APOLLO 809; JUNE 1951



Just because the commercial viability of the roaring sax instrumental in rock has diminished greatly over the past two years, that doesn’t mean it’s gone to way of the Dodo Bird, especially when there are so many saxophonists who are under contract and need to justify their recording contracts somehow.

In Bobby Smith’s case he was doubling as the bandleader for Apollo Records, thereby earning his keep by playing behind vocal acts, but since he’s already in the studio with horn in hand, what harm could it do if he played a few numbers on his own, just to keep his name in the mix.

For a guy who once patrolled the stage with the legendary jazz band of Erskine Hawkins – many of whom were playing with him now – the idea that he was now a secondary consideration at a rock and gospel based company was not always the easiest pill to swallow.


Pick A Number, Any Number
Like most record labels Apollo had different “lines” for different types of releases… that is, the numbering system they use which slotted artists in the Gospel (100-350), jazz (1000+) or the catch-all secular (360-700) lines based on their output.

However while this worked well in the 1940’s when the demarcation between styles was much clearer, once rock ‘n’ roll came around it muddied the waters. It made sense to stick those acts in the secular realm that had once housed everyone from a pre-rock Wynonie Harris to Dinah Washington, Willie Bryant, Champion Jack Dupree and The Four Blues, but they seemed uncertain of this and had a few early releases by The Larks come out in the jazz-centric 1000 series that had been home to the likes of Luis Russell and Charlie Barnet. But because they didn’t have great luck in attracting major jazz names beyond that, they had also stuck a lot of other artists in there, from comedian Morey Amsterdam to pre-rock vocal group The Four Vagabonds and even an early Dean Martin record.

But maybe their most confusing decision was to practically start a fourth line for two saxophonists, Willis Jackson and Bobby Smith, whose records appeared in the 800’s which sort of tells you they didn’t know what to do with them. Rock or jazz or even pop, they were never quite sure what they were or where they belonged and maybe with good reason.

The flip side of this, Blue Keys, is essentially pop with some jazz touches and very little of Smith himself. Instead it’s mostly a showcase for Ace Harris’s piano and while it’s classy and well played, it’s not anything that a rock fan would be interested in other than to use to calm you down after a wild night on the town listening to songs like Wee-Gee Blues which is more rambunctious and entertaining for those of us living life on the wrong side of the tracks.

It may not be anything approaching the decadent histrionics of the crudest honkers and squealers rock has produced over the last four years, but it’s still a long ways off from the stuff Smith learned while playing with Hawkins in the decade before that.


Two Sides To Every Story
Now just so you don’t get the wrong idea or think we’ve gone deaf, the opening minute here is definitely tamer and more in line with jazz-lite than rock.

Once the full horn section comes in blaring away in between piano features you’ll be frantically looking around for another song to replace this with so nobody leaves the party.

But around the 1:15 mark we get some stronger sax lines, a deeper growl in the playing and more assertive blowing than anything that preceded it which is followed by a slicing electric guitar which may not be as jagged and harsh as we’d like out of the instrument, but it’s got great tone and starts getting a little more aggressive as it goes.

But more than WHAT it plays, the fact it’s playing at all is what’s encouraging. Its appearance was never tipped off leading up to the arrival at the 1:36 mark and as such is unexpected to hear dropped in the middle of a record which had been shaping up to be a feature for brass and reeds exclusively.

That sonic diversity not only gives Wee-Gee Blues a much more interesting texture than it would’ve had without it, but also eases further away from the jazzier concept it may have started out with.

It’s still a modest adjustment in thinking, but a notable one in that Smith and company probably were inclined to pursue a more straightforward jazz-based track if left entirely to their own tastes. Yet you can’t help to think that the changing musical landscape had begun to penetrate their sensibilities and they realized that a slight change here and there might make a song that otherwise would have limited appeal to a smaller segment of the audience get a boost by tying it into a larger movement.

Granted it’s not signaling an awakening of an entirely new stylistic mindset as Smith’s saxophone returns for the closing where it seems more content to just quietly wind things down than try and ramp it up again, but at least it’s making an effort to keep up with the times.

Maybe the flirtation with rock elements and an incremental bump in aggression to highlight it in the arrangement was incidental, maybe it was even done with some reluctance, but the fact it was done at all shows that, like it or not, rock was influencing the thinking of those from other genres more than other genres were influencing rock.

Look Forward, Not Back
Ultimately a record like this was going to do nothing to improve Bobby Smith’s standing in rock ‘n’ roll, especially now that the sax revolution had died out, nor was it even going to really do much for Apollo’s reputation as an outlet for this kind of music. There’s still more jazz aesthetics in the first half than is recommended and the back half, while much better, still doesn’t go quite far enough to show its allegiance to rock ‘n’ roll.

But what Wee-Gee Blues did was at least show an openness to accepting the changes taking place in music and give some indication that those in charge of the musical directions at the record company were willing to incorporate those sounds into their work.

Maybe Bobby Smith wouldn’t get any hit records out of this shift in thinking, but any rock vocal act who walked in the doors would now could see some tangible evidence that they might be receiving more sympathetic support and consequently their chances at success may have just gotten a boost.

It’s no sure thing of course, but at least it’s a tentative step in the right direction for a label that needs to embrace the new sounds to survive rather than fight against them.


(Visit the Artist page of Bobby Smith for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)