This is another review that will focus largely on the importance of representation in popular culture, a topic that many people in the majority never give thought to because representation for their various demographics – race, gender, sexual orientation, native language, etc. – are literally everywhere they look every day of their lives.

When they do see a story, or in this case a review, which brings up the topic there’s a good chance many of them are going to get offended by those like me who keep harping on it rather than see it as a way to learn of its importance.

If that describes you… well, you won’t be missed as you click to another website.

If not, or better still, if it DOES describe you but you care enough about the history of rock ‘n’ roll to keep reading anyway, maybe this record, which isn’t anything special in of itself, can start to change your attitudes.


Blow Out
In the past we’ve talked a lot about radio disc jockeys, both for the role they played in spreading the word on rock ‘n’ roll over the airwaves, but also because they were frequently a source of – let’s call it “inspiration” rather than payola – for records like this which needed a catchy title for songs without benefit of lyrics from which to derive them.

Along the way we saw them Bouncing With Benson and Hoppin’ With Hunter. Atlantic Records was Lowe Groovin’ while Savoy was putting in a Plug For Cliff. It was a common practice, a way to curry favor with somebody in a key position who could help your label have success by spinning more of your records in return for your “tribute” to them.

Yeah, it was pretty shallow, exploitative and insincere, neither side would’ve argued otherwise. You could even call it bribery even though no money changed hands. But like it or not, that was the nature of the business they were in and so it was widely accepted even if it didn’t result in actual hits for the artist, nor any real benefit for the dee-jay in question.

So on the surface Jiving With Dr. Jive, the on-air name of Tommy Smalls on New York station WWRL, is just another in the long line of these superficial displays of public affection. The fact that the instrumental record in rock has greatly decreased in number the last few years simply means we haven’t had much occasion to bring the issue up lately.

But when you look at the particulars of this song – and one released simultaneously by fellow rock saxman, Hal Singer, Please Dr. Jive, on Coral Records (if anybody has a copy of this and wants to send it here – and a label scan – to be reviewed via the e-mail address at the bottom of every page, I’d greatly appreciate it as it’s one of many early rock sides unavailable in the current landscape) – you find that while surely the intent was the same as all of those other records slapped with another jock’s name on it, there was one notable difference which explains why a young disc jockey who’d only been on the air a few short months and had no track record to speak of yet, was suddenly the focal point of two singles by fairly big names.

That reason is Dr. Jive was Black in an industry that still resisted putting Black voices on the air.

Blown Away
I know, there ARE other Black disc jockeys working in America in 1952. In fact, right in New York City one of the most popular dee-jays, regardless of race, was Willie Bryant, an African-American (with a white co-host no less!), so it wasn’t Tommy Smalls’ mere presence behind the mic that made it a big deal.

But it WAS the combination of his race, his age and the music he was hired specifically to play – rock ‘n’ roll – which signaled that things were changing for the better at long last.

Tommy Smalls was born in Georgia where at 21 he became the first person of color to utter a word over the air in Savannah as an employee of a radio station. Think about that for a second. A pretty big city with a large black population had never heard someone who looked like them entrusted with that job.

Representation matters. If you’re a white male, everywhere you go from childhood on has white men in positions of authority. Schools, doctors offices, courtrooms, coaches in youth sports, police departments, town governments. They may not be exclusively holding down every position of importance here in the Twenty-First Century, but I guarantee you there’s no lack of representation for white men in any of those fields. I’ll also guarantee that even today there’s still a scarcity of African-Americans in those same positions in most communities across the country, a disparity that far outstrips any demographic breakdown.

In 1952 that representation was almost non-existent. So while a mere disc jockey might not have any responsibility that truly mattered in the big scheme of things, their presence on the air was a symbol that couldn’t be taken lightly… because in many cases a symbol was all you had.

There was also an ancillary reason where you could make a legitimate case that his presence DID matter, because it had to do with the increasing importance of rock ‘n’ roll itself in the marketplace. This was a music that just five years earlier came out of a marginalized segment of an already marginalized demographic, as young Black ears caught onto it first. The major record industry ignored it while even radio stations catering to that community – if their published station surveys are any indication – still favored older, more respectable, forms of Black music catering to adults.

But in 1952 the tide was becoming too strong to hold back. Radio stations had to adapt to give the rapidly expanding listening audience what they wanted and they could no longer expect aging disc jockeys with their hearts in jazz to make the decision on what to play.

Hence we have Tommy Smalls, who just turned 26 a month before Jiving With Dr. Jive was released, given the job of bringing those sounds to the young Black audience who were actively shaping the musical future… not just in their own neighborhoods, but soon influencing what their peers in the white community would be listening to as well.


Blow Me Down
With that kind of build up you kinda knew the record itself would have to be something of a let-down.

We can hardly blame Charlie Singleton for that, he surely didn’t choose THIS song to have that title applied to it (though Atlas Records was owned by a Black man, for what that’s worth).

The first part of this is a little too jazzy, thereby seeming to refute what we just said about the vastly different perspectives of those who belonged to the past generation and those, like Smalls, who represented the present outlook.

It kicks off with a slightly percussive piano followed by lightly riffing horns – though at least they’re using a deeper register if nothing else – which soon give way to Charlie Singleton who plays in far too light a fashion for rock ‘n’ roll. It may not quite be aspiring to satisfy jazz fans, but it’s certainly aligned enough with their tastes to meet with modest approval from the older set.

But as Jiving With Dr. Jive progresses Singleton starts to put a little more of his balls into it (for lack of a better description), blowing harder, even honking a bit, and stepping up the pace. Meanwhile the same riff the other horns led off with returns for an encore behind him but which in this improved context seems somehow roughened up a little.

Granted this still isn’t blowing the roof off the place and may still be a little too mannered to force a stubborn wallflower onto the dance floor, but at least if you get out there you’re going to shake your hips and once loosened up will probably come to enjoy it down the stretch.

As always with Singleton, you can’t find fault in the playing or even the structural aspects of the arrangement. Though lacking the kind of gritty, head-bobbing, shoulders-grooving, sweat flying, audience screaming performance behind it, the record is still nice enough to listen to, even if it lets us down – and thus lets Tommy Smalls down – in the final analysis.

Blow Back
Over the next decade or so, we might actually come across more famous disc jockeys who were initially believed by some listeners to be Black (including Alan Freed, John R. and Wolfman Jack) than who actually pass the melanin test, so it’s not as if Tommy “Dr. Jive” Smalls sparked a major revolution in the radio industry.

But it was another important step on the road to equality as Smalls played an increasingly vital role in the ongoing struggle for representation – both racially, and musically in the mainstream – that far surpassed whatever recognition he got for being the subject matter of Jiving With Dr. Jive.

He soon started hosted rock ‘n’ roll shows at The Apollo Theater which led to him being given a one-time only segment of his own on an episode of the massively popular television variety show hosted by Ed Sullivan to present a handful of rock acts (one of whom – Bo Diddley – nearly caused ol’ Ed to blow a gasket), but which brought black rock stars into American living rooms in 1955.

He was so successful he managed to buy and operate Small’s Paradise, a legendary Harlem club (named for its original owner Ed Smalls, no relation, which helped to popularize jazz in the city three decades earlier) and was subsequently given the title of the unofficial “Mayor Of Harlem” in 1956.

Then again, this is America we’re talking about and so you know there has to be a “BUT” coming.

In 1960 two of the biggest disc jockeys in the country saw their careers effectively ended in the payola scandal, a “crime” that most dee-jays on all stations catering to all formats had been guilty of partaking in over the years.

Alan Freed, the man responsible for popularizing the name “rock ‘n’ roll” on his way to becoming the music’s most outspoken public champion – and who white society viewed as the one responsible for bringing Black music to their children’s attention – was one who took the fall.

The other, unsurprisingly, was the most prominent Black disc jockey on the air… Tommy Smalls, whose massively successful career on radio ended before he was even thirty-five years old.

Some things never change.


(Visit the Artist page of Charlie Singleton for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)