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IMPERIAL 5130; JUNE 1951



On this record we have two of the most egregious omissions from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame in Big Jay McNeely and Jesse Belvin, two titans of rock in the 1950’s with tons of influence to their names.

Admittedly everyone says they don’t take the Hall Of Fame seriously, after all it’s a massively conflicted establishment beset by decades of institutional racism and an entrenched cabal who’ve apparently been granted virtual lifetime positions on the nominating committee which ensures a handful of people’s personal tastes alone dictates who even has a chance to be immortalized, but despite a universal lack of respect it still seems far better to be admitted rather than left out.

The lengthy résumés of McNeely and Belvin should speak for themselves of course, but when you find them sharing space on one record you think to yourself that maybe you could kill two birds – or better yet, two committee members! – with one well-placed stone by sharing this.

But after listening to it you decide their chances would be far better if this one was left in the back of the closet under a pile of dirty sweat socks and empty shoe boxes.


All My Hard Earned Money’s Gone
It’s not only an effort to be completists when it comes to covering the output of major artists that compels us to include this rather atypical selection, but that certainly plays a part in it.

Maybe if it was just Big Jay McNeely we’d drop this from the reviews as we have a few other poppish B-sides he put out every so often, but when you have the chance to examine Jesse Belvin in his first recording session as a vocalist – after one in which he played piano but did not sing – it’s kind of hard to justify turning it down.

Besides, Sad Story may not fit comfortably in rock when it comes to the placid musical arrangement, but Belvin, even in his most stylistically compromised efforts, always injected enough soul and quirky vocal attributes that made these records equally ill-fitting in pop too.

Though the other songs on the session involving Belvin featured him singing with Marvin Phillips, Jimmy Huff and Undine Harris (as Three Dots and A Dash), this side has just Belvin, although reputedly it was written by Huff. That means the loose knit harmonies that helped to make All That Wine Is Gone so appealing aren’t present and we get a crooning Belvin in their place.

To be fair, he does this kind of thing well too. Jesse Belvin could sing the proverbial phone book and make it sound good and it’s not the song here that’s the issue anyway, it’s the mundane pop-slanted arrangement which lacks any patented Big Jay histrionics and replaces it with a far too prominent trumpet leaving it up to Belvin alone to rescue this from the rock scrap pile.


A Pocketful Of Gold
One of the ways musicians passed time on tours back when everyone traveled by cars and stayed in dingy motels or rooming houses and thus wound up spending as much time at the clubs and theaters they were playing at to avoid those ignominious dwellings, was to gamble.

Cards or dice or betting on how many blue cars you’ll see on the highway, it mattered little what the game was as long as there was some action to keep you interested. I’ve never heard that McNeely was a gambler of any kind but I think Sad Story is pretty compelling evidence that he was and that he recently lost a pile of money that he didn’t actually have to bet with to John Anderson and in order to pay it off he promised him the lead role on an upcoming song.

How else to explain Anderson’s unwarranted star turn on a song that just as easily could’ve been retooled for McNeely’s tenor sax and made all the better for it… not to mention far more appropriate for his audience.

I know, I know, McNeely, like any other skilled musician, probably wanted to show he was capable of more than tearing the roof off the studio every time out, but unlike most older sax stars drafted into the rock ‘n’ roll brigade, Big Jay was a willing and enthusiastic enlistee and reveled in reducing any snooty conservatory trained horn player to ashes if they dared to challenge him.

Besides, he’s practically sitting this one out altogether anyway… he may be there in body, but not in spirit as after a ponderously slow piano intro the horn section moans like an old man getting out of his recliner to have some soup. Things naturally improve when Belvin’s voice tries shoving them aside, but there’s only so much he can do when they won’t shut up behind him.

Even Jesse is reining in his usual melodic elaboration, though he does push the written parts as much as possible without upending the song, but while there’s a nice primary melody – albeit a half step too slow to really highlight it – and Belvin’s baritone is achingly good at times, he’d have been FAR better off with no horns at all, just him a piano and the dry drumming.

Obviously it’s him we want to pay attention to and when you force yourself to ignore the horns you’ll find the plot works well enough and has some decent lines strewn about, but the backing track is SO monotonous and SO boring that you might as well give up and call it a day.


My Heart Is Full Of Pain
Maybe we should blame Johnny Otis for this, because Anderson came from Otis’s band whom McNeely had played with at The Barrelhouse Club when starting out.

Granted that gave him his start as well as providing us with some slam bang rockers when Big Jay joined Otis’s crew on some records including the manic Barrelhouse Stomp, but he apparently picked up a few bad habits that are just now popping up… like gambling with trumpeters.

Okay, that’s uncalled for, but like anything worth doing, rock ‘n’ roll demands your undivided attention and while it’s one thing if you have only your own reputation to think about when issuing something with a weak pop arrangement like Sad Story, then you suffer the slings and arrows for your own bad decisions, but to drag poor Jesse Belvin into this and potentially curtail his career before it even gets going is too much.

Of course Belvin would be just fine in the long run and he unquestionably comes out of this looking best, while McNeely – having gotten this out of his system – kept on rockin’ up a storm for years to come. But after this poor showing John Anderson was left to play three or four notes in the background of other people’s records and had to use that to try and convince some chick he really WAS in the band when trying to get lucky after a show.

A sad story indeed.


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