No tags :(

Share it

COLUMBIA 30205; MAY 1950



Charting the creative, commercial and cosmic rise and fall of various artists as they navigate their way through the early years of rock ‘n’ roll is never entirely predictable.

We know of course the eventual destination of rock itself as time goes on and it gradually takes over America and then the world, but as it follows that meteoric upward path there will be a lot of acts who helped it climb one step higher who then – often just as quickly – fall by the wayside themselves, unable to keep up in this survival of the fittest gauntlet.

This group is emblematic of that journey, having been given little chance to contribute anything of merit when they first came on the scene, yet somehow rallied and delivered two stellar records as 1949 came to a close.

Because Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames have no lasting historical presence – even with those two fantastic entries on their ledger – we could surely guess their fate. But when looking back on their careers it wasn’t their inevitable fall from grace that was in question, but rather it was how they could possibly go from achieving perfection in the studio to missing their mark altogether in such short order.


Everybody Come Along
We keep coming back to one simple question regarding Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames which is: How legitimate of a rock act were they even when they were hitting on all cylinders?

A veteran Philadelphia club act that had been described as a “jive group” prior to their recording career, they seemed to be on the surface little more than conveniently acceptable candidates for Columbia Records early forays into the outer limits of rock – a group capable of replicating certain aspects of the music while retaining a respectability such a company craved.

In other words they were merely adaptable musicians being told to mimic other rock acts without going overboard. Yet when they began to mimic another Philly club act turned revered rockers, Jimmy Preston & His Prestonians, things began to turn around. This was due largely to the fact they were temporarily “sharing” a saxophonist, Danny Turner, who presumably brought the right mindset to Powell’s sessions – not to mention the right songs taken from Preston’s playbook – and the results surpassed everyone’s expectations.

But now Turner is gone and left to fend for themselves Powell and company are back to feigning authenticity in a way with Down In The Bottom.

They’ve clearly learned some lessons from the late 1949 dates that produced their two greatest triumphs – Rock The Joint and the nearly as calamitous follow-up Swingin’ In The Groove – and are trying to adapt that game plan for this record but it comes across as awkward and forced.. artificial even… and as such the performance is undeniably off in every way needed to confirm their recent standing.

The opening, with its drawn out sax and fairly emphatic drum punctuations, seems to be following suit when it comes to framing their songs with raucous enthusiasm and so it gives little hint that this is beginning a downward trend in their output. But if you really focus on it you might pick up on the fact that even this is slightly toned down from the more explosive instrumental work they’d featured of late. Instead of cranking it to ten and risking overload, they dialed it down to a “7” and figured that would still be potent enough to get you into the right mood.

In that sense they may be right, but when Powell comes along his slightly subdued mannerisms turn down the level another notch or two and start digging a hole the rest of them are going to have some trouble climbing out of.


The Life Of Every Party
Now let’s be honest, Chris Powell was never really a great singer to begin with but he found that by cranking up the excitement he’d be able to compensate for his deficiencies. But whether it’s the early lyrical admission that this party is an economic necessity to keep a roof over his head, or if it’s his oddly chipper vocal that’s delivering this news, the damper is thrown on the proceedings before they really begin.

Those two elements don’t mesh and you get the idea that he didn’t quite know which part to emphasize – the dour circumstances leading up to this, or the “let’s all have a good time” vibe he’s got to promote to get the party jumping and so rather than choose one he tries finding a middle ground and gets neither point across adequately enough.

If they’re committed to actual story being presented here then Powell has to throw on the misery in the first stanza and gradually ramp up his delivery as he goes from bemoaning his situation to putting his faith in his friends and neighbors to get him through this, energizing him as he sees the outpouring of support coming his way as the doors are thrown open and the party begins.

On the other hand if they’re just using this situation as a way to frame the required musical approach for the record, then he needs to view the financial straits he’s in as par for the course, mocking their severity from the start and almost using them as a convenient excuse to throw another shindig where everyone will wind up passed out with smiles plastered on their faces as he counts out his rent money out of the night’s till with a satisfied smirk.

Instead Down In The Bottom treats neither of these situations with any real consequence. The details of his predicament are simply a narrative device, not an emotional ordeal he’s grappling with, while the subsequent party isn’t a celebration of friendship and an unquenchable community spirit, but rather it’s only a familiar set piece for a play we’ve all seen before.

Even the group vocals that make up the chorus which need to be hedonistic, defiant and unhinged are instead far too orderly and efficient to be convincing. Or to keep it in terms of an actual party, this is one that has been strictly organized by the hosts rather than letting it develop organically as people pile in, get drunk and lose their senses.

Oh, it can still be modestly enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. There are a few good lines to be had pinpointing some colorful characters, as well as a few choice wisecracks ( “You’ll have the time of your life/If you just don’t bring your wife”) and an overall genial spirit that’s not without its charm, but the unpredictability that comes with the best parties which skirt the edge of complete wanton abandonment is sadly nowhere to be found.

You Can Play Your Number Too
A lot of this artificiality inherent in the story could’ve been rendered irrelevant had the band taken it upon themselves to overthrow the vocal sections and turn this into a musical orgy where every conceivable offensive and guttural sound known to man got used and abused along the way, redefining the record in ways the lyrics were incapable of doing.

Instead the band is keeping their own ties knotted tightly around their necks, using their napkins to dab the corners of their mouths after sipping the booze being offered, and making sure not to drop too many “ain’ts” in their conversations to give guests the wrong impression.

The primary backing behind Powell’s vocals is taken at a steady clip to get you moving, but then it just STAYS that way… there’s no cacophony in their parts, no sudden explosion of sounds, no sax break for goodness sake! Nothing!

You’ve heard of one-track minds, well Down In The Bottom is a single-minded track. A spry tempo with absolutely no surprises. It attempts to imply fun and excitement by the power of suggestion rather than the power of over-amplified volume and improvisational one-upsmanship.

At the end of the night – surely not much later than midnight by the sounds of it – you’re left walking home feeling as if you had a pretty good time until you and your buddies start trying to come up with the typical wild stories from any party worth its name. Then you’re left reaching for small anecdotes about a casual comment here and a briefly humorous exchange there and by the time you get to your door you realize it wasn’t much of a party at that.

I Won’t Have To Move
They say that water finds its own level and in music this is definitely the case as well. While nobody can ever take away those high water marks Powell achieved with two successive releases, you also can’t forget that he was the same guy who struggled to get his head above water when left to his own devices earlier last year.

With Down In The Bottom he appears to comfortable enough to stay afloat, but suddenly all too content to just sort of drift with the current.

They also say water flows downhill and maybe that’s the best analogy to make, as Powell begins the inevitable flow downstream, from the mountain back on out to sea, and though this doesn’t necessarily suggest he’s washed up, it’s also telling us that we probably shouldn’t expect too much more out of him that will surprise us from now on.


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