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MODERN 20-634; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

If there was a pre-rock prototype of the type of saxophone player who’d soon take over rock ‘n’ roll with their crazed honking and explosive live act it’d surely have been Big Jim Wynn. All accounts of his mid-1940’s stage shows point to the very things that rock horn players would build upon and take to the extreme over the next few years.

In fact we just met somebody in Big Jay McNeely who made no secret of the fact that he learned much of his own showmanship techniques by watching Wynn from the audience at the Los Angeles venues where Big Jim held court.

But since rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1940’s didn’t have the benefit of television appearances or YouTube clips to spread the word on the most flamboyant live artists, what remained for them to use as promotional tools for their style was their records. A cold, blank piece of plastic without even a picture affixed to it to give some indication as to what the artist looked like, let alone what antics they got away with on stage.

In order to make it in rock ‘n’ roll you’d have to prove capable of replicating the same excitement on record as you generated when a fanatical live audience was urging you on with uninhibited cries of passion as you honked away on the bandstand. The youthful budding stars of rock ‘n’ roll like Big Jay McNeely seemed born to do just that.

The older musicians like Big Jim Wynn on the other hand seemed reluctant to give in and act up when the tapes were rolling and so commercially speaking they were in for a slow death unless they changed their ways.
 

 
The last time out for Wynn he managed to come through just enough to live another day. Though Blow Wynn Blow wasn’t quite up to matching the peak levels of mayhem that others had offered throughout 1948, it was at least up to par when it came to showcasing the basic components of what the rock audience was craving. But now the question would be could he build upon that?

If so it wouldn’t be for the same company that had steered him in the right direction last time out. Though he still had songs left in the can for the Supreme label that would be issued down the road, like so many black rock acts of the time, particularly slightly older ones whose commercial returns were somewhat lacking as of late, he was on the move quite frequently for the next stop on the Los Angeles label itinerary after his short stints cutting sides for Specialty and Supreme Records in town.

This time he lands at Modern Records, ironically his home in the immediate pre-rock years where he made a name for himself, albeit without a charted hit… something not to be held against him considering at the time Billboard magazine deemed only the top five songs by black artists to be worth compiling.

In any event Modern Records has more muscle when it comes to distribution at this point than either of the other two labels releasing Wynn’s records. With decent returns on last month’s offering still fresh on the minds of both consumers and jukebox operators, that gives Cold Blooded Boogie a slight, but notable, edge when it comes to finally breaking Wynn through to the frontline of rock honkers and squealers… provided of course the record itself lives up to its colorful name.
 

If You Want To Get Along
We can’t help but cringe a little when we see that it took awhile for Modern to put this out. In fact it was cut before Blow Wynn Blow had been laid down for Supreme, so the question is obviously going to be how… well, to use an obvious play on words, how modern is this going to be?

The answer is it’s actually pretty up to date, at least once you get past the larger ensemble intro which features a bit too much prancing brass at first and then lets the alto and trumpet intrude for far too long in response to Wynn’s own solid sax for the bulk of the first minute. Admittedly that’s a lot of dross to wade through on a record that doesn’t quite last three whole minutes, or if you’re keeping tabs roughly two cents out of the nickel it cost you to select this record on the jukebox.

But that unfortunate first impression aside, you get plenty for your other three cents once things kick into gear and this takes off, in the process giving both Wynn and vocalist Robert “Snake” Sims plenty of opportunity to shine.

Like with last summer’s Fat Meat, which became our first encounter in the rock setting with Wynn, this is not an instrumental, something that both helps and hurts its chances to leave an impression on rock audiences.

Considering that Wynn is a first rate horn player and considering the fact that horns, specifically robust tenor saxophones, are what’s drawing the most acclaim during rock’s first full year then Big Jim’s ceding center stage on a rock record to somebody else might not be the smartest move. The public seems to have an insatiable appetite for noisy sax instrumentals in rock thus far and so if Wynn wants to establish his own credentials in the field then it stands to reason that blowing as hard and as long as possible would be the most surefire way to call attention to his abilities.

But then we stop to think of how tricky it can be for sax players to maintain the proper grit and enthusiasm for the course of an entire record, particularly those who came of age in an era where they were not called upon to be the whole show but rather just a small, if vital, part of that show. Certainly Wynn hasn’t fully shown yet that he’s up to the task of blowing loud and raunchy enough to raise the dead so it helps to have something else to fall back on such as a vocalist who can add certain crucial elements that no instrumental can match.

If you have a good singer delivering an interesting story then the listener can be absorbed by that part of the record which then allows the horn player to add to the atmosphere by contributing a rip-roaring solo which can start at full-throttle without worrying about running out of inspiration – or out of gas – before they step back into the shadows. All Wynn needs to do is provide a well-timed explosion that fits into the larger scene that Sims is painting for this to work.

So we’re happy to say that for the most part it reasonably succeeds on both counts even if it doesn’t come close to surpassing your hopes.

Depending on how much you were anticipating some particularly juicy lines from a song called Cold Blooded Boogie you might be slightly disappointed by the rather mundane story which instead of making the singer into the protagonist who swaggers through the song with a chip on his shoulder and a hatchet in hand, it instead positions him as the one on the defensive over a woman taking control in a relationship and thus he’s almost trying to build his own confidence in the mirror by telling himself he needs to be cold blooded in his response to her power grab.

From that standpoint it’s a little weak, both literally with the lines he uses to convey this, but also in terms of projecting the kind of tough dominant attitude a rock song needs to raise the roof when Wynn comes along which of course is where this record will rise or fall.

 

 

Let Me Tell You What To Do
Luckily Jim Wynn apparently didn’t bother to read the lyrics or listen to his pal sing them because his first standalone appearance is the best we’ve heard Big Jim sound to date.

Wynn comes rolling into the pitcure full of confidence at the midway point, his tenor acting melodic enough to keep the song progressing smoothly while also coarsening up his tone just a bit to let us think that, unlike Sims who might need some encouragement to face down his girlfriend, Big Jim can handle these confrontational matters on his own.

Mmm, yeah, I know, not the best image to conjure up and certainly we don’t need any guy getting rough with the fairer sex, even if just within the confines of a song, but that’s not exactly what is suggested by his playing. It’s just that Wynn’s accentuating the heft of the instrument rather than letting it float helplessly in the air, barely tethered to the ground as too many guys reared in jazz were prone to do.

He’s still not digging TOO deep and making an ungodly racket with his playing but it’s thoroughly appealing nonetheless and gives the song a presence that it needs. If he’d been able to expand on this for an entire instrumental side then there’s no reason to think he couldn’t have competed with the best sax players in the field even though he doesn’t break out the deep honks or the helium-filled squeals that were going to be shaping the style for the next couple of years.

But what this shows is he was good enough not to have to employ such gimmicks to come away with something worthwhile. Of course that may also give some insight as to why he never really established himself as a contender for the rock sax crown. If he was indeed reluctant to use those tactics to induce pandemonium then his options were severely limited if he wanted to soak in the spotlight. The surest way to do so was to tear the roof off the building every now and then, for while his work on Cold Blooded Boogie is very good and entirely appropriate for both rock and for the song itself it’s also something that has come to be somewhat expected from the ranks of sax anarchists by those who follow this brand of music.

But it also hurts that his appearance here is cut way too short, as he hands back the microphone to Sims after just twenty seconds, thereby bringing to a close the best stretch of the entire song. With no rousing second solo on the horizon you can’t help but feel a bit let down, even though they do come up with a pretty good group closing that sends you on your way with a better impression than you’d get otherwise.
 

Before The Deal Goes Down
On the whole this is what you’d call a good, solid professional turn. The main participants, Wynn and Sims, each contribute something of value even if the headliner winds up with more of a supporting part. Sims may be a journeyman-type singer (which only stands to reason, since his primary job in the group was as their drummer) but he’s effective enough to be tolerated and even if the lyrical perspective comes at things from the wrong angle it’s not as if they’re spouting anything you’re going to find tedious or objectionable.

It’s a good game plan in theory, letting a vocalist set things up for Wynn to make a more dramatic entrance, thereby splitting the responsibilities. Even Sims on drums along with steady support from the piano, while never stepping to the forefront both do a credible job at adding to the overall impression.

No, if you’re going to criticize this it won’t be for what any of them contribute but rather the fact that they don’t contribute quite enough. The first fifty-three seconds are wasted altogether by giving away so much of the early responsibility to those horns which are the last remnants of Wynn’s allegiance to an older style of music where the entire brass section works on a level playing field. In rock that won’t be the case and by not pushing harder to make a deeper impression from the moment the needle drops it undercuts the positives that Wynn is starting to exhibit more frequently as of late.

Yet we see enough promise in his own playing to know why Jim Wynn would remain someone looked up to by other musicians for years to come, even as his recognition amongst the public dwindled to nothing over time as he never seemed fully able to shed the dead weight from his past and launch himself into the future.

The pieces are all here to be successful in rock, they’re simply not quite seeing how they need to fit together yet. Cold Blooded Boogie can hold its own in this setting as 1948 draws to a close but can’t rise above that to lead the way into next year’s expanded possibilities.

That will still be left for others to do… others who once followed Big Jim Wynn in hopes of playing like he did. Now it’s Wynn who’s left to follow them, hoping that there’s still time where he can learn to let himself go and play more like them.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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