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SAVOY 741; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

The history of rock is often portrayed as a continuous line, where one thing is tied together as if with an endless rope, but maybe the more appropriate image is that of a spider web where all sorts of connections are being made at any given time.

Such is the case with this artist and this record.

Billy Wright is most frequently offered up as the direct precursor to Little Richard and while usually that influence is seen on the latter’s intense approach on ballads here we get to see some of the flamboyant full-bodied wails that Richard would amplify even further and hone to perfection down the road.

But it’s not that piano pounding rock legend who this record is most tied in with, but rather another immortal pianist… Professor Longhair, who released this same song under a different title on what is perhaps his most famous single in his own star-crossed career.
 

 

Between Midnight And Day
While I’m sure that a lot of people who are reading these reviews in order, the way they’re laid out (and best appreciated… hint, hint, for those who prefer cherry picking at random) the placement of this probably comes across as trying to be intentionally clever in that we followed up our latest Professor Longhair release with this record by Billy Wright.

If “clever” is not the word that comes to mind, maybe you’d prefer “manipulative”… or “opportunistic” at least.

But the funny thing is it wasn’t intentional at all. I laid out the April reviews beforehand based loosely, as always, on how many releases of each label were coming out this month, then after ordering those sequentially I broke them up with the rest of the tracks appearing on the schedule. This is just how it shook out and I wasn’t expecting to be able to tie the two artists in with one another.

Most of the songs are familiar enough by their title so I know what’s to come when I hit play and start thinking of how to approach it when writing about them. But After Dark Blues didn’t ring a bell at first glance and when it began playing it took only a few seconds to realize I knew this from somewhere else. The title was no help in that regard but as it went on gradually it began to work itself out and I realized the connection that was staring me in the face.

It’s known far better today as In The Night, the B-side of a killer two-sided record by Professor Longhair with the legendary Tipitina as its flip. Naturally that leads you to assume that ‘Fess merely took Wright’s song he’d heard sometime over the almost three years since this came out and reworked it for his own use.

But as it turns out the more you dig into the particulars of the song the more confusing it all becomes, which as anyone following the travails of Professor Longhair knows full well by now is par for the course.
 

Don’t Want Nobody Standing In Line
Though that version of this song didn’t get recorded and released until 1953 that didn’t mean ‘Fess hadn’t cut it before. Indeed like most of his catalog he recycled the same songs for a multitude of record labels and so it’s not surprising to find he first put this idea to wax on the eighth of September 1949 for Mercury Records under the somewhat clunky title Between The Night And Day which somehow went unreleased.

Maybe they thought it was a little disjointed for listeners to handle, as following a great almost classical piano introduction ‘Fess starts his crazed shouting which certainly is jarring if you’re not expecting such things (and since he’d had no releases for any label at that point then Mercury knew that MOST of the listening audience wasn’t expecting such things!). It’s still a helluva good performance though, showcasing a style of piano playing that is much more expansive than the calypso-flavored rhumba boogie he’d become so well known for.

More likely though the reason for it being shelved could be the two overt references to Jax Beer, a New Orleans staple, that may have caused Mercury some concern, but their loss was Billy Wright’s gain, for just two weeks later in Atlanta (September 23rd for those keeping track of such things) Wright laid down After Dark Blues – same song, same lyrics (minus the Jax Beer advertisements that is) but with a more streamlined sound that was even more explosive as a total package than anything ‘Fess did with it before OR after under any name.

Now both claimed writing credit for it but as we know in the past each had gotten credit for songs that already came out in earlier forms for others, so you can’t read anything into that. But what’s MORE interesting, especially considering neither was touring yet, was how they both happened to have the same song in their arsenals in shockingly similar readings.

Whatever the answer is, Billy Wright defiantly lays claim to the song which proves to be a perfect fit for his wild extroverted persona.
 


 
 

Let’s Have A Good Time!
The record charges out of the gate like a wild stallion, horns braying like mad, throwing off its rider in the process while bucking like crazy. The piano player reins it in just enough by zeroing in on the treble keys to start with and once he’s got your attention he lets his left hand establish the rhythm until everything is back under control, relatively speaking anyway, at which point Wright jumps in and gets it all worked up again.

His remarkably sinewy tenor voice always has edges to it rather than rounded corners, and as a result it comes across as sharp and glinting in the studio lights instilling his vocals with the thrill of imminent danger. On After Dark Blues he exploits that trait to its fullest potential, each line searing into your consciousness until you feel as though you’ve been aurally assaulted, yet he’s not chastising you or wailing in pain for some transgression committed by another, he’s welcoming you to an endless party, presumably the one which has already broken out on the studio floor.

As he transitions into the instrumental break with an extended cry that blends into the saxophone, the horn warmly pulling you in with equal parts seduction and titillation, you lose any hope of getting your bearings and instead just ask for a refill of whatever poison concoction you’ve been drinking in the hopes your physical senses will soon catch up to the mental drunkenness the performance is creating in everyone who comes in contact with it.

There’s no refinement to be found here, though you could hardly call it crude for the band is tight and mostly under control even though they’re not holding anything back. I’m sure if they had tried to tone it down Wright would’ve cajoled, threatened or forced them at gunpoint to keep driving into the sonic storm he was creating with his vocals.

He may be singing about the promise of nocturnal bliss – and by all means read into that any definition you want, be it sexual, emotional, pharmaceutical or merely the shedding of your daytime responsibilities to work, school, family and decorum – but he sounds like he’s trying to light up the night sky in the process. He holds his note on the word “daaaahhh-rrrrrrrrrkkkk” each time through as if it owed him money and he was determined not to let it slip from his grasp.

It’s an electrifying performance, one coming perilously close to being completely unhinged without ever quite crossing that line, and as a result you’re sure to feel worn out just listening to him. Yet in spite of the frantic pace and vocal fireworks you aren’t too exhausted for another go-round because if anything the record is too short to contain all of the mayhem he’s promising and so after just two and a half minutes of heart-stopping action you crave even more.
 

Jukebox Swaying When You Get Near
The earlier uptempo rock sides from the late 1940’s had certainly been energetic in comparison to the non-rock output of pop, jazz, blues and country that it was competing with, thereby allowing it to stand out at the time, but in retrospect it’s understandable those records may come across as a little underwhelming to modern ears.

After all, once you’ve heard Little Richard’s orgasmic screaming on countless records by the mid-1950’s it’s not easy to readjust your thinking to accept something more modest in its hellbent aims when exploring further back, even if those records were considered anything BUT calm and controlled when they came along.

But here’s where the break starts to become more noticeable and the connections to what is to follow start falling into place in explicit fashion.

This is the type of uninhibited sound that previously only the madmen of the saxophone in rock have consistently reached and while there were some vocal bombardiers to be seen circling the sky, none so far have quite seemed so gleeful about their search and destroy mission as Billy Wright does on After Dark Blues.

Which brings us back to the role records played in this revolution and why, even with as much scrupulous detail we bring to examining each one, they remain just a part of the story… an important part, but not the whole lurid tale.

The type of nitro-fueled attitude Wright shows here was something which he largely kept under wraps on record, whether for reasons of artistic timidity or simply the commercial realities of the day which may have viewed such startling displays of sheer vocal bedlam as too shocking for widespread consumption.

But it’s obvious that he was used to unleashing this kind of over-the-top showcase on stage, for how else would he have such a firm grasp on its requirements when he’d only been in a recording studio once prior to this?

Hearing this record you start to get SOME idea why Little Richard called him “the most fantastic performer he’d ever seen”… note the word “performer”, which insinuates a live and in person reaction. All contemporary accounts seem to back this up, he was dynamic on stage and while his records certainly don’t lack for excitement, drama and skill it stands to reason there has to be some tangible difference, not just for him but all artists, as to how much further they went to put on a show for a raucous crowd.
 


 

Everybody’s Gonna Get Real Frisky In The Dark
That’s the most interesting – and elusive – question in trying to make sense of rock’s backstory, one which can never be fully answered now that these figures from those days are all gone… What exactly was the atmosphere like in those clubs and dances and what limits of musical propriety were being shattered on stage in an effort to incite a riot… or to quell one after it began?

Similarly, what type of interactions did Professor Longhair and Billy Wright share, either directly or indirectly where songs like After Dark Blues were covertly exchanged like money and moonshine or drugs passing between hands deep in the shadowy recesses behind the out of the way clubs that were holding these decedent musical and social maelstroms that defined rock’s earliest years?

Lastly what other previously unspoken influences did the next generation of artists like Little Richard draw from those shows lost to time that aren’t apparent on the studio takes that were cut and sold for a different mindset than the one which clearly reigned on a Saturday night in the sticks where guys like Billy Wright really plied their trade far away from the disapproving glares of a record industry that sought to profit from, but not always condone, the sometimes watered down interpretations of a much wilder scene than we’ll ever have access to ourselves?

If this record is any indication the shock waves rock produced on wax may have been just a tremor compared with feeling the impact at ground zero.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Billy Wright for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)