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COLUMBIA 30148; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

 
Why do we do this?

It’s a loaded question and one that can be asked of many aspects of this project.

In the big picture sense the answer as to why we’re spending years writing two thousand word reviews of long forgotten records and artists is precisely because they’re long forgotten and there’s a stubborn belief here that anything which was so transformative culturally as rock ‘n’ roll deserves to have some credible account of the evolution of the style in the public record.

Call it idealistic, call it delusional, call it egotistical and self-indulgent if you want because undoubtedly it’s all of those things to a degree. But in asking that question I was also referring to this particular record, though I left out two key words at the end of the question:

Why do we do this to ourselves? is how I should’ve phrased it, because here we are again revisiting a song which probably should be left out of the roll altogether because nobody would likely notice (or care about) its absence.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the record was done by someone who wasn’t a full-time rocker, wasn’t even a part-time rocker for that matter, but was merely a vagabond musician who had a long career singing and playing in a variety of styles. In spite of his versatility and an abundance of opportunities to record behind a wide array of other acts on saxophone before stepping to the forefront as a vocalist and bandleader himself, he never broke through to national acclaim.

He probably wasn’t known much outside of the Chicago city limits during his two decades of steady work and if he did get some fleeting recognition beyond that it didn’t seem to get him a lasting reputation as he quickly faded into obscurity once his recording opportunities dried up after 1947. He continued playing locally for awhile but by 1954 he disappeared from view altogether and was more or less forgotten.

…And THERE’S your answer as to why we do this. So people like Buster Bennett, who devoted a good deal of his life to music of all kinds, one of which briefly touched rock ‘n’ roll at its very start, won’t be forgotten… not entirely anyway.
 

 

All Down The Road
This isn’t our first encounter with Bennett, but it will be our last I assure you since this was his final release that could even be remotely considered rock ‘n’ roll. But at the very beginning of this endeavor, back when we were covering November 1947’s rock releases, we only briefly mentioned that the singer – and second sax player – on Fishin’ Pole, a racy single credited to the lead sax player on the session, Tom Archia, was in fact Buster Bennett who’d written the song under a different title a few years earlier.

It was a good performance of a mildly off-color tune that was notable more for the clever way they danced around the subject matter than any other aspect of the fairly by the numbers recording. Both saxes, Bennett’s and Archia’s, were serviceable for rock’s initial concepts but it was cut at a time when the music scene was undergoing sudden seismic shifts that they were largely oblivious to and their inclusion in the newly formed rock circles was a matter of circumstance rather than intent and because of that was destined to be temporary at best.

It didn’t help matters much that they were from another era and another musical background while they were certainly qualified to ease the transition from one world to the next they weren’t going to be comfortable residing there for long, nor would the new residents of that land who were putting down roots in the new music going to want them hanging around the neighborhood, telling old stories to each other while gently criticizing the new ideas of these young kids who were attempting to make this growing musical community their home.

So after a few months of helping the newcomers get settled guys like Archia and Bennett moved along, their time in the spotlight – such as it was – already coming to an end, like it would eventually for all artists sooner or later, even the young whippersnappers whose careers were only just getting underway.

As Buster Bennett turned the corner at the end of the block and drove out of sight before 1947 was out it figured to be the last anyone saw of him. But a year later, as 1948 was winding down, an unexpected package was delivered to a house on that block which was teaming with kids making lots of racket in the streets they now called their own.

Was this an early Christmas present from some long-forgotten relative or was it belated parting gift from somebody who had briefly walked those sidewalks as the first of the houses were just going up?

In fact Rockin’ My Blues Away might’ve been both.
 

Watching My Baby Make That Midnight Creep
Since we didn’t delve into Bennett’s diverse background during his only other featured appearance on these pages (he played sax on a few other sides cut for Aristocrat at the time) we should probably start by telling you that he was born in 1914 and turned professional in the early 1930’s, playing primarily alto sax. That was an instrument that was only just starting to come into its own then, as the trumpet and cornet were the horns of choice during the first Jazz Age. But the saxophone was still a ways off from taking over and was vying with such other instruments, such as the clarinet, for the privilege of leading jazz into its next phase.

Maybe it was for that reason that Bennett never fully embraced jazz. Or maybe he was pushed into tackling other styles such as the blues by record companies seeking to make that brand of music more appealing to mainstream audiences by bringing some jazz-like sensibilities into what was otherwise shaping up to be a rather crude form that had definite limits when it came to potential demographics.

Or it could be that Buster Bennett was just musically restless to begin with, which also might explain why after a ten year year career on record (he didn’t cut his first sides until 1938) when he backed such artists as bluesman Big Bill Broonzy and jazzy sides by Romana Hicks, he ventured into the hazy outskirts of rock ‘n’ roll as it was just getting started.

We have to admit that Rockin’ My Blues Away isn’t rock ‘n’ roll by design but rather by association. It was cut in June 1947, while rock’s egg had already been fertilized by the sperm but it hadn’t yet hatched when he entered the studios. He may not have even been aware that at this time there were a few others – including some more qualified than Bennett who’d go on to be full-fledged rock artists in due time – who were also fooling around with the formula, furtively hoping to come up with something promising in the lab before the test tubes blew up in their faces.

Bennett’s goals were nowhere near as expansive as that. He was recording for a major record label, Columbia, a rare feat for a black artist in general, but even rarer for someone without any verifiable commercial success who specialized in styles that they largely eschewed. So for someone like that he was merely trying to catch somebody’s ear in the hopes it might get him future employment.

Whether he – or someone in his orbit – heard some early buzz surrounding the experiments being laid down by Joe Lutcher, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis or Paul Gayten and decided to try his hand at it, or whether it was merely being able to sense an inevitable musical and cultural tsunami that was soon to crash ashore and he positioned himself to try and ride that wave, Bennett was able to tap into just enough of the components that would shape the ensuing events to have a fleeting connection to rock ‘n’ roll when Columbia finally issued the track 18 months later, perhaps in an attempt to get a few curious souls to check it out now that rock had entrenched itself in black America.
 

Rockin’ In Places I Never Rocked Before
His chances at succeeding however are hampered from the start as the pre-rock mindset of everybody involved can be seen right away with the piano intro which is struggling to deliver a somewhat emphatic sound. The left hand is not altogether bad in its attempts but it’s not helped by the fact that the right hand of the pianist is apparently attached to a badly broken right wrist thereby not allowing it to hit the proper keys with any percussive quality.

In other words a two-fisted hammering of the ivories this most assuredly is not.

That underpowered lead-in gets this off to a shaky start if it’s going to try and live up to its Rockin’ My Blues Away title, something not helped by the fact the drummer is riding the cymbals – a very distinctive jazz trait – and even when Bennett comes into the picture the hobbled pianist doesn’t take a hint and gracefully bow out.

Bennett’s vocal tone at least is fairly well-suited for the job, displaying just enough grit and understated power to convince you he belongs. Even the drummer manages to give him a hand at last with a more forceful transition to his opening line and when Buster coarsens up his tone for a lusty shout you think that maybe his efforts won’t be entirely in vain.

But unfortunately he eases off, not by any distaste for the rougher delivery exactly, but rather he does so because it suits the arrangement he’s saddled with and if nothing else Bennett is a loyal soldier when it comes to sticking with the approach the song calls for.

The odd thing about it though is the fact that the origins of the song come from the artist he used to play behind, bluesman Washboard Sam who cut this for Bluebird in 1941 or ’42, though oddly enough it never came out as a single. That version however prominently features an alto sax playing a quaint counterpoint melody to Sam’s high-pitched and slightly nasal vocals but according to researcher Robert Campbell, who’s done far more work detailing the entire Chicago music scene of that era, Bennett was leading his own band in clubs during that year and thus presumably wasn’t doing session work behind Sam as he’d done prior to that.

This may be true but the sax on that one certainly sounds as if it were something Bennett, or someone taking his place (Frank Owens is the leading candidate), would contribute. Regardless of who played on Sam’s version, that IS the source of Bennett’s record a half dozen years later so it’s worth noting the changes to the arrangement. The original features Roosevelt Sykes playing a far more forceful piano than shows up here and of course its main musical accompaniment, aside from that sax, is the catchy washboard percussion that gave Sam his stage name.

So in updating the song for a new market – whatever that market was intended to be when this was laid down – Bennett definitely gears up the sax to take a more prominent role. His solos are good and even have some overt relationship to what would soon be commonplace in rock, as he’s smartly shifted to tenor as of late, and digs into the lines with a suitable amount of fire.

That said he doesn’t let himself get too carried away and so while this may have sufficed in rock circles during its first year, the problem is by this point it can’t help but seem just a milder version of what was now a standard sound, though had you known the circumstances involved it’d hardly be surprising considering it was an afterthought release of a record cut before rock had exploded out of the gate.
 

Rockin’ My Worries Away
Because of this, at least when judged as a pure rock record at the tail end of 1948, there’s obviously not much here to really recommend even though Bennett doesn’t trip up in anything he’s trying to carry off. For that we’ll be generous and give him an extra point since it’s not a bad performance, just an awkward fit for obvious reasons, but it’s hard not to offer an ironic smile at what he might’ve been thinking as he cried ”I’m gonna rock, rock, rock ‘til the break of day” while probably knowing all along that the next musical dawn was due any minute and that he wasn’t going to be getting a wake up call to join them.

We also have to admit that had Bennett not already shown up on the Tom Archia cut from a year ago – and if this didn’t have such an attention getting title besides – then it’s almost certain that Rockin’ My Blues Away wouldn’t have been included here even to try and give a little more insight as to the rapid changes that took place during this time as rock came into its own in startlingly quick succession in the year and a half since its arrival.

Maybe that would’ve been for the best if most visitors are only glancing at the scores of these records dating back from the dim recesses of time and dismissing those who don’t make the grade. If that’s indeed the case then handing out a meager score for his only credited effort in this realm might do his legacy more harm than good… but that’s presuming he had a legacy to begin with, one that was easily accessed and put him in a suitable context for his preferred style and era.

Since he doesn’t enjoy that – and probably never will – then it stands to reason that ANY mention of him in the Twenty-First Century is something that can only be a benefit to him, however minor that benefit is. If nothing else it might provide somebody somewhere with an entry point into doing more investigating to find out how an alto sax player who got his start in the early 1930’s and played jazz on stage while cutting tracks behind blues artists in the studio could last just long enough to brush up against rock ‘n’ roll in its zygote stage.

Like the record itself, that may not be much but at least it’s something.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Buster Bennett for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)