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MACY’S 5001; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The rise of rock ‘n’ roll from a tiny musical start-up company targeting a perpetually overlooked demographic to a multi-national corporation that was omnipresent in everyday life the world over came shockingly quick.

Less than a decade after its 1947’s birth it had already become a national sensation in America and was rapidly spreading overseas where it would have much the same effect on the culture in Great Britain and – in time – most every other land it infiltrated.

But usually when something follows that trajectory, be it blue jeans, computers or fast food hamburgers, the trend is towards rapid conformity, a push for universality to ensure that the product has all of the same attributes (or condiments if we’re talking burgers) to be instantly recognizable wherever you consume it.

Not so however with rock ‘n’ roll.

Oh, there was definitely overriding trends that would emerge and distinctively mark each generation, but more than any other mass takeover movement rock music somehow managed to not only maintain unique regional variations, but in many ways rock ‘n’ roll has been defined by them from the very beginning.
 

 

Made Me Lose My Sober Mind
When you think of rock history by eras certain sounds respective to each time period come to dominate your perceptions. From Doo Wop in the 1950’s and British Invasion or Soul in the 1960’s to Hip-Hop and Alternative in the 1990’s the names of the styles alone probably conjure up a specific musical image that seems carved into granite.

But look closer because you’ll quickly see that image you thought you knew so well, the one that seemed to define the era and style in question, was only one part of the picture.

For example 1950’s doo wop had multiple incarnations, the most obvious being the era of the black New York city-dominated groups of mid-decade and the later white (largely Italian) groups that emerged in their wake and seemed to be more of a suburban reflection of the originators. But you could also easily hear differences when it came to what city the first wave of black groups were from, or sometimes even which neighborhood in the same city.

The same was true with the British Invasion, from the Merseybeat boy band style of the early Beatles and Gerry And The Pacemakers to the bluesier groups like The Rolling Stones and Animals to the artsier groups like The Kinks and The Who… all British, all part of the same 1964/65 invasion yet belonging to much different units as they stormed the American shores.

Soul was no different in the 1960’s, from the polished Brill Building soul at the start of the decade out of New York to the rawer Southern Soul coming out of Stax Records in Memphis which followed. Meanwhile Chicago soul which was smooth and polished had little in common with Muscle Shoals which was rawer and funkier. Each place had their own distinct sound, instantly recognizable and catering to their own provincial fan base.

Certainly no fan of hip-hop, rock’s most dominant style the past forty years, needs to be told of the East Coast – West Coast rivalry and how their aesthetic differences would constantly tilt the balance of power one way and then the other during the 1990’s. Yet at the same time you had various forms of hip-hop from down south, the Houston hardcore sound and the Atlanta Dirty South variety, stirring up plenty of action.

Alternative music was similarly a catch-all phrase that barely did justice to the vast differences between Seattle based grunge and British shoegaze style, their regional origins were not only a half a world apart in miles but also in their musical qualities. I’m sure that before we got to breaking down the dissimilar qualities of industrial rock and alternative hip-hop that both found shelter in the larger stylistic alt-rock subgenre your head would be spinning.

But that’s what makes rock history so great, the fact that each layer you pull back leads to another layer, each style has boundaries that leak into other territories and all of it remains connected yet distinct at the same time.

So why this sudden crash course of the next fifty years of rock when we’re still covering 1949? Glad you asked. The reason is that we’re about to meet Clarence Garlow, an artist representing one of the first really unique “sub-genre to a sub-genre” in rock. He may not have been more than a momentary blip on the radar in the big scheme of things but his presence would help to put yet another wrinkle in rock ‘n’ roll just after its second birthday.
 

I’m Gonna Get A Single Woman I Can Call My Very Own
To be honest I don’t really care for the inordinate attention paid through the years to all of these subgenre distinctions. I suppose in one way it can be helpful to give each brand of music a bit more acclaim, as certainly the achievements of a pioneering surf-rock artist like Dick Dale, Philly Soul legends The Delfonics or a great punk act like Television would be far less widely known if there was only the major rock ‘n’ roll banner to rate everybody under. I mean, without recognition for New Jack Swing then Bobby Brown would only be known for his myriad of misdeeds and his tumultuous marriage to Whitney Houston and therefore his music career, which was actually very notable, would be just a footnote on a long rap sheet.

So I begrudgingly accept the need for it and understand the mindset behind these classifications. Human beings have an urge to compartmentalize anything and everything just to make things easier to reference. Books are not just books, they are broken down into textbooks, self-help guides, history books, biographies, autobiographies, romance novels, encyclopedias, cookbooks, dictionaries, children’s books, coffee table books… even comic books and coloring books.

Why should music be any different?

But the point of THIS website at least is to remind everybody that it’s ALL rock ‘n’ roll in one form or another and that its differences from era to era and style to style are its greatest strengths, the very thing that has allowed it to weather the storm of change for more than seven full decades with no sign that it will let-up anytime soon.

Clarence Garlow, if you come across his name today, will generally be slotted in Zydeco music, a full-fledged, albeit small, genre not under the rock umbrella, though tangentially connected. While it’s true that in later years Garlow was drawn into Zydeco for the same reason that a LOT of black artists migrate to other genres in later years because there are very few performing opportunities for aging black rock acts unless they can still command a big enough audience on their own. Hence the “festival” route which places them under a different genre title, usually Blues but occasionally something even smaller like Zydeco, to be able to sell a lineup of unconnected artists to make a buck. But I digress…

Anyway, Zydeco, while a fascinating musical sound and culture, wasn’t really what Garlow was about when he had his brief moment in the sun as the 1940’s gave way to the 1950’s. Though they may have sprung from the same fertile soil of the Louisiana bayous and the Southeast Texas fields, Zydeco had a VERY distinctive instrumental and vocal dialect that Garlow does not share.

Zydeco was essentially a black interpretation of white Cajun music (though here again we need to bring up the fact that were it not for racial prejudice of the time the black artists would’ve simply been called Cajun music, or the white acts been called Zydeco artists, take your pick). The distinguishing characteristics of both were the fact that they relied primarily on instruments such as the accordion and washboard which gave it a musical DNA that was far removed from most “mainstream” mid-Twentieth Century styles.

What Garlow performed was actually the first strains of what later became known as “swamp pop” (I know, just what we need, another infernal subgenre term), which briefly flourished in the late 1950’s with primarily white Cajun practitioners such as Bobby Charles and Phil Phillips. All of these featured the dominant rock instrumentation of saxes, pianos and guitars, the same lineup as seen here on Garlow’s debut, She’s So Fine, which in 1949 brought a decidedly new twist to the rock sounds emanating from the Gulf Coast region.
 

So Doggone Fine
Oddly enough after all that dissertation on the qualities of this music as a whole the introduction to this record sounds almost like the start of a mid-1940’s jazz track as the drummer rattles the cymbals like a time bomb is about to go off (though he’s not the first to apprehend this device, as Big Jay McNeely did the same to memorable effect on The Deacon’s Hop), but when the piano and guitar climb into the ring things settle into a more predictable rock pattern and the musicians stretch out nicely leading into Garlow’s arrival.

His nasal voice has unavoidable similarities to Joe Swift, the mercurial one-hit wonder whose biggest obstacle was his own perpetually clogged up snoot, but Garlow’s bayou accent combined with a higher tone gives him an idiosyncratic sound that is oddly appealing. He’s hardly a great singer but he’s a good performer which may be the more crucial quality in making it in music anyway, regardless of genre.

The lyrics to She’s So Fine are standard issue by this point: A singer falls for a married woman which raises the predictable obstacles to achieving lasting love. Unlike many of his brethren he makes the admirable decision to switch his focus to single ladies, although his choice seems to stem more from a selfish practicality than any moral qualms he might have about infidelity, as he informs us when you’re dealing with married chicks they can’t spend the night after doing the deed whereas single gals can stick around and presumably serve him breakfast in bed.

Ah, poetic chivalry at its finest.

But we never begrudge Garlow his peccadilloes because of how engaging he is in presenting it. The fact he IS seeking a less tangled relationship with those not currently wearing a wedding band also gets us off the hook in a moral sense for enjoying this, but even if we remained somewhat uneasy with his dating choices we can always find solace in his delivery, as he rides the rhythm with complete ease, never pushing too hard, perfectly comfortable to let his vocals take a back seat to the music, which is the other area this shines.
 


 

All Worked Up And Frantic
Garlow’s eventual Zydeco pedigree was assured by the fact that’d he’d play accordion on some dates down the road, but for now he’s a guitarist and it’s that instrument that takes command of She’s So Fine from the start.

It’s really a deft arrangement as even with the electric guitar’s strong presence it never dominates the sound, instead it works in tandem with the saxophones of Shelby Lackey and – oh how I looked forward to writing this – the brilliantly named William Shakesnider. That just SOUNDS like a rock star name!

They might not be the most skilled practitioners on their horns that we’ve come across but their higher wheezy sound is really addicting. It gives the impression that you’re hearing them play from across a windy barren field, or maybe listening to the song on a fading radio while fishing off a dock somewhere, the music bouncing off the water and distorting it just enough to make it seem slightly mystifying.

Drummer Johnny Marshall alternates between those jazzier cymbals and more rockin’ fills that drop in from time to time with precision and subtle power, all while leaving pianist Johnnie Mae Robinson the job of really carrying the surging beat that never lets up for a second. Everything has its place here, there’s no clashing sounds or awkward balancing of parts, they either worked this out well in advance and honed it until it was ready to be unveiled or they just intuitively know how mesh well and make the most of their roles without drawing undue attention to themselves. It’s as cohesive as anything you’re likely to hear.

Then there’s Garlow himself on guitar, the cherry on the sundae, providing a perfectly judged lead, his pace lagging just behind the beat giving it a slightly lazy feel without being jarring. The vocals and instruments compliment each other nicely, something most noticeable when the music drops out for Garlow’s rapid fire vocal bridge and yet there’s no need for a momentary aural readjustment. They all just sound as natural singing and playing together as can be and while Garlow reputedly doubted he had what it took yet to be a professional, the results speak for themselves.
 

Always Has To Go Back Home
As nicely done as all of this is we shouldn’t mislead you into thinking that this was a brilliant record worthy of being a major hit. There’s a few garbled lines that make following along more difficult than you’d like and it’s pretty modest in its aims to begin with so even if every aspect of the recording was perfect it still wouldn’t be able to scale the mountaintop to compete with the more inspired records that set out to really shake things up and leave you staggered by their creative audacity.

But those are quibbles rather than complaints. Though She’s So Fine is only aspiring to be a good record, not a transformative one, it hits its mark rather easily and because its regional flavor hadn’t yet been heard on the commercial scene it stands out in a good way.

Besides the song definitely needs to be acknowledged for influencing some of the sounds around the corner. That swamp pop style may not have had a big impact relative to the competing styles in the mid to late 1950’s, but it unquestionably added a welcome change to help keep rock from ever conforming to the most commercially dominant sounds of the day. As we’ll see whenever rock needed a new wrinkle to keep you from growing bored it always got one, often from the most unlikely of places.

As for Garlow, his connection to Zydeco has ironically kept his name more recognizable over the years while at the same time diminishing his reputation as a rock pioneer which is hardly fair. He may have only been a minor figure on the scene but when the music you make seems as effortless as this, there’s no reason to remain neglected.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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