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SAVOY 715; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The chances of an artist scoring a Top Ten hit on their debut record is pretty slim if we go by the numbers. The chances of them scoring TWO Top Ten hits on that debut record, landing both the A and B side in the upper reaches of the charts, is rarer still… as in Billy Wright is the only one to have done so in rock thus far.

What then were the chances that the next record would be done in a shockingly different way and be just as good besides? Surely that would be pushing the odds to the breaking point.

Well it turns out this one didn’t score big – though it wasn’t helped by the fact Savoy didn’t even promote it, choosing instead to keep pushing his first record in ads – and consequently Wright didn’t leap to the forefront of the entire rock movement as he seemed poised to do. Instead he’d be just a steadily reliable artist with a few more hits down the road, plenty of influence and then, like so many others, largely forgotten over the years.

So the fact that this record wasn’t a hit might have some questioning his decision to head in another direction stylistically, away from the tormented ballads that had connected his first time out in favor of something arrousingly uptempo, maybe even deeming it a colossal mistake.

But far from being a misjudgment, an indefensibly bad move, or a boneheaded ploy to fuck with the formula this record might just be – more than any actual hit mind you – the best indication that rock ‘n’ roll was going to take over the world in short order.
 

 

Flag My Train
The legendary Count Basie once said that “Jazz is an art of the young… The progressive voice of change will always fall chiefly in the hands of the young”.

Ironically though, while that might’ve been true at one point, it no longer was by 1949, let alone the late 1970’s when Basie uttered those words. In fact it was the next generation of young up and coming musicians turning away from jazz by the mid-1940’s which doomed it commercially, at least compared to the lofty perch it held in the pre-war years when Basie came of age. The Count had been playing professionally since the 1920’s and contributed as many great songs in jazz over the years as anyone, but the general rule of thumb in all music at the time, whether jazz, blues or pop, was that your biggest stars releasing the most enduring hits were in their thirties.

The reasons for this are somewhat vague. Maybe it was that record labels were aiming at middle aged audiences and so they felt middle aged artists had the most intrinsic appeal. Or perhaps it was a form of meritocracy and society bestowed that honor on those who’d been in the business awhile and thus were deemed to have paid their dues and earned their lofty stature. Maybe the most logical reason was simply that in jazz, with their reliance on larger bands, the more innovative younger musicians were hired as merely part of a big ensemble and didn’t get a chance to make a name for themselves right away because they were just a small cog in a big wheel. It’d take time to make their presence known and build enough of a reputation to have the opportunity to set out on their own and attract other musicians to join them.

But then again this was hardly confined to jazz, as the same trend was certainly true in pop music as well. In the fall of 1949 the biggest pop star was unquestionably Frankie Laine, a relative newcomer (scoring his first hit two years earlier), but he was already 36 years old! His most robust competition was made up of the indefatigable Bing Crosby who was 46, while among other contenders for the crown Vaughn Monroe was 38, Perry Como was 37 and even Frank Sinatra who just a few years earlier was a bobby-sox idol was about to turn 34. Only Vic Damone, who scored a #1 hit in September, was a legitimate kid at 21.

But now look at rock ‘n’ roll. Larry Darnell, Andrew Tibbs, Big Jay McNeely, Goree Carter, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, Little Willie Littlefield, Charlie Singleton, Floyd Dixon and Mr. Google Eyes were all as young or younger than Damone and even though there were older veterans scattered amongst them – Wynonie Harris and Todd Rhodes – the majority of the rock roster was comprised of those 25 and younger including its founder Roy Brown and its biggest star to date in Amos Milburn, plus most members of The Orioles who were the hottest vocal group.

In other words rock ‘n’ roll was unquestionably music of the young and this is arguably – I’d say unarguably, but I suppose everything can at least be debated – the primary reason why rock in all of its many forms over the years never relinquished its position at the forefront of musical culture once it took hold. It attracted young artists which in turn attracted young listeners, never allowing it to grow stale and outdated.

For a comparison let’s go back to Count Basie and jazz, the style of music which had preceded rock as the most cutting edge commercially viable movement. Basie himself had been thirty-three when he released what is surely his most iconic record, One O’Clock Jump in 1937, not an old man obviously but hardly a kid anymore either. By then the sound of jazz had become mainstream and with it they attracted an older audience.

I don’t mean an ancient gray haired listener, but the thinking at the time was adults were the most desirable audience to have, both because they were presumed to have the most dollars to spend on records, but also because jazz was nightclub entertainment and to enter clubs and buy expensive dinners and drinks you had to be an adult.

Did kids dig it at the time? Sure they did, because it was really good, frequently exciting music, but you can’t help but notice that while jazz had a huge influx of legendary artists enter the scene in its formative years of the 1920’s, as well as during its initial commercial takeover in the 1930’s, by the 1940’s the “new” artists making headway were not able to displace those earlier artists as the most bankable stars. This proved to be the beginning of its slow decline. By 1949 the biggest jazz stars were largely the same names that had been the biggest stars in 1939 – Basie, Hampton, Ellington, Goodman… or the biggest of 1929 for that matter in Louis Armstrong.

True, those guys were all still top flight artists capable of great music but they were your parents idols and for the younger generation that’s just not going to cut it. Everybody needs someone they feel connected to because THEY discovered them first, and in jazz, as in pop, not to mention country, blues and most non-rock styles, it was the older established artists who sold best, who shaped the sound and still set many of the trends. Even the bebop stars which daringly took jazz in a new direction stylistically were all around thirty years old by 1949.

For years there had been no viable alternative to that overarching veteran presence in music but with rock ‘n’ roll suddenly there was one. That’s why you see someone like Big Jay McNeely eschewing jazz for rock, or Goree Carter refusing to cut blues tunes as he’d initially been expected to… why be forced to be seen as an apprentice in a form dominated by older acts when instead you could be the leader in a new style and set your own course.

That was rock’s genius, unintentional though it may have been – by becoming an outlet for younger artists who were impatient to make their mark the music cultivated a young audience. Each successive generation then forcibly overthrew the tastes of the prior rock audience once those fans grew up and moved on, their newfound adult responsibilities keeping them from following music with the same fervor they’d shown a few years earlier, thereby keeping the entire genre the domain of youth.
 

Rocks Me With A Steady Roll
Now that long diversion might have you think I didn’t really have much to say about Billy Wright or this record and was looking to simply fill in space.

Think again.

Wright was a kid himself and he too had chosen rock as the platform to showcase his vocal talents to the world. Like most kids he was confident and headstrong and so for his follow-up to his hits he didn’t just stick to the sound that had gotten him his chance to begin with, that of the emotional balladry, but instead tried something else. With Billy’s Boogie Blues he shows once again how ahead of his time he was.
 


 
 
Today Wright is known, if he’s known at all that is, as one of Little Richard’s biggest influences, something mostly attributed to their similarity in delivering ballads. But here Wright shows that his influence extended to uptempo songs as well because this is astonishingly similar to early faster paced sides by Richard from his days on RCA and Peacock before he had fully discovered what worked best for him. But what is abundantly clear is how well this style works for Billy Wright.

With its rolling piano and horn intro Billy’s Boogie Blues has built-in momentum to it before Wright even opens his mouth. Though the horn section is a little stale in its construction and approach, the riff itself fits in with the arrangement even if you wish it relied more on saxophones than trumpets to make its point.

But it’s really the storming piano which sets the tone for this, perhaps also helping to immediately conjure up the future work of Mr. Penniman, but seeing as how in 1949 nobody outside of his own family knew of Little Richard what you hear in this simple boogie sounds fresh, invigorating and absolutely intoxicating.

When Billy comes into the picture his supple tenor voice is both exuberant and measured, showing plenty of enthusiasm and confidence but self-aware enough to keep it under control in order to sell the lyrics, which are essentially one long boast about his appeal to the ladies. Though Wright was gay it’s impossible not to believe what he’s saying here. The danger in bragging about yourself, even if what you’re claiming is true, is always that you come off as insecure because you feel the need to announce it to the world. The truly confident don’t have to talk up their abilities because… well, why would they have to, it’d be obvious to everyone without you saying a word.

So by declaring that you’re irresistible you’ve placed yourself in the precarious position of being above the listener and while audiences may look up to artists in theory they generally don’t want to be reminded that they ARE looking up to them. This is made even more overt by the fact that Wright is actually addressing unnamed parties, which by virtue of the pronoun “you” can be taken to mean the audience, when he cries ”If that’s your woman you better chain her by your side/If she flags my train I’m sure gonna let her ride”.

Them is usually fightin’ words, but in this instance they’re not. In fact, you’re more apt to grin at his audacity than get upset at his inference and the reason for this is because he’s so casual and nonchalant about his appeal, as if it were obvious to one and all. Wright’s not chest-thumping to prove himself as much as he’s just unable to contain his excitement for being a newfound star with all of its accompanying perks and who can’t identify with that type of pride?
 


 

Saves My Mellow Soul
The music helps to keep the joy apparent throughout and although the main horn parts behind him are a little behind the times the same can’t be said for the sax solo that comes along to bring it fully up to date.

Starting with a long droning note in its lowest register it quickly takes off and climbs the ladder, riffing infectiously, tossing in a few grunts, then more squeals, all while the drummer bashes away behind him.

It’s not a mind-blowing solo by any means and there are plenty of rockers we could name – and in fact have named earlier in this very piece – who could’ve improved on it with even more raunchiness, but it has exactly the right frame of mind for the song. It’s not looking to steal the spotlight away from Wright but rather simply contribute to the zeal of the entire package.

A perfect balance in other words, where each component is used to maximum effect leaving no weak spots in the record to slog through before you return to whatever else you found most appealing. Here everything is on the same page, sung and played with the same level of enthusiasm so it becomes a seamless record, one that immediately tells you what to expect with that rousing opening and then keeps that fervor hitting on all cylinders throughout the record by utilizing different elements in much the same way in order to reach the same goal.

As a record Billy’s Boogie Blues is a killer, but on stage I imagine it’d have made an even bigger impression. Thrown in the middle of a string of downhearted laments this would energize any room, or – as I’m guessing was the case due to the wild refrain that closes it out wherein Billy is shouting ”Byyyyyye-bye, bye-bye, baby, bye-bye” – as a closer to his set, maybe before the intermission break, it’d send people racing for another drink in a state of euphoria.

Wright had now shown he was no one-trick pony, that he could handle any mood required of him and even if these lyrics are sort of cribbed from other songs, in a non-specific sort of way… well, so be it, it doesn’t make them any less effective, especially for such a crowd pleasing performance.
 


 

Come And See Me Sometime
Let’s wrap this up by bringing this all back to the jazz dissertation that opened the review and which by the way should not under any circumstance be construed as a negative critique on that music… far from it actually. What it does show however is the need of musical genres to regenerate in order to remain viable.

Reverence for older established performers is fine in moderation but it doesn’t sustain a style moving forward. Count Basie may arguably have had the best band in jazz in 1937, in 1947… and even in 1957 for that matter. He didn’t remain stagnant musically, in fact he changed with the times better than most, going from small groups to large and back to small in accordance with the hot trends and he mastered them all. But he was still Count Basie and when you’ve been around that long at the top of your game what sense of discovery can there be for a young music fan in artist who was first discovered and embraced by the public before you were even out of the womb?

In order for new stars to emerge they have to vanquish the old, even if they learned a lot from them and admire them personally and professionally, that’s just the way of the world.

When Little Richard finally hit big in 1955 he did so NOT by imitating Billy Wright, as he’d been doing for a few years when trying to find what worked best for him, but rather he succeeded only when he blew that prototype to pieces.

Whoever had first inspired Billy Wright to lift his voice and sing was now in the process of being discarded from his DNA as well and in the process the music is allowed to move forward into new frontiers, the way it should be.

A little lesson in the theories of scientific evolution as shown through something as crude as rock ‘n’ roll.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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