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IMPERIAL 5186; MAY 1952



Popularity in music is what you would call a fluid situation.

We all know how that term is generally used to describe something that ebbs and flows, but in the case of rock ‘n’ roll it unfortunately has other connotations as well.

Some examples call to mind fetid gutter water when a sewer backs up, such as when an artist keeps releasing the same basic stuff time and again with diminishing returns.

Big Jay McNeely has rather remarkably avoided that urge by not simply honking and wailing away each and every time out as you’d have expected when he rose to fame doing that very thing in 1949, yet hearing this single you can’t say that his alternate choice was exactly crisp clear spring water either.

More like pissing away his once mighty reputation.


Wouldn’t Get Up
As regular readers know it is our goal here to cover each and every rock single ever released, and in the cases of major acts who ventured slightly outside the genre from time to time we’ll include those records we think we can slip in the side door just to make sure that the artist’s full story gets told.

But even with two notable names on this single we could never justify including the pop ballad Love From The Heart that adorns the other side of this record, wherein Marvin Phillips attempts to croon a song over what sounds like an orchestra stolen from a movie studio or something rather than the most hair raising brother act in rock with Big Jay McNeely and older sible Bob who redefined the role of saxophones in their most audacious moments on record.

What he was thinking with that is anyone’s guess. It’s not like Phillips was some aspiring pop singer who was somehow pushed into rock but secretly yearned to become the next Vic Damone, so there isn’t much chance he was doing him a favor… and trust me, it would be no favor even if that WAS the case.

The same could be said for Old Black Mule, albeit for a slightly different reason.

But first that brings us to an ancillary point that really needs to be addressed at this juncture in rock, even though we have absolutely no clear cut answer as to how much it truly impacted what material was being offered by rock acts as a result.

We know that by 1952 rock was starting to attract white audiences to live gigs. In the March 24 edition of Billboard there was a small news item which reported that music promoter Hal Waller recently booked Floyd Dixon for shows over three nights in Phoenix aimed at three different demographics – Black, Mexican and Caucasian – and to his surprise the white crowd was the biggest.

Two months after that, soon after this record by McNeely hit the streets, the magazine had a full article on the expanding market for black rock acts among white record buyers with quotes from retail outlets servicing the black community in Los Angeles saying how recently up to 40% of their customers have been white.

While each of those examples might be partly promotional, as they all seek the larger – and perceived to be more affluent – white market and are not above exaggerating their claims in an effort to get either more coverage for their endeavors or perhaps to prod rock labels into watering down (or whitening up as it were) their material in the hopes of “crossing over” and boosting their business in the process, it’s obvious something unexpected was happening in regards to who was interested in this music.

Maybe that was on McNeely’s mind, as a month before cutting this session in the fall of 1951 he played to a largely white audience which resulted in some of the first pictures showing the effect of rock ‘n’ roll on white kids, and perhaps with these songs he was trying to target them by coming up with songs he felt might appeal to them.

But it sure couldn’t have been this crap he was playing to them in person that drove them to hysterics in the first place.


Will Not Be Fooled
While this certainly qualifies as rock based on the arrangement, both musical and vocal, plus the greater presence of McNeely, it’s still a pointless song of dubious origins and completely unrelatable to the intended audience, regardless of skin pigmentation.

The fact it is about an actual mule rather than an ancient racist minstrel song as you might fear when seeing the title Old Black Mule staring you in the face, is about the only redeeming factor here and by redeeming I mean it allows us not to torch them mercilessly for cutting it on cultural grounds.

But on musical grounds it remains a waste of their time and ours. At least the basic structure of it with the dramatic change of pace for the different sections highlighted by the spastic drumming that switches to cymbals for the group chants wasn’t a bad idea, but everything else about it is.

Phillips bass lead certainly conjures up negative stereotypes, whether that was the intent or not, while the backing vocals are just eagerly going around in circles singing mindless lyrical riffs that aren’t exciting or interesting.

Big Jay’s solo, while possibly the least noteworthy of his career so far, is still being done by one of the best musicians in rock so it’s not awful on a technical level, but what exactly was the point of doing this in the first place?

It’s certainly not a great vocal showcase for Three Dots And A Dash and definitely not a way to highlight the band to any great effect either, while the story line about a lazy mule is bound to have less appeal for rock fans than almost any topic you could conceive of up to an including the manufacturing of false teeth and the sanitary habits of Vikings from centuries ago. When paired with an even worse – and even more inappropriate – song on the flip, no wonder there’s virtually no sign this even got a broad release.

This is nothing but a tax write off with a melody for Imperial Records.


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