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KING 4231; JUNE, 1948

 
 

 

Our first official introduction to one of the original catalysts in the growing market for rock ‘n’ roll but who had comparatively little recorded output in the field over the years. Even this record is being included as much to convey Gant’s story as for the song itself, which while certainly not ill-fitting in a history of rock overview, isn’t a “no doubt about it” selection for the proceedings either.

But Gant’s place in not just rock history but music history itself always seems on the brink of extinction, reduced to a mere footnote in even the most expansive chronicles of twentieth century music, something which is inexcusable and therefore needs to be corrected.

Faithful readers of Spontaneous Lunacy have already come across the name Cecil Gant in our very first review (Roy Brown’s Good Rocking Tonight) as it was Gant who heard Brown’s pitch of the song and called DeLuxe Records chief in the middle of the night and had Roy sing it over the phone to him, which led to Brown being signed and launching rock ‘n’ roll in the process.

If for no other reason than that act as a musical messenger Gant would have a role in rock’s rise to prominence, but that was merely one in a long line of acts that Cecil Gant would leave his mark and it’s vital that his full role be understood and appreciated because without him we truly might not be blessed with this music called rock ‘n’ roll in the first place… even though he himself was mostly a bystander to the proceedings.
 

I Wonder
Cecil Gant was just past thirty years old when he changed the course of American music forever. Born in Tennessee in 1913, Gant was a Private in the stateside U.S. Army during the later years of World War Two, stationed in Los Angeles, when he happened upon a war bond rally taking place outdoors. These rallies offered a little bit of everything to draw the interest of onlookers. They frequently featured celebrities, be it actors and actresses drumming up support for the war effort, or comedians cracking jokes and encouraging attendees to buy a bond to help pay for the cost of beating Hitler, and they often had live bands, or just a singer and an accompanying instrument to draw attention to the show from a distance and give pedestrians on the street a reason to linger and drop some money into the till.

It was during an intermission at one of these events that Pvt. Cecil Gant stepped onto the stage and into history by simply asking if he could play the piano.

In 1944, even in L.A., a more racially tolerant city than many at the time, there was no assurance that such a request from a black man would be met with kindness, let alone consent, even if he was in uniform. In truth, if the war bond rally was more tightly run there’s not much chance that ANYbody, black or white, asking to play in front of a crowd who the organizers hoped to entice into forking over hard-earned cash would be allowed to do anything other than contribute a few bucks and move on. Who could tell what egotistical musical hack might climb on stage and start making a racket for kicks, or to get a rise out of his buddies on the sidewalk.

But whoever agreed to let Gant perform could’ve had no idea what he was setting in motion. Gant’s playing and singing so captivated the crowd, not to mention the organizers, that he was quickly made a priority of the Armed Forces, his own military career now irrevocably altered from training and monotonous drills and probably endless KP duty, to performing all over the city at subsequent War Bond rallies.

If all Gant had done was help raise some more dough to rub out the last of the Nazi regime and to pay for the paint job on the Enola Gay he’d have made a notable, though largely anonymous, contribution to the war efforts, his minor role destined to be forgotten by the time V-J day rolled around the next summer.

Instead his performances caught the ear of the music industry who saw in him a gimmick that could be quickly exploited and perhaps contribute some coins to THEIR cause, one in their own minds was far greater in the big scheme of things than beating back enemies bent on world domination in some faraway land. To them and their needs Gant was a ready made novelty-act, an artist with a back story that could be publicized to lure listeners into buying a record or two and have them think that by doing so they were even supporting the boys in khaki fighting overseas.

So Gant was promptly signed to tiny Gilt-Edge Records, a local independent label struggling to get a hold in a marketplace dominated by the major companies. It was for them that his melancholy ballad, “I Wonder”, with its sentiments about a solider wondering what his girl was doing back home while he was overseas, something perfectly in tune with the mood of the nation as a whole, was recorded in a garage turned makeshift studio. The label pressed the record in the small shoestring plant set up in back and promoted the tune as by Pvt. Cecil Gant “The G.I. Sing-sation”.

It absolutely exploded.

So heavy was the demand for I Wonder that it strained the capacities of ALL of the city’s pressing plants, distributors and retailers working in unison to get this on the market, and the resulting shortage meant that the disk was sometimes being sold for enormous markups by train porters who’d carry copies with them from a locale that had it to those that didn’t. Despite its largely negative review in Billboard (still not comprehending the earthier black styles or the potential audience for them) the record dominated the Race Charts for months and more than anything proved that even the tinest independent record companies, often started with more gumption and dreams than capital and musical know-how, could succeed by simply focusing on an untapped commercial niche. The result was that over the next few years the number of independent record companies grew by leaps and bounds and many, if not most of the most successful ones, specialized in black music for black audiences.

In other words the breeding ground for rock ‘n’ roll itself.

Gant’s musical contribution to this – aside from his role in offering proof that the independent companies could thrive if aiming at the woefully underrepresented black market – would seem to place him far away from that ensuing movement. After all I Wonder was a tame mellow ballad, the type of which led he, as well as other black balladeers at the time, to be called “Sepia Sinatras”, as they seemed to be capitalizing on the same yearning fragile romance that had made Frank Sinatra the biggest thing in white music of the 40’s when most girls saw their sweethearts departing overseas and sought an emotional substitute for their feelings on record. Hardly anything to do with the seeds of rock ‘n’ roll.

But Gant’s musical scope ran much wider than that. The flip of “I Wonder” was a crude boogie on the piano and in their rush to get as much product out on him as possible while he was hot Gant recorded a number of raw proto-rock tunes before the musical strains that went into all of that coalesced with Brown’s Good Rocking Tonight and kick-started the rock genre as one distinctly separate from everything else.
 


 

Now Back To The Alley
Which brings us back to 1948 and the record showcased in this review when Gant’s career was already on the wane, his fifteen minutes of fame long-since up as he never came close to reaching the commercial heights of his sensational debut. But because his name recognition from that one record was still so high, even four years later, labels continued to take chances on him (this being his lone release on King), just hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again and as a result he was able to record prolifically in a variety of styles, including a few pure, unadulterated flat-out rockers that we’ll come across in due time.

Hogan’s Alley wasn’t quite that, but was at least a clear step in that direction. An instrumental with a nice spoken intro that describes where the song got its name, Gant plays a gentle rolling boogie, effective, but nothing noteworthy. He was a good pianist though, one who understood the nuances of the instrument, not just some ham-fisted pounder. Though he paled in technical proficiency to someone like Amos Milburn, and lacked a truly distinctive style to elevate him to the level of many of the rock keyboard kingpins to follow, his forte was in creating an eminently listenable jam.

He was, in the end, what he was at the beginning – a guy who was good enough to hop on a stage and keep the audience happy with his playing. Hogan’s Alley does just that. Nothing more, but nothing less. The song will keep your attention as long as it plays, fitting comfortably within rock ‘n’ roll but hardly standing out within it, and then it will be quickly forgotten moments after it ends.

That Gant had briefly managed to not only do more than that, but MUCH more, was largely due to a series of intricate and interconnected circumstances and timing that could likely never be replicated. He was, in short, the perfect symbol of the American dream in the mid-40’s. Non-descript, but with a modest underlying talent, someone yearning for things just out of their grasp maybe but still theoretically within reach, a sentimental dreamer but with realistic hopes, and willing and able to take advantage of everything around them to climb that ladder of success, even if just briefly.

People such as Gant, like rock ‘n’ roll itself, were emblematic of the growing optimism of the modern world in which anything and everything seemed possible, a mindset that was in stark contrast to the attitude of meekly succumbing to the harsher realities of the world that preceded it, an era of great economic depressions, brutal world carnage, and day to day existences marked by endless struggles for little pay, less recognition and oftentimes a lack of basic human respect, at least for the majority of those in his situation.

It’s simplistic to say a style of music changed all this – it didn’t, not by itself at any rate – but it was representative of that ideal and as so many other musical styles had done in the past the marriage of a cultural outlook and the music that accompanied and defined that outlook remained forever intertwined, propelling each other higher.
 

 

The music industry of the 20th century, or at least the recording industry, could really be said to have two stages and it was Gant who truly signaled the start of the second stage.

With his breakthrough record he had signaled the shift from major company dominance to growing independent muscle. He helped to start the move from an era in which the rendition of the song mattered less than the song itself to a time in which the two – song and performer – were synonymous and thus allowed the artist to become ever more powerful. And perhaps most crucially he signaled the change in a society in which black artists provided the musical advancement but too often were denied the glory and credit. Soon however much of the musical DNA of the most popular music across the globe would be black and proud.

Cecil Gant wasn’t around to see this revolution reach its apex but by the time he died in 1951, just 36 years old, the changes he helped initiate, the revolution he spurred on, was well on its way to glory. However many War Bonds Gant helped to sell starting in 1944 to end one world conflict was insignificant next to the new world musical order he ushered in.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Cecil Gant for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)