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SAVOY 682; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 
With only a few more records to go before we get to the 1950’s we’re going to take some time to add in a few 1940’s songs we either overlooked or intentionally avoided for various reasons when first covering this ground. It won’t take long and hopefully will paint a more vivid picture of the first era of rock as we head into the second era in the next week or two.
 

 

The difficult thing about using a line from a movie – particularly of long ago – to start off a review of a completely unrelated topic, such as say… I dunno, a record from even earlier in history… is the very real possibility that absolutely nobody in the reading audience (that would be all of you) will have any clue what scene from what movie I’m even talking about, nor have the vaguest idea how it fits into the record in question.

It doesn’t, to tell you the truth, but obviously I’m using it anyway just to fuck with you… just because it’s the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the title of this otherwise modest B-side that marked the debut of one of rock’s most revolutionary figures.

The movie is 1960’s Oscar winner The Apartment from legendary director Billy Wilder and the line I’m referring to was spoken by Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) to his wife off-screen about their next door neighbor, presumed ladies man C.C. Baxter played by Jack Lemmon, as the doctor hears the giggling of a girl behind closed doors and assumes he’s got some action planned for the night.

In voice filled with equal parts awe and veiled disgust at the mild-mannered insurance man who seems to have a romp in the hay each night with a different beautiful girl, the doc exclaims, “Mildred, he’s at it again!”

Though the situation in the film has absolutely no correlation with the events surrounding the recording of tenor saxophone wunderkind Big Jay McNeely, the words themselves are prescient when you look at both the title of the record in question and the label on which this record is being issued.

That’s right, Mildred, it seems that schnook, Herman Lubinsky, is at it again when it comes to trying to curry favor with the same disc jockey he pandered to nearly one year ago by naming yet another rock sax instrumental after Al Benson of Chicago’s WCES radio.

There must be easier ways to get the key to executive washroom than this.
 

 

Some People Take, Some People Get Took
Maybe it’s appropriate that I’m sticking with this far-fetched connection in order to recount another convoluted tactic that didn’t work the last time Savoy tried it, because it shows that when you get something in your head, whether a label executive or a rock historian, it can be awfully tough to shake free of the idea no matter how unsuccessful it was from the start.

The line itself though, no matter the context, remains appropriate for today’s record however because of the circumstances involving two of the main participants.

Lubinsky was the tightfisted owner of Savoy who tossed around nickels like manhole covers and thus never failed to take advantage of a way to try and get something for nothing, such as procuring a few spins on a popular radio program aimed at rock’s core audience in one of the biggest cities in America by merely naming the record in question after the man at the controls of that show.

That would be Al Benson, the Mayor Of Bronzeville, as he was known, the most powerful black radio personality in America at the time and somebody who presumably had the ability to make any record he played a hit… or at least give it a greater chance at being a hit than it’d have otherwise. So Lubinsky tried the same ploy twice with the same dee-jay in a single calendar year, after having done so the first time last winter with Paul Williams’s Bouncing With Benson, the review of which is far wittier than this one, not to mention delving into this unsavory practice in much more vivid detail.

Loyal, cooperate and resourceful Paul Williams, already a rising star with multiple hits to his credit in rock’s first six months, wound up getting nothing out of this as his single named after Benson did not chart, not even in Benson’s home territory of Chicago, thereby making it a failed experiment in the field of record label chicanery.

The reason of course this was doomed for failure is because not all radio disc jockeys are named Al Benson and those who aren’t didn’t look kindly to playing a record celebrating their competitor. But never one to let common sense get in the way of a bad idea after trying this shortsighted scheme even more over the past year with other records named for other dee-jays in other cities, here comes Lubinsky once again using the same transparent act to try and promote his newest discovery, twenty year old West Coast phenom Big Jay McNeely to a national audience.

Needless to say it didn’t work any better here with Benson’s Groove than it had the last few times they tried it, but the fault wasn’t in the title, but rather the fact that this side of the record paled in comparison to the other side of the record, which DID become a hit despite it not being named after anybody.

This was yet another piece of evidence in the greatest lesson of all, namely audiences don’t care what a record is called, only what it sounds like.
 

 
It Makes Me Look The Way I Feel
Titles aside, this debut also gives us some more perspective on the mindset of record labels when it came to judging the evolving market. Just as they seemed dense on the utter lack of effectiveness when it came to naming songs after disc jockeys, so too were they still in the dark when it came to reading the tastes of their audience.

McNeely had drawn notice performing nightly in Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Watts by blowing and honking up a storm, practically setting the building afire with the intensity of his playing which is what led Savoy’s West Coast liaison Ralph Bass to sign him and bring him into the studio immediately to try and put those sounds down on wax.

Remember, this was coming at the end of a year in which rock ‘n’ roll had gone from tentative experiment known by only a few to now being the fastest growing style in black America thanks in large part to the unhinged styles of some of its most audacious practitioners, many of whom were tenor sax players.

Even those who aspired to classier ideals, such as Savoy’s own Hal Singer, found themselves scoring huge hits when they shed their inhibitions and created a racket, such as he’d done on Cornbread this past summer, and whereas with Singer and Paul Williams before him, they had to be talked into performing as if they were going mad, in Big Jay McNeely’s case he played that way naturally.

That’s one of the primary benefits of youth and being a voluntarily participant in the generational uprising rather than being older and merely drafted into appropriating the style for commercial gain.

Big Jay wanted to stir up trouble with his horn from the start and yet even as that was what was selling and even as that was what had got him noticed to begin with and signed to Savoy, it seemed that Bass and company were still a little hesitant to commit to it fully, which is why no matter what they named it, Benson’s Groove had no real chance to connect with rock audiences.
 

Music To String Her Along By
Since we’re only now just meeting McNeely – after covering the hit B-side, Wild Wig, which was more his preferred approach – we should tell you that while he’d become famous for being the most outlandish tenor sax maniac on the 40’s and early 50’s rock scene, he wasn’t merely a boorish showman who’d do anything for attention, he was actually a very skilled composer, arranger and bandleader who was conversant in a lot of different techniques. But when one of those techniques is the aural equivalent to an atom bomb then it isn’t hard to see what audiences gravitated towards and, in the future at least, what most record companies would hope to get out of him.

But at this stage there was still some doubt that all of that noise would keep paying off, so after letting him air out his horn on one side, Savoy figured it might make sense to rein him in on the other, hence we get the milder sounds found on Benson’s Groove.

Right away you can hear why this got passed over by the growing rock contingent at the time.

Starting with Jimmy O’Brien’s piano dancing among the gently swaying horns you’re torn between the two sounds. For the first forty seconds the horns wouldn’t be out of place at a classier club where waiters and busboys are dressed in tuxedos and aren’t swilling the remaining mouthful of the last round of drinks as they clear the tables. Yet O’Brien’s piano is feistier than would probably be allowed at such an establishment and so it’s pulling you across the tracks to a little bit seedier joint where the help are stealing as many drinks as they’re serving to the patrons who are a few rungs down the social ladder themselves.

It’s not a hole in the wall place, mind you, O’Brien is not pounding away like a demented madman, but there’s at least some tension between the two entities to be curious about which direction McNeely himself will lean when he comes in.

Stylewise McNeely takes the classier approach, at least in terms of holding back on the pyrotechnics, but he can’t help but play with far more sensuality and soul than most high class clubs would encourage and as he goes along and passes the midway point his lines become a little earthier.

The melody helps to show this off because it never varies, thereby providing a consistent sound that begins to stand in stark contrast to Jay’s increasingly intense blowing. It’s a pleasant sound created by the other horns, intentionally unexciting but captivating in a passive sort of way. When McNeely finally begins to cut loose as it nears the climax the contrast between him and the others makes what he’s playing seem far more radical than his actual lines would suggest when taken in isolation, thereby giving us an early example of his skill as an arranger.

That doesn’t mean it had any chance to really make waves and if Al Benson DID let himself be talked into using it as the theme song to his show as the label suggests (though it’s highly doubtful that it’s true), it wouldn’t take him long to discard it in favor of something far more appropriate… with or without his name attached. They should’ve just sent him a fruitcake for Christmas instead.
 

Shut Up And Deal
Though it’s a far cry from the explosiveness of Wild Wig, and shows just how clueless Savoy was for judging it to be the better choice for an A-side, its presence on McNeely’s debut wasn’t an altogether bad thing, for it showed that he was more than capable of serving up something that was tasteful rather than crass.

Of course here on a rock history blog we prefer “crass” which is why Benson’s Groove will take a slight hit in the scoring, simply because if this, rather than the other side, actually found a bigger audience rock might never have progressed in quite the same exciting way.

You’d think that Lubinsky and Bass and everyone else at Savoy would also have seen that aside from urging their musicians to play the most exciting brand of rock possible, they’d realize that their track record in scoring hits with songs named after disc jockeys was abysmal, as in they hadn’t had one. It turns out the ol’ payola won’t work anymore.

Meanwhile the more clever, often nonsensical, names attached to the far more exhilarating sides were what had gotten them their best sellers, the B-side of this record included.

But as we’ll see around the corner with them, old habits are hard to break and so you can expect a lot more reviews that will have lengthy discourses into the disc jockeys they’re named for, just as you can bet that we haven’t learned our lesson either and there’ll be a few more reviews that lead off with some unrelated movie quote that will have you scurrying to IBDM to look up the particulars for.

But I guess that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)