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MACY’S 5001; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

After having just gotten done exploring the first swamp pop record in rock history on the top side, we take a step – or a leap – sideways into a far different realm on the flip.

Call it blues-rock if you want, or even say that it reflects little more than the early indecision of an artist who hasn’t yet figured out what path he wants to travel, but like all records there’s plenty of threads to unravel when trying to ascertain its influences and its subsequent musical identity.

More importantly for Clarence Garlow, someone who brought to the table a wide cross-section of stylistic DNA to begin with, it’s a chance for us to try and determine what he might have been thinking as he embarked on a professional music career at 38 years old, an age that many of the rock artists he’d be vying with for hits in the coming years were two decades away from reaching themselves.
 

 

Age Old Questions
Mid-life career changes probably aren’t all that uncommon in life. After all who really knows when they’re 25 years old what they’re going to enjoy doing every day when they reach 45 years of age. Then when you factor in the possibility that a plum job when you’re starting out in life, like say a blacksmith in 1912 or a telephone lineman in 1989, might not even still exist before you reach retirement age, you can certainly see why it might pay to keep your options open as you go along in life.

That was the case for Clarence Garlow who was born in 1911 which meant that when he was reaching adulthood in the early 1930’s the recording industry was grinding to a halt thanks to the Great Depression which had a particularly chilling effect on artists in so-called fringe styles such as blues or hillbilly. Small independent record labels shut down left and right while even the major labels faced long-term uncertainty with the most venerable company of all, Columbia, sold for a pittance in 1934 and basically ceased operations two years later. The music industry revived of course thanks to lowering prices and the country’s insatiable need for something to lighten their burdens but while jazz and pop artists had plenty of opportunities to record as the 1940’s dawned the same couldn’t be said for the styles of music someone like Garlow might want to explore.

So he spent his first two decades of adulthood working “regular jobs”, which for a black man in the Nineteen-Thirties meant menial labor at low wages. He was making ends meet and putting food on the table and so it was nothing to be ashamed of perhaps, but these jobs weren’t likely to result in him becoming nationally known and an influence on the future of a major cultural movement. In other words he was destined for a life of anonymity.
 


 
As the 1940’s progressed independent labels record labels began springing up with increasing frequency as the economy improved during the war years, most of them aiming squarely at the fringe styles the majors callously ignored for more than a decade and by the time rock ‘n’ roll was born in 1947 the indie record boom was thriving. Two years later Macy’s Records out of Houston was launched and they didn’t have to look far to compile a roster of local aspiring musicians to get their company rolling, but it was a middle-aged musical nomad who became their most notable signing. As seen with the flip-side of this, She’s So Fine, Garlow’s style was somewhat unique and while that song unquestionably was a rocker, as was most of his ensuing releases, it was not quite what others in the field were doing at the time and so the question was going to be how well would he fit in with them.

Hedging their bets on his debut release they paired it with Blues As You Like It, which could very well be thrown in the blues bag, as its title suggests. But it also was close enough to the rock field to suffice, especially around this region of the country which was seeing more guitar players enter the rock fray, a style that previously had been reserved for horn honkers and piano pounders almost exclusively.
 

Steak a’La Carte
As we’ve stated many times before the blues as a whole tend to get far too much credit for influencing rock’s birth, something attributable largely to the first generation of rock writers and historians coming of age in the 1960’s and so their immediate sourcing was largely the comments of the sixties British rock guitar brigade who championed the electric blues above and beyond its overall importance.

Their infatuation with that style growing up in the 1950’s when a handful of blues discs from America reached English shores, is one reason why the blues cats from that period, Muddy Waters foremost among them, were elevated to a far higher plateau historically than the guys who preceded them a decade earlier and actually had the most stylistic influence on the emerging electric blues idiom.

Namely Aaron “T-Bone” Walker.

To say that Walker was the most influential blues guitarist of all-time is a massive understatement. He was the taproot of the form and virtually all blues acts who plugged their axes into an amp were wired to that source.

Walker’s increasingly popular experimentation on the instrument coincided with the aforementioned independent record boom and the gradual shift in all music to a more electronic era of playing and recording. His flashy style on stage only added to his appeal and built his legend up as word of his showmanship began to spread. Playing his guitar behind his head, between his legs and doing splits and gyrating around he was impossible to ignore in person and equally compelling on record, even without the visual effects.

He made his first recording in 1929 after apprenticing to Blind Lemon Jefferson and a decade later was the first blues guitarist to make the switch to the electric guitar. Over the rest of the 1940’s he cut a sheaf of classics and inspired countless young musicians to take up the instrument and follow in his wake.

Two things however conspired against him when it came to enjoying the type of crossover recognition that some of the ensuing blues acts like Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf all enjoyed. The first was Walker had peaked just a little too early, his best stretch coming at a time when the blues as a whole had few if any notable white followers to spread the word about him. The heyday of the electric blues was roughly 1948-1960 (when folk-blues temporarily took its mantle before the white, largely British, adaption of the blues came about in the mid-60’s relegating the originators to elder statesmen) and Walker’s most indelible recordings mostly came before 1950. Thus those who came of age during the decade to come heard of Walker more through second hand testimonials than experiencing his best work for themselves when new.

You can throw in the fact that Walker further suffered for the fact that he didn’t die tragically young, like Robert Johnson, to add a sufficient air of mystery and legend to his name, nor did he live to enjoy a critical blues revival that guys like King and Hooker were able to take advantage of to boost their notoriety well after their first – if not second – commercial run had ended.

Oh yeah, the other factor in Walker’s downturn of acclaim was the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1940’s which meant that increasingly the next generation of artists who WERE influenced by him, everyone from Goree Carter to Chuck Berry, would have another, potentially more profitable, avenue to pursue if they so chose.

Clarence Garlow may not have been of that generation in terms of the year found on his birth certificate, but since he got his start in a recording studio in the midst of the first rock boom it was no sure bet that he’d faithfully follow the road T-Bone Walker had paved in the years leading up to that moment.
 


 

Getting Down To Business
Macy’s Recordings had been started in mid-1949, initially recording country music, getting a hit right out of the gate with Woody Carter’s Sittin’ On The Doorstep on Macy’s 101. A few months later they began the 5000 line for black artists playing an amalgam of styles from blues to rock. Clarence Garlow was capable of connecting with either which raises the age-old question in music of which audience to target.

We’ve seen other acts struggle with this same dilemma, whether saxophonists trying to split the difference with jazz and rock, vocal groups attempting to court pop listeners without alienating rock audiences, and increasingly we’ve had a few guitar players who conceivably could appeal to the same blues constituency that made Walker such a star, or could try and establish themselves in another realm and take their shot at becoming a rock star.

Garlow, at least on Blues As You Like It seems far more undecided about his choices than Goree Carter who turned his back on blues right away and went all out in rock ‘n’ roll. By contrast Clarence Garlow sticks to a less aggressive sound in an effort to bridge the gap and not surprisingly winds up falling a bit short in convincing either side to embrace him.

Actually Garlow does a decent job at touching on both styles of guitar playing, alternating between harsher chording and more delicate fills, cruder rhythm and spry leads, but as skilled as he is in pulling off the varied techniques his switching from one to another means the song never gets a singular identity.

You’d have to say that his playing veers more towards the blues, if only because at this point there’s far more of a blues guitar style to draw from than there is a rock guitar style. He’s certainly not following the all-out attack of Carter which fast became the defining rock approach, nor is he focusing on executing a slithery melody like ex-jazzman Tiny Grimes had been doing for the last two years. Since this is an instrumental Garlow also doesn’t have the advantage of letting a vocal take the bulk of the playing time while he contributes only quick flashes in between lines and maybe a ten or fifteen second solo.

Instead Garlow has to try and be both the one setting the mood AND the melody to give it character and the latter is too unfocused while the former is too harsh to really be compelling on its own.
 

Across The Spectrum
What keeps the record from severing its ties to rock altogether is the work of the other musicians, notably the sax players whose playing isn’t anywhere near as interesting as it was on the top side, but at least they add some color to the palette so we’re not stuck with only the monochrome view of Garlow from start to finish.

The droning horns and often hesitant piano filling the cracks balance things out as best they can but here’s where Blues As You Like It could’ve desperately used a better arrangement to give those instruments extended solos, thereby alleviating Garlow’s responsibility.

Their best moments are early on after the intro when their playing is at its most delicate, then later in the give and take section with both Garlow and the horns ramping it up in the bridge before settling back down. Unfortunately while Garlow is allowed to stretch out, playing some nice, but hardly riveting single string lines, the piano is just pounding out notes for rhythmic emphasis while the horns are all but muted in the background, doing little more than filling out the sound as unobtrusively as possible.

A sax solo in the second half where Garlow could sit out for twenty seconds before charging back in full bore might not have turned this into a potential hit, but it would’ve at least made for a much more interesting contrast. As it is we’re worn down by the monotonous sound before the three minute record reaches its conclusion.

I have no doubt Clarence Garlow can play, and play fairly well – though he’s by no means a a challenge for T-Bone Walker – but it’s never just your ability TO play, but rather your ability to be compelling in WHAT you play that will determine your fate and that’s where Blues As You Like It falls well short.
 

 
Maybe the one benefit of this side’s underwhelming result is that it pushed Garlow further away from the blues, thereby giving him the incentive to explore the swamp-pop rock style that would result in his most memorable sides. Yet since those efforts were so unusual for the time the appearance of this, something far more recognizable, on his debut single merely gave listeners a clear option in case they didn’t know what to make of his far more creative and original ideas.

In the end audiences preferred the new sounds to the old and as a result the blues lost another potential artist. Maybe that wasn’t quite a big loss all things considered, for even in the blues this would be sub-par, but as that effectively made his decision for him he soon fully committed to what he did best and that was definitely rock’s gain.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Clarence Garlow for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)