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COLUMBIA 30175; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The question that always has to be asked whenever somebody who throws their fate in with a growing movement but at first glance seems ill-fitting in that scene is – Are they a charlatan?

You know, a phony, a fake, a fraud…

For Philadelphia club act Chris Powell and his Five Blue Flames the question regarding their credibility as rock act after two dubious releases becomes deafening because each and every sign you’ve seen to date suggests they were pulling a scam on you.
 

 

Everybody’s Gonna Rock Tonight
How does one choose a profession to begin with? Let’s say you have an interest in medicine and you go to college and enroll as a pre-med student. How do you choose a specialty? Is it possible to actually have an affinity for podiatry or dermatology when starting out or do you decide those are merely better bets for success than neurology? Or when narrowing your choices you realize that performing arthroscopic surgery every day for the next few decades will result in fewer bouts of depression than being an oncologist and so you choose your field based on those factors instead?

We all theoretically have a myriad of options to choose from when we grow up, which is why when you’re a kid you might want to be an actor one week, an astronaut the next, an archaeologist after seeing on old Indiana Jones flick and an accountant or animal trainer a month from now. Your interests change with the weather and because you don’t have to decide anytime soon you’re free to try each idea on for size.

As time goes on and you develop more specific tastes suited to your persona and skills the choices begin to narrow. When you are in High School and still struggle to read the comics without stumbling over some words you aren’t likely to get into writing. Conversely if you master every technological device within minutes then maybe you start thinking of software design or computer programming.

But oftentimes you wind up running out of time to explore each whim before adulthood rears its ugly head and suddenly you need to choose a career in a hurry because your parents are threatening to throw you out on the street, your girlfriend is saying she doesn’t want to be dating an aimless drifter and there are rent bills and car payments piling up. Those are the people you feel sorry for in life, the ones who never find their true calling and merely settle for a job they don’t particularly like just because it becomes available and seems like it might provide enough stability to get by.

But do those people ever feel truly fulfilled by their work? Does somebody punching a clock in a factory or fixing toilets and sinks or selling insurance really get anything out of their profession other than a paycheck? If they had the chance to go back to the start would they make the same choices or would they try something else more suited to their tastes?

In music we tend to think those questions don’t factor into an artist’s career direction. After all they’re doing something which they presumably love and have been pursuing since they were young, learning an instrument and singing every chance they get. Besides a professional musician is hardly a job like any other, you don’t apply to record companies with a résumé and a diploma after an interview with the A&R man hoping to get an entry level position and work your way up, you get signed because of your natural talent and the potential you show to sell records.

Once they start their career we on the outside tend to imagine every decision as to what to play being an artistic choice and every record that’s released to be an accurate representation of their musical direction. But that’s not always so.

Sure there are guys we’ve met already, artists like Andrew Tibbs and Goree Carter who heard Roy Brown singing Good Rocking Tonight and were transformed by the experience, deciding then and there to sing rock ‘n’ roll and not some other form of music with a longer track record and presumably more commercial appeal. But then there are others, like Brown himself actually, who’d wanted to be Bing Crosby until fate stepped in and showed him another option that proved to be the one worth pursuing.

Whichever route an artist takes when deciding their stylistic approach doesn’t really matter… as long as they make that choice with utter conviction. If you truly believe in the brand of music you’re performing then chances are you’ll be accepted.

But if there seems to be some doubt that it was really your choice to begin with, that maybe you were coaxed into it by a record company seeking to make headway in a blossoming field, or even just the impression that you landed here because it seemed to offer you the best chance to get out of the endless club scene playing strings of one nighters for little pay and less acclaim… well, then we’re going to treat you with some degree skepticism until you prove to us you really mean what you say.

Are you listening Chris Powell?

Apparently they were not only listening but were working hard to render those nagging questions irrelevant forever.
 

The Ceiling Is Falling
We don’t know what the Five Blue Flames gigs had been like before they were signed to Columbia Records in early 1949 when the major label finally decided to make tentative forays into rock ‘n’ roll. They were promoted as a jive group which had a definite musical identity but which by this time was about five to ten years out of date so it might’ve just been seen as a catch-all term to describe a more frantic approach rather than a specific style.

What we do know is based on the other Columbia signees in the rock field, The Five Scamps, the label’s plan was to take a more refined act that had just enough attributes to make them plausible as rockers and told them to do the best they could to try and convince audiences they were legitimate. Of course once The Five Scamps managed to do more than that by unleashing the exhilarating Red Hot on the world Columbia seemed to get cold feet about it and released tamer material as its follow ups.

With Powell and company though the pattern was reversed as they came out of the gate with a pair of novelty type songs on their debut that hinted at rock in ways that could be passed off as something else entirely in the event that Columbia’s board of directors took umbrage at hearing something too uncouth on their venerated label. That’s apparently what happened too because the follow-up was nothing more than a moldy standard Sunday on which two of The Five Blue Flames, the sax and guitar, flavored their playing with just enough rock touches to keep it within hailing distance of rock ‘n’ roll, provided they were downwind at midnight and their voices would carry far enough to reach rock’s outskirts and be heard.

In other words, Columbia either thought better of their initial plan to offer up their own rock-lite artists, or they merely had no idea of how to convincingly attempt to produce real rock songs and so they threw up their hands in resignation and were about to call it a day.

But a funny thing happened on the way to ignominy and irrelevance in rock circles because Chris Powell and company suddenly found the spirit.
 


 
 

Now We’re Gonna Rock!
Being from Philly they must’ve already been acquainted with Jimmy Preston’s group who’d similarly made the jump from clubs to recording artists, albeit on the smaller Gotham label. Preston made a more concerted effort to adhere to rock’s demanding standards of reckless enthusiasm and rowdy playing but finding themselves in need of another tenor sex to beef up their sound they, or their label perhaps, recruited Danny Turner to sit in with the group on a session in the spring. The result was a huge hit called Rock The Joint which was a full blast of rock ‘n’ roll in its purest and most lethal form.

Just who was Danny Turner, you ask? Well his primary job was as saxophonist in Chris Powell’s Five Blue Flames… do you need a minute to figure out where this is headed?

It wasn’t long before Preston’s song began selling like crazy and when Powell and company came back into the studio for their next session a month after that record had been released they did so with the stated intent of ripping off Preston right down the line. This is something that can’t even be disputed because rather than the standard four song session they cut only two numbers, since they had no leftover moldy oldies in the vault to pull out for a B-side. But the focus was on replicating what Turner had witnessed – and contributed to – firsthand with Preston.

The shocking thing was they not only did so credibly, but they may have even bested the original in the process.
 


 
 

Listening to Rock The Joint a la Chris Powell is the musical equivalent of witnessing two kids in a playground tussle and having the weakest combatant – Powell – suddenly pull out an actual weapon. Not a stick or a knife or even a gun but a fully armed nuclear bomb.

The record is a two minute and thirty eight second explosion complete with billowing mushroom cloud. Say what you will about the horrors of global holocaust but the sight itself is something to behold, as is this record, something which – following two pretty desultory efforts on the outer fringes of the rock boundaries – proves that The Five Blue Flames could indeed light things up when they were given free reign to do so.

How does one even put this rush of full-throttled adrenaline on record into words?

Let’s start with the fact that Turner, the one with first hand experience of rocking joints with Preston, kicks this off by sticking dynamite down his tenor sax. It blows up the entire idea of easing into a song and tears your head off your shoulders in the process.

They don’t give you a chance to recover either because while the hand clapping takes the place the of more urgent kicks of the bass drum, you barely notice the drummer’s absence. The reason is whereas Preston started off with a measured pace so he could gradually build towards the big kaboom, Powell does no such thing.

This is in high gear from the first “We’re gonna rock” that comes blasting from the speakers. It’s a group chant, like it was on Preston’s, but even more unhinged. In other words they weren’t quietly slipping into this party, hoping not to stand out, they were crashing the party and were already three sheets to the wind but having a ball.

Powell’s vocals are strong and fully self-assured. He’s got a little bit of similar tone in this delivery to Louis Prima, but whereas Prima tries to project an aura of hipness, Powell exudes fire and menace. His instructions to the revelers are less recommendations and more like commands… and by the sound of it nobody is about to resist.
 

Pull Down The Curtains
As committed as they all sound while shouting up a storm the real star of this is unquestionably Danny Turner. He’s the one who was present on both versions of the song and knew the path from Preston’s first run-through to the finished product… what was considered, what was included and what was left out. He could sense the energy in the studio and whether his memory of it was embellished or whether he just realized that the song’s structure would allow for more extreme playing, the change is mostly found in his lines.

Turner plays with a force that few, if any, sax stars in rock have displayed. Maybe Big Jay McNeely had equaled this, but even he hadn’t bested Turner’s work over the incendiary first half of this record where he honks, squeals and blows with such unrelenting fury that his gleaming golden saxophone was at risk for turning black and blue.

He’s not alone though in the pandemonium as guitarist Eddie Lambert, who had delivered the only compelling aspect of their previous effort, the tepid Sunday, plays here as if the strings were on fire, ripping off delectable lines that would hardly sound out of place years in the future. In fact when Danny Cedrone played the immortal riffs on Bill Haley’s take on this song a few years down the road, the model he was clearly basing his work on was Lambert. It’s fast, smooth and razor sharp.

After that they all might’ve been excused had they collapsed with exhaustion but they manage to keep going full throttle right to the end, albeit with a little less of a frantic edge in the second half, though compared to most records it still far outraces the field. On both Preston’s and Powell’s go-rounds the respective bands liven things up with cries of enthusiasm off mic, additional evidence that The Five Blue Flames were merely trying to match what had come before on Preston’s take on the song, but it’s their gleeful unrestrained passion that pushes this over the top. Preston and company might’ve been tossed in jail for the ruckus they raised, but Powell and his cohorts would be locked in an insane asylum for this display.

 

 

That original version you may recall was deemed a perfect record (9) on these pages not long ago, hailed as one of the defining songs of 1940’s rock, both influential in the short term and highly memorable in the long run.

THIS version of Rock The Joint, though not a hit, was even better. How can it be better than “perfect”? Well, aside from the fact our scoring system reserves it’s highest grades ★ 10 ★ for personal desert island records, the real – and more easily justified – reason is that this performance is essentially the battle cry for all rock was attempting to do going forward. It was a concerted effort to overthrow the accepted order of things by sheer force of will. That it was released on a major label, Columbia, which was the epitome of the aforementioned “accepted order of things”, only makes it even more perversely enjoyable.

That it was also delivered by a group that had been shaping up to be an ill-chosen representative of rock ‘n’ roll by that major label who really hadn’t WANTED a legitimate rock artist to taint their reputation, but rather wanted someone just convincing enough in low light to fool you into thinking the company was more progressive than their reputation, makes their transformation to fire-breathing rockers all the more rewarding.

No matter what they do from here on in, Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames have earned their right to be included in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon on the basis of this one galvanizing record. There’s no fallout shelter that can shield you from this blast… it’s an absolute scorcher.
 
 
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:
 
Jimmy Preston (August, 1949)