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ARISTOCRAT 1105; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

Along the journey through rock’s earliest days here on Spontaneous Lunacy there have been a few circumstances that I never saw coming regarding some of the artists who’ve been covered.

Going into this project I knew full well which big names were going to rack up the most reviews over the years and in all likelihood have the highest aggregate scores to this point which is now nearing the end of 1948. I could see the major game-changing records looming in the distance and it was obvious how their appearance would shift the ground under rock ‘n’ roll and lead it down a new and unexplored avenue and give us a different wrinkle to talk about.

I also was aware of the lesser known, but not necessarily less talented, figures who were poised to be introduced to some unsuspecting reader who’d never heard of them, or at least never heard the records which were due to receive some praise on these pages. That was one of many upsides to this blog that I was looking forward to, possibly exposing some artist otherwise lost to the ages so that their work and legacy could be re-evaluated by those coming into this with a blank slate and no pre-conceptions to work around.

But what I didn’t quite anticipate, though I don’t know why not, was the possibility that the one who’d be surprised by the revelation of someone’s long forgotten output would be… ME!
 

 
Now it’s not as if I knew each and every single side that all 37 million rock artists throughout history ever recorded obviously, but I assumed that while there would be plenty of “one-off” surprises, an individual obscure record that slipped completely past my guard, I never expected that some artists with such deep catalogs and a tangible amount of recognition (at the time, if not today) would be among those who were going to stop me in my tracks.

Yet that’s exactly what has happened a number of times already and as a result I find that I have almost a paternal interest in each one of them, as if my discovery of them was also yours. Egotistical I know, and I apologize.

But I also am glad that this is the case, for the greatest joy in music – for me anyway – has never been the hundredth or thousandth spin of a record that’s already among my favorites, but rather the FIRST spin of a song that will soon be a viable contender for my favorite song of the moment.

Those unexpected revelations are what I think all music fans crave most (though feel free to disagree). There’s something magical about that sense of discovery in a performance you never expected to hear, but once you did you couldn’t imagine not knowing it before then.

So of the more than a hundred and sixty some odd-reviews already in the books, though they don’t necessarily have the highest scores to date and in fact have some underwhelming sides scattered among them, I am probably more enthusiastic to be talking about the records of the likes of Cousin Joe and Albennie Jones than I am of even the immortals.

And like any over-protective parent I am particularly frustrated when I feel their failure to connect with an audience at the time was easily preventable with better decision-making on their label’s behalf. None more so than Andrew Tibbs.
 

Wake Up!
Everything about Andrew Tibbs screams STAR!

In rock ‘n’ roll, a music naturally appealing to the younger generation, Tibbs was still a teenager. He was good-looking with a vulnerable air to him that would also make girls and even some slightly older women want to comfort him.

He had a voice that was just as expressive, his gospel-trained pipes able to stir the spirit on more uptempo material, yet his delicate delivery able to connect on the slower, down-hearted tunes as well. He’d proven himself to be a very strong songwriter, thereby allowing him to shape his own on-record persona rather than relying on the outside efforts of those who may not even take his strengths into account.

On top of all this he was from Chicago, the second largest city in country at the time and closer in proximity to most of the other major metropolitan areas in mid-century America than any other town. He was recording for a label which, while a recent (spring 1947) start-up run by well-meaning amateurs, still had an experienced A&R man in Sammy Goldberg, a roster of impressive versatile musicians led by saxophonist Tom Archia – or in this case Sax Mallard – to back him in the studio, and much of it increasingly overseen by Leonard Chess, a go-getter who will soon take over Aristocrat and rename it after himself and quickly build it into one of the leading independent labels in the 1950’s and 60’s – someone who in fact got in the door of the company by clinging to Tibbs’ coattails and thus would be likely to champion his “discovery”.

Surely if all of these facts were known at the time and odds were laid for which early rock star would become an all-time great, Andrew Tibbs would be an even bet at worst.

Of course we know he was soon out of the race, having never made it to the finish line. But what we don’t know, or can’t fathom at least, is WHY.
 
 

 

Packed Up And Left
If I have to make a few educated guesses, In A Traveling Mood is a good place to start. It’s yet another stellar example of the full range of his talent – from his pure vocal ability to his impressive interpretive skills that make the performance sparkle, and his first-rate songwriting which gives the listener the required emotional connection to want to hear how this drama unfolds. In other words there’s not only nothing wrong about how it’s written, sung or played, all of those components are simply out of this world.

It’s just that everything else lets him down.

For starters there’s the audio fidelity, which like ALL of Aristocrat’s early sides sound like they were recorded by hanging a microphone out a window a block away from the studio. It’s scratchy, distant and when compared to virtually every other side we’ve reviewed here – records that are ALL seventy years old and in many cases where the tapes of which were stored in a dusty warehouse, or somebody’s attic or stashed under the bed, the Aristocrat sides when played alongside anything else from that era will have you reaching for the off button before you reach the chorus.

Did they sound this bad when first released? They must’ve. Maybe not THIS awful, but it’s impossible to believe they all deteriorated to this extent. Even if the surface noise was scrubbed clean the mix itself clearly sounds like a bad engineer not knowing how to position the microphones, how to wire them (or possibly how to turn on the power to get the microphones up and running in the first place!!!!), and certainly no idea how to work a console. It’s just not balanced properly.

When you listen to records engineered on Atlantic by Tom Dowd, or anything coming out of New Orleans when cut by Cosimo Matassa, or Los Angeles by Maxwell Davis, the records are clean, well balanced with perfect separation (no bleeding of instruments into other mics), the tapes themselves have a crisp sound to them, not seem as if they’ve been left lying unwound on the cement floor for a week with people walking over them. Aristocrat’s tapes sound even worse than that image conjures up and while that may not have been the case at the time, in the years since the subpar quality (and/or shoddy re-mastering) has taken most of the artists from this era out of the discussion for notoriety because frankly who wants to strain to hear what they’re singing?

The second of our complaints, this one focusing on Tibbs specifically, is how they continually altered his credits until you didn’t know which way was up. He was Andrew Tibbs on some records, Andy Tibbs on others, and here he’s credited alongside The Dozier Boys on the label, who provide the backing. Now the Dozier Boys do a superb job here, which is kind of surprising since on their own records they were as unhip and bland as could be imagined, showing no sense of soul whatsoever. But here, possibly whipped into shape by Tibbs teaching them their parts (since he wrote it, I’m assuming he arranged, or at least influenced the backing vocals), they sing with a light airy touch that still retains a modicum of genuine soul.

But their getting co-credit as artists on the label is just confusing matters. I’m sure it was done as a way to promote another act on the back of somebody who had name recognition, but it doesn’t help him at all. Tibbs was the star, he was the one you were pushing, it was HIS song no less! The Dozier Boys don’t need to be mentioned in that way, a mere “vocal accompaniment by:” credit in small print will do.

It’s not to say that scores of otherwise interested Andrew Tibbs fans were confused by this and didn’t buy the record as a result, but it’s a needless distraction. Not all fans are as astute as others and some can barely remember one artist’s name, let alone two, and I’m sure everyone who worked in a record store from the beginning of time has had customers come in without knowing the name of the song and trying to sing three words from the chorus they misheard (and on Aristocrat that wouldn’t be hard to do) and hoping the clerk knows exactly what record they’re referring to.

Pick a name, stick to that name, for as history has clearly shown about the only artists to achieve any lasting success playing moniker musical chairs have been John (Cougar) Mellencamp and Sean (Puff Daddy / Puffy / P.Diddy / Diddy) Combs, and those were at least in eras when there was ample coverage of rock ‘n’ roll on television, radio, magazines and in the case of Diddy the early internet days. When Tibbs was around trying to attain a measure of name recognition they were still mailing letters by Pony Express and no newspapers acknowledged rock’s existence until about 1956 and even then they mostly tried to deny it was even music.

So yeah, Tibbs’s failure to connect MAY be a quirk of fate that happened because the audience for this kind of music simply didn’t find his brand of it to be appealing enough, but it’s far more likely that they’d have liked it every bit as much as Roy Brown, whom he remained the closest to in style without merely being an imitator, if only that audience could’ve found his records and heard them in reasonable sonic clarity when they played them.

Ahhh, and that brings us (at last) to the record.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Here I Come
Once we cut through the fog of the acoustics and make out what they’re singing, the results are astounding as usual with Tibbs. What jumps out on In A Traveling Mood, a song about despondency that has him so broken up he’s going to walk across the country to escape his plight, is his use of melisma.

Melisma can, and often is, an overused technique designed to show off a singer’s emotional qualities. When used sparingly it is remarkably effective, bringing a pathos to songs that hits home with listeners who seem to respond instinctively to the quavering voice, almost like a mother alligator returns to the nest when her hatchlings are squawking so she can protect them from a predator.

But while some, like Sam Cooke, became renowned for it and could’ve almost patented its use so closely did it become associated with him, others – perhaps even more technically skilled – like Aaron Neville or Mariah Carey, have gone to the well too often at times and robbed it of its potency. Like a strong spice a little goes a long way and here while Tibbs uses it freely he never overdoes it and the effect is striking.

The Dozier Boys for their part add the right blend behind him, not just in their wordless harmonizing which gives the song a nice bed for Tibbs to roll across, but when Benny Cotton’s bass voice gets a chance in the spotlight to interject a line it sets up the contrast between the sound of that voice’s descent into the valley and Tibbs sudden unexpected cry of despair that scales the highest vocal mountain in the region of rock ‘n’ roll to this point. It’s a moment you don’t see coming and when it hits you the first time it knocks you on your ass.

The bass returns for more work on the bridge and of course it’s not hard to see that this was done in response to the success of Jimmy Ricks with The Ravens. But while Cotton is no Jimmy Ricks (though he’s not bad actually), Andrew Tibbs puts Maithe Marshall to shame here as unlike Marshall’s pop shadings that wind up tainting The Ravens performances too often Tibbs has no such delusions of grandeur and lets his voice soar with tortured anguish until you have goose bumps.

It’s a powerhouse performance in every regard, even the backing music – while slight – is perfect in its understated presence.

No matter what aspect you focus on this is a fantastic record from top to bottom and proof that Tibbs was a star in the making.
 

You Didn’t Even Say Goodbye
There are times when as a reviewer you get a little gun shy about appearing to favor an artist (or a style, or an era for that matter) based entirely on personal tastes, especially when there’s no widespread consensus to agree with that position. It’s something you fight through – after all the scores here are intended to be merely my own views on a record’s strengths and weaknesses and not influenced by outside opinions. When that falls into question ironically isn’t on giving a widely acknowledged great record a score to match that consensus, or even disagreeing with the consensus and knocking points off because a record doesn’t live up to its lofty reputation in my opinion, but rather by shortchanging something I DO feel stronger about than I let on. You tend to pull back on your praise ever so slightly so as not to go overboard and be seen as a champion for someone history has deemed largely irrelevant.

It doesn’t happen much and shouldn’t happen at all, (Albennie Jones may disagree for gypping her of a point for Give It Up Daddy Blues), but here’s a case where you don’t need to worry about that in the slightest.

Though In A Traveling Mood still isn’t quite one of my desert island discs (besides if I only have a few to take with me on this mythical island that I’ll be stranded on for who knows how long, I’d like to be able to HEAR those records reasonably well), and while a 9 is deemed a Perfect Record, and due to those acoustics this technically isn’t perfect, it’s STILL getting that score because what Tibbs himself did WAS perfect and no amount of incompetence by the hierarchy of Aristocrat Records can change that fact.

History missed out on Andrew Tibbs. He was great no matter how little he has to show for it in the end and for proof just track this one down because it may just be his greatest side.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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