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HOLIDAY 113; JANUARY 1952

 
 

 

We’re still a ways off from having an influx of white rock ‘n’ rollers arriving on the scene and changing the demographics in a big way, but we are getting closer to one who will start breaking the color line when it comes to actually making a significant musical, as opposed to purely cultural, impact.

The artist who will do so is this artist of course, but not on this record.

Still, just the re-appearance of Bill Haley on the docket shows the pull of this music, both for artists and record labels alike, as rock ‘n’ roll provided an avenue to stardom that could no longer be discounted for those who were having trouble breaking through in more conventional genres.

This effort may be just a small step towards a brighter future, but the key word found there is “effort”, as this shows that it was Haley himself who was taking aim at something he didn’t quite grasp yet but knew was out there to be had, provided he kept searching for it.
 

 

It Takes A Rockin’ Chair To Rock
Let’s not go too far in suggesting Bill Haley had the foresight to envision his road to glory just yet… for there were still plenty of signs that he was not yet ready to let go his dream of becoming a country – or hillbilly – star.

For starters the topside of this single, Juke Box Cannonball, may have a title that might seem to suggest his affinity for rock ‘n’ roll at first glance, but in reality was as country as it got, as it was an adaption of the old favorite Wabash Cannonball that merely changed the topic from a train to a means for listening to music, something that was much more likely to connect with an audience in 1952 regardless of WHICH audience we were talking about (and surely not coincidentally allowed someone to take writing credit for a song that was essentially in the public domain).

On that The Saddlemen (the group name that provided yet another indication that country music acceptance was still their aim) played up all of the traditional C&W instrumentation, from steel guitars to fiddle – played by “co-writer” Rusty Keefer – while Haley lets his hokey drawl run rampant. The song’s got a nice rhythm at least, but of course so did the original it was based on, that was its primary draw after all, but it indicates that Haley understood there was an advantage in singing uptempo foot-tappers as opposed to sticking solely with the lovesick country crooning.

The flip side, Sundown Boogie, was a different story altogether though, as it was an original composition with a clear connection to rock… or at least a white country artist’s interpretation of rock. Yet in spite of their growing interest in seeing if they could cross that wide gulf that existed between the genres, they still WERE a country band with country musicians – and country wardrobes let’s not forget – and as a result they couldn’t abandon that completely, at least not without some verifiable success to justify it.

As a result this becomes yet another bridge song of Haley’s, but unlike the last one, Green Tree Boogie, where it was more incidental and vague and thus the bridge may have been shrouded by fog, this one definitely has set its sights on the opposite shore and is trudging across the expanse, slowly but surely, seeming genuinely curious about what lies on the other side.
 


 

Everybody Boogies When The Sun Goes Down
I think it’s fair to say that each year we’ve covered is defined by a certain overall “sound” of rock ‘n’ roll, for even though there are countless stylistic differences in the records of a given year, there are very distinctive elements at play, such as the honking tenor sax of 1948, that come to define the year.

Though there’s obviously no way in hell that this record will define rock ‘n’ roll for 1952, it IS something that absolutely is the sound you’d expect for a white band trying to cut rock ‘n’ roll in 1952 without merely copying a black group’s approach down the line.

In other words Bill Haley and The Saddlemen have very methodically worked out the key attributes they need to “borrow”, namely the relentless rhythmic drive which they get with Marshall Lytle’s impressive slap bass and Haley’s chunky rhythm guitar which adds an extra layer to beat carried out by the annonymous session drummer who’s mostly clicking away. But on top of all that they add their own unique touches which no self-respecting black act would think to include, which obviously are the country instruments, namely Billy Williamson’s steel guitar and even the manner in which Johnny Grande hammers the keys in his brief piano solo which sounds like it came right out of a western saloon.

The interesting thing about Sundown Boogie is that this is the band that in a few years would shake up the world, their membership won’t change other than the hiring a permanent drummer to replace the sessionists used early on, plus the vital addition of a saxophone, but the rest of the crew, including Danny Cedrone sitting in on lead guitar, are the core musicians who’d propel Haley’s biggest hits.

The difference though is in how they play. Even Cedrone’s lead is country-tinged rather than infused with jazz or rock licks and Williamson’s steel guitar follows that up with a solo of its own which intrinsically ties it to their primary musical direction.

Then there’s the nature of Haley’s vocal, which dispenses with some of the more overt country twang he’d used in the past but still hasn’t shaken free of it entirely, particularly how he draws out the final words of each line, almost as if to reassure a skeptical audience in Stetson hats that he’s not abandoning them entirely. Of course the song itself leans into this image as well, as you can easily picture the same tune being done with a full country music effect, its subject matter full of farms, roosters and hens, being perfectly suitable for that field without changing a word.

As a result you have a hybrid record, a tentative overture to rock ‘n’ roll in a way that even his semi-reluctant cover of Rocket 88 was not, simply because this one he wrote himself, deciding which musical attributes to highlight in the arrangement and then honed the performance with the band to carry it out to those specifications.

You could call it opportunistic if you wanted, and maybe in a way it was since he’d yet to move many copies of the pure country sides and thought he might get a boost with something like this, but then again he hadn’t really made waves – and surely made a few enemies – playing watered down renditions of black rock ‘n’ roll, yet this shows that within just a few months of resisting that he not only was no longer averse to doing so, but that he was doing it on his own.
 


 

Ain’t Had No Lovin’ Since I Can’t Remember When
The question you’d have asked at the time, before their future success in rock was even a gleam in his eye, was just how successful WAS this attempt, not commercially so much as aesthetically. Was this something that was more or less a novelty or was it a clear stepping off point for something more radical and transformative?

I think the answer is neither. with this they’ve clearly moved beyond the novelty stage of their earlier endeavors and are embracing the rhythmic qualities more openly, while the vocals are no longer at risk for being viewed as condescending. But with their reluctance to fully let go of their own musical roots in another unrelated style it’s hard to tell if they were actually serious about the possibility of taking things even further down the road.

Sundown Boogie therefore represents that precise moment where the teeter-totter is in the middle of its two extremes, still unsure of which way it will come down.

There’s one scenario where they view the commercial failure of this as a sign their experiment hadn’t worked and revert back to a more authentic country sound, leaving rock ‘n’ roll for those who gave birth to it in their own insular community.

But there’s another riskier scenario in which they’d decide that if you were going to try something different it was better to not hold anything back as they do here and instead give themselves over to the rock ideals in every way possible and let the chips fall where they may.

For once we won’t have to wait long for the answer to which direction they chose, but when this was released you’d still be betting on a decided long shot if you felt they’d be full-fledged rockers before summer arrived.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
(Visit the Artist page of Bill Haley & The Saddlemen for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)