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COLUMBIA 30205; MAY 1950

 
 

 

Getting right to the point today, we start off this review with a simple unambiguous question…

What

the

HELL

is

THIS?!?!?
 

I’m not sure there’s a good answer to that query, and I know for sure there’s not a sensible answer to it, but the question itself is definitely worth examining in a surely futile attempt to figure out what on earth they were thinking releasing this monstrosity on the heels of two of the best records any rock artist put out so far.
 

 

Last Night I Went To A Party
According to a national poll conducted at the end of 1947 encompassing a whopping 52 million respondents, 12 million had named Bridge as their favorite card game followed closely by Pinochle with ten and a half million votes.

John Scarne, the world’s foremost card expert, reported in his book two years later, the eternal card player’s Bible, Scarne On Cards, that with the rising popularity of Gin Rummy in the two years since that poll had been taken which largely appealed to Bridge enthusiasts, he estimated that heading into the 1950’s Pinochle had probably overtaken Bridge as the most popular card game in America.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that when looking for appealing topics to sing about on a major record label aimed squarely at that same white middle-class, it’s hardly surprising that artists on Columbia Records would release a song entitled Hauntin’ Pinochle Blue.

What IS surprising however is that the artists in question were Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames who as of late seemed as if they would be the last people on your block you’d invite over for a quiet card game, cocktails and cheese balls on a quiet Wednesday evening in May.

But here they are at your door, ties fastened, clean shaven, shoes on the right feet and their flies all zipped up, ready for a zestful game.

Knowing about their recent antics this dapper appearance is hardly reassuring to those answering the door, and whether the hosts are hoping they don’t revert back to form (or if you’re like us, hoping they DO have some trick up their sleeve) this kind of demure setting is certainly ripe for upending with the right attitude… card playing or musical, it matters not in this example.

So when they sit down and follow the rules of the game – musically that is – without much uneasiness everybody is left rather shocked.
 

Don’t Stay Out All Night
As soon as the horns kick this off sounding as if they just woke up from a ten year snooze and think it’s still 1940, you know something is drastically wrong.

Though listeners at the time had no way of checking, we in the present can quickly take a look at the session personal to see if another group entirely has been shipped in to take The Blue Flames place, but no, there are only two changes – the legendary Philly Jo Jones is sitting in on drums and a trombonist, Tyree Glenn has replaced the searing saxophone of Danny Turner.

That’s your first clue that a different mindset might be at play here, for it was Turner who provided the spark – and bang – that had defined their last two sessions from the fall which produced their two greatest records. Six months later Turner was gone and with him apparently went the commitment to rocking like no tomorrow as no part of this record features any actual rhythm or energy whatsoever.

But that still doesn’t quite explain the curious feel of Hauntin’ Pinochle Blues because early on another sound catches your ear – the all too literal attempt to make this record “haunted” to explain the rather unusual title.

For years the accepted wisdom was that it was Brian Wilson who had been the first to use a theremin on a rock record (1966’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, a few months before he more famously used it on Good Vibrations) but now we know that’s not the case. It was Chris Powell And The Five Blue Flames of all people who first introduced to rock ‘n’ roll the sound effect/musical instrument made famous in hundreds of B-movies of the 1950’s involving mad scientists, spooky ghosts and lots of sightings of Vincent Price.

However, while it’s certainly historically interesting to find it being played here, the theremin just doesn’t fit on this record (title be damned) in large part because the lyrics don’t justify the entire premise of the song. Why in the world would a card game be haunted? They never say… in fact they don’t even ALLUDE to it! There are no dead people around, no skeletons in closets, ghosts in the cupboards, no disembodied voices calling from the basement, not even a bunch of kids in Halloween costumes to be found.

Instead what we get is rather a surprisingly racy sexual allegory that uses a neighborhood Pinochle party as a cover for an orgy!

Feel free to bust out laughing about now, except I’m not joking. They’re serious… yet seriously confused at the same time.
 

Made Me A Sap
The basic idea itself isn’t bad I suppose, but it’s hardly very inventive either. The fact that the entire premise of Hauntin’ Pinochle Blues revolves around two key words having their meanings switched – “play” and “queens” – from referring to card games to talking about more erotic games shows just how far they were stretching a point with this.

The big payoff that reveals this turn of events has pianist Duke Wells (who is taking the vocals on this song as Powell was surely too embarrassed) merely telling us ”the queen of clubs took all my money and the queen of hearts made me a sap” which certainly isn’t worth singing an entire song just to get to such a tame euphemism.

But because the entire concept of all of these interwoven – but seemingly unconnected – things is already so bizarre as it is we might as well throw yet another wild possibility at you while we’re at it just for the hell of it.
 


 

Early on in setting up the “story” Wells tells us that he when he got there he “ran up to old man Green”, and proceeds to tell us they had the best time playing with each other, the vague inference being that these two men were the ones who were playing “Pinochle” in the kitchen, the hall, the bedroom and on the wall… implying that this orgy was an all-male gathering.

When he goes on to say he had “Two Queens sitting in his lap” it would seem to confirm these were indeed same-sex activities to those looking for further proof, all of which is rather eye-popping stuff for a song from 1950!

But then in the last line this theory seemingly gets refuted when Wells says not to play Pinochle with women because “ they won’t treat you right”, suggesting that it WAS women who cleaned him out and that it was cards they were playing after all… unless of course that was a double end-around trick play to fool the stuffed shirts at Columbia and that the last line actually meant not to “play” (wink, wink) with women, leaving it unstated but silently implied whom to play with instead!

Truthfully, if that WAS the deep inside joke being played here I’d boost this up five points just for the sheer audacity of it alone. Unfortunately though all of that is just idle speculation and so without any more concrete evidence at our disposal we’re left with the fact that Hauntin’ Pinochle Blues is about as desultory a record as you can find… sex or no sex.
 

Until The Break Of Dawn
Over the course of anyone’s career there are bound to be some bad records made by otherwise good artists. Of course there are also bad records made by bad artists which you barely notice because you never expected anything good out of them to begin with.

But then there are bad records made by bad artists who once seemed as if they had a chance to be truly great. Usually those ups and downs don’t come as fast as they did with Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames, but listening to this it’s almost impossible to believe these were the same guys whose best music left a veritable crater at the last parties they threw.

Sure, you can say that Hauntin’ Pinochle Blues is the aberration… a ridiculous novelty experiment that gives no indication as to who they really were and chances are they’ll quickly right the ship. We certainly hope that’s true anyway.

But perhaps it’s more likely that the aberrations were the two great records they gave us because it’s hard to believe anyone who had seemed so utterly transformed by rock ‘n’ roll as they had would ever consent to cutting something this putrid as a follow-up.

When I tell you that actually playing Pinochle with three other people – fully dressed and in total silence – will be a far greater musical experience for you than listening to this record, take my word for it or you’ll be haunted for the rest of your life for doubting it.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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