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CHESS 1430; AUGUST 1950



Beginnings and endings are often intertwined in life, in literature… and it turns out in music as well.

When a particular style or trend dies out it’s almost always replaced by another that sifts through the wreckage for remnants worth recycling. When the peak of an artist who defined an era starts to fade there’s almost always somebody new taking their place in the public’s imagination.

For those who have a pretty good storehouse of knowledge regarding early rock ‘n’ roll the first appearance on these pages of Chess Records might have you thinking that the beginning and ending we’re referring to has to do with the demise of its predecessor Aristocrat Records, but in fact they were essentially the same label, just a new name to reflect the takeover of the company by Leonard Chess.

Instead the beginning of his reign as one of the biggest names in the independent record field coincides with the demise of the career of the very singer who first helped to get Chess’s foot in the door of Aristocrat three years earlier.


Ain’t It Hard?
One of the artists who got his start at Leonard Chess’s Mocomba Lounge in Chicago was Andrew Tibbs, an 18 year old singer with a gospel-trained voice who turned to the Devil’s music to make a living and soon wound up dancing with a different kind of devil that derailed his career.

Right out of the gate Tibbs had become Aristocrat’s first true star in late 1947 notching an underground hit with his debut, the notorious Bilbo Is Dead, and then scoring a national hit with I Feel Like Crying which showed off his melisma laden voice to great effect.

When Leonard Chess began easing himself into the Aristocrat Records chain of command thanks to his connection with Tibbs and other artists he’d known through his nightclub, eventually taking over the company when its owner Evelyn Aron got married and along with her husband moved into record distribution instead, it seemed all but assured that Tibbs’s fortunes would rise even higher.

But Andrew Tibbs’s best days were already behind him. The mild-mannered son of a preacher man had picked up a heroin habit and was soon to start a (thankfully successful) program to get him off the junk, which probably explains why these last sides of his stint with the company featured bandleader Sax Mallard as the lead artist rather than Tibbs who gets only “Vocal By” designation.

Surely Leonard Chess must’ve figured that Mallard, who’d backed Tibbs a number of times in the past and remained a valuable figure for the label in his own right, was the safer long-term bet at this point and thus chose to use this release to promote his career while Tibbs’s career and well-being were in limbo.

But make no mistake about it Sax Mallard is just window dressing here, for You Can’t Win is more proof that had things broken better for Tibbs – like say a more experienced label making better decisions, some much needed professional guidance outside the four walls of the studio to help him navigate his early stardom, as well as some better judgement on his own part – he would’ve been able to stand with any artist of his era for a long time rather than burning out at just 21 years old.

No Matter How Hard You Work
With its laid back opening which combines elements of bandstand jazz and standard pop flavored studio backing, there’s not much to suggest this is going to be any kind of deep performance that you’ve come to hope for whenever Andrew Tibbs’s name is somewhere on the label.

But thankfully Tibbs seems unconcerned with that perceived set-back and concentrates on using that peerless voice and the emotion bristling under the surface to deliver a downcast state of the world address fit for the uncertain times they were living in.

The way his voice soars at times manages to keep it from being too depressing no matter how dire the situations he’s laying out, letting himself come to the brink of despair before stepping back from the edge of the cliff. We know how easy it’d be to trivialize these scenarios for the sake of a song, pouring it on too thick to evoke even more sympathy but doing so would only turn it into a parody of the very thing they’re trying to draw attention to and so Tibbs has to know just how much pressure to exert without going overboard.

That’s arguably his greatest skill, for while that amazing bell-like tenor is the first thing you notice, the intuitive sense of how to best deploy it is what sets You Can’t Win apart from so many more ham-fisted efforts in this realm over the years.

Alternately insistent and withdrawing, Tibbs gets in your face when emphasizing the emotional pull of a line but then immediately pulls back to draw you in closer to really feel the pain he’s exhibiting. Though his experience with gospel when he was younger no doubt helped give him a foundation for this aspect of his singing, there’s few – if any – male gospel artists of this era who were so delicate in their deliveries, as he almost caresses the words as he sings until you can’t help but be captivated.

The lyrics he came up with are detailed enough to paint a pretty clear picture of the mounting pressure of the less fortunate in life, from the lack of jobs to the rising rent and the loss of hope that always puts you at risk of giving up and while few of them are quotable, none of them are mere throwaway lines either, giving this a solid story to ensure he’s got a meatier role to sink his teeth into.

Though it’s probably fitting for his own life at this point that the song ends with him sinking further into the abyss, it’s to Tibbs’s credit that even here there’s a note of resiliency in his voice that doesn’t negate the sadness he’s conveying but rather gives you hope that he’ll be able to overcome it in the long run.


When You Find That Job
Even though Sax Mallard’s low key and slightly outdated introduction of this record throws you for a momentary loop, once they get their feet under them it’s a pretty effective performance all around, giving Tibbs as much support as he needs without getting in the way.

Mallard was hardly the most explosive saxophonist to begin with and so the kind of understated support he’s asked to give on You Can’t Win suits his style nicely, allowing him to lay back and simply add tonal shadings with the horns while the piano and the drums carry a lot more of the weight here, the former framing the skeletal melody while the latter provides frequent jolts of energy in the transitions rather than laying down a backbeat.

It’s rather surprising that the horn break is really brief but nevertheless gives the song just enough of a wrinkle to keep it from getting stale and at other times, particularly leading into the stop-time bridge near the end when they become more assertive to ensure the track shifts its moods behind Tibbs, drawing attention to his changing perspective even though they do so without drawing too much attention to themselves in the process.

Their choices are impeccable even if there’s never anything that stands out unto itself, appropriately enough fitting into the larger impression this record makes where the everything remains modest in its ambitions yet almost flawless in its execution.

The Way Things Are Today
Is any of this the kind of thing that would have the music industry waiting with heightened anticipation for Tibbs’s eventual return?

Probably not. With rock becoming ever more prominent there was a much wider array of artists to give you the kind of performances that he’d all but taken a patent out on during the genre’s first three years.

Ironically it wouldn’t be another solo singer who’d explore this ground in the near future, but rather vocal groups who would seek to mine this kind of emotional struggle he excelled at using similar halting vocals while seemingly questioning himself at every turn. It’s all but impossible not to see the his influence on the likes of The Five Keys and The Flamingos in the coming years.

But since Tibbs was a solo act, not a lead in a group that would be fetishized by future doo-wop historians, and since his brief reign came before most people in America were even aware rock ‘n’ roll existed, let alone actively seeking it out, Andrew Tibbs never got his due. By the time he emerged from rehab the Chess Records label had moved on leaving him without a base of operations, forced to try and scramble for a few short-lived and unsuccessful contracts with other companies.

All of which makes You Can’t Win an all-too fitting final word on his peak period of recording, a story that confronted hardships with no relief in sight and a title that reflected his years of virtual anonymity still to come.

They say skill is never enough, that you also need luck to win, and while Andrew Tibbs undoubtedly brought some bad luck down on himself along the way, with his talent he still deserved to win more than the consolation prize of having essentially launched Leonard Chess’s vast musical empire along the way.


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