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ARISTOCRAT 1003; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 

Here’s a not so random question pertaining to how people view music: Is being deemed generic as bad as its reputation would suggest?

I guess it depends on your definition of the word.

If you go by the definition of generic as “lacking imagination or individuality; predictable and unoriginal” then you’d probably say it was a pretty scathing put-down of an artist who cut the record in question.

But if you were to use a slightly different explanation of the term, “characteristic of a group or class of thing”, then maybe your estimation of a generic record would be a bit different, not overwhelmingly positive perhaps, but certainly not negative either as it essentially means that it is entirely fitting for the genre in question.

But which definition of the term does Clarence Samuels’ emerging catalog fit under? Songs which on paper fit into the general themes and structure of what rock is in the process of firmly establishing, but because they all seem to have serious drawbacks in some aspect of their execution never have much of a chance to seem more innovative than they are to leave a very positive impression.
 

 

I Didn’t Mind You Spending My Money
Of all of the early artists in rock that we’ve met over its first six months of life it’s fair to say that Clarence Samuels had more than his fair share of obstacles thrown in his path to impede his progress.

Now you can certainly say that he also had the benefit of “opportunity by association” that gave him the chance to cut records to begin with that he surely wouldn’t have had gotten had he not worked briefly with Roy Brown who launched this style of music to begin with when they were both employed by The Down Beat Club in New Orleans in the summer of 1947.

It was that loose connection which meant that record companies sensed an opportunity opening up in which to make some commercial headway with a potentially lucrative new wrinkle in the music scene and made the trek to Louisiana searching for more of the same. There Aristocrat Records out of Chicago quickly landed upon Samuels who was still working at the same club that Brown had since left behind for greener pastures. They promptly snatched Samuels up and brought him north for his first professional recording session in the hopes of making a connection with the growing audience for this type of music.

Notice I didn’t say “in the hopes of making a name for himself” with those records because he was merely being asked to cut versions of Brown’s songs and then, as if that wasn’t enough of an indignity, he then was taken on the road to the West Coast and passed off AS Roy Brown to unsuspecting patrons which almost led to his demise, a wild tale we covered in depth on the review to his Lollypop Mama.

Now, having barely survived that ordeal, he’s back in the studio in December for his second Aristocrat session and is allowed to perform his own material, something which should give listeners a much better sense of his abilities and his style than he was able to do when merely imitating somebody else as he’d done the first time. But when poor Clarence Samuels looked around the studio as he was about to cut Coming Home Baby, it wasn’t the more suitable Dave Young-led band who’d be backing him as they had last time around, but rather the totally ill-suited orchestra of Porter Kilbert, which had the rather unfortunate effect of rendering his output dead in the water.
 

Halfway Across The World
So now let’s get back to the idea of just what detriment – or advantage – that generic material and deliveries are in trying to forge a career in music, especially for a genre like rock which was still seeking to establish itself as legitimate in the eyes of the industry, not to mention give audiences who gravitated towards it but were still understandably wary of giving themselves over to it completely without some sense it would be around for the long haul.

First the good. In order for ANY style of music to become widespread enough to be viable it absolutely needed a generic sound to fall back on and give the music a somewhat ubiquitous presence in the marketplace to bridge the gap between truly transcendent hits.

In other words you have to establish a baseline for rock, a steady, reliable image to provide a sense of comforting familiarity to listeners who might otherwise grow tired of waiting around months on end for the next groundbreaking advance in the idiom to fulfill their growing needs. The smaller records that contained just enough of what they already liked about the music would act as a form of security for them, a sense that it was “becoming a trend” rather than having only a few big records standing alone in the wilderness.

In that sense the generic records like Coming Home Baby should be entirely welcome. Most of these types of singles wouldn’t even reach every corner of America, nor even the most devoted up and coming rock fans, but if there were enough of them being released in each region of the country then the majority of listeners would be able to tap into enough of them – each area latching on to a different one – to keep them anxiously awaiting more.

Clarence Samuels fit that bill perfectly. His records were shaping up to be basic primers on the rock ‘n’ roll attitude – vibrant and enthusiastic, not to mention fairly simple and slightly crude. You could get a pretty good primer on what this music was like by listening to Samuels bellow about sex with good-natured zeal.

But that same approach was hardly going to let Samuels stand out in a crowd. The songs themselves were fairly limited, if not in theme or even lyrical cleverness, then in how they were presented. Some of this was due to Clarence’s own shortcomings as a vocalist. He had the energy down pat but didn’t possess the control or nuances needed to suggest something laying just under the surface of the rather straightforward and shallow topics.

The other drawback he faced – a bigger problem in fact than even his slightly nasal and perennially unchanging delivery – was the accompaniment he was saddled with which rather than accentuate the most compelling aspects of the songs by playing with a similarly unrefined swagger, instead tended to try and sugarcoat the raunchier aspects of the records which only served to confuse listeners as to what message they were all collectively trying to impart.
 

They Tell Me You Were Running Wild
On the three sides of Samuels we examined prior to this – skipping his second single simply because it is seemingly unavailable to hear unless you happen to own one of the original 78 RPM releases – we see two different issues regarding the content of these songs.

On two of the sides he had pretty good subjects with some solid lyrics to sink his teeth into. Lollypop Mama, a song he claimed to have written himself but which is called into question because Roy Brown, a far more accomplished songwriter over the course of his career, got credit for writing it as well, was exactly the type of song that was found on page one of the rock handbook, and not just because it adorned the B-side of Brown’s debut single which was the first rock record back in September.

Whichever of them actually wrote it, the song was suggestive but stopped just short of obscene, using euphemisms that were sure to bring a smile to the face of those fantasizing about the real life situations they described, while at the same time causing the more demure in the audience to blush, therefore keeping it – and rock music in general – from being appropriated by the mainstream music kingdom and turned into something harmless.

Samuels had done slightly better with it than Brown had thanks to the aforementioned backing he’d gotten. Dave Young’s band wasn’t ideal for the situation but they’d made a few crucial adjustments to the arrangement after hearing where Brown’s fell short and that made enough of a difference to give it a slight edge, even if in both cases the results were stuck around average quality… generic in other words, but the good definition of the term.

Meanwhile on the flip side (actually the designated B-side) of today’s release, Baseball Blues, the similarly off-color euphemisms worked very well and Samuels sold them with aplomb, but in that case he was let down by the new band – Kilbert’s – that was assigned to him for December’s session.

Yet going back to the flip-side of his first record, Boogie Woogie Blues, another song taken from Brown with even bolder intent since his record had come out as Roy Brown Boogie, the material wasn’t as good and so it had little chance to stand out even if, or especially if, you focused on the lyrics. This was an example of being generic in the more critical sense, wherein it was a song largely going through the motions, uninspired even if it contained certain elements that were modestly acceptable.

On the surface Coming Home Baby would fall into that same category because it’s another song that uses a pretty standard story and contains no witty lyrics or nimble wordplay to sat it apart. Yet because it concentrates on drawing out all it can from the rather basic aspects it has to work with there’s a remote chance that it surpasses its limited aspirations and reaches the higher plateau of generic songs, one that stands as a good example of what rock was shaping up to be as 1948 got underway.
 

Better Get Yourself In Line
Unfortunately the band does not get this off on solid footing once again. Porter Kilbert’s band (pay no attention to the Kilmer on the label, that was a misprint) is out of touch with the changing realities of the music scene… or rather, they seem unaware that the music they’re supposed to be playing to back a rock singer differs much from the music they’d play on the bandstand at Chicago’s famed Club DeLisa in 1946.

The horns, with Kilbert himself manning one of the two altos (alongside two tenors), are too lightweight and too mannered in their approach to give this any gravity for Samuels to work in tandem with. Instead he’s left to try and bend the song to his will by sheer force and if the band resists that, not out of any personal distaste for him or the music, but just because they’re sticking faithfully to their charts rather than follow the lead of the singer, then Samuels could be in trouble.

But while Clarence Samuels definitely has some limitations as a singer he’s never lacking in resonance or emphasis. He delivers each line as if it contains a juicy secret that will cause heads to turn and eyes to bug out, even if the news he’s reporting is secondhand non-essential chatter.

Coming Home Baby fits that description too – the story is the original blueprint of a pre-fab house that’s been Xeroxed a few hundred times, blurring the details and leaving just a basic blue blob of ink, yet which somehow still makes sense at a glance. Samuels is agitated about the fidelity of his woman’s affections, not enough to give up on her, in fact he’s promising he’ll do better for her in the future, but he’s also trying to lay down the law for how things are going to be once he gets off the road and settles down.

Though serviceable, none of this – on paper anyway – seems very promising. Now throw in the dreadful horn backing he’s got to contend with at almost every turn and you may wonder if this will even pick itself off the floor enough to reach the stature of being called “generic”. But Samuels sells it for all he’s worth as he goes along and while he’s got a limited arsenal of weapons at his disposal, he is amazingly picking the right ones at the right time throughout much of this, putting more emphasis on the payoffs to certain lines and pulling back at other points to keep you focused more on the words than those good-for-nothing horns.

When he does step aside he’s helped immensely by the fact that the saxophone taking the solo – don’t know which of the four it is – is the best any of them have sounded on the track by a long ways. Not nearly enough to redeem their earlier – or later – work behind him on the verses, but it doesn’t have you reaching for the antacid pills either.

When Samuels launches into the stop-time bridge it almost convinces you he can pull this one off, but alas, he can’t. Maybe he could if he learned to play tenor sax and took over that job here too, but unfortunately he’d still be outnumbered and the horns are not going to let him have his way. Their playing by this point is so weak, so ineffectual, so POP – and yes, that is a vile epithet in this context – that it takes what might’ve been a decent generic rock record had it focused solely on Samuels and instead makes it a prime example of what happens when a singer from one background meets a band from a different background.

I’m sure there’s some future producer of a terrible 1980’s sitcom that was already thinking of the story possibilities in having two opposing cultures clashing but it won’t work then on the small screen any better than it works on record here.

And just like that, Samuels’ plum opportunity to establish himself gets flushed down the proverbial toilet.
 
 

My Check Was Short And Overdue
The saga of Clarence Samuels is far from over however. He’ll be releasing records into the 1960’s and some will even be pretty good, but he’s not destined to be a consistently strong presence on the scene… not commercially, which might not be his fault, but also not artistically.

While here he can certainly lay 95% of the blame on outside forces, namely the band and the record label for tying that band around his ankle like an anchor, the fact that at other junctures he’ll be similarly tripped up without the excuse of having Porter Kilbert and his Dainty Garden Party Band (that’s not their real name, in case you’re one of the gullible readers here) to blame for his ordeal.

What that means is that while Samuels might be justified in cursing his fate at times like this, where Coming Home Baby was stifled creatively, he was, when all was said and done, merely somebody aspiring to be generic and that meant you would never be able to overcome even the slightest glitch in the recording process, be it a poorly chosen band, an inept record company or a fairly nondescript song.

The artists we remember might face those obstacles far less in their careers, but it’s also because they’re good enough to push those obstacles that do come up aside before they get into the studio where it can hurt them. Unlike them Clarence Samuels was at the mercy of those surrounding him and that’s no way to ensure your lasting relevance.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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