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COLUMBIA 30162; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

Over the past few months as we’ve moved well into 1949 marking rock’s second full year as a musical genre, we’ve tried to convey just how entrenched the music was becoming as the days and months piled up. The hits along the way of course have gotten bigger and more frequent and they’re always the most potent evidence as to the viability of something relatively new.

But we’ve also tried pointing out a few of the more subtle signposts along the way which showed that rock ‘n’ roll was becoming an ever more sustainable entity. Oftentimes it’s the details lost amidst the larger headlines which point to the growing clout of rock as a whole.

Some of them are obvious if you just stop to think about it, starting with the sheer number of artists jumping into the ring to try their hand at this music as it blossomed and provided the biggest boon to rock’s long term survival. They didn’t all succeed commercially by any means but it stands to reason the more acts calling themselves rockers the more the music was likely to spread.

But another notable – though still a far less common – sign of rock ‘n’ roll’s emerging veracity was the budding interest of the four major recording companies at the time, showing that the establishment, the very bastions of white society who turned a blind eye to almost all of black culture in the first half of the twentieth century unless it showed very real possibilities of bringing them some money, were now casting a tentative glance in rock’s direction.

Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames check off both of those boxes in that they were another new act on the scene soon to become fully committed to rock ‘n’ roll and more impressively who signed with the oldest and most venerable label in existence who attempted to see if this music had the potential for widespread appeal that jazz had first shown three decades earlier.
 

 
Tried Them Once Or Twice
Columbia Records has been around since 1887 and like most record companies that pre-date the Nineteen Forties their relationship with rock, even to this day, has been tenuous at best. Once firmly established and successful in one musical reality it’s exceedingly hard to adjust to a different reality, especially one which seems to refute the accepted standards you’ve made your name and reputation on for years.

In fairness though Columbia actually did have some success with black music before rock – blues pioneer Bessie Smith and jazz legend Count Basie called Columbia home – but the majority of their black artists were housed on subsidiary OKeh. When the shellac rationing began with World War Two however which limited the vital material used to make records, Columbia shuttered OKeh altogether and dropped almost all association with black artists (except Basie) to focus their resources on white pop acts.

This type of reprehensible class structure amongst the majors was all too common but is also what opened up the doors for the small independent labels who focused almost exclusively on the fields of music the major labels disdainfully cast aside and with the growing economic might of a larger than expected and more fervent music fan found in black communities the 1940’s signaled the beginnings of a sizable ground shift in the marketplace.

Even after plenty of evidence as to black music’s commercial viability the major labels remained elitist, viewing their product and its audience as not only musically and culturally superior to the black styles that were emerging but also felt these fringe markets were not significant enough in terms of market share to be worried about.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s arrival in 1947 and its rapid climb up the charts throughout 1948 began to open their eyes to its commercial potential however and in November 1948 Columbia acknowledged this publicly when Billboard magazine wrote of Columbia’s parent company: CBS has heretofore discouraged race waxings on the theory such platters were undignified and detracted from diskery prestige. Because of tremendous sales revenue realized by rival waxeries from their race departments, (Columbia) is now understood to be willing to change its concepts of dignity in favor of dollar volume on records sales.

DIGNITY?!?!

Putting aside the question of how Edward Krolikowski’s Gob Stick Polka (Columbia 38104) could possibly be called “dignified”, much less be in danger of having its so-called prestige sullied by sharing a label with a rock act, Columbia took the plunge as 1949 dawned and signed a handful of artists who would share the responsibility of trying to both convince the label that rock ‘n’ roll was a worthwhile pursuit, at the same time these acts serving as glorified guinea pigs were trying to politely resist the company’s edicts to see that their work was somehow kept dignified and in the process lose any chance of appealing to the hardcore rock addict.

Needless to say that was a tricky balancing act for anyone to have to pull off.
 

Believe Me It’s The Real McCoy… Well, Not Yet It Isn’t
Their first signings from the rock field shows just how half-hearted Columbia’s venture into rock ‘n’ roll was shaping up to be. In March 1949 they put out the first sides by The Five Scamps, including an absolute classic full-tilted rocker Red Hot which was the equal of virtually any rock release to date on any of the upstart indie labels that were controlling the field.

Yet it’s telling that the other side, surely Columbia’s view of the top side as well as the one containing credible music in their opinion, was With All My Heart a tepid pop performance with supper club piano that couldn’t possibly be included in rock’s lineup even with halfway decent vocals, especially James Whitcomb trying to inject some soulfulness in the bridge.

In other words, Columbia, for all their crowing about how “the race category now represents a vital section of American music” were hedging their bets considerably by insisting their choice of artists and material would be “highly selective, the accents being placed on cuttings which are noteworthy examples of that particular music genre”.


It’s not hard to read between the lines to see the disclaimer for their goals as really being “black music played for white tastes”. Naturally you can guess why this endeavor largely failed, thereby confirming what they probably felt all along, namely that this noise wasn’t nearly as commercially potent as it had seemed.

The Five Scamps HAD gotten to release sides that were unquestionably rock though, even if those were forced to share space with songs that were someone’s ghastly idea of what they should be focusing on instead. So with the label’s next rock signing, Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames, a self-contained Philadelphia based combo that like the Scamps both played and sang, the question would be would they be allowed to pursue their own musical ideas or would Columbia urge them to take it easy so as not to further harm the label’s lofty sense of self-importance.

The answer, at least initially with the release of Hot Dog, is “Don’t forget whose signing your checks, boys”.
 


 

A Date With Fate
Let’s start off by saying that were Powell and company not to push further into the heart of rock ‘n’ roll soon after this debut we probably wouldn’t be having Hot Dog appear on our menu for rock releases.

That’s not to say it isn’t fairly enjoyable or well-done. It’s actually both of those things, but as stated many times here in the past what matters is how it fits within the context of rock at the time it was released and not only does this record barely fit, it’s pretty obvious that it was by intent.

But whose intent?

Columbia Records, that’s who.
 


 
 

One look at their lukewarm commitment to pursuing rock while making sure not to offend its prime constituency in the bargain should confirm this. While not completely averse to releasing more legitimate rock cuts, as The Five Scamps had shown, Columbia were undoubtedly hoping all along it would be the blander material that would succeed, thereby giving them entry in the younger black market without compromising their own integrity.

So for the first slices of wax issued by their newest signing in the rock field they were going to put their weight behind the most acceptable material they came up with in hopes that it would do well enough to make any other options to get down and dirtier all but moot.

Hot Dog is a novelty record pure and simple, albeit very well sung and with a certain degree of charm that manages to slip through the jivey atmosphere the record tries cloaking it in, particularly the corny spoken opening that Columbia surely felt was the best bet for ensuring their usual clientele of stuffy middle-aged martini swillers with their noses perpetually in the air would actually give this a chance.

Unfortunately it was also the surest way to all but guarantee the rock audience would rip it off their record players or kick a hole in the jukebox if they’d just deposited five cents for the privilege of hearing such nonsense.

That’s a shame however because once the speaking ends and the singing starts it picks up considerably, though it’d be hard not to get better than that stupid introduction. The improved framework that follows doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes more suited for rock, especially with its relaxed arrangement that is meant not to startle anyone already dozing off, but the specific components they use work well enough in this fairly mild setting.

Start with the vocals themselves which are warm and friendly sounding, as if Powell is confiding a big secret to you – granted he’s NOT, unless you think discovering that chopped up leftovers gathered from the butcher shop floor and stuffed into intestine linings can make a cheap culinary delicacy is worth knowing. But the manner in which they deliver this silly recommendation is pretty engaging.

The basis of the appeal of this is found in the harmonies of the others backing him and interjecting answers to each line, even if it’s just the recitation of the title in response to his claims of how good this meal is. They sing with languid grace, their voices blending together well, never doing anything noteworthy on its own really but still conveying a sense of smooth professionalism with a lighthearted touch.

The unquestioned highlight comes when they go up in register to deliver the “Cola-aaaahhhh/Save my soul-aaaahhhh” line which is disarmingly catchy for something so transparent on paper.
 

Something Else Fine Is On My Mind
None of this really adds up to much though. I mean, what can be said about hot dogs and soda even if you put it to a decent melody? The vendors at any baseball stadium have been doing the same for over a century and nobody thought it was worth recording to play back in the comfort of your own home.

Keeping all of this in low gear the musical accompaniment is far too sparse to add anything of note to that end of the spectrum. Powell, who was also the group’s drummer, plays a simply ticky-tick pattern with brushes while the piano of Duke Wells is really the only other audible instrument for most of this until Danny Turner’s sax solo, which is by far the best feature musically. Though not wild at all and utilizing the alto rather than the tenor which would be more appropriate for rock, it still contains a soulfulness that almost singlehandedly drags it back to the outskirts of the rock field, or at least as close as it could reasonably hope to find itself with such unhealthy ingredients involved.
 


 

Truthfully this sounds like something done on a lark, even though it’s far too carefully sketched out for that to be the case. It’s certainly not something that the group themselves could’ve envisioned as being the song to break them into the big time, major label or not, no matter how many dippy novelty records were charting in the late 1940’s.

It also had the very real possibility if it WAS heard and enjoyed more than anticipated of all but ending their chances at making headway in rock, which, if that were their ultimate goal and where their true musical passion lay, would have to make them somewhat conflicted about cutting this type of material.

Of course we don’t have any comments of Powell’s to verify what direction they would’ve liked to have headed if the decision were left entirely up to them, but based on Columbia’s track record in trying to steer artists towards more genteel settings, and when that failed the group’s full-fledged commitment to balls to the wall rock which followed, you have to guess that Hot Dog was never anything more than a compromise.

Luckily for us – despite this meal sounding slightly more tempting than it had any right to be – in the end this was still a dish loaded with nitrates which may taste alright on first bite but is going to leave you with a stomach ache if forced to eat too much.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
The Ray-O-Vacs (July, 1949)