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FREEDOM 1508; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

In the pre-rock era the most common headliners in the music kingdom were bandleaders. They had all of the responsibility – the auditioning and hiring of the musicians, writing and arranging the material, rehearsing the band, mapping out the show, handling the travel and accommodations for tours, publicizing their appearances, dealing with the record company and organizing the recording sessions. Their names sold the records which in turn brought patrons to the clubs where they made their living and for the best of them it was a very good living with plenty of money and acclaim.

Singers by contrast were merely another salaried band-member like the trumpeter or cellist. They may have had some name recognition but they had little in the way of power.

In rock ‘n’ roll the opposite was true from the very start. The singer held all of the cards as this was music that thrived on personalities and the image they crafted, a style in which the lyrics the vocalist sung were not only telling a story but were in many ways expressing a worldview shared by the audience. The singers were the ones record labels were courting, the ones they were promoting and the ones who the public were clamoring for.

In this new reality the once mighty position of the bandleader quickly regressed. They were still valuable behind the scenes, both on the road and in the studio where their jobs may have remained mostly unchanged but in terms of acclaim, power and pay they were now closer to the bottom rung of the ladder than they were to the top.
 

 

What It’s All About
Rock ‘n’ roll of course wasn’t the sole reason for this overall shift in importance, nor even the primary one, but it was an important one nonetheless.

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s when records increasingly took on the biggest role in presenting music to the American populace, the dominant commercial style was big band jazz. To use a film analogy that works well in this type of music the bandleader was the star, the musicians were the supporting cast and oftentimes the vocalist was little more than an extra.

The records were structured around the bandleader’s talents in arranging the ensemble and the majority of the run time was devoted to spotlighting his musicians, first by establishing the melody with extended ensemble playing before showcasing the instrumental soloists. Only after that did a vocalist usually appear to sing a “refrain” (as in just one passage), before handing it back to the musicians to strut their stuff again.

The singer was at times virtually an afterthought.

Multiple things had a hand in changing this approach, among them was the first industry wide recording ban that went from 1942-1944 and prevented members of the musicians union from appearing on record. During this time companies re-issued older recordings to try and meet public demand for music but they also found they could focus on the vocalists, who since they weren’t union members weren’t affected by the ban and thus could sing with chorale backing which more than sufficed.

When the strike was finally settled the companies continued to feature singers more prominently, in part to guard against this same standoff down the road (something which indeed happened in 1948), thereby shifting the power further away from the musicians and (more crucially) away from their powerful union.

Of course tastes changed during this period too for cultural reasons. One factor was the increasing prominence of radio networks and frequently those who were sought out to star on weekly programs, or to appear as guests, were singers. Whereas on stage the bandleader acted as the master of ceremonies which worked well in that setting in large part because you SAW the band and thus you visually acknowledged his role in leading them, on radio however you had no visuals to aid you and so it was far easier to have one singer on the program who could talk to the audience, tells stories or jokes as well as take part in skits, all of which helped to establish their personality and THEN they’d sing a number which would further promote them as individuals. Bandleaders simply couldn’t compete with that.

The other cultural factor at work during the 1940’s of course was World War Two which brought about a pensive national outlook which was at odds with the generally buoyant larger band recordings. By contrast a lone vocalist, such as the biggest star in the world, Bing Crosby, or his rapidly rising competition Frank Sinatra, were able to convey much more complex emotions and play on listener’s heartstrings which would match the uncertainty and anxiety the nation felt throughout those years.

When the War ended the interest in singers didn’t end with it and so the balance of power started to tilt even more towards those who sang the songs rather than those who led the bands that played those songs.

And so it was that rock ‘n’ roll, not to mention other so-called marginal styles on the rise in the late 1940’s such as blues, country and gospel, came along at the perfect time to give audiences outside the mainstream plenty of musical icons of their own, almost all of whom were singers. With pop music having done so over the past few years as well it left only jazz among the major genres heading into the latter half of the Twentieth Century which still had non-singers as its biggest stars.

In 1949 the transformation was almost complete and so for those who wanted to lead a band their chances for stardom were not what they used to be no matter what type of music they played.
 

‘Til I Reel And Rock
Conrad Johnson was a saxophonist, someone we’ve met before and will continue to run across frequently over the next year or so, but unlike most in the industry Johnson had no desire to be famous, nor even necessarily to make a living playing music… his primary job, one he’d keep for thirty-seven years, was as a teacher of music to high school students in Houston.

Johnson had come up in the same era as other local kids who went on to make names for themselves as saxophone kings, among them Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. But unlike them Johnson repeatedly turned down opportunities to join bands – rejecting overtures from the great Erskine Hawkins at one point – because starting in 1941 the college educated Johnson taught high school band.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t still able to earn extra money by playing if the situation arose and when Freedom Records started up in Houston in the spring of 1949 Johnson was enlisted to put together a house band and to not just lead it in the studio but also to write arrangements, produce the records and even compose songs if need be. Since it wouldn’t require him going on the road touring Johnson agreed and for the next two years, until the company shut down, Conrad Johnson was the anchor of Freedom Records’s musical operations.

The group he assembled were called variously The Hep-Cats when playing behind Goree Carter, or Conney’s Combo when appearing with others, or as on Shout It Out when they were headlining the record themselves, but regardless of their name they were essentially the same unit comprised of Nunu Pitts on bass, Lonnie Lyons on piano, Nelson Mills on trumpet, Allison Tucker on drums and Sam Williams on tenor sax augmenting Johnson himself who played alto.

With the exacting standards of a teacher leading the band, these guys were as tight as a sweater on a shapely girl with low self-esteem.
 

I Feel So Happy
Though this is a vocal record – by the otherwise unknown Babe Johnson, which may be merely an alias for some club singer, or (dare I suggest it) Conrad’s wife? – the singer’s job is merely to set up the basic story so the band can play their extended interludes… the old school approach in other words, except in a rock setting.

Whoever she is, Babe does her job with reasonable effectiveness, though her voice is a little too high to be really captivating singing these type of lyrics, which themselves are simply generic and exuberant declarations of joy. What’s bringing about this joy, you ask? Well, presumably it’s music and sex, though those two are often interchangeable both in life and in song.

She delivers this with plenty of good-natured enthusiasm and doesn’t get tripped up or fall out of tune when she’s forced to keep up the pace as the band races forward, but aside from focusing on just enough of the words to get your bearings she’s hardly noticeable because the band is the main attraction on Shout It Out and their intent is to get you jumping from start to finish, which they do quite well.

The horns that kick it off may be lagging slightly behind the curve as far as rock ‘n’ roll heading down the stretch of the 1940’s is concerned, but after the intro they get their feet under them. Allison Tucker is really setting the pace here on drums, keeping up a steady 4/4 clip and then rattling the kit around in the turnarounds that helps to launch the horns.

The first solo is of the sweaty roadhouse variety in which in spite of an economy of notes manages to push all the right buttons. The one complaint is simply that it doesn’t go on long enough because there’s another vocal stanza that needs to be sung which has you waiting for the next break which is just as gritty and passionate and consequently has you anticipating yet another extended solo even more.

But this is where they give back some of the goodwill they’d just earned as rather than let one saxophone handle it and really go to town they all chip in, playing in unison which naturally takes away the feeling of spontaneity that one lone horn in the wilderness tends to suggest. Sure enough this final section is too mannered and orderly in its construction even though Tucker is trying to drag the rest of them back into the roadhouse with more emphatic drum work.

The playing in the conclusion is not really bad, but when the selling point of the record to this point had been the wilder sounding breaks then you can’t help but feel a little let down that the longest break is also the weakest. What’s more is there’s no additional vocal lines to bring this full circle, instead the band carries things to the finish line and though it ends with a neat slurred guitar note fading into the ether, the promise they showed at various points along the way become more of a distant memory by the closing.
 

I Know You Dig Me
Doubtless this record was just a chance to give Conrad Johnson a way to flex his arranging skills and showcase the band, not to mention sort of act as an incentive for him and the others to keep these jobs as the label starts to gain traction. Without his group – and without him producing the sessions – Freedom Records would’ve been in a world of trouble, so consider this something of a signing bonus for him agreeing to take the job in the first place.

As a record Shout It Out may not break any new ground but it reinforces a lot of what we’ve encountered to date which makes it something a placeholder in the larger rock story. We see so many of the elements that have defined rock thus far – the lingering debt to jazzier arrangement ideas that are still in the process of being shed; the rousing lyrics that are less of a coherent storyline but instead act as a clarion call for unspecified nocturnal adventure; and of course the moments of instrumental mayhem that are designed to get listeners moving in as uninhibited a fashion as possible – all of which is present and accounted for here.

Though this record winds up just being average for the time we can tell you that the group’s output as a whole, released under a wide variety of names (Hep-Cats, Rocking Rhythm Orchestra and Conney’s Combo) will wind up being well above average for the most part, often spectacular in fact, and though we’re well past the era where bandleaders themselves were going to get much public credit for their work, the mere presence behind the scenes of Conrad Johnson and his versatile bunch of musical madmen over the next two years will give rock fans everywhere plenty of reasons to shout.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
(Visit the Artist page of Conrad Johnson (Conney’s Combo) for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)