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ARISTOCRAT 1102; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 

What’s the difference between an unfulfilled idea and one that is brought all the way to fruition?

In other words at what point is a new and daring concept no longer just a tentative theory but an an actual verifiable entity in its own right? In music terms when do you KNOW that something has arrived? Is it merely the first commercial release in this new form? Or the first widespread hit? Is it the arrival of other artists in the field and more record labels jumping on board?

Or could it be the real moment of its arrival as an established style is when its own artists forsake other stylistic options and give themselves over completely to the form that will go on to define them forever more?
 

 
In the case of the latter, the one which, when you think of it, actually makes the most sense because it indicates a full-fledged commitment by those who are casting their fate with the music, we’re not quite there yet.

Make no mistake about it, rock music definitely exists, it has since that first record back in September. It had been strengthened commercially by the first hits that rolled off the line not long after. And the more names that joined the ranks throughout the final months of 1947 and first month of 1948 have bolstered the chances that rock would indeed survive past the incubation stage.

But there was still no guarantee it would become entrenched as a full-fledged enduring genre of music by this point as even some of its most promising artists were still a little hesitant to go all in on the gamble. That was the key to its long-term viability – convincing the up and coming artists that rock ‘n’ roll, not another already established brand of music, be it pop, blues, jazz or gospel, would be big enough to sustain their careers.

Thus in February 1948 rock’s position was still tenuous, its prognosis still uncertain, its life existing one breath… one record… at a time. Should artists who’d already ventured into this realm suddenly have a change of heart and back out, heading elsewhere in search of a more certain future, then rock would never have a chance of becoming self-sustaining and thus it would be seen historically as little more than a temporary wrinkle in a larger morass of disconnected sounds.

Andrew Tibbs was among those who were deciding its future, yet he like the others were by no means looking at, or probably even aware of, the big picture. Their concern wasn’t the propagation of the genre itself, but rather the prospects for their own careers. They couldn’t be expected to see the forest for the trees. All they could hope was to have their latest record be accepted by somebody… anybody… whose interest would allow them to play a few more dates at a club, to get another recording session down the line and hopefully sell a few more records that came out of that. Whether those records would be rock ‘n’ roll or something else entirely may not have made much difference to them and so WHAT types of records they succeeded with would ultimately be what would determine rock’s fate.
 

 

If You Go For Lots Of Love
When Andrew Tibbs first entered a recording studio he was just 18 years old, the first rock record had just only been released that same month, and the thought that he might have an actual career singing it was far-fetched at best.

But eighteen year olds are nothing if not naturally confident and ambitious and so, inspired by what he’d recently heard and fallen in love with in the form of Roy Brown’s debut, he too set out to come up with something in a similar vein. It was the first case of certifiable influence within rock, one rock artist in effect creating another, which was an important first step to the music’s success as a whole.

But Tibbs was still a novice with no track record to go on to allow his own interests to completely dictate the material they cut and the record industry itself was based on predicting sales more than setting trends and so while he definitely headed off in the direction that rock would soon claim for itself, he also was bound to be tied somewhat to other forms that pre-dated rock’s arrival if only because that was the safer bet and what everybody involved (musicians, record labels, distributors, jukebox owners, and audiences) already knew.

Toothless Woman Blues is one of the sides he cut that day which stands on uneasy footing within the rock kingdom, included because of the ultimate classification of Tibbs himself, as well as his manner in delivering the song which blurs the lines between other musical territories. But in every other way it is indicative of the uncertainty, both commercially and stylistically, of the larger black music landscape that existed at a time.
 

Reminds You Of A Bear
The song presents us with a series of conflicts that exemplify this uncertainty and probably helps explains why it failed to reach any audience despite his previous success around the Midwest with his debut release, not to mention why it doesn’t live up to his best work from that same recording session.

To start with there’s the problem of the lyrical sentiments being out of whack with the musical arrangement. If you listen to Toothless Woman Blues without paying much attention to the words of the song you’d think this was a sorrowful lament of some sort. Maybe Tibbs’s girl has left him, or perhaps he’s bemoaning the lack of interest of any female in the vicinity. His tone is despondent, he’s effectively crying his lines and investing them with an emotional quality that reflects a downcast outlook, and to be fair he does this quite well. His gospel training comes to bear in the way he worries each line, drawing the words out, injecting breathy pauses and choked off sobs to emulate grief.

The problem is it doesn’t fit the storyline.

When you concentrate on the lyrics rather than the music you’ll see they convey an entirely different outlook than the one his delivery suggests. The actual chain of events that take place within doesn’t concern Tibbs at all, he’s not even a direct participant in the drama, but merely the narrator who’s offering advice to other men who find themselves beset by a lack of female companionship and therefore there’s absolutely no need for HIM to feel dejected.

His suggestion for them, which is quite detailed in its reasoning, is to forget the glamour gals who cost too much of your money and your self-respect to try and keep and instead focus on finding a girl who may be lacking in the looks department – hence the toothless women reference – but who more than make up for it by their devotion to you, both in sticking by you through life’s travails but also in their enthusiasm in the boudoir.

If you think you’ve heard this line of reasoning before it’s because you probably have down the road when Jimmy Soul cut an Americanized version of a 1934 calypso song by Roaring Lion (the performing name of Rafael de Leon) called Ugly Woman which he re-named If You Wanna Be Happy and saw it hit the top of the pop charts in 1963.

This is basically the same idea, not the same song, certainly not performed in the same way as either version of that tune. Both de Leon and Soul emphasized the humor of the theory that good looking women were too much trouble to maintain a healthy relationship and so by setting your sights lower you’d be more likely to find eternal bliss. The accompanying music of both was upbeat and lighthearted and obviously it worked well, as they’ve each remained enduring records for over half a century.

It’s doubtful our song’s writer John Coppage was basing Toothless Woman Blues on “Ugly Woman” directly (though kudos for him if he was), but because its theme is the same we can see where Tibbs’s choices on how to frame it (or the choices of Dave Young’s band who backed him on it) went astray and undermined the lyrical message.

The dirge like pacing, the halting piano, the intermittent mournful trumpet squawks and the meandering sax solo by Young himself during the break all contribute to the directionless feel the record embodies. You get no sense listening to it that any of them were even aware of what Tibbs was saying. Since Tibbs himself was undercutting his own message by singing it as if he were about to have an emotional breakdown you can hardly blame them, but now the responsibility falls back on the producer, which presumably was A&R man Sammy Goldberg. By not taking charge and coming up with a suitable alternative to what was quite obviously a conceptual misstep it means the gulf between the two entities – the musical and the lyrical – remains too wide to make it over.
 

Not Good Lookin’
All of which brings us back to the reasons behind it. Now we don’t have the benefit of talking to any of the participants at this late stage but it’s fairly simple to look around the commercial market for music then to pinpoint the source of their failure.

In the fall of 1947 a song like this had but one outlet to be found in the dominant forms of music – that of the novelty niche. At the time Tibbs and company entered the studio you had Arthur Godfrey riding high on the charts with Too Fat Polka, which is exactly the type of silliness you’d expect from a song with a title like that. Meanwhile Dorothy Shay was soon hitting big with the so-called comedy of Feudin’ & Fightin, a song which delighted on using stereotypes as the source of its humor. That was the same approach that Danny Kaye and The Andrews Sisters would take on Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo) which was among the biggest songs as 1947 came to a close.

That’s the type of insipid cloying material that was taking up a good portion of the best seller lists each week. But if you listen to those songs the unifying feature is how the singer was forced to demean themselves to put it across by playing into the same stereotypes they were making fun of.

One listen to Andrew Tibbs and you can’t possibly envision him stooping to such levels to sell the humor in that manner, therefore that avenue – which considering the acceptance of that type of song in this era was probably the best bet to connect – was entirely cut off from them.

So they had to look elsewhere and the first place to look is at the musicians in the studio. Dave Young’s Orchestra was a band that specialized in lighter jazz fare but who were versatile enough to step slightly outside that, provided you weren’t asking them to completely reinvent themselves. As we’ve already seen with them on Tibbs’s earlier releases from that same session date Young and company were too mannered to match Tibbs’s vocal power which hindered those records somewhat. But the songs Tibbs had – and his performances of them – were strong enough that their mild backing didn’t sink them altogether.

Here that won’t be the case. Toothless Woman Blues needs all the help it can get and Young is ill-equipped to take it far outside of his own comfort zone and make it more muscular and try to emphasize the humor by coming up with a coarse arrangement bordering on vulgar and crude. That approach still might not have worked but the message of the song at least wouldn’t have been betrayed by what they were playing.

Lastly a portion of the blame must fall on Tibbs himself, a singer with unquestioned interpretive skills and a pliable voice capable of both power and grace. What we see here though is someone who didn’t quite have the instincts to know how to best approach this, which probably isn’t surprising considering this was the one cut of the day he had no hand in writing.

Because of that he falls back on his bread and butter delivery, that of a distraught soul trapped in unforgiving circumstances beyond his control and it doesn’t work, providing the final nail in the record’s coffin.
 

You’ll Shout This Is Where I Belong
Actually though that description best suits the listener who is the real unfortunate soul who’s trapped in unforgiving circumstances beyond their control by being forced to listen to this record when they were expecting… or merely hoping for… a song more firmly within rock’s boundaries.

In the end this did provide rock with a valuable service however because it showed that the further you strayed from rock’s core aesthetic components the worse your returns would be. Not surprisingly this record, both sides of which were on the outer fringes of rock, would be Tibbs poorest selling release of his first year.

The evidence was starting to mount that your best bet as an artist (and as a record label) was to push all your chips to the center of the table and bet it all on rock ‘n’ roll and leave these other options to those who didn’t have the musical fortitude to play the game in the first place.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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