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SELECTIVE 106; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

What better place to have an impromptu geography lesson than a rock history blog?

I’m sure you all agree because after all when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll there’s hardly any place on earth it hasn’t reached.

While rock began in New Orleans in 1947 it had rapidly spread to all corners of America by mid-1949. Indeed even certain regional tastes had gone national by now, as vocal groups which began their climb in the East Coast were now seeing West Coast reinforcements joining their ranks, while sound of the laconic piano players who’d risen to popularity in the Southwest had seen their fame spread eastward over the past year.

One sound in particular though seemed to know no bounds from the start and that was the tenor sax and by now there was hardly a region of the country that hadn’t contributed someone eager to blow up a storm in the name of rock ‘n’ roll anarchy. To that list of aspiring rock saxophonists you can add the name Bumps Myers, a former jazz sideman who was born in Williamsburg, Virginia but who had lived in Los Angeles since childhood.

Where someone was born and where they grew up might not normally mean much but because the title of his second single is named after Memphis of all places, a city seemingly still unconnected to all of this hub-bub and which was situated in the middle of the country, 875 miles from Myers’ birth city and 1,792 miles from his (and his label’s) home in California it makes the decision a rather curious one.

Was this some move to bring a vital hub of the Mid-South into the fold in order to solidify rock’s growing presence in the country, or was it merely a random name that signified absolutely nothing other than it sounded fairly intriguing to those tasked with naming songs with no lyrics to draw from to help them with their task?

We may never know.
 

 

Mapping Out A Future
If our interest in deciphering the reason for this record’s title is a legitimate one based on the fact it IS rather inexplicable at first glance considering the artist in question (as opposed to being just a way for us to have a fairly clever lead-in to the review), then at least we have another potential clue… albeit without a definitive answer to this one either.

The songwriter of Memphis Hop is Mitchell “Tiny” Webb who is a familiar sight for those who’ve been with us from the start.

Webb is a guitarist by trade and a prolific sessionist who had one release thus far under his own name back in May with Billboard Special, a very good instrumental.

Unfortunately when doing the research for Webb’s biography there wasn’t much information on him to be found other than the fact he died young. We know he was based professionally in and around Los Angeles but of course that doesn’t mean that he began life in Southern California. For instance when looking at some of the artists he played with Floyd Dixon came from Marshall, Texas originally while Crown Prince Waterford was born in the kingdom of Arkansas. In other words those aren’t native Los Angelinos either and so who was to say that Webb himself was from the area to begin with.

More to the point, might Tiny Webb have been from Memphis?

It could be and if so then mystery solved. Admittedly it’s not a mystery that has much of a payoff in the big scheme of things no matter what the answer was, but considering that rock ‘n’ roll would soon find its way to the city along the Mississippi River, then it’s at least noteworthy in that regard, acting as sort of an advance notice that another crucial port would soon be dealing in these goods.
 

Just Who’s Record IS This Anyway?
Regardless of your interest in the meaning behind the title itself, Webb is the key figure in this record, even more so than Bumps Myers.

On Myers’ first release on Selective back in May, Bumpin’ With Bumps, Webb played only a very minor part, adding discreet shadings behind the final shared refrain played by Myers and another horn. Essentially it was Myers show through and through with the most prominent support coming from a fairly nondescript piano filling in the cracks.

Here though on Memphis Hop Tiny Webb is an equal presence, a co-lead in fact, which probably isn’t surprising since he wrote the song and it’s doubtful he was writing the horn parts beyond just saying “and here’s where you take the lead”.

As the record starts Webb is just in the background, adding a few accent notes to the fast-churning riff carried by the horns and egged on by the piano. Before we’re twenty seconds in though Tiny jumps to the forefront with the first solo as the piano dances about at full throttle behind him.

Keep in mind that at this point in rock’s evolution guitar solos were still quite rare. Maybe not as rare as hen’s teeth (as a colorful saying goes) but they’re not a frequent occurrence so Webb is essentially painting on a blank canvas. The fear of course is that he’d take things easy, in part because of the lack of precedents for anything too outrageous, but also because it’s somebody else’s record, not his own. A sessionist, even one as well-regarded as Webb, probably wouldn’t want to risk upending Myers’s chances at success by being too ostentatious, songwriter or not. Since Webb had gotten his own recording contract recently then if he wanted to go further out on a limb himself he had the opportunity to do so where it’d be his body hurtling through the air to the ground below if he went overboard, not somebody else’s that he sent crashing to his musical doom.

Yet Webb doesn’t heed that caution sign and instead lays down a solo that combines technical precision with a sense of surging excitement. What stands out most is the sound he’s coaxing from the strings which is – for lack of a better term – “more modern” than a lot of the guitar-work we’ve heard from others to date. Essentially he’s using a really flexible tone, one that shifts seamlessly between runs rather than abruptly jumps from one to the next, giving it a sense of fluidity that most rock guitarists would emulate in the years to come.

As such it doesn’t have the jaggedness of some of the solos we’ve heard from Goree Carter or Pete Lewis which were more ferocious by nature, nor does it possess the hollower tone of someone like Harry Crafton that made his fretwork seem slightly more primitive, such as on Saturday Night Boogie.

Webb might be sticking with a somewhat controlled aggression here but that stands out in comparison to what someone like Tiny Grimes had given us over these past few months. Though arguably the most renowned of the rock guitarists with a luiquidy smooth sound, Grimes’ four string model instrument and jazz background conspired to keep his work leaning towards discretion more often than not. Webb by contrast is intent on raising the stakes, emphasizing the melodic virtues of the guitar without sacrificing the edge of your seat exhilaration it would specialize in over the instrument’s subsequent lifespan.
 

The Honkers Have Their Say
But any thought that Webb has completely wrested control of the record away from its credited artist is quickly proven to be false as he steps aside without complaint to let Myers take the helm on tenor sax for the second soloing spot.

Now considering that in 1949 it was the tenor sax, not the electric guitar, which was rock’s showpiece instrument, this wasn’t likely met with any disgust by listeners, nor by those paying Myers to cut records, not give away the meat of the song to a salaried employee as Webb was surely viewed as being.

But just because he was entrusted as the featured performer doesn’t mean that Myers, a seasoned jazz vet with twenty years experience playing behind such names as Jimmie Lunceford and Benny Goodman, would be up to the task of convincingly following Webb’s lead and matching his propulsive excitement. He’d done well the last time we’d heard him on Bumpin’ With Bumps but he still mostly kept the sound reined in while doing so and that approach just wouldn’t cut it here.

Thankfully Myers is more than up to the job at hand, playing a much more intense passage than the one which Webb ended his standalone spot with. The saxophone’s tone is gritty and full-bodied… the sound of determination in the face of physical strain. Since this marks the second time in as many rock sides that he’s managed to convey this brand of sinewy strength it removes any doubt skeptics would’ve had regarding his commitment to delivering on the seedier elements of rock ‘n’ roll.

Unfortunately though he’s too democratic in his role as the leader of the band, for just when the song is hitting its emotional peak he hands off his solo to the baritone saxophonist who apparently wasn’t told beforehand he’d be making a cameo appearance, or maybe he wasn’t even informed of the type of material they’d be playing. Either that or he’s recovering from a recent bout with rheumatic fever as he starts wheezing along at a pace that is far too slow and with a discernible lack of power. In fact he seems to be unable to even get his breath at times, spitting out staccato notes without conviction until he nearly collapses and had he been allowed to continue for much longer he might’ve taken Memphis Hop down with him.

The others mercifully return, shaking free of their embarrassment that their bandmate was so inept, and with Myers riffing along (joined by the offending baritone who manages to regain some composure now that he’s out of the white hot glare of the spotlight) it’s left to Tiny Webb and his power-packed guitar to revive the song’s listless body with a consistent run of his own that at least gets it breathing again but even he can’t completely reverse the effects of that ill-begotten interlude.

As Myers takes over to bring the song to a close it manages to steady itself, out of danger perhaps but no longer in contention for the best instrumental in rock’s short history. To use maybe the best analogy, this is like watching a boxer who dominated the early rounds get hit with a haymaker of a right hook while well ahead on points which knocks him to the canvas. He’s in a daze but beats the count and gets to his feet and clinches the other fighter until the bell rings to end the round and he can stagger back to his corner for smelling salts. He’ll still win the decision on points but he won’t be discussed as a title contender as a result of the shaky finish.
 

Floating Down The Mississippi
The great irony of this – and indeed something which puts the whole precarious business of making records into perspective – is that were it not for a single instrument being used for a third solo Memphis Hop might’ve been nearly perfect and in the process given its creators, specifically Bumps Myers and Tiny Webb, not to mention Selective Records, the hit they needed to put themselves in a position to achieve even more going forward.

Instead of turning heads and building momentum, creating a receptive audience for your next records, this went largely unheard. As a result the stylistic advances made by Webb and the dynamic interplay between he and Myers, each one pushing the other further and using their contrasting sounds in a way that complimented one another, went largely unnoticed.

As for the thing which dragged this down, that sputtering baritone sax, the problem was in the playing, not the concept of including it to begin with. Had it been handled by someone far more capable the excitement generated on this record might’ve equaled, if not topped, almost anything we’ve seen to date. You’d have had three sounds all building tension within their solos and then releasing it before the next instrument did the same. The contrasting sounds and the natural feeling of one-upsmanship that goes along with that type of bandstand dueling could’ve pushed this to unseen heights.

Even if the only thing a more well-equipped baritone sax had delivered had been a steady pulsing refrain, monotonous but suggestive, you could’ve easily come out of that segue with the two leads, Webb and Myers, trading off lines in a fury, taking it to the verge of hysteria. Instead they were too busy tending to their sickly cohort to do much more than wait until the paramedics arrive.
 


 

The ultimate fate of Memphis Hop makes contemplating what the record might have meant to all involved a far more frustrating and sad ordeal than it should be. There’s still so much here to appreciate and celebrate even with such a glaring flaw and yet rather than walk away elated at what we heard, we tend to think what might’ve been instead. Even so there’s no conceivable answer, other than the fickleness of fate, to explain why Myers and Webb didn’t become at least reliably established names in rock over the next few years with their skill sets and seeming grasp on the style they needed to make headway as rockers. After all, there’s no decree that states greatness has to be achieved in full right away, and in fact most artists improve on their early work with more opportunity.

Maybe because they didn’t cut another session for Selective they simply weren’t given the chance to shore up that weakness. Or it could be they simply focused on the commercial indifference to it and assumed that meant that none of the record had any appeal to audiences and so they didn’t bother trying their hand at this sound again.

But I like to think the REAL reason we didn’t get to hear from them working together after this was they were too busy with another more important job. After all, it takes a lot of time and effort to stuff a baritone sax full of cement, strap it to someone’s body so they can’t get loose and drive halfway across the country to Memphis so they can dump his lifeless carcass in the Mississippi River and watch him sink to the bottom which is where that nameless sessionist took their careers.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Bumps Myers for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)