In rock’s first four years it’s safe to say that this group is not vying for elite status based on their output or their creative potential… Competent? Yes. Ambitious, versatile and consistent? Umm… not exactly.

But for a brief moment in late 1949 Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames showed how this rock ‘n’ roll freight train we’re on can sweep up even the most unlikely of acts and steer them in the right direction, if only temporarily.

Since that moment is now almost two years in the rear view mirror and they haven’t come close to matching what they showed then, it doesn’t bode well for the group’s ongoing relevance, but as long as they keep releasing records there’s always a remote chance it might happen again and thus always a reason to keep checking in on them, no matter how dim their prospects seem heading into this release.


What’s The Latest Word?
In retrospect we have to assume that the sudden rise and rapid fall of the rock credibility of Chris Powell & His Five Blue Flames meant that they merely struck gold thanks to blind luck and a guesting saxophonist from a “real” rock band, Danny Turner of Jimmy Preston’s group who brought with him one, or perhaps both, of the songs in question.

That they happened to do both of them so well gave us hope that they’d turned the corner and now fully understood what was required to make it in this field, but just as they hit those heights they came crashing back down again just as fast.

Water finds its own level and all that.

But that isn’t to say Powell and company were not capable musicians, but rather that their overall mindsets, their professional backgrounds and their basic musical outlooks were not conducive to rock ‘n’ roll without being pushed (some might say shoved) in that direction.

The hope of course is now that Columbia Records has abdicated responsibility for their designated “rock” artists by shuttling them to their re-instituted OKeh subsidiary, maybe they’d have more incentive to recapture those flashes of brilliance they’d shown in the past because they could no longer hope Columbia would envision them as pop-jazz performers and let them cut the kind of material that might open up the big adult clubs to them.

Yet on this single it seems at first glance that might still be their overriding intent as the flip to this is a version of (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over, a popular song which turned out to be their biggest hit to date, regional though it may have been, though surely it connected with a slightly older and more well-heeled audience than was likely to support their rock material.

But that’s not a reason to dismiss it outright, for while their reading of it is elegant, classy and genteel it’s also really nice.

Basically it’s just an extended sax solo by Vance Wilson with a stilted group vocal at the very end which can’t help but drag it down some, but which was preceded by what has to be a female pop singer on loan from the parent company to wordlessly moan during the main part of the record. As great as Wilson plays however – and as much as we admire his skill – this is still probably the number where you step outside at the rock dance hall to get some air because it’s got nothing to race your motor.

As a result our attention turns instead to Talkin’, an original song that is also played very well and is a bit more suited to rock ‘n’ roll in theory thanks to a slightly more aggressive approach, but which also by how its structured shows their ongoing incompatibility with the musical genre they’d been slotted into, rightly or wrongly.

No Talking In Here
The guitar in rock keeps gaining ground on the saxophone and but has yet to overtake it as a soloing instrument across the board. In fact it’ll be another half decade before we’re ready to concede the Number One position and even that might be jumping the gun by a few years.

But this single may show why that change was inevitable at some point, for while the sax that defines the top side sounds exquisite, it also sounds far, far away from what rock requires it to do.

Rock saxophone was mostly noisy and ostentatious and after two plus years of that sound dominating records there was not many new avenues to explore in that regard and so it either dropped further back into the ensemble, used sparingly rather than being the central focus on a record, or it reverted to more discreet playing, which was certainly nice but just as certainly well removed from what rock fans were after in their music.

The guitar on the other hand seemed to have more varied sounds to fall back on, for while Talkin’ is hardly a rip-roaring instrumental full of blistering fast runs and wild histrionics, it still packs some edginess into its playing that positions it halfway between rock and something a little more artsy.

There’s actually two guitars on this but since it was written by Bill Jennings we’ll assume it’s him as the lead axe while Eddie Lambert takes the supporting role. It starts off really nicely with a slowed-down version of a basic riff that would become more familiar in the coming years from a wide variety of rock guitar slingers. Along the way he’s throwing in some jazzier tones and licks that don’t exactly help focus the song, but also don’t derail it either.

Again it sounds really good, but by now you’re fully aware this is more a mood piece than a typical rock instrumental which are primarily used for dancing. Jennings and Lambert switch up techniques frequently which always keeps it interesting but if you’re looking for some stretch where one or both them cut loose you won’t find it. The closest they get is towards the end where things get a little more heated as the rest of the band starts screaming – a definite rock touch let it be said – before they tone it back down again.

Let it be said that at no point do you lose interest in what they’re doing here, yet as good as the playing is, as well as it’s arranged from a technical standpoint, it’s a record to be admired rather than enjoyed, if that makes sense… a song more suited for examining than immersing yourself in while engaged in other social activities which at this point is rock’s calling card as a style.


Quiet Down
Ultimately the musicianship here – and on the flip for that matter – is more than good enough to recommend both sides, albeit with an important caveat, which is to let you know that it’s far from your usual rock listening experience for 1951.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course, we always like something new coming along to shake up expectations, but Talkin’ has a definite ceiling commercially in rock ‘n’ roll singles territory, not to mention more limited purposes in terms of listening experiences.

If anything after criticizing them for not being ambitious enough, this might be slightly TOO ambitious to go over well on a jukebox or a dance where simpler and more direct material is a better bet for mass appeal.

The more interesting thing with each side of this single though falls under the category of “ex-post-facto supposition”. In the past we’ve made comparisons to Bill Haley & His Comets when it comes to Powell & His Five Blue Flames – both were from Pennsylvania, both were slightly older when they switched to rock from outside genres in search of more career possibilities – but here’s where the connection is made even more clear.

When Haley’s star dimmed considerably by the late 50’s for a myriad of reasons, they shifted their focus to instrumentals, often with exotic origins, which got them a few small hits but more or less took them out of contention for widespread airplay.

It seems that’s what Powell is doing here and for much the same purpose. Like Haley down the line, he’s realizing he’s not quite cut out for a more adventurous brand of rock than what they began with and rather than continue to emphasize that lack of compatibility with poorly rendered vocal songs, he’s turning to instrumentals where his band’s musicianship could reasonably carry the day.

Of course we know now there was no future in this, but there’s never a need to apologize for good playing and while it might not be entirely suited for the type of environment rock was thriving in, you wouldn’t want to walk out on this one.


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