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MACY’S 5002; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Whenever an artist hits early in their career with a record that will come to define them for eternity you have to ask yourself when looking back was there anything else they did around that time which could’ve – and perhaps should’ve – kept them from being seen as a one trick pony?

This is especially true when it wasn’t just a song in question which branded them for life, but rather the overall sound that song contained which in essence became their defining characteristic… or the millstone around their neck if you prefer.

For that’s the thing about great ideas which make many an innovative experiment a double-edged sword… sometimes the very nature of its creativity makes any further creations you might want to explore dead upon arrival.

Clarence Garlow may not have had more than one really original idea in him but that doesn’t mean the rest of what he was capable of doing, derivative though it may have been, wasn’t worth something on its own.
 

 

A Different Dish
Garlow’s position as Zyedco’s forebearer is easy enough to understand. He was exactly the kind of quirky figure for whom the term “patron saint “ seemed to be invented. A slightly older newcomer to the scene who was born in Louisiana but raised in Southeast Texas, the twin hotbeds of the Zydeco movement to follow, who was able to play the accordion and fiddle, the instruments the style was built upon, and possessing an immediately identifiable vocal brand which provided an easy reference for anyone listening.

That his one big hit – Bon Ton Roula – the top side of this single, featured the odd mishmash of languages (English and French-Creole) and distinctive dialect that the fans of Zydeco were familiar with only made the connection all the more strong… except that song itself wasn’t REALLY Zyedco at all, but rather rock ‘n’ roll with a regional flavor that made it almost unclassifiable.

He hadn’t even played the accordion or fiddle on it either, choosing instead to use his primary instrument the electric guitar which further removed it from the budding subgenre of Cajun music and placed it more squarely in rock. Yet because of the need for those interested in expanding the reach of Zydeco by proving it had potential commercial appeal it was immediately embraced by that constituency to the point where the music that followed in the style wound up adapting many of Garlow’s traits, essentially making Zydeco in the future an amalgam of Cajun music and rock.

Once it became a national hit Garlow’s career road effectively narrowed, its off-ramps increasingly being shut-down until he was funneled into sticking with one lane before calling it quits by the early 1960’s. Even when he returned to the stage two decades later it was primarily as a Zyedco performer, truly a case of “What you say I am, I became”.

But while there’s no doubt that his one big hit – and its many stellar remakes over the next ten years – stood as his crowning achievement artistically that doesn’t mean that it was the only thing of value he had to offer, as the rock instrumental In A Boogie Mood proves.

Granted it may not have been something to compete with the top side, then again that probably goes without saying for most instrumental B-sides no matter the artist, but it gives us the opportunity to see what Garlow’s career might’ve been instead had the A-side either flopped entirely or if instead Macy’s Recordings had shelved that song altogether in favor of a flowery rendition of some current pop hit that did nobody any favors.
 


 

The Many Moods Of Clarence Garlow
Reflecting back on his initial recording session Garlow admitted that they were throwing together things to see what might work – which ironically is how Bon Ton Roula came about – but what all of their output at the time shows is that he really had a good fundamental grasp on music in general, no matter what label you stuck on it.

In A Boogie Mood is just what its name implies, a generic boogie by design but one that is pulled off with a good deal of skill by all involved.

Kicking off with Johnnie Mae Brown’s percussive piano featuring a good left hand and a nimble right the sound gets your knees twitching as you sit on your stool at the bar, not sure if you want to leave your drink and the last two handfuls of peanuts left over from the Hoover Administration to get on the floor.

Your resistance weakens when Johnny Marshall starts laying down a subtle rhythm on drums, almost sounding as if he were playing a shaker filled with sand and pebbles which creates a vaguely hypnotic trance that makes your hips join your knees in their growing rebellion towards remaining sedentary for long.

But it’s Garlow himself who will have the greatest impact on your senses as his appearance on guitar sends a jolt of electricity to your spinal cord causing your backbone to shiver which leads to your shoulders feeling the effect which they then try and rid themselves of by shifting, shaking and shuddering in no particular order until you find your ass is involuntarily sliding from the worn stool cover and your feet have no choice but to provide a soft landing on the hardwood floor.

Now that you’re on those feet and your eyes begin to look around it’s not long before you see others afflicted by the same strange symptoms this music brought on as if it were some fast moving virus that passed from one end of the bar to the other. Nobody is quite in step yet, they’re lurching about more than anything, some rather stiffly at that, but they also don’t seem to be bothered by these spastic reactions they’re having. In fact some are beginning to smile.

When the saxophones of Shelby Lackey and William Shakesnider jump into the fray even the most reluctant holdout breaks into a grin as everybody’s hips now join the rest of their bodies in this ritualistic shimmy.
 

The Simple Art Of Boogieing
It’s not a fast-paced song by any means, nor does it have any spot for a more flamboyant instrumental display, which makes it all the more amenable to whatever style of dancing you want to do. Even those afflicted with such unfortunate maladies as two left feet, a Caucasian sense of rhythm and a crippling bout of awkward self-consciousness will at least be able to competently shuffle their way to the lavatory while In A Boogie Mood plays.

It’s a very efficient arrangement, one designed to keep the groove going with a minimum of exertion by all involved, yet still has plenty of diversity in what’s played so as not to be merely redundant. The sax solo for instance contains elements of virtually all of the approaches that the instrument made its name on, albeit each parceled out in small portions starting with a monotonous grinding riff before easing off into a quick melodic flourish. From there it quickly takes on a more flighty, almost atonal, boppish interlude and finally settles into a soothing soulful conclusion… all done in just twelve seconds! Later on it returns for a more rousing declamatory spot, just in case you were afraid they’d forgotten one of the more important uses for the sax.

But in between those horn solos comes Garlow’s standalone spot which provides all the evidence we require to affirm that he was no slouch on the instrument himself. His earlier tone was higher behind the horns which is a sound that would become ubiquitous in 1950’s rock down the road, but it’s when he takes his solo and downshifts to the lower registers that it really starts to add character.

Playing slow and deliberately at first it’s got a very nice sense of tension to it, like the strings are sharp enough to cut his flesh and he’s being careful to keep his digits intact. But as he goes he either builds up calluses or figures “no pain, no gain” and starts to play with more flair. It’s not flashy by any means but it’s also not harsh and off-putting either, as he’s delivering something melodically inviting that pulls you in even further.

As basic as it is in concept there’s a certain admirable sense of order that reins the song in and keeps it from ever running the risk of getting away from them. Some might wish they did in fact cut loose more, but that would be missing the point. It’s merely background music for the kind of night on the town that everybody needs at the end of a long week of drudgery, atmospheric and communally minded in its aims.

To that end if this WERE taking place in a crowded club on a Saturday night you could easily see them drawing this number out for twenty minutes or more and everybody would be perfectly content to keep on churning with their partners until they dropped.
 

Back To The Bar
Of course as suitable as it was for what it was designed to do it was going to pale in comparison to the top-side, making the comparatively modest charms of this infectious boogie all but irrelevant to Garlow’s career going forward.

Yet you certainly wouldn’t complain hearing songs of this nature pouring out of a steamy club along the Gulf Coast well into the night. It may not have had what it took to be a hit record like the idiosyncratic top side, but as a song looking to capture the rambunctious environment that rock music thrived in this definitely got the job done.

If nothing else In A Boogie Mood was proof-positive of Garlow’s versatility and his band’s cohesion as a unit. Maybe if we could’ve somehow just gotten all of those who kept clamoring for more of the quasi-Zydeco song this was coupled with and crammed them into that bar and let Garlow and his friends play this for a few hours until they were all in a trance then we might’ve staved off him having no choice but to keep recycling his one big hit for the rest of his life.

But then again I suppose if that happened then his lasting legacy would be all but non-existent and so, for good or for ill, he had to make peace with the way his career turned out and just hope that his lasting notoriety might wind up drawing some belated attention to everything else he was capable of before he found himself pigeonholed as a one-note performer for the rest of time.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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