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In sports a journeyman refers to a player who’s reliable enough to always make a roster somewhere but who probably is never going to crack the starting lineup let alone ever have a chance to become a star.

Yet their ability to step in when called upon and deliver a solid effort in whatever role they’re assigned… to work hard at maximizing their particular talents while at the same time to keep their liabilities in check so as not to hurt the team… and to be a good guy in the clubhouse, not one to complain about a lack of playing time or create any personality-based rifts with other players or coaches means that they’ll more than likely be able to find a job somewhere each season.

In music there are no “teams” per say, not unless you count self-contained bands which tend not to have too much turnover to make them an analogous situation, but in terms of finding a spot on a roster, well, that does apply in the music world, at least to a small degree. Record companies were always seeking somebody who can reasonably fit the bill they’re after stylistically and come up with material that just might draw a few listens along the way, making journeyman artists valuable assets to be able to sign up for a random session, especially when times are tough and the list of big name stars you have under contract is rather skimpy.

To date we’ve come across a few who fit this description – Clarence Samuels and Cecil Gant most prominently – and plenty of others who had far more talent than your typical journeyman but who hit a career lull brought about by shifting styles they couldn’t quite get a firm handle on but eventually managed to pull themselves together and, in the case of Big Joe Turner for instance, find their way to stardom.

Here we meet someone in Clifford Blivens who had no chance at the outcome that awaited Turner, nor even would wind up being someone with the extensive résumé that stretched over years of recordings like the other two names mentioned, but while his output itself is rather limited, he – like perhaps another journeyman in Cousin Joe – was someone whose talents may just have belied his meager commercial returns.

Meet The Fat Man… No The OTHER Fat Man!
Clifford Blivens was first mentioned on Spontaneous Lunacy back in March 1949 on the review for Big Jay McNeely’s righteous honker Blow Big Jay, a side that Blivens had nothing to do with. He DID however appear as the featured vocalist on the flip Midnight Dreams which we did not review because it was aiming at a more sophisticated crowd than those buying rock records – an attempt to diversify musically which rarely turns out well for anybody, alienating your core audience while failing to draw notice from another constituency.

True enough it was a rather forgettable effort from all involved. Modestly played by Jay and fairly well sung by Blivens in a loud, almost bellowing tenor, the song was hardly anything to get us rock ‘n’ roll degenerates very excited. But now here he is again, this time on a record we can’t possibly ignore.

Unfortunately biographical information on Blivens is severely lacking. We do know that he got his start working as a chauffer for McNeely who gave him the chance to sing so that not every single record Jay released, or for that matter every single song he played on the bandstand, was a honking sax instrumental. Blivens also wrote the lyrics for his work with Big Jay and penned all of his later solo efforts himself, so he was by no means a charity case, nor was he just a figment of Leon Rene’s imagination when he wanted a singer for some sides on his Exclusive label in 1949. But he might as well be, for there are no photographs of him that seem to exist in the public domain to confirm his existence and considering the fact he recorded a bunch of sides in a year of steady work you’d think there’d be at least some documentation on him besides merely his name on a session log sheet or a record label.

In the future he’d be dubbed Clifford “Fat Man” Blivens and so maybe he was just shy in stepping in front of a camera to reveal his girth but as we find on his first standalone cut, Achin’ Heart Boogie, he has absolutely no reason to be shy about his singing.

Musical Mish-Mash
One look at the title of the record and the accompanying band might lead you to believe this was a country record not a rocker. While rock (not to mention jazz and blues) certainly had their share of songs about achin’ hearts, the look of the words themselves conjures up the dry, brittle, dusty sound of Hank Williams of this vintage.

The boogie addendum to it wouldn’t have been out of place in the country field either in 1949 as there were plenty of country guitarists and pianists alike who adopted the jazz-rooted boogie for their purposes and were contributing to the breakdown of strict racial divides in terms of musical origins in that field as a result.

Now throw in the fact that the musicians have the western prairie sounding Stardusters as their handle and you might just be expecting to hear fiddles and washboards being played when the record starts.

Nothing could be farther from the truth however as we know from our first meeting with Edgar Hayes’ bunch back in January 1949. Hayes was a jazz pianist of some renown dating back more than a dozen years who had turned to rock when he got another chance to record in 1948 and so, band name and song title aside, it was not country music that was being corrupted by rock but rather our old friend jazz which – as we’ve repeatedly stated – was actually the closest kin to rock all things considered.

Hayes and company will be heard from again very soon, not on the flip side of this but on their own record that was issued on its heels, so we’ll hold off on re-hashing the details of his crew for now and just remind you that Hayes has in his employ fellow jazz expatriate Teddy Bunn on guitar, the combination of which results in some scintillating work behind Blivens which has elements of other styles but is as forward looking in rock as we’ve heard.


Standing At The Station, My Baby Got On Board
The barreling piano of Hayes starts off in high gear as Bryant Allen’s drums and Curtis Counce on bass keep up a steady clip and already you are leaning forward anticipating what is to come.

It doesn’t take long to find out either as Bunn’s electric guitar comes into view just a few seconds in. He’s playing some solid licks, bending notes and adding an edginess to the track without completely taking over… yet.

Before he does we have Blivens to consider as the vocals already have plenty to compete with, yet he doesn’t shy away from the challenge by any means, offering up a full-throated display of enthusiasm with every line.

That’s not to say Clifford Blivens is exactly a great singer. His “bellowing tenor” we described when referring to Midnight Dreams has only gotten more uninhibited here, the bellowing becoming even more pronounced and increasingly emanating from his nose, but as we’ve seen with others cursed with a lack of dulcet tones, not to mention restraint and control (Crown Prince Waterford and Joe Swift come instantly to mind when referencing those maladies) a lot of their limitations can be overcome through sheer effort and Blivens certainly isn’t lacking in that regard.

The lyrics he’s given himself are merely vehicles to stomp the pedal to keep pace with the musicians, as the fairly generic roll call of scenes bemoaning his loss of a woman are taken almost verbatim from Songwriting 101 handbooks. But that doesn’t matter much because the particulars are bound to get lost amidst the grinding rhythm behind it and especially the sharp stinging guitar accents Bunn delivers throughout.

That’s where Achin’ Heart Boogie sets itself apart from the pack. While Blivens is all rampant enthusiasm with little discretion and the other band members are doggedly committed to keeping the wheels turning without much variation, Teddy Bunn is staking a claim for the guitar to be made a frontline instrument in rock music by playing some incendiary riffs.

Bunn keeps things not just exhilarating, but also interesting because he never plays the same lick twice. He’ll spit one riff out like hot rivets, then draw the next one out like he’s got all day. He’ll change tones, he’ll lay back one moment and he’ll leap forward the next. Nothing is ever predictable and he seems to delight in keeping you off balance. Yet none of it comes off as being superfluous or merely an exercise in showing off. Even during his extended solo to close the record out when he’s repeating a phrase with increasing emphasis it fits perfectly in the larger picture.

Much of this compatibility is due to the ensemble work of the other musicians, especially the relentless piano of Hayes which sets a torrid pace. Everything fits together seamlessly allowing Bunn to pick his spots and Blivens to run amuck on top of it all until you’re whipped into a frenzy.

Roll And Tumble
So with that glowing endorsement of the individual components ringing in your ears no doubt you expect this to challenge for a perfect score (9) or even an elusive ★ 10 ★ which is reserved for those records that are deemed absolutely indispensable.

Obviously with that disclaimer leading into the final assessment that’s not going to be the case so the question becomes: WHY? Or rather WHY NOT?

Well, although it’s a tricky balance they maintain throughout, with each component holding their own in the arrangement, all adding something that’s well received and in Bunn’s case something that is ahead of its time, the fact is the overall song itself, the ground they build this structure on, is fairly barren and nondescript.

Is that a knock? No, not at all, but that’s the difference between very good, which this absolutely is, and transcendent, which it isn’t and had no hope of being, even as much as it strives to convince you otherwise.

What Achin’ Heart Boogie is in the final analysis is a crucial prototype of the kind of record that would remain a staple in rock music for the rest of the century and beyond. But the reason for that is found in its simplicity and lack of pretention which combined with its relentless drive and rugged enthusiasm makes it an enduring model, one that is able to be picked up and refitted for any era with just a few tweaks. But because of that rather basic framework there’s nothing specifically unique about the package, no major advances in terms of the concept of the arrangement, no radical idea used for the theme of the song, nor even a memorable hook that stands out and makes itself available for instant recall by those who listen.

Even Bunn’s guitar work, as brilliantly played as it is, has no moment that will be seared in your memory. It’s far more of an improvisational display, all of it sounding exquisite in the moment but fleeting and thus somewhat more transitory rather than groundbreaking in the aftermath.

Great songs, truly great songs, stick with you long after the needle lifts from the groove (in the parlance of the time). Their intricacies work their way into your subconscious and prod you into playing it again and again to embed themselves deeper in your soul. The two components, the actual record itself and your fragmented memory of it, are fusing themselves together with each spin until you are able to recreate it in its entirety without a record player or streaming track within reach. Greatness transcends the playback of it in ways this song can’t quite pull off.

In order for Achin’ Heart Boogie to make an impact it has to be played, not simply remembered.

By contrast elite songs once heard are never forgotten and they keep pulling you back until they’re a part of you.  


But jeez, I’m at risk of closing this out on a downbeat note and that’s not fair at all, for in 1949 this was a record that would immediately grab your attention because its sound palette and presentation were both pretty electrifying for the era. In the process it produces a visceral response that – formulaic or not in its concept – was as reliable as anything in rock’s arsenal to date and it should be celebrated for that, especially because its journeyman artist, and even his more experienced backing unit, would struggle to be remembered otherwise.

So maybe the best way to frame it is to say that Achin’ Heart Boogie is good enough to fall tantalizingly short of greatness.


(Visit the Artist page of Clifford Blivens for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
(See also the Artist page of Edgar Hayes & His Stardusters for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)