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OKEH 6875; APRIL 1952



Which’ll it be this time, fellas? A gutsy rocker or a tame pop ballad?

Well, if it’s appearing on these pages you know it won’t be the latter, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be the former either, as we also cover those records from rock acts which may have somewhat compromised intentions.

With these guys almost everything they’ve done, with a few magnificent exceptions, have fallen into that middle ground… just rocking enough to get our attention, but not rocking hard enough to hold our interest.

But maybe it’ll entice you into sticking around to learn if this is one of the songs that helped to launch Chuck Berry’s career or if it’s just one of many tantalizing possibilities in that realm which remains frustratingly unconfirmed.


I’ll Trade My Ford For A Fishtail Cad
I guess we’ll start there, since that’s probably the only thing that has you hanging around here today, even though we won’t come to a definitive conclusion because there IS no definitive conclusion on the question of which song “inspired” Chuck Berry’s first single, Maybellene.

The answer is Ida Red, as Berry himself pointed out many times… yet WHICH song with this title he was referring to was something that not even Berry himself was quite sure of.

He recalled that it was a country song he heard as a teenager which leads most people to believe he’s referring to the Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys cut from 1938, but it’s miles away from Berry’s famous composition – instrumentally, lyrically and rhythmically. In 1949 Wills recorded a semi-sequel, another song with a longer history actually, called Ida Red Likes The Boogie, which is a little closer to Berry’s approach but not much and it hurries through the vocal stanzas at a speed that makes it sound rushed, something Berry did not do, despite cramming in a lot of words himself.

When you keep digging you’ll find that Berry’s approach was a lot closer to what Chris Powell & The Five Blues Flames do on their Ida Red, a different song altogether in which they use a choppy vocal pattern similar to Berry’s classic. It’s not a perfect match by any means but it’s got that same stop-start hitch throughout the song which was the most distinctive aspect of Chuck’s debut along with the overdriven electric guitar.

However confusing the issue even more is the fact this song was a cover of Bumble Bee Slim’s late 1951 single which features our old friend Tiny Webb playing a much more prominent guitar than is shown here, which naturally also may have had considerable impact on Berry.

But the main difference between them is that Slim takes it slow while Powell jumps, as this pushes the rhythm to the forefront and features a similarly spirited vocal to Berry’s masterpiece and thus making the possible connection to our version today a little more tangible.

Of course the truth is it never was ONE distinct influence on that later record, but a myriad of influences mixing together, some he himself may have recognized, others that may have just slipped in unconsciously. That’s actually a LOT more common when it comes to writing in general than most people think, the only difference is most things people write aren’t nearly as scrutinized as Chuck Berry’s first hit.

But if you are looking for those influences, this is the most prominent one in the rock idiom and that alone makes it worth a listen… the other thing that makes it worth a listen though is that it’s pretty damn good in its own right.

Can’t Catch No Fish, Ain’t Got No Bait
Though not an original we shouldn’t be surprised he picked this out to cover, as it’s is another of those songs that Chris Powell specialized in, which is to say it’s got a lot of different ingredients in it, some of which are flavorful, some that are a little pungent or bitter.

What he never seemed to realize was that by not consistently putting out things that fell under just one definitive style it meant he was never going to cultivate a loyal audience for his records, for who knows what sounds were going to come out of the speakers after you already plunked your hard-earned money down.

However, I also don’t think he cared because he was a club musician at heart and they had different objectives, namely to be able to play anything to keep a diverse audience interested over the course of an evening.

The out and out rockers would have appeal to you and me, but someone’s aunt and uncle sitting at a table in the corner would be less appreciative of it. While the lighter pop sides would send us out to the sidewalk, or at least coincide with our bathroom breaks or prompt us to go to the bar for another drink, the older couples would surely approve.

Then there was stuff like Ida Red, a song that is playful and jovial sounding enough that non-rock fans can get into it, yet has enough drive to it that we degenerates can dig it too.

As always Powell is hardly the world’s best singer, but he’s perfectly suited to this kind of fare. He’s a genial showman who knows how to connect with an audience and with the right material, a solid beat and some sizzling solos to bolster his attitude, he can step up his game and deliver the goods.

As for the song itself, the herky-jerky rhythm is accentuated by bongos (played by Powell, as he’d given up the regular drum seat by now) and has some interesting horn work behind the vocals – albeit an unfortunate muted trumpet solo from Clifford Brown which slows its progress. But the sax, in a lesser role, and even a glassy guitar to close it out, add to the semi-exotic vibe this gives off.

But it’s the lyrics and the way Powell sells them as if he’s actually telling a story rather than reciting lines, that makes this sparkle. When he touches on the two car models that Berry later made the centerpiece of Maybellene, you start to wonder just how much “inspiration” he took from this.

Meanwhile the other, far less talked about but no less interesting, aspect of this record is its influence on Jamaican rock ‘n’ roll, specifically ska, with its emphasis on the off-beat rhythms. The quirky funkiness this exhibits is one of its most distinctive characteristics and was not present in Bumble Bee Slim’s arrangement. Since another track cut at this same session named dropped that island country in the title, it’s hardly surprising that Powell’s records slipped into the playlists of the legendary sound system dances that gave birth to the nation’s musical variation on American rock ‘n’ roll.

But even without those two – admittedly distant, but admittedly impressive – connections to future sounds, both homegrown and foreign, this remains an oddly enjoyable record from start to finish.


Up The Road I’m Gone
By now we know, as I’m sure Chris Powell knew, that they weren’t going to ever be major stars – in rock, or any other style of music.

But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good, it doesn’t mean they weren’t important in rock’s evolution and it doesn’t mean they don’t have some records that are a treat to discover for those digging a little deeper than just the big hits of this era.

Ida Red will probably have a few more spins than most of their material for the two side stories we talked about at length, but it’s worth your time even without those factors influencing your decision.

Of course as stated when it comes to Powell you have to be willing to endure stuff far outside of rock ‘n’ roll just to get to the “good” stuff, although they do a surprisingly decent job on the standard Darn That Dream on the flip side… well sung with a great saxophone by Vance Wilson… though you’ll need to put on your tie and tails before listening unless you want to feel completely out of place.

But this side is another story altogether, something you don’t need to dress up for at all.

It’s hardly the most typical rocker they released, but it’s a lot better than some of their attempts at milder versions of rock ‘n’ roll they thought would go over well with their club audiences.

Once again every time we think we might give up on these guys they double cross us and come up with something intriguing which makes us eager to come back for more.


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