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IMPERIAL 5021; MAY, 1948

 
 

 

The first time you try anything new in life there’s bound to be confusion, uncertainty and a lot of unfortunate missteps. Mastery of any worthwhile task requires experience and you can only get that over time.

Imperial Records apparently decided to make all of their mistakes right away in the belief that by doing so they’d speed up the process and learn all they needed to know in a matter of a few months rather than a few years.

It didn’t quite work out that way for Lew Chudd’s organization, as it wouldn’t be until he tapped into the fertile New Orleans music scene at the tail end of 1949 that he found the stable footing he needed for long term success. So if you were one of those artists who were along for the ride with him in 1947-48 when he was flying blind you’d surely be saying to yourself that when it came to knowing how to run a record label he had no idea what it was all about.
 

 

That’s Real Gone
There’s been a lot of releases in just a short time for Charlie Davis, a Los Angeles club pianist and singer who was signed in late 1947 by local label Imperial to bolster their very thin roster of black artists as they attempted to branch out from the country and Spanish language records they’d focused on prior to last summer.

Making this all the more difficult for them was the fact they were also trying to beat the imminent recording ban set to begin as 1948 rang in. Yet rather than conserve their limited options they’ve followed a haphazard release schedule, sometimes issuing one record per month for each artist, exhausting their supply without letting any of the records have time to find an audience and in the process all but killing their careers before they’ve had a chance to get off the ground.

Furthermore due to the circumstances regarding the shuttering of studio doors at the end of the year artists like Davis, someone with absolutely no prior recording experience, were being asked to cut marathon sessions one right after another (three in a month at a time when three a year for even the biggest artists on indie labels was about average) all so Imperial could have as many sides as possible to tide them over in case the musician’s strike lasted as long as the one that wiped out two plus years of new records back in the early 1940’s.

So Davis laid down eleven songs at his very first session, maybe before he even learned where the bathroom in the building was, and then followed that up with a quick two song session and ended the year, almost literally (on December 30th) by recording four more tracks before they shut the lights off for the next year.

Even for the most experienced veteran recording star who wrote their own material that would be a lot to ask but for someone who for all we know was singing popular hits of others in his club act, as often was the case, the request for that much original material (that actually WAS original rather than recycled from other well-known songs or repetitive variations on a theme) was asking the impossible.

And yet… well, it might not all have been top shelf quality but he gave it a good shot. If I Know What It’s All About, his fourth single in six months, falls a little short at least it’s not because it was lacking in effort.
 

Turn Me Loose
Right away with the horn intro you know something here isn’t quite right if you’re someone who has already become infatuated with rock ‘n’ roll over its first couple of months. There’s a clipped urgency to this that reeks of pop-jazz hybrids and carries with it a stench of… dare we say it… professionalism.

Yes, that’s an insult in this world in case you were wondering, which is what makes rock so different than everything else around it in the music scene of 1948. The slapdash quality of its best records, the sense that everyone involved is going on pure instinct and adrenaline, letting their enthusiasm carry the day rather than overthinking things, is what has already set rock apart from the musical pack. But on I Know What It’s All About you get the sickly feeling that someone deemed that approach too risky and sat down for a couple of hours painstakingly working out an arrangement, then handed out parts based on seniority and reputation rather than on their qualifications for imparting THIS record with the proper amount of reckless energy it calls for.

How he had time for this with the hectic recording schedule, god only knows, but then again he was working with trumpeter Jake Porter who is a veteran of nearly twenty years experience in some high class jazz outfits which helps to explain both of the issues just raised – the fact it has an old school horn intro that’s right in Porter’s wheelhouse and the fact it’s meticulously worked out, something that he no doubt had a hand in.

All of which is perfectly understandable… Davis was going to need all of the help he could get after all to fulfill Imperial’s unrealistic requests, so leaning on Porter made sense. However it also made for slightly conflicting sensibilities in the song in front of us today because the intro doesn’t provide the muscular aggression to make it a better fit in rock circles.

But while some of the components may be underpowered, once we get into the meat of the song we see they weren’t recycling the approach they’ve used before by any means. In fact they were taking this rather far outside the box when it came to how the song was constructed, eschewing the straight boogie style Davis generally played and trying to be creative.

So to that end we’ll give them plenty of credit for their mindset here. But we’ll give them a little less credit for their execution when it comes to making it compelling.
 


 
 

I’ll Show You All The Tricks That I Know
Most of Davis’s material to date has been rather straightforward by nature highlighted by strong boogie piano, rough vocals and topics that are at home in the musical netherworld that rock inhabited on the other side of the tracks. Not all of it has been completely successful artistically, but even on the weaker sides there’s been aspects to admire in each of the cuts we’ve reviewed.

At his best though, on 17 Million $ Baby, it seemed that Charlie Davis might at least become a reliable foot soldier in the new rock ‘n’ roll army that was taking shape. Someone to fight the battles to control the jukeboxes and record stores in the black communities, hoping to win out by the sheer size of the growing force in the face of more impressive firepower when it came to the opposition made up of jazz, pop and even blues as controlled by the major companies with their promotional dollars and distribution might.

On this record however Davis shows more calculated ambitions that suggests he might be looking to earn his commission and become an officer rather than merely a grunt in the trenches.

The reason for this assessment is because I Know What It’s All About is designed to highlight its structure far more than its content. In other words it’s purposefully drawing attention to the creative side more than to the performance side which typically indicates a fair bit of plotting on the artist’s part. That not a bad thing by any means in of itself, provided of course you deliver on its objectives.

Here the title is serving as the de facto punch line to the set-ups offered in the verses which are more spoken than sung, though I guess you could say they’re spoken with a melodic bent, all of which is meant to convey a sense of heightened anticipation. But whenever you de-emphasize the singing and the melody you’re putting way more responsibility on the lyrics and that’s where this falls short, not in terms of thematic content, but in terms of painting a really vivid scene.

Essentially Davis is stating the mindset of the rock fan, which is obviously something we should be happy to hear.

“I want to get juiced and I want to blow my fuse
Yes, just do anything that I choose
I want to get high, turn the lights all out
‘Cause I know what it’s all about!”

That’s a pretty fair run-down of the basic mindset, I’ll gladly admit, but it’s got a few problems that keep it from reaching its full goal.

For starters he sounds a little too crafty in his delivery, like he’s attempting to convince a novice that he’s more hip than he really is, hoping they’re not astute enough about the scene to call him out and demand to see his credentials.

Your suspicions rise simply because he comes off a bit like a salesman pitching something cheap while distracting you with friendly bluster rather than acting like a genuine convert who can barely contain his enthusiasm and wants you to join in on the party because this sort of fun should be enjoyed by one and all.
 

I Said Let Me Go!
Now had he failed to really make a genuine connection with the vocals but rather let the music act as the enticement by having the horns go wild while the drums and his piano hammer away until they tattooed the rhythm onto your brain, that’d be okay. It might not be the most effective way to tackle such a job but it’d probably win you over in the end just enough to follow him to whatever run-down hovel this bash was being held in.

Sadly that’s not the case, even though I’m sure it was their intent. For while the sax solo that follows starts off the musical interlude well enough it quickly falls out of step, first by giving a spot to Porter’s harsher sounding trumpet, then Davis himself takes a surprisingly weak piano solo that further calls into question whether their pitch is genuine.

Instead of raising the stakes, they lower the energy, instead of pushing it TOO far, they don’t push it far enough. They’re not outright frauds by any means, but they can’t help but reveal they’re lacking the experience their words claim they possess. In fact it sounds eerily accurate in describing their own situation to a T.

Let’s face it, they WERE fairly new at this rock ‘n’ roll game but, much like the characters they’re portraying, they genuinely like what they’ve heard (or in their case what they’ve played) and find it to be something that is definitely worth pursuing. To that end they’re recruiting others to join them but are doing so rather awkwardly, getting across the primary spirit of rock without having a firm grasp on the attitude to required to make it convincing.

I Know What It’s All About therefore becomes a misnomer because they clearly DON’T yet know what it’s all about. They certainly WANT to know, they hope they soon WILL know, but they aren’t there yet. They’re inexperienced freshmen who are trying to come across to the kids they meet as if they’re upperclassmen who’ve been to all the parties, gotten into all sorts of trouble and know how to navigate all of the roads that lead to and from this rock ‘n’ roll community.

But they aren’t.

Maybe it’ll fool you if you’re one of the novices too, someone who in the spring of 1948 have only heard a handful of sides in this relatively new field and are looking for someone who seems to have a handle on the scene to show you around. But the thing about it is, you already probably have a better grip on that scene yourself because chances are the songs you know are the big ones – by Wynonie Harris, soon to be sitting a top the charts with Good Rockin’ Tonight, or Paul Williams, Sonny Thompson, Roy Brown or The Ravens.

If so… if you’ve really listened to those songs and truly absorbed their essence… then you’re well beyond Charlie Davis already and it’s he who will have to convince you to take him along with you the next time you go to one of these parties so you can show him the ropes.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)