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FREEDOM 1508; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

The odds of any random song being aesthetically successful are pretty low. I mean, let’s face facts here, the sheer number of releases in a given year means there’s going to be far more duds than gems and so knowing what to take a chance on when these records came out was often a crap shoot.

What you have to go on when trying to predict the quality of a record when simply looking at it in a store or on a jukebox – the two methods of dispersal back in 1949 – boils down to two, maybe three, things… the artist’s track record and perhaps the reputation of the record label, and the song’s title.

In this case the record label, Freedom, had only been in business a little more than a month and so with such limited output most patrons probably had no idea what they had been issuing, although if they HAD known their enthusiasm might’ve been considerably higher. As for the credited artist, Conney’s Combo, talented though they were, they too had yet to establish themselves or their style, while Babe Johnson, the credited vocalist, was a complete unknown, so this was no help in determining whether to give this release a chance either.

Which leaves the title with the burden of trying to convince you that the song contained within might be worth your time and trouble.

One look at this and even if your name wasn’t Mae and thus presumably you wouldn’t be personally offended by the contents, you almost certainly would pass on it and move to something that promised to be a little more classy.

But rock fans aren’t really living up to their well-earned reputations as iconoclasts unless they occasionally say, “What the hell, I’ll give it a shot anyway”.
 

 

As Soon As I Can Get My Way
Comedy and music are often like oil and water. There’s certain requirements for making you laugh that don’t exactly lend themselves to also making you dance or even just sway along to. Yet the 1940’s was a prime era for so-called comedy records in mainstream pop. These novelty offerings were, in retrospect, often culturally insensitive and rarely funny even if they were deemed fairly harmless and even “cute” at the time.

Rock ‘n’ roll had, for the most part, largely eschewed trying to make you laugh over its first year and a half of existence, preferring instead to wear you out by getting you to move in accordance with the rhythm while providing a story to go with that which reflected some aspect of your life in a creative and non-condescending way.

But even the most steely eyed rock fan presumably needs to crack a smile every once in awhile and so we’ve had a few records that have tried bridging the gap… though not always to the best effect.

Johnny Otis, who by virtue of having run his own nightclub where comedy routines were a nightly feature in between musical acts, has been one whose tried to incorporate laughs into some of his songs but they’ve largely failed in both regards – not being funny enough to overlook the lack of musical merit and not being compelling enough musically to make their weak humor seem more palatable.

The Trenier Twins had the right idea but didn’t take their concept far enough and as a result they’re in the midst of a two year hiatus from recording in an effort to try and shore up their deficiencies and figure out how to tweak their ideas to make them work.

So the chances that Conney’s Combo, a group led by a high school music teacher, alto sax player Conrad Johnson, who presumably would more interested in executing the musical components of the record with distinction rather than acting the clown to get you to find humor in their presentation, might be the ones to break this trend is pretty unlikely.

With that kind of lead-in you must know that on Ugly Mae they actually manage to succeed in both areas, music and laughs, at least more than we could’ve hoped to expect.
 

I Can Send You
The first rule of having a record connect with an audience no matter what it contains in terms of lyrics or vocal delivery, is the music. If you can make the overall sound captivating, either melodically or rhythmically or just in terms of finding a surefire hook to latch onto, then the rest becomes easier to put across.

This is especially true with comedic records for the simple fact that jokes of any kind tend to grow stale with repeated tellings because the surprise of the punchline has been removed. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is funny at three years old but by five you’ve heard it so much that you no longer can appreciate the mild humor of the answer. Therefore a record that relies on your reaction to something unexpected the first time you hear it better have something else in store for you when the unexpected becomes expected after a few listens.

On Ugly Mae, following a fairly tepid lead-in as spoken vocals set up the story, the music gets increasingly strong as it progresses and quickly becomes a highly effective and prototypical rock track with hand-claps emphasizing the beat behind the vocals, some sizzling guitar work in the gaps and some good work on the drums by Allison Tucker.

None of this is taken at a very rapid pace, if anything it’s the musical equivalent of “sauntering”, but it’s the perfect tempo for the vocals and provides ample opportunity to throw in various instrumental flourishes that keep it surging ahead and prevents it from ever slipping into monotony.

Take those Goree Carter guitar licks for instance, first heard after the initial recitation of the title buttressed by the hand-claps. It’s a harsh, aggressive sound as it enters, purposefully grabbing you by the scruff of the neck to make sure you focus on it so that when it eases off on the intensity you’re still aware of its presence.

The shimmering metallic sound he draws from the instrument immediately following his more emphatic initial lines not only lend diversity to the track but they’re sonically interesting, making you take notice of it without drawing too much attention away from the rest of the song’s components. There are two distinct spurts where he flexes these muscles (and a later stretch where he does the same trick with decidedly less emphasis) popping up between vocal lines and as such they make up a comparatively small section of the record yet they are utterly distinctive, giving the song additional character that sets this apart from most records in a way that isn’t inherently tied to melody or other musical fingerprints.

Throw in a competent workmanlike sax solo replete with shouted asides and a general spirit of a party just getting underway and it’s pretty clear that these guys, who let’s not forget have been employed by Freedom Records for just a couple weeks at this point and who haven’t been working elsewhere in the studio before this, have essentially deciphered the basic necessities for coming up with a very good rock backing track and then added a few wrinkles to make it even more compelling.
 


 

What’cha Gonna Say?
All of that will be needed if the lyrics of this song, which consists of a humorous look at the physical shortcomings of a female companion, fail to maintain the proper balance between lighthearted teasing and more heavy-handed scorn and that’s even before getting into the actual puns being used and whether they are going to be more clever or clumsy.

Thankfully Ugly Mae focuses less on delivering a stand-up comedy routine set to music and more on telling a credible story that just happens to contain some laughs.

The aforementioned spoken word intro is carried off with a genuine acting flair by whoever in the band (be it Conrad Johnson or somebody else) is playing the role of the wise-ass sitting on the corner commenting about the women walking by. They set the story up well enough by letting you know that they’re going to be throwing some serious shade at this lady without it descending into merely crude put-downs.

When the singing starts it’s actually the band members, all male, who are rhythmically chanting the chorus which is catchy enough to suffice, but that has you wondering if and when Babe Johnson, who gets the vocal credit, is going to appear and what her role will be.

Here’s where the creativity takes hold, not that it’s a radical idea or anything, as Babe is the one “portraying” Mae and as such it shifts the focus from the male perspective, which is highly critical of her looks, to the first person female perspective where she gets to somehow rebut their charges.

But Mae’s looked in a mirror and knows she’s got a face that would stop a clock and so she’s not trying to insist they’re underrating her beauty. In fact, she admits that she ”ain’t got the looks of a Hollywood queen” but then goes on to describe the attributes she DOES possess which more than makes up for that.

I’ll give you a hint, it involves strenuous physical acts that often take place in bedrooms.

None of this is described in explicit detail but she’s also not so vague about things that you’re left to try and read in between the lines to decipher their meaning. The lyrics are actually fairly good, whether it’s her insinuating what types of nocturnal activities she has in mind, which she delivers with believable eroticism, or the humor of hearing her tell them she’s ”built like a frog”… wait a minute, a FROG?!?!?!

Yeah, that’s what she says.

We’ll wait while you alternately try to envision what this girl must look like and then give you a few minutes to try and erase that image from your mind altogether before you have nightmares.

The lyrics show additional creativity that is to be admired, such as when she uses the name the band took on when working behind Carter – The Hep-Cats – in one of the lines as she tells them she “I’m a real ready chick and I can really make a hep-cat ball”, or when she tosses in the declaration “I can rock, I can roll” which only reinforces their collective commitment to this music in words as well as in deeds.
 

I Can Rock, I Can Roll
Everything about this record surpasses expectations, especially since we were skeptical when studying the surface attributes, and though it’s hardly aspiring to be a great record it contains a few great moments that are worthy of our respect.

The band is tight, their instincts are sharp and the guitar playing of Carter already gives ample evidence that his presence is going to elevate almost everything he touches. There’s no uncertainty about the style of music they’re expected to deliver, no indication that any of them felt it was beneath them, nor is there any sign that they were simply going through the motions for the paycheck.

All of them are also on board with the general sentiments Ugly Mae is expressing, allowing the humor to come across as good-natured rather than cruel. Even their mid-song crack about the ice man running away from her has no nastiness to it and she not only takes it in stride but then one-ups them with her next line. It may never be laugh out loud funny, but that probably helps in keeping it from quickly getting diminishing returns the more you listen and know what the next crack at her expense is going to be.

Maybe the biggest regret with this release is simply that it appears to be the only record Babe Johnson cut and since both sides of it were pretty decent and since females are still in short supply in the rock ‘n’ roll field, the loss of someone who at least could help to even up the rosters a bit is a shame, especially since she would’ve been working with a band that complimented her so well, even as they were doing anything BUT complimenting her in the song’s lyrics.

When compared to the peak efforts in rock ‘n’ roll thus far, and even the recently released best side cut by these same musicians behind Goree Carter on Freedom Records, a song like this might not stand out much, but when judging it against the underwhelming results of those merely striving for mediocrity, especially when trying for some laughs along the way, a record like this is something that you learn to appreciate all the more.

In fact, as unlikely as it seems at first glance, you’d be happy to take her home for the night.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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