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The term itself of course has long since overwhelmed the music it’s been attached to over the years, but back in 1951, a time when any lingering doubts about the music’s longterm veracity had subsided, the term had a comfortable feel to it for maybe the last time.

The audience knew on sight that it was music meant for them, the record companies themselves had seen to that with their promotion of it, and yet because it hadn’t quite been completely overexposed and critiqued by outsiders there was room to play around with it.

Amos Milburn was arguably the most talented and popular star of rock’s first five years and so naturally it fell to him to both assert the main concept behind this music but also to show just how broad that concept could be stretched in doing so.


Now That Things Are Groovy
Music is sex… and sex is music.

This eternal truth has been exploited and denied in equal measures through the years but it is undeniable for the simple fact that music is an expression of human emotions and no emotion is as all consuming than sexual desire.

It was true of jazz in the 1920’s and rock twenty five years later. The difference between the two genres was while both forms of music were corrupted by those who’d once decried it after they saw there was too much money to be made not to take advantage of it, jazz embraced its new status in the mainstream by the Nineteen Thirties until it had lost almost all vestiges of the danger it once held.

Rock of course would come close to allowing itself to be tamed for mass consumption countless times over the years too, but its good fortune – or its genius, you be the judge – was that each new generation continually rejected the allure of letting itself be benignly accepted in favor of pushing the old limits even further in an attempt to live up to what it was that drew them to the music in the first place.

In other words, the new forcibly vanquished the old every few years to ensure the music remained pure… and purely wicked as well.

In 1951 Amos Milburn was balancing precariously between those two mindsets. In the late 1940’s he was the “new”… the one who’d been pushing the limits, whether it was rocking harder on some songs or singing with more soul on others, and he’d been amply rewarded for perfecting both stylistic avenues.

Yet his success – as most success eventually does – has a tendency to soften your artistic edges. Once your hunger has been quelled, your desires fulfilled, you tend to want to keep what you’ve managed to obtain rather than strive for something still out of reach.

Let’s Rock Awhile is like the moment just before the fall, where Milburn’s infallible artistic instincts are in the process of being gradually dulled but not quite at the point where they’ve lost their glint.

It’s rock ‘n’ roll on the verge of becoming comfortable… but still more than creative enough, not to mention sexually promiscuous enough, to not settle into contentment and old age just yet.


I’ve Been Waiting All Night For This Chance
Clearly this song is designed to take full advantage of the dual meaning surrounding the term “rock” as it refers to the music itself and the sex that is always present in its DNA.

The first definition is satisfied by its musical… umm… “thrust” with the churning piano, sultry saxophone, subversive guitar and anticipatory stop and start vocal pattern. Meanwhile the lyrics leave no doubt that this kind of rocking is done in close quarters with clothes scattered around a darkened room which takes care of the second aspect of the terminology.

Because it’s a song of seduction rather than describing actual sweaty action between the sheets Let’s Rock Awhile is built around an addictive mid-paced melody that suggests what is going to be taking place behind closed doors as soon as he convinces whoever he’s got his eye on to join him, pulling up just short of opening the windows to let us see and hear the actual event itself.

Milburn of course virtually patented this kind of vocal delivery – horny but still under control, manipulative while remaining slightly endearing in the process. As a result the eventual hook up seems inevitable and the girl he’s focusing on is probably offering up her mild resistance more as a matter of maintaining a respectable image as opposed to being put-off by his propositioning her. Thankfully he’s not being at all ambiguous about his intent, for even though he’s avoiding crudity in what he’s describing you should’t have any trouble reading between the lines as he coaxes her to a corner where “the lights are low” so he can get it on with her.

After seeing her dance and being impressed by her moves he states bluntly, “I think you’ve jumped enough” and then in that honeyed croon tells her they should rock awhile instead. Clearly his definition does not mean taking her for another twirl around the floor and to his credit he’s got Maxwell Davis ready to supply the necessary ambiance for an entirely different kind of rocking.

I’ll Tell You How I Know Rockin’ Is Alright
No two artists have combined their instrumental skills quite as effectively in rock’s history to date as Amos Milburn and Maxwell Davis. Wherein a lot of stellar acts have used two or more instruments to their advantage and sounded incredible in doing so, there’s usually a sonic schism when they transfer from one to another… a moment where your mind has to make a quick mental adjustment to re-orient yourself to the change.

But not with these two. Somehow, despite the instrumental textures of the piano and tenor sax being different, they manage to blend them in ways that seem completely organic, as if one was merely a natural extension of the other.

Never was that more apparent here as throughout Let’s Rock Awhile the two of them work out a deft tag-team attack – with the guitar acting as the counterpoint – wherein you almost forget which of them is taking which notes behind the vocals until the solo when Milburn shifts to more vigorously pounding the treble keys while Davis sticks to a lower mid-range of his horn to mesmerize you with a slower pace riff and establish the instrumental contrast once again.

The entire arrangement is so effortless that you’re prone to overlooking its nuances, such as how drummer Oscar Lee Bradley’s stick work disappears for stretches before coming back in at a subtly accelerating pace to convey the urgency behind Milburn’s vocals, or how Gene Phillips’ guitar is playing discreet self-contained riffs well in the background but which work your way into your subconscious to create more of a melodic framework for the song.

Some people naturally scoff when music of any kind, let alone rock music, is called “art”, but if the word itself bothers you then at least concede records like this are a work of fine craftsmanship, both in their blueprints and the execution of those ideas by the musicians on the studio floor. Everything is designed to fit together, each component compliments the others and all of it builds a sturdy structure that can withstand the most discerning scrutiny.

Records like these were hardly just casual stabs at capture a momentary commercial appeal, they were artistic expressions built to last.


It’s Fine You Know
Of all of rock’s early classics focused on sex this one might be the most subversive in how it goes about delivering the message.

Maybe that too though is a sign of maturity in a way. The most exciting music that launches revolutions tends to appeal to the young and as with jazz in the distant past and rock of the more recent vintage that manifests itself in sexual terms, musically, lyrically or both.

Because the young have little first hand sexual experience to fall back on when creating their music they tend to focus more on the eager anticipation of it while the music’s frantic rhythms tend to emphasize that perspective. The older and more experienced you get between the sheets the more you view sex as something to be expected rather than something you need to be desperately seeking out and so the music tends to take these kinds of nightly hook-ups in stride.

Let’s Rock Awhile is being sung by somebody who fits the latter description… a performance that is sexual without being overanxious about it.

That’s a difference that signals changes are due in the rock universe, for once you can count on getting anything often enough to remain content, you aren’t going to yearn for it quite as much.

The generation coming of age now hadn’t gotten laid enough to lose that edge and so while they let Milburn and company enjoy their last flings like this, they were biding their time waiting to overthrow them and go on the prowl themselves.


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