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ALADDIN 3037; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

What is THIS?!?!

That’s not a question of shock and disgust as you might think, but rather it’s a question asked with genuine interest and excitement upon hearing the latest side by perhaps the single greatest rock artist of the 1940’s.

But what aspect of the record does the question specifically refer to that elicits such an unexpectedly pleased response?

Is it the fact that somebody at Aladdin Records was astute enough to use the flip-side of a single to diversify his sound, in this case offering up an instrumental on the back of a Christmas song?

Or is it the fact that this is not only a really good instrumental, but a really good SAXOPHONE fueled instrumental… ya know, since Amos Milburn himself is a piano player.

No, he hasn’t switched instruments on us, but he’s willingly, even gleefully turned the spotlight on his top notch touring band on a record that perfectly encapsulates the landscape of the last year of the first decade in rock’s story.
 

 
Somebody’s Well Conceived Plan
Fear not, we’re not about to pat ourselves on the back for suggesting this very thing numerous times already in our journey through rock history. I mean, even if it IS true that we’ve repeatedly stated how crucial it is to not simply have each and every release feature two interchangeable songs delivered in the same exact style as the ones that preceded it, we’re not going to take credit for the message finally sinking in.

After all the Mesner brothers died in 1963 and 1992 respectively and we only started Spontaneous Lunacy in January 2017 so it’s not like they were reading this advice in 1949 when this record was released and took it to heart.

But if they HAD been the results would have been the same because they’ve done just as we suggested and given us the perfect B-side in every way.

We just can’t claim credit for it.

But we CAN reiterate the reasons why this was such a good plan in the first place in an era when artists saw their work dished out to the public just two songs at a time, approximately three or four times a year, and those songs were what acted as their artistic manifesto, their most effective form of self-advertising and offered a look into their musical soul, all in addition to serving as the commercial measuring sticks to determine their place in the rock pecking order.

Those aims aren’t always compatible. Sometimes you get a record that the artist was really enthusiastic about but which wasn’t going to have widespread appeal. Other times you had something suited for the marketplace that was an artistic compromise. Then you had records which weren’t so much proper records as they were a sneak peak at how they would tear it up on stage, practically inviting you to come check them out to see them tear the joint up the next time they rolled through your town.

It’s that last definition that Bow-Wow! falls under. A vital piece of evidence that Amos Milburn was no mere studio mirage, artfully pieced together bit by bit by a great producer. In fact, and in what turns out to be a first here for Milburn, that legendary producer, Maxwell Davis, one of the best to ever serve in that role in all of rock history and who also was one of the best sax players in rock history, does not appear on this session at all.

The reason for that is this is the first time that Milburn’s backing band – the dubiously named Aladdin Chickenshackers – appear on record with him.

In a way this is sort of sad, simply because the studio session players on Aladdin, starting with Davis himself on tenor sax, were among the finest musicians we’ve encountered in rock ‘n’ roll to date and their playing behind Milburn was so deftly performed that you sensed they were all operating on the same wavelength by divine intervention.

Yet even though he was an unusually prolific recording artist, doing sessions at a far higher rate than most of his competitors atop the rock mountain, Milburn spent comparatively little time ensconced in the studio because his main means of income was gotten on the road and for that Davis wasn’t going to tag along with him and give up HIS primary means of income, cutting sessions for a wide array of artists for multiple West Coast labels.

So Milburn recruited a bunch of young up and coming musicians and after slogging through months of one night stands they became a fire breathing dragon on stage.

And now, at last, in the studio as well.
 


 

Off The Leash
What prompted this switch in the middle of Milburn’s most successful run can only be speculated. Normally record labels are more conservative than the aging President of a traditional Catholic boarding school and thus any changes to a proven formula in the record business would lead to suspicion of being possessed by Satan.

Maybe it was a rush job to get the Christmas song on the top-side in the can so they could release it immediately (indeed the turnaround on it was unusually quick for that era, just a matter of days in fact). But if that were the case it’s doubtful they would cut more than two sides and this session produced the standard four cuts.

So then you think it might be to placate Milburn himself if he was nagging the label about letting “his guys” play on their records. Figuring that one session wouldn’t hurt even if they didn’t prove up to snuff they might’ve acquiesced just to keep their star happy.

But then you hear what they laid down and realize that this was no charity case, no indulgent favor for their headliner, no hurried session to meet the demands of a holiday release… they got to play because they could PLAY, as Bow-Wow! makes abundantly clear.

It starts off with horns churning setting a relentless pace and it’ll be them, not Milburn on keys, that’s the focal point of the track. We’re meeting up again with one of the overlooked titans of the instrument in Don Wilkerson, who may not have even been shaving yet as he’d turned 17 years old just three months earlier when he was still cutting sides with fellow hometown teen prodigy Little Willie Littlefield, who at times sounded uncannily like Milburn. It would seem Amos was listening as he snatched Wilkerson up for himself and in the process elevated his stature considerably at the time.

Historically his name recognition – such as it is – comes mainly from playing behind Ray Charles in the mid-1950’s before setting out on his own and cutting a few acclaimed jazz albums that sold little and essentially ended his recording career by the mid-1960’s. Wilkerson’s early legacy in rock with Milburn’s group takes a back seat to both of his later stops and it’s not as if those are widely acknowledged by music histories to begin with, making him something of a lost giant with limited output on which to rebuild his reputation.

If you’re looking do so however here’s one of the places you need to start because he gets plenty of room to show off after the group intro finds him sharing space with fellow tenor horn Billy Smith and baritone Willie Simpson, during which one them, presumably Wilkerson based on his later inclinations, approaches the alto range which makes it sound slightly out of place in rock, but their frantic energy makes up for it.

Simpson tries grounding them with a deeper passage but it comes across as a little weak. But they’re not giving up as Wilkerson – again, presumably – jumps in with an extended passage on the higher range of the tenor. This is also a little directionless, but interesting and even exotic in a way as he spirals the notes up like the stripe on a spinning barbershop pole.

So I know what you’re probably thinking by now – this is nothing but a bunch of exuberant kids whose eagerness outweighs their ability. Yes, they CAN play, but they don’t have the discipline, nor the chops, to compete with even the most run-of-the-mill sax players in rock, and certainly pale in comparison to the great Maxwell Davis.

Just hold on because things start coming together as soon as Milburn delivers a shout of encouragement from behind the piano and Bow-Wow! emerges from the doghouse and starts chasing down rabbits.
 


 

Release The Hounds
It’s obvious an instrumental like Bow-Wow! was something that came out of a live gig setting. Whether it was specifically a pattern they’d played before on the bandstand or if they were just improvising on the studio floor as they probably did a few times each night at their shows, it takes awhile to get focused and make sure everybody on the same page, but with Milburn’s cry at the 1:20 mark each piece not only falls into place but they all tighten up their playing and start really hitting their marks like seasoned pros.

Wilkerson’s tone thickens, his passion swells and his playing becomes more fervent and yet somehow more controlled at the same time. He’s squealing notes that normally signal someone on the verge of melodic breakdown yet he manages to keep it on track. The earlier uncertainty has given way to a startling amount of confidence, almost as if by this point there was no turning back so they might as well let it all hang out and take their chances.

As good as Wilkerson sounds though oddly enough it’s guitarist Johnny Brown who acts as the anchor in the second half of the record, taking it all the way from the scattershot approach they began with to the tightly controlled arrangement they end with. Brown’s guitar reins everything in, partly thanks to the tone which doesn’t have the ability to go off the rails as much as a wayward saxophone, but more so because he’s so efficient in what he plays. His guitar is like a sharp saw, methodically cutting the edge of the song rather than acting as a stiletto stabbing it repeatedly as so many of the other attacks we’ve heard that instrument make in rock to date. Brown never lets the solo get away from him, yet doesn’t ease back on it either, carrying the ball for the middle passage with understated confidence which makes the return of the cockier horns that much more explosive.

By now they’re all in the groove, lustily honking and blowing, riding that rhythm for all they’re worth, completely self-assured and knowing full well that they belong here on the big stage of rock ‘n’ roll. In just three minutes their transformation from uncertain kids to swaggering pros is complete.
 

Beware Of Dog
No, they’re not yet on par with Davis and his hired guns, but in many ways that’s for the best. Though we’d never question the right of someone as well-heeled and multi-talented as Maxwell Davis to be honking away as a backing musician on someone else’s rock record, there was always a nagging feeling that he was a ringer in a sense, someone who was paid to support whoever was due in the studio that day in whatever style that artist called for and he’d put forth the same professional effort whether it was behind someone as great as Milburn or somebody who shouldn’t be allowed near an open microphone in the first place.

With these guys, The Chickenshackers, they were out to prove themselves worthy of backing Milburn on record as they did on stage, trying to make names for themselves in the process and expand their own prospects going forward. Their youth and inexperience was an asset in this regard, not only giving them a deeper cultural connection to the music of this era – THEIR era – but also because at that age you have a determination that is hard to match.
 

 
That was the greatest asset of Bow-Wow!, a record Milburn himself has only cursory musical presence on. But this was Amos Milburn as the facilitator, setting his band loose on the world at large, encouraging them and frankly expecting them to live up to his own high standards, then beaming with pride when they pulled it off.

Though not much of a song in the traditional sense and while it’s lacking some of the anticipatory lit-dynamite feeling of the more established instrumental hell-raisers, this is a spirited and rambunctious performance that is perfect for the role it serves on this single. In many ways this performance is like a changing of the guard in rock, as we’re starting to reach the point where now there’ll be an entire generation raised on rock ‘n’ roll who can step into the roles previously filled by the older vets and hold their own.

The kids, as they always do in rock, are too impetuous to hold back, so it’s probably best not to try and just let them run wild.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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