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RCA 20-4484; JANUARY 1952



Am I detecting a theme here?

Two rock releases in a row – and three of the last five reviews – by jazz saxophonists turned rock acts with drinking connotations and in the case of Big John Greer this would mark his second such alcohol themed record in the past few months.

Image is everything they say and while surely patrons of jazz were hardly teetotalers and plenty of pop music lovers were probably swilling martinis for breakfast, it was the rock audience who were the ones that played up their reputation for after hours drunken decadence that whether real, exaggerated or entirely fabricated, allowed artists to push that image across in their music to form a deeper connection with their fan base.

It’s probably not all that surprising that occasionally acts like Big John Greer would take things too far and develop a debilitating drinking habit in real life, but on record at least he used this topic to his advantage when it came to proving his authenticity as a rocker… no matter what it did to his health.


Threw His Crutches Away
This is definitely an interesting – and very promising – development when it comes to RCA-Victor, a major label with a dim view on rock ‘n’ roll in general, as it clearly shows their increasing awareness of how vital it is to keep that fan base engaged at all times with an artist who at best had been a compromise candidate when it came to keeping their hand in this burgeoning field of music the last few years.

The reason we say this is because Big John Greer was just now reaching his commercial zenith with a rock ballad, Got You On My Mind, a very good rock ballad, but also one that had some pop-elements in it which normally any record company eying the bigger market, particularly one who basically lived in that market to begin with like RCA, would immediately try and further entice by releasing a follow-up that was even more blatant in their attempt to cross over.

But while you could argue that RCA did this if their intention was to push the tepid flip-side If You Let Me instead, every indication says that that wasn’t the case as this unambiguous rock side was the top half of the single in its ads from the beginning.

You really can’t overstate the significance of this… a major label turning away from a chance to move their designated rock act into pop and doubling down on rock ‘n’ roll instead showed that long before most of these companies would acknowledge it publicly, rock music was becoming too big for them to ignore.

In the past of course when they did manage to pay cursory attention to it, they usually attempted to tame it down considerably, but while Greer’s vocals could never be confused with the fire breathing wails of Wynonie Harris, he’s fully engaged on Strong Red Whiskey, giving it the kind of enthusiastic reading that confirmed his allegiance to the music… as well as to the bottle.

Maybe the label felt they were making a pact with the Devil to promote this kind of music, but business was business and if an entire growing audience were dancing with that devil, then somebody was going to profit off the music they were dancing to and RCA figured it might as well be them.


Feel So Frisky
We’ll get to the particulars of this drunken bender soon enough, but we probably should start with the musical side of the equation which is theoretically the easier component to master for talented musicians, but which in the past has proven to be far more difficult for many to do so with any real conviction.

We’re sorry to report that seems to be the case here at times as well as the band may be playing the right notes but they’re not always playing them in the right way.

The melodic centerpiece of the song is not musical but vocal and it has a decent groove and is fairly catchy. But that means the musicians are filling in the spaces around it rather than driving the beat. We get a rhythm section that is competent but not assertive and the horn fills during the vocal refrains range from modestly decent to watered down swill.

Things improve when someone – probably not Greer himself unfortunately – picks up the slack and starts to blow during the sax solo, playing with a thick tone during a winding run that doesn’t quite get greasy enough, doesn’t honk away like a madman, but skirts the edge of those attributes while backed by guitar accent notes that create a reasonably appropriate feel. Yet it’s still something that could’ve – and should’ve – been better had they really understood what was needed attitudinally.

So since the backing track is only tolerable that puts all the more pressure on the story for Strong Red Whiskey to live up to its title. Writers Howard Biggs and Joe Thomas though have come up with a winner by keeping things simple, direct and clearly unconcerned with offending anyone.

This is for the most part a celebration of getting shit-faced. They’re certainly not pulling their punches here, talking in glowing terms about the power of this stuff to brighten your day… with one questionable exception as after touting its ability to basically heal the sick and lame they say it’ll also “make a near-sighted man go blind” which to me sounds like a significant downgrade, but then again “blind” in drinking terms usually carries with it different connotations.

Regardless, the point is Greer and the others in the band who are chiming in singing the choruses are making is how drinking effects the way you view the world, particularly when it comes to “big legged women” who start to look more attractive with a few belts in you, and also gives the man the courage to approach her.

It’s not much deeper than a shot glass in terms of insight, but it’s not inaccurate either and their boisterous vocals makes it sound as if they’ve done a few shots already, which is always a good sign for selling the subject matter. With a few drinks in you there’s every reason to expect you’ll be singing along to it yourself before long and that’s the whole point with these records after all, to start a party.


Make A Weak Man Lose His Mind
Once again we circle back to the unlikely “heroes” in this story, the executives at RCA who probably didn’t have the least bit of input into the song choices, but also didn’t stand in the way of them and were smart enough to allow Big John Greer to tackle enough diverse material in the rock genre to ensure his ongoing credibility.

Despite having an appearance, a personality and a musical background that were hardly typical for a rock act Greer has managed to carve out a space in the field by letting him focus on songs with good catchy melodies and interesting perspectives, whether it’s the guy using alcohol to ply information out of a potential eyewitness to romantic infidelity on Have Another Drink And Talk To Me or the fella he portrays here who’s using the hard stuff himself to brighten his day.

The scenes are vivid, the characters are easy to grasp and as a result the songs go down easy, probably a lot easier than the Strong Red Whiskey he champions.

We questioned his legitimacy when he first arrived on the scene because it was obvious he was being used to take advantage of a brand of music on the commercial upswing without necessarily volunteering for that duty, but despite some bumps in the road he proved to be a quick study and a hard-worker. He still may never be destined to be the star of the team, but as of late he’s moved into the starting lineup for sure.


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