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ALADDIN 206; JANUARY, 1948

 
 
 

 
With only a few more records to go before we get to the 1950’s we’re going to take some time to add in a few 1940’s songs we either overlooked or intentionally avoided for various reasons when first covering this ground. It won’t take long and hopefully will paint a more vivid picture of the first era of rock as we head into the second era in the next week or two.
 

 

At one point in American history trains were the most prominent form of long-distance travel, having the ability to get you across the country in mere days when other forms of travel could take you months.

As time went on newer methods of transportation had cut the gap significantly and by the dawn of 1948 trains were being replaced by planes for that purpose, though the change was hardly complete.

In the same way – and at the same time – older forms of music were being replaced by newer more powerful styles but the transformation still had a ways to go, something which winds up being crystallized by a record from one of rock’s emerging stars who was taking the song from someone who had made their biggest impact in the days immediately preceding this musical turnover.
 

 

Wonderin’ Which Way Did My Baby Go
Though the narrative of this larger story tells us that rock ‘n’ roll, having rapidly progressed since arriving on the scene just a few months earlier, marked a clear divide between eras and styles, the truth is more nuanced.

Yes, the leaps it made with its biggest and/or boldest records from some of its soon-to-be most noteworthy stars – Roy Brown, The Ravens, Paul Williams and Amos Milburn – were the kind of line in the sand moments that made it clear that rock ‘n’ roll was the sound of tomorrow, but those were still the anomalies for the time being. Rock hadn’t even officially charted its first national hit yet so it’d be awhile longer before these changes were evident and then longer still for them to put considerable distance between this style and the rest of the music world that would remain stuck in the past.

As the ultimate success of the genre was still far from certain it meant that even within the top rank of emerging artists there was a tendency to hedge your bets, to balance out the more declamatory efforts heralding this new music with sounds that soft-peddled the changes on the horizon. For record companies such as Aladdin, who’d scored big with those older more sedate styles of black music for the past couple of years and who had yet to reap any substantial benefits from their handful of rock excursions to date, the desire to give listeners an alternative to the more rousing sides was a sound strategy.

With Amos Milburn they’d recently been trying their hand at more soulful ballads, an approach which was soon to be a key factor in rock’s rise to prominence but still, as of yet at least, something met with commercial indifference. So to try and change that reception they issued the storming rocker Bye Bye Boogie on one side of their first release of 1948 but felt they needed a song that could act as a counterweight to the explosiveness that side contained.

Thus they pulled out Milburn’s update of a Cecil Gant song from 1946 called Train Time Blues. The theme of the song couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the arrival of the jet age which would soon render yesterday’s trains to be an anachronism.

Milburn however, as was his want, somehow was able to bring this two year old song originally made to appeal to an audience with an entirely different musical sensibility into the modern age thanks to a subtle and natural understanding of what changes were in store at the end of the line.
 

I’m Feelin’ For Ya, But I Can’t Reach You
We’re going to be meeting singer/songwriter and pianist Cecil Gant for the first time soon enough on his own rock releases and we don’t want to spoil that more formal introduction but we do need to at least explain who he was and what musical environment he represented in the days before he made the leap to rock out of commercial necessity.

Gant rose to fame in World War Two by singing a contemplative ballad that mirrored the predicament that so many soldiers overseas were dealing with when it came to wondering what their sweethearts back home were doing while they were fighting a war half a world away.

I Wonder struck a chord with all listeners during those years, white and black, male and female, who were experiencing that very thing and it became one of the more unlikely hits of the era seeing as how it was sung by a complete unknown and released on a start-up label who had cut it in a garage. Gant became a short-lived star on his way to being a fairly long-lived name in the black community.

Yet while he was a decent pianist with a knack for finding appealing melodies and a serviceable songwriter who occasionally caught lightning in a bottle with lyrics that might match the impact of his better story ideas, he was also rather limited in putting these across. With his ravaged voice and a tendency to use the same form of spoken introduction to bluff his way through the recording session as he conjured up many of these songs on the spot for cash so he could buy more to drink he was hardly the most reliable of studio craftsmen.

Because of these personal shortcomings his fortunes naturally fell over time though his name recognition would enable him to draw enough sales each time out to make signing him worthwhile for some small company.

His most frequent stop was Bullet Records for whom he cut countless sides over the years, among them Train Time Blues which, like so many other of his “compositions”, begins with a spoken prelude that is designed to set the story as well as give him time to come up with the rest of the particulars while the tapes rolled.

That 1946 original has its charms for sure but also gives plenty of insight as to the limit of his ability. The story is strong, the melody is nice, but he’s accompanied by a skeletal arrangement, mostly carried by his piano fills and modest drums with some spoken verbal “encouragement” thrown in by whoever was in the studio at the time, something which undercuts the emotional poignancy of the lyrics.

It’s a piano blues performance fit for the turpentine camps of earlier in the century, a record that seems already out of date by 1946 when polish and professionalism had replaced the kind of loose fly-on-the-wall sessions that this seems to embody. It’s a GOOD record for what it is, but one that would never pass muster even two years later in 1948, especially in rock.

But in the hands of Amos Milburn the impression of the song changes considerably.
 


 
 

I Just Keep On Waiting
Amos Milburn was a far more sophisticated performer, as well as a more sophisticated person off-stage, than Cecil Gant ever was. Though they shared most of the same professional attributes – singer/songwriters who each played piano… they even shared a predilection for alcohol that would hurt both of their careers in the long run…. Amos Milburn exuded class on his recordings. His specialty, one of many actually, was in being able to impart unspoken feelings in an emotionally gripping way. Whereas Gant lays his cards on the table, Milburn keeps his hole card covered up, hinting at its strength without giving its value away.

Train Time Blues has two notable alterations right off the bat. The first of these is the excising of the spoken lead-in that Gant saddled his version with, rather unnecessarily it should be added since it brought no additional insight into the plot or Cecil’s state of mind. Getting rid of that tightens Milburns’s record up considerably, but it’s the second change which is even more meaningful and that’s the appearance of an electric guitar to beef up the arrangement.

We’re not sure who plays it, the possibilities include Gene Phillips who we’ve met on his own tentative foray into the farthest outskirts of rock with Big Legs, and Chuck Norris, each of whom would join him for sessions in the future, but whoever it is contributes an exquisite mellow-toned lead that climbs, twists and wraps itself around the melody like a musical clematis vine.

Though hardly flashy there’s almost no doubt this is the most alluring guitar we’ve heard thus far in rock, admittedly not a very crowded field, but no matter how many more guitars we’ll be hearing down the road – and that’ll be a lot within a few years time – this early example of how effectively it can be used shouldn’t be forgotten. Mesmerizing to the point of hypnosis, filling all of the requisite gaps without ever being too obvious or overstaying its welcome, the guitar plays off Milburn’s equally subtle piano fills to create a tranquil and reflective mood for the lyrics.
 


 

Every Night And Every Morning
Here’s where the differences between the old and new, not to mention the differences between the artists themselves, becomes most apparent. Gant was fourteen years older than Milburn buts sounds forty years his senior, something which can’t help but alter your perception of their respective plights in the song.

Not to drive home the point too hard but Gant was somebody who was destined to live by whatever natural abilities he possessed and who would get only so far as he was willing to put in the work to profit for them. He was a laborer in common terms. Not quite primitive but certainly unrefined. His voice seemed to reflect those hardships and gave authenticity to the laments he sang about. The Gant who was bemoaning the loss of his woman was in some ways blaming it ON the train, focusing his anguish on the means with which she left him.

Amos Milburn was far more astute than that. He gave off the impression that he was educated and worldly, even though he’d dropped out of school in his mid-teens to join the Navy where he saw plenty of action in the Pacific during World War Two, earning three battle stars. Gant had also been a soldier during the war, but his singing had kept him on the home front selling war bonds, yet it sounds as if it were Gant who’d been slogging through the jungle for years, whereas on Train Time Blues Milburn sounds as if he stepped right out of the officer’s club in his dress blues.

Yet instead of that contributing to an artificial air in his delivery, Milburn is able to tap into all of the churning emotions inside and bring them to the surface without it becoming heavy-handed. His words suggest rather than declare, as Gant’s did. He nudges the song forward inch by inch instead of straining to pull it forward by the yard. The train in Gant’s rendition is literal whereas in Milburn’s telling of the same story it becomes metaphorical in a way, it may be sitting on the tracks in front of his eyes but it’s now merely a figurative symbol of his loss.

When Maxwell Davis’s saxophone comes along adding its own subtle textures to the song the picture they paint becomes so sharply defined that you can almost see the brush strokes on the canvas.

You’re lost in the moment, standing on the platform watching a not quite real scene become real by the power of suggestion.
 
 

Just Sittin’ Here Thinkin’
In the expanding landscape for rock ‘n’ roll at the dawn of 1948 there’s really no place yet carved out for this kind of introspective ballad. Of the two sides of Aladdin 206 this had to take a backseat to the more invigorating flip if rock as a whole was to keep establishing itself as daring and different. By contrast Train Time Blues, as powerful in its way that it was, just wasn’t daring or different enough to separate it from earlier forms of music to make a bigger impact. Subtle brilliance rarely equates to more eye-opening revelations in any walk of life.

Yet in spite of not being as overtly prescient as the more explosive flip side the record wasn’t antiquated at all, the instrumental textures and Milburn’s slow burn soulfulness vocally ensured that much. In that regard it definitely pointed the way to the future, but in order for it to have a more hospitable home it’d have to wait for the other forms of rock to fully establish themselves before this alternate approach could really thrive without threatening the growth of more radical ideas rock was putting forth.
 

 
What this showed however for anyone who bothered to look, was that the music as a whole, in all of its forms, was reflective of a new reality and their presence automatically made the realities of the recent past seem outdated and far more limited.

Though Milburn saw no immediate commercial returns on this side either it furthered his case for being considered the rock artist with the most potential going forward, someone who could be equally compelling tearing it up or easing things down. Though he’d already more than hinted at such diversity, sometimes it takes a direct comparison between the past and the present to determine what has the potential to shape the future.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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