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ARISTOCRAT 1107; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

We just spent the last review criticizing Aristocrat Records for trying to steer their potent rock balladeer into a pop direction, one which he had no chance of succeeding in commercially and which aesthetically kept his emotions chained and bound thereby robbing him of really showcasing his greatest strengths as an artist.

Now on the flip side the company tries to take the artist in question into yet another realm for which he wasn’t nearly as suited, this time the blues, with a remake of a twenty year old record. In a way these baffling A&R decisions were hammering the final nails in the coffin of a career that had showed nothing but promise when starting out two years ago and who’d had enough verifiable success along the way to have you hopeful he’d enjoy a career that might place him among the stars of the field for a decade or more to come.

That wouldn’t be the case, as I’m sure you all know.

Yet while the label’s intent was wrong, their thinking shortsighted and their aims misguided, the ability of Andrew Tibbs manages to more than salvage this in the end, showing once again why his name should be far more prominent – and spoken about with far more reverence – when bringing up the most talented rock artists of the late 1940’s.
 

 

Sometimes I Feel So Blue
Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell were one of the most iconic teams in the history of the blues, an idiom that celebrated the image of the lone bluesman playing in the night far more than it ever really acknowledged the partnerships that contributed so much to its development over the years.

There have been some great bands in the history of the blues but by in large those bands rarely had names and it was the singer who was promoted as a solo artist even if his sidemen remained steady through the years and even revered by those in the know for their talents.

Carr and Blackwell didn’t get credited together on record either, so I suppose they were no exception to this general rule of thumb when it came to presenting blues acts, but they recorded and performed as a duo and were intrinsically linked in a way that few others in history have been. They cut the immortal How Long-How Long Blues in 1928, the same year they got together and even today, nearly a full century later, it sounds incredibly modern. In every way that record, and the partnership that produced it, marked a big leap forward in terms of blues presentation.

Though simple in structure featuring interplay between Carr’s voice and basic piano chords and Blackwell’s acoustic guitar replies, it has an urbanity to it that much of the blues of the 1920’s and 1930’s didn’t possess. Yes, there’s a lazy country element to it as well but it is imbued with a more formal delivery, one that is tight, controlled and seems to subtly – and consciously – build the tension rather than offer a release of that tension.

With songs like this he and Blackwell, whose jazzier licks also contributed heavily to this image, are widely credited with bringing a greater degree of sophistication to what had been viewed as a more rural and untutored style of music. Vocally Carr had a light touch without sacrificing the emotional power of the deeper sentiments he sang about, such as the weary resignation he displays on the original version of the song Tibbs is tasked with bringing to the rock audience two decades later.

The decision to do so might’ve been his own I suppose, we don’t know for sure that it wasn’t, but seems more likely that Aristocrat was trying to slot their most alluring talent into a different field than what he excelled in because of the myopic view that is so prevalent in the music biz, namely “the grass is always greener in another style”. That’s the kind of thinking that accounted for their attempt to give him a test run in pop music on the flip of this, I Know and now they tried their hand in reaching the blues audience with this rendition of How Long, its shortened title the primary concession to the times.

Neither avenue was the best fit for him of course, not when he was so damn good delivering rock ‘n’ roll, but of the two alien styles he was coaxed into trying Tibbs sounds much more comfortable delving into the blues, in large part because there’s simply less here to get in his way.
 

I Can Not See A Train
The Carr and Blackwell version from 1928 was sparse, yet sounded ahead of its time because it was nowhere near as raw as the country blues that was popular in that era. But by 1949 the sound they’d created was common place. Probably the closest to that we’ve heard from a rock artist, although not necessarily on his rock sides, was in Cecil Gant whose vocal chords were nowhere near as supple as Carr’s, but whose delivery on more tender and introspective songs followed Carr’s model pretty closely.

Few rock artists though had the kind of expressive voice to compete with Andrew Tibbs and so I guess you can understand why if a blues song was to be attempted by him it’d be something drawn from Leroy Carr who had a similarly delicate higher range. But the question isn’t whether Andrew Tibbs capable of doing justice to this song, but rather is it in his best interest to do so?

The answer to that not surprisingly is no for the simple reason that you can’t make a name for yourself by taking directly from someone else who has not only already made their name – one which was still familiar even though Carr himself died of alcoholism at age 30 in 1935 – but did so in an entirely different field for much different audience than Tibbs was trying to reach as we neared the mid-century point.

That’s the frustrating part of analyzing these decisions in the NEXT century when we know full well what was to follow. It wouldn’t be traditional pop, nor blues, which ruled the latter half of the Twentieth Century, it’d be rock ‘n’ roll and to take somebody so gifted in that realm and have them try and connect in these other fields was counterproductive at best, career suicide at worst.

You can argue they didn’t know any better, rightly claiming that they didn’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but we’re not asking them to do so, just to see clearly in the present circa 1949. Yes, pop music sold more than rock, and yes, blues still held its own and had a longer track record than this newfangled music as well, but it was rock ‘n’ roll that was creating such a stir in the young black community and you’d have to be blind not to see it. That’s what was scoring the biggest hits the past year and a half and that’s also what Tibbs himself preferred to sing, not to mention what he sang best.

To put this into proper perspective we should point out that Aristocrat had Muddy Waters on their label at this time as well, someone who’d go on to become among the top three post war electric bluesman in terms of influence and recognition, plus he sold a lot of records over the years, but he didn’t sell as many records as the rock acts on the same label at the same time. Not in the mid-1950’s when Chuck Berry and The Moonglows were the label’s biggest hitmakers, or the early 1960’s when Etta James were scoring the biggest hits for the company, nor for that matter in the late 1940’s when it was Andrew Tibbs who was the first artist they had to make a consistent dent in the local charts.

Yet in spite of this Aristocrat were now seemingly trying to change Andrew Tibbs’s musical vocation, almost as if they were bound and determined to undercut his career at every turn.
 


 

I Know Who Will
But that’s the big picture perspective, one vital to understand when attempting to chart his career downturn and put these records in some sort of historical context, yet around here anyway things which still have to take a back seat to analyzing the musical results of those records.

In THIS regard Andrew Tibbs himself has rarely disappointed and How Long is no exception.

Structurally this is much the same as the Carr-Blackwell original, there’s a somberness to each of their deliveries, the two dominant instruments here remain piano and guitar and Tibbs takes many of his vocal cues from Carr… at least to a degree. But there are also elements of this which distance it from the blues take on it, in the process shifting its feel more than redefining it, and its these changes – this artist really – which make the performance appropriate for rock circles, even if the record itself is far more ambiguous in its intent.

The same languid intro marks each version, though Tibbs’s rendition isn’t quite so stark, owing partly to the addition of drums and bass, but also to the shift in how the guitar is played. On Carr’s original record Scrapper Blackwell played with almost a brittle delicacy on his single string licks, jazzy in their conception but their tone had the undeniable sound of the blues.

Backing Tibbs in that role is Leo Blevins, a truly underrated musician who was taught the finer points of the instrument by T-Bone Walker and in turn passed those lessons on to a young Earl Hooker, in the process forming a link with two of the best blues guitarists ever. But in spite of that pedigree Blevins actually worked predominantly in jazz in his career, notably with Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Coleman Hawkins and Clifford Brown, some super heavyweights of the idiom. Blevins was based most of his career in Chicago and originally came to Aristocrat via Tom Archia with whom he cut a few sides, but because he never fronted groups he didn’t get the public acclaim his talents deserved.

(Emblematic of the neglect of non-headlining artists from that era there aren’t many pictures of Leo Blevins, the best of which is from 1977 when he was playing alongside Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson at a club).

Here on How Long Blevins’ guitar has a crystallized tone to it, shimmering at times with a smooth almost translucent feel radiating from the strings as its sound pulses through the amplifier. Both guitar parts, the Blackwell played original and Blevins update on this record, are haunting in their own way, but those ways are different due to technology if not playing style. Other than a mid-song solo that is a little too drawn out to hold our attention Tibbs’s record sounds more detached than the original even with more instruments because they don’t need to do as much to fill in the sonic palette behind the singer. There’s more room to breathe as a result and thus Tibbs gets more space to work his vocal magic.

The other major difference comes in its pacing, which is appreciably more drawn out with Tibbs at the controls than it was with Carr, who kept it in low gear perhaps but moving at a steady clip. Tibbs however not only slows it down but uses a variety of feints and hesitation tricks to make it seem even more lax in its approach. Of course this also allows him to ramp up the emotional gravitas which is his ace in the hole.

Whereas Carr sounds reflective and a little morose, he’s facing the future with a stoic determination. Tibbs on the other hand is still struggling to hold his head up in the face of this downturn of his romantic prospects. He’s grappling with the ramifications of his woman leaving him while also asking himself (or more accurately asking her rhetorically) why he should keep putting up with her mistreatment of him, as if he hasn’t made up his mind which outcome is worse. Like Carr he’s got another woman to go to who’ll give him the affection he needs, but unlike Leroy he seems more as if he’s saying this to see the effect it has on the one who did him wrong rather than as a veiled threat to move on.

Of course Tibbs’s gospel background plays into this as he “worries” some of his lines, taking them – and us – the edge of the emotional cliff, threatening to plunge into the abyss but holding back if only to fret about it some more. It’d be hard to sing this any better and since the original packed a wallop in its lyrics and this keeps those intact it’s about as effective as it can be… provided you came looking for exactly what they’re dishing out.
 

I’d Go Up On The Mountain And Call My Baby Back
That of course is the unavoidable catch to all of this, the uneasy footing it has in the rock landscape for the time.

While Tibbs and company do all the can to keep it relevant for his audience there’s still the awareness that it was being tasked with serving two masters, one of which threatened to take him away from the rock fan altogether. It might be unlikely to happen unless this became his biggest hit, and even then with his distinctive voice and lack of any specific blues niche to house him in that he’d probably remain tangentially connected to rock anyway, but the mere presence of this on the horizon was potentially worrisome for rock fans.

It would be one thing in the album era for The Rolling Stones to include a Robert Johnson song like Love In Vain on an album, when it could serve as a counterweight to the pure rock songs that comprised the bulk of the LP. Then its inclusion would come off as an artistic tribute and a stylistic change-of-pace more than an attempt to re-craft your own image to appeal to a difference audience. But in the singles era when Tibbs was faced with having just two or three releases all year to give listeners a sense of who he was as an artist and where he was headed, this release had the potential to push him into another realm and that was something bound to be met with resistance if you were among those who’d fallen in love with his earlier offerings that had no other musical allegiance but rock ‘n’ roll.

No matter how well How Long sounded in a bubble, and it does sound really good let there be no mistake about it, this can’t be viewed as if it were completely untouched by outside events. An artist’s catalog is a continuum that can be reasonably expected to lead somewhere and this release led Tibbs further away from us by pairing a song that was 80% pop with one that was taken wholesale from the blues. If it did well commercially their next outing might take him even further away from the gospel-infused rock efforts he excelled at.

The truth of the matter is no record exists in a vacuum, it’s affected by what came before it and will shape what is to follow and so creative missteps, even well performed missteps like this, take on a much more ominous tint because of its ability to irrevocably alter somebody’s artistic course.

As an example of Andrew Tibbs’s ability to connect vocally with almost any source material, How Long makes a strong case for him still being at the top of his game, able to rival any artist on the scene when it came to talent. But all talent needs to be nurtured and properly directed in order to maximize an artist’s returns and this record can’t help but send conflicting signals just when what we need most is a strong message of solidarity that he’ll be with us to the end.

While this may indeed be something that you are inclined to really like you know full well that when it comes to determining his ensuing career course you like it at your own risk.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Andrew Tibbs for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)