Tags

No tags :(

Share it

Decca 48045; September, 1947

 


For too long the earliest days of rock have been treated with about as much interest and respect as Himalayan folk chants.  Not only have most systematically excluded the late 1940’s entirely from their overviews, they’ve usually done away with much of the pre-crossover (up to 1954) days of rock as well, choosing instead to focus on the music only after white America became aware of its existence, thereby distorting the very history they’re attempting to chronicle.

As a result the people and the records that gave rise to the most revolutionary music we’ve come to know remain mostly obscure.

So you’re forgiven if when looking at the names of this entry you scratch your head wondering who (or what) they are.  There may even be some who at a quick glance think Boxcar Shorty and Peter Blue are the artists and Cousin Joe and Sam Price is the song title.  If so, well… chalk it up to a failed musical education system then settle in to learn about two figures that likely won’t ever get much recognition for their work but are two of the most interesting characters from rock’s early days.

 

From The Pacific To The Mediterranean Sea
The unlikely monickered Cousin Joe was born with the equally unlikely given name of Pleasant Joseph where as a boy he danced in the streets of New Orleans with future rock drumming legend Earl Palmer for spare change.  He learned the ukulele, then guitar and eventually switched to piano as his instrument of choice and set out to earn a living as a musician, traveling to New York where he was given his nickname by the owner of the Spotlight Club who greeted him with an off-handed “Hey Cuz” and somehow it stuck (probably because saying “Hey, Pleasant” is just awkward and a little bit creepy).  He was good friends with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday among many other luminaries and eventually traveled the world many times over playing music and while he never became really famous he lived a helluva an interesting life to say the least.

Though Joe was considered by one and all to be an excellent musician, particularly a charismatic vocalist and witty songwriter, his recording career was somewhat sporadic.  He never enjoyed a long term contract with any record label, in fact he went from the mid-50’s to early 1970’s without so much as cutting a single side, and he seemed content to play clubs, tour extensively and entertain the crowds wherever he was.  If there was one constant throughout his life it was that Cousin Joe seemed to be most at home on stage and in the spotlight, not in the studio.

On the other hand Sam Price, or Sammy as he’s more often referred to if you’re looking him up, was a pianist of renown who ended up making the studio his second home as a longtime sessionist, playing on sides behind a wide array of names including Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Joe Turner, among many others we’ll be meeting shortly.  Though most prolific in the background, thus accounting for his anonymity, Price wound up cutting some scorching rock sides as the credited artist with his group, the brilliantly named Texas Bluesicians, that predictably sold little but astounded those who heard them (don’t worry, we’ll be reviewing those when they come along too).

What both Price and Cousin Joe had in common was their versatility – jazz, blues or rock it seemed not to matter to them much at all.  The two first hooked up on the King Jazz label started by the great clarinetist (and marijuana trafficer of note) Mezz Mezzrow to capture the roots of both the jazz and blues idioms while they were still being played authentically before they were at risk of fading into the passages of time.  Price anchored the studio band and it was under those auspices in 1945 that Cousin Joe laid down his first recorded sides at the ripe age of 38.  The band on those sessions included not just Mezzrow and Price, but Sidney Bechet and Hot Lips Page, a veritable All-Star team of major talents from across the musical spectrum.

Over the next two years Joe was at his most active on record cutting sides for a variety of labels in multiple styles, often with legendary saxophonist Earl Bostic accompanying him, before reuniting with Price in mid-1947 for a session on Decca that helped introduce the next style of music to the world, the one we’re interested in and are documenting here called rock ‘n’ roll.  From the moment the needle drops on this record these two musical stalwarts were in lockstep for a storming performance that foretold of rock’s future in more ways than one.
 


You’ll Have To Meet Them In Another World
Price’s barrelhouse piano comes rolling across the horizon like an onrushing storm, the kind of vibrant opening that rock would embrace as much as any attribute in its long history.  Capture the listener’s attention right away, drop them squarely in a deep groove and keep it up as the vocalist jumps in and pushes the pace, rides the rhythm and sets the scene.  If ever there was a simple blueprint for rock’s success that description would more than suffice.

Once they’re off and running the two play off each other brilliantly as Price seems to have an almost telepathic way of communicating with Joe, playing fills that subtly shifts the mood, yet never letting up on the pace.  Cousin Joe’s voice when it comes in is a wonderfully vibrant instrument that is defined by its contradictions.  His natural metallic tone is measured by a radiant warmth in his delivery, making you feel as though you’re his friend the second you hear him. His strident phrasing somehow carries with it incredible nuance and character.  Above all else you always get the sense of Joe’s intelligence and wit as he never seems to simply be reciting lines as much as he’s an active participant in the song itself.

It’s not long before you start to recognize some of the fabric they’re weaving with as Cousin Joe’s lyrics recount a longstanding grudge between two shady characters (the title subjects), but which, if you’re familiar with rock down the road a bit, you’ll instantly recognize as the spiritual kin… actually “the aliases” is more like it… of the notorious gambler turned murderer Stagger Lee Shelton and the doomed back alley craps cheat Billy Lyons.

That’s right, it’s essentially the same song.  A song which had been floating around from mouth to mouth in every barroom and back alley like a communicable disease for going-on half a century by this point already.  The legendary tale took on many guises over the years and was mined by countless singers before and since but it always seemed particularly suited for the artists from New Orleans and it was they who would in short order turn the infamous underground legend into a worldwide myth of nearly epic proportions.

Cousin Joe wasn’t the first to place them on this stage, not by a long shot, but he was vital in giving the song much of the characteristics that they’d soon get famous for.  This version dispenses with some of the set-up that later incarnations included, instead choosing to come in at full throttle, dropping you into the midst of the conflict that’s already begun and insisting you hang on for the ride.


 

If You Want To Go On Living…
Right from the start words are exchanged with fury, Joe’s expressive voice conveying both the chilling violence in Shorty’s threats and the desperate pleas of the hapless Peter Blue merely by shifting his tone slightly.  An ominous mood billows out of the speakers along with the music as this seems not so much to recount the bloodshed in the past tense as make you, the listener, a first-hand witness to it as the carnage unfolds.

It’s a record that’s downright cinematic in its presentation with Joe delivering a performance worthy of Bogart or Cagney. There’s a sudden stop-time section that is chillingly effective in recounting the brutal execution itself, even as it tosses in a few chuckle-worthy details with Joe’s sneering delivery on this part being particularly sinister. The whole thing hurtles along at breakneck pace leading up to the characters eventual icy fates which Joe presents with a cynical moral to the story thrown into the bargain while he’s at it, which of course won’t do either the victim or the perpetrator much good.

If this is your first time encountering Pleasant Joseph suffice it to say you’ll rarely find a more effective vocalist than he, someone whose natural instrument may be a bit rough around the edges but who compensates by having mastered every texture his voice possesses. He brings an immediacy to his reading of the song, inhabiting not just the characters whose actions he’s recounting but also conveying their mindsets and attitudes with mere inflection alone, in the process creating a tension that’s riveting.

Of all the versions of the basic Stagger Lee story that have been put on wax, and I’ve got dozens upon dozens of them spanning nearly a hundred years, this is one that I find myself coming back to repeatedly since I first came across it.  There’s something about this take on the familiar tale that simply sounds more authentic, a foreboding mood that even some of the more celebrated adaptions are lacking. It not only leaps out at you the first time you hear it, but then manages to grow on you the MORE you hear it.

By the end your nerves are wrung out completely but unless you were one of the unfortunate participants of the event itself this is a rollicking good time, provided no stray bullets ricocheted in your direction.  While hearing it now may have you wondering why something this invigorating wasn’t a hit at the time it does give plenty of insight as to why Cousin Joe had no problem getting gigs for the rest of his life.  Why stand in line for a movie when he delivers more vivid action right in your lap from the stage?

 

Now I’m Square With You
The line from this point forward isn’t hard to trace at all. Joe was friends with Leon Gross, a well known New Orleans singer and pianist who would soon cut records under the name of Archibald where his one and only national hit was… “Stack A Lee”, which brought the tune its widest public recognition in years.  Lloyd Price was a teenager in New Orleans when Archibald’s version hit the R&B Top Ten in 1950 and a few years after that Price was a star in his own right who’d hit the Pop Top Ten with the most enduring version of… you guessed it, “Stagger Lee”.

From then on the song belonged to the world.

But the circle had to start somewhere and the musical framework it was built on was shaped, in large part, right here by two names – Cousin Joe and Sammy Price – who sadly, but probably not surprisingly, would go on in future years to be far less well known than the fictitious characters they sung about.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 

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