Self-contained Philadelphia group that was among the first rock acts signed to major label Columbia which may have contributed to their compromised output with classier material sitting uncomfortably alongside genuine rocking, but they left behind some notable records in the rock idiom all the same.

The group was led by singer/drummer Chris Powell and they’d been a club act around Philly for awhile, specializing in “jive” music, a sort of exaggerated hot jazz epitomized by the likes of Cab Calloway and Slim & Slam, the duo of bassist Slam Stewart and pianist/guitarist Slim Gaillard. The music featured strong playing, but nonsense vocals, scat singing and hep-talk, all designed to whip the crowd into a frenzy but at the same time poke fun at the white reaction to the music who undoubtedly thought it was rather “natural” black dialect and behavior.

By the late 1940’s though jive was past its heyday and Powell’s group, which featured excellent musicians, particularly guitarist Eddie Lambert, along with Duke Wells on piano, Danny Turner and Red Spencer on saxophones and bassist James Johnson, gravitated towards something bordering on rock – energetic and uninhibited which drew the attention of Columbia Records looking to find a back door into the growing market of rock ‘n’ roll with an act who wasn’t as crudely offensive as most in that realm.

Powell could write and croon somewhat effectively which gave them a versatility that was appealing to Columbia as well and the conservative minded company initially tried aiming them more as a novelty act that incorporated elements of rock into their deliveries. But it was with the unadulterated cover of Jimmy Preston’s “Rock The Joint” where they made the most noise, literally as well as figuratively, and as a result they ventured into more pure rock sounds for awhile after that but changes in the band (Vance Wilson replacing Spencer on one of the horns), and Powell himself being pulled from behind the drum kit on sessions and confined to singing, plus the addition of bop trumpeter Clifford Brown meant their sound became more diversified over time.

Columbia didn’t score any hits with them which seemed to confirm the company’s view of rock as not worth the trouble and so when they re-started the OKeh subsidiary in 1951 to house their limited black roster of artists Powell and company were effectively “demoted” there, but ironically their rock output ended at that point and they moved into more traditional pop, though they did cut “Ida Red” in 1952 which was one of Chuck Berry’s prototypes for his debut “Maybellene” even though you’d be hard pressed to see a connection other than by the cadences used in the vocals had Berry not mentioned it in interviews.

Powell’s work as a buttoned-down straight as they come pop act was no more successful commercially than their rock output had been, though it wasn’t awful aesthetically for that style, and the group was quietly dropped from the label and briefly landed on RCA’s Groove outlet, another major label’s stepchild of a subsidiary for rock music where by this point they no longer belonged.

Their recording career over the group returned to playing clubs around Philadelphia before breaking up at the end of the 1950’s, destined to be largely forgotten. But for a brief moment a decade earlier they were among a handful of artists to break the glass ceiling that the stuffy major labels had put on rock ‘n’ roll, giving them some minor historical notoriety if nothing else.

CHRIS POWELL & THE FIVE BLUE FLAMES DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Columbia 30162; June, 1949)
Essentially a novelty record that Columbia hoped would connect with rock fans and let them sidestep the more unseemly side of the music they were tentatively exploring, but while nicely sung and fairly charming it’s far too mild to connect. (3)

(Columbia 30162; June, 1949)
Another novelty side that tries to use frantic enthusiasm and mildly off-color humor as a substitute for a more authentic approach and while the band again does all they can with the gimmicky material it can’t possibly come across well in a rock setting. (3)

(Columbia 30169; August, 1949)
Ancient standard that’s hardly brought up to date with this uninspired rendition featuring as bland a vocal and as tepid an instrumental performance as can be found with only a brief guitar solo showing any sign of life. (1)

(Columbia 30175; November, 1949)
As incendiary a record as rock has seen to date, even improving over the flawless original by Jimmy Preston in terms of sheer fury, something which validates Powell’s previously shaky claim as a legitimate rock act. ★ 10 ★

(Columbia 30175; November, 1949)
Surprisingly effective gleeful romp through a well worn standard, half arcane send-up and half rocking reinvention which adds up to a pretty delightful statement of dizzy anarchy. (5)

(Columbia 30180; December, 1949)
A perfect summation of all rock music represented, a way for artists and audiences alike to transform themselves and take on a shared form of self-identity that celebrated life with endless enthusiasm and welcomed all who wished to imbibe to join in the festivities. (9)

(Columbia 30205; May, 1950)
A song with some of the trappings of a party but not the right attitude to be convincing, as this replaces hedonistic enthusiasm with orderly calculated energy, robbing it of both lyrical and musical authenticity. (4)

(Columbia 30205; May, 1950)
A song that might be very groundbreaking (first use of a theremin in rock and perhaps the first gay orgy in the lyrics) or might just be very confused, as the plot makes little sense and the theremin ruins an already dull musical track. (1)

(Columbia 30216; August, 1950)
A song that doesn’t live up to its title or the band’s intent as none of them, save guitarist Eddie Lambert who is tremendous, really put in a notable performance to get them back on the right track musically, it’s passable but nothing more. (4)

(Columbia 39272; March, 1951)
Although the band is pretty solid and Powell is convincing portraying an insecure dolt railing against women’s improved role in post-war society, the fact we’re never sure the joke comes at his expense eliminates most of the intended humor outside of his exasperated delivery. (4)

(OKeh 6818; September, 1951)
Hardly the type of instrumental ideally suited for rock, as two guitars provide varied melodic intricacies throughout, but there are moments where they show definite promise for this style and you sure can’t fault their musical abilities which are first rate. (6)

(OKeh 6850; December, 1951)
A well conceived and smartly arranged instrumental that starts off modestly, shifts into gear with a saxophone before the vibrant electric guitar takes over and gets increasingly out of control before pulling back and letting the sax close it out in style. (7)

(OKeh 6875; April, 1952)
More notable for its possible influence on Chuck Berry and Jamaican ska which might draw more historical interest for it, but the record itself is worthy of that interest on its own with a great lead vocal by Powel and quirky rhythms to keep you involved. (7)

(OKeh 6900; August, 1952)
Some of this is pretty shallow and exploitative, but what is found in between those more obvious parts are things which would have a lot of influence on actual Jamaican music when creating ska a few years down the road, making this maybe his most enduring work in a way. (6)