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IMPERIAL 5013; JANUARY, 1948

 
 

 

One of the keys to establishing a new form of music, or really anything artistic, is to NAME it.

When Marlon Brando burst onto the scene a month earlier in the stage play A Streetcar Named Desire he was undeniably different in how he approached the acting craft but unless it got labeled differently then in time it might just be seen as a variation on what had already existed. When it was dubbed “Method Acting” then recognition for its uniqueness was in the public record and marked a divide between the old and the new.

Maybe a better example of this practice is found in painting as the Impressionists differed from the Expressionists who were much different than Cubists or Minimalists. To non-artists they’d be at risk of blending together, all lumped into a larger category, or perhaps only separated by the type of paint used – oils, watercolor, pastels, acrylic – without differentiating the artistic vision of the creator. But once the various movements had widely acknowledged names then they took on a life of their own, benefiting the artists as well as collectors and future historians.

So it was with music as well. The jazz age of the 1920’s wouldn’t quite be thought of the same had it not had a term attached to it that made it stand out from the music that preceded it. If both opera and yodeling were classified in the same way it’s doubtful one would’ve become seen as the epitome of vocal skill for those who mastered it while the other would be ridiculed by society as a backwards and lowbrow type of aural assault.

When rock music came along in mid-1947 the term “rock ‘n’ roll” itself was indeed being used to loosely describe it in a few places, the first sighting of the term in relation to the music appeared that summer in Billboard magazine. Within a year there were plenty of references both in the songs themselves (and their titles) to “rock” or “rockin” or in some cases both rock and roll, and more and more those same words were being used by reviewers to succinctly describe the sounds within these records. By 1949 we’ll see the first signs of the industry applying these terms to actually promote the music and from there it was just a matter of how fast and how wide the word of this music would spread.

Yet in early 1948 that ultimate fate was far from being determined and so for a guy like Charlie Davis whose musical DNA was clearly as a rocker, for him to be releasing a song referring to Old Time Blues… well, I’m sure you can see how this had the potential to be problematic should the record catch on.
 

 
Sometimes I Wonder Why I Was Born
Just to save you the trouble of worrying about the potential consequences until we get to the end of the review, neither Davis nor the song had any verifiable impact. Both faded into oblivion in short order, though that hardly stifled the questions about where this new music was best situated.

It helps to remember that record companies are by nature conservative entities, preferring to use past indicators to predict future developments and as such they typically like to slot records in already accepted niches. For black artists in the late 1940’s there were a few options, most of which Charlie Davis had no chance of being accepted in. Gospel was off the table because he wasn’t singing about spiritual topics. Jazz was never considered either because he was far too crude musically for that, just as he had no shot at being one of the few black “pop” acts at the time because he was even more crude vocally than he was on the piano.

So what was left among the widely acknowledged genres?… Why the blues of course!

In 1948 the blues was at risk itself for becoming a catch-all term for anything and everything that failed to qualify for the aforementioned three genres, which meant you had classier cocktail blues forced to sit alongside the vital pre-rock sounds of jump blues, though they had little in common musically, thematically or in terms of cultural reception and you can see why it was imperative this matter was settled quickly.

With the gradual decline of classier clubs that housed such performers as Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Lil Green under the blues moniker you were left with what we’ve come to consider the “pure blues” forms centered around urban and country blues. Those two prevailing styles would in short order form the nucleus of the post-war blues idiom… provided there was another avenue for non-blues artists who were not jazz, pop or gospel either to gravitate towards.

That of course would be rock ‘n’ roll.

But in late 1947 when Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis cut his only sessions for Imperial Records, neither he nor the company had any hint that the terminology would soon be changing and so we’re stuck with Old Time Blues which despite its title is not the blues, nor is it jazz or pop despite an early lean towards both instrumentally.

As for rock? Well, maybe the musicians were still not convinced of its viability, nor was the producer who steered them in various other directions over the course of the session, but the guy at the center of it all, Davis himself, seemed to be saying with his declarative vocals that he for one was all but certain of rock’s existence.
 


 
 

Wake Up Every Morning
The record itself is more than just one man’s vocals and unfortunately musically it starts off in not just another genre, but another room in that other genre, one that is closed off much of the year to keep the furniture from being soiled from regular use. The horns are high and ineffectual, stale leftovers from 1942 and not even the kind that would elicit much positive response from listeners back in those bygone days. It almost sounds as if it’s a parody but is played too straight to actually WORK as a parody even if that had been their intent. Since it clearly was not their intent it just comes across as being so woefully out of step that you are ready to immediately dismiss the entire thing as a waste of time.

You stick with it though to hear what Davis is going to contribute to this. His piano is present but laying back at this point so it’s up to his vocals, which on his first effort, San Quentin Bait, was a high point, despite his limited chops.

Here too his voice is the saving grace, a sandpaper rough delivery with good projection and a bit of a offhanded sneer to his words… words, which it must be added, give a different perspective to the theme of Old Time Blues than what we were surely expecting.

The lyrics are framing that title as a question of sorts, kicking it off by saying “Some people say the old time blues ain’t bad”, yet his style of singing and his work on the keys which picks up considerably at this point, are in no way related to the blues, but rather are squarely in rock ‘n’ roll.

This presents an interesting juxtaposition – he’s telling us he’s miserable and is using booze and excessive sleep as coping mechanisms for his troubles, and thus the story he spins is taken from page one of the blues handbook, yet he’s showing us in vivid detail that the cure for being down on your luck isn’t found in the remedies he’s trying but rather in a new mindset, one that replaces self-pity with self-empowerment.

In other words it’s the vibrant music he’s playing and the way he’s delivering the story vocally, full of robust energy, that provides the anecdote to his worries. When he steps aside a horn comes in, but not the moldy ones that started this mess but rather a tenor sax which plays a pretty decent solo that has multiple high points, enough so that when the other horns try and compete with them the tenor is having none of it, pushing them aside, as if firmly committing to rock ‘n’ roll as the panacea to all of their troubles.

That middle stretch spanning just under one minute acts as a peak into the future where rock music and its swaggering attitude in the face of societal oppression and outright dismissal has changed the outlook of an entire generation. It may not be peering far enough into the future to get us to that point within the confines of this song, but instinctively he seems to grasp the basic urges rock celebrates and is dutifully seeking the proper outlets for those urges and you think that maybe, in spite of the earlier stumbles, Old Time Blues just might win you over.

That’s what you get for thinkin’.
 

This Misery That I’m In
It’d be easy if we could point to the offending parties we’ve already criticized for why this falls off the rails after its most invigorating stretch, but instead we need to turn on the very guy we just got done praising – Charlie Davis himself.

So what’s the problem? Did he suddenly get a frog in his throat or… well I guess I might as well come right out and make the joke since I teased it earlier… does he start to yodel in the bridge or something?

No, not that thankfully, but rather it’s something he’s done quite well when given the chance in earlier songs which is to play the piano. Let’s just say that for a guy nicknamed “Boogie Woogie” he’s not boogieing and his woogie has gotten up and left.

I don’t know WHAT you want to call this interlude following the sax solo – bewildering… perplexing… a cruel hoax or an act of self-sabotage… feel free to come up with something even more insulting, but the sounds emanating from the keyboard belong nowhere near a song in the rock genre, OR the blues genre for that matter.

For starters he’s playing in a purposefully choppy manner which eliminates all sense of melody which is not a good sign for a song where the structure was already shaping up to be a weak point. He’s also not laying down any rhythm with his left hand to offset the spastic actions of his right hand which means it’s not a full enough sound to keep us invested. But the biggest problem is the fact that the sadistic producers apparently slammed his hand in an iron door, hastily put a makeshift cast on it and then forced him to play anyway.

How else to describe him bashing away on the keys, hitting them at random as if he didn’t have the dexterity to land on only one note at a time because his fingers were stiff or encased in plaster? You cringe for so many reasons it’s hard to pick just one. Do you feel sorry for Davis that he’s going to be found guilty in the court of public opinion for mutilating a piano? Do you have flashbacks to your own aborted piano lessons at the age of seven which you’re now afraid were furtively recorded by your sadistic teacher who then somehow spliced them onto this record to further torment you decades later?

Or do you cringe simply because your eardrums are cursing you for not hitting the stop button after that sorry excuse for a horn intro when Old Time Blues began almost two minutes earlier?

It improves somewhat as it goes – I suppose it’d be kind of hard not to unless he had a stroke and his face landed on the keys – but even when he stops playing and starts singing again your internal alarms are blaring as you back away from the speakers, unable (or unwilling) to listen very intently to the rest of the song in case he has another seizure on the piano.

Truthfully he doesn’t have much more to say and while his vocal energy hasn’t flagged your ability to separate each component to judge them individually has been eroded. When the old fashioned horns return for the coda you shake your head in dismay, walk to the nearest window, casually open it and leap out, not caring whether you meet with an eight story fall to your death or a three foot drop to the grass below so you can hit the ground running on your way to blessed freedom.
 

Some People Say…
In the end, neither the blues nor rock ‘n’ roll would want to claim this one, even though the mid-section is more than good enough to be welcome in rock circles if it hadn’t had such mismatched appendages hanging on both ends of the record.

Old Time Blues might be best served as an example of just how tenuous these musical outlooks were until they more firmly set their parameters and got rid of the parts hauled out of the morgue from other styles. At the tail end of 1947 when companies like Imperial were scrambling to get as many cuts down as possible with not even the vaguest idea of where they might draw interest from, it wasn’t uncommon to see them stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Maybe that’s who was playing the piano on this one instead of Charlie Davis, for at least ol’ Frankie would have an excuse for why it was so stiff and non-musical.

If that were the case might we suggest giving the hulking giant with bolts in his neck a saxophone instead and telling him to take a year off from frightening the village so he can woodshed on the instrument and then when he returns he can unleash his inner monster on the music because that’s the formula that will soon define rock and one of them might as well benefit from that because the only ones benefiting from this record are whoever sells earplugs.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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