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In the singles era when an artist had anywhere from just six to ten songs a year made available to the public we find a successful record company with the hottest artist in the most exciting field of music to come along in decades choosing as the A-side of one of those singles… a cover song… about a guy named Johnson… as performed by a cat named Milburn.

Welcome to yet another chapter in an ongoing study entitled… “Just How Stupid Can You Get?”


Get Hep, Get Happy
The single most important aspect of any historical analysis is “context”, simply because human beings have a tendency towards modernism when looking at the world. To wit: heading across the country in the Twenty First century is a relatively common and simple endeavor yet a hundred and fifty years ago it was an epic – and dangerous – feat that few people would undertake. That sort of thing needs to be understood to put things in the proper perspective when looking back at the scarcity of leisure trips of the 1800’s.

It’s the same thing when it comes to music, as we need to comprehend what record companies thought were viable ideas in 1950 which even ten years later, let alone seventy years later, would be scoffed at by one and all.

Up until around 1955 or so it was the song, as opposed to the individual performance, which mattered most. This was a holdover mentality from the days when few people had any home device for playing pre-recorded music and instead a song would catch on via live renditions. That in turn would lead to the widespread sale of sheet music for that song which was then played – usually on the piano – by members of your own family back when learning an instrument was not much different than learning to play video games today, as most people were at least conversant in some form of music and considered these informal household sing-alongs a prime form of entertainment.

This practice gradually faded away by the 1920’s as record players became more popular and coincided with radio’s rise which enabled you to hear professionals sing and play music in your own home without having to let the filthy wandering vagabonds into your parlor to serenade you! Yet the one carryover from that earlier mindset was that you didn’t necessarily want to hear a specific artist play a song, but rather you wanted to hear a specific song regardless of which artist was playing it.

Decades after that rock ‘n’ roll would be the style of music which almost single-handedly changed this concept in large part because the common pool of material that all artists had been drawing from for years wasn’t suited to the unique individual styles of rock artists nor were rock audiences particularly interested in one-size-fits-all music.

Yet here on Johnson Rag the biggest star in all of rock is being asked to conform to that mentality.

So that leads to a rather obvious question: Just who the hell is Johnson and what’s he doing intruding on “our music”?

Like A Game Of Tag
The answer I’m afraid is not one you’ll like hearing, for the song itself not only pre-dates rock but it also even pre-dates recorded jazz and blues as it was written way back in 1917 and floated around in the repertory of a lot of dance bands during that era.

But the song had sort of faded from people’s consciousness over the next two decades until 1939 when big band leader Glenn Miller, who was basically the Amos Milburn of his field in terms of popularity and acclaim during that period, dragged Johnson Rag out of mothballs and gave it new life, and as was the custom then every bandleader in the country cut a version themselves, many of which were hits.

Okay, that’s all well and good but by 1950 even that most recent revival of this song was now more than a decade in the rear view mirror. Yet like dandelions in your lawn this thing just wouldn’t die a quiet death and – for reasons still unclear today – the tune once again caught the nation’s fancy.

In about a six month period spanning late 1949 to the spring of 1950 everybody and their mother took a whack at this it seemed, from stage star Pearl Bailey to the banjo playing Jack Teter and such remnants from the big band era as Jimmy Dorsey who cut his in a vaguely Dixieland style. They even dragged Russ Morgan’s 1939 cover of Miller’s version back out and he scored with it, showing there was no limit to the desperate grab for a hit.

Surely rock ‘n’ rollers would steer clear of this nonsense, wouldn’t they?

Nope, because of those same contextual reason we opened our review with. Though rock was indeed in the process of obliterating the acceptance of cover versions that change hadn’t fully taken hold in 1950 and record companies, even those specializing in styles far removed from the mainstream drivel that was clinging to these old ideals, still saw value in hopping on a hot song and trying to milk some sales out of it… no matter what damage it might do to the reputations of their artists.

So Amos Milburn, a man who shouldn’t have needed ANY tricks, gimmicks or shameless ploys to get a hit at this point in his career, found himself drafted to chip in with his version of this hoary old tune.


It’s Funny How It Makes You Move
Having dutifully listened to all of the popular versions of the song, both from 1950 and decades earlier, the main appeal in each version is the simple catchiness of the melody, rising and falling with precise head-bobbing good cheer.

The definitive recording by Glenn Miller had been typically classy while the more recent one turned in by Bailey is more irreverent, flirtatiously ad-libbing her way through the guitar break to urge him on. Claude Thornhill’s version meanwhile sounds like a good natured quasi-send up of it as performed in a small town variety show.

But not everybody appeared happy about being asked to record this as the country take on it by the Hoylman Quartet gives the impression that singer Gene Colin is in physical pain as he attempts to keep from throwing up while performing it. He wasn’t alone in his apparent distaste for it because on the sprightly gimmicky version turned in by Glen Moore and Lynn Richards they seem as if they’re trying to hurry out of the studio before they’re implicated by the arrangement’s demeaning nature.

Ironically though maybe the worst popular version was turned in by Jack Teter’s Trio which is actually the one responsible for reviving this again in the first place. Their rendition is downright silly and sophomoric without quite descending to parody or novelty to justify that approach. The combination of his half-spoken grinning vocals and the drastically sped up music makes it sound even more ridiculous and you wonder how moronic people were back then to find this dreck endearing rather than annoying.

So in comparison to those wildly fluctuating standards Amos Milburn can’t help but sound invigorating on his version of Johnson Rag as he comes out of the gate with a baritone sax leading it off before the other horns, hinting at a Dixieland feel, join in.

Milburn’s vocals are sly and a little devious sounding, certainly implying far more than all of the other versions combined, though with its rather innocuous lyrics who knows what he’s referring to as he leers suggestively at times. Maybe he was disgusted by the crass attempt to latch onto this song’s tailwind and was mocking it in the process, or perhaps he was indeed trying to subvert it to get a rise out of audiences, but it definitely helps that he sounds as if he’s not taking the words themselves at face value.

Better still though is the band behind him, his road-tested Chickenshackers who by now were fully comfortable in the studio and itching to show off. Though Milburn’s piano is rambunctious throughout what really stands out are the saxes, led by Don Wilkerson and Billy Smith on tenor and Willie Simpson on baritone who gets plenty of room to showcase that lower sound on some extended runs while being augmented by the others.

During the two instrumental breaks they’re practically taking flamethrowers to the sheet music, igniting the song in ways that would make the composers cringe and in the process getting you to believe that rock ‘n’ roll indeed had the potential to corrupt almost anything it laid its hands on, even something this inane.


It Isn’t A Gag
So why isn’t this getting a better score when I’ll state plainly that it as a record it sounds slightly better than the “average” designation I’m awarding it?

The answer is context.

If you were unaware of the song’s history and the rival versions that were assaulting the airwaves in 1950 you might very well be inclined to think of this as being a good, if rather shallow, uptempo rock ‘n’ roll dance record for its day… catchy and enjoyable if ultimately forgettable compared to Milburn’s more potent discs.

But that’s not how these things are judged. All records need to be evaluated in the context of their own era and style and in that regard Johnson Rag fares much worse.

It’s not just that its thematic content is lacking compared to more authentic original rock songs, but its mere presence on the release schedule raises questions about the industry’s belief in the ongoing commercial potency of undiluted rock ‘n’ roll. This is especially troubling considering that we aren’t dealing with some unproven journeyman looking for a cheap hit to make a name for himself – like Doc Sausage on Rag Mop a month back – but rather a superstar who never should’ve stooped this low.

I mean, this is Amos Freaking Milburn we’re talking about, someone who has churned out nothing but great records and a dozen hits over the past few years! If Aladdin Records thinks so little of HIS ability to keep the hits rolling with original material that they’d resort to cutting a cover of an ancient song already going through its third generational revival then what does that mean for rock’s progress moving forward?

That Milburn’s record actually went on to become a regional hit only makes matters worse for that could indicate the company would be justified in viewing this approach as a success giving them all the green light to do more of the same from now on. Once that is allowed to happen we’re only a hop, skip and a jump away from Big Joe Turner grimacing his way through I Said My Pajamas And Put On My Prayers or Wynonie Harris being forced to sing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.

That kind of thing would undoubtedly cause the world to end in a giant explosion and centuries from now martians would find such records floating through the cosmos leading them to believe that garbage was indicative of rock ‘n’ roll. All of which means if we ignore that doomsday warning and grace this record with a better score our hard-earned reputations as connoisseurs of raw, primal and culturally revolutionary music will be ruined for eternity.


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