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ARISTOCRAT 1003; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 

At the risk of stating the obvious there are twelve months in the year and with each one comes certain associated seasonal images. There are the obvious ones such as specific holidays and there are looser ones that have no definite singular date on a calendar but are rather more seasonal by nature.

Music regularly taps into these images to connect songs with their audiences. Summertime often brings songs that conjure up warm sunny days – The Drifters 1964 smash Under The Boardwalk being a prime example – while certain autumn-themed songs have a built in wistful sorrow to them that goes with that time of year.

Though this was hardly a prime consideration when issuing records – famously a year after this there was a huge hit that came out in May 1949 called Baby It’s Cold Outside which was set in winter and in the years since became a Christmas staple where it’s more fitting weather-wise – there was at least SOME plausible reason to try and tie in a record with a season it was depicting.

Not so with this one, a record ostensibly focusing on the quintessential summer game being put out in the dead of winter.

While it’s doubtful that the third release by unknown artist on a small record label in business less than a year was going to be a hit even had the topic and the season aligned perfectly, the obvious lack of timeliness certainly couldn’t have helped… just one more reason why poor Clarence Samuels had every right to be frustrated with how his career was progressing.
 

 

I Wanna Play Ball
One of disheartening aspects of trying to give an honest portrayal of early rock ‘n’ roll circa 1947-1953 is the almost complete lack of first-hand accounts by those who made these records at the time. When rock research began in earnest in the late 1960’s those doing the research were those who only discovered the music when it “crossed over” into white America (or was transported across the sea to Great Britain) in the mid-1950’s and so that became their starting point which rendered the actual origins in 1947 and ’48, and its phenomenal rise within the black community over the next half decade, all but invisible.

Every so often however you’d have someone try and focus a little bit on this forgotten era and its artists with decidedly mixed results. Some of this was due to the writers themselves who even when studying the period had to try and qualify it to reassure their surely skeptical mainstream audience that this music had something to do with the rock ‘n’ roll that they were more familiar with, and often that was done by intentionally marginalizing it as “pre-rock” or some such nonsense.

But the other problem that even the more conscientious writers had to deal with was the faulty memories and the out-sized sense of bravado and inflated egos of a few of the artists from that time who vastly overstated their roles in a belated effort to give themselves credit for things they were only peripherally involved with.

Case in point is Clarence Samuels, a figure who was present at the very start of rock ‘n’ roll – in the same room practically when Roy Brown worked alongside Samuels at a club in New Orleans just as Roy released the first rock record in late summer 1947. But in Samuels telling of the story of rock’s birth it was he, not Brown, who was the star, and he, not Roy, who was deserving of more acclaim.

In a way you have to feel sorry for Samuels. He did have a lengthy career in a field that regularly saw his competitors become quite famous in their day, lauded for their performances and proud possessors of a string of hit records. He got none of that of course but he did keep working and releasing records for nearly two decades which is a feat in of itself. Unfortunately that’s not the type of thing that history tends to celebrate. So after his career wound down by the mid-1960’s Samuels endured a few decades of obscurity before finally having someone come calling, interested in hearing his remembrances of those bygone years.

Unfortunately much of what Samuels told New Orleans music historian/writer Jeff Hannusch was – to be kind – creative fiction, almost certainly including his tale regarding Baseball Blues, a little heard record from the winter of 1948.
 


 

Means A Home Run Here To Me
Let’s start by saying that some people have a tendency to embellish in life. It’s generally not a big deal, nor a reason to dismiss somebody entirely, but when you ask them in a casual manner about their day you have to be aware that you’ll be getting a highly cinematic rendition of their mundane lives. When recounting a simple ten minute drive to your place this person will probably take more than twelve minutes to tell you about it in colorful detail… or when asked about how they’re feeling after having a cold that kept them out of work or school for a day they’ll give you a medical report describing the exact hue and texture of their snot and the precise pitch of their coughs.

Or in the case of Clarence Samuels, you’ll be told how he was responsible for the music that dominated the world the latter half of the Twentieth Century while he wrongly languished in obscurity, the victim of nefarious events conspiring against him.

Yet while Samuels could indeed be hurt that it was Roy Brown rather than him who got his shot at glory first and with Good Rocking Tonight changed the course of music history, it’s not as if Samuels didn’t immediately cash in on Brown’s success. When Aristocrat Records were looking to capitalize on the buzz created by this music Roy had unleashed to the world it was Samuels who was drafted to be the Chicago label’s stand-in for Brown… literally, as they had him record three of Roy’s songs, one of which Lollypop Mama, Samuels claimed to have originally written himself.

Though that claim may be remotely plausible – then again it may be total B.S. – where his penchant for exaggeration comes back to haunt him, and thereby render other boasts questionable at best, is his equally implausible story about some of the circumstances surrounding THIS record, Baseball Blues.
 

A Game That’s Straight And… True?
In Samuels’ telling of it from the perspective of fifty years later (speaking to Hannusch in 1998) Clarence recounts how after being signed to Aristocrat he went up to Chicago to cut his first sides for the label and happened to go to a baseball game at Wrigley Field between the hometown Cubs and the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers who had made history that spring when Jackie Robinson suited up for them, breaking the color line in the sport on his way to earning the Rookie Of The Year award and ultimately a spot in Baseball’s Hall Of Fame.

Naturally Robinson was a source of pride for African-Americans and it’s not hard to imagine Samuels wanting to go to see him in person when he was in the same city. The timing of it lines up perfectly as well, as the Dodgers were in Chicago September 9th and 10th for a two game series. Jackie didn’t play in the first game, a Dodger loss, but did play in the 5-1 victory on the tenth, which therefore makes that the game that Samuels attended.

However in his version of the story Robinson “made a play that won the game” for the Dodgers and that inspired Samuels to write a song. We’ll bypass the writing credits on the record itself since those were well-known to be ripped off by record execs to focus instead on the game itself.

Robinson did have two hits that day, the first being an inconsequential infield single in the fourth inning with the team down a run in which he was stranded on base. After pulling even in the fifth without Robinson coming to the plate the Dodgers broke the game open in the 7th inning scoring three runs to make it 4-1. Robinson didn’t bat that inning either, instead he led off the following inning, the eighth, with his team already ahead and singled, stole second and came around to score the final run of the day, “an insurance run” in baseball parlance, and they closed it out by that score an inning later. Certainly that may have been the most exciting sequence in the game – the picture of him sliding into home, barreling through the catcher trying to block the plate while awaiting the throw made the cover of the Daily News so it was definitely memorable – but the game was already decided by then.

Now granted Samuels was a singer not a sports reporter and so his assessment of the game doesn’t have to be entirely accurate. It’s also perfectly understandable for him to focus on the one black player on the field who did in fact have a good game, as being more vital to the team’s victory than he actually was. We’re not taking issue with that too much. But what we ARE calling him out on is his claim to Hannusch that after writing the song he wanted to have Robinson himself record it!

So according to Samuels he took the song to Jackie who Clarence said would stay with Negro League star (and future New York Giant and eventual Hall Of Famer himself) Monte Irvin’s house when in Chicago, and there Jackie told him that his wife Rachel took care of his business and he’d have to ask her. Rachel Robinson, upon seeing the song, supposedly said, “My husband isn’t singing any blues!” leaving Samuels to record it himself instead.

A neat story for sure… and one that’s almost totally implausible.
 

I Think You Better Go
Let’s just look at the holes in this tale starting with the fact that unless Samuels wrote the song starting in the bottom half of the eighth inning, it’s highly unlikely that he finished it by suppertime. The Dodgers, traveling by train shortly after the game ended, played an afternoon game in St. Louis the very next day and did not return to Chicago until the next season. So when exactly did he pitch this to him? Then we also have to remember that wives didn’t travel with the teams in 1947, so what Rachel Robinson would be doing in Chicago is beyond me.

Lastly there’s the fact that Monte Irvin was playing for the Newark Eagles that season and considering it’s 800 miles away from Chicago that’s a pretty long commute to have to make each day. Furthermore Irvin was born and raised in New Jersey AND was playing there professionally so it doesn’t make too much sense that he’d even have a home in Chicago to begin with! Since Irvin played winter ball in Cuba starting that fall any thought that somehow he was in town later in the year for Samuels to come calling before recording this in December – not to mention Robinson and his wife conveniently hanging out with them as Clarence rang the doorbell – is just as far-fetched.

But ALL of that is a case of embellishment by someone looking to make an impression on the interviewer or readers by bringing in a few more well-known names to bolster his own image, stretching believability to its limits in the process. It’s unfortunate but in a way understandable.

What isn’t understandable however in this dramatic re-enactment he presented is the hardly insignificant detail that the actual song he wrote, Baseball Blues, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with baseball. Rather it’s about sex, so if he HAD somehow managed to track down Jackie to ask him to sing a borderline X-rated song then let’s just say Clarence was the one with balls on this playing field.

So that, my friends, is where Clarence Samuels’ story falls apart completely.
 

I Played All Parts Of The Game
The song kicks off in desultory fashion with moldy horns recalling a stuffy highfalutin club, a consequence of having to use Porter Kilbert’s Orchestra (misspelled on the label as Kilmer) because the more appropriate, but still slightly outdated, horns of Tom Archia and Dave Young were out of town when this was cut. Despite it setting a classy mood the arrival of Samuels upends that image as he declares right off the bat ”I wanna play ball with a cute little girl like you”.

No beating around the bush for ol’ Clarence, who is clearly looking to score in the top of the first. His subsequent pleas to this girl are typically direct and I suppose if you’re not familiar with the euphemistic ways in which the bases are traditionally used to represent various… umm… stages of sexual advancement (first base = kissing; second base = breasts… you get the idea) then you might substitute more harmless meanings for what he’s telling you, but if you DO know your way around these bases the lines are pretty damn incriminating… and also fairly good to be honest.

But they had better be good because Samuels, while a decent singer with some power to his voice, is rarely going to elevate the material much with his low nasal tones and on Baseball Blues he’s got the worst collection of teammates since the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics who lost a staggering 117 games against just 36 wins.

Kilbert’s band is abominable. We’ve railed against archaic horn sections before, usually saying they’re about five to ten years behind the times, but I think these guys may have actually been a hot draw in a nightclub back when that Athletics team were losing all those games in 1916. That’s how old and out of date they sound behind Samuels, making his job infinitely harder to pull off. Give him a halfway decent band and you might get a halfway decent record out of this, but these guys wouldn’t know how to navigate rock even if an entire landslide of boulders fell on top of them.

Well, let me amend that ever so slightly, because the sax solo – though hardly approaching any reasonably average standards to date in rock – is at least a step above putrid, giving this just a hint of sensuality during the extended middle section that keeps it within hailing distance of the racy sentiments Samuels is trying to convey. Once he starts singing again the other horns resume backing him with the same predictably awful results, sinking Samuels’ chances at even getting on base with this record, let alone making it into scoring position.

All of which helps to explain why he was prone to embellishing things in the future, for when thinking back on what might’ve been in his career it was enough for a man to lay down his bat and hang up his glove and take up pinochle or badminton instead.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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