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KING 4271; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

Tired of reading nothing but boring analysis of something as frivolous as rock ‘n’ roll music here on Spontaneous Lunacy?

I don’t blame you, but fear not because today we have something REALLY exciting to delve into instead… the exhilarating world of government census statistics on the workforce population of the late 1940’s.

I know, you can hardly contain your enthusiasm!

Go ahead, I’ll let you catch your breath, give you time to call your friends and then we can do away with discussing hedonistic music and focus on having some REAL fun around here for a change. So break out your pencils, slide rules and calculators and let the party begin!!!
 

Hipped To The Score
In 1948 and 1949 women made up just under 30% of the civilian labor force in America with a little over 17 million females employed across the country. Just for contrast, today the gender ratio is nearer to 50/50 with 73 million women holding jobs.

In the late forties 42% of ladies between 16-24 were working but as they entered their prime child rearing years that number dropped to 32%, climbing slightly after they reached 35 years old by which time Mom had enough of the snotty little brats and out of exasperation gave more of them free reign to run amuck and let the authorities handle them if they got too far out of hand.

Men, as is usually the case, used those years to hide in their offices and spent weekends playing golf with the higher ups to advance their careers, or took long business trips to avoid dealing with the hassles of home and family altogether.

Ahhh, the good ol’ days!

But this was the mindset of that era in general, the woman’s place was in the home and while the war years had given women entry into the workforce out of necessity, once men returned from overseas their wives were expected to return to the kitchen.

Thanks for building the airplanes and the bazookas for us to win the war, honey, now can you make me some stewed chicken and dumplings for dinner, I’m a hungry man!

Ladies weren’t pleased with the thought of this “demotion” and consequently society as a whole was having a tough time coming to grips with the potential emancipation of women, but it was still a long way from coming to fruition.

In November, 1948 the Saturday Evening Post, then one of the premier weekly magazines in the country, had a cover illustration that showed women in line at a grocery store buying the food for the week while hauling the kids around with them while one of the headlines for the stories within asked Do Women Make Good Doctor’s?, as if the years of bandaging their kids wounds, tending to their ills and nursing their hung-over husbands without any specialized training didn’t already answer that question. The whole issue seemed to be both a joke on those doubting the competency of women to juggle multiple tasks as well as an indictment on the division of labor itself in the American family, but the fact is few families at the end of the Nineteen Forties questioned such standards.

Now whether those ladies in our readership are more interested in making dinner or making money, I’m not here to judge, but all of this ties in to rock ‘n’ roll when it comes to the even larger gender disparity in the ranks of its vocalists. For all of rock’s groundbreaking, forward thinking, revolutionary assertion of racial empowerment it was well behind other musical styles when it came to gender equality.
 

Sing For Your Supper
Though there were comparatively few females in the upper echelon of the business world and they lagged behind in the general workforce as well, the one area where ladies seemed to face little discrimination was in music. Mainstream pop had loads of female vocalists on par with the men, from The Andrews Sisters, Patti Page, Margaret Whiting, Kay Starr, Doris Day, Peggy Lee. Jazz was no different with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan perhaps the three greatest vocalists in the genre regardless of gender. Gospel had a stage full of great female stars from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marion Williams, Clara Ward, Dorothy Love Coates and Mahalia Jackson. You even had women popularizing foreign music with Carmen Miranda and Edith Piaf.

Even blues, often considered to be the roughest of the major genres of music, had been launched in the 1920’s as a commercial power by Mamie Smith, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and then in the 1940’s the likes of Memphis Minnie and Little Miss Cornshucks joined the ranks as some of the most enduring acts on the scene. If you want more of a hybrid sound, a little bit blues, a little bit jazz with a smattering of pop sensibilities that’s where women really dominated the field in the 1940’s with Dinah Washington, Helen Humes, Lil Green, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher, Camille Howard and Mabel Scott as some of the most versatile stars and consistent hitmakers.

But rock ‘n’ roll for some reason was slow to open up the door to female artists. You had Albennie Jones around from the very start, Annie Laurie followed right on her heels, but both of them had experience elsewhere and merely fit best in rock. Chubby Newsom would became the first female to score a rock hit in late February 1949 when her record from this past November, Hip Shakin’ Mama inched its way onto the Billboard charts. Later this year we’ll see our first two major female rock stars emerge (no peaking ahead to find out who). Yet for rock’s entire first DECADE, though they’ll be joined by a handful of other short-lived hitmakers, there will be only one additional full-fledged STAR to join them.

In other words while rock ‘n’ roll was often the sound of liberation, it was decidedly NOT the sound of women’s lib until the 1960’s.

The one name who pre-dated that eventual breakthrough, who by all rights should’ve been the equal of anybody, male or female, was Big Maybelle, yet as we’ve seen twice so far and will see again here, despite her unquestioned vocal skills – both the voice itself and how to use it – she too struggled far too long to make any headway.
 

Have To Tough It
All of Maybelle’s songs released on King in 1948/49 were cut in December 1947 over three sessions when the label – like every other company – was stockpiling sides before the recording ban hit. She was backed by a stellar crew including Tom Archia and Hal Singer on saxes, Hot Lips Page on trumpet and blues star Lonnie Johnson on guitar. Yet despite the star wattage on these sides none of the material lives up to the talent involved and it’s made even weaker by uncertain aims in the direction it should take.

The interesting question (and sadly one we can’t answer) is what was this cause of this indecision in terms of their stylistic direction? Was it the fact that King Records itself was only just branching out beyond the country music and more mainstream black jazz-pop hybrids they’d done up to this point and weren’t sure which way to head?

It could be. Certainly the rushed nature of all of these sessions meant that there was no time to work anything out in advance and plot their strategy as to where to position her stylistically. During that final month artists were sent into studios on conveyor belts around the clock in order to get as much material on wax as humanly possible before New Year’s Day hit so there was simply no time to do more than push her in front of a microphone and hope for the best.

It could also be that the divergent backgrounds of those stellar musicians meant that with such limited time each one fell back on what they did best, thereby pulling the songs in different directions, none of which happened to be the direction Maybelle herself was headed, let alone the one best suited for her talents.

But could it also be simply that nobody there, from the producers on down, quite knew what to DO with a female singer in a realm where there were virtually no earlier models to refer to in order to see what might work.

On Little Miss Muffet the problems are all too obvious, starting with the song’s nursery rhyme source which hardly gives Maybelle much to work with going in. It condescending and hardly effective for any field and what’s more this wasn’t the first time they tried this juvenile approach with her either.

Her debut Sad And Disappointed Jill was based loosely on the Jack & Jill (as in “went up the hill”) plot device with predictable results, while the B-side to her last record (Indian Giver, which we didn’t bother covering after delving into the more appropriately themed A-side Too Tight Mama) was a similarly childish idea based on topics more suited for 3rd graders than an earthy adult firebrand like Maybelle.

Is it that everybody involved were simply viewing females in this realm to be something of a novelty to male listeners, or were they perhaps intimidated by her power and felt the need to take some of the edge off to perhaps tone her down? But this seemed to be a problem only she faced, and the fact that she’s the lone female representative on their roster one has to ask if she would be faced with the same issues if she were a male.

I think the answer is pretty clear. King Records has had plenty of male rock records to date and a quick check of their releases to date shows that none of them had source material from Mother Goose!

Upon seeing the song she was asked to deliver it’s surprising Maybelle didn’t wrap the microphone stand around the producer’s neck. Instead, like women were expected to do at the time in all walks of life, she gritted her teeth and gamely tackled it, knowing full well they probably expected her to serve up a five star dinner out of this can of Spam.

 

 

The Spider Is Paid To Keep The Flies Away
Page kicks it off with a decent enough horn fanfare followed by Johnson’s stinging guitar-licks giving you the hope that the title is a misnomer at best. When Maybelle enters it’s with definite authority, as if she’s trying to almost divert your attention away from WHAT she’s singing to simply how she sounds while she’s singing it.

For the first stanza she succeeds in that regard, making the hokey twisting of the fable sound almost leering and dangerous. But it can’t last, at least not with the lyrics she’s handed to deliver. The song assumes you know the gist of the rhyme’s origins and that your subconscious memory will paint a fuller picture for you while the song attempts to tweak it and come up with something slightly new.

But because it sticks to the basic framework of childish gibberish involving spiders and flies and what not, the “joke”, thus the whole pull of the song, is taking THAT character and placing her in the modern world with shiny new Packard convertibles and carousing men who are after her tuffet or something.

Not surprisingly it’s clumsy and hackneyed, they’ve taken a singer who can deliver a take-no-prisoners approach, a hip chick who’s been around the block and they try to awkwardly keep that persona intact while making her spout lines a seven year old couldn’t pull off with any conviction. She’s asked to be both worldly and naïve and the conflict is too much for anyone to bear. By the end she sounds positively embarrassed by it all.

Making matters worse is the use of Page for extended trumpet obbligatos in the midst of all of this. Now Page was a tremendous musician whose heyday as sort of a junior league Louis Armstrong in perception was coming to a close. He turned to sessions to boost his income and stature again but because the musical eras were changing around him he’d wind up on many tracks where his own sensibilities were at odds with either the rest of the band, the singer or the material.

Here it’s all three. His lines are lacking any vitality by their very nature and instead of being able to mask the weakness of the song itself by spirited playing, making it a lighthearted romping farce that was suggestive by its mere exuberance, he contributes to its dirge-like atmosphere until all you can do is focus on the words.

When Johnson finally steps in during its extended instrumental break things improve somewhat as he cuts a wide swath with his electric guitar, but he’s a blues musician, albeit with some legit jazz chops, and while a great technician his approach isn’t aligned with what’s emerging in rock and thus he brings this into yet another realm that Maybelle herself doesn’t step foot in.

The whole thing winds up being a mess stylistically and nothing anybody can do short of pulling the plug would save it.
 

No Fairy Tale Endings
As with her other sides you can hardly blame Maybelle for any of this. Her brief time at King Records may have indeed showed her voice was to be envied but it’s doubtful anyone in the public or the industry itself bothered listening long enough to see past the dross she was saddled with and the ill-suited accompaniment (in terms of approach anyway) to pick her out as a diamond in the rough.

Rock itself, and King Records in particular, would continue to suffer for the lack of female representation over the next dozen years or so, arguably the one serious shortcoming in their own impressive legacy and perhaps the very thing that kept them from beating Atlantic Records for the top spot amongst all independent rock labels of the 1950’s. Remember, diversity is always a good thing and that one shortcoming cost them in retrospect, robbing them of a broader scope to bolster their historical impact.

But King Records was hardly alone in this regard at time or in the years since. The huge gender disparity in rock, even today (though time has lessened the gap some), is hard to fathom especially since those who’ve refused to be denied their spot on center stage (Aretha Franklin, Madonna, The Supremes, Janet Jackson, et. all) take a back seat to virtually no one in terms of accomplishments.

Maybe it’s the male ego that bristles when having to compete, and thus possibly lose, on an even playing field to the fairer sex. Perhaps it’s the perpetually insecure 14 year old boy lurking inside virtually all male rock fans who can’t bring themselves to openly idolize and revere a woman in a field that they use as a surrogate voice for their own thoughts, views and attitudes.

Or maybe – in the 1940’s anyway – it’s just that too many in rock ‘n’ roll circles were still thinking of females only in terms of mothers, housewives or office secretaries meant to be flirted with and couldn’t fathom placing them in any other role, let alone one which gave them a chance to beat them at their own game.

And so Mabel Smith would have to wait five years between recording sessions while the entire musical style took shape without her involvement, but when she returned in 1952 as the newly christened Big Maybelle it was with a vengeance.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Big Maybelle for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)