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REGAL 3258; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

Of the hundreds – soon thousands – of records released in rock each year most come and go without much interest at the time and without much thought paid to them after they’ve disappeared from view.

The lucky ones were hits – as this was – but even that doesn’t guarantee any long-term recognition for their achievement. Usually in order to be remembered past their natural expiration date a record has to either be so big that it passes into the musical vernacular of an entire generation, or it has to be so influential that it has plenty of other future hits which can be traced directly to its doorstep, giving it a permanent and prominent seat at the table in discussions about how music evolved.

This may get some minor credit in both of those areas, but hardly enough to make it notable in the big picture of a seventy year and counting odyssey like rock ‘n’ roll.

But then there are some records seem to act as a fulcrum for their era and though it may not seem so at first glance this record is most assuredly is one of them.
 

 

I Still Remember
The first thing to be aware of was this was a cover record of a currently popular song, something which as we know was commonplace in the middle of the last century when the entire pop music field basically cut the same songs at the same time, all hoping to get a slightly larger piece of the commercial pie than their competitors.

This was a residual effect of the shift from sheet music sales being the primary source of income for music publishers when people made their own music sitting around a piano playing the latest popular songs that came out. By the 1920’s and 30’s radio began to intrude on these quaint scenes and they each had their own professional bands and vocalists performing the latest hits live and as a result you’d hear plenty of different renditions of the popular songs and so consequently few of them were intrinsically tied to one performer. But once radio began playing records over the air rather than hiring local talent to perform the current hits each day in the studio we finally began to move towards a new reality.

It was still a slow process however mainly because most singers didn’t write their own music and so they were left to fight over newly written songs hoping to find something unique. But there aren’t that many new songs out there that had potential and as a result when one came along there’d fifteen or twenty versions of it available in a matter of days, usually with four or five of them becoming popular enough to make the charts at the same time.

I’ll Never Be Free was one of those songs in the winter and spring of 1950 with lots of different acts taking a whack at it, from white pop singer Kay Starr teaming with country signer Tennessee Ernie Ford to black jazz chanteuse Savannah Churchill tackling it solo.

But where it gets interesting is the source of this song and how it shows that, however slowly it might be happening, there was now a broader horizon to scan when looking for potential hits… and that meant black music was making its presence known in the mainstream more and more.
 

Sweet Surrender
The original version of this was cut by Lucky Millinder’s band, a guy we’ve mentioned a lot of times around here so we don’t have to take a deep dive into his backstory to get you caught up. Suffice it to say, Millinder was one of the crucial bandleaders of the 1940’s who was one of many spearheading the shift from the big band jazz of the Pre-War years to planting the seeds of the music that would come to dominate the Post-War Era… rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet Millinder wasn’t a rocker even though a lot of legitimate rock singers, musicians and future producers came through his outfit, from Wynonie Harris to Sam “The Man” Taylor and Henry Glover.

In fact it IS a sometime-rock singer who is the male vocalist on Millinder’s rendition of I’ll Never Be Free, none other than Big John Greer, who was still drawing checks as a member of Lucky’s band even as he was also cutting records in a different milieu under his own name.

But Greer’s presence isn’t enough to make their original version of this rock, even with the presence of the great Annisteen Allen as his female co-star who would in the future be forced to head into the rock territory herself in order to remain commercially relevant. Here though, while their own contributions theoretically could be squeezed into a rock overview, the more mild backing, particularly the horn section, of Millinder’s band keeps this just outside the boundaries.

Which brings us – at last – to two tried and true rockers, Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie, a twosome that will forever be linked in rock history even though they rarely sang together on record. They do here however and in the process they lay down the template that most duos in rock would follow forever after.
 

Your Love Remains When We’re Apart
Laurie of course started off as Gayten’s female vocalist when he was playing in clubs around New Orleans in a situation much like Millinder in fact… Gayten was the bandleader and pianist, an occasional vocalist himself, overseeing the larger show with different featured performers.

When Gayten was signed to a record deal in the spring of 1947 though his band and singer came along with him and DeLuxe Records figured it made more sense to promote Laurie as an artist in her own right rather than simply the featured vocalist in Gayten’s band. Though Laurie quickly established herself as a budding star with Since I Fell For You and other strong sellers, she was always being backed by Gayten who frequently would have his name appear under hers on the label, something that continued when they moved to Regal Records and later on when they both went to OKeh Records before finally parting ways.

Here though we get to hear them actually sing together and they sound so good together the question it leads to is… what took them so long?
 

 
The most prominent change Gayten brought to I’ll Never Be Free was splitting the vocals apart so they’re not always singing in tandem. The other versions follow the lead of Greer and Allen who deliver their lines in harmony and though for much of it Allen dominates in volume and passion, Greer is always there riding shotgun, occasionally making his presence more evident when his voice swells in certain lines.

The Starr and Ford duet takes exactly the same approach. The music behind it may have shifted to more of a country motif and Starr had a voice that was like a laser which cut through the speaker to find your ears, but even though Ford was no slouch in making himself heard in most cases here he takes the exact same role as Greer and remains ever so slightly subservient to his female partner as they sing together… yet there’s no emotional connection made in either of those.

But Gayten figured out how to improve upon this model by injecting some much needed drama that was missing when both male and female were singing the same sentiments to one another at the same time and instead have them sing TO one another, trading off lines and in doing so building the relationship up so it seems genuine rather than contrived and then coming together for the payoff.
 

A Chain Bound To My Heart
This shift in its structure may seem relatively innocuous on paper but it was a brilliant move to make because at its core I’ll Never Be Free is a very simple song of love. it’s little more than two people head over heels about each other waxing poetic about how deep their affection is. The lyrics – by Bennie Benjamin and George Weiss – may not quite be greeting card sappy but they’re hardly taking any risks in their expressions of love and when sung together it only draws attention to this.

But here Laurie take the majority of the lead solo which changes the entire impression of them because you envision her pining away for her guy from a distance. Her heart aches for him since they aren’t together – whether just for the night for weeks or months on end – and because of this those same stilted lyrics are imbued with a deeper personal meaning that we easily can pick up because the context has changed.

When Gayten responds to her, taking the last lines of each stanza, there’s an added tension in the song that wasn’t present for any other rendition. You picture him doing the same as her and singing to himself while gazing out a window and thinking of her from far away, or maybe you imagine that he’s managed to escape the chain gang or jump ship before it left port, and is doggedly returning to her because nothing is strong enough to keep her from him.

That’s the dramatic twist this needed to live up to its potential… circumstance have kept them apart but love has brought them together and when they DO sing the chorus refrain in unison it brings an added element that the other renditions are lacking.
 


 

Each Kiss I Gave To You
If that were the only change Gayten made it’d already be enough to make theirs the best version but he doesn’t stop there, as he recognizes that while the melody itself is certainly nice no matter who’s doing it with what type of a band, there could still be some improvements made with an innovative arrangement.

Sure enough he gets your attention right out of the gate with a siren-like intro that is a quirky touch that manages to stand out and yet doesn’t distract from what is to come in any way, as Laurie’s strong sleek voice rivets your attention the moment she enters.

Gayten’s keeps shifting the focus throughout the song, both instrumentally and vocally. With the former he’s given the drums the responsibility of conveying the gravity of the situation with a forceful backbeat early on, then manages to tastefully utilize the trumpet in order to signify the longing they’re both feeling before using his own piano to tickle your senses in the bridge, teasing you at what’s to come before closing it out with the orgasmic flood of the full horn section as the volume swells when they’re finally united.

His vocal arrangement is similarly clever, not just the trading off of sections we already detailed, but also by flipping their roles down the stretch as he’s the one who takes the lead in the final refrain, his voice swelling with eager anticipation before Laurie offers the release when she comes in.

If a fairly tame song about romantic love can come across as somewhat racy then Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie manage to do so with I’ll Never Be Free, making it not only the best version of the song that was released in 1950 (as well as the biggest hit) but also standing as a really strong rock record even when you don’t factor in how much they twisted the origins to suit their aims.

What all of this shows is that at a time when much of pop music was running out of fresh ideas and were looking elsewhere for inspiration, rock was inspired to shake up the stale concepts by injecting their own ideas into the mix and in the process you can see how the tectonic plates under the musical bed were shifting more than ever.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Annie Laurie for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)
 
 
(See also the Artist page of Paul Gayten for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)