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For the bulk of 1950 the man who was arguably the top rock artist of the 1940’s, Amos Milburn, was almost acting as if he wanted to be somebody other than Amos Milburn.

This was probably not his decision however, but more likely the Mesner Brothers who owned Aladdin Records and realized that with his popularity at its peak they could use his name recognition and built-in audience to simply churn out a series of hastily arranged cover records of songs that were currently hot.

So we got Milburn masquerading as a square dance caller and ragtime artist, a country act and bluesman… pretty much anything and everything other than a firebreathing rock ‘n’ roller… ya know, the very thing he’d forged his identity on in the first place!

Though some of it was fairly good – as Amos’s skills certainly hadn’t diminished any even if the material had – none of it was selling anywhere near what his originals had over the previous few years and so Aladdin had to try and right the ship.

Maybe because they had become obsessed with remaking songs they did the same thing with this release… with one major caveat that is… this time the artist Amos Milburn would be ripping off was Amos Milburn himself.


The Cats Jam In
It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last either, that Milburn has revisited the Chicken Shack where he’d walked out with greasy fingers, a full stomach and his first number one hit back in 1948, but when the formula is as durable as Chicken Shack Boogie you can hardly blame them for wanting to go back for refills, especially when their output leading up to this release over the last few months has hardly been inspiring creatively or commercially.

If you’ve heard any of the previous iterations of this same basic composition (which for those who like boosting our page views would be Jitterbug Parade and the #1 hit Roomin’ House Boogie) you know exactly what to expect – the groovy piano intro, some sultry and storming sax interludes and Amos breaking out his shyster lurking in an alley persona to peddle whatever wares are on the menu this time around.

None of that changes here of course… it’d sort of defeat the purpose if it did I suppose. But what DOES change, yet again, is the proficiency of the band who are asked to impart this with renewed vigor.

Though he’s featured them on record before, this is the first time we’ve gotten to hear his road band playing THIS song behind him (under whatever title it was going as now) rather than the studio aces he’d had working at the original Chicken Shack and its two previous incarnations before this.

Now those guys led by Maxwell Davis could certainly play and probably OUT-play these guys, but what they couldn’t do is bring to the table the experience of having played some version of this tune every single show for two years and after roughly 350 run-throughs in front of demanding audiences they’ve surely worked it over on stage to make it cook even more and have this down cold, all of which in the absence of actual live recordings from his prime makes Sax Shack Boogie a pretty fair representation of the road-tested band – naturally named The Chickenshackers – as anything we’re likely to get.

And yes, they live up to their reputation and then some.


Start To Rockin’
Milburn’s piano sounds particularly ferocious the first few notes, playing with a much heavier left hand than he has in the past, establishing the attitude and driving the song hard to ensure the others to match this intensity.

Lead saxophonist Don Wilkerson hardly needed any added encouragement, he’s been itching for a chance to be unleashed on record and he’s blowing full-bodied lusty riffs from the moment he enters, answering each vocal refrain with passion.

Like all of its previous incarnations the structure of Sax Shack Boogie is designed for switching from one high point to the next, be it a sharp-eyed lyrical refrain or a chance for each of the main players to strut their stuff. The key solos are as strong as they are different, the first featuring Wilkerson’s sax which unwinds itself slowly while the second one finds him cutting loose with more abandon, squealing, dropping back down, grinding out the riff like he was with a sexual partner in the darkened corners of the room.

The third solo starts off with a Wilkerson explosion before yielding to Milburn on the keys who isn’t quite as punishing on those ivories as he was at the start of the song, but instead breaks out the dexterity of his playing. Finally in the fourth go-round they combine some of the high points we’ve already heard with some new licks. First we get Willie Smith and Wilkerson trading off lines down the stretch before easing back behind Milburn who appears that he’s going to carry the song to its natural conclusion.

That’s when Wilkerson comes back in for a capper that at first listen you might think sounds fairly ordinary, at least in concept, as it’s something you’re probably used to hearing over a lifetime of music appreciation. But when you realize this is still 1950 and the kind of trailing line he’s playing really only became standard about six to eight years down the road, that’s when you get some idea as to how durable and lasting the connective tissue that would stretch between rock eras that they were in the process of building here really is.


Talk About The Boogie’n Carryin’ On
Just because the musical side of the equation fulfills our needs – even pushes the bar a little higher from previous spins around the same block – doesn’t mean the record itself will be a boon to the slightly sinking fortunes of Milburn’s career unless he can bring something new to the table in the process.

That means the lyrics they come up with have to contain a good enough story, and memorable individual lines, to have us… if not forget, then at least excuse… the recycling of the larger theme, structure and musical framework of past work.

Somewhat surprisingly Jessie Mae Robinson does just that and while you might still prefer heading to chicken shack with Amos on a night on the town, you wouldn’t be at all offended if he took a turn en route and headed to this party in a different part of town once you hear what’s waiting for you there.

As with two of the earlier renditions this is a similar description of the kind of gathering that was quite common in the black community at the midway point of the Twentieth Century, where widespread segregation forced people to turn to more insular communal activities for their recreation and if anything Sax Shack Boogie should’ve led to the breaking down of those social barriers because why on earth would white people, no matter how stupid and pig-headed they were, want to deprive themselves of being afforded an opportunity to partake in such wild goings-on as this?

Though the setting might not be much to brag about – a shack on the other side of the railroad tracks, fittingly I suppose – this kind of party doesn’t need a fancy pad when the basic run-down includes nothing more complicated than lots of wild music, dancing, food – “cornbread, bones and barbecued meat” – and drinks to enjoy with curvy partners in the shadows.

Naturally scenes like this were common in rock songs and in real life among those listening to such rock songs but of course at the time both the music and its fans continued to be looked down upon by society as a whole, if not just out and out ignored, making these depictions on record one of the few remaining authentic peaks we have to get a feel for that vibrant world.

But to make sure that its image wasn’t going to be twisted and distorted by others listening in who happened to think these revelers were probably a collection of down and out low-lifes without two nickels to rub together, Amos sets them straight with one of the most indelible images of rock’s first few years when he flips off society’s high minded attitude towards him and his pals by telling them that after they leave this bash they’re all going to ”Ride on home in their chartreuse Cadillac”.

The way in which he delivers that line, just casually tossing it off almost like an afterthought, makes the trip down there worthwhile all by itself.

All The Folks Know That It’s Time To Go
Obviously a record like this, mostly unoriginal despite some gratifyingly fresh touches, occupies a strange place in the ongoing evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.

Taken in isolation, as if the other records in a similar vein hadn’t preceded it and scored big themselves, then there’s little doubt that Sax Shack Boogie would be considered a perfect record.

But since we have traveled down this road with Milburn before, many times in fact (in whatever color Caddy you happen to have lying around) then it can’t be viewed in quite the same light.

All music, rock especially since it’s actively pushing back against the establishment as a whole, needs to progress from year to year, from one release to the next even, and constantly looking back, as enjoyable as those reflections might be, doesn’t accomplish this goal. If all we get is earlier landmarks being constantly re-visited then how can we ever move forward?

But in this case, while we can’t dismiss it altogether, we can at least be a little more lenient on Milburn who was in need of something to get him back on the right track (and back in the Top Ten for just the second time all year) after so many ill-conceived releases being thrust upon him. Since this fully modernizes the song it also fits squarely in the current rock landscape rather than being seen as an out of date throwback to an earlier era.

So whichever of these singles spread over three years that you prefer, the benchmark original or any of the more calculated rip-offs, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found with any of the stops along the way… just make sure when you go you have a designated driver to get you home safely in your chartreuse Cadillac.


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