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MGM 10397; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

Back in December, 1948 we reviewed Big Joe Turner’s stellar I Don’t Dig It which marked his best effort to date in the field of rock ‘n’ roll after a decade as a recording artist following his rapturous reception at the famed From Spirituals To Swing concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in late 1938 in which he and pianist Pete Johnson had launched the national boogie-woogie craze. In the period following that breakthrough he had enjoyed long tenures with some lofty record labels such as RCA and the most acclaimed of the independents National, but as styles changed in recent years he found himself struggling to find his niche.

Rock ‘n’ roll of course WAS that niche. The one he’d remain in for over a decade and in the process eclipsing all of his other work in terms of sales, influence and historical recognition.

But what if that road hadn’t been taken? What would’ve become of Big Joe Turner then?
 

 
The goal of Spontaneous Lunacy all along was to tell rock’s entire tangled history one song at a time from the beginning in the hopes that by doing so the bigger picture will come into focus. But to do that you need to see not just the directions rock itself took but also understand what it broke away from. What made it so unique and consequently what made it so appealing to those who wanted… who needed… something different.

Now conceivably we could do that by also reviewing some outside genre records, stuff that may have been influential ON rock. But we aren’t – and we won’t – because doing so distorts the entire premise too much. Blues, gospel, country, pop, jazz… all did have elements incorporated into rock’s DNA over the years, true enough, but they have their own histories to tell and cherry picking a few far-flung songs to throw in the rock mosh pit just to give a broader look at music as a whole detracts from the study of rock as a genre unto itself.

But what if there was a way to touch upon the fuzzy edges between one style and another from time to time without corrupting the parameters of rock history in the process? Could that be useful in bring rock itself into sharper focus?

I think you know the answer, since you’re reading the review that stems from that idea.
 

Big Joe Rides Again
Though it won’t happen often around here, looking at what authentic rock artists were dabbling in outside of the primary rock field from time to time when applicable should provide a better sense of the differences that set rock apart since it’ll be familiar names, faces and voices (and in this case even a familiar song) that will serve as the case lesson.

So take this review for what it is and nothing more – a legendary artist at the career crossroads.

In one direction are the various established styles he’s already familiar with and has plenty of history performing, yet they’re styles which are in the process of loosening their grip on the dominant black marketplace at the time, as well as being styles which haven’t given Turner much in the way of returns on his investments as of late.

But in the other direction is the music of the future, though of course nobody is entirely convinced of that yet. Turner though always had an affinity for the TYPE of approach rock is already specializing in. The instrumentation has changed some for sure, the emphasis within bands has shifted to newer more emphatic sounds, the audience embracing it is new, a younger generation with a significantly different outlook on life and music than those who came before, but Turner himself had to know he’d be a good fit in it if he only got the chance.

The earlier version of I Don’t Dig It provided him with that chance and he capitalized on it with a rousing performance and though it’d take him another year or two to fully make the transition, find a record label committed to consistently exploring that style with him, in the process giving him the type of continued commercial and critical success that would reward them all for that faith, he was at least at this point headed in the right direction.

THIS version of I Don’t Dig It however is the alternate route he was afforded, one he did indeed head down for a ways before stopping in his tracks, turning around and doubling back to the fork in the road and ultimately choosing the correct path for a career revival.

So while this record itself doesn’t quite fit into rock’s narrative as a stand-alone piece, it DOES fit into Turner’s story and thus it gives us the rare chance to examine the differences of the styles themselves just as rock was gaining strength and about to take over the world, yet before it fully had done so making the decision as to which road to follow still an uncertain one.
 

It’s The Same Old Song But With A Different Meaning Since You’ve Been Gone
In our review for the original take on this song in December ’48 we mentioned the version we’re looking at now and stated flat out that it wasn’t very good, thereby rendering the outcome of this all but moot. But that also means we can cut to the chase and get right to the whys.

To start with the musicians he has here are… better.

Huh? Say that again?

You read it right, the guys he’s working with on this record are unquestionably better musicians.

The last time out he had the Lorenzo Flennoy Trio, a solid group with a good reputation but never at risk for becoming big stars.

But that’s hardly the case here.

This band is anchored by the great Maxwell Davis on sax, who as regular readers here well know was the creative force behind a clutch of West Coast record labels, a nonpareil A&R man, producer, saxophonist, songwriter and for all intent and purposes the musical and spiritual kin to Amos Milburn with whom he worked magic with each and every time they entered a studio together.

If ANYONE would have the best interests of Turner in mind you’d think it’d be Davis, but the decision – whether his, or if he just went along with someone else’s vision and offered no protest in support of Turner’s creative malaise – to cut this in a jazzy-blues vein was a misguided one at best, especially considering that when they recorded this it was late 1948 a full year after Turner had cut the rockin’ version for Excelsior, just as that was about to be released. Therefore why they didn’t simply tackle it in a rock setting and may the best version win?

Of course they did no such thing. Instead they headed back down the dimly lit path into the past and as usually is the case when yesterday tries competing with today – not to mention tomorrow – on modern ground using current standards of taste and quality the results of these efforts can only come off sounding tired and uninspired. By contrast Flennoy and company subjected themselves to Turner’s best interests and they were in perfect lockstep throughout.

Here, not so much. These musicians led by Davis don’t exactly clash with him, but nor do they push him.

It’s all too refined, maybe befitting the fading market they were surely aiming at but while there’s decent horn work on the intro and a nice guitar line to follow it leads nowhere. It’s merely a modest frame for a picture lacking details. The rest is musically serviceable but emotionally lacking. There’s no sense it’s even designed to suggest deeper truths behind the surface images of the story let alone bolster that mood.

Maybe not everybody hears that – I don’t mean to disparage fans of other musical styles by always suggesting their preferred musical motifs are devoid of any passion and depth, but all genres have their own approaches for conveying certain sentiments and it’s simply that rock threw everything they had into the pot and bet the farm on their uninhibited handling of the lyrics to forge a deeper connection with audiences, whereas the more demure styles that preceded rock held back quite a lot, hedging their bets even when they held a strong hand for fear of overplaying it and winding up busted. As a result they may have cut down on their losses when it didn’t pan out but they rarely won the type of jackpots that rock was wracking up by being so much more aggressive.

Because of this fundamental difference Turner’s going to have to shape his delivery to suit that refined arrangement. Now certainly that’s something which he’s more than capable of doing. In fact, Turner can handle the maudlin approach itself just fine, his aching laments would always be a valuable aspect of his repertoire even hip deep in the rock waters.

But it helps if the song in question actually calls for it.
 


 
 

Always Bringing Me Down
On the surface I Don’t Dig It, a tale about being perpetually mistreated by a woman he’s with would seem to suit that purpose, giving him the chance to wallow in misery and rack up sympathy for his plight. But upon closer inspection we can see that such an approach is all wrong.

To sell this in that way Turner’s forced to adopt an uneasy persona that never fully rings true. He’s being disrespected at home and while hard to imagine a giant like Joe being pushed around by a woman he could probably fit in his hip pocket we’ll suspend our belief for the sake of the song. The words he’s using indicate he’s tired of this treatment and is finally letting his girl know this, but there’s no conviction in those words because he won’t lay down the law to her, won’t give her an ultimatum, won’t stand up for himself beyond merely voicing his complaints, probably with his head down and eyes averted so as to head off a more explosive confrontation. He’s getting it out in the open but not pushing it towards a resolution.

If she refuses to yield he won’t press on. If she fires back at him with complaints of her own he won’t rebut those with any conviction, nor probably even see that she merely is trying to change the focus to avoid further scrutiny for her own shortcomings. If she goes so far as to brazenly flip the narrative by laying down an ultimatum to HIM we know he has no spine able to withstand the pressure and will crumble in a matter of seconds putting him back in the same exact predicament he’s bemoaning now, his position – if anything – weaker for his failed attempts to rectify the situation.

He comes across as being excessively weak any way you cut it and frankly in a way almost deserving of this outright dismissal by the woman who clearly wears the pants in this family.

Now you can say that my criticism of him isn’t an enlightened viewpoint, maybe even sexist in a way, and that it’s a good thing Turner isn’t a Neanderthal that bounces her around the room to get her to listen to him for once, and I’ll even agree on that last count. Turner would crush her spleen with two meaty fingers if he so chose and I’m in no way advocating such a response to any type of domestic rifts.

But the problem isn’t an ethical one so much as it is a musical one and that’s the fact that Turner’s simply not APPEALING while being walked all over… by anyone.

The character he’s playing here needs to get us feeling sorry for him in order for this to work, but he’s so malleable, so meek, so whiny about it that all of the males in the listening audience are going to try and find out where he lives and head over there themselves to hit on his woman, knowing that she’ll probably be more than willing to head out on the town with them. You can be equally sure that Joe won’t even make eye contact with them as they escort his wife to the bar down the street. The guys in question could probably even ask him for money to cover their tab I’m sure he’d give it to them without protest. Heck, the brashest of fellas could probably return at 2AM and kick HIM out of bed so they can have a suitably decedent nightcap between the sheets with his woman all while poor Joe walks the streets alone until the offending guy left the next morning probably driving Turner’s car while wearing Joe’s jacket after eating Joe’s breakfast!

THIS is the kind of guy we want to listen to tell us his tale of woe?

Hardly.
 
 

 

I Come Back And You Don’t Want To Go No More
The Excelsior version – using the same lyrics detailing the same circumstances – offered us an entirely different man in the lead role. THAT Joe Turner was taking matters into his own hands, leaving her because he himself had plenty of better options and not caring what the woman did once he was gone.

He was making decisions based on satisfying his own needs, putting himself and his own happiness first. It wasn’t cruel and heartless of him do so either if that’s what you’re thinking. Remember it was the same girl in both cases, doing the same things wrong that led to this. She was just as guilty then as she is now, but Joe sized up the situation and came to the conclusion that if she wasn’t going to change he wasn’t going to stay and he had no compunctions about his decision. If anything it was overdue.

The Joe Turner of that version was looking forward. He was shedding the things that were holding him back – holding him down is more like it – confident in the belief that tomorrow would be better because of his resolve. That self-determination was the rock ‘n’ roll mindset of 1949 in a nutshell. A self-assured man of action.

This Joe Turner however is the one from the past, the one who accepts his lot in life because he doesn’t feel as though he could possibly be deserving of anything more. The endless indignities he’s lived with since birth have corroded his sense of self-respect. Without that he’s too weak to fight and once you know that then there’s nothing about this version that really matters anymore, we’ve lost all sympathy and interest in him and the song.
 

 

The difference between the classes in society, whether economic, racial or in regards to gender, often comes down to that mindset above all else. The strong convinces the weak that their weakness is a permanent condition thus robbing them of the one attribute they possess to overcome their oppression – the belief in themselves.

Joe Turner, the jazz, pop, blues singing vagabond heard here had lost that belief.

Big Joe Turner, the rock singer of the other version and a decade or more of songs still to come, had not.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Big Joe Turner (version 1- December, 1948)