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IMPERIAL 5011; DECEMBER, 1947

 
 

 

What’s most amazing about rock’s meteoric rise that seemed to come out of nowhere in the final months of 1947 is how rapidly it coalesced. Though there were certainly hints of a new restlessness among certain musical outlets prior to that summer, these were sporadic and seemed to be random examples at best. It’s something that happens all the time where artists are merely pushing something a little further in a slightly new direction than before and then – almost always – pulling back and heading back to safer environs.

A few of those names who did dabble in rock prototypes however – Big Joe Turner and Paul Gayten, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis and Amos Milburn, The Ravens and Joe Lutcher – would soon show that their early feints in this direction were hardly isolated incidents as they grabbed hold of the reins of rock ‘n’ roll once it came into being in mid-1947 and stuck with it for the majority of their careers.

But what made the overall transition from one musical era to the next so startling was just how many other artists came charging out of the hills to join in the assault on the musical old guard almost as soon as Roy Brown sounded the alarm that the revolution was underway.

Suddenly you had saxophonists shedding their decorum to honk away in uninhibited fashion, former big band leaders rallying the troops with calls to party all night and an entire brigade of new artists knocking down studio doors to cut their first sessions from which emerged rock’s manifesto writ large and bold for everyone to see.

Many of these names that have dotted the release rolls in the final four months of 1947 went on to be stars, or at the very least an enduring presence on the rock scene for a number of years, helping to set the pace artistically and commercially before they too were swept aside by the next generation of hell-raisers who took what they started even further than they imagined.

Then there were others who never had anything to show for their efforts at the time in terms of sales, nor did they receive any lasting acclaim for joining in the cause in the years since, even after the revolution proved to be perhaps the most transformative cultural event in the 20th Century.

Such was the fate of Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis, a piano playing vocalist who laid an early prototype for that style of rock ‘n’ roll for Imperial Records… two full years before Fats Domino put that same label on the map for doing the same basic thing.
 

 

Take You Along With Me
The landscape that greeted independent record labels struggling to get a foothold in the industry during 1947 was an unusual one due to the impending recording ban set to begin as 1948 rang in. Because of this companies not only brought in their established artists for multiple recording sessions to stockpile enough material to get them through months, if not years, of studio blackouts, but also signed up as many novice artists as they could find just so they’d have enough material to fill the release schedule without having to exhaust their supplies of the bigger names on their roster.

This might be why Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis got his shot at glory as Imperial Records was still attempting to define just who and what they were in 1947. This of course was well before they became an industry powerhouse after claiming a virtual monopoly on New Orleans based rock artists in the 1950’s, led by Domino and his producer Dave Bartholomew. But back in 1947 the Los Angeles based company was trying to make a go of it with a scattershot method of musical styles, from third rate country, blues and jazz artists who hadn’t been good enough to be signed to bigger labels, while their most noteworthy plan lay in their efforts to release Spanish versions of American hits (the company’s name came from California’s Imperial Valley, home to many Mexican immigrants), hoping that’d be enough of a niche to keep them afloat.

Needless to say with such an unusual business model they hadn’t yet turned the corner on success and owner Lew Chudd must’ve been getting antsy about their lack of quantifiable returns. So his decision to bring in guys like Davis, a local artist playing a style of music that wasn’t yet familiar to anyone but had remnants of jazz, gospel and blues in it, was understandable. Maybe all he’d accomplish for Chudd was to sell a few hundred copies of each single locally to those who were aware of his act firsthand from the clubs he appeared in, but those few hundred copies sold might mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy during a long hiatus from recording anybody else, so it was probably worth whatever small investment he made to sign him.

As for Charlie Davis, all he got out of his brief recording career that was over almost before it began was maybe a few bucks in his pocket and the chance to see his name on some records that few people bought then and even fewer have heard since. But for those who have heard them you can’t help but wonder what might’ve happened – for Davis, Chudd and Imperial, and rock ‘n’ roll in general – if he’d have gotten a few more opportunities along the way because as San Quentin Bait shows right out of the gate, Davis possessed the vocal exuberance, musical attitude and a flair for lyrical debauchery that rock was known for from the very beginning.
 

Something Tells Me…
Though Davis’s musical place in rock ‘n’ roll is hardly in question upon hearing the majority of his work, it helps to keep in mind the dominant musical motifs of this period which still have a tendency to make their presence known in even the most forward thinking early rock sides.

The A-side of this record, Rainin’ Blues, could also conceivably be included in a rock lineup, though it’s much further away from the identifiable features that the B-side shows.

On “Rainin” the out-of-date horns – or should I say the “still in style but fading fast” horns leftover from the big band era – dominate the arrangement far too much giving it a decidedly old school veneer. Davis’s vocals are pushing back against that conservative mindset the best they can but he can’t completely cut loose without throwing the entire record into open conflict. That means he needs to restrain himself more than rock fans – even at this point in the game – would like.

The sax solo thankfully takes Davis’s side to a degree and pulls it a little more towards the rock terrain but even this isn’t a strong move, just more of a lean and because it follows a decidedly mild trumpet solo you can tell they were all primarily aiming at an older and more established audience keeping it from fully earning its pass into our world.

On San Quentin Bait we have no such problems even though the same horn section is present on both. Sometimes in these earliest days of rock we wonder if the band was even aware of the song’s content and the main performer’s intent when they rolled the tapes but that’s not the case here, for one brief scan of the lyrics would have nobody mistaking this for a quaint nightclub set opener.

Just a brief aside… I wouldn’t think this would have to be mentioned but you never know what familiarity people have with all of the various side-topics these reviews touch upon so we won’t leave anyone having to scramble to Wikipedia to look things up before coming back here for the musical review… San Quentin refers to the prison located just north of San Francisco, California, a notorious place due to the type of hardened criminals it housed as well as being where the state’s executions were carried out, more than four hundred to date.

Though not quite as famous as Alcatraz, the island cell block located a few miles away that has long since been shut down, San Quentin’s name recognition soared thanks to its use in books, films and music, most notably a live album Johnny Cash recorded there for the prisoners in 1968.

So with that basic primer you might’ve guessed that the topic of Davis’s song falls on the illicit side of human behavior, namely his warning about sex with underage girls.

Hang on tight and keep your lawyer on call.
 


 

Up A Tree
The intro has Davis playing a boogie piano that sounds a lot fuller than what’s actually being presented. A vocal chorus joins in chanting the title line and there are some faint cries of joy that I presume are meant to indicate the girl’s rapturous replies to certain acts which shall go unmentioned here for legal reasons, but all of the other attributes you think you hear – drums, bass, prominent horns – are in your mind.

Davis’s piano handles the musical side of the equation by himself for the first forty seconds and he proves himself to be very solid. He doesn’t deviate from the basic requirements of a boogie but he hardly has to because of how durable that sound has always been. The vocalists behind him might not sound like convicts but then again they’re the ones acting as the Greek chorus warning Charlie to stay away from the younger girls.

When he starts singing Davis shows he’s got a voice to match his piano skills, a bit raw around the edges maybe, but his weathered baritone is a perfect fit for the story. He carries the rhythm in his vocal delivery and is projecting it all in a strong lusty tone, full of enthusiasm but tinged with restraint to keep it from getting the better of him.

Why is that? Because temptation is all around him in the form of girls who are “too young to date”. He can’t help but be attracted to them but knows that sidling up to one could land him behind bars and so he keeps his distance.

No doubt the trumpet solo in the midst of the song is helping to cool his desires as trumpets are known to do. It starts off strong but becomes increasingly flighty as it goes along, robbing it of the raciness the song calls for to really drive the point home. Had they given the solo to a more gutsy tenor sax everyone involved surely would have been sentenced to ten to twenty years before the stylus even lifted from the record.

Jake “King” Porter is a heckuva trumpeter though so he injects this with plenty of touches that hint at the more ribald sound of a saxophone early on but it doesn’t have quite the same effect and when he deviates to more of a typical trumpet sound by the end it keeps San Quentin Bait from moving into the upper echelon of rock records to date.

The lyrics too have to be kept to generalizations rather than detailed examples that could have helped its cause in being a corrupter of souls because while it’s unlikely that anyone in civil society was even aware of this music existing, let alone this particular artist on this small label, the risk of censure should it be discovered was too great to really go for broke. So Davis compensates by telling us that his mother warned him of these kind of allurements in life and he’s sagely taking her advice in order to remain a free man.

It’s not going to be easy as his excitement reaches a fever pitch in the half-shouted bridge which concludes with him saying that he’d risk prison if she could come along to jail with him (somehow I think he wouldn’t have her to himself very long in the pen, but maybe I’m just a cynic who doesn’t believe in love conquering all… including warding off a thousand stampeding horny inmates deprived of female companionship for decades).

Davis does all he can with the bowdlerized lyrics and you get a good enough sense of what lays just under the surface thanks to his hard-charging delivery to be reasonably satisfied with what he IS able to serve up, even if the uncensored version we can envision would have a lot more going for it.
 

Might Say They Will, Might Say They Won’t
There’s no way this was going to become a hit in the late 1940’s, not even a jukebox hit most likely. Yes there were a few songs where clever euphemisms were substituted for X-rated realities society had yet to feel comfortable admitting existed but they generally were done with a whimsical smile rather than a sly grin and so the best Davis could hope for here was probably some good word of mouth acclaim from the low-life degenerates who were discovering rock ‘n’ roll’s brand of musical mayhem.

But while it had definite commercial limitations, San Quentin Bait had stylistic benefits that should’ve been obvious to Lew Chudd when he sought to expand Imperial Records’ limited reach. First off this was a new market – not just to him personally but in music circles in general – and that was something that should’ve been explored (and exploited) more than he did over the next few years.

More to the point Davis himself proved on both sides of this debut that he was distinctly talented as a singer and a pianist, at least enough to warrant future sessions after the recording ban came to an end a year later. Considering that Imperial would continue to flounder until Chudd’s fateful meeting with Dave Bartholomew in late 1949 the fact that he’d had someone in his midst who might’ve at least given them some small recognition in the rock field prior to that has to go down as one of his bigger early missteps.

As for this song? Well, let’s just say that as in the story he spun for us Davis had grander ambitions that were stymied by circumstances. On record that would be the trumpet’s slightly overbearing presence and the lyrical restrictions placed on him by the rules of decorum that were inescapable on commercial recordings at this time.

Meanwhile the reputation of San Quentin loomed large enough that Charlie “Boogie Woogie” Davis probably didn’t want to risk any overambitious prosecutor’s ire by stepping over the lines of musical or sexual deviancy and so his self-control in both cases is probably admirable even if the record he might’ve made otherwise was worth a short stay in the slammer to hear.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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