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SPECIALTY 312; JULY, 1948

 
 

 

Timing is everything, they say. Who “they” are is never revealed, but it must be true because everybody says it now.

Good timing can make all the difference in finding success and great timing can make you a star.

Big Jim Wynn had terrible timing and seemed to spend a lifetime walking under ladders with black cats running to and fro in front of him while all the rabbits in town selfishly kept their feet from his pockets and key-chains.

Left to fend for himself with just his saxophone to ward off bad luck, Wynn’s fortunes were nonetheless looking up when rock ‘n’ roll came into being at the tail end of 1947 bringing with it opportunities galore for a talented showmen such as he. It may have been the first break Big Jim Wynn had gotten in his star-crossed career… if he could just capitalize on it in time that is.
 

Hey Bobaliba
Wynn was a veteran of West Coast jazz by the mid-40’s but played in a less formal, more unhinged style that seemed to flourish in certain locales. As would be the case throughout his life Wynn seemed to always be just one-step away from breaking through to stardom only to see the rug pulled out from under him while someone else reaped the rewards from the seeds he’d sewn.

Such was the case when he cut Ee Bobaliba, a rousing workout featuring his sax alongside a storming barrelhouse piano and chanting vocals by future rock stalwart Claude Trenier. It had hit written all over it and a hit it would become… for Helen Humes, whose recording of it as Be-Baba-Leba (featuring the tenor sax of Wild Bill Moore, whom we just were re-introduced to in yesterday’s review of We’re Gonna Rock) beat Wynn’s version to the post and became a #3 Race Chart hit as 1945 wound down.

Any thought that Wynn might at least get some belated acclaim with a hit of his own by piggybacking on her version ended when the much more renowned Lionel Hampton quickly re-appropriated it himself as Hey! Bob-Ba-Re-Bop.

They ALL claimed writing credits for it – Humes, Wynn and Hampton – but the song was done first in public by Tina Dixon in the early 40’s, though she herself would only get around to cutting it mid-decade as well. As for who REALLY penned it the general belief is the riff itself was as old as dirt and while the scat vocals were fairly recent – since scat singing itself was only a product of the 1930’s – and thus probably Dixon’s contributions, none of this was ever sorted out legally, so you’re guess is as good as mine. Since Claude Trenier worked in Jimmie Lunceford’s band the same time as Dixon, and since Trenier then handled the vocals on Wynn’s version down the road, you can see how Wynn came to cut the song.

Though he surely didn’t write it as he later claimed, Wynn was the one who seemed to be acknowledged among those in the know for the horn arrangement, for which he got no official credit, nor any financial remuneration, and when his version was cut out of the hit sweepstakes by the others he became somewhat bitter and resentful.

But that record, though certainly an important one in the overall progression of musical ideas, wasn’t the only thing he had to lay his hat on in terms of innovation. He also cut a song entitled Rock Woogie that was just a few years ahead of its time. Though the horns are definitely jazzy, the underlying song and vocals, not to mention the theme itself, would’ve been right at home at the tail end of 1947 rather than 1945 when it was released. Had it come out two years later instead who knows how that connection to the newest “fad” on the marketplace would’ve affected his career, perhaps placing him at the forefront of the movement and giving him the momentum and direction to move forward with assurance. Instead his bad timing with it meant he continued to be relegated to an afterthought in the larger music scene.
 

 

His live performances kept him busy however and he was considered a master showman, a pioneer of the flamboyant exhibitionist style of sax playing, as he draw raves for laying on his back, walking the bar, the whole nine yards. One of his fans was a young Cecil J. McNeely who, in a few years time as Big Jay McNeely, would expand on that idea and became a huge star in rock when the environment for that type of gaudy display was more acceptable, by which time Wynn… well, by which time Wynn was still looking to break through.

Considering that rock had been making inroads since the fall of 1947 and rock instrumentals had been scoring since early winter of 1948, the fact that Wynn was just now entering the fray as summer heated up was yet another sign of his constant misfortune. Had he been a few months quicker on the draw it might’ve been him rather than Paul Williams (and soon others) who launched the manic sax-led craze, instead he’s now playing catch-up, which is the story of his life.
 

If You Don’t Get It You’ll Have Something To Regret
As with most of Wynn’s songs Fat Meat isn’t strictly an instrumental, though his horn remains the focal point in the arrangement with the verses taking a back seat while Wynn stretches out. So it’s sad to say that the excitement Wynn generated in his live act, hardly a myth since it’s something which is pretty well-documented, doesn’t translate here, despite decent overall playing.

Like many who grew up in another musical time – and Wynn was already past 35 when this came out – he remained too entrenched in earlier sensibilities and the structure of the solos are hampered considerably as a result.

It doesn’t help that thematically this aspires to be a Louis Jordan record but with the decided disadvantage that Jordan’s sly vocals are not on it to sell the rather average lyrics. Jordan was the top act in all of black music at this time so the goal was understandable, but even Jordan himself was caught between eras by this point and while his influence on rock was immense, he too remained tied to the recent past, he and his fan-base enjoying their glorious last stand of the old-school approach before rock ‘n’ roll crashed the party and soon pushed him aside.

By contrast Wynn had no long-standing support as Jordan had to propel his sides onto the best seller lists against an onrushing tide of even more cutting edge competition and since this material was weaker than anything Jordan was putting out besides he’d need something urgent and forward looking in its presentation to make any impact.

This wasn’t quite it.
 

Conflicts abound with Big Jim. Though Wynn’s skill was unquestioned his niche remained uncertain. His instincts were strong but his execution in gearing them towards the right audience would too often miss their mark. He was more than capable of blowing up a storm and carrying the entire record himself, no vocalist needed, yet he still allowed himself to be weighed down by a nasally singer spitting out mediocre lyrics and thus took himself out of the running for the growing rock instrumental jackpot that reigned throughout this period.

Fat Meat thus becomes an exercise in frustration for Wynn as his fellow sax blowers were scoring hits while he toiled in relative obscurity on record despite this effort containing most of the requisite parts to sell it to the same growing audience.

Most, but not all.
 

No I’m Not To Blame
The title jumps out at you and the lyrics are – upon closer inspection – vaguely suggestive, perhaps even bordering on dirty, something which is bound to elicit some interest if only the intent wasn’t so ambiguous. Yet once again in this regard as well, he doesn’t go nearly far enough for them to register.

He clearly wasn’t averse to doing so, he was no choirboy when it came to blue content as anyone who heard his salacious “Butter For My Roll” from 1945 could attest, but despite this side coming along three years later when the standards for such debauchery had been suitably raised (lowered???), he nonetheless pulls back and only hints at a more off-color meaning, eliminating the chance for it to catch on for more nefarious reasons.

Meanwhile his horn constantly promises a payoff that would put to rest any such questions by ratcheting up the intensity yet that goal remains tantalizingly out of reach by never cutting loose and giving in to total abandon which might’ve created a potent word of mouth campaign to spread his reputation further.

The result is a massive let down. You want to like it more than you do, even without Wynn’s backstory pulling on your sentiments, but in the end it’s simply pedestrian, which in rock ‘n’ roll is the greatest sin imaginable.

Everything here is badly misjudged. Bass player Ted Shirley’s vocals sound as if he was singing with a head cold, not to mention being delivered too slowly, stripping them of the ribald underlying meaning until they come off as lackadaisical instead of raunchy. Making matters worse is when Wynn’s sax steps aside in the first break for the trumpet to obtrusively squawk which only further dates it, and while he takes the second solo himself on sax it never rises above sultry when what it desperately needs is to crank the heat up even more to get the whole pot boiling.

Wynn’s got no one to blame but himself. His band, The Groove Masters, don’t live up to their name with their sluggish uninspired playing and he seems unwilling to take over as he was by all means capable of doing. Maybe he was a nice guy at heart and didn’t want to dominate the proceedings and have the others mere window dressing while he strutted his stuff, but as a result they all go down the tubes together.

As an idea Fat Meat holds definite promise, for if there’s one thing rock ‘n’ roll thrived on, especially early, it was racy double-entendres to stoke the imagination of deviant listeners. Throw in a good tenor sax playing as if he had just staggered in drunk and disorderly and you have yourself a winner most every time out. But for that formula to work it needs a delivery and arrangement that ramps up the excitement and makes what merely is suggestive sound altogether obscene. Instead Wynn and company tone it down until the meaning is lost amidst the boredom.
 

You’ll Never Act The Same
Though we’ll be meeting him again down the road it should come as no surprise that the rest of Wynn’s career played out in much the same way, beset by a series of missed chances, tough breaks and bad choices.

Failing to find his mark as a stand-alone headliner he eventually hooked up with bluesman T-Bone Walker, an old cohort back from when they were both just starting out. Wynn wound up accompanying him for quite some time in the early 50’s, the two showmen dueling it out on stage night after night to appreciative audiences, but naturally it was Walker, who by that time was a mega-star in the blues field, who got all the glory while Wynn was relegated to semi-anonymous sideman.

As so many other sax masters did Wynn then turned to session work and appeared frequently, though of course without public credit, behind a myriad of west coast rock stars on record and often on stage as well. It paid the bills but kept any thought of him breaking out himself as a featured attraction on hold. His own hits never came and he gradually recorded less and less under his own name as the sax gave way to the guitar as the featured lead soloing instrument in rock by the end of the 50’s, the era he could’ve excelled in, maybe even should’ve dominated, having passed.
 


 

Always respected by other musicians, and always an unbeatable showman live even when his records barely hinted at such histrionics, Wynn at least managed to stay active and by the 1970’s he was tearing up the popular retro-shows Johnny Otis put on featuring fellow 40’s/50’s blues, jazz and rock acts, his old gimmicks still drawing cheers from the small – but at least fervent – audiences from long ago. But the enduring recognition Wynn may have been deserving of for his part in music’s evolution lasted no longer than it took for the applause the fade into the night air when the shows ended.

In July 1977 Wynn passed away at 65 years old. A few weeks later Elvis Presley died and filched the rock star obituaries for himself.

Bad timing again, Big Jim.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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