BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

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):

HOT DOG
(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)

LAST SATURDAY NIGHT
(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)