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FREEDOM 1501; MARCH, 1949

 
 

 

A new day, a new record label springing up in the field of rock ‘n’ roll, though to be honest it’s hard to say for sure they started off intending to ply their trade in the rock field.

But timing and circumstances conspired to steer them in that direction and while Freedom Records would only last three years and score very few hits along the way while not even really launching any careers of certifiable superstars, their impact on the future sounds of rock was immense.

Though this project is about rock music and the records its artists released over the seven decades (and counting) of its existence they weren’t made in a vacuum and so there needed to be a way for those artists and those records to be heard and that means the underlying story here is that of the record labels who specialized in this brand of sonic mayhem.

All stories have to start somewhere however so here’s three stories kicking off in one review.
 

 

The Freedom Trail
Independent record companies were multiplying like flies throughout the 1940’s despite a myriad of obstacles – from two lengthy recording bans to a moratorium on shellac during World War Two, the material used to actually make the 78 RPM records of the day – that would discourage most who were looking for an easy path to success. But for a generation of young entrepreneurs restless for action and determined to seize the reins of their own destinies they ignored these roadblocks and plunged into the business from every corner of America, all hoping beyond hope to somehow get a foothold in the industry.

With the three, soon to be (starting in 1942) four major labels controlling the mainstream pop and jazz markets the upstart indies sought to make their names in the areas overlooked by the big companies – country, blues, gospel and, as of 1947, the runt of the stylistic litter, rock ‘n’ roll.

We’re not telling you anything you haven’t heard before around here, but the point is for as much as we celebrate the successes in this realm, like Savoy, King and just recently Atlantic, there were far more failures such as Eddie’s Records out of Houston.

Established less than a year ago for the express purpose of recording teenage piano prodigy Little Willie Littlefield, they’d released a handful of sides on him and got some local attention but no national interest. Like most small operations they found that signing and recording talent was the easy part compared to pressing, shipping and promoting their product and by the winter of 1949 Eddie Henry closed shop, but not before helping another ambitious Houstonian, Saul Kahl, start Freedom Records. Henry provided advice, connections to local printers and national distributors and even provided artists in a way, giving him one remaining side that he’d cut on Littlefield along with the artist we’re meeting today for the first time, L. C. Williams.
 

Goodbye Blues
Despite being barely 19 years old at the time L. C. Williams was not a recording novice when he landed on Freedom’s doorstep. After moving to Houston from rural Texas in 1945, already singing and playing drums, he met up with country blues stalwart Lightnin’ Hopkins who not only befriended him but backed Williams on the kid’s initial sessions in late 1947 and throughout 1948 with Gold Star Records.

On those sides Williams was most definitely a Hopkins disciple, right down him being called “Lightnin’ Jr.” on a few of the label credits – no subtlety there. Any thought that Williams might be willing, let alone able, to make the jump to rock ‘n’ roll would be all but laughable when listening to these sides.

They were the sound of yesterday… pre-electric, rural, dusty sounds delivered with a voice that seemed ancient and worn.

They were fine for what they were aiming at, some of them were quite good in fact, but they had no apparent connection to anything as forward looking as rock ‘n’ roll.

Now since we don’t delve into the blues much here on Spontaneous Lunacy, since after all this is the history of rock music, not unrelated genres, it’s important to note that while his mentor Hopkins was already 36 years old when the two got together, and had been a earning a living playing blues since the early 1930’s, Hopkins himself had only just started cutting records in 1946! Furthermore while he’d go on to be the most recorded bluesman of all time, his popularity peaking in the 1960’s with the folk blues revival, those early records didn’t sell particularly well outside his home base as more and more in this post-war period it was urban electric blues which was catching on commercially. So by aligning himself with this brand of music that was rapidly becoming outdated Williams was almost ensuring he’d never be more than an itinerant musician no matter HOW well he performed it.

Maybe that’s why he was so agreeable to trying something else when he wound up at Eddie’s Records in early 1949.

There they had cut versions of I Don’t Want Your Baby and its flip, but by then the label was on its last legs. Whether Eddie Henry sold the kid’s contract or if Williams simply had nowhere else to go and this new company was in need of artists, the end result was Williams would get the first release on Freedom Records.

Sort of.
 

House Band Extraordinaire
Undoubtedly the greatest move this fledging record label made was in signing a group of young musical madmen to serve as their house band. Led by alto saxophonist Conrad Johnson and featuring the likes of pianist Lonnie Lyons, tenor sax ace Sam Williams, trumpeter Nelson Mills and a rhythm section of Louis “Nunu” Pitts on bass and Allison Tucker on drums, this combo was to become the secret weapon of Freedom Records.

But here’s where we have to do some speculating. Because L. C. Williams was Lightnin’ Hopkins’ protégé and even the most casual blues fan has heard how much Hopkins disdained contracts and only recorded for cash, let’s assume he initially advised Williams not to sign anything, just take the money up front and cut your songs and then you’re free to go elsewhere. If that’s the case, as it seems to be considering the circumstances, the folks at Freedom Records wisely made the decision to release this first record NOT under Williams’s name, for why promote somebody who might be recording for someone else next week, but rather they issued it under the band’s name.

Hence the first release for Freedom Records technically goes to Conney’s Combo, named after Conrad Johnson. It’s not a name they’d stick with long, thank goodness, but it’s entirely fitting they’d get the initial credit on record considering how much these six men contributed to the sound of the company.

And what a sound it is.

Not so much this record, though the seeds of their style are obviously present, but I Don’t Want Your Baby serves as more of a feeling out process between the singer and the band, even the record label for that matter, at least when it comes to trying to establish who they are and what type of music they’ll be pursuing.

Which is why it’s odd, unexpected and entirely welcome to hear that they’ve avoided what seemed to be the most obvious direction to pursue. Namely the blues.
 

 
 

Don’t You Fool With Mine
Anyone who’d heard L. C. Williams on Gold Star when backed by Hopkins would do a double take hearing him on I Don’t Want Your Baby. If not a double take, then a triple take… before dropping dead in amazement.

The reason being he sounds like an entirely different, far younger, singer.

Remember, he was just about to turn 19 years old when this was cut and was as young as 17 on his initial sessions for Gold Star, but back then he didn’t SOUND 17, more like 71. And an OLD seventy-one at that!

But sounding old and parched and beat down by a life of working in the cotton fields in the blazing sun is what the country blues was all about. That’s not a criticism, just a fact of life. It was a music reflecting that hardscrabble existence which had been prevalent down south for African-Americans since being kidnapped, tortured and enslaved centuries earlier.

By the mid-20th Century, though equality was still largely a pipe dream, the hope was at least there that changes were imminent. World War Two had seen to this as opportunities for steady employment in factories up north and the chance to serve in the military in non-menial positions led to a mass exodus from the oppressive southern climate and with it country blues as a reflection of daily life was no longer applicable for the generation who was coming of age in the 1940’s.

The move to bustling northern cities along with the concurrent gains made in electronics also meant that the transplanted southern bluesmen – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Pee Wee Crayton – were now creating the new urban blues style with a different sound and slightly different perspective which modernized the genre. Texas-based guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown were doing the same and so the acoustic approach of Lightnin’ Hopkins, and for that matter the Hopkins-influenced (and Hopkins-accompanied) early sides of L. C. Williams were about to become anachronistic.

In other words, to stay relevant he’d have to change styles. The obvious shift would be to electric blues, but that’s not what we get here at all, we get a rock song. A mournful ballad of a rock song, but clearly (outside of the 12 bar structure) far removed from any familiar blues approach.
 

I Don’t Want Nobody Else
Williams voice, as stated, is youthful sounding at last, though clearly worried as he unfolds the plot for us.

He’s caught up in a tug-of-war with another unnamed suitor over his girl. In fact he’s singing I Don’t Want Your Baby to the guy in question, who it seems already has a girlfriend but apparently is something of a cad and figures two is better than one when it comes to adoring females. Williams though isn’t so cocksure and he just wants to keep the one he’s got without having to keep checking over his shoulder – or under the bed – for a rival out to steal her.

He’s utterly convincing in the role, pleading with this Lothario to let him and his girl be without ever becoming completely desperate. More than anything he’s just confused as to why someone who has a girl of their own would feel the need to pursue somebody else’s girl, something which probably speaks to his youth and naiveté. But since he only skirts the edge of being whiny you sympathize with him, even though you’d like to tell him to just hit this guy with a Sunday punch and be done with it.

The band may not get too much chance to really stand out but their presence here adds immeasurably to the mood. They too are sympathetic to his plight and their playing reflects that, with horns moaning, the piano shedding notes like teardrops, even the drums getting a little agitated at times when the target of these requests seems to turn a cold shoulder to Williams.

Everybody is completely effective in what they’re called upon to do. They mesh perfectly, nobody takes a wrong turn and the song’s relative simplicity doesn’t negatively impact your appreciation of what it has to offer. For someone just making his first foray into an entirely new style of music this is a record that is entirely comfortable in every way.

Because of that you might think that it was Conney’s Combo (we’ll go along with the name for now) who steered the budding bluesman in this direction since his previous efforts were far removed from this in every way imaginable, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The fact this same song was cut while at Eddie’s Records with a different band means it most likely was L. C. Williams himself who saw the need to change styles, though he’d return to the country blues frequently for the rest of his career, particularly when paired up with Hopkins.
 

 
But based on the all-around solid results of I Don’t Want Your Baby, what’s not clear is why he’d ever do anything BUT this newer approach when all around him he had to see the changes afoot musically and sense that this was the direction to follow if he wanted to get some hits.

No, this one wasn’t a hit, which isn’t surprising considering it was the record company’s first volley into the marketplace, and to be fair it also probably doesn’t quite have enough to grab you with to become a hit even in the best of circumstances, but it DOES have enough to keep you interested in what Williams, Conrad Johnson and his band and the record label itself might came up with next.

In the independent music world that made up rock ‘n’ roll of the late 1940’s that’s a pretty good endorsement of anybody’s initial efforts… just enough to get you coming back for more.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of L. C. Williams for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)