ATLAS 103; JANUARY 1952

 
 

 

What happens when a brand new record company uses the tactics of older established record companies when it comes to hastily jumping on the bandwagon to try and cover a rising hit from another genre in an blatantly transparent attempt to draw some quick sales for something artificial and uninspired?

The same thing that usually happens… it doesn’t work and in the process they lose whatever interest they may have been drawing for that artist’s original material which had been on the market all of a week or two.

Is it any wonder so many of these companies went under?
 

 

Crying For Attention
Okay, so you’re looking at the title of this record and asking yourself… “What rising hit was this? Who did the original? I’ve never heard of it before!”.

That’s because Swinging Away is not the rising hit we’re talking about.

For that you have to flip the record over, or didn’t you notice this is simply the B-side, an original composition by saxophonist Charlie Singleton, one that gets wasted languishing on the back of a cover of a huge smash whose most distinguishing feature was its vocal performance by Johnnie Ray.

In the winter of 1951/52, Ray was the biggest sensation in music. A white partially deaf kid who’d studied at the feet of black performers such as his friend from Detroit, LaVern Baker, he managed to create a totally unique hybrid sound that was one part genuine emotion and one part garish exaggeration and was currently enjoying the acclaim for one of the greatest two-sided records of the 1950’s, regardless of style.

The slightly bigger side was Cry, a tortured post-breakup song in which his throbbing tenor voice wailed in semi-controlled agony, wringing every drop of torment from his soul in the process.

It was a fascinating thing to witness – even more so live where he’d break down visually as well – but even on record audiences were getting a voyeuristic thrill by intruding on something so personal and painful as this, almost a case of audio rubbernecking if you will, peeking out your window as you drive by, hoping to spot the gruesome carnage of the wreck on the side of the road.

Even as there was a certain novelty feel to it, there was no denying it was a great performance and the public was transfixed by the record – and the even more aesthetically captivating flip The Little White Cloud That Cried, a better written song by Ray himself, featuring a more nuanced vocal which went to #2 on the charts in its own right – and so naturally other companies wanted to jump on board.

In fact, Ray’s version of Cry was a cover itself (Ruth Casey released the original in September with Ray’s coming out two months later amidst a rash of covers including June Valli and Eileen Barton), but nobody cared for any rendition but Ray’s because none of them took things to the extreme as he did.

So in that sense maybe Charlie Singleton’s instrumental cover made a little sense… but only a little, because while the melody itself is intriguing enough, it was clearly secondary to the intense vocal performance that was fresh in everybody’s mind.

Take that away and what you’re left with is tedious and uneventful.
 

Can You Swing It?
But wait a minute, which side of the record are we reviewing here? Isn’t this the OTHER song on this single? The original composition by Charlie Singleton himself?

Yes it is, but to get to that we have to show why it even got issued so soon after his debut and for that we need to clear the deck of the dreck that is Cry, which by keeping it at the same slow pace without any embellishments to try and mimic the emotionalism of Johnnie Ray’s performance – the one thing the sax was eminently qualified to do by the way – you’re left with lounge music for 3 AM after everybody has gone to bed.

So naturally that must mean that Atlas Records were at least smart enough to pair it with something much more exciting to give listeners a clear option and to promote the fact their artist was not some stuffy musician pulled for this job out of a swanky chamber orchestra somewhere. Right?

No, of course they don’t do that, for even while Swinging Away is more lively paced than the top half, it’s not showing much in the way of excitement, inventiveness or danceability.

To Singleton’s credit though the song is well-played and the addition of an organ – as on the other side – gives it a different feel than a lot of the sax instrumentals, at least in rock, but that’s the problem too. The organ, though a distinctive mood enhancer, doesn’t enhance the right mood for rock audiences where it comes across as a concession to loftier pursuits.

Like say that same lounge music… maybe a bit earlier in the night, say 11PM when people are still awake, but still not intent on cutting a groove. The piano interlude doesn’t help matters, its style of playing pulling it further away from our neck of the woods, so that means everything is left up to Singleton himself to keep this even modestly relevant.

He tries his best, his riffs are compact and economical, spry if not exactly vigorous, but they’re lacking the power that grabs you and won’t let go. Ironically the exact kind of power – albeit in a far different way – that Johnnie Ray possessed in his vocals for the song on the other side of this record.

In other words, the rock act struggles to convince us of his allegiance to rock music while the pop act who caused this song to see the light of day on the back side of a cover record is the one with the requisite show of emotional grit that’s more at home in rock ‘n’ roll.

Go figure.
 


 

A Swing And A Miss
Put yourself in Atlas Records’ shoes for a minute. You’re still in your crib so to speak, a month old, no stars on your label, no hits to your name, struggling to get your product heard.

There’s a big hit that is on everyone’s mind and it’s an era where cover records proliferate the market. In Charlie Singleton you have a musician who theoretically could deliver a version that would stand apart from the crowd because it’s an instrumental. Never mind that he already HAS a new record out, this one by virtue of its title alone will draw a few more curious souls, so why not put it on the market and take your chances?

Here’s why. It’s not what he does well and is not a very credible version to begin with. It doesn’t stand out, nor even blend in, and sounds so weightless it simply drifts away.

Meanwhile Swinging Away, an original song and thus presumably a more accurate representation of his skills, now has a greater likelihood to be heard by those pulled in by the title of the top half, while it is a slightly better performance it’s still not worth all that much on its own.

So with this release you’ve set back Singleton’s reputation and hurt your own company’s chances at getting ahead by diverting attention from the first sides – which WERE good – that you put out only last month to launch your company.

Any way you look at it that’s just bad business.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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