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ROUGE 105; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

In a recording career that lasted close to fifty years Big Joe Turner cut records for virtually every label in existence. Though he enjoyed two long term residencies, first at Decca in the 1940’s and then with Atlantic in the 1950’s, he was the ultimate free agent, willing to take cash from any company who wanted his services for a session or two.

Unlike most who bounced from one company to the next Turner was a prodigious talent, not some glorified saloon singer constantly in search of a handout, so the names of many of the record labels he stopped in at for a cup of coffee during the 1940’s were quite notable: National Records, MGM, Excelsior, Aladdin, Down Beat… all stable companies with good reputations and fairly high standards.

But from time to time he also found himself at companies that were run on the proverbial shoestring budget… that is they WOULD’VE been run on a shoestring budget if they could’ve afforded shoes.

One such label was Rouge Records, named for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the town it was founded in and existed in for all of approximately the twelve minutes it took for Turner to cut two sides. Rouge Records wasn’t so much a record company as it was the reflection of a glimmer of opportunity in some local huckster’s eye, conceived specifically to record a big name artist who was quite willing to cut a few tracks for whatever dollars were thrown at him.

It’s even possible that this was Rouge Records’ only release, or at most one of just a handful that probably didn’t make it as far as New Orleans’s record shops only 80 miles away. There are no discographies online to be found, no label scans, no ownership information, no ads and no recording or release dates for the one single, Rouge 105, that is known to exist… and that one is known solely because of who cut it, not because anyone actually bought the record when it was (presumably) printed sometime back in 1949.

So given all of that mystery what’s a website which is hoping to eventually review hundreds of thousands of rock ‘n’ roll’s singles, over seventy years worth and counting, supposed to do? Are we to waste time on this irrelevant obscure single by someone whose story has already been delved into in great depth over the course of almost a dozen reviews to date, and who will have dozens upon dozens of other records still to come which will continue that narrative in the future?

Yup, that’s exactly what we’re gonna do… as if there was ever any doubt.
 

 

I Never Get Enough, I Always Want Some More
So let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first if that introduction didn’t fully convey the difficulties with accurately pegging this release. We know this was cut – and almost certainly released – in late 1949 because Rouge Records wasn’t in the position to delay putting it out since they didn’t exactly take out a long term lease someplace.

The reason we’re putting it here, in December, though a month in either direction is also possible but probably no more than that, is because of the presence of Joe Houston, tenor sax star to be, who finds himself on this session. Thanks to his own long life and career we have some additional insight into the circumstances surrounding his involvement with Turner at the tail end of 1949, specifically their working together in Baton Rouge where the 23 year old Houston had moved after getting married.

Houston had played professionally since he was 17, first with King Kolax’s band and then reputedly with some big name rock acts on the road, from Amos Milburn to Wynonie Harris, though this is hard to corroborate since he never recorded with them. It might’ve been he simply was someone who led pickup bands in whatever town they rolled into, which is precisely how he and Joe Turner got together.

Turner was something of a transient sort by nature. By this point he’d settled more or less in Los Angeles but was on the road a lot earning his living since that’s what paid the bills far more than his records did. For him it was probably just as easy, not to mention more profitable, to not have to travel with his own band whom he’d have to share expenses with and keep in line on the road, but instead to rely on local talent to provide backup when he rolled into town.

As you can probably imagine that wouldn’t be a problem in New York, Chicago or New Orleans where skilled musicians who could read music and play a wide variety of styles were plentiful, but way out in the sticks your chances of finding a suitable group probably ranked somewhere below finding a good ski resort in the Sahara Desert.

In Baton Rouge however Turner found just that in the band led by Joe Houston. Maybe it was the sheer improbability of it all, having his wildest expectations surpassed in the most unlikeliest of places which made Turner so appreciative and caused him to bond with this kid. Then again Joe Houston will go on to be one of the foremost rock sax stars of the next decade so it could just be that Big Joe had a good eye for talent and thought it was better to take advantage of someone that skilled who was still looking for a break than to try and hope his luck would hold out at whatever backwater town in the Delta he wound up in next.

In any event Turner and Houston remained loosely aligned for longer than just the one night stand or week long engagement at whatever Baton Rouge club they were playing. Maybe the two of them bonded on a personal level, or perhaps Big Joe was feeling magnanimous and in talking with a local wanna-be big shot who thought he could run a label he told the guy he’d cut a record for him just to get Houston a chance in a studio. Or maybe it was Houston, a recent transplant after all who probably knew the big-shots around town already, who was the one to suggest starting a label to whoever seemed most interested so that he might get his chance to make a name for himself with Turner in tow.

Who knows, it’s even remotely possible that Rouge Records was waiting there the whole time for them both to show up so they could be the honored participants to help launch this grand endeavor. In the unlikely chance that was the case we can chalk up Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey to fate itself.
 
 

Your Love Is Like Candy
At risk of divulging top level classified secrets of rock research one of the oft-used sources for a lot of recording information is… the research of others! Not the Wikipedia variety if we can help it, but rather the ones who’ve compiled albums and included in their liner notes session logs, allowing us to know where and when these sides were cut and most crucially at times, who played on them.

Though Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey is available on a few albums, one in particular claims there’s a very good possibility that some of the participants on this session were moonlighting from Freedom’s house band, the notorious Hep Cats, namely drummer Allison Tucker and trumpeter Nelson “Nunu” Pitts. This piece of juicy information brings up an interesting series of questions for us to speculate on regarding what went down all those years ago.

The possibility that Tucker and Pitts played on this is not that far-fetched since they were obviously not making a bundle of dough cutting sides exclusively for Freedom and since Baton Rouge is less than three hundred miles away – not a walk in the park, but not a two week trip either, even in 1949 – it’s certainly possible they made the journey to play locally themselves, probably in support of Goree Carter who was definitely touring in the general Gulf Coast region at some point during this time.

But when Houston and Turner would wind up recording for Freedom shortly it does make it a bit more likely that this was their entrée into that deal and Carter has received some credit in certain circles for coaxing Turner to cut at Freedom so that would explain it. However Carter is most assuredly not on this session at Rouge Records, as one listen to the wandering Wish I Had A Dollar, with its dated arrangement and unfocused lyric, which garners the flip side will attest.

Though far more energetic and rocking, Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey is also absent an electric guitar and yet as tantalizing as it is to envision someone of Carter’s ilk adding his scintillating licks to this, the fact is he might not have been able to find room with all the honking Joe Houston does.
 

Squeeze Me Real Tight
Joe Turner was notorious for recycling songs over the course of his career. This was not quite the deceptive practice it might seem to be today, simply because back in the 1940’s there weren’t albums that re-issued an artist’s past output, nor was there “catalog” radio to play records a few years old.

In other words, you’d hear a song when it was it new, either on the radio, the jukebox or by purchasing it. Only the latter ensured you might be able to hear it when you wanted two or three years down the road (though 78 RPM shellac discs were far more fragile than the plastic 33 and 45 RPM records that followed, so even this was no sure thing). There also weren’t people like us waxing poetic about every old song under the sun to keep them fresh in people’s memory. All of this meant that for an artist like Turner, who could take one of his own compositions and re-work it so it fit into any number of styles all of which sounded completely different from his preceding versions of the song, always had a ready supply of material to bring to a studio when doing one of these cash-deal sessions.

Which is why Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey is so unusual. It WASN’T a reworked song that he’d cut before, nor was the other side for that matter, which indicates he was either trying new ideas out at this start-up company just to see if they had legs, or he was using them as a way to showcase Joe Houston.

By the sounds of this one it seems as if the latter was definitely the case because this a rip-roaring good time that seems made to order for a saxophonist to strut his stuff.

With James Hurdle’s piano setting the pace the song leaps from the grooves as the horns join in already at cruising speed. If that is indeed Tucker on drums (FWIW the other possibility is James Byrd) it’s a rattling sound that was certainly reminiscent of the Carter tracks cut at Freedom, where every instrument bristled with electricity on the uptempo numbers.

When Turner jumps in he’s as hepped up as any of them, shouting with glee after each stop-time stanza that ostensibly is designed to set up the story but in reality sets up the featured solos of Houston on sax a lot better.

This is where Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey earns its keep. Houston launches himself into the meat of the song like a starving lion while Turner is lustily responding to his efforts. Maybe the intent of the recording session itself hadn’t been to promote Houston but once the tapes were rolling there can be little question that Turner set out to do exactly that. He calls out Joe’s full name not once but at two different stages of the extended horn workout, and is exhorting him on the entire time giving us a rare look into Turner’s robust live performance style.

Houston’s tone early on is slightly underpowered, though certainly enthusiastic, but he gains power as Tucker’s drums kick him in the ass throughout. Meanwhile Turner is making just as much of a racket in the background, whooping it up like a man possessed. It’s not smooth, it’s sure as hell isn’t refined, and the clarity of his vocal microphone is not all it could be, but the entire track is full of energy, enthusiasm and a gleeful whiff of musical anarchy and that’s what matters most.
 


 

My Better Type
In the past we’ve criticized artists who went into the studio without a well-conceived game plan, those who ad-libbed lyrics over a simple structure, or horn players who improvised in much the same manner, all while reasoning that they could come up with something that was passable for the type of clientele they were aiming for rather than taking the time studiously craft something with more enduring components. Our response to that has been pretty dismissive of this haphazard approach because while they may capture a certain boisterous spirit tackling a song in that way it rarely holds up under repeated listens when the lack of any polish causes its seams to show.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey may just well be the exception that proves that rule. There’s a lot here that shouldn’t work, the story is just a series of loosely connected ideas, the larger horn section has some trouble locking in behind them, the microphones or the mixing board needs some tweaking, but each time I hear it all of that gets swept away by the rollicking good-natured vibe they all throw off as if they were radioactive.

When studied with a jeweler’s eye for flaws this might not be worth as much if going strictly by the value of its individual components, but when listened to as a record designed to excite the listener who allows themselves to be caught up in the spirit of the performance it soars in value, as the power of a fully unleashed Joe Turner has the ability to steamroll most bumps in the road while Joe Houston riding shotgun makes sure they’re aimed in the right direction.

That direction would take them both to Houston, Texas around the next bend, but this unlikely one-off session for a record company that was gone in the blink of an eye was the starting point for two things of note, Joe Houston’s long career as a top rock sax star, and Joe Turner’s resurrection as one of rock’s most vital singers. That’s more than good enough to recommend this without any reservations, no matter how off-the-cuff it might’ve been.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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