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DECCA 48091; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

Back in September 1948 we covered the topic of sequels – in music, movies and otherwise – and savaged the creative personnel responsible for such abominations in no uncertain terms.

I guess you can say we were a little harsh. Very harsh actually, tearing into Roy Brown’s desultory sequel Miss Fanny Brown Returns with ravenous glee.

Of course on these same pages we’ve continually praised Roy Brown, not just for starting rock ‘n’ roll itself with Good Rocking Tonight but also in expanding rock’s parameters stylistically with a very wide range of song prototypes ranging from uptempo ravers to downhearted laments, including the original, and far superior, Miss Fanny Brown itself.

His vocal skills, writing ability and the overall belief he’s shown in rock music’s potential from the very start is a large part of what enabled it to take off so quickly and find an audience. One listen to him and – fan of rock or not – it’s safe to say you’ll remember him and thus you’ll remember rock ‘n’ roll, especially at the stage where it was still finding itself.

So it should go without saying that the criticism for engaging in a blatantly transparent effort to milk a dry cow for a second hit out of the same storyline, one that already HAD a very definitive conclusion (which promptly had to be refuted in Part Two simply so they could craft a NEW storyline to continue the tale) wasn’t anything we enjoyed doing.

It’s nothing personal, Roy. We still like YOU, we just want you to live up to the standards you previously set and not find the need to stoop so low as to give us regurgitated food, toss some fresh parsley on the plate and call it a feast.

Now we run into the same situation with another of our more beloved early stars of rock, Cousin Joe.

Like Brown, Cousin Joe is also a very likable singer/songwriter from New Orleans who elevates anything he sings by his mere vocal charms alone. Add to that his vivid storytelling ability which manages to capture details that would go all but unnoticed by most songwriters and it’s a fair bet that anything that has his name on it will be worth hearing.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to find him revisiting his greatest triumph with a warmed-over sequel. Surely this must be God’s way of punishing us for liking the Devil’s music to begin with.
 

 
When We Last Met Shorty…
Because this is a sequel we need to start off by reminding everyone just what the original was all about, thus taking up valuable space that otherwise could be devoted to new and enlightening insight… but I digress.

Boxcar Shorty And Peter Blue was a heartwarming story about gambling, cheating, violent threats and cold-blooded murder fit for the whole family to enjoy!

(Actually it was the story of Stagger Lee – under the alias of Boxcar Shorty – the perpetrator of the most notorious massacre yet put to music.)

Now anyone familiar with the hundreds of versions of that song, whatever name it was going by at the time, surely also knows that there is a virtually unlimited amount of verses that have been used over the years to extend the tale from the short-story version to the point where it could fill up an entire novel. So if Cousin Joe merely wants to flesh out the highlight reel clips he offered the first time out with some additional scenes of vengeance and violence, well, by all means, that’ll work just fine, sequel or not.

In fact some of the best subsequent versions of the basic Stagger Lee saga will focus as much, if not more, attention on the post-mortem details when ol’ Stack is caught, killed and decends to Hell where he promptly continues his feud with Billy Lyons (or in this case Peter Blue), whom he sent down below in the first place after catching him cheating at craps and put a cap in his ass (and his chest and his head… and the poor innocent bartender’s glass for that matter who had the misfortune of standing behind the doomed Billy/Peter whatever your name is when the bloodshed erupted!).

That’s what I was hoping for here, for if there’s anything that has the potential to be even more entertaining than cold-blooded slaughter over the wager of a mere HAT it’s the necrophilia-tinged grudge match between two rotting corpses and their damned for eternity souls!

Like I said, fun for the whole family! Don’t forget to call Grandma into the parlor to hear how all of this turns out!
 

 

Rigor Mortis Or Resuscitation?
On second thought leave the old bag where she is because Boxcar Shorty’s Confession doesn’t delve into any of the sick, twisted and gruesome details that got our hopes up when coming across this.

No, this is less Beetlejuice or Night Of The Living Dead than it is an episode of Perry Mason or Matlock. A mere courtroom drama about the trial of Boxcar Shorty a/k/a “Stagger” Lee Shelton following his violent rampage.

Bummer.

Okay, so expectations are decidedly lowered, which brings us back to the problem we had with Roy Brown and sequels… how do you adjust for the story arc being interrupted, upended, manipulated, invalidated (or fill in the blank)?

In Boxcar Shorty And Peter Blue the song ended after Shorty executed Peter in cold blood, grabbed his Stetson hat off the dead man’s skull and told him they were now square! Shorty was arrested but seemed unfazed by his impending incarceration, because… well because he got his damn hat back at least!

So logically speaking this is a mere continuation of that story picking up from that point in time. We know he’s been charged with murder, know there are plenty of witnesses and a motive is literally sitting atop Shorty’s cranium in the form of the blood-stained fedora.

But the title itself has me a little queasy before we even begin. Boxcar Shorty’s Confession… wait a minute… CONFESSION?

In all the versions of this saga I’ve heard, which must be over fifty, if not a hundred, Stack or Shorty whatever you wanna call him, is totally unrepentant (well, except when Dick Clark forced Lloyd Price to change the lyrics to appease the censors when he appeared on American Bandstand in the late 50’s, though the less said about that debacle the better!). So if Shorty is confessing he’s either gone soft or has something up his sleeve.

Sad to say we’re never quite sure which it is after listening to this.
 

They Knew I Was Lying
Shorty starts off by denying gambling was the motive at all and instead admits to killing Peter Blue for banging Shorty’s wife, something that wasn’t even hinted at in the first episode. But then – in a very clever twist – he’s forced to take a lie detector and promptly fails it, meaning he was making that up to try and get the court to more lenient than they would otherwise be likely to be for the haberdashery defense… Murder 6 and 7/8ths as it were.

Joe’s voice, as always, is very expressive and conveys the shifting tones with precision. Even when what he’s singing isn’t compelling his performance always elevates the proceedings considerably.

The music accompanying him is even better, as Sammy Price’s piano relentlessly keeps up a steady pace but this time is joined by a circular electric guitar riff that creates a deep and churning groove, sounding menacing by its mere presence. The interplay of the two instruments are the highlight of the track, you’d listen to that alone for ten minutes if you could, so at this point you might just forget it’s a sequel at all and overlook your earlier concerns and enjoy it for what it is, maybe not too original in concept, but effective in its payoff.

But then it gets bogged down by the cross-examination. Well, more like the conflicting testimony of Shorty himself. After admitting the story about Peter Blue and his wife fooling around was a lie to US, he nevertheless seems to stick to it when questioned by the judge, thereby throwing the entire case into a tangled legal mess.

DID Peter Blue ring his old lady’s bell or not? If not, why is he prattling on about it if he’s already failed the lie detector test and presumably has a long rap sheet of violent offenses before this? We never can see our way through the haze to make up our own minds and the last thing anybody wants is a hung jury as they try and figure this stuff out, so he’s lost us already.

But the truth is this all MIGHT’VE worked had they simply taken that intro, set up the false defense and then had it crumble around him upon which he stood up in court and told the truth, that he murdered Peter Blue because the son of a bitch was using loaded dice to take his money and his headwear and what’s more he was GLAD he killed the bastard and you could send him to jail or send him to hell for all he cared. Well needless to say if I was on the jury when that unfolded I’d have voted Not Guilty For Reason Of Badassery.

Case dismissed.

Instead Shorty pleads for mercy, gets sentenced to 1-20 years, then (showing his repentant ways didn’t make it through even his first parole hearing) swipes a well-used line from another oft-recycled New Orleans anthem, Junco Partner, in which he claims “One year ain’t no sentence/and twenty years ain’t no time”, probably trying to re-establish his devil may care attitude for the boys in cell block number 9 that he’s going to be spending a stretch with.

In other words this isn’t the same cat who scared the hell out of the Devil himself in other incarnations, thereby robbing him of his one remaining appealing attribute – his unrepentant nature.
 

 

Plead Guilty
In the end, as the bailiff hauls Shorty away in cuffs to do his time, those of us on the outside, both the law-abiding ones drawn in by the lurid sensationalism of the case who shiver at the fact such reprobates were ever allowed to walk free among them, as well as the shadowy figures he ran with in the alleys with, are all moving out the doors back into daylight and into freedom.

The first group will head home, discussing the proceedings in shocked whispered tones over coffee, double checking the locks on their doors that night before bed, but ultimately forgetting all about it by daybreak. The second group will talk about it under their breaths as they pass around a bottle behind the clubs as night falls but once the dice come out their focus will be on the cubes rattling against the curb, not on their one-time cohort who’s gone up the river. A fate they ALL know might hit them next.

As for those who only listened to the records and didn’t personally know either of the participants or pass them on the street, they too will soon forget this one. As a record taken at face value it certainly SOUNDS good, the music and Joe’s performance are both first rate, but not even one of rock’s top lyricists can fully salvage the inherent problems of revisiting something done to perfection the first time around upon which an unnecessary chapter gets hastily added to a book that’s already reached an entirely appropriate – and satisfying – ending.

Though Cousin Joe and company make this rendition far better than it has any right to be it still pales in comparison to the original, the one where grisly crimes actually HAPPEN and thus keep you riveted by the carnage. Boxcar Shorty’s Confession is merely the chalk outline after the deed is done. Interesting to study for a moment as you pass by, but soon washed away by the next rain.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Cousin Joe for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)