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DELUXE 3204; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

A new year normally brings new hopes, in this case specifically the fervent hope of finally seeing more women join the men in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.

But we’re no dummies, nor are we naïve and we know that won’t necessarily be the case.

(Alright, I’ll admit we also peaked ahead)

Thus far in sixteen months of rock’s existence we’re still stuck on the number six – as in just six female artists we’ve reviewed to date.

In case you don’t want to look it up we’ve covered more than fifty different men, or male aggregations in that same time. I don’t about all of you but I’m telling you flat out that any party with that pitiful a ratio of women to men isn’t going to be much fun.
 

Far from being merely a question of equality – which in the late 1940’s was hardly close to being the case in any walk of life when it came to gender – there’s the lack of musical diversity to consider which is the more pertinent issue for our needs here. Rock music may sound to outsiders like one indecipherable racket but within that racket there are many different stylistic approaches that are crucial for giving the music its nuance and textures.

From the very start the soaring solo voices were joined by bawdy shouters and more mellow crooners and by groups of harmonizing voices, some emphasizing the high angelic tenors, others the impossibly low basses. The styles these voices have projected have run the gamut from emotional wailing to lusty come-ons and from despondent tales of heartbreak to rousing celebrations of life and love.

There’ve been plenty of important records with no voices at all and even within that realm the diversity has been admirable, with seemingly out of control honking, squealing saxes sharing space with grooving horns under total control, and with pianos and guitars adding to the mix.

There have been young visionaries who felt the need to express their specific worldviews in their own words and style which gave birth to the genre as being representative of the post-war black generation coming of age, but there’s also been older veterans of music who while seemingly at odds with that perspective have nonetheless been able to join in with distinct impressions of their own.

Each region of America has been well represented with rock getting its start in New Orleans but quickly appearing in different forms in such widespread locales as New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles as well. Though a distinctly black form of music specifically made to celebrate and reflect black culture, there’s even been two white artists who’ve managed to be accepted as authentic purveyors of the music with obviously many more to follow down the road as its perspective gradually shifts from strictly the young black experience to the broader young American experience, then soon after the young worldview.

But the same can’t be said for the ladies. Despite accounting for more than half the total population they’ve lagged woefully behind when it comes to representation in rock music thus far. This is even more surprising considering the overall musical landscape of the 1940’s and the end of the big band era where female vocalists were omnipresent in that style, accounting for some of the biggest hits and the most famous stars of the times from The Andrews Sisters to Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and Helen Forrest. Yet somehow the same opportunity for women was slow to present itself in rock and even today, seventy years later, females still aren’t close to approaching fifty percent of the talent roster and that’s had an unfortunate impact on rock’s overall voice.
 

A Gold Mine And Money Tree
But at this point in our story we may have had reason for optimism, for Chubby Newsom was the first to break through in terms of official recognition when her debut Hip Shakin’ Mama became a hit (actually in Billboard it didn’t crack the Race charts until the last week of February around the bend, but in Cash Box it had already made territorial listings in mid-December, 1948).

In a way perhaps that wasn’t surprising because Newsom’s voice wasn’t the only thing she had going for her.

She was a knockout.

I don’t want to disparage the male mindset too much here, since I’m a member of the union in good standing myself, but I don’t think I’m at risk of divulging any top level secrets when I say that guys are often led by their eyes (if not something about two feet further south) when it comes to attraction to and appreciation of female… err… talent.

It’s even been postulated by many different commentators over the years that some of the biggest female rock stars from long ago, including such lauded names as Etta James, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and the queen of ‘em all Aretha Franklin, might not have made it quite so big in an era where artists looks were as much a selling point as their voices.

I tend not to believe that because I still think that what you HEAR when listening to music is more important that what you see while you listen, especially since you are not required to even have your eyes open when digging sounds, but then again there’s been some pretty overwhelming evidence to the contrary as well. Looking at the biggest rock hits since the start of the video era in the 1980’s it’s hard to find a female artist among them who WASN’T attractive, in many cases amazingly so (Bey, RiRi, Janet, Katy Perry, Alicia Keys… the list goes on). Now all of those ladies can sure as hell sing so their popularity can’t all be traced back to their visual appeal, but by contrast many of the guys who topped the charts since that time got into music in the first place because they were so ugly that becoming a rock star gave them their only realistic chance to get laid without being ignominiously forced to pay twice the going rate to any self-respecting prostitute for the privilege.

Now I’m not saying that a lot of male rock icons over the years weren’t helped by their physical attributes when it comes to their popularity. Certainly Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant and 2Pac could’ve all but shut the microphones off and STILL have gotten girl’s attention. But it doesn’t seem that being a heartthrob is quite the same requirement for stardom when it comes to men, as the likes of Big Joe Turner, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Phil Collins, The Notorious B.I.G. and Ed Sheeran prove.

So the standards for the respective genders from the start were decidedly different and women who wanted to make it big fared much better if they had something more than just a good voice with which to sell their wares.

Madonna and Millie Jackson peddled sex. Grace Slick possessed a model’s icy stare. Tina Turner sported killer legs…

Chubby Newsom had hips that wouldn’t quit.
 


 

I’m Not Ashamed
Newsom’s talents weren’t confined to the space between her waist and knees (oh boy, sexual harassment lawsuits, here I come). She had a strong voice, slightly strident in her delivery at times but with more than enough character and verve to make up for any technical deficiencies. Her greatest vocal skill was the ability to project – not just a full voice able to be heard over the din of a crowded club or the thudding of men’s hearts when they saw her, but also to project the song’s underlying intent by her inflections.

Granted when analyzing most of her material the songs may not come off as too nuanced, they usually were pretty unambiguous in their intent, but she fully understood what her role was and how to convey the right amount of urgency, determination and attitude to get the message across while still allowing you to see the brains behind the beauty, giving her a much more three-dimensional persona than merely a vapid sex kitten.

Once again she has the benefit of an attention grabbing intro on Back Bitin’ Woman courtesy of pianist/arranger Paul Gayten, whose stabbing lead-in ensures that nobody is caught off guard when Newsom saunters out to center stage, hips swaying, with a mischievous grin on her face and devilish gleam in her eye to announce to any girl delusional enough to think they can compete with her for a man’s affection that they have absolutely no chance.

Now the really interesting thing about this song, something I hadn’t anticipated when first seeing the title, was that in this Newsom is the protagonist, not – as usually would be done – the potential victim. Most girls would be railing against these back biting women, someone out to steal their man away from them. It’s always been a standard theme in the record industry for female artists, The Supremes’ immortal Stop! In The Name Of Love being the quintessential rock song using this narrative, while Dolly Parton’s Jolene in the country realm is an equally brilliant use of the model (and for the record there’s another who, like Chubby, is known and admired for a specific physical attribute… or two).

In those songs and others like it the singer is the one who’s left to fight for her man with the wandering eye, begging, pleading or in some cases threatening assault in a desperate attempt to keep what they have. When done well the records work on your sympathy to win you over… girls listening nod their head with recognition at the perils of treacherous love with somebody who ultimately would discard them like a condom wrapper on the floor of a cheap motel room, while male listeners are envisioning themselves – not as the duplicitous lover – but as the virtuous admirer on the sidelines who will come in and sweep this girl who’s been done wrong off her feet, taking her away from the no-good lothario.

But not here. No, DEFINITELY not here!

On Back Bitin’ Woman Newsom turns this narrative on its head, stating with absolutely no shame that SHE’S the one who is going to snatch somebody else’s fella from them and she’s saying this not as a fair warning amongst rivals, but rather just to make the hunt and ultimate capture of that man all the more fun for her. There’s no guilt-ridden conscience here, folks. She’s actually taunting other women and daring them to do something to stop her. It’s obvious Newsom views man-snatching as sheer sport and with her powerful equipment it’s the equivalent of being a big-game hunter targeting arthritic turtles without their shells. The men simply don’t stand a chance.

Newsom’s arrogance would be off-putting if she wasn’t so convincing in the role, which is to say if she hadn’t had plenty of real-life experience being the most sought after gal in New Orleans. She’s not engaging in a petty battle of putdowns with nameless adversaries and this is no cat-fight captured on tape for voyeuristic listeners to enjoy, but rather she’s merely stating the obvious.

Whatever you have, she’s telling every female in the audience, won’t be nearly enough to compete with what SHE has!
 

I’ve Got News For You
Though somebody buying this in the winter of 1949 in Milwaukee or Oakland or Baltimore, or East Podunk out in the sticks likely never SAW what Newsom had with their own eyes, maybe never heard of her physical attributes that left most men she encountered slack-jawed and google-eyed, but you don’t really NEED to see it because you can hear it in her voice.

It’s the sound of utter confidence borne out of a lifetime of making men weak in the knees. Singers can try and artificially conjure up such self-assurance to work within the song but only those who truly possess those sought after characteristics in real life can sell that bill of goods with any conviction.

She’s speaking with authority and we know it because SHE knows it.

Of course if you HAD seen Newsom you could play this with the volume down and still know it, maybe even more so, which is why I’m certain that Newsom was one gal who would’ve become a star in recent years, perhaps been able to rival Beyoncé and Rihanna as the top female rock stars of the twenty-first century.
 

 

I suppose that’s the Catch-22 about the whole issue of female rockers. I can’t speak for women of course but for me while I’ll rail against the belief that only an overt use of sex can effectively sell a song by a female artist and bemoan the state of humanity for not being able to look beyond the exterior when it comes to properly evaluating a singer with two X chromosomes, I’ll then turn right around and say that when someone with Newsom’s attributes delivers a song as shamelessly seductive as Back Bitin Woman… that it works.

It works regardless of its rather by-the-numbers arrangement after the intro and its blatant appropriation of the melody from Julia Lee’s King Size Papa, a huge hit from just over a year earlier, and in spite of a storyline that doesn’t expand on the scenario nearly enough to fill up the song with vivid images. Yet despite all of that and even without any added instrumental kick to appeal to that end of the spectrum, I’ll still lay my money down and walk away happy.

Just wait until after the song ends to tell me I’m a no-good sexist pig because I want to hear – and see – as much of Chubby while I can.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Chubby Newsom for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)