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COLUMBIA 30180; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Today we’re saying goodbye to the Nineteen Forties rock scene after having reviewed more than six hundred and seventy (!!!) records which were made by over a hundred and thirty-five artists who threw their fate in with this new brand of music.

This achievement should by all rights be a joyous occasion, but rather than be excited to finally be moving on to a decade where rock ‘n’ roll would absolutely explode commercially the feeling here is somewhat bittersweet.

On one hand it means we’ll have plenty of new artists, new styles and new stories to delve into as the pace of releases pick up and the talent pool gets even deeper and more diverse with some major names appearing on the imminent horizon for the first time, all of which we’re definitely looking forward to with great anticipation.

But on the other hand, although the dividing line between decades is literally only a day (or a month if you prefer to chart it that way), the 1940’s have been almost completely neglected by historians and though it might be conceited to say this, I was happy that what we’re doing here might help to change that in some way by providing an exhaustive – and hopefully definitive – look back at rock’s true birth.

By contrast the 1950’s has already been celebrated for decades by those same historians, although once again we have to admit others rarely include the first few years we’ll be tackling to start with. So by making the move into the Fifties it feels in some perverse way as if we’re turning our backs on the Forties even though all we’re really doing is turning a page on a calendar.

So on that note the question here became: Should we end our association with the decade we’re leaving behind by writing about a record by one of the established stars who made the 40’s rock scene so vibrant, or do we choose instead to wrap things up with something by an artist who will help to get the 1950’s off on the right foot?

The answer is neither. Instead we’ve chosen somebody who in his own unique way is a perfect symbol of what rock ‘n’ roll music had the power to do to those who fell under its spell… it utterly transformed them.
 

 

Let’s Get Together
When assessing rock ‘n’ roll’s rise from a tentative experiment in 1947 to it becoming a growing powerhouse throughout 1948 and firmly entrenching itself as the defining musical and cultural sound of young black America by 1949, Chris Powell, a doughy drummer and singer who led a fairly versatile but essentially malleable club band in Philadelphia called The Five Blue Flames, would hardly be the first act you’d think of.

In fact, you might not be inclined to think of them at all if you were looking to use an artist’s image as a major selling point for your thesis of how this music came to be so popular so fast. Powell never scored a hit after all and even their best records weren’t with original material, so there was absolutely no way to credit them with influence as you would someone like say Goree Carter, another artist lacking a hit but who transformed rock in ways that are still being felt today.

Powell by contrast only got his chance to record when Columbia Records, one of the four major labels all of whom rejected this music out of hand, finally made a halfhearted attempt to jump on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon in 1949 when it proved commercially viable, yet they wanted to do so without ruffling too many feathers in the process. That led them to look for artists like Powell, slightly older acts still seeking their first break, thus presumably more willing to be told what to do rather than follow their own muse. Columbia didn’t have very high hopes for this experiment, they merely were hoping Powell would be able to give them a reasonable facsimile of rock that might even serve to water down the style as a whole should their compromised attempts prove popular.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this masquerade ball as over the past year Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames have – rather miraculously – become the very thing that Columbia Records probably feared most when making the decision to sully themselves with this music in the first place…

They’ve become an honest-to-goodness legitimate – and legitimately GOOD – rock band.

If their unlikely story doesn’t sum up the impact this outlaw music has had on those who’ve been exposed to it over the past twenty-eight months since its arrival on the scene in September 1947, then I don’t what does.
 


 
 

Start Your Hands A Clappin’
Once again – as with all of Powell’s best work – this song came from somebody else (Tiny Grimes who wrote it back in 1944), and once again the particulars of how they came to record it are rather tangled, something we’ll get into more when Jimmy Preston lays down a version that we’ll see next month.

But however it came about Swingin’ In The Groove was ideally suited for Powell to double down on his embrace of rock ‘n’ roll for the way they tackle this embodies virtually every attribute that rock was putting down a patent for with each new explosive release.

They kicks things off with plenty of enthusiasm, which is fast becoming their stock in trade, but even so they take their time before lighting the fuse as it were. The primary components required for detonation though are all present and accounted for – a tenor sax blowing low and steady, emphatic drums setting a solid beat which is then joined by another sax which contributes a more suggestive and melodic line to give the song some instantly identifiable character upon which the song’s REAL character shows up to make his presence known… that would be Chris Powell himself.

It’s virtually impossible to reconcile that this Chris Powell is the same one we met for the first time way back in the spring with hokey, semi-spoken Hot Dog, so different they seem in terms of attitude. Whereas that version of Powell was like a cheap huckster, affable maybe but transparent in his attempts to convince you of his authenticity, on Swingin’ In The Groove, we get a new and improved model of the singer who has been dipped in the healing powers of these musical waters and upon being reborn is now out to enlist more converts to the church of rock, roll, sin and endless good times.

Powell’s role essentially has him splitting his time between acting as host and living it up himself. He’s half-singing, half-shouting while encouraging others to do the same. Yet in spite of this Powell himself is always in control, his voice measured in its cadences even while it remains totally at ease. It’s one of the more inviting vocals we’ve encountered, a friendly and welcoming presence at the rock party that is growing in size and volume each and every week.
 

Come On All You Cats
This type of performance always walks the thinnest of lines, in constant danger of appearing to be a gimmick by trying to feign enthusiasm in a sterile setting, but here it’s done so convincingly that you half expect to turn around and find some willing partner with a drunken grin and a wild gleam in their eye waiting to get down with you in some form or fashion, be it dancing, drinking or doing the dirty boogie. Powell may seem an unlikely host but he’s perfectly suited for the role, non-threatening with his half spoken almost conversational tone, but with stealthily melodic undertones that encourage the sing-along atmosphere.

As a result Swingin’ In The Groove is thoroughly infectious from start to finish. The scene that’s being set is so loose and carefree – so authentic in spite of its apparent contrivance – that you start to believe that what’s being depicted on the record, complete with the other Blues Flames hollering and clapping along in the background, is actually taking place in the studio and the engineers are just now getting around to hitting the “record” button after the first keg has been thoroughly drained by the participants.

As a result this is a party you don’t want to miss. Come in, grab a cup and fill it up, then hit the floor with whoever catches your eye. The band is clicking on all cylinders to keep you moving at a steady pace even as none of them is doing anything that draws undue attention to themselves. No wild solos in other words but they aren’t needed. Not when they’re providing such a steady unrelenting groove to keep you locked in for eternity.

Best of all this type of scene they set has no end in sight. This isn’t some one-time bash to celebrate a specific event (a birthday, a graduation, a wedding) but rather this is the kind of atmosphere that celebrates life itself… an affirmation of a vibrant culture that was previously shut out of every higher class party in town. What rock ‘n’ roll did that was so revolutionary was simply acknowledge that culture existed and then made such a racket doing so that others had to eventually acknowledge – begrudgingly maybe – that it existed as well.
 

That’s When You Know You’ve Got To Move
Powell closes this out – and closes the decade out as it were – by ad-libbing a spoken coda to the record that is as ingenious as it is hokey, telling us “Now if you put another nickel in the slot we’ll do this again”.

Though jukeboxes don’t really exist anymore and music costs more than a nickel to listen to these days, people HAVEN’T stopped demanding rock ‘n’ roll in the seventy years since this came along. Powell himself wasn’t around to capitalize on it once Swingin’ In The Groove failed to make an impact and with it went their chance to be at the vanguard of rock as it moved into the next decade, but rock’s story was really only just beginning.

For in their place came thousands of others who, like them, were swayed by this music and all it represented. They emerged from all corners of the globe over time, coming from different backgrounds and shaped by different experiences, yet all drawn towards a style of music that promised them the chance to reinvent themselves and be part of something far bigger than any of them could be on their own.

As we leave the first decade, the 1940’s, behind, that widespread belief in the power of this music shared by artists and audiences alike is what ultimately stands as rock music’s greatest legacy.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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