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IMPERIAL 5082; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

What do you do when an artist’s first release is a groundbreaking hit… a song that’s infectious as can be despite being so unique in both structure and content that it defies any thought of following it up with something in a similar vein?

The correct answer – and by that I mean the artistically honorable answer – is to head in another direction entirely, coming up with a song that has no discernible relation to the previous smash.

But as we know record companies prefer cold hard cash to artistic integrity, after all they can’t very well pay the rent with mere honor alone, and so they tend to push artists into replicating their best ideas in the hopes that it will be similar enough to draw the same interest, yet just fresh enough to avoid the thought among consumers that they’re paying twice for something they already bought.

Most of the time these efforts are shallow and transparent and not worth the bother, but occasionally – in spite of themselves – the results are aesthetically pleasing even if not exactly artistically pure.
 

 

Be Just Like The Rest
There was no way that itinerant New Orleans pianist and singer Archibald could possibly come up with another record that contained all of the thematic drama, cultural pride, lyrical vividness and musical charm of the epic two part Stack-A-Lee, a once in a lifetime effort that would be re-born in countless popular, if inferior, versions over the years by a multitude of big name artists.

But certain elements of that record were more malleable if you wanted to deconstruct it, strip it for parts and cobble it back together in a more compact model.

At least that’s the premise that led to Shake Shake Baby, a record whose best parts are those that have been recycled from the earlier masterpiece, all while leaving out the quirky identifiable DNA of its predecessor to sidestep any charges of musical cannibalism that might otherwise be made should it hew too closely to the first record’s indelible persona.

Naturally this cut and paste technique has you dreading what’s to follow, especially when you hear the same choppy piano intro kicking this record off… that is until you realize that the pattern is just as effective now as it was back in the spring with its jittery bounce that beckons you closer. So maybe against your better judgement you lean in and keep listening, all but certain that you’ll soon be picking it apart with disdain for the way they’re treating you as a chump who’s willing to be duped into paying money for something which is little more than a shameless retread of a much better effort.

That assessment may in fact be true – it IS something of a retread of a better record – but it’s not something you wind up complaining about nearly as much as you anticipated, simply because Archibald delivers it without any guilt or discomfort, letting you enjoy it for what it IS rather than criticize it for what it isn’t.

And what it is, is a pretty good record.
 


 
 

You Know You Got To Roll
Once you get over your initial sense of déjà vu upon hearing that same stuttering piano you are temporarily rewarded when he deviates from any reprise of a sordid tale involving gambling, violence and necrophilia-based retribution and instead focuses on something a lot more heartwarming… namely a man enticing a shapely girl into performing racy acts that are sitting somewhere on the border between scandalous and perverted in exchange for financial remuneration.

A nice family-friendly tale in other words.

I’m not sure if the focal point of Shake Shake Baby is a prostitute or an innocent girl he saw on the sidewalk in his neighborhood, and it probably says a lot about Archibald’s intent that it conceivably could be either one of those without completely upending the narrative.

I’d venture to say that it was actually somewhere in the middle, as back in that era there were what were commonly referred to as “shake dancers” who, in the days before on stage nudity was allowable, would get as close to it as possible to separate male customers from their money. Occasionally those male customers may take these women’s willingness to gyrate for their enjoyment as a sign they’d be willing to do even more in exchange for a little extra green stuff, provided of course these business transactions were conducted in private.

So that’s the basis of the rather skimpy – no pun intended – lyrical accouterments of the record… Archie starts of bribing her to do his bidding, then (and here I’m struggling to make sense of the wild – and wildly inappropriate – lines he spits) resorts to “threatening” her, or at least insisting that this woman do what he asks, somehow bringing pork chops, grease and wagon wheels into the story in what are certainly euphemisms, but whether they’re violence based, sex based, both or neither, I’m not sure… nor am I sure I really want to know.

Needless to say it’s colorful if not altogether sensible and that’ll have to suffice.

As for the guy delivering this screed, Archibald was a pretty effective singer without being necessarily a GOOD singer. His voice is deep and a little nasal in tone, but ebulliently melodic, warm and welcoming in his delivery. The lyrics are hardly great, especially when they blatantly crib a few ideas from his hit – the line at the end about a hat is particularly egregious – but they’re re-crafted enough so that their meanings are altogether different which takes a little of the onus off them.

Besides, unlike his previous release where the story was central to its appeal, with this one you’re not listening for the details, you’re too busy wrapped up in the musical packaging to care much WHAT he’s saying.
 


 

Took All Of My Money
What makes this record not only work, but also seem like a slightly more ethical appropriation from his last outing, is the fact that he shifts the focus from the story which dominated Stack-A-Lee, to the musical touches which had formed the vital underpinning on that earlier song.

By turning that formula on its head and bringing the musical side of the equation to the forefront thanks to placing the instrumental track more prominently in the mix, you find yourself willing to overlook its similarities to what came before, simply because the whole thing is so damn intoxicating to listen to.

Archibald’s piano skills are tremendous. Unlike a lot of keyboard whizzes who favor one hand over the other, Archie utilizes both equally well. His left hand rhythms are forceful as can be, while his right hand flourishes are far heavier than most pianists tended to use. As a result those same turnarounds he employs time and time again sound absolutely mesmerizing.

The piano lines are so emphatic on Shake Shake Baby in fact that it makes it seem as if there’s an entire arsenal of musicians backing him when actually it’s almost a skeletal crew.

Here he gets to play a really nice bridge that gives him something new to play as the drummer adds his own accelerating pick-ups coming out of it as horns faintly chip in with some distant notes swimming in murky echo.

Truthfully you wouldn’t be at all surprised to find this was largely improvised on the floor rather than sketched out in advance, but you’d also be hard pressed to claim it was any the worse for its loose ad hoc feel. It could hardly be called a great record when it’s been cobbled together like this, but as a pure listening experience it’s never less than completely enjoyable, even endearing in many ways.
 

If You Don’t Shake
It’d be easy to say that this record shows how limited an artist Archibald was… or at least how limited a recording artist he was shaping up to be. Like a lot of New Orleans club acts he may have had a pretty reliable show built around just a few musical ideas and so trying to have that translate to a succession of singles – each with their own identity – could be difficult.

But there’s a reason why club acts around this magical city could draw in customers night after night without a more varied catalog… because what they did well they did REALLY well and you didn’t mind the repetitiveness as long as what stayed the same was how infectious it sounded.

Shake Shake Baby meets that criteria with relative ease and while it has to be docked as a record for being somewhat redundant, it’s still something you’re going to want to hear… as long as you spaced it out from his most popular song.

Apparently that was the case in 1950 as well, as this managed to make the Cash Box regional charts in New Orleans that summer, just as his eternal chestnut was on its way out.

Sometimes even such deliberate acts as this pay off in the end.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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