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Any way you wanted to judge things Amos Milburn was one of the greatest artists in rock ‘n’ roll history, one of its founding members whose dominance, both commercially and artistically in the late 1940’s saw him with few, if any, peers.

Yet that run came to a screeching halt as the calendar turned to 1950.

For the last nine months Milburn had released a succession of shallow cover songs and thinly disguised reworkings of his own greatest records which may have resulted in a few hits, even a handful of strong performances, but which completely derailed his momentum as rock’s guiding light.

The decision to pursue this wayward path was very likely not his own, but rather Aladdin Records who were seeking to capitalize on his name recognition without putting forth much effort in the studio. With each uninspired, non-original release however they were weakening his standing, eroding his fan-base and allowing other, far more ambitious, artists to fill the void. The longer he went along with this plan, the more it seemed as if he were willingly throwing in the towel.

Finally with this record Milburn gets back into the ring, shakes off the rust and delivers a knockout to launch Stage Two of his indelible career.


Made Me Lose My Happy Home
Nine months might not seem like too much time to take a creative sabbatical but with rock advancing at lightning speed, an abdication of the throne like this came with no guarantee that he’d ever be able to reclaim it if he didn’t reverse course and right the ship.

Rock ‘n’ roll was shaping up to be an entirely different beast than pop music. The latter was notorious for recycling older songs and for mining the current hit parade, allowing name artists to come up with their own versions of the most popular tunes of the moment, all but guaranteeing them extensive airplay.

But rock fans were demanding a higher level of artistic authenticity with new material and unique arrangements that ensured the entire genre was never content to rest on its laurels and grow stagnant.

Throughout the late 1940’s nobody met these expectations more consistently than Amos Milburn who was not only a great singer and pianist, but also a first rate songwriter who oversaw one of the best road bands in the business and was backed in the studio by the best sessionists Los Angeles had to offer. With all that going for him it seemed as if his reign would stretch well into tomorrow.

Until he lost control of his own output.

Sensing things were going off the rails after so many compromised releases that failed to come close to matching the sales of his stellar 40’s run, Maxwell Davis, the producer of his records as well as the leader of the studio band and a great writer himself, came up with the solution – booze.

Well, actually a SONG about boozing called Bad, Bad Whiskey which combined a topic that had a seemingly bottomless interest among rockers with an alluring melody that played into Milburn’s vocal strengths. If anything had the power to get him back on track it was surely this.


The Cats Were On The Loose
The dancing piano over a clipped backbeat that leads this off gives the record an instantly reassuring feel, like a smiling friend gently putting his arm around your shoulder welcoming you home from a long journey that seemed to have no end.

This is as laid back as we’ve ever heard Amos Milburn as he spins his tale of a descent into the bottle that sounds as inevitable as it is poignant. If ever a singer knew how to perfectly embody a character in a song it was Milburn and listening to him here you can tell he’s got that “look” on his face… you know the one I’m talking about, the one people get after a couple of drinks, their eyes starting to droop, the ironic half smile that creeps across their face, that sense of tranquility they get from first giving up and then giving in.

It’s a look of contented defeat, of someone who isn’t at the end of their rope anymore because they’ve let go of that rope altogether and are now drifting into the abyss. For some it might last just a night or a long weekend, for others it will last a lifetime. Milburn – who in the future would battle alcoholism himself – nails that mood so accurately that you can almost smell the liquor through the speakers.

Bad, Bad Whiskey isn’t celebratory at all, it’s not an advertisement for pouring another drink and it’s not an invitation to an endless party like so many drunken rock songs are. Instead it’s – rather ironically – a sober reflection of the erosion of his will, presented without any judgement on Davis’s part, as writer, producer or bandleader, allowing Amos to swim in the stale backwash of his own drinks.

In spite of that unflinching honesty – or perhaps because of it – Milburn has never been more appealing. He’s projecting his voice with as little effort as humanly possible, yet still hitting his notes, holding them and bending them with subtle inflections to make the story come alive.

Lyrically it’s content to provide just quick snapshots of the day… the steadfast promises, the temptations he resolutely passes by before ultimately succumbing to his weaknesses followed by the ramifications of his decision that slowly begin to sink in before the hangover even hits. Each vignette manages to convey a fuller picture with just these brief glances, the colors, shapes and shadows all hinted at with Milburn providing the final framing of the scenes with his laconic delivery.

This was what made Milburn and Davis so potent. Each could impress you with the usual bag of tricks of the in-your-face variety to match up with any of the acts who made their entire living on playing those roles, but unlike most of them these two could be just as effective as minimalists, laying back without losing any of their appeal… never more so than here.


Gave The Boys The Slip
Musically this takes that minimalism to the extreme, forsaking even a solo – with plenty of capable musicians to chose from no less – so that the mood they set is never broken for a second.

Yet in spite of it being as mellow as a prolonged buzz as midnight approaches, Bad, Bad Whiskey makes the most of its sparse track with each piece fitting perfectly into the broader atmosphere Davis has created.

Milburn’s piano is nothing more than the pace-setter after that slight flourish in the opening moments. He’s not carrying the melody nor is he emphasizing the rhythm, but rather he’s sitting in between those two roles, sort of embellishing each without making his preference known. His left hand regularly drops in with clustered accent notes, yet its presence is so discreet that if you allow your attention to drift for so much as a second it’ll take you a few bars to pick it up again.

Then there’s those drums played by the previously unknown Eldeen McIntosh. What he’s doing is hardly worth getting excited about from a technical standpoint, just holding the beat steady, but his playing has a metronomic feel to it. Like the ticking of a clock being amplified in a cavernous stone walled room emphasizing the monotonous passage of time that marks this kind of late night drunken submission, it’s an ominous sound that never gets played up which might actually make it more haunting.

Finally there’s Chuck Norris who’s back on guitar following a prolonged absence from Milburn’s sessions and if anyone here gets singled out for praise by the masses it’ll probably be him, simply because unlike the others whose lines are intentionally repetitive, Norris gets to add plenty of improvised riffs – still kept well in the background, but noticeable all the same. His subtle tonal shifts alone keep you from ever getting too comfortable and as always he never even thinks of playing one note too many, content to fill in each hole without creating a bigger one by taking things too far.

You’ll notice that one name – or rather four names – conspicuously absent from this roll call are the horns who sit this out entirely. That means none of the languorous Maxwell Davis solos he was known for, nor any showmanship from Don Wilkerson, Willie Smith or Willie Simpson, who must’ve been passing around the bottle themselves since they weren’t asked to pick up their saxophones.

But while it’s conceivable they could’ve added something special, they’re not missed in the least as once again Davis shows that when it came to arranging nobody had the ability to create such evocative tracks while not utilizing all of the tools in his kit.


Before The Night Was Over
Normally you wouldn’t ever recommend a drink to pull somebody out of their personal or professional doldrums but in this case it hit the spot, giving Milburn his fourth – and final – Billboard Number One hit, staying on the charts a whopping nineteen weeks after landing just two songs – for a measly one week apiece – on those same listings for all of 1950 prior to this.

Moreover it confirmed all that we’ve been saying this whole time, that all artists, especially those as gifted as Milburn (and Davis) need to lead the pack, not try and follow trends, particularly those from other genres, or to rely on mere formula to keep the fans satisfied.

Of course that kind of advice is apt to be ignored in the music biz, where idiocy is seemingly a requirement to owning and operating a record label, as Aladdin Records would soon have them recycle the basic components to Bad, Bad Whiskey over and over again after this, further undercutting Milburn’s legacy with shortsighted moves.

But we’ll have plenty of time to rail against that trend in the future, for now anyone who’d begun to lose faith in Amos Milburn to deliver something new and transcendent could rest easy for awhile, as this record can stand with any of those which originally defined him.

As comebacks go maybe this doesn’t qualify simply because he wasn’t down and out long enough to be written off completely, but as an artistic re-awakening this one is pretty hard to beat.


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