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DELUXE 3273; JUNE, 1948

 
 

 

Though it’s far too early in the contest to get worked up about which artists are out in front heading into the first turn as it were, that doesn’t mean the announcer isn’t going to at least mention it as he calls the race, whether horses or rock ‘n’ rollers.

Besides it’s been nine whole months since rock arrived on the scene and babies have been conceived and born during that time so surely that’s enough to get some sense of which acts are shaping up to be front line rock stars as the genre starts to get a firmer foothold on the national scene.

But a quick look at the leader board shows the front runners are all males, there’s not a filly in sight, at least when it comes to commercial payoffs for any bets placed on them.

That doesn’t mean however there aren’t any entered to run and so, early or not, we can start to handicap the field of female rock artists.
 

 
Horse Sense
Sad to say it’s certainly not a very deep field as we’ve got only four singers with the XX chromosome to study.

One has to be considered a decided long shot and that’s Sheba Griffin, not because of lack of talent but rather lack of headlining opportunities and disappointing support from saxophonist Tom Archia, who was credited on her two releases. Since Aristocrat Records was already shaping up to be somewhat bumbling when it came to making sensible decisions, things didn’t bode well for Griffin’s chances at righting the ship. And sure enough, though we’ve liked certain aspects of her performances, we’ve seen the last of her already on these pages. So chalk her up to an early scratch.

The one who would also seem at great risk for pulling up lame around the next turn is Mabel Smith, arguably – even at this stage – the best pure singer among them, something that would prove to be unquestionably true down the road. But she too was suffering from a record company, the far better run King Records out of Cincinnati who seemed at a loss of how to position her for their best returns. Do they start her off fast out of the gate, build a lead with that powerful voice and dare others to catch her down the stretch? Or do they lay back and make their move on the outside when the others tire?

They did neither of those, nor did they fully decide what type of instrumental backing to feature on her records, and so she’s already fading in the straightaway. Now since this scouting report you’re reading is being written seven decades into the future we know that she’ll outpace them all in the long run, but let’s just say if you were to use your rent money to place a bet on her finishing in the roses you had more insight, or more guts, than most surveying the talent at this stage.

Which leaves us with two.

The first of those is Albennie Jones, clearly out in front at this point following her stunning first release in the rock field, The Rain Is Falling, which established the torch song in rock ‘n’ roll, and its nearly as strong flip side, Papa Tree Top Blues, which raised the stakes on the racy side of the ledger, thereby giving rock two of its defining attributes right out of the gate.

Since jumping out to that huge lead however she’s fallen back towards the pack somewhat – if we want to keep this insipid horse racing analogy going even more – by going to the whip far too often and rehashing what she’d already done better the first time around.

If you study the tip sheet you’ll also see she’s creeping up in years, having been a professional since the early 1940’s with little success on other surfaces, despite some good showings with top jockeys (I’m really driving this analogy into the ground, aren’t I? And I don’t even follow horse racing).
 


 

Though it’s not known yet, rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest money winners to date have mostly been younger. Yearlings in the case of Roy Brown, Andrew Tibbs and Jimmy Liggins (less than a year of recording activity) while The Ravens, Amos Milburn and Sonny Thompson were still juveniles (two years of recording) when they ventured into rock. On the other end of the spectrum you have a few older, but still frisky, colts like Wynonie Harris who may be anxiously looking forward to being put out to stud for obvious reasons, but who still was one of the more imposing horses in the stable.

So for those like Ivory Joe Hunter on the male side, and Albennie Jones on the female side, their experience was certainly valuable but at a certain point it might be a hindrance if the younger rock audience wants somebody more attuned to their generational outlook.

And that brings us to Annie Laurie, who was young (still only 23 years old), attractive and – to beat a dead horse as it were when it comes to ridiculous references to that sport – had a good jockey to guide her around the track in Paul Gayten, with whom she scored a Top Three hit a year ago on a poppish song that pre-dated rock’s arrival by a few months, but made her an early line favorite to finish in the money.

That hasn’t happened yet, but with Wondering Blues she may be ready to start paying off.
 

So Good To Me
The sound that captures your attention right away is the guitar.

It’s an instrument we haven’t encountered much much in rock ‘n’ roll thus far, something which would continue to be the case for awhile longer as the style of playing that the guitar became known for in rock wouldn’t really make its first appearance for another year. THIS style of playing on Wondering Blues surely wasn’t hinting at that in any way, but it has to go down as one of the most captivating sounds heard to date on any rock release.

Chances are it’s either Jack Scott, who was a very good arranger and songwriter in his own right, or perhaps it’s Edgar Blanchard, one of the true behind the scenes pioneers who’s been lost to time, and if it was him he’ll go on to have a long list of credits to his name backing most New Orleans based singers for the next fifteen years. Whoever it may be though the tone of it is so haunting and adroit that it comes across almost as if it’s an apparition, tangible but elusive. You can SEE it, or rather hear it, but if you try and grab hold of it you’ll only come up with a handful of air as it sounds as if it’s floating in a foggy mist.

The fact it’s just acting as a secondary instrument to Gayten’s choppy piano makes it all the more effective though. Anything that sounds this alluring you’ll usually want to hear more of naturally, but at the same time you know if you get your wish it’ll lose much of what makes it so special. That mystical vibe only works if it remains fleeting.

But as great as that addition to the standard rock recipe the guitar may be, Wondering Blues is still Annie Laurie’s show and it will be on her shoulders the song must be carried.

So it’s good to report that she’s shaping up to be a rather good singer. Her voice is strong enough to swell with graceful power when she has to, yet delicate enough to deliver much of this in a more cautious, almost hesitant, breathy tone that conveys real emotional turmoil. She holds notes with a light touch, letting them fade naturally, almost blending into the guitar at times.

In that way it’s one of the more atmospheric sounding records we’ve come across and for that you need to give plenty of credit to Cosimo Matassa, the legendary owner and engineer at J&M Studios in New Orleans. Though this has just three instruments with which to work, and the bass is only faintly audible even though it adds a subtle presence, he manages to give the record a very distinctive atmosphere, never feeling the need to overcompensate for the lack of sonic textures by bringing any of them to the forefront artificially and upsetting the balance of the arrangement. He allows them all to breathe, giving them plenty of space which only serves to highlight their best attributes in a natural unforced manner. Matassa’s deft touch in mic placement and the dry brittle mix gives the song far more depth than you’d expect for something so sparse.

This is the one of the first times we’ve brought him up here but it certainly won’t be the last, as he was one of the most respected, if generally unknown to the public, figures in rock history. In spite of working with primitive equipment in a hot and humid environment, the mixes on the records he cut over more than a quarter century in business hold up as well as anything you’ll hear coming from modern studios and this is a great example of how each piece is balanced perfectly so as not to upset the delicate construction of the song.
 

Where My Baby Can Be
And what OF the song itself? Well it’s another torch song, which is shaping up to be the go-to approach for females in rock so far, but a good one both in the tentative music that frames it, as well as with the story which is made all the more effective by how she delivers it.

Right away it throws you a change-up as she starts off by saying he’s not good looking but then the next stanza she’s claiming ”He’s tall, he’s tan and oooh… so fine”. I dunno, maybe she finds short, pale and dumpy to be a more attractive look and is bemoaning his lack of ugliness.

But that contradiction aside, Wondering Blues follows a pretty reliable route – the guy she’s crazy about, who makes “her love come tumbling down” – one of the most oft-used euphemisms for sex in early rock – has left her for some unknown reason and she longs for his return.

The fact there’s no explanation as to why he left doesn’t matter much here as it did in One Sweet Letter From You a few months back. The reason is in that earlier side his actions were the focus of the entire song and without details it was like walking into a movie mid-way through, we just weren’t able to catch up and get our bearings.

But here the whys and wherefores are all but irrelevant because the focus is on her yearning for him, knowing all the while he’s moved on to someone else. As such it reveals a good deal more about human emotion than probably would come across just by reading the dry lyrics, as this manages to provide substantial insight into the the feelings that both girls and guys let go unstated most of the time. While both genders have the same wants and needs, as well as struggle with the same precarious balancing act between confidence and insecurity, each side frequently doubts their counterparts actually posses those same feelings, almost as if instead of merely a different gender they view each other as an entirely different species.

Here we get to see a girl pining away for a guy in all of its naked, painful anguish, revealing to the guys in the audience that just when you think that girls have all of their emotions in check and are cool, calm and collected when it comes to romance, here’s Annie Laurie blowing that theory all to hell. She aches for him in much the same way as guys everywhere at one time or another ache for some girl. It should go without saying that this would in fact be the case, but it never hurts to see tangible evidence of it all the same and Laurie does wonders in conveying the depth of her emotions with a minimum of explanation.
 

So Doggone Good To Me
Though not without flaws, a few missed notes on the keys in the break for starters, which itself is somewhat modest even if it fits the mood properly, and the lack of any sort of plot point shift in the lyrics, Wondering Blues is a sublime piece of work by all involved. You certainly miss the guitar which drops out altogether after the break but by then Annie is more than compensating for its absence on what is unquestionably her best record – in any style, pop or rock – to date.

I’d be tempted to call it almost a rock tone poem, though of course having lyrics that’s not quite an analogous situation, as tone poems are classical pieces meant to evoke the words of a poem musically. But the aura of this is similar, as Gayten’s Trio behind Laurie gently coaxes the despondent feelings from her lost love out of her in a most sympathetic fashion. Her words are merely wistful memories in abbreviated fashion that are about all she can convey to us without breaking down.

If a song can have a vacant glassy eyed look to it and its artist can come across as a shell of themselves in their reading of it, then Wondering Blues scores on both counts. Toss in one of the most addicting guitar parts we’ve heard which helps to make the overall mood so powerful that you may need to decompress after hearing it and what this record really has you wondering is how they could all be so good here and yet have nobody seem to notice.

No, it wasn’t a hit, in fact there might not be a universe in which something this fragile could be a hit, it nevertheless is evidence that Annie Laurie is the one female in rock circles who is definitely in this race for the long haul.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Annie Laurie for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)