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SPECIALTY 336; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

It’s probably not often that readers of these reviews can relate to the stories of the artists who are cutting these records. Most who land on these pages probably aren’t professional musicians themselves and even among those who do earn at least a part of their living writing, playing or singing music fewer still would be able to claim with any veracity that they are certifiable rock stars with a string of records to their credit.

Because of that the perspective of most readers who come for these reviews is that of a fan, someone interested in the music and hopefully in the artist’s story, but all viewed from the position of an outsider to that world.

But for once we have a story that most people past college age will be able to identify with since it’s something virtually all who aren’t content to lay on beaches swilling drinks while listening to music all day have to contend with at some point.

Namely: the job market.
 

 
A Lesson A Fool Won’t Understand
Those two innocuous words comprised of nine letters and countless aspirations are what professionals have to navigate much of their adult lives in order to make a living.

Though each person’s specific route is different, the basic journey is the same. When you get out of school, be it high school or college, you probably take on a number of jobs, none of which are going to define your “career”. They’ll all probably be rather short-lived and intended as such, but they’re not only getting you money to pay your bills but providing you with experience to put on a résumé.

It’s the building of your job history that’s the most important part of your journey at this point, as each position taken should be with the intention of doing something that may stand out to someone down the road. The more interesting the fields you try along the way the more interesting you become to a future employer.

But there’s a limit to this of course. Jump from one field to another, staying at each only a very short time, and it can reflect badly on your commitment or reliability which will off-set the diversity you were aiming for. If you spend too many years wandering all over the map in what you try then you no longer will be viewed as an ambitious up and comer but as an indecisive transient.

As you make your way through your twenties you try and leverage your job history to make connections, get on career paths with a chance for rapid advancement to higher positions and the higher salaries that come with it. But as always the more your specific talents are in demand the more you can demand from employers. In other words you may be looking to be hired but essentially you are selling yourself and your skills.

By the time you find a career that suits you and a company that pays well with excellent benefits with some room to move up the corporate ladder in the future, you’ve probably been on this hamster wheel for five to eight years or so and are ready to hop off, settle down and take it easy… getting paid to do what you do best in a secure and stable environment.

Until the job market changes.

It doesn’t for everybody of course and one of the keys of success is to minimize the chances of this by choosing a field that doesn’t fluctuate much, but when it does it throws your life and career into disarray, forcing you back on the market in search of something comparable to what you had thrived in for so long.

What does any of this have to do with music you ask?

Well Buddy Banks was yet another jazz saxophonist who was discovering this unfortunate fact of life out for himself first hand as the 1940’s came to a close.
 


 

Gonna Lose Your Home
Banks had been playing professionally since the mid-1930’s and while never a star in that field he was well-respected and held down posts in a variety of territory bands, working alongside future star Jack McVea in one of them. But as he was doing his best to increase his stature in the 1940’s that’s precisely when jazz’s heyday was winding down, first as a long musician’s union recording ban from 1942-1944 shifted the focus from instrumentalists to crooning vocalists in big band settings where jazz had mutated, then as the more ambitious musicians coming up began experimenting with bop which had less commercial appeal than its predecessors.

Banks had put together a good combo mid-decade (unusual in that it featured a trombone as the second lead horn rather than trumpet) which haunted Central Avenue in Los Angeles, then one of the thriving music scenes in black America. Along the way he cut some sides for a number of labels that touched upon a wide variety of styles, among them a hit backing Marion Abernathy on Voo-It! Voo-it! in 1946, credited to The Blues Woman, so neither Abernathy nor Banks got too much name recognition from it.

He dabbled in bop, did some blues ballads behind Abernathy and other female vocalists like Fluffy Hunter, cut some hopping jazz instrumentals and even a few songs that were early hints at a more rockin’ style (Banks Bang Boogie being particularly good in this regard). He even contributed the original version of a song we covered in the rock realm when done by Andrew Tibbs called Drinkin’ Ink Splink. If anything it worked better in Banks’s nightclub setting.

Because he was more than capable of handling all of these styles you’d think it’d give him plenty of opportunities, after all employers in all walks of life are looking for versatility. But in music the one place versatility was valued most was in session work and for someone still aiming to be a star himself that wasn’t in the cards for Banks.

Besides, his instrument of choice might’ve been something of a detriment even if he HAD wanted to become a sessionist, as mainstream pop was still reluctant to use saxophones for more than incidental accompaniment, preferring string sections or trumpets. Furthermore most labels specializing in jazzier tunes had a stable of musicians in similar situations as Banks on regular call, while the big name stars of course carried their own band. So either Buddy could start at the bottom again, taking sessions for fifteen bucks cash behind whatever off-key diva they pulled into the studio that day on some fly-by-night label, or he could move exclusively to club work, which while still profitable offered little opportunity for advancement without the promotional benefit of records…

Or he could try to make the jump to the one area of music that was doing more to boost the visibility of the tenor sax than any other and which was churning out a surprising number of hits doing so… namely rock ‘n’ roll.

 
You Can’t Live In This Big World All Alone
He’s not the first who’s made this move of necessity obviously, we’ve covered plenty of them to date, nor will he be the last. For most of them it was but a brief stop on their road to retirement, a temp job of sorts, something to keep your name out there, maybe pique the interest of somebody who saw your name on a record label and had an opening somewhere for a position more attuned to your preferred method of playing.

Some of those who swallowed their pride and consented to play a style they felt beneath them couldn’t fully hide their lack of enthusiasm for the job, which all but ensured they wouldn’t last long. But Buddy Banks, though he too only stayed with the firm briefly, showed on Happy Home Blues that he was more than willing to roll up his sleeves and do what was required to earn his paycheck.

Luckily for him he’s got a co-worker in singer Baby Davis to help take some of the load off his own shoulders.

Having gotten more acclaim behind Abernathy than anything, Banks was no dummy and made sure to have female vocalists to front the band on stage for a few numbers to break up the parade of instrumentals, but also to liven things up and be able to deliver some sex appeal and suggestiveness. Davis occupied that role for Banks for a few years starting with this in 1949 before going solo with no success, but what she shows on this proves she had some abilities in her own right.
 


 

But it’s still the band who’ll determine his ultimate fate in this genre, his old standbys who’ve been with him more or less through every stylistic foray along the way. By this point there seemingly wasn’t anything they hadn’t tried in a succession of short-lived jobs procured through temp agencies – a week of doing carpentry in Encino followed by moving furniture to Van Nuys on the weekend, then mercifully getting off their feet by doing some office work downtown before they were breaking their back picking oranges in the valley.

Or something like that.

Musically they traversed plenty of ground. Jazz to pop to bop and now rock ‘n’ roll, or at least reasonably close to rock, this group could convince you they’d had plenty of experience doing it all.

With Earl Knight’s piano setting not just the propulsive rhythmic trance with his left hand, but letting his right hand keep your head bobbing before a neat guitar lick by the song’s writer, Frosty Pyles, that leads into a chanted vocal riff, you’ve already heard enough to convince you to hire these guys for the night shift if nothing else.

The vocals at this juncture may be a little too orderly in what they’re trying to do which is convey some sort of enthusiasm that’s not yet justified by the music which hasn’t fully broken free of their more refined background, but while forced it’s not coming across as totally artificial and that’s a big hurdle for any jazz-rooted band to clear their first time out in a rock setting.

Davis for her part is fine when she launches into the meat of the song. Her voice is a little too high, but not by much… a little too nasal, but not so it’s distracting… a little too breathless, but not so you grow irritated by it. She’s a second string vocalist for sure, but her attitude is spot on and she’s clearly basing some of her approach on other female rock singers, from Chubby Newsom to Albennie Jones, at least in her cadences and her emphasis. She lacks their vocal strength and touch, but as long as she maintains her vitality it’ll be effective enough provided the band can match her.
 

Somebody ‘Round The Table Gonna Call Your Bluff
One of the things that Banks to date had seemed unwilling to do in all of his other songs, no matter what style they fell under, was to cut loose with some honking. Now of course music outside of rock didn’t call for that type of playing, and in some cases strongly advocated against it, but still you wondered if he had it in him to do. As long as he didn’t have the lungs of a four pack a day smoker he should be ABLE to blow up a storm, but would he have the musical commitment required to do so without reservations now that he was trying to earn a paycheck in rock ‘n’ roll.

Happily the answer is yes. His solo is self-assured and played with the appropriate grit without losing track of the melody line he’s carrying. It’s actually a better effort than we’ve seen from a lot of guys who mistake intermittent obscenity for conviction as they deliver their parts with no rhyme or reason beyond trying to hit all of the high or low notes they feel expected to.

Not so with Banks who knows his main job is still to prove a musical thread that connects the vocal sections together while at the same time breathing the much anticipated fire into the proceedings with a few timely honks. He carries those off well too, nothing too incendiary but he certainly doesn’t fall short in his efforts and it bridges Davis’s vocals nicely.

A few more nice guitar licks add some color before the chanted vocal about losing one’s home return to carry it out.

That’s the weakest part, not just the way those are delivered but the rather generic lyrics, chiding women for sleeping around. There are some good lines thrown in but there’s no real point to it all, other than needing a suitable theme to explore and grabbing onto this to hang some lyrics on. I suppose you could say it’s a reasonable facsimile of a stronger song, rather than one that other artists would be using as their model.

But all in all what they make out of Happy Home Blues is pretty good for a novice group in rock who surely are already scanning the Want Ads for a more suitable job. They don’t quite add anything of note to rock, but they show themselves more than capable of handling this kind of work, so much so that you wished they’d pursued it some more after this.
 

 
Instead Banks DID become a club act for the most part. Davis stuck with him another year but no more records followed for either, save a one-off appearance by Banks backing somebody else in 1953.

Whatever became of him after that we don’t know. The job market for jazz-reared musicians once rock ‘n’ roll went from the growing craze it was now to becoming the national mania it would be in a few years was a tough one to navigate.

Some outlets suggest he switched instruments to piano or bass and kept working clubs, others say he traveled to Europe. I’d like to think he sold his horn to the pawn shop, bought a pair of sunglasses and hit the beach to live out his days in solitude, flirting with the girls and listening to someone else play music while he ordered another margarita.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Buddy Banks for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)