to get it down on tape.

While there he had free reign to come up with a B-side and whether it was something he conceived on the spot or had been working on for awhile, he delivered something typically polished and high class even though it was sure to be lost in the shuffle.
 

 
Now Aladdin didn’t necessarily HAVE to put out the song Milburn cut then, for they had plenty of unissued cuts in the vault that might’ve been exhumed for just such a purpose. I for one am absolutely shocked that they never released his incendiary Wolf On The River cut at the tail end of 1947 which would’ve been perfect for the waning days of 1948 when that sound was at its peak, not to mention the fact the storming rocker offered the ideal contrast to the dreamy soulful ballad that was Bewildered.

Maybe they didn’t even bother shipping the tapes cut in Chicago back to L.A. first and simply had them pressed there to hasten the process, but that doesn’t seem likely since it was nearly two months between its recording and release. But whatever the case, A&M Blues is another solid example of Milburn’s consummate skill as a composer, musician and vocalist and if the mood of the song is a little too close to the top side (at least compared to something a raucous as “Wolf”) it’s still different enough to stand out in its own right.
 


 
 

When I First Met You, Baby
The way A&M Blues starts, Milburn playing the bass pattern as if his only goal is to put you in a trance before he’s joined by a mellow saxophone which now alternates with Milburn’s deft right hand, you’re almost sure that it’s bound to be an instrumental… and a good one at that.

In fact if you were aware of the recording circumstances that’d also make the most sense when you come to think of it. They had a song already worked up for the main output, they just needed to churn out something serviceable for the flip. An instrumental cuts down on that work by eliminating lyrics and vocals. Besides it’s not as if Milburn had been releasing instrumentals at this point and since he was such a good pianist that it’d be worth the effort to get something out there to showcase that aspect of his artistry a bit more.

But the fact he (apparently) didn’t have his usual right hand man present with him in Maxwell Davis to both conduct the session as producer and add his brilliant saxophone to the proceedings probably eliminated that as a consideration, although whoever is playing in his stead is doing more than a fair job in replicating his style (it IS possible that Davis made the trip to the Windy City for just such a purpose – there is no surviving sessionography to know the accompanists).

The two instruments weave in and out of one another’s path with the utmost precision, both casting a lazy spell over the listener. When Amos starts singing nearly a minute in you aren’t quite expecting it, but then again it’s never a bad thing to hear his soulful voice breaking the trance you find yourself under.

Despite the slow pace of the music his voice has a little more urgency to it that’s fitting for the storyline of a man scorned by love who manages to keep his dignity and his cool when confronting the girl in question. There are times when he shows he’s still got feelings for her and his subsequent claims that she’ll be the one who’s going to regret losing him comes across as bravado more than anything, but he’s such a skilled actor that he manages to shade even this shift in his delivery with just the right pathos to keep it believable.
 
 

How Can You Love Me And Central Avenue Too?
Though Milburn never goes too deep into the particulars of what caused this romance to fray at the seams he does hint at it by mentioning her love for the nightlife on Central Avenue.

That cue offers us the perfect opportunity to delve into the heart of Los Angeles’s thriving black community of the 1940’s, which since Spontaneous Lunacy is dedicated to not only thoroughly documenting the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll but also the culture and environment that gave rise to the music we’re analyzing, it seems fitting that we’re able to get to this before rock’s first full calendar year is in the books.
 

 

Some streets become synonymous with a certain cultural movement, lending a mystique to the era which produced it. New York has plenty, from Broadway which needs no explanation, to 52nd Street for the jazz scene and Bleecker Street representing the folk scene that thrived in Greenwich Village during the late 50’s and early 60’s. A few years later (and across the country) San Francisco’s Haight Street became world renowned thanks to the Hippie community that had its spiritual home in Haight-Ashbury district, at least to the outside world. New Orleans’ Bourbon Street and Memphis’ Beale Street became more tourist centers than anything through the years, but they’re known the world over as music capitals of their respective cities.

In Los Angeles, a spread out metropolis if ever there was one, Central Avenue was the heart of the black community where the music took on a life of its own throughout the 1940’s. Clubs lined the street – Club Alabam being the most prominent, the meeting place for the hipsters throughout much of the decade – and on Friday and Saturday nights sharply dressed patrons, freed temporarily from the drudgery of their daily lives at the bottom of the social food chain, roamed from one hotspot to the next in a never-ending quest for the high life.

There were lively churches, stores and street performers aplenty all of which added immeasurably to the distinctive atmosphere that permeated the street. In 1948 notorious musical entrepreneur John Dolphin launched his record store, Dolphin’s Of Hollywood, open 24 hours a day and which broadcast radio shows from the store window with the deejays like Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg urging listeners to come down to the store at “Vernon and Central, Central and Vernon“. The name of the place was an in-joke of sorts for the listeners who knew they weren’t wanted in the REAL Hollywood, so Dolphin let them know that his place was a Hollywood of sorts for the black community.

Of course with anything in black America that was this vibrant and self-sufficient the white power structure of the time wasn’t going to stand to see it flourish for long. In 1950 new police commissioner – and racist demagogue – William Parker led a fully sanctioned terrorist campaign designed to curtail the freedoms blacks had gained over time in the region.

The police began to aggressively stop and frisk anyone up and down Central Avenue who was seen to be having a good time, which naturally made going out in search of song, dance and drink a dehumanizing proposition and because he wasn’t issuing citations these jackbooted tactics couldn’t be disputed in court.

They systematically stamped out clubs that catered to interracial mingling by marching patrons down to the nearest police station for “inspection”, which was simply a code word for legalized harassment. They went even further when they felt particularly incensed however, arresting interracial couples as if to forcibly try and hold back the growing belief in equality.

The aforementioned Dolphin’s Of Hollywood, which had a thoroughly mixed-race clientele, was barricaded by police who warned whites to stay away because it was “dangerous” to be there, though as usual the only danger anyone risked in going to the store was posed by those wearing badges. Not only did this tactic drastically cut into the store’s profits, but it also curtailed the possibility of those of different racial backgrounds coming together over shared musical interests and perhaps in the process of talking music, dancing and going out together discovering that human beings are not different due to their skin pigmentation any more than they are by the pigmentation of their eyes or hair.

In time the city took even more permanent steps to ensure Central Avenue’s downfall by enacting restrictive zoning laws which prevented the established clubs from doing business and the loss of revenue meant mortgage companies had reason to foreclose, driving them out and changing the entire makeup of the neighborhood in short order. By the mid-50’s Central Avenue’s rich musical and cultural legacy was but a memory.
 

My Heart Was Yours To Keep
But in 1948 the region had lost none of its luster yet and Milburn’s girl was among those swayed by its booming nightlife, even though – in reality – it was Amos Milburn himself who was a fixture on the scene.

Oddly enough the type of music you’d hear pouring out the club windows as the night wore on would be best reflected by the instrumental break in which Amos displays his showy right hand, rather than the somewhat mournful lament the rest of A&M Blues features. I’d still like to hear what this would’ve shaped up as without vocals because it’s such an evocative instrumental track, but that’s hardly any knock on Milburn’s lyrics or vocals, which are typically first-rate.

His use of hipper vernacular – You keep saying that you love me but that’s old and it won’t do – distances it from the standard approach to songwriting at the time, giving it a looser feel and more personal tint, as if you were eavesdropping on him getting into it with his girl one booth over in Jack’s Basket Room… or maybe Ivie Anderson’s The Chicken Shack… (hmmm, why does that place sound familiar?). He closes it out with melodic wordless cries leading into a trio of “Hey Boy” exclamations which conveys the type of skilled improvisation he excelled at.

 

 

There was nobody in rock at any time to date that was hotter than Amos Milburn was at the tail end of 1948 and start of ’49 and A&M Blues kept up his winning streak last over these two releases, a perfect four for four on Billboard‘s charts with both A-sides hitting #1 while the B-sides each cracked the Top Ten as well.

This one may have been the most unlikely candidate to do so for it doesn’t really give us another side of Milburn the artist to contemplate, nor offer a different persona for Amos to inhabit, but when he’s so proficient at showing off THIS aspect of who he is, both musically and in his character’s disposition, I suppose the powers that be at Aladdin – and the audience who couldn’t get enough of him – figured it was more than good enough for their needs.

Ours too.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Amos Milburn for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)