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ARISTOCRAT 1107; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

One of the most enduring and stinging criticisms somebody can make of a rock artist is to complain that they’ve “gone pop”.

The term is usually delivered with barely concealed malice and the unspoken implication is that the artist has sold out. But whom did they sold out??? The rock fan of course, the ones who want… who NEED… more great rock songs to get them through each day. Chances are if you’ve spent much time here reading these reviews of rock songs long forgotten you probably know that feeling more than most.

Though an artist by definition should be allowed to pursue whatever strikes their fancy that’s rarely permissible in something as territorial as music fandom, where allegiance to those whose fires the artist first stoked is not only demanded but require constant reaffirmation with each new release. To a fervent audience it is acceptable for an artist to simply burn out or start releasing duds, but not to look elsewhere for commercial and critical fulfillment. That’s a sin from which there is no forgiveness.
 

 
Meant For Somebody Else
In 1949 there was virtually no chance for a rock artist to achieve legitimate pop success. Maybe as a novelty of some sort, a one time only blip on the radar soon forgotten, but not to be a consistently respected pop artist sharing the airwaves with the Crosbys, Comos and Coles of the world.

The industry of course had clearly delineated boundaries that kept styles from too much cross pollination, but more crucially the dominant tastes that determined what songs and artists qualified (and put the “pop” in popular) belonged to white adults and they were not under any circumstances going to stoop to accept music from cultures they felt were beneath them.

Yet that didn’t stop rock artists from occasionally trying to venture into the “classier” styles, spurred on by the success of the handful of black artists who – while never rock themselves – had achieved a measure of pop success by tailoring their material to white audiences. In vocal group realms that had been The Ink Spots. In vocals it’d be Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine.

We’ve railed against it here when tried by such groups as The Ravens and The Orioles, or when Ivory Joe Hunter adhered to a more mild sound on certain records and at times we’ve responded with the vitriol of true believers who worship at the alter of rock ‘n’ roll… and fair warning, will continue to do so any time an artist veers uncomfortably close to the middle of the road pop lane in the future as well.

But that raises an interesting question, one still not applicable in 1949 maybe but eventually this will change, which is: What happens when rock ‘n’ roll becomes MORE popular than adult pop? Can this still be seen as selling out to try and tackle something that has a smaller and less fervent fan base than the rock music they’re leaving behind?

In other words, just how do we define this concept of “going pop” and why is it still considered an affront to rock fans everywhere, no matter the era?

Since this is a topic that will never go away, even as the landscape changes considerably over the years, we need to clearly define what this means and why it is so unpardonable.

In a nutshell it comes down to this: Is the intended audience for a record somebody who is at least appreciative of the latest sounds by the most current wave of artists, or are they those who’ve stopped following current, cutting edge music altogether? If it’s the latter, you’ve just met condition number one.

The second condition is more musical by nature, since obviously many aging rock acts aren’t altering their style on new releases even though they’re not appealing to 18 year olds any more, but rather their parents (or god forbid their grandparents!) whose interest years before precipitated their rise. So now we have to judge the artist’s intent with their work by asking this: Have they modified their sound in a way to deliberately appeal more to the moderate older music fan, those comprising a broader and less demanding constituency than their original core audience.

Since the early 1960’s we’ve had a Billboard chart to show this trend, the Adult Contemporary charts, which almost exclusively contains records made by artists who are specifically aiming for “pop” acceptance and those records which make it tell you what that audience embraces. But in 1949 no such listing existed because rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t taken over the pop charts, so that’s where you found the pop tastes being reflected.

So what does this have to do with Andrew Tibbs whose name was likely not recognizable to a single mainstream middle of the road white adult pop music fan? Well, it just so happens that with I Know he seemed to be trying to change that last fact… much to our dismay.
 

That Night When First We Met
By late 1949 Aristocrat Records was in a period of transition. Begun two years earlier by Evelyn Aron it was one of many start-up record companies in the mid to late 1940’s looking to take advantage of the major label’s neglect of so-called fringe markets, IE. black audiences. In virtually any other era the sudden influx of so many new businesses most of which were being run by amateurs would and ll competing for the same small piece of an already devoured pie, would have failed miserably. In fact most during THIS time would fail, if not miserably then at least methodically, disappearing after a few months with little to show in the way of returns.

Aristocrat had one advantage in that it was housed in Chicago, a booming musical melting pot which didn’t have nearly the local competition that New York or even Los Angeles had. It also had a wildly popular radio outlet with one of the few black dee-jays in the country, Al Benson, whose show was a beacon for the tens of thousands of African-Americans in the city, many of whom were recent transplants from the South and who would form the bedrock of the city’s blues explosion.

When Aron got divorced in 1948 Leonard Chess, a local nightclub owner who’d gotten his foot in the company’s door by taking them Andrew Tibbs, who gave the label its first hits, both local and national, bought out the ex-husband and by the end of the year he and Aron were running Aristocrat together. It was Aron, far more than Chess, who understood the fertile black marketplace, but it was Chess, more than Aron, who had the burning desire and aggressive street-bred business acumen to make a go of it long term. She and Chess, though fairly effective as a team, were personally at odds. Aron was a sophisticate, Chess a vulgarian. In December 1949 she sold out to him to shift her focus to distributing. In a few months Leonard would rename the label after himself and turn it into a musical empire.

Left behind in these backstage machinations was the boy who had precipitated his entry into the company and into the music business itself – Andrew Tibbs, the most skilled singer they had.

For a company that already had Muddy Waters on its roster and who’d released some sides that became the cornerstone of his massive legacy as one of the handful of greatest blues artists ever, to say that Tibbs was the company’s BEST artist is going out on a rather shaky limb. But no less a figure than future songwriting legend Doc Pomus called Tibbs the best singer he’d ever heard, someone whose records didn’t do him justice. Yet those records had also been Aristocrat’s best sellers and since he was still on the shy side of twenty years old, plus a gifted songwriter who’d therefore have no trouble finding relevant material to record, by all rights he should’ve been the company’s star attraction for the next decade.

Instead I Know marked the beginning of the end for the career of Andrew Tibbs, as he’d get just one more release following Leonard Chess’s takeover of the company at the end of the year and fade into obscurity in the years since.
 

Beneath Those Moonless Skies
Speculating on things is a common human trait, hazardous as it might be to rooting out the truth. There have been suggestions that Tibbs had himself – courtesy of a drug habit – to blame for his downfall. Hopefully that’s not the case, and for what it’s worth he did live until 1992 and continued singing sporadically in local Chicago venues, but he obviously wouldn’t be the first in the music industry to fall prey to that vice. However let it also be said that Ray Charles was hooked on heroin for the fifteen most productive years of his career while in jazz Charlie Parker completely reinvented music while shooting up everyday.

That’s not an advertisement for drugs by any means, but if Tibbs was getting high that alone wouldn’t preclude him from singing just as effectively when not on the junk and it’s not as if record companies were all that concerned with their artists private lives to begin with, so it wasn’t a moralistic decision for every company dabbling in rock to steer clear of him after he’d been so successful on a tiny company that barely knew its ass from its elbow when he was notching hits.

Because of Tibbs’s sudden disappearance after such a promising start he’s become something of a cause célèbre on Spontaneous Lunacy, an example of how in the music biz it’s not always the most deserving who are remembered and lauded by society, often times those – like Tibbs – who should’ve been stars wound up widely forgotten.

But if you wanted to explain away his fading relevance artistically rather than attributing it to personal demons or the lack of astuteness of his record label, then maybe we should start with I Know a record that in theory might’ve made some sense – a pop-slanted ballad that would allow the phenomenally gifted Tibbs to show his vocal chops on something that might draw interest from a wider audience – which at the same time shows why such attempts were foolhardy at best.

Upon hearing this song fans who’d been following the career of Tibbs to date, placing multiple records of his firmly in the local Cash Box charts for Chicago, as well as selling as strong as the company’s still evolving distribution could get them nationwide, would’ve instinctively known they were being eased aside in the hopes of landing bigger game as soon as they heard the strains of this record pouring out of their speakers.

Exerting no more than mild pressure on the listener’s sensibilities the wistful sounding intro reeks of timidity and upholding a standard of proper decorum – things that run counter to not just rock itself, but also removes from the equation the greatest natural attributes Andrew Tibbs himself possesses, which is his tortured emotionalism. Stripped of the opportunity to let loose with passionate cries of distress regarding his separation from the one he loves he’s presented in decidedly muted, almost impotent form, hardly the most potent way to showcase him, or even the most effective way to get us to sympathize with his plight.
 


 

The story is one we’ve heard a thousand times in other forms – boy loses girl and is despondent about it – but the lyrics at least offer enough of a twist to keep us interested. He’s admitting they weren’t meant for each other, that their affair was doomed from the start due to basic incompatibility, but that the loss itself is no less hard to bear.

It’s an admirable position to take in a way, defiance in the face of reality, and one that has great promise if they’d let him play it out to its natural conclusion one that would probably find him on the verge of despair. Instead though they sell him short, and thus sell his feelings short, by framing it so artificially. The dainty ribbons and bows that were standard in pop arrangements of the time – halting piano, tepid horns – remove the real life consequences that are necessary to have him convey if we’re to feel any connection to his plight.

His ache – in spite of how well as he delivers it in such a confined space – nonetheless feels too detached simply because of how it’s framed. Unless Tibbs can convince us he’s on the verge of a breakdown over this turn of events then we know their parting will be something he’ll get over in time, thus there’s nothing much at stake in all of this.

The thing is of course he CAN convince us of how deeply this is affecting him – quite easily too – if they just let him go for broke. Tibbs has rarely sounded better and he pushes hard against the box they’ve placed him in, his voice swelling repeatedly at certain key intervals before being forcibly reined in by the limitations of the arrangement. But without being given free reign to vent his anguish he has no choice but to become morose instead which is a far less compelling characteristic, both on a personal level but also in terms of the impact of his performance.

As a result I Know (the song… or rather the arrangement of the song) is a failure for this artist, even though this artist does nothing wrong and in fact elevates this well past what it might be otherwise. But it’s not anywhere near what it COULD be for reasons that Tibbs has nothing whatsoever to do with, something which was still occurring far too often with record companies badly misreading the marketplace by holding on to outdated ideals.
 

As The Years Go Passing By
At times I’m sure it may seem to readers that this site has a perverse hatred of pop music and all who perform it or enjoy it, but that’s hardly the case. Pop songs and arrangements are perfectly suitable when recorded by pop singers when those records are intended for the tastes of pop audiences. But just as those pop singers would be ill-suited to cut rock records and their audiences would be unwilling to accept the far different standards needed to appreciate rock songs, the same is true when trying to shoehorn pop styled approaches into an artist who may have had the voice to pull it off, but not the mindset or interest to do so.

The fact is however even in the pop world the rules were starting to change. In the past it had always been “the song” that mattered far more than which singers cut it. You might like Bing Crosby’s voice and style more than Frank Sinatra’s or Perry Como’s, but they all handled the same material with similar skill sets suited to them all.

Not so for long. At the same time that I Know came out the song that was dominating the pop landscape was Mule Train and, as was the case with any hit record in the 1940’s, that meant it was being covered by every artist under the sun. But while everyone from Crosby to The Syncopators and Val Tino took a whack at it, they were going pale in comparison to Frankie Laine’s melodramatic rendition.

Now, more and more, it was the individual performance that would drive a song’s popularity and while the change didn’t happen overnight, rock music predicted that change more than any style to date. Hearing the incompatibility Andrew Tibbs had with the material was showed why things had no choice BUT to change in the future. Artistic authenticity had become far more important than stylistic conformity. It was a big audience out there, surely there was something unique for each faction. This record sadly wasn’t it for the rock fan.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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