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ALADDIN 3014; OCTOBER, 1948

 
 

 

In the first week of October, 1948, Billboard magazine published a special edition centered entirely on music. The focus was on the disc jockey and their role in promoting music, but there weren’t any articles to be found, no insightful analysis of the business, and there was scant mention of any actual on-air personalities themselves.

Instead it was largely devoted to two things, shameless ads by record companies and “artists” (actually execs of the record labels themselves speaking for their artists) offering their “sincere thanks” to the dee-jays who made them what they are today (a form of sickening public groveling which was considered standard operating procedure at the time – they devoted an entire ISSUE to this ass-kissing!), and then there was the real drawing power of the issue, the results of the second annual Disc Jockey Poll.

Each year starting in 1947 Billboard would conduct these polls to determine what the best artists, labels, records, etc. had been according to those who supposedly knew best – the ones whose own careers were dependent on playing the songs that the public wanted to hear. More than four hundred dee-jays answered questionnaires (out of 2,500 asked, just 16%, which they touted as high – apparently the rest were too busy sailing their yachts!), covering seventeen subjects in which the jocks chose the top artists and records in a variety of fields, plus another thirteen questions about the record labels themselves and which of them provided the best service (I suppose that means offered the best bribes).

Why bring all this up here, other than we find ourselves in October, 1948 and thus it’s relevant by the calendar alone? Well to illustrate one huge overriding point that is crucial to understanding the musical – and cultural – landscape of the time in which we find ourselves now and which can be boiled down to one pertinent fact:

Of the thirty topics for the radio jocks there was only ONE that even remotely covered rock music: Favorite Record By Category, which was a subsection of Question Two, and thus not every DJ answered for each category. A pop radio DJ wasn’t answering Favorite Race Record, nor for that matter Favorite Hillbilly or Children’s Record either. Not surprisingly the Favorite Race Records that did get named were all songs aimed at older audiences by established acts.

So even though rock was a year old by this point, even though the music was making remarkable headway commercially especially in terms of generating excitement, the fact remains that the dominant music trade paper, as well as the radio industry itself and presumably the general marketplace for listening to all types of music, was either blissfully unaware of it or knew about it but chalked it up as irrelevant or, more likely, saw it as being essentially beneath contempt.

Hmmph. Well fuck you!

 

…And The Horse You Rode In On!
This is what makes rock’s ascent to the position it soon found itself in all the more remarkable and why it’s so vital to fully understand the context of the times themselves.

THIS was the world in which rock ‘n’ roll music found itself when it began and we can never lose sight of the sheer improbability of its subsequent success in such a world.

Clearly if it were left up to the prevailing tastes of the mainstream, or to the musical and social standards that these radio stations purported to uphold, even were it left to the supposedly sharp business-insights of those who stood to profit any time music rose in popularity, rock ‘n’ roll would’ve been discarded before its name was widely known.

In other words, it needed to find avenues outside the mainstream (even the black mainstream, which itself had its own elitist prejudices to overcome) to force its way into the picture. There simply was no open door policy to allow for fringe movements to get noticed.

If anything those fringe movements were being forcibly kept out, not just in music circles but society in general. Anything that is seen to upset the established order of things is always viewed as a threat. People tend to envision only what they might lose if something new takes hold, rather than what they might gain. The more radical it’s perceived as being the more resistance it faces.

That’s why rock needed to build a groundswell of interest among a specific – and otherwise neglected – audience who had both the passion to seek it out in great numbers and who possessed an underestimated economic power with which to propel it onto the charts. With that financial success established it would begin to ensure that other records were made by enterprising maverick independent labels who were seeking to gain a foothold in a very closed environment that looked down upon any challenge to its control of the entire market.

What it needed, in other words, was hits. Huge, game changing hits. Hits that not only shook the major labels and the chroniclers of the industry to their core, but hits that also encouraged others (record label entrepreneurs and artists themselves) to pursue a similar path to glory. A path that still required them to crawl through the mire, fight through the thickets and make their way through the darkness to find that glimmer of light under a bushel somewhere, one that promised commercial success, but to do so without any help from the powers that be in the industry.

To do all of this they needed a few redoubtable stars, artists whose breakthroughs wouldn’t be simply random haphazard events, but the start of a clearly defined consistent movement that their own careers would thrive in. Artists with the ability to craft additional material that furthered this music and which drew increasingly large and reliable audiences with each subsequent release.

Hits and stars… they needed a lot of them and they needed them now!

They got that and then some in Amos Milburn.
 

 

Hello Cat
It’s almost prophetic that this particular song by Amos Milburn would come along at just such a time. If ever there was a record that basically proclaimed its intent to do such a radical thing it was Chicken Shack Boogie. You’ll be forgiven if such improbable events lead you to believe that this rock movement must’ve been pre-ordained.

Each time we’ve come across Milburn thus far his work has shown both innate skill and diversity. He could croon effectively without it veering into watered-down pop (the word soon affixed to this style he employed would be soulful) which could appeal to your heart, he could also be sly and suggestive and appeal to your wit, or he could be loud and boisterous and just flat out rock, appealing to your legs, loins and anything else not already covered (umm, that’s not exactly what I meant, but… well, it works all the same!).

Whereas other artists may have mastered one of those styles, Milburn thrived in all three areas. Meanwhile he was a triple threat in another way as well, for in addition to being a highly talented pianist and a great vocalist, Amos was also the primary writer of his own material thereby allowing him to shape his own career going forward rather than relying on others to supply him with relevant and suitable songs. No other artist we’ve met thus far, and for that matter (spoiler alert) no other artist we’ll meet this decade, will tie up all three of those areas as well as Milburn.

He was rock’s biggest, most potent weapon at this stage.

Yet he was still looking for his first unquestioned HIT!

For all of his groundbreaking work dating back to the proto-rocker Down The Road Apiece in 1946, and in spite of the trendsetting work that defined his releases thus far in 1948, from the romping Bye Bye Boogie that opened the year to the lascivious Pool Playing Blues and its seductively mellow flip I Still Love You in the spring, none of them had actually reached the charts. Which takes us back to the pages of Billboard magazine and their still quite limited fifteen spot Race Records charts, the ones that put an official stamp on the popularity of the music that encompassed not just rock, but jazz, blues, gospel and black pop. In other words, a crowded field all trying to claim space in the rather narrow confines of trade magazine’s surveys.

Like it or not, that was still the key. Making the charts didn’t just signify that a record had sold the requisite number of copies or been spun enough times on the air or in a jukebox to get recognized, but it told others that it had attained that level of nationwide success and thus the musical direction contained within that record might be worth pursuing by other labels and other acts, as well to entice others to stock these records in jukeboxes and (gasp!) maybe even play them on the air!

Milburn was no star as of yet. His influence to date had been confined to the underground, to smaller pockets of followers hip to what he was laying down somewhat under the radar, at least as that radar was widely recognized by the powers that be. If it never got beyond that realm its effects were sure to be rather limited. But finally with Chicken Shack Boogie it was sprung on the world and the reaction to it showed there was suddenly no limit to how far this music would spread.

Better still, he did it with a song that was as potent as anything rock had released to date.
 

 
 

A Place Where All The Bad Cats Meet
If you were to somehow play musical chemist and attempt to take ALL of rock’s early sounds and separate them into individual components – and we’re talking over a hundred songs by now from a wide variety of artists, each one with a different aesthetic background and emphasizing sometimes completely different elements – and then attempt to determine what percentage of the overall rock formula was made up of these components… and THEN try and distill them back into a new song that used virtually ALL of the various far-flung attributes to come up with a prototype song… a perfect representation of what rock was at this stage in other words… well, Chicken Shack Boogie is pretty much what you’d come up with.

It has almost everything you need in one concise but explosive package.

What’s all the more remarkable though is that the song itself was cut a year ago, just as rock was getting off the launching pad, as Milburn laid it to wax on the 19th of November, 1947! In other words, none of what was released over the intervening eleven months factored into the actual creation of this record. In many cases the songs that made the biggest impact on the field since then hadn’t even been recorded themselves yet when they laid this down. But somehow Milburn seemed to anticipate what was to come and managed to encapsulate everything in one heady brew and actually surpass them all in the process!

Most every element of rock’s DNA is here and it’s all offered up with an amazing level of skill and precision. Kicking off with a steady grinding rhythm provided by Maxwell Davis’s saxophone, which serves as the underpinning for the bulk of the song, it’s bolstered immediately by Milburn’s piano jumping in which launches it into orbit, churning along without ever loosening the grip on the listener.

Though not as explosive a sound as you might expect, it’s an addicting groove that acts like a degenerate pied piper, leading the head-bobbing followers to a wonderful life of sinful depravity. They stop, or more accurately they pause, to let Milburn’s vocals come in like a snake oil salesman on the corner, hypnotically hawking his wares with a devilish smile that can’t help but pull you in.

The lyrics themselves are just as seductive, as he’s extending an invitation to join him at this den of inequity, the raucous chicken shack on the outskirts of town where the booze flows like water, the beautiful women have little in the way of clothing and even less in the way of inhibitions, and where, most importantly, the music sets the mood for a night of gleeful debauchery.

The serpent in the musical Garden Of Eden was unquestionably Amos Milburn.
 

Once More Is A Cinch
Once he has you in his thrall he never lets up. Each refrain touting the joys to be found across the tracks are followed by even more intoxicating musical interludes, Davis’s snake-charmer sax lines doing an erotic bump and grind with Milburn’s slinky piano hooks, quick and to the point, their combined effect absolutely mesmerizing without ever resorting to the leave-everything-on-the-table policies of the previous sax wailers or bar-room shouters in rock’s history to date, yet containing enough similarities to tie this in completely. About all that’s missing from rock’s established blueprints are the vocal harmonies but by this point you’re too drunk to notice their absence, everything else is there in excelsis.

Though the pace, at least compared to some earlier records, is somewhat languid, it seems much more rapid, unless that’s your pulse quickening as you reach the “place where all the bad cats meet”. There’s an underlying vibe of danger to this, yet not one that threatens the festivities or those who enter, but rather one that undermines the moral high ground of the outside world, which is why they don’t want you going in to begin with. They seem to know that those who enter such a realm will never voluntarily leave it once they’ve fallen under its spell. The environment there is far too alluring to be resisted. As such it’s the record that signals a new day has arrived, not just musically but culturally as well.

The game changer.

The road to perdition runs through rock ‘n’ roll and this is the door you enter if you want to join in and as we know plenty did.
 

 

Fine As Wine
What this is, when you get right down to it, is rock’s calling card. An advertisement for rock ‘n’ roll’s place in the world. The unholy invitation and party description wrapped in one, providing a vivid depiction of the atmosphere awaiting you as you move trance-like towards the open door in the steamy night air. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes… all of it is mixed in here, each perfectly realized, vivid and alive and beckoning you to give in to your curiosity and come along.

If you were a total novice to the music and needed one simple three minute introduction to what rock ‘n’ roll offered in 1948 going forward, Chicken Shack Boogie was surely it.

The public – and consequently in time the disc jockeys and record biz as well – agreed. The record topped the charts for over a month, reigned in the Top Ten for almost half a year and when it finally left the stage there were tons of other rockers joining it on those charts.

By the next year’s poll things had changed. Rock music was no longer a fringe movement, but a solidly established and permanent presence. The floodgates had opened at last and it was Amos Milburn who kicked that door down once and for all with one of the most important records ever released, and also one of the best.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
The Five Scamps (March, 1949)