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DECCA 48157; MAY 1950

 
 

 

With a lot of distant relatives it can be awhile between visits and so it should come as no surprise that after a series of regular get-togethers with Cousin Joe in rock’s earliest days we’ve now gone a year and a half without seeing one another – not since the holidays in 1948 in fact.

Oh, we may have gotten a Christmas card last year and a telegram birthday greeting or two from wherever he was playing at the time, but we haven’t sat down with him in far too long. Though admittedly Cousin Joe was never going to be a close member of the rock family – he was far too eclectic musically to reside in any one community for long – he was always a welcome presence at whatever party was being thrown… a more affable, witty and charming singer it’d be hard to find.

So when we heard he was in town we had to look him up right away and it’s with open arms that we welcome him back into the fold, even if it’s just to share a quick meal together.
 

 

Down In New Orleans
There’s some confusion as to when this single was actually recorded. The paperwork puts it way back in 1947 when Cousin Joe was a mainstay with Decca Records who were admirably building a fair stable of black talent around their superstar Louis Jordan, artists who were versatile enough to be marketed as jazz, blues, gospel or, as time went on, even rock ‘n’ roll.

But when none of those records, including some great ones by Albennie Jones, not to mention Cousin Joe, attracted much attention, the company moved on, resigned to letting the smaller independent labels handle the growing rock market while they looked to consolidate their hold on more refined adult tastes.

Yet they may have had second thoughts if the research of Dave Penny is to be believed, which claims Chicken A La Blues, as well as three other sides, including the flip which we’ll look at tomorrow, were recorded in April 1950.

That actually makes a little more sense, not that Decca wouldn’t have held on to some tracks for four years and then with the popularity of New Orleans rock reaching a high point in the spring of 1950 decide to finally put these out, but rather it seems more likely that even with mediocre sales of his records back in 1947/48 they’d have issued these songs back then anyway, just as a matter of efficiency, getting him off their books and out of their hair as it were.

But whenever they were laid down we know more or less what to expect for Cousin Joe… songs featuring clever lyrics revealing a universal truth delivered by an engaging personality that added greatly to their appeal.
 


 

I Ate So Many Chickens
The steady piano intro is warmly reassuring before Cuz steps in with his familiar metallic-sheened vocals, sounding as always like he’s grinning while he sings another song with a decidedly humorous bent.

Or at least he’s HOPING it’s humorous enough to get us to crack a smile, but for once we’re not entirely convinced because right away it seems as if the joke at the center of Chicken A La Blues is designed to be it’s primary – if not only – vital element.

It doesn’t help that the very first line lets us in on the joke rather than letting it unfurl gradually as he goes along, building curiosity as we attempt to figure out his perspective, then anticipation when we catch on to the theme and finally a satisfying payoff as he wraps it up with a clever bow.

Here however there’s no winding path we have to take before we discover the point of it all, instead he leads off with the revelation that after years of eating nothing but hot dogs he’s finally able to afford better meals and has settled on chicken to show off his new found prosperity.

Now ostensibly this is designed to be a commentary on the struggle of lower income people to eat healthy and have meals they can actually enjoy, but because he uses that to merely set the scene those aspects become more implied than directly addressed once he transitions to the extended aftermath, thereby robbing the song of the social critique it was aiming for.

Further complicating his efforts is the fact that there’s not much difference – nor humor to be found – in rattling off variations of the same basic food both when he’s complaining about it (when it comes to hot dogs) or celebrating it when he gets to eat some fowl. In fact you might be led to believe at first listen that he’s actually bemoaning a strict poultry diet until he finally makes it clear that it’s his preferred dish and a giant step up from what he’d had to make do with in the past. But there’s not a whole lot of laughs in this recipe either way you take it.

Well, actually there IS one pay-off that comes late in the game here, but even that sounds more like a throwaway line (which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t heard it yet since it’s the one line that’s at least an even bet to draw a smile, especially in the way in which he delivers it), so what we’re left with is a song that takes one rather flimsy theme and stretches it far past the breaking point, leaving us to wonder if perhaps Cousin Joe wrote this one night when he was hungry and room service had stopped delivering.
 

Down In My Bones
Maybe it’s the fact we feel let down when we encounter a song by Cousin Joe which fails to live up to his admittedly high lyrical standards that disproportionately sours our opinion on this record, because as is always the case with him, you can’t find much fault in his singing.

Arguably no singer in rock’s first couple of years presented such “character” in his delivery as Cousin Joe. I don’t mean “a character”, for surely Wynonie Harris takes first prize in that contest, but rather Cuz was someone who gave you a deeper insight into who he was, what made him tick and what tickled his fancy, more than anybody else dared.

He was refreshingly three dimensional, letting you see his mind at work as he sang in a warm conversational tone, a master storyteller not just because of the stories themselves, but in the way he conveyed them, shifting his tone of voice, peppering them with witty asides, almost acting out the parts on mic like the best radio comedians of the day.

Those skills haven’t deserted him on Chicken A La Blues certainly, and that makes hearing this – pardon the expression – “undercooked” song still worth ordering up, as Joe makes sure to sell it the best he can with subpar ingredients in the pot.

He’s using a somewhat indignant tone of voice which fits the material pretty well and perhaps knowing the punchlines are weaker than usual he bears down hard on them, almost convincing you to laugh before you realize there’s not much there to laugh at. You appreciate his commitment to the song but for most of this he’s left standing out there all alone, as even the musicians are hesitant to step in to rescue him by providing more energetic backing.

In fact, going by the sound of the instrumental lineup behind him you’ll probably go along with the 1947 recording date, because there’s no urgent saxophones to break things up in the solo, just a jazzy piano that’s far too dainty to match the subject, and when a horn does come in it too is pretty flighty in conception, failing to showcase what now should be a more enthusiastic mindset to reflect Joe’s own excitement over his improved dining habits.

In the end you get the feeling that they all weren’t too excited about playing a song about food and were looking forward to going out after the session to indulge in the topic with knives and forks rather than horns and pianos.
 

No More Hot Dogs
But no matter how ridiculous the topic Cousin Joe’s formidable vocal charms were readily apparent on everything he sang and this is no different, making you feel nourished in spite of its skimpy portions. In the end it’s his personality as much as anything which makes even this rather nonsensical dish appetizing enough to get down.

But although Chicken A La Blues might keep your belly full it was now pretty obvious that he wasn’t going to be serving up any five course meals on record in his career, his chance for musical or culinary stardom had most likely passed.

That doesn’t mean his records should be taken off the menu by any means, but as he enters his final flurry of releases over the next few years before leaving the studio to others, he’s now shaping up to be something of an acquired taste for rock fans.

You might meet occasionally get an unexpected treat when you gave him a try, but he seemed to have exhausted most of his best ideas already and so your best bet with Cousin Joe from now on would be to pull up a chair at the New Orleans clubs he was increasingly making his home, order a round of drinks and let the chef serve up whatever crossed his mind on the bandstand.

In that setting you’d at least be guaranteed never to go home hungry.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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