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MGM 10492; JULY, 1949

 
 

 

One of the interesting hypothetical questions in music to ponder is: What would’ve become of so many famous artists had the style they were truly meant to perform never been invented?

Would Louis Armstrong have trilled Gaelic melodies were it not for jazz? Would Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols have become a crooner in the mold of Perry Como had punk rock not come along?

In some cases some modest adjustments could’ve been made and the singers would’ve done their best to adapt. We know John Lee Hooker had sung some gospel before cutting the blues for instance and plenty of country stars such as Brenda Lee and Conway Twitty had tried their hand in rock ‘n’ roll before making the switch to something more suited for their musical personas. Elvis Presley was conversant in virtually every style under the sun and it’s easy to envision him sticking exclusively to either gospel, country, the blues or pure pop had he never swiveled his hips to rock ‘n’ roll under the thrall of the devil in the pale moonlight.

As for the subject of today’s review we similarly know that of all the early rock gods Big Joe Turner was more than capable of delivering the goods in a variety of other formats. He was called The Boss Of The Blues and while the both Delta blues and its urban blues counterpart were much different in their approach (more guitar driven than his usual horn-laden tracks for starters) than what he was most comfortable in, he could’ve made the transition with reasonable effort. Had he wanted to stick with brass sections however there were plenty of jazz bands who were always in need of a vocalist and he’d likely get a good shot to succeed there as well.

In fact years later after Turner was old enough to be the grandfather of the latest generation of rockers in the early 1960’s, he resumed his career in both of those fields and would spend the rest of his life tackling whichever genre the record company or live venue he was appearing at required of him.

But we all know – as did Joe himself – that what he did best was rock.
 

 
So where we are now in mid-1949, two full years into rock’s existence and well past the point where its commercial viability was still an uncertainty, we still have yet to see if Turner would be given the opportunity to explore rock ‘n’ roll unfettered. Would he find his way to record companies who had enough faith in this music to commit to it wholeheartedly as opposed to trying to get him to deliver something a bit more safe?

So far the answer was… not really.

Not entirely anyway. He had on occasion over the past two years found himself at a label where the musical direction wasn’t set in stone and so if he happened to be surrounded by likeminded musicians he might’ve gotten away with something that landed squarely in the rock realm, such as he had on Excelsior with I Don’t Dig It.

But then at other times he’d land someplace where the producers exerted more control over the studio and got him to tone down these inclinations and modify his approach, giving us a re-worked, watered-down and therefore altogether unsuitable rendition of the same I Don’t Dig It.

The difference was like night and day and the home of the latter milder version of Turner was none other than MGM Records, for whom he’s peddling his wares again today.
 

Don’t Spend No Time At Home
Not to disparage MGM Records too much here but they still hadn’t exactly shown they knew what the hell they were doing in this business. Formed in 1946 to issue movie soundtracks – which stands to reason since they were associated with MGM film studios – they envisioned themselves as a rival to the major labels but couldn’t quite cut it in that realm, not then and not really down the road either even though they doggedly kept at it. Their biggest seller at this point ironically was Hank Williams, a country star which probably made the nose-in-the-air executives at MGM wince with embarrassment that their salaries were in effect being paid for by the nickels and dimes of so-called rural hayseeds.

Since their goal was a higher class clientele their forays into such niche markets as country as well as all forms of black music was understandably going to be rather limited. Taking their cue perhaps from Capitol Records which housed Nat Cole to try for the crossover audience while Julia Lee held down the fort for the adult black audience, or Decca who boasted Lionel Hampton as their credible jazz-leaning black musician whom white audiences respected while Louis Jordan was their mega-selling “race star” who sold predominantly to African-Americans, MGM tried the same tactic of splitting their artists into these slightly different fields.

Crooner Billy Eckstine was the guy who scored on both the Pop Charts (consistently Top 20) and was a regular near the top of the Race Charts from 1946 to the present time and represented MGM’s “safe” choice for potential black stardom. Their hopes for scoring exclusively with the other black constituency, the supposedly less cultured brand of record buyer, fell to Joe Turner.

As of yet he wasn’t really succeeding at it.

Now it has to be said that Turner wasn’t bound to MGM like Jordan was to Decca or Lee was with Capitol. Big Joe roamed freely from label to label, but MGM certainly had seen fit to get their money’s worth with him over two sessions, laying down a dozen sides to give themselves every chance of striking pay dirt with him. They probably figured if something of his connected they’d simply be able to outbid everyone else for his services going forward. Truthfully that’s not a bad gamble to make.

Furthermore they didn’t chince on these sessions by any means, thinking of them as somehow of lesser importance than their pop aspirations. They surrounded Turner with the cream of the crop of local musical talent starting with Maxwell Davis on saxophone (no word on him running the sessions as he did for independent labels such as Aladdin… so it’s doubtful he got nearly as much say in the arrangements as he would elsewhere). In addition MGM brought in Turner’s old running mate Pete Johnson to man the piano and filled out the roster with an all-star team of talent in the full horn brigade AND rhythm section.

Surely they must’ve thought this would result in the best possible music for their needs.

Well maybe if they let them have more of a say in their approach, but as it was MGM didn’t seem to view the more exciting brand of music Turner was capable of delivering to be quite as appealing for their needs. So instead they laid out the formula they wanted followed – a jazzier old school sound topped by Joe’s vibrant shouting – and hoped that would appeal to the audience who was making so much commotion over the more rocking sides coming out.

What those conflicting aims left you with though was a hazy middle ground that served nobody’s best interest – not the band, not the audience, not MGM and certainly not Big Joe Turner.
 


 
 

Hasn’t Got The Mad Gal Touch
Okay, just so there’s no quibbling with the premise, since the stated goal of Spontaneous Lunacy is to cover the history of rock, not the history of other forms of music, the fact is as ill-fitting as Married Woman Blues may seem to be in the rock field at a glance, it’s probably equally out of place in jazz, blues or children’s nursery rhymes for that matter. But Turner is a rocker and in spite of having his feet bound together throughout this he still attempts to take the ball and run with it towards the rock side of the field.

That’s he’s not altogether successful in that endeavor is par for the course anytime you have such conflicting aims as MGM saddled him with.

The song, like so much of Turner’s material, is built on the idea of barreling along with unbridled verve, wailing away for all he’s worth and imploring the band to keep pace. It’s a formula that worked for years when he was allowed to adhere to it and would go on working with very little adjustment well into the next decade.

But the key to it working was making sure the band was constructed properly for the task at hand and coming up with a more suitable arrangement for reaching an audience who had no need to look backwards when what was occupying the jukeboxes and record players in the present was so much better suited to their outlook.

It’s not all bad though, not when Pete Johnson is on board. As always Johnson knows just what to do, ripping off a boogie like few others in history could do. He’s not the centerpiece of this but he’s the steady underpinning of the entire track and it’s his work that Turner hones in on to get his bearings.

However Johnson is quickly overwhelmed by the horns – tremendous players one and all, but entirely wrong for the style of music Joe desperately needs at this point. For starters there’s too damn many of them. This isn’t jazz where you need the full arsenal of horns, alto, tenor and baritone saxes along with a trumpet, all working in tight unison. While what they play here is properly paced for the song they’re improperly emphasized, riding the higher register of their instruments while sticking in tight formation… not a hair is out of place in the arrangement which is one reason why it sounds so outdated.

Rock ‘n’ roll was as much about the slapdash qualities of the playing… the mistakes if you will… as it was the written parts. The reason why such large ensembles didn’t work when used this way in rock was because the music was designed for the tenor sax to go off the reservation, to improvise with increasing passion, and if he’s carrying the weight of three other horns on his back he can’t do that. In a case like that the others simply wouldn’t have any idea what to do, leading to either uninspired tooting or worse yet, giving them the idea that they too should be flailing about aimlessly, something which only results in musical traffic jams and four car pile-ups.

On Married Woman Blues the horns thankfully avoid that particular catastrophe but in order to do so they take the safer route and stick to their carefully laid out roles, all playing together and trying to convince you that the notes they’re blowing are exciting, dangerous and unpredictable.

When Johnson comes in for a solo however he pulls this back from the abyss, tearing off a deft extended showcase for his talents on the keyboard. Unfortunately the same can’t really be said for Davis who despite his pedigree as a rocker is clearly feeling confined by what he’s being asked to deliver. His solo starts off about as meek as we’ve heard him sound and only when the other horns jump in – sounding just as out of place as they did during the first half of the song mind you – that’s when Davis uses them as a distraction of sorts and begins to play with a little more authenticity.

It doesn’t elevate it much though, it just merely keeps you from thinking the band held a personal grudge against the singer.
 


 

They Always Got A Line
Ahh yes, the singer. How can we possibly forget Big Joe Turner who once again is beset with man-made obstacles not of his own doing and determinedly sets about pushing those boulders blocking his path out of the way.

He does this as he always does, with sheer gusto, his voice swirling like a hurricane, spitting out lines like machine-gun fire, falling back on familiar cadences to deliver the lyrics which are pretty good if you bother to listen to what he’s saying, but which pales in comparison to HOW he’s saying them. Turner, even being held back by an unsympathetic arrangement, is a force of nature, a singer beyond compare and a beacon of light in an otherwise darkly shrouded scene.

Unlike past efforts where Joe and the band were on different pages… perhaps reading totally different books!… here on Married Woman Blues they’re at least both pressing down on the gas pedal with the same force, hurtling along at the same speed. The vehicle the horns are in though is on the verge of breaking down. The wheels are wobbly, the engine is spewing black smoke, the frame is vibrating and any second it looks as if it’ll run off the road into a ditch.

Turner meanwhile has the top down on the car he and Johnson are in, racing goggles on and scarves around their necks flapping in the breeze, as they cruise along comfortably at 85 MPH, not a care in the world, doing all he can to convince you to not give up on him yet. You won’t, he’s earned that much, but you wonder how many more speed-bumps and potholes they’re going to hit on their journey back to the promised land.
 


 

MGM meanwhile is on the side of the road watching these two disparate cars zoom by, completely oblivious as to their incompatibility. If they’d been asked at the time they’d have suggested Turner slow down, switch lanes and take the next exit to the more refined jazz town around the bend. Yes, he could handle those curves if he had to and could find a room for rent in that berg and fit in with the locals well enough to not be viewed as complete outsider, but he’d never be fully comfortable there. Not when the bright lights and deafening sounds of rock were beckoning to him from somewhere around the bend.

The first chance he got Joe would jump back behind the wheel, yell to his buddy Pete to hop in beside him and they’d go tearing off through the countryside, following the siren call that the distant din of rock music was making over the next rise. The folks at MGM would shake their heads in equal parts dismay and disgust, turn around and head back into their quiet offices and comb their roster sheet to see when Milt Buckner was due back in the studio to deliver something more appropriate for their all too modest aims.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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