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SAVOY 5560, MARCH, 1949



The basics of traveling really comes down to two distinct things – departure and arrival. Where you go, how you get there, what you see along the way are the details that make any trip memorable, but the act of traveling only requires that you leave wherever you are and wind up someplace else.

For most artists in the early years of rock before the music became a source of public scrutiny, their travels – the shows they performed during long grueling tours, the long rides in between stops, the struggles with promoters to be paid what they were due and the day to day indignities they faced on the road where their visibility drew ire in a racist country – were the realities of their journey as professional musicians but those details remained mostly unknown to all but the artists themselves and their immediate circle of confidants. In time, when those artists passed on, the memories of those days became lost forever.

So what’s left to document their travels are just what we, as listeners, can access most easily, namely their records. Or in the case of Chicago Davis, the only one he got under that name. One that gives no insight as to the roads he took to get to this point of his career, nor hinted at where he was headed when that career wound down following its release.


Going Back To The City
It’s a frustrating thing trying to document the history of an entire genre of music by focusing on all of the artists who partook in that history only to come across those who left little to show for their brief association with the music on record.

Frustrating for us, maybe for you, but imagine being the artist in question and having your hard work and dreams reduced to only a name on a handful of releases. That moment in the studio, three hours of their life in most cases, winds up being their professional epitaph and in many cases their personal one as well. Who they were, what they were like, what else they did and who they did it with are a mystery.

Though we have a little more information on Chicago Davis, specifically that he was Carl Davis who also got a release as under the King Carl moniker, shows that the deck was probably stacked against him from the very start. It’s hardly the best way to build a long career when the record label can’t even decide on your name.

But this is the harsh reality of the music business, wherein somebody enters a studio for the first time with high aspirations only to come out of that studio in no better a position than before. In many cases the relative failure of those records will serve as the last viable moment where optimism carried more weight than the pessimistic outlooks that defined so many scuffling hopefuls on a treadmill to oblivion.

Davis’s inherent weaknesses – a squawking and somewhat nasal voice in addition to being a songwriter without much distinction – all but ensured his ultimate fate as a nonentity, but he wasn’t without at least some attributes which gave some reason to think he might break out of whatever club circuit he came out of and find some moderate appeal to record buyers. After all he sang with genuine emotional commitment and at least had the style of singing down pat, if not quite the skills, to make his comfort with the form seem natural. But while those qualities kept him from being completely irrelevant at the time the real reason he’s had a modicum of lingering attention to his one release had to do primarily with who he had working alongside him in the studio, tenor sax star Hal Singer whose presence on both of these sides keep them from being entirely forgotten.

On I Feel So Good, the A-side of the record, Davis might not have been adding too much to the merits of the song but he wasn’t detracting from it either, making it a solid entry in the rock landscape of the first half of 1949. But even while we were modestly approving of him there it was hard to envision a scenario where that wouldn’t wind up being his shining moment as a performer, as Singer’s skills on tenor bolstered Davis’s shortcomings and allowed them to be perfectly acceptable for what it was, a somewhat crude and boisterous celebration of life on the margins.

But if that was the best he had to offer, as decent as it may have been, it leads to the question of else he could possibly come up with that wasn’t simply derivative of that rather rambunctious ode to womanhood.

Well, look no further than Travelin’ Shoes, a blatant appropriation of Jimmy Liggins and probably all you needed to hear to know for sure that Chicago Davis’s rather limited potential had already reached its breaking point.

Feel Like Travelin’
The two artists make for an interesting contrast because at first glance they are a bit alike but it was what was beneath those surface traits that set them apart. For starters both Liggins and Davis have voices that aren’t exactly ideal. Liggins’s nasal baritone has limited options when it comes to his delivery and to date his self-composed songs are also lacking much melodic variation giving a lot of his material a sense of repetitiveness.

Davis also sings with his head rather than his chest but whereas Liggins has excellent control over his limited voice Davis is continually straining even as he does show signs of being able to switch up his delivery enough to suit the songs.

Both artists are helped immeasurably by good musicians, specifically the saxophonists they each have behind them. Singer we’ve already talked at length about when it comes to Davis’s first side, and he’s just as solid here which we’ll get into, but Liggins had two such figures in his employ, Harold Land and Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson, and their presence were constant highlighs on his arrangements just as Singer’s role is here.

But where Jimmy Liggins really sets himself apart from Chicago Davis, and in the process made himself a consistent second tier star for a half decade or more in the rock field with a number of hits to his credit, is the fact that while his songs are pretty basic when it comes to the topical content he tells those stories with a sharp eye for detail and a fair amount of depth and vibrant wordplay, at least as much as possible within a two and a half minute song destined for the jukeboxes.

By contrast Chicago Davis only skims over the surface of the sentiments expressed in Travelin’ Shoes and rather than match the melancholy music with a story that explores the basic topic in a different and far more compelling way, he takes the downcast tone and his lack of funds that suggest a person down and out and tries to weld that to a more hopeful desire which conflicts with the musical perspective.

This is particularly frustrating because he had better options to choose from and in fact either ONE of the choices he did make might’ve worked well on its own, shorn of the other which takes it in an opposition direction. Had he wanted to show the resilient spirit of a man who might not have much in life but follows his dreams as he attempts to defy the odds and see the world and all it has to offer – which is already the undercurrent of the song he sings – then he needed to jettison the maudlin trappings it’s surrounded by. In that alternate rendition his determination and buoyant optimism would need to overcome his circumstances and to show that perspective you need to use the music behind him as an accomplice rather than a hindrance. In other words the morose sounding song itself can’t be what he’s in effect trying to break away from, instead it has to reflect his optimism and be representative of his unshakable hope for a better tomorrow.

That record would be similar sounding to the top-side, a little less joyous maybe but still largely upbeat by nature and for those not paying strict attention to the lyrics it could’ve potentially had some value as a record fit for dancing which was one of the more reliable avenues to scoring a hit.

The other method he could’ve chosen would be the more artistic one, something leaning on the downbeat music Travelin’ Shoes DOES employ rather than fighting against it. It’d be easy enough to do simply by matching that aural feeling with a storyline more suited for the despondent mood it creates. In this approach he would simply have to use the traveling theme as a negative, not a potential positive, as he’d be someone forced to travel and be away from his loved ones just to earn a living. A musical Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman.

Both of those approaches have definite possibilities and yet instead of choosing one and mining that perspective for all it was worth Davis awkwardly brings both to the table and winds up with something that is neither introspective and poignant nor uplifting and heartwarming.

I Know The Road Is Rocky
Like much of Liggins work the horns that are featured here with their drawn out intermittent refrain is meant to conjure up the monotony of the road, something which is then added to by the rhythmic clicking of the stand-up bass which implies a train riding along an endless track.

But as stated the main character in Travelin’ Shoes isn’t actually traveling anywhere, he merely wants to be able to get away but he’s broke and so his vocals take on a weepy tone which certainly matches his perspective but which leaves us stranded on the platform wondering why he’s going one way and the train is pulling out of the station without either of us on board.

As Davis bemoans his lot in life with increasing despair the horns actually start to pick up the pace and become almost upbeat rather than keep aligned his dejected mood. Talk about trains on opposite tracks, this is almost the textbook definition of it!

Singer’s sax solo comes along to at least give us a respite from the divergent themes being explored and once again he’s the best aspect of the record playing a modest restrained solo to start with before becoming increasingly invigorated as it goes along. He’s soon joined by the other horns who sound pretty darn good with their interjections but if you’ve been listening to the rest of the song you only become more confused as to what any of this is supposed to represent.

Davis repeatedly states “I know the road is rocky and I don’t want no travelin’ blues” indicating his position in life is at the bottom of the ladder, telling us later that his pockets are empty from gambling too much (and you could even substitute gambling with bad decisions in life instead of merely gambling on cards, dice or horses and it’d fit just as well if not better) but he remains insistent that he’s going to get out as soon as he gets those elusive traveling shoes…

So yeah, even more than you feared his songwriting does this record in by focusing on the actual FOOTWEAR he thinks he needs to get out of town – gotta watch your feet on those “rocky roads” after all! – rather than the personal resolve and symbolism that might’ve made this something to be proud of.

I’ll Be Leaving Right Away
We’ve looked back at quite a number of journeymen in rock music so far and have thousands upon thousands more who will fit that bill in the future and in most cases, this one included, it’s not hard to figure out why they didn’t quite make it.

Without wanting to be too stereotypical and lump all of them in the same confining box, most of them had some talent but little awareness of how to best utilize that talent and either work to shore up their weaknesses or at least do something to minimize the impact of their specific shortcomings.

Chicago Davis had within his grasp on Travelin’ Shoes a potentially good song, maybe not quite enough to be a genuine hit with his somewhat weak pipes but certainly something to keep him being seen as a small asset for record companies rather than easily disposable.

What he managed to grasp well enough here was the basic concept itself… they had a good model they were working off of in Liggins, they had a decent theme and they had a strong band. But what they didn’t have was the vision to see how all of that would work best and so they settled for something simplistic and, ironically considering the topic at hand, something transient by nature.

So it’s a little unsettling knowing that we get to see Davis’s arrival and at virtually the same time predict his imminent departure on his own musical travels in the land of rock ‘n’ roll. That they’ll wind up coming in such rapid succession shouldn’t be a surprise but we still can’t help but wonder what he thought of that short-lived trip at the time.

More fascinating however is what he might’ve been thinking when looking back at his journey years later from the perspective of someone who had all of the other details we can only guess at. Did he wish he’d planned that trip better, believing it was just a few missteps that caused him to falter, or was he bitter at his experiences and thus wish he never took that trip at all.

Or if he did wind up fairly content with the rest of his life and was able to put all of this in proper perspective did he find himself wistfully looking back at what had happened and ruefully wishing that when he pulled into the depot in the winter of 1949, still full of hope, that he took the time to get off the train and stroll around town to take in all of the sights and sounds rather than be so anxious to get those shoes on and head on back down the line… which in life, as well as in music, is often the same place you started.


(Visit the Artist page of Chicago Davis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)

(See also the Artist page of Hal Singer for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)