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OKEH 6905; AUGUST 1952



In actual time rock ‘n’ roll had been around for five full years by late summer 1952, while the time it’s taken to cover that period on this site is a little over six and a half years.

What that means is by August ’52 it’s been awhile since listeners had been introduced to this music, just as today it’s been a long time since we had to write about the music that predate its existence but heavily influenced its arrival.

But here we’re going to do so again – though it may well be the last time we have reason to delve into it like this – because the song we’re covering comes from that period and was one of the prehistoric building blocks of the genre to follow.

So let’s set Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to two years before rock ‘n’ roll came into being, Sherman… 1945. World War Two was just ending and the music in Black America was starting to flex its muscles where we’ll once again meet Louis Jordan, the biggest star of the decade in this field and the widely acknowledged grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll.


Crazy ‘Bout You, Baby
Because we HAVE talked at length about Louis Jordan numerous times in the past, notably on Beans And Cornbread, which Jordan covered outright, and Big Jay McNeely’s Road House Boogie which quickly was turned into Saturday Night Fish Fry by Eddie Williams and His Brown Buddies who in turn were usurped by Jordan who was given it directly by them and had the biggest – and arguably most important – hit of his career just as it was winding down in part due to rock’s increasingly taking over the scene.

I say “arguably” his most important though because there’s invariably one or two other candidates which might claim that title among Jordan’s whopping EIGHTEEN #1 hits.

How did you guess that one of them is Caldonia, a chart topper for a mere seven weeks in 1945 which also hit #6 on the Pop Charts, a rare feat for a black artist recording in an undeniably black style in the 1940’s… for anyone but Louis Jordan that is, who hit the Pop Top Ten a total of nine times during the decade, which gives you some idea of his popularity.

As we’ve stated at greater length before, Jordan had been a fair sax player in big bands who slimmed down the size of the average ensemble when he started his own outfit, calling it The Tympany Five, though it usually had more than five members, yet getting the same big sound as a larger group by the way the songs were arranged.

The secret to his success was twofold in that he used humor to address the racial realities of the day, often flying over the heads of white listeners but connecting strongly within his own community who didn’t need translatations. His other strength was musically he was ahead of his time, emphasizing a shuffle rhythm that was a foundational piece of rock ‘n’ roll.

His showmanship was legendary and with this self-penned song (under his wife Fleecie Moore’s name) he had a built-in gimmick to set it off, as he’d yell the title name with a screech to his voice, pause dramatically and say it again, before he and the drummer combined for the catch phrase “What makes your big head so hard?!”.

Audiences ate it up, and of course that audience included future stars coming of age during that time, from James Brown who cut his own version as his career was peaking in the mid-60’s, to one of Jordan’s biggest musical acolytes, Bill Haley, not to mention far-flung acts well outside of rock such as B.B. King and Willie Nelson.

But it was Chuck Willis, or perhaps OKeh’s Danny Kessler, who first decided that this was due for a rock ‘n’ roll rendition.


Won’t You Do What I Told You?
If it’s possible to be both utterly wrong in a song choice and surprisingly right in picking out the same song, then this is surely the case.

The fact that it was so associated with Louis Jordan, and by that also so closely tied to another era, another style of music and another audience, not to mention another artist whose familiarity in 1952 was still extremely high among the general populace, meant that there was almost nothing Chuck Willis could do that would erase those preconceptions.

Since he was without a hit when this was issued (though My Story on the top half would change that dramatically), meant that the choice of this was a no-win situation for Willis, for even if he did it well… even if it became an unlikely hit… the song would still belong to Louis Jordan and thus give Chuck Willis, whose own songwriting was his greatest natural gift, the image of being an imitator rather than an original.

Yet in spite of those risks that suggested steering clear of this was the better option, they changed it up enough, altering some lyrics and modifying the arrangement for rock ‘n’ roll while still retaining the core attributes it always had, that it actually becomes a pulsating rocker perfectly suited for the modern audience, while at the same time showing just how crucial Jordan had been in this music’s rise.

It’s a tough balancing act that is pulled off with grace thanks to a solid band who handles the changes, such as recasting the horn section to take more of a supporting role here, with aplomb. The sneaky guitar, the throbbing bass and the kinetic drumming combine with those downplayed horns who maintain a steady presence without dominating the track until a modern rock-styled sax solo, giving this a new paint job and a tune-up before sending it back on the street.

As for Willis, he too makes adjustments from Jordan’s blueprints, singing Caldonia without the self-ironic wink and feigned outrage that Jordan imbued it with, and instead treats the song – and the girl herself – with more of an assertive attitude that fits better in rock ‘n’ roll.

The funny thing is he’s far more lenient with her than Louis was, tolerating her presumably off-the-wall behavior with easy-going charm, focusing more on how much he likes her in spite of her driving him crazy than he does about what it is that makes him exasperated in the first place.

As a result the record rolls along smoothly, giving Willis a chance to further show off his diverse delivery here which proved that pairing it with a far different type of song on the flip side was a good tactical move going forward. That the other side became such a hit also takes the onus off this remake, convincing you that it was more of a tribute than an attempt to try and get something out of it commercially.


I Swear She’s Got To Go
So considering this is an excellent composition refitted with an entirely appropriate arrangement which is played well and being sung with confidence and easy-going charm by Chuck Willis, surely you expect it to be graded rather highly.

Hmm, you’ve forgotten the way in which a record sounds in isolation is only part of the equation in judging these things in historical context around here, haven’t you?

Though you could hardly have done a better job on re-imagining Caldonia for rock ‘n’ roll – it being far more inventive than either Haley’s 1959 version of Brown’s 1964 rendition – the problem remains that the song itself is so intrinsically tied to the past that it fails to register in the present… not just commercially, but stylistically, despite those updates.

Think of it this way… we’ve heard plenty of remakes of older material that have transformed those songs into rock classics and we’ll hear more of them in the future, some of which are sure to get perfect scores AS rock releases.

But what they’ll have done is completely overhaul the sources, practically erasing the memory of the originals and giving them new life in the process.

Willis and company do their best to accomplish that here as well, so their mindset was right, but the issue they’re having is the original by Louis Jordan was still too close to rock – a primordial version of it maybe – to really have this feel as though it became something completely new in spite of their efforts.

That’s not a knock on Chuck Willis at all, who does a fine job with this, but rather it’s a reminder that we should be heaping even more praise on Louis Jordan for seeing well into the future way back when.


(Visit the Artist page of Chuck Willis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)