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FREEDOM 1537; MAY 1950

 
 

 

When starting this ridiculous… “indulgent” project one of the (many) concerns was just how much there’d be left to talk about the deeper into each artist’s catalog.

Assuming we’d have already thoroughly covered their personal histories in the first meeting or two with them, and similarly would’ve detailed the respective record labels and their individual producers and frequent sidemen, maybe also touching upon a couple of the outside songwriters that have come along, what would that leave us when we were tackling our tenth or twentieth side by the same old cats?

I worried that either the reviews would be whittled down to just pure musical analysis or we might start delving into obscurely related tangents in an effort to fill up each page.

But it turns out that concern was vastly overstated, for one thing is certain in rock history… nothing is ever quite as simple and straightforward as it appears.
 

 

Love Like Ours Is Rare
Unlike a lot of the most prolific artists to date, Big Joe Turner always had something new to talk about every time we encountered him, simply because he went through record labels like most people go through socks and underwear in a week. Thus far Turner has appeared on seven different labels and has worked with countless musicians spanning all kinds of styles, backgrounds and levels of experience.

That constant movement though has understandably led to a lot of inconsistency in his output, with certain companies, like MGM, preferring to lean towards jazzier constructs while others trying to stick to a safe middle ground in what they issued.

But when Turner landed on the doorstep of Freedom Records in late 1949 he was finally given permission… some would say “instructed”… to rock like his life depended on it.

Not everything he did for them of course was in that vein, in fact two of the three songs we’ve covered thus far were ballads, albeit among the best rock ballads he’d done so far. But what made all of this, the fast and the slow, stand out so much was the fact he had the best self-contained band to be found working behind him, giving him the confidence to take songs where he wanted them, knowing they’d be more than capable of holding up their end of bargain.

So you’d think that Just A Travelin’ Man, the flip side of his second Freedom Records (with two more singles to come in the ensuing months) would provide more of the same… a modern musical outlook wherein Turner’s skills would mesh perfectly with the abilities of the band.

Except this is where things get muddy because this song, despite coming out on Freedom, wasn’t cut with the same band on the same day, nor were many of the sides to follow, and in fact the information that’s been reported over the years regarding this “second session” generally states that… it hasn’t even taken place yet as of May 1950!

Suddenly looking at the prospect of having reviews with nothing new left to discuss seems a whole lot more appealing than it did a few minutes ago!
 


 

Easy Lovin’ Man
For someone who unquestionably is one of the giants of Twentieth Century Popular Music, regardless of genre, there’s been far too little written about Big Joe Turner over the years making the task of trying to unravel some of his backstory maddeningly frustrating at times.

For this juncture of his career we have very little to go on, but the “accepted” – and presumably somewhat researched – information we have on the session that produced Just A Travelin’ Man states that it was done in December 1950, which means that the “traveling” part of the song must’ve been referring to a time traveler who went seven months into the future, grabbed those tapes and hightailed it back to the spring of 1950 to put this out then because one thing we’re absolute certain of is this record came out in May 1950. We have the actual issued 78 RPM discs to prove this, not to mention ads and reviews from the time.

So obviously the information is wrong and the simplest explanation is that they just screwed up the date when reporting it. Since this was documented to have taken place in Houston then it’s easy to assume that it was either logged wrong (cut in December 1949, but not filed until January 1950 perhaps, pushing the year forward while keeping the original month), or that someone doing tape research for later CD collections were at fault for the discrepancy of one calendar year.

That in of itself would be unfortunate but somewhat understandable. What might’ve contributed to the confusion however is the fact that the band playing behind Turner is not the notorious Hep-Cats featuring saxophonist Conrad Johnson and guitarist Goree Carter, who’d backed Turner on his earlier sides – and the flip side of this record – for the label.

Instead the band here consists of trumpeter Joe Bridgewater (along with a second unnamed trumpeter), trombonist Pluma Davis, Vernon Bates on one of the saxes and Jimmy Toliver on piano, plus a rhythm section that while anonymous clearly doesn’t include our friends from the Hep-Cats.

So what gives?

Well, truthfully your guess is as good as mine, but if I had to take a shot in the dark here I’d say that these were the guys originally enlisted to back him up at a club in Houston and thus he brought them with him for the first session before Freedom realized it was smarter to have their own far better and more musically appropriate band back him for the second session. But that’s just unfounded speculation, based on some simple conjecture maybe, but still not something you should necessarily take to the bank.

As for the results of that “other” session done with a less sympathetic band… well, what do you think the ramifications are going to be?
 


 
 

The Right Kind Of Lovin’
If these sessions were indeed cut within days of each other, weeks at the most (or even, just to cover every base, even the ones that weren’t technically on the field yet, if they HAD been cut a full year apart as the paperwork claims) what it shows is just how reliant all singers are on having sympathetic accompaniment… even singers as great as Big Joe Turner.

Listening to Turner’s work with The Hep-Cats, whether storming rockers like Adam Bit The Apple, or more subdued ballads like Still In The Dark or the top side of this release Life Is Like A Card Game, it’s no stretch to claim that Big Joe was at the very peak of his game as the Fifties dawned. His singing was self-assured and in perfect lockstep with the music, like a well oiled machine running at full power.

Now everything is back to being slightly off… a little awkward sounding, with Joe unable to cut loose with quite the same confidence.

To be fair Just A Travelin’ Man has no out and out flaws to criticize, but it also has no real spark to heartily recommend it and because of the drastically different band it gives the impression of being from much further the past (certainly not the future!).

It should come as no surprise that the primary reason for this generational schism comes from this group’s reliance on trumpets rather than saxes or guitar and piano. It’s a brassy sound, bright and energetic at times for sure, but giving off a much different vibe than what we’re here for. You might place it as being fit for a high class night club, or if you prefer a racy strip-joint, but either way it’s not the kind of music fit for the grab and grind dances held at hole-in-the-wall clubs on a Saturday night in the sticks, which is where rock ‘n’ roll has a permanent reservation to provide the entertainment.

Despite their incongruous sonic textures the arrangement is tight, as the band avoids getting in Joe’s way while still managing to make their presence known in spots. It’s a very professional, highly polished sound, which is a testament to their abilities even if it’s also a knock on their compatibility for Turner in the rock landscape.
 

Roam From Town To Town
Joe himself may not be as free to do as he pleases because of this, but he doesn’t sound too put out by it, and lest we forget he had plenty of experience with bands of this sort, and that’s not even taking into account his potential working relationship with them during this time period in live venues, if that was indeed the case.

As a song Just A Travelin’ Man is at least suitable for our purposes anyway, giving rock ‘n’ roll a basic thematic blueprint for such future classics such as Dion’s The Wanderer, with many of the same plot points and cocky assurances about his own sexual prowess.

He delivers this mid-tempo romp with authority, his booming voice leaving no doubt he was at least enjoying the ride, but falling just short of having the unbridled enthusiasm that something like this should elicit from him.

One gets the impression that if the band was egging him on with a more aggressive sound it would spark Joe’s competitive nature enough to make the same lines he’s singing here seem much more salacious. Instead it’s merely suggestive… enjoyable in the moment but quickly forgotten.
 

Make Me Cry Cry For Some More
The mystery surrounding this song – not to mention the three remaining cuts from the same session which are still to come on Freedom alongside the better results from the other session – is ultimately what is most interesting about Just A Travelin’ Man, even though what’s found on the record itself is hardly anything to be outright dismissive of.

While the explanation for it is probably pretty simple, it’s also agonizingly elusive now that we’re seven decades removed from when all of this went down. Though it’d be nice to have the evidence laid out for us and confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt it still wouldn’t change the fact that the biggest drawback to these sides is they represent a missed opportunity to have Big Joe Turner and The Hep-Cats create more indelible rock sides to enjoy.

Chances like that, wherein two separate – but equally impressive – entities manage to come together for a brief moment in time are rare enough as it is, so losing the chance for four more songs that might’ve equalled, if not surpassed, the brilliance of what we wound up getting from them already is what makes having to begrudgingly accept these other cuts all the more tragic.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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