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ALADDIN 3038; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Big decisions in life generally don’t come around very often. What to do after graduating… who to marry… where to buy your first home… what to name your kids I suppose… but for the most part life is a series of small choices, not completely insignificant maybe, but none of which by themselves is really going to alter your entire future like those handful of big choices invariably will.

Once those major decisions are made after lots of grappling with the ramifications of each possibility you probably relax, glad that it’s over and wait to see how it turns out. You hope that you did the right thing but from that moment on your life takes on a new direction and you really can’t reverse course because you’ve already headed down a different path.

But even among those who are happy with their choices in life there’s probably still moments when you stop and think back to wonder what might’ve happened had you chosen differently. Would you have been happy doing something else, someplace else with somebody else?

Would you have been as successful? More successful even?

For Amos Milburn it’s hard to imagine how he might’ve had second thoughts about his professional choices over the past few years because as 1949 drew to a close he was the most successful rock artist on the planet.

Still… maybe in the back of his mind he was still wondering what might’ve happened had he pursued another option that had been available to him when starting out and now, when he was secure in his status, he just needed some reassurance that he’d made the right choice.
 

 
Everything You Got Is Strictly Meant For Me
Amos Milburn made his first recordings in 1946, before rock ‘n’ roll existed, though his early efforts certainly gave plenty of indication that rock was inevitable. He’d come out of Houston, Texas that year as a 19 year old piano player with a cool smoky voice and a predilection for stomping beats rather than refined melodies and delicate fills and while there was no formal home for his type of music yet there soon would be when Roy Brown laid out the blueprints and Milburn heartily joined in the fun.

But just a few years before Milburn made that journey from Texas to Los Angeles and eventual rock stardom, another Texas born pianist made a similar trip but with a different destination. Oh, don’t misunderstand, Charles Brown landed in L.A. too, but he took another route to get there.

Five years Milburn’s elder, Charles Brown was a college grad (a chemistry major who then taught the subject in high school briefly) and possessing a much more sedate style than his younger counterpart, Brown landed in the city during the war years where the mood of the nation as a whole leaned towards quiet introspection in its music, particularly in clubs where people went to get out of the house with so much weighing on their minds and where rousing music would be too much of a shock to absorb.

So cocktail blues was born thanks to such legendary performers as Nat Cole and his King Cole Trio and Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers which Brown joined as the pianist and lead vocalist in 1943. The group got their first recording contract the following year but while extremely popular locally they didn’t break out nationally until 1946’s Driftin’ Blues, a #2 hit that stayed in the Top Ten for more than half the year.

That song was still on the charts when Milburn came to town and all things considered it would’ve been perfectly natural for Amos to imitate Brown, whom he greatly admired, in the most obvious manner possible. Certainly Aladdin Records would want to try to forcibly steer Milburn in that direction just to capitalize on the hottest thing around with somebody who was more than capable of offering up a pretty fair approximation of Brown’s delivery.

But instead Milburn rocked as hard as he could on such sides as After Midnite and Down The Road Apiece and when the rock ‘n’ roll dam broke the next year he didn’t just ride the wave that followed, he was out on the lead board.

Charles Brown didn’t seem to lose any sleep that he himself might’ve made a miscalculation by not waiting to venture west a few years when he too could’ve joined the rock brigade, for like Milburn, Brown was also enjoying arguably his finest year in 1949 as a solo act with the #1 smash Trouble Blues, which kept him in the slow lane where he was most comfortable, tickling the ivories and imaginations of his audience with equal finesse.

You’d think that both Brown and Milburn would be perfectly content with their choices and wouldn’t be looking back with any measure of regret over not picking another road to follow, but on this single Amos Milburn gives us reason to pause in that assessment because he delivers a pretty respectful take on the cocktail blues song that launched Brown into the stratosphere three years earlier with his own version of Driftin’ Blues.

For those of us in the rock seats at the musical banquet of 1949 this is a rather alarming, even disturbing, sight. It’s not that cocktail blues is an inferior type of music, or that Milburn doesn’t handle it with his typical grace, but rather that somebody, be it Amos or the decision makers at Aladdin, felt that moving away from the brand of music he helped define and towards the music that somebody ELSE defined… using that artist’s own song no less… was a sign that not everyone might be as convinced of rock’s long term viability as we were.

But fear not rock fans, because while that song didn’t make a ripple on the audience Milburn had been cultivating the last few years, THIS side, Real Pretty Mama, left absolutely no doubt why Amos Milburn was the current King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
 


 
 

Yes, We’ll Have Some Fun
If you’d accidentally played the flip-side to this first after taking it home from the store and worried you’d either been given the wrong record altogether or that Milburn had undergone a drastic change of heart, as soon as you drop the stylus into the groove on this one your fears subside.

Actually your fears might be knocked out the back of your cranium by the force of the first notes of Real Pretty Mama as he slams the piano and shouts the staccato opening lines with a fierce determination that leaves no doubt as to where his allegiance lays.

We’ve laid out Milburn’s diversity within his rock material pretty thoroughly over the past two years, as he’s shown himself to be equally proficient with mellow almost druggy ballads where he can slur his meanings if not the words themselves with either charm or remorse depending on the theme and in the process connect with audiences just as much as his more high energy performances where he’s extolling some type of decadence in the lyrics. This would mark his tenth and final hit of the 1940’s and his fourth uptempo song among them. Two of the others could be called sort of a mix of fast and slow while the remaining four were ballads. That’s pretty even handed in terms of not favoring one approach at the expense of the other.

But of those faster paced songs Real Pretty Mama is the most emphatic about its need to hammer home the message as loud and unambiguously as possible, as Milburn comes as close to “shouting” (the singing term that defines artists like Wynonie Harris, Crown Prince Waterford and Joe Turner) as he’d ever get.

Yet Milburn is far too versatile to stick with it exclusively, which is one of the joys of this record. He shows what he CAN do, then shows what ELSE he can do, bringing to the table the full arsenal of his talents. Though he starts off in an impatient tone, as if he’s trying to get somebody’s attention over cannon fire in the midst of war, he eases off that delivery as soon as he’s got them to focus on him. That transition comes so naturally that you barely realize the downshift has happened until you’re suddenly thrown back in your seat when he stomps on the pedal for the next line.

This stop and start, push and pull aesthetic never grows tiresome or comes off as schizophrenic thanks to the construct of the story. As you surely would be able to tell by how he sounds, Milburn is horny as can be and his boisterous cries that begin each line are his rather direct, if not downright crude, come-ons to various ladies he encounters. I assume it’s more than one that is, simply because the way he’s going about it I can’t imagine he’s stopping at just one bedroom playmate. Actually this is shaping up to be an orgy by the sounds of it.

But while his enthusiasm takes center stage as he stats to deliver these… umm… “requests” for female companionship, his pride and self-respect seems to take over mid-way through each line which is when he pulls back and acts nonchalant, his voice dropping into the familiar seductive purr we’re so used to from past performances.

To be able to effectively utilize both aspects of his vocal appeal, each of them distinctive in their own right, and have them mesh so well is fascinating to witness firsthand. As shown here Amos Milburn is undoubtedly the coolest cat on the block in rock ‘n’ roll and he knows it… and he’s not shy about letting US know it too.
 


 

Just Pull Down The Shades And We’ll Play Awhile
More than any other of the major rock artists at this stage, be it the other solo acts with a claim for the top spot in the 1940’s rock hierarchy, Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, or the vocal groups in contention, The Ravens and The Orioles, not to mention of course the instrumentalists Paul Williams, Sonny Thompson and Big Jay McNeely, it is the dual threat of Milburn the singer and the musician which vaults him to the top of the heap, just as much as it’s his actual track record of hits that gives him the edge.

None of those other acts perform both roles, singing and playing, whereas Milburn not only carries both of those tasks out but does so in a way that raises the legitimate argument as to which he does better.

His work on piano usually is just one aspect of a very dense musical palette presided over – and usually joined in by – Maxwell Davis, the master producer and saxophonist, and so Amos’s keyboard work might tend to take a back seat in perception at times to his singing. Even his recent instrumental, Bow-Wow!, found him intentionally stepping aside to let his road band get the spotlight.

Well that road band is here too – billed now as His Aladdin Chickenshackers… hardly a subtle moniker by the label to bestow on them – but on Real Pretty Mama Blues (the “Blues” in the title was dropped in the ads and often in the years since, as this is hardly blue at all), Milburn’s piano is placed front and center and leaves no doubt as to how really damn good he was on it.

The song’s construction is pretty tight. The start of each verse finds Milburn using that stop-time vocal with brief introductory piano burst but then just accented after each line so that it’s effectively a stand-alone vocal spot. Then it segues into the payoff for each of those sections with a rolling energetic boogie that utilizes the combined talents of the horns, guitar, drums, bass and his own piano. There’s nothing specific that stands out instrumentally in these parts but all of them are contributing mightily to the infectious feel they deliver.

Then comes the soloing. He hands off the first of them to Donald Wilkerson, who as we said last time out was one of the more underrated talents in music history, a raw-toned tenor sax blower out of Texas, still a teenager, who’d go on to play with Ray Charles awhile before taking on jazz (albeit getting only belated acclaim for it) before fading into virtual obscurity long before his time. Here he shows why he was such a suitable replacement for the almost incomparable Maxwell Davis who was far too busy in the studio to recreate his contributions on Milburn’s arduous cross-country tours. Wilkerson offers up lusty lines, swinging yet enchanting at the same time, like he was beckoning you into some house of ill-repute by showing you just enough of what awaited you behind the doors to get you to elbow others standing in line just so you can get inside first.

Behind those doors, laying down the riffs this section subsides on, was none other than Amos himself, first playing a storming boogie behind Wilkerson, his left hand vigorously hammering out the rhythms while his right pounds the highest keys as if they were some scrawny wise-ass who rudely hit on his little sister on her way home from school. When he shifts to a stand-alone spot of his own he keeps things moving using a lighter tone with his right hand than he’d just exhibited, easing off the intensity in much the same way his vocal lines all have done leading up to this. It’s a clever bit of arranging, transposing the vocal approach to the instrumental in a way that is bound be absorbed unconsciously even by those who don’t fully grasp what they’re up to.

One of the drawbacks, at least when it comes to recognition, in having such an accomplished set of session musicians at your beck and call, as Milburn had for the last few years with not just Davis but also various guitarists like Gene Phillips or Chuck Norris and drummers like Jesse Sailes, all seasoned pros who can pull off anything asked of them, is that sometimes people have a tendency to think you’re more a studio creation than a inspired original. But while that might not have been on people’s minds back in 1949, since few people were aware of such roles behind the scenes then or may not have cared if they did know, Real Pretty Mama more than proves Milburn was the creative force on his records all along, as this provides him with a showcase for his abilities that is second to none.

 

 

Come On In My Door
There’s always the tendency to read into the limited information we have available seven decades down the road to try and gauge somebody’s thinking. It’s an occupational hazard when it comes to rock history I suppose. But while the presence of a three year old cocktail blues remake on the flip side of this single can’t help but have you wondering if Milburn was re-thinking his choices – and he and Brown not only had become great friends, but in the future would work together, even record together, so the musical affinity he had for Brown was genuine – the fact is there ARE other explanations that make just as much sense.

Milburn had come in to the studio the first day of October to lay down a Christmas song to get out in time for the holidays, and sure enough Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby was now headed up the charts as we speak. Rather than just lay down two sides, they went for a full four song session as long as he was there, of which Real Pretty Mama was the second single. It needed a flip side, they needed another song to make a full session and so they reached back to something they all knew and liked to serve that purpose.

At that session they also did a quick run through of another original song, one without a title and which seems to be a head arrangement with ad-libbed vocals. It fades out well before it normally would have had it been fully worked out. In addition Milburn’s vocal is somewhat off mic and he drops a swear into it as well, making it unreleasable for that reason alone even if they HAD wanted to issue it, but hearing it gives us the opportunity to get some sense of their mindset more than relying on mere speculation.

Why bring that up here? Well, just so there’s absolutely no doubt as to what their goals were, that song is another storming rocker in every way and lets us know that we had absolutely no reason to worry where his allegiances lay after all. No matter what else he might delve into from time to time, in his heart of hearts Amos Milburn was a rocker to his core.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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