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EXCLUSIVE 122X; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

One of the great joys in being a music fan is, or at least should be, encountering the unexpected.

When first discovering an artist at the dawn of their career this is often the case, as plenty of singers and musicians have something entirely new to offer, or at least a new way of offering something old. But as that career progresses and as their success builds and their strengths become well-established, the chance to really be surprised by a new wrinkle in each of their records begins to diminish.

The best artists of course can elevate their game, consolidate their gains and improve upon formula, and the best of the best take particular relish in heading down entirely new paths each time out, but that carries with it a risk that most artists and labels are unwilling to make, or at least are unable to deliver when they do try for something unexpected.

But when someone DOES come along and not only surprises you the first time out by breaking from or drastically improving upon the prevailing established formula but then continues to meet and surpass your expectations thereafter by building on, and then later altering, that initial approach, that’s an artist you become attached to. Not just because they’re consistently churning out such good material, but because you never can predict what type of good material will come next.

Each record is like a gift in brightly colored wrapping paper, you’re as curious to see what’s inside as you are excited by the prospects.

Of the hundred or so artists who’ve released rock records in the 1940’s arguably it’s been Big Jay McNeely who has defied expectations the most each time out… maybe because the brand of music he specialized in – the sax instrumental – is one of the more predictable rock blueprints on the surface. But as we well know, in spite of his reputation as a flamboyant showman, McNeely revels in giving you something to cross you up.
 

 
The Golden Rule
Unlike most of the first generation of honking madmen, McNeely wasn’t worried about ceding the spotlight, as he showed once again by giving pianist Jimmy O’Brien the primary responsibility of carrying the top side of this record, K&H Boogie, an instrumental on which Big Jay took a back seat in the proceedings yet still contributed to the overall rousing atmosphere the band created. On the B-side he goes one better, letting his driver – and as of late aspiring vocalist and songwriter for Exclusive Records – Clifford Blivens handle vocal chores.

We’ve encountered Blivens before, both with Big Jay and also backed by Edgar Hayes & His Stardusters and so we have a pretty good idea of what to expect when his name appears on a record.

Clifford Blivens was an enthusiastic, but fairly limited, vocalist who felt most at home in racy uptempo odes to the nightlife, as seen with Achin’ Heart Boogie and last month’s Hobo Boogie. He carried this approach off with reasonable skill and charm, but wasn’t adding much to the songs beside his boisterous spirit. In other words he was somewhat repetitive and probably not at all capable of delivering anything truly unexpected on his own.

Since that high octane brand of rock was already what McNeely’s most successful records featured in abundance, adding Blivens to execute vocal versions of that same blueprint wouldn’t be so unexpected.

But McNeely has already proven he wasn’t content to just Blivens for that straightforward approach. You may recall that Blivens first appearance on record came with Midnight Dreams back in March which presented him as almost a crooner in a classier nightclub. While Blivens wasn’t capable of handling that role in a way that was entirely satisfying, the mere attempt itself showed Jay’s ambitions went far beyond just being a reliably rambunctious performer, with or without a vocalist.

So here on Junie Flip he comes up with something completely different with Blivens in attempt to forge another style and while Blivens himself can’t overcome his own limitations, McNeely’s arranging skills take another impressive leap forward.
 
 


 
 
Sure Can Jive
There are two aspects to this record which stand out, one of which – Big Jay’s mid-song sax solo – is hardly surprising. That’s what he made his name on and that’s what he can use to rescue virtually any song from sinking into the abyss.

But it’s the other aspect of this which is so startlingly fresh, so sublime and well-conceived, that it elevates Junie Flip far above what it might’ve otherwise been had he left it to Clifford Blivens and his poorly judged nasal vocal technique to carry.

The first nine seconds of this record are pretty standard in their set-up. We have an array of horns delivering a stuttering intro to act as fanfare before easing into the vocal, something which has been done often by a wide number of artists and will be done in the future by even more. It sounds fine, they play well and the cadence is catchy, but it’s hardly anything to get excited about.

Blivens is the next sound we hear and he’s mercifully in control of his delivery. There’s no wild shouting, no straining for notes, no trying to convince you he’s on the verge of some vocal eruption which he had a tendency to do even on his best sides.

But it’s what comes next that knocks you on your ass… not because it’s anything explosive, but because it’s so soothing, so discreet… so unexpected.

We’re talking about the vocal harmonies that will in a few years become ubiquitous in many styles of rock but which are debuted here for the first time. That’s not to say this is the first time vocal harmony has appeared on a rock release, far from it as obviously groups like The Ravens, Orioles and others have specialized in that already. But rather this is something different, using harmonies as an accent to a song which otherwise is devoid of a vocal group structure.

The reason for this distinction is that Blivens isn’t exactly included in their arrangement, even though he’s aware of their presence and leaves space for them to deliver their parts. But he’s not singing WITH them at any point, blending his voice with theirs, joining in their lines or even crafting his delivery to play off theirs. They are merely acting as coloring, one of many sounds in a larger arrangement designed to give this record a distinctive atmosphere.

And oh what an atmosphere they contribute to!

Their voices are distant and breathy, drenched in a slight echo, as if you were listening to them from outside the room. They sound sweet, but not “pop-sweet” with an artificiality to their phrasing as was common in that day and age across all music outside of gospel. No, these guys are street corner sweet with a knowing glint to their voices. They’ve seen it all in life and are slyly commenting on things from the sidelines, maybe even for their own amusement.

Unfortunately we have absolutely no idea who they are.

Now it might be the band themselves, as no one else is listed in the session notes, but if so they were vastly under-utilized the rest of their careers because they sound as polished as if they’d been making their living singing in some hip choir from the other side of the tracks.

Their lines are also acting as sort of a Greek chorus, responding to what Blivens himself is singing, adding juicy details to the basic information he’s conveying. He starts off praising this girl of his while they mock her faults in return, but the next time around Blivens – who wrote the lyrics, no word on if he also penned their sarcastic asides – admits she left him and from there he vacillates between expressing his fondness for her and his disgust for her dumping him in equal measures.

By now however the other voices fade out, which corresponds with the horns kicking in behind Blivens, so maybe it really IS the band – Jay himself, his brother Bob on baritone, John Anderson on trumpet and Streamline Ewing on trombone. Though they do their usual exquisite work on their instruments, you miss the vocal backing even more than you appreciate the arrival of the horns because those voices added such an alluring – almost lurid – undercurrent to the rather mundane story.
 

 
 

I’d Rather Love You, Baby
So now we’re stuck with Blivens front and center and the tale he’s spinning about this girl whom he calls “A” Junie Flip, as if it were a “thing”, not a girl’s name. I don’t know what it means, where it came from or if it was a common expression back then – enlighten me if it was – but it’s somewhat odd in any event.

But odder still is the lack of any consistency in his feelings. He complains she “keeps her big feet in the street”, but there’s no indication whether he means her actual feet themselves or she stays out until all hours – and therefore away from him – too much, or even the more commonly used keeping their business in the street, as in blabbing to everyone around about whatever problems they’re having… which come to think of it, Blivens is doing a fine job of himself, since he’s singing about her on a record being sold to the public!

Though we’ve conditionally praised Blivens on his work with Hayes’s crew when he sang in a more unhinged fashion, he’s the worst aspect of this song. It’s not just his wavering feelings for the girl and the under-developed story he crafts with lyrics that at times make little sense and are out of meter besides, but his vocal tone itself is too unsteady, making him sound partly drunk at times. He clearly has no idea as to what emotional quality he needs to project and he compensates for this by needlessly ramping up his volume and enthusiasm in ways that don’t correspond with the message and which does the song a disservice just from an aural standpoint.

But this point we’re imploring the other voices to rejoin us – they never do – but at least here comes Big Jay McNeely himself riding in on his mighty saxophone to redeem this in the best way possible – by ripping off a solo with a vengeance.

The dichotomy between the seductively swinging collective riff the others are blowing behind Blivens on the verses and the dirty solo of Big Jay sets it off nicely. If poor Clifford is confused about what he’s singing about (saying that others might call him a jerk for his badmouthing her in public, but then informs us his girl doesn’t know how to cook, as if these things are remotely comparable), Big Jay has no such problems.

HE knows how to cook, by which I mean he can heat things up with his tenor sax and unlike Blivens he has no doubt as to what attitude he needs to project. If anything he sounds fed up with both of them, the girl and ol’ Cliff, as he snarls with contempt and brings the song back to some semblance of order before handing it back to the singer to cap it off in truly bizarre fashion by claiming his girl “Don’t do nothin’ but go to shows and read funny books”.

Oh well, I suppose those ARE high crimes and misdemeanors in this kind of wacky relationship, but we’re not much concerned with either one of them anymore. What we care about – and what we desperately want to hear more of – are the tentative experiments shown in the early stages of Junie Flip where what might’ve been just an ad hoc arrangement Jay came up with on the floor to fill in those gaps, winds up being something so revolutionary in one small but notable way that it sticks with you long after everything else here fades into oblivion.
 

 

It’s sort of hard to justify giving a resoundingly positive score to a record where the lion’s share of the running time is dominated by a singer who’s lost his way, literally and figuratively within the song, but everything else about this is of such a high quality, from the band’s overall playing to Jay’s solo and especially those haunting ethereal voices, that to say this is average or even below average would be a lie of epic proportions.

So here’s hoping that we all can simply tolerate Clifford Blivens when he starts to command to much attention (on his own song!) and instead we can keep focusing on what works so well, thereby justifying our overall praise for a totally uneven – but fascinating – listening experience.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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