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At what point does all of this become overkill?

Not rock ‘n’ roll itself, though surely the powers that be in the music community of 1949 probably felt they’d passed that point at least a year ago when it came to this calamotous noise, but rather when does the kind of deep dive into rock history we’re doing here become SO deep that we’re in danger of getting the bends if we go much further down?

Well, hold your breath a little longer because here’s an artist so obscure that there’s no pictures to be found anywhere of him, yet here he is all the same giving us another sign the teenaged takeover of rock ‘n’ roll is picking up steam.



Lost Many Times Before
When Freedom Records opened their doors in Houston in March of 1949, picking up the remnants of the recently defunct Eddie’s Records as the primary outlet for local talent, they had an odd assortment of artists, most of them rather young.

Goree Carter would turn out to be their greatest find and he was just 18 at the time. L.C. Williams, who was now in the process of scoring them their first national hit was 19 and Lonnie Lyons was the elder statesman at 23 years old.

Of course at just 16 years old Carl Campbell made them all seem like senior citizens and yet in a way his musical tastes skewed older than both Carter and Lyons. Much like Williams, a blues drummer who could rock effectively when called upon, Campbell was someone who straddled those two worlds and with his odd vocal tones he had a tendency to seem older than he was, yet at the same time the way in which he sang revealed his inexperience.

Though he was reportedly a piano player, Campbell didn’t seem to do play it in the studio, as he cedes that role on Ooh Wee Baby to Lyons presumably, as this was cut almost certainly cut with Conrad Johnson’s crew though they aren’t credited.

All things considered – from his youth to the novice record company trying to learn how to run a session on the fly – this turns out pretty good and shows just how fertile the talent around Houston was at the time, giving the label another strong rocker to let distributors, jukebox proprietors and curious fans that when choosing a record under their banner you were pretty much assured of getting something that really smoked.


I’m Not Worried
The alto that kicks this off, Conrad Johnson’s instrument in case you were wondering, has a snake charmer vibe to it as the piano and drums set the rhythm behind it. This isn’t quite the usual sound palette since the emergence of the tenor as rock’s most valuable horn, but it works fairly well because of the unique style it brings to the table.

Once Campbell comes in, sounding like he’s afraid he’ll miss the bus if he doesn’t get a move on, the components fall into place and you get an idea the goal is to simply put some vital pieces together and hope you create enough excitement to have listeners overlook whatever flaws it has in the areas of theme, lyrics and technical ability of the vocalist or perhaps the uncertainty about the arrangement when it comes to the band.

For the most part they’re pretty successful in that regard, Ooh Wee Baby has a built in excitement, partly attributable to Campbell’s youthful enthusiasm but also to the concept behind the song which is exuding confidence in the face of adversity, a hallmark of youthful bravado that fits well in the rapidly expanding rock community.

Campbell manages to harness his nervous energy and use it to his advantage, racing through the lyrics with a surprising amount of focus, never losing hold of the narrative in an effort to get them out so quickly.

Like so many luckless rock singers we’ve met Carl is facing the prospect of his girl leaving him – via train, natch – but instead of moaning about it he’s taking it in stride, pointing out he’s used to being burned by the softer sex and yet somehow still believing that she’ll come back to him in the end. Even though he’s blaming her for their breakup he sounds like he’ll take her back if she’s suitably apologetic.

Now granted none of this is very deep. The lines flow well however and there’s no confusion about what’s going on… though admittedly for a second I was wondering if he might be telling a third party his tale of woe which would’ve made this an fiendishly clever form of hitting on another girl by trying to elicit sympathy, but it turns out it’s the first girl whom he’s directing this at.

No matter, the point isn’t in trying to ascertain his relationship status, nor are we overly concerned about his emotional state after such a blow, but rather we’re focused on just how resilient he sounds by the way he barrels through the song, showing once again that in life it’s your own attitude more than outside circumstances that should end up dictating your happiness.

My Heart Can’t Take It No More
Considering the pace this song sets from the get-go and how Campbell doesn’t seem quite able to ease off the gas pedal even when it might be in his best interest to do so, the most amazing thing about the record is that it never flies off the rails in spite of his throwing caution to the wind.

Credit the band… surely The Hep Cats who once again show why they’re shaping up to be the elite studio aggregation in all of rock… who are somehow able to keep Campbell within shouting distance thanks to some rampaging musical backing of their own.

Normally you’d expect such a game-plan to be carried out with the tenor sax in the lead, but it’s Johnson’s alto which is at the wheel throughout this and that might be the wisest move simply because it’s not a sound which will overpower Campbell’s rather thin voice and run him off the road, leaving him in a ditch spinning his wheels.

Johnson’s exuberance however matches that of most tenors as he skitters around the hairpin turns the song lays out for him in his soloing spots, bringing plenty of excitement without turning it into a white knuckled adventure ride in the process. Usually the balance between speed and control is bound to be lost before long, especially when the horn gets into the spirit of things on the studio floor, but Johnson never let’s his part lean too far in either direction.

The second solo after another verse and chorus is handled by Lyons’ piano which similarly maintains the precarious balancing act, flailing away on the keys while still holding onto a melodic sensibility that allows you to see where you’re headed.

His left hand is giving us plenty of rhythmic drive while his right never falters in the notes it chooses, resisting any urge to go too high up the keyboard for an ill-advised attempt at shocking us with extremes. Instead he remains locked in the mid-range and never lets up, keeping the throttle of Ooh Wee Baby opened wide.

When the horns return they’re a little more restrained, not to mention a little more creative as there’s a brief passage that rises and falls in a way that hints at something even more exotic that you’d actually have liked them to explore a little further. But with a hormone-crazed kid chomping at the bit to get back in on the action you know that detours are not going to be tolerated and you don’t begrudge him for being so anxious.

When Campbell returns for the stretch run you’re more than happy to go along with him for the ride, confident now that you’ll get to your destination in one piece with these guys at the controls.


Come Back Someday
Maybe you could argue this was less a proper song than it was a form of vigorous exercise but that’s part of the fun of rock ‘n’ roll at times. The simple framework of so many records allows the individuals making those records to show off their wares in a way that still sounds cohesive in ways that similarly indulgent jazz workouts sometimes lost.

Of course Ooh Wee Baby isn’t aspiring to anything near as musically ambitious as most top jazz outfits so you don’t have to worry about getting in over your head with this record, just make sure you strap yourself in and hang on tight.

As for the decision to give the spotlight over to someone as young as Campbell at the time – or to give his records which came and went without a flicker of recognition the spotlight around here when there’s so many more “important” artists and records to get to – a good deal of the strength of rock ‘n’ roll as a whole is found in those democratic ideals… the idea that anyone, young or old, a seasoned pro or an untutored amateur, had equal access to making an impression on the public is what allowed it to never get stagnant.

Maybe Carl Campbell didn’t earn any hits or long term recognition for his efforts, but his efforts were genuine and the more kids like him who tried their hand at this the better it was for everybody.


(Visit the Artist page of Carl Campbell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)