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COLUMBIA 30175; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Lots of rock acts have taken a whack at cutting a hallowed standard over the years… and most who do are wasting their time – and ours – in the process.

Old habits die hard though especially at a time when those old habits were still fairly new, as was the case in the 1940’s when it was standard operating procedure for all artists of all backgrounds to tackle the same handful of songs, since new songs apparently were in scarce supply and had to be doled out judiciously to make them last. That’s why you’ll see Bing Crosby (by far the most prolific recording artist of the era) singing the exact same repertoire as everybody else, from his biggest rivals – Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe – to the cheery drunk at the corner bar who’s crooning an off-key ditty he made up on the spot after his fourth gin fizz.

What can I say? Bing got around, especially when there was the possibility of song to be found.

But rock ‘n’ roll largely changed this approach because… well, because while those all might’ve been fine songs, their notes arranged in orderly fashion with each diphthong assiduously plotted for maximum impact, they were growing kind of hoary after so many renditions over the years. How could someone new and different show they were new and different if they were all cutting the same old tunes?

Besides, those songs weren’t exactly suited for the brand of musical mayhem that rock advocated. By rock ‘n’ roll adopting a more authentic cultural outlook befitting its artists and fans, one that was progressive and rebellious when it came to demanding more equality in society, it would hardly be appropriate to be singing the praises of the status quo.

Unless of course you upended the status quo’s safe predictable ideals. Then everything was fair game.
 

 
Gold Dust At My Feet
Not that you should treat our scores of all of these songs we review as anything more than an essentially meaningless, though hopefully enjoyable, way to codify my impressions of the records at hand, there is something plausibly interesting about the grades we’ve handed out to date, as well as those millions of marks still to follow over the years… and that’s how many of the top rated records consist of original content.

Or if not completely original for the specific artist who hit with it, how many were written and first recorded AS rock songs as opposed to being taken from pop, blues, country, jazz or Irish jigs.

To date, covering the first two years of rock through early November 1949, we’ve issued a ★ 10 ★ to a grand total of eight records, which represent my own choices as the must have singles of this period. Additionally there have been nineteen others that have been deemed worthy of a (9), which in our scoring system denotes a perfect record.

Of those twenty-seven choices almost all of them originated in rock. Of the handful which didn’t there’s almost always a unique circumstance to explain its inclusion, such as with Tell Me So by The Orioles which was written by their manager and primary songwriter just before she hooked up with them and because of this she then also gave it to The Orioles and they turned in the defining take on it, so much so that few people even know Savannah Churchill’s original. In the case of I’ll Get Along Somehow, it was Larry Darnell’s utter reinvention of the song by his adding a long spoken word section that the original pop takes on it never had which made it so big.

Of the absolute highest grades only Amos Milburn’s rendition of Bewildered originated with a non-rock artist and Milburn’s interpretation of it instantly became the definitive version, almost to the point where it is now considered a rock standard thanks to him.

The reason I bring this up is to show just how transformative rock was in its thinking when it came to material and how that insistence on originality set rock apart from all other styles and eventually made those other styles seem less creative by comparison. That might not be fair, but it unquestionably altered the way music was perceived by the general public who began to value original compositions in every field over the established practice of endlessly reviving standards.

When rock artists WOULD reach into the past to excise older material, like Fats Domino with Blueberry Hill or James Brown with Prisoner Of Love, it was done in a way that re-imagined the song. Yet by the late 1960’s reworking pop songs, old or new, was exceedingly rare, and in time even the act of cutting a new version of somebody else’s rock song would all but end.

But it didn’t happen overnight and while the writing was in fact already plastered all over the walls in rock, there was still artists who’d dive into the standards every so often. More often than not though it wasn’t to compete with the pop artists who’d cut the same numbers, but rather to distance themselves by shaking those standards to their core, like Chris Powell did with On The Sunny Side Of The Street, a song that, more than most, embodied the striving upward mobility of post-War society.
 

I Used To Walk In The Shade
The song itself dates back to 1930, just a few months after the stock market crashed and sunk the country into economic turmoil the likes of which it hadn’t known before. Since nobody at the time knew how long this Great Depression would last the song both scoffed at the notion of being flat broke, while still reflecting resilient optimism that this might pass quickly and seem little more than a bad dream.

Over the years virtually all major pop and jazz acts incorporated it into their songbooks, Ted Lewis had the first huge hit with it (#2 in 1930 with a maudlin reading of it), Louis Armstrong (perhaps the definitive version), Benny Goodman (with a young Peggy Lee on vocals no less), Art Tatum, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Billie Holiday, Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford and down the road Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank Sinatra as well. A veritable who’s who of iconic performers of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

You’ll note that Chris Powell seems a bit conspicuous among such company.

You’ll also notice that absent from the list of acts who cut this prior to Powell was Louis Prima, which is odd because Powell’s delivery seems to be channeling the off-kilter exuberant vocals of Prima, one of the true originals in American popular music.

Though Prima’s heyday was his partnership with Keely Smith that spanned the 1950’s and their phenomenally successful Las Vegas residencies, the pair actually began working together in 1948, but Prima was hardly unknown by this point. Born in 1910 he had been a trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader dating back to the 1930’s and over time his musical sensibilities evolved to include a heady mixture of jazz, jive and kitsch.

It’s hard to believe that Prima didn’t cut On The Sunny Side Of The Street, a song ripe for sending up. Smith would tackle it herself in 1958 in a brassy rendition which highlighted her peerless vocals, and a year earlier Prima did it on stage in a medley on the album Live At Tahoe, scatting and tossing in acting up throughout, but unless this arrangement was part of his set list for years it means that it was Chris Powell who was the one responsible for shaking it up in the first place.

We mentioned on the top side of this, the brilliant Rock The Joint, that Powell’s vocals took on some attributes of Prima, but there it was only vague suggestion, whereas here it’s the main course. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, as The Five Blue Flames were billed as a jive group on the Philadelphia club scene before signing with Columbia and whether or not Prima was doing this song in New York at the time or not, it’s easy enough to project his outlandish style onto almost anything up to and including Smells Like Teen Spirit which Nirvana recorded thirteen years after Louis departed this earth for the big lounge in the sky.
 

This Rover Crossed Over
Most of the earlier versions of the song maintained a balance between resignation and optimism that defined its original conception. Powell on the other hand sounds positively gleeful romping through this at double time, not so much subverting the meaning as demolishing it for his own anarchist pursuits.

Not even Armstrong, whose version comes closest to this at least in terms of injecting nonsense syllables into it and keeping it a little more ebullient than most, takes it anywhere near as far as Powell.

Now you can argue that The Five Blue Flames with their swirling riffing horns, hyper-kinetic cymbals and gang-vocal refrains, including tossing in a wacky, but entirely welcome line – ”the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out!” – mid-way through, take this into the realm of jazzy swing-band send up, but think again… isn’t rock music about deconstruction when you get right down to it? A style that doesn’t play by the rules, that is if it even acknowledges rules existing in the first place?

The answer is: Sure, that’s rock’s credo in a nutshell and always has been. So if On The Sunny Side Of The Street veers towards the arcane that fits right in with the game plan of taking nothing seriously. If Powell IS going for laughs he doesn’t give you much room to actually crack up because each time you turn around there he is stomping on the gas pedal.

Besides, Powell is just one facet of this record and not even the most compelling part. For that we turn to the band who may start off in more of a jazzy milieu but before long they show that they were in fact fully equipped to rock the bells.
 


 

Life Will Be Complete
Halfway through this record we’re at a loss of how to describe it, even though we like what we hear. For all of the energy and enthusiasm that makes us sit up and take notice the scatting interjections which follow are more self-ironic than galvanizing, a slightly awkward assurance they aren’t taking this any more serious than you should be.

How to react to such an admission? With relief? With concern? With admiration that they can laugh at themselves or do we cringe that they feel the need to resort to such tactics to reassure their bosses at ultra-conservative Columbia Records that it’s all in jest.

We’re not quite sure really. While it fits into the general atmosphere they’re attempting to convey it also distances them from the implications of what they’re doing. That is until the instrumental break. Any thought that this was a stretch to put in a rock ‘n’ roll overview go out the window once they start to cut loose.

It takes awhile the build up to speed, but they clearly are pointed in that direction from the start as the saxophone goes through its bag of tricks, displaying a full bodied tone with a few cruder honks and spiraling higher notes buttressed by the best drumming Powell himself has come up with to date.

But even that is all just a prelude for Eddie Lambert who steals the show with some all-too-brief licks on his guitar which manages to single-handedly offset the levity of what preceded it by giving us something to sink our teeth into. His the tone is sharp and biting and the riffs themselves are lethal. Though the electric guitar is still quite a few years away from taking over the spotlight in most rock arrangements, this is yet another sign that the instrument’s rise was an inevitability. What else could deliver such tension with so few notes played? Or completely change the perception of something that had been shaping up to be seen by some as a gag and instead turn it into a deadly serious proposition?

Granted its twenty second takeover comprises just about ten percent of the total playing time but its presence also helps to highlight the other instruments getting progressively more daring and convinces you that this was no joke. These guys were legitimate rockers when they wanted to be and On The Sunny Side Of The Street backs up what they delivered so effectively on the top side with more of the same.

No this isn’t a pure rock effort from beginning to end and depending on what you want to focus on you could reasonably slot it in a number of categories, including I suppose even the novelty bag, but what stands out most is the audacity of it all and the rock touches that leave you wondering what they might come up with next.

It was also further evidence that rock didn’t treat standards with much respect which might’ve been the most refreshing aspect of this whole thing and reason for optimism going forward. For the first time a style of music that was growing in commercial reach was looking forward rather than backwards, even when reaching back for something out of the past.

Besides, who says uncouth rock stars who party all night and sleep all day don’t also want to live on the sunny side of a street even if their presence in the bucolic suburbs leads the local civic organizations to cry, “There goes the neighborhood!“.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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