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COLUMBIA 30216; AUGUST 1950

 
 

 

Sometimes an artist can play a vitally important role in the advancement of a certain kind of music while being something of a charlatan.

That word itself carries with it such a stigma that you don’t really want to use it, especially for any act in rock that legitimately embodied everything that was great about the music at a certain point, but who – in the big scheme of things – wound up being unsuited to advance beyond that, or even at times to repeat the formula that they succeeded with.

Lots of artists fail to live up to a single burst of promise of course and they’re not pilloried for it, but rather passed off as a flash-in-the-pan, allowed to enjoy the lingering recognition for those handful of durable records while having the rest of their story rendered irrelevant if not unknown by the masses.

But for those whose earlier work and subsequent efforts seemed to be light years away from their brief moments of inspiration, their entire legacy is called into question. If they were so out of touch with rock music at other stages of their careers then how can we fully trust the artistic legitimacy of those handful of transcendent sides?

Once we question their right to even be recognized for that immortal work without more corroborating evidence their place in rock’s evolution becomes diminished and in some cases eventually excised completely.
 

 

The Music’s Really Somethin’
The most apt comparison to make in this re-writing of history is undoubtedly Bill Haley & His Comets.

Though far more well known, successful, influential and important than Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames, the similarities between the two groups are rather striking when you get down to it, from their shared Pennsylvania club backgrounds, their gradual uncertain shift from other older styles to rock ‘n’ roll (night club jive in Powell’s case, while Haley began as a country and western act) and even their shared apprehension of Jimmy Preston’s Rock The Joint as their breakthrough rock performance.

Haley of course went on to far bigger things, partly a result of better timing and the natural advantages in 1950’s America for being Caucasian, but also because he was shrewd enough to sense the opportunity laid out before him and unlike Powell he methodically set about trying to capitalize on it by assiduously crafting his material to best reach the rock audience and along the way released a few truly remarkable records that have stood the test of time.

Chris Powell never saw anywhere near the acclaim for his own earlier rock breakthroughs, none of his records even made the charts after all, but for those who heard his incredible version of Rock The Joint or its almost equally good follow up Swingin’ In The Groove their impact was substantial and their status as true believers could hardly be questioned.

But how quickly the tide had turned and once their natural instincts towards something more gimmicky and old fashioned reared their ugly heads and now you had every right to call their credentials into question.

Dance ‘Til The Break Of Dawn was clearly their attempts to ward off any calls to expel them from the union, but while it contained plenty of explosive content to grant them a repreive, it also had more than enough evidence to suggest their position in rock was tenuous enough to cause them concern.
 


 

Locked All The Doors
To show just how suspect their output was by this point, one look at the titles would indicate that this was a double-sided attempt at rehabbing their image after some regrettable missteps earlier in the year. But when you listen to Blues In My Heart what you get isn’t a soulful lament as you might think, nor even a suitable generic boogie to satisfy the rockers, but rather a painfully wooden pop-centric ballad that not even some shimmering guitar fills can salvage.

So surely based on that evidence you’d expect this side to be equally unsuited for rock membership as well, possibly even a gimmicky novelty with hints of swing or polka music weaved into the arrangement.

Luckily that’s not the case, but while it’s clear the intent was indeed to re-establish the group as preeminent rockers they were finding it increasingly difficult to outrun their own pasts. Their ages, their musical backgrounds and their experiences couldn’t help but give them away as their natural instincts were becoming more out of step with the modern scene with each passing day.

Dance ‘Til The Break Of Dawn starts off with the right idea but the wrong deliveries. It’s fast paced and full of enthusiasm, but their repeated chanting of the title line comes across as forced and somewhat phony and the timid drums and weak trombone line is hardly helping matters.

Things improve slightly when Red Spencer takes the first solo on tenor sax, but while it keeps you from heading for the exit it’s not winning you over either. After starting off alright it soon loses steam, both in terms of the passion with which its played and the quality of the notes its churning out. Even though it picks up the pace again after a brief lull it’s still a far cry from what former quasi-member Danny Turner had delivered on their best sides a year ago.

But just as you’ve become resigned to this being little more than a halfhearted effort to stave off the inevitable slide into irrelevancy, along comes the one thing with the power to rescue the record and the group itself from being cast aside completely and although it doesn’t have quite enough time to convert you entirely, it’s not for a lack of effort while it lasts.
 

The Music Is Gone
Considering that Chris Powell himself was a rather nondescript singer, boisterous but hardly offering much more than simple enthusiasm, the weight of their records fell on the band itself and in crafting arrangements that would constantly up the ante on the mayhem, hoping to create enough of a racket to make you overlook their shortcomings in other areas.

With Turner sitting in with the band – and bringing with him the first rate material from his steady job in Preston’s group that Powell used for their two defining records – they were able to accomplish this, but the rest of the time they were more hit or miss.

For much of Dance ‘Til The Break Of Dawn was the case too. Whether the arrangement was at fault or the musicians weaknesses were simply starting to be exposed the fact is this was journeyman playing being exhibited here.

Until midway through the instrumental break that is, when out of nowhere comes mild-mannered, bespectacled Eddie Lambert on guitar playing as if his life – not just his career – depended on it.

The licks he tears off are fast and ferocious, aggressive and melodic, sharp as a knife and just as lethal. It takes us back to his equally impressive showcase on Rock The Joint where his blazing riffs were just one part of a maelstrom of sound delivered by the entire band.

Here however he stands out more simply because he’s surrounded by rather mediocre support and as a result we react with far more interest, taking notice of each and every shift in tone, celebrating its audacity and appreciating the attitude it shows that signals to us that we shouldn’t give up on them entirely just yet.

Like Haley would in his career when his stellar sidemen were often required to rescue an otherwise ho-hum song, Lambert does that and more. He’s arguably the equal to the Comets leads Danny Cedrone or Franny Beecher and while The Five Blue Flames have no one else to stand with that group on this record, it’s not the others subpar efforts you’ll remember when this is over.

Sure enough, as Lambert bows out the others return and promptly let us down, playing suitable parts perhaps but with insufficient urgency. Powell’s vocals down the stretch wind up being too frantic for the lack of heat the others are producing and rather than get you fired up, it only makes you want to look elsewhere for something that has more genuine conviction from all involved.
 

Heart Is Thumpin’
There’s no question that Chris Powell and company were at the crossroads in their career. They’d already achieved more than they probably expected when they made the switch to rock in the first place, gaining a contract with a major label and after some confusing false starts they managed to fall ass-backwards into a goldmine.

Before they could extract that gold completely though and earn the rewards for their “discovery” things began to fall apart and now they were forced to either make increasingly futile efforts to recapture that magic on songs like Dance ‘Til The Break Of Dawn or to capitulate fully and return to the jive novelty bag that got them no more than thirty-six bucks a night split six ways for a five hour gig at some dive in Lancaster.

Considering how disheartening that eventuality looked, they had no choice but to soldier on and hope that they could somehow find more top-shelf material to get some of their momentum back.

The thing is, this song – while hardly anything special – was at least appropriate thematically and structurally, but aside from Lambert none of them were up to pulling it off musically, vocally or otherwise.

But that’s not something they likely have it in them to fix. You are who you are after all, and for a group who only got shoehorned into a rock movement they were oblivious to before this, their ultimate fate was probably inevitable.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)