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OKEH 6900; AUGUST 1952



The saying “Always Leave Them Wanting More” sounds great on the surface… for who doesn’t want to walk away from a relationship with their head held high?

But when you realize that no matter how good you make your exit, the fact of the matter is you’re still on your way out the door.

This isn’t the best record that this unlikely club act turned rockers ever released, nor is it the best selling of their singles, but it may just have the most far reaching impact… even if we’re mostly talking in terms of actual miles.


From Philly To Kingston And Back Again
It’s not like we won’t run across these guys again, but since their entire story thus far has taken place under the auspices of Columbia Records – and then their revived rock-oriented subsidiary OKeh – and this closes the book on that stage of their recording career, it’s worth reminding you just how unlikely these guys were to make it even this far… not in terms of length of stay at the label, but rather that they were able to actually earn some credibility despite their background.

Never forget they were simply a Philadelphia club act in the right place at the right time. A group who performed what they themselves referred to as “jive” in the 1940’s, a half-serious loose-limbed jazz-derived style that was designed not to impress musically, but rather to genially win you over instead.

Not surprisingly when scouting around for artists who might give them a foot in the door with rock ‘n’ roll in 1949 the most conservative of major labels would turn to someone like them in a foolhardy attempt to appear relevant without actually putting forth the effort to find someone appropriate… until Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames defied the odds and took their assignment seriously and managed to make the grade on pure merit when given the chance.

Their output in this regard wasn’t always consistent and far too often they reverted back to their old ways – sometimes they even adopted something that seemed to have no explanation at all – but while they never quite matched their short-lived brilliance from late 1949 that saw them release the all-time best version of the rock classic Rock The Joint, along with other records that nearly matched its fury, they’ve remained at the very least an interesting band with an eclectic catalog worth delving into.

Maybe that’s what they wanted to prove one last time here with I Come From Jamaica, their second such faux-island cut from their last session, both of which somehow didn’t offend those from the Caribbean, but actually inspired them instead.

Though neither Ida Red nor this record made much of an impact in the States, they did get heard and widely embraced in Jamaica and it’s not surprising then that it’s that small nation which arguably became the first country to actually set about to put their own twist on rock ‘n’ roll, beating even Great Britain to the punch… at least in cultural settings, not necessarily on record which was a much more difficult proposition there at the time.

And to think, some chubby drummer from Philly was in large part responsible for it. Who saw that coming?


Jamaica Is My… Home?
There’s always an interesting dynamic at work when an artist of any kind, music or otherwise, is imitating something done by others and the “others” then imitate that imitation.

At first glance this record seems to be more strictly about an attempt to convey an exotic sound that is only vaguely accurate than it is about Jamaican musicians taking their cue directly from Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames because the most obvious traits that hit you as this starts up sounds like something pretty exploitative – quirky rapid-fire drumming laced with an approximated island dialect, or maybe more accurately, a cartoonish somewhat offensive interpretation of it.

Pop music excelled at that sort of thing in the late 1940’s which is the era in which Powell and company came into their own, so you’d be forgiven if you felt that this record was cut with that intention, especially with a title as potentially troubling as I Come From Jamaica which reeks of cultural appropriation.

But the more you listen – not just to this record but also the first ska records in a few years time when Jamaican musicians were finally able to put what they’d learned from hearing so many offbeat rock records smuggled on the island and played on dancehall sound systems – there are some clear similarities at work, showing the native musicians were taking some notes.

The encouraging thing is that the all-too obvious nods to what an American band perceives is a Jamaican style were sort of bypassed by those they were honoring or lampooning (take your pick, though both may be true) in favor of the more creative elements the Five Blue Flames brought to the table in order to flesh out the record beyond a few broad tropes.

The repetitive title line that comprises much of the record, including all of the first 35 seconds is sort of condescending, even though it contains some good percussion by the drummer and Powell himself. But the first bridge which follows that has some really interesting backing music with a distinctive groove the subsequent music from the country would become known for (albeit slowed down), while the harsher vocals now being used are reminiscent of the way in which the early ska performers had to shout to be heard, something still occasionally evident when Jamaican artists like Laurel Aitken made their first records later in the decade.

When you think of first generation ska you probably think of the drunken swaying upper register horns, always veering towards an atonal sound without quite crossing that line. But here they don’t have that… not exactly anyway, because while you may think you hear it on I Come From Jamaica, what it actually is aren’t horns at all, but rather the guitar which is playing with a similar tone AND same choppy style on the solo just before the one minute mark.

There are moments when you’re inclined to think it must be Vance Wilson’s alto sax taking over, but then you hear the distinctive twang of the strings and can tell its Eddie Lambert playing with soupy tone that the Jamaicans found so appealing and wound up replicating it with saxophones later on, either because they too misheard it, or simply that it was easier to convey with horns.

Does any of this add up to a great record? No, not exactly. There’s no story, the vocals are not designed to be taken seriously – and frankly if you do, there’s plenty to be mildly offended by – and the record certainly is out of step with the current rock landscape… but there’s still enough here to reward your curiosity even if nothing notable had come of any of this down the road.


Check Back In Another Six Years Or So
We’re still a couple of years away from getting to dive into the first brands of overseas imports of rock ‘n’ roll, the most interesting and creative of which – at least in the earliest years – being Jamaican ska.

We’ve already seen a handful of tracks along the way so far that are crucial in its development as the imported rock records from stars like Rosco Gordon and Fats Domino as well as more obscure sides by Harold Land and now two by Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames will have as much impact on the development of Jamaican styles of rock ‘n’ roll as the likes of Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly will have on British rock ‘n’ roll by the turn of the decade.

That’s what makes this step by step crawl through rock history as it unfolded at the time so interesting… making those stylistic connections through the years and in this case across borders as well.

Granted with a title like I Come From Jamaica it’s not as if this one was hard to spot, but the fact that they somehow managed to send up the music while at the same time influence its future direction in some way makes this utterly unique.

In the end, when going strictly by how much of this is good and how much is pretty shallow, the latter wins out if you judge it strictly by the respective time allotments. The prominent chanted hook is the worst part by far and takes up the lion’s share of the run time.

But everything else is so good, so influential and so creative that it overrides the disposable parts and leaves this as one of the odder entries in rock’s evolution, but also one of the most intriguing and allows Chris Powell to walk away from his long association with Columbia/OKeh Records with something that will ensure he’ll be remembered.. even if it’s mostly in a country that isn’t quite twice as populated as his own home city.


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