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APOLLO 794; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

Trends in popular culture generally don’t take long to catch on. If people’s curious interest overrides their skepticism at the first public sighting of something new and different then that trend has a foothold it will quickly use to take over the universe.

In 1949 television was irrefutably proving this point on a daily basis. The Commerce Department this month estimated that TV revenue for 1949 would be 28 million dollars, nearly three times what it was in 1948 ($10 mil). New stations were springing up across the country at an alarming rate and for the first time ever radio was seeing a decline in interest. This same month RCA jumped into the race to create color compatible television, the potentially lucrative new frontier for making TV even more ubiquitous in the home.

Considering that just two years earlier television was seen as an expensive fad with very limited programming and almost no market penetration, the sudden explosion in its popularity was a pretty definitive confirmation of it becoming a “trend”.

Rock ‘n’ roll of course was almost equally precipitous in its rise during that exact same time span from late 1947 through mid-1949, but like television, which for some inexplicable reason has lasted into the Twenty-First century, at a certain point it no longer is a trend, but rather an institution.

Trends have very definite arcs – the rise, the peak and the fall – and so we can’t call either TV or rock ‘n’ roll a trend.

But within rock there was another trend happening during this period that did meet the criteria, though at the present time it was still enjoying its extended peak. We’re talking (yet again) about the sax instrumental.
 

 
 
One of the best ways to spot and confirm a trend is how many outlets there are pitching the same product.

Heading into autumn 1949 television ads were everywhere you looked as retailers wanted to capitalize on the growing mania before it was too late and everybody already had one.

Likewise record companies were frantically searching for new sax players to try and carve out a share of the rock market before people presumably would get tired of all the honking and squealing and turn their attention to something more pedestrian and quiet, like… I dunno… maybe Zither music.

So it was with Apollo Records, a well-established independent label dating back to 1944 who make their first real foray into rock with this effort (The Four Blues cut, It Takes A Long Tall Brown Skin Gal, from April 1948 being more of an anomaly). Like most of the indie companies that first appeared in the 1940’s they too specialized in black music, but whereas most of their competitors jumped onto the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon soon after it got rolling, Apollo was doing well enough with their gospel line (with the great Mahalia Jackson being their most prolific and best selling artist) and had enough notable jazz artists to round out their releases without having to delve into something as seedy as rock ‘n’ roll.

Until it became a trend to big to ignore.

So that’s when they rethought their position and came up with an alto saxophonist by the name of Charlie Singleton who they hoped could satisfy this brand of music mayhem while it lasted, yet would be potentially capable of shifting into a more appropriate jazz setting should the rowdy rock instrumental trend start to fizzle out.
 

The Kansas City Connection
Charlie Singleton was all of 19 years old in 1949, making him yet another teenager who was effectively shaping the music of the day. We’ve said repeatedly how unlike so many other forms of music where age and experiences were all but pre-requisites for success, in rock ‘n’ roll the opposite was true. Youth was the order of the day in rock, crucial for both the generational outlook the music embodied as well as possessing the desire for – or more precisely the NEED for – ambitious self-expression that all young kids feel.

Those two attributes combined to make rock vastly different from everything else out there and which resulted in the connection it made with the equally young and eager audience buying these records.

But Singleton was no kid fresh off the turnip truck, he’d studied in his hometown of Kansas City under Leo Davis whose most famous student was none other than Charlie Parker, who was only the most acclaimed saxophonist in the country by this time. Maybe that’s why Singleton was playing alto (like Parker) when most of his competitors in rock ‘n’ roll were honking away on the more robust tenor sax.

Eventually he’d switch over to tenor as well but Singleton shows that he can handle the alto with aplomb, spitting out lines that were often just as rough-necked as those coming out of any tenor sax on the rock scene.

In spite of his age Singleton had made a name for himself already once he’d got to New York City just barely out of school. He was already leading his own band since his arrival in the Big Apple and unlike many just starting out he wasn’t reliant on covering material written by others, so the possibilities for what he might deliver are probably higher than they’d be in other circumstances.

We criticize a lot of record companies for a lot of bad decisions and for seeming to have a lack of faith in both their artists and the marketplace they’re trying to reach, but here plenty of credit is due Apollo Records for not only signing a kid with no recording experience but then letting him go into the studio and cut sides without any interference. This is all the more remarkable considering the company itself had no prior rock excursions to go by when trying to assess what might sell and therefore might be prone to leaning too much towards their established jazz aesthetics.

But one listen to the wonderfully named Keep Cool shows that wasn’t the case, as Singleton leaves no doubt whatsoever that he’s invested in rock ‘n’ roll right from the start of his career.
 


 

Start Off Hot
You never really know how these sax instrumentals are going to approach things even though there’s been a few basic formulas that are tried and true by now. For instance if Singleton is going to lock into a slowly melodic groove that’s a far different stylistic bent than those utilizing the slow build up technique that inevitably launches into a raunchier explosion mid-way through.

With a title like Keep Cool you probably expect something sleepily seductive and just hope it doesn’t wander into anything resembling actual slumber. Instead what you get is a succession of increasingly powerful musical bombs going off that would wake the dead.

Singleton’s musical vitality on this is evident from the first notes he blows, both fierce and haunting, which is an interesting but effective combination of moods to elicit. It’s got something of a stripper music at a seedy waterside dive vibe to it, right down to the absolutely kicking drum work at the appropriate times (right about the time when brassieres are being cast aside in the name of humanity).

Aside from the lurid images it conjures up there’s also a very definite harsh edge to how it comes blasting out of the speakers. It’s a very LOUD record and I don’t just mean it contains a lot of noise, though it does at that. But rather that there’s no sign that the more aggressive instruments were placed further back in the mix – or in this era they’d likely be placed further away from the microphones on the studio floor – and so you’re constantly barraged by a very palpable energy. It almost sounds as if it had been recorded in a shack built of sheet metal which gives it a shimmering echo that could split your eardrums… and that’s a good thing in case you were dreading the idea of hunting down such a shattering listening experience.
 

Sizzling
We’ve seen a lot of horn players have a similar concept, that of trying to imply all sorts of menace and raucous behavior with how much noise they make, but many, if not most, of those fail because they don’t seem to think those records need to follow basic musical rules and instead merely substitute anarchy for a well-drawn plot to overthrow all sense of decorum.

But Singleton, even as he downplays the melodic aspects of this to a degree, doesn’t skimp on the arrangement side of the formula, giving the record a very solid structure to keep it reined in and moving forward logically.

He’s aided by some good musicians who never try and do too much but make notable contributions throughout. From Reginald Ashby’s alternately swinging and stomping piano lines to the unnamed bassist who lays down his part with vibrato that gives it more resonance and helps it to stand out amidst all the clamor.

Then there’s the drummer, whoever he may be, who apparently is using drumsticks made of redwood trees dipped in concrete, pounding the skins with a ferocity that matches Singleton’s increasingly forceful workout on the horn, giving this a resounding bottom to keep it locked in.

Thus far Earl Bostic has been the standard bearer for the alto sax in rock, not that there’s been much to choose from with that instrument as the lead, but all things considered I’d have to say this is the best we’ve heard out of that horn in all of rock to date. Singleton plays with a focused fury rather than wild abandon, his intensity becoming borderline demonic towards the end, holding notes for an eternity before effortlessly letting them sway as he shifts to another passage.

You end up drained, but happy.
 

Cool Off
With so many sax instrumentals to cover in rock’s first decade when that sound reigned we tend to try and classify them in smaller categories to make sense of it all. With Keep Cool there’s not many categories that would do it justice.

So maybe the best way to put it into some sort of perspective is to compare it to prizefighting. Like in boxing this is three minutes of power, speed, agility and stress with no escape. Watching a boxing match on a television screen doesn’t always do it justice when it comes to conveying the sheer exertion required for making it through even one round.

Play this record while watching a good fight and you’ll start to get the idea.

Unfortunately this was the extent of Apollo Records output with Charlie Singleton. Whether they were too startled with what Singleton came up with to come out of hiding from under the desk and bring him in for another session or if they just reconsidered the sanity of trying to harness and somehow tame wild songs like this for mass consumption and decided to stick with gospel, country and jazz isn’t known.

They would get back into the field in due time, including even cutting some other sax kingpins along the way, but as first efforts in the field go Keep Cool sets a pretty high bar.

Luckily Singleton himself had no trouble finding other suitors for his brand of rocking, though for awhile it’d be with even smaller labels with less distribution and promotional pull than Apollo, so his work was in no danger of being heard by enough people to cause any widespread panic.

The lesson in all of this though is that even when you think something as unrepentantly crass as rock ‘n’ roll, and the even more unruly sounds of the sax instrumental within rock, are sure to be short-lived trends, along comes somebody like Singleton who has other ideas and they keep the whole thing from ever getting stale.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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