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DECCA 48231; AUGUST 1951



Whenever an artist dies prematurely there’s always a tendency to contemplate what more they might have done if they’d lived longer.

At our most wistful we imagine what direction Buddy Holly might have headed as the 1960’s dawned, or how Sam Cooke may have stopped courting pop approval by mid-decade and embraced the kind of uninhibited vocals that were rapidly finding favor again after years of holding back.

We envision the Jimi Hendrix albums of the 1970’s, Bob Marley’s response to a more political eighties landscape and the way in which Kurt Cobain and 2Pac would’ve further defined the nineties rock scene had they actually made it all the way to the millennium.

Long before any of them even opened their mouth on record though one of the earliest rock acts was bowing out before he too reached middle age, but chances are if anybody stopped to think of the output that may have come from Cecil Gant had he survived another few years they kept those thoughts to themselves.

After all, his catalog had been a succession of largely improvised songs captured while the tapes rolled and the booze flowed and though he’d had a few small hits in the last couple of years, he had long sounded like a man already sitting in the waiting room for the great beyond expecting his number to be called at any minute.

Little did anyone realize when he checked out in early 1951 that some of Gant’s most inspired records were still to come.


It Really Is The Best
We’ve said this before when discussing the last run of Cecil Gant’s singles surrounding his death, but considering how much we criticize the major labels around here for their dismissal of rock in general, let’s give them credit for one thing…

They ran a tight ship when it came to recording sessions.

Now that might mean they were unable to take advantage of spontaneity on the studio floor and were TOO rigid in striving for stylistic conformity, but they were very efficient and professional which is the one thing that Cecil Gant needed.

OH BOY did he need that!

Decca Records provided that environment for Gant to his everlasting advantage. Whereas with Bullet Records he’d be allowed to sit around, swigging from a bottle on top of the piano while he plundered his brain for ideas and then rattled them off the top of his head while the engineers knew they’d get one pass at the song, with Decca the material was laid out in advance and they made sure that he wasn’t wasting anybody’s time.

Maybe the best example of this is the delightful Owl Stew, surely a record that Decca viewed as a novelty thanks to its title if nothing else, but which in Gant’s hands is turned into a much tastier dish.

If You Get It Once, You’re Gonna Want Some More
While Decca definitely came to these sessions prepared with quality material, they did make one concession to Gant when it came to recording his own compositions and that is they let him record most of those solo… as in “no band”.

Gant had been playing that way for so long that he may have been incapable of writing down his own creations on paper and then to introduce a roomful of musicians, all reading charts that he may not even bother to follow himself, would be fraught with peril and so they made sure he knew the material cold and trusted they’d get the best performance out of him without any undue additions.

In the future this situation surely would’ve been overcome to a degree by overdubbing a small combo later, but in 1951 that wasn’t really an option and so as comfortable as he was embellishing songs with his piano dexterity they let Gant go to town and it pays off here with a surprisingly dense and varied sound.

Like so many of his songs Owl Stew was vaguely autobiographical, at least in terms of setting it in Nashville, his hometown. Whether owls are a delicacy he enjoyed in town I don’t know, but while I can’t – and don’t want to – vouch for its taste, the image of this dish as a musical subject is… pardon the pun… humorously appetizing.

But Gant doesn’t turn really it into a joke, or rather the joke was on Decca who were unaware the true meaning of this term was that it was slang for prostitutes – one of Gant’s admitted vices – and yet he can’t come out and allude to this in the lyrics so instead he presents it in a fairly straightforward fashion.

The topic if taken literally may raise some eyebrows, but from there on in however he might as well being talking about barbecue ribs, turkey breasts or homemade brew as the lyrics are really just an advertisement for any well received local specialty – be it food or women selling themselves for his enjoyment – and as a result you won’t be turned off by his enthusiasm for something that might turn your stomach if you think too long about it.

The real joy in Owl Stew though is just the casual confidence he has in presenting the song, the lines themselves aren’t necessarily clever but they sound far from ad-libbed which was his usual tactic when he was under the gun. This has a traditional song structure that belies its subject and he sticks to it admirably, using the piano to alternately build suspense with basic left hand boogie and offer musical release with some varied right hand embellishments that show just how naturally rhythmic he was in his playing.

His final stuttering riff leading into a brief spoken coda before closing it out with a flourish may not be difficult to pull off, but it’s engaging right to the fade making this an ideal close to a career that was always as interesting – and frequently entertaining – as it was improbable.


When The Sun Goes Down
Though there would be more Cecil Gant records released by a variety of labels – including one more by Decca – most of them were somewhat exploitative, either re-issues of past singles or leftover tracks that had he lived would likely not have seen the light of day, or been the kind of things we would’ve skipped over anyway if he’d been recording more appropriate material going forward.

So Owl Stew therefore becomes Cecil Gant’s musical epitaph, an ironically fitting farewell to someone who you were never quite sure what to make of. He never really conformed to rock ‘n’ roll, but rather just adapted himself to it.

His voice was scratchy and hardly melodious in a traditional sense, yet oddly endearing. His songwriting was never something he took seriously yet his compositions were often interestingly constructed and could even be surprisingly inventive at times.

While his personal failings were many, they always seemed to result in self-inflicted damage, an amiable soul who never set out to hurt others while he simply drifted through life. While his ending was inevitable his presence was always welcome.

I don’t know about you, but I miss him already.


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