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ALADDIN 3059; JUNE 1950



Oh no! Not again!

What are you doing, Amos? Are you actively trying to derail your own career with this ongoing folly of covering each and every record that’s stirring interest for someone else, like some pathetic pop singer whose career is dictated by their label’s A&R men telling them what to record?

You’re a rock artist… a genre that has been built on originality and artistic conviction from the very start! In fact you were one of those who was most responsible for this individualistic direction in rock ‘n’ roll in the first place… demanding the right to explore your own musical preferences when shaping your career, which not coincidentally is what helped to set rock music apart from the communal mindset of other genres where everybody’s material was culled from the same limited sources.

So what’s come over you lately? Are you being blackmailed? Threatened at gunpoint?? Tied to a railroad track until you consent to record one cover record after another???

Or have you simply come to the conclusion that now that you’ve made your name and earned your money you’re now content to take it easy and do whatever’s easiest?

Either way, don’t expect us – your biggest champions to date – to back you up on this. From this point forward, buddy, you’re on your own.


Seems I Have No Place To Go
We know that in the broader music scene of 1950 this sort of act was standard operating procedure. Songs were interchangeable entities in the eyes of record labels, A&R men and singers themselves. If one person came up with a good song then it was fair game for everyone else to jump on it with both feet.

The Pop Charts in the first week of June in Billboard magazine showed the extent of this thinking, as the #1 and 2 slots were two versions of the same song, something that would be unheard of down the road. Meanwhile another song held down five of the Top 25 positions (4, 10, 11, 21 and 24), while still another tune had three separate versions on the charts (6, 8 and 17). Nobody batted an eye at this, not the music industry itself and certainly not the public who seemed to show little discretion when it came to what they listened to.

But rock ‘n’ roll was changing this line of thinking. Yeah, there’d been covers of outside genre songs that popped up from time to time, some even well worth the effort – The Ravens’ Count Every Star most recently – and yes there’d even been a handful of rock acts covering OTHER rock acts and getting hits out of it, but somehow this seems different.

Hard Luck Blues had just been done to near perfection by Roy Brown, its author and the main challenger to Milburn’s crown as rock’s current king and as such there was absolutely no reason for anyone else, least of all Milburn, to try and steal some of its thunder.

Was this Amos’s vain attempt to engage in some sort of epic bare knuckles brawl for the title of rock’s ruling party? A winner-take-all battle of the titans showdown where only one man can emerge victorious while the other is forced to leave town with his tail between his legs?

Is this what we’ve come to?!?!


Change Of Clothes
Well, I’ll say this for Milburn… if we wanted to hear this composition take on the actual musical characteristics of the “blues” in the title, he definitely gives us that in this rendition.

The word “blues” of course was by this point a catch-all term that was oftentimes all but meaningless… or at least misleading… as it was used as a suffix on countless rock, pop and jazz tunes with little or no connection to the distinct musical genre known as The Blues

Roy Brown’s original Hard Luck Blues was indicative of this, for while it certainly had the thematic qualities of a typical blues song as the singer was lamenting being down and out with no better prospects on the horizon, Roy’s delivery was quite a ways away from traditional blues singing, as was the musical accompaniment with blaring horns in the intro while piano, guitar and trumpet alternated on the hypnotic lick in between the vocal lines.

Essentially Brown’s gospel-intensity on the vocals while singing about a secular situation was a return to rock’s original DNA and had nothing to do with the blues.

Milburn on the other hand largely treats this as a blues song, his halting subdued vocals backed by an aching electric guitar which has the effect of focusing on the predicament itself rather than the emotional consequences OF that predicament, which is what Brown did so effectively.

That’s not to suggest that Milburn’s alternate reading of Hard Luck Blues isn’t somewhat effective for its aims, as his singing lags behind the crawling pace giving added pathos to his litany of troubles that he’s unveiling throughout the song and when he raises his volume to signify he’s at the end of his rope it’s pretty convincing.

But convincing us he could make it as a pure blues act is hardly relevant to his ongoing status as a rock star and in it’s in that realm this record is going to be judged, which means it’s good for him that to keep him remotely tethered to that persona we have the return of Maxwell Davis on saxophone to ensure he doesn’t slip too far away from the persona we’ve come to trust.


I Need Help Bad
Starting in mid-1949 Amos Milburn began using his rough and tumble road band to back him in the studio rather than the session aces assembled by producer – and tenor sax whiz – Maxwell Davis, who’d provided him with such stellar support over the first few years of his career.

The change didn’t quite indicate a significant drop-off in quality – it’d be kind of hard to quibble with the likes of Don Wilkerson on sax and Texas Johnny Brown on guitar – but there was a slightly different feel to the records that was most evident in the byplay between the lead sax and Milburn’s vocals.

When it had been Davis blowing his horn rather than just overseeing the session from behind the glass, the two men worked with an almost telepathic understanding, almost seeming as if they were finishing one another’s lines, mirroring each other’s emotions and at times even conveying each other’s thoughts.

Who knows the reason why Davis stepped back onto the floor of the studio, bringing with him for this session old friends Gene Phillips on guitar and Ralph Hamilton on bass, meaning three of the cornerstones of Milburn’s classic run in 1947-early 1949 are back on board. In the future we’d see a mixture of sessionists and band members, primarily his own horns being added to Davis’s sax, but for this date in mid-May he’s accompanied by strictly professional sidemen.

The benefits are readily apparent on Hard Luck Blues for no other reason than Davis’s work on sax which gently coaxes a soulful quality out of what otherwise would be a much more cut and dried performance. Meanwhile Phillips shows he was a good blues guitarist – too good really for this to work in a rock setting – but it’s Davis who manages to make these hardships being documented by Amos sound almost sensual.

Does that fit the scene they’re collectively trying to paint? Umm, maybe not, but it sounds good and Davis ensures that there’s nothing clashing between what they’re playing and with Milburn’s own piano – mostly spry fills on the treble keys – acting as the bridge between those disparate perspectives, the blend they offer up at least makes it a lot easier going down.

I Might As Well Be Dead
But that still doesn’t let any of them off the hook – both for the decision to cut this song in the first place as well as for the manner in which they approach the song.

The latter we can at least give begrudging credit for trying to make sure it had a much different sound than Brown’s original, even if it was diametrically opposed to rock’s core values, but this time around we can’t be so forgiving for the former decision.

Had this been the first sign of Milburn’s pillaging the new release rolls for material this year maybe we’d be a bit more lenient, but he’s been giving us nothing but regurgitated songs for months now, none of which were compositions that had somehow failed to click in the original versions and thus needed someone else to unlock their charms, nor were they songs that necessarily played into his own greatest strengths as an artist.

What’s far worse though is how pathetic it makes Amos Milburn look with all of these cover songs. He’d emerged as the 1940’s greatest rock artist whose singing, playing and songwriting were all miles ahead of the majority of artists in this field. Even though he was much more prolific than most he seemed incapable of ever releasing a bad record, let alone ones which were ill-conceived from the start.

This is the time then when he should be standing proudly on the mountaintop while taking in all he’s accomplished. Instead with this recent string of hand-me-downs he’s acting like the one desperately trying to claw his way up the hill by grabbing at whatever song seems to show the most potential. With Hard Luck Blues, because he’s now stealing material from his own strongest competitors in the rock field, this shameful practice reaches its nadir.

As a performance, especially as one that gives us a much different stylistic glimpse of him as an artist, this is typically well done and for that you can hardly say it’s not worth hearing. But as a commercial record, one intended to confirm Milburn’s place in rock’s hierarchy, this is a sign of utter capitulation and has to be harshly condemned to discourage anyone else from following this path themselves.

Shame on you, Amos. If you’re going to wear the crown you’d better act like a king, not a worthless peon with no self-respect.


(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:
Roy Brown (May, 1950)