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SUPREME 1522; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

Considering the fairly lackluster records – both aesthetically and commercially – that saxophonist Big Jim Wynn has been issuing over the past few years – at a time when that instrument is leading the charge for rock ‘n’ roll’s ascent no less! – is it really the smartest move to title a song in a way that might possibly be misconstrued by critics as him bidding farewell to this profession?

Probably not.

But before WE bid a final adieu to the mercurial saxman we need to be able to definitively explain why someone who had foreshadowed so much of the style that would find favor in rock’s first decade of action was somehow unable to provide much compelling evidence as to his own artistic merits and stylistic qualifications to fully succeed in rock ‘n’ roll. Not only did he fail to make much headway in this realm, when he was eventually shown the door nobody really missed him and most probably didn’t even realize he’d left the rock scene because so few had noticed he was there to begin with.

Hardly the most promising start to a review of one his records, but in the matters of musical forensics it always helps to start with the corpse when you’re searching for clues as to how his career as a recording artist got snuffed out so quickly.
 

 

You’re Holding Back My Progress
We’re being a little harsh on poor Jim Wynn, a dutiful foot soldier in an musical army that has no shortage of Generals, Majors and Captains getting all of the praise.

To be fair some of his records in this field have been perfectly alright… nothing special mind you, but nothing awful either. It’s just that considering his reputation on stage we just were kind of expecting a little bit more out of him. Instead we’ve gotten a string of fairly uninspired ideas played with only modest enthusiasm and half-hearted conviction for the approach he’s expected to adopt to make it in rock ‘n’ roll.

Had Wynn displayed a feverish passion in his playing when given the opportunity to cut records and exhibited the sort of crazed, wild-eyed desperation that found him taking full advantage of every chance he got to make a name for himself and STILL failed to make good on his promise due to audience indifference, or for being too avant garde in his style, then that’d be more forgivable.

Are we questioning his commitment? I suppose in a way we are, though none of his records show a lack of effort, but rather they don’t show the type of all-consuming hunger for acclaim that has become the defining trait of so many sax stars in rock’s first few years.

By contrast Wynn seems ambivalent at best. You can’t claim he’s merely not interested in this type of music either because if that were the case he’d have at least tried impressing us with whatever style he felt strongest about, but he didn’t do that either. Oh, he cut a few other sides that don’t fall in the rock vein, but those were even less inspired than the rockers were.

Normally this kind of consistent mediocrity wouldn’t weigh too heavily on us, after all in the annals of rock history there’s going to be far more artists who never leave any kind of lasting impression on us than there will be who make a discernible impact, so what difference does it really make that this artist in particular is only just treading water? Why should Big Jim Wynn draw any undue interest from us in the first place?

Well, as stated before, though his records sure don’t show it, Wynn was an incredibly influential sax player in the days leading up to rock, most notably in his flamboyant stage show in which he pioneered the routine of walking the bar, dropping to his knees, laying on his back with his feet in the air all while blowing up a storm.

He was a showman, the prototype for the kind of “look at me” attitude that rock embraced so fervently from the start. If not for him would Big Jay McNeely have developed his on-stage style in quite the same manner and if not, would the thousand and one who followed in Big Jay’s wake have gone in a different direction as well, one not so flamboyant and exciting?

That’s the thing with tracing history, the whole space-time continuum theory… If you remove one element from the equation then you throw everything that follows into disarray.

So it’s not that we have some quirky obsession with Jim Wynn and his musical output but we do have a vested interest in making sure that proper credit is bestowed on those deserving of it and when it comes to one very important aspect of rock – the performing side – Big Jim is owed some acknowledgement for what he set forth before others picked up on it and turned it into something even bigger.

While giving him proper credit for that aspect of his career shouldn’t be reliant on finding merit in his recorded output, you gotta admit it becomes a helluva lot easier to promote the idea that he was an important figure in rock’s development if some of his records were a lot more invigorating than Farewell Baby, which becomes yet another missed opportunity for Jim Wynn to convince us he should be more than an historical afterthought.
 


 
 

You Got A Lot To Learn
The formula for successful rock sides was, in theory at least, fairly simple. If you’re a saxophonist it generally means playing as if you were on fire and you had to blow the flames out through the horn. Yet what we have here – on BOTH sides of this single no less – is the far more common result of his studio excursions to date which means he’s going to burn to a crisp in under three minutes.

The top side, Goofin’ Off, was what he was presumably being hired to deliver – sax led instrumentals, which is only the most valuable commodity in the rock market in 1949 and so it shouldn’t be difficult to find an audience for those records if you carry out your task fairly competently. But as you saw in that review Wynn’s efforts were hardly very competent.

So maybe it’s a good thing that Supreme Records paired it with a vocal side, something we’re always preaching around here – use the two sides of a single to bring some diversity to your catalog. You know the drill, put ballads alongside uptempo songs, have celebratory and despondent themes sharing a single, or instrumental excursions paired with vocal sides.

Now it doesn’t help matters that Wynn is not a singer, nor is his band, though drummer Snake Sims would in fact step out front to sing a few tunes over the years, but on Farewell Baby at least it’s not any one of them tasked with the job of singing, instead they all join in on one of those chanted numbers that might go over well on the bandstand after everybody in the club has had their fill of booze, but on record they usually are much trickier to pull off.

Why is that? Vocals have a few obvious responsibilities in a song, particularly to convey the story via the lyrics. But while that might be the most obvious role they play they also are trying to impart a specific mood and at least hint at the underlying motivations in the lyrics, something which requires far more subtle shadings than group chanted vocals can deliver. It’s one thing if it’s a rousing party anthem they’re singing, but this song actually has a more complex perspective it needs to get across and the methods they use, by nature, are going to be incapable of fully exploring those sentiments.

That conceptual complaint aside however, the vocals that make up the first half of the record are sung better than you’d have much hope to expect. They’re showing plenty of enthusiasm without letting their exuberance get the best of them so that they lose the key or get out of meter with the song. The biggest problem is due to the somewhat compromised studio realities of the day, as you were cutting music and vocals at the same time with no overdubbing and since the musicians were handling both roles one of them was bound to suffer.

What suffers here isn’t their singing or playing but rather the sonic trappings of the record itself. With two, maybe three, microphones at best on the studio floor, one for the rhythm section in the corner, one for the horns and maybe one just for Wynn’s sax itself, you can see the inherent problems in the set up when those same musicians have to also sing into the same mics they were all sharing. Once their vocals stopped they had to quickly lift their instruments (without them bumping into one another, or getting too close to the mics which the horns could overwhelm) and play. With the distances required for each task being different, closer for vocals, further for horns, they erred on the side of caution and so the mics don’t fully pick up the voices making their singing seem a little murky sounding, like you were coming down a hall and heard them through an open doorway around the corner.

But as long as they don’t slam the door shut when they see you coming, you can still hear them well enough and have a right to be reasonably impressed with their efforts, at least until the middle eight when they start trading off vocals, including some poor scatting techniques that somehow found favor in certain circles over the past year. The fact that it’s mostly gibberish makes it even worse. They come out of that stretch with more traditional vocals and just hearing words that make sense, both literally as well as to the plot, is a relief.

As far as what they’re singing however, that’s a little less impressive, or rather a little more generic.
 


 

Make My Time Worthwhile
Obviously it’s a put down from a guy to a girl and the reasons he’s breaking up with her make up the song’s lyrics, but they’re more generalities about how he (they?) think she’s not good enough for him (them?) rather than anything specific. Actually it appears that they think a little too highly of themselves and so NO woman is going to meet their lofty standards, but somehow I don’t think that will be a problem because I can’t envision girls beating a path to their door.

In other words, this is all posturing, a braggadocio’s cover for being dumped themselves most likely. If any of them DID manage to hook a date or two with a willing female, their lack of refinement and class meant they were always going to be in a tenuous position when it came to keeping a girl interested and so by preemptively breaking up with her they save themselves the indignities of getting cast aside by her down the road.

Of course I suppose you can argue that they won’t necessarily be alone because at least they have each other!

Oh well, enough with their collective love life, the lyrics are just serviceable anyway, designed to give the song some character and nothing more and since this band is not known for their vocals then the focal point of any record would almost certainly be their playing, but musically Farewell Baby is a mixed bag.

The intro is pretty good, if just a touch behind the times in the make-up of the brass section, but when Wynn enters with a long siren call on his sax the fervor with which he hits that extended note is a welcome sight… err, a welcome sound?. Sadly, that’s the best part of the entire first half of the record because when the vocals start the backing drops out other than the faintly heard rhythm section which is hardly doing anything to stand out lest they overwhelm those distant voices that are entrusted to carry the song. Wynn’s sax plays the fills in between stanzas but his parts aren’t long enough to draw much notice, nor exciting or interesting enough to really care if you DO notice.

When the blaring trumpet arrives to kick off that mid-section that contains the worst run of vocals that follow you wish they’d have excised it altogether. Trumpets are not what a lusty sax record calls for and as it is the track is almost a full minute longer than the flip side, so none of it would have been missed. Wynn’s eventual return on sax after the back and forth exchange between horns is the best part of the record musically and has you wondering why they didn’t simply turn this into a quasi-instrumental by excising most of the lyrics, just keeping the opening and closing refrains, or maybe more pertinently why he didn’t play with this much drive on the instrumentals they DID cut.
 


 

Cramping My Style
Though this is hardly the type of material that Wynn should’ve been focusing on, and certainly isn’t the direction rock itself needed to head, as least we can admit they’re playing and even singing with a conviction that’s somewhat admirable all things considered.

They had to know that Farewell Baby had no chance of being a hit and was going to be little more than B-side filler for the instrumental showcases, but they do a slightly better job on this than they do on their primary objective on the other side. Not enough to best that score, but if we were grading in increments this would come out on top by a few tenths of a point, more if you chopped the middle out completely.

Of course that also means it’s nothing to rave about and isn’t going to be doing Jim Wynn’s dwindling reputation any favors. It seems that even when he does something right, as his playing here is worth hearing, he’s doing something else wrong at the same time, or least overseeing something that was going to undercut the record’s potential.

What all of this only reinforces is that if you didn’t know the pre-rock contributions Wynn made on the stage to the development of rock ‘n’ roll you’d surely have little reason to bother with him, or probably these reviews, other than just giving them both a cursory glance before moving on. But if you do bother delving into either of them a little deeper you’ll see that there’s enough hints scattered throughout them that give some indication that he’s salvageable as a rock artist if only somebody can come along and ruthlessly trim the excess fat and get him to focus on what we’re all hoping he can still deliver with that once mighty horn.

Time however is growing short and the stage is getting mighty crowded for him to be heard. Come to think of it, “farewell” might have been fairly appropriate for him to be saying after all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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