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IMPERIAL 5002; SEPTEMBER, 1947

 
 

 
With only a few more records to go before we get to the 1950’s we’re going to take some time to add in a few 1940’s songs we either overlooked or intentionally avoided for various reasons when first covering this ground. It won’t take long and hopefully will paint a more vivid picture of the first era of rock as we head into the second era in the next week or two.
 

 

The average age of the biggest stars in popular music in 1947 was thirty-five years old.

The youngest among the Top Twenty-Five on the annual charts for the year was Peggy Lee who was already 27, while on the other end of the spectrum Ted Weems, Guy Lombardo, Ray Noble, Freddy Martin and Bing Crosby were all past forty.

Experience ruled the day.

Needless to say rock ‘n’ roll changed that trend almost immediately.
 

 

As The Crow Flies
There are so many things that were significantly altered by rock’s arrival on the scene it’s sometimes hard to choose just where to begin.

Among the most notable to pick through include the rise of the independent record label which eventually upended the industry’s hierarchy… There was the prevalence of self-penned songs as opposed to getting material from professional songwriters which made artists’s records more personal in nature… And there was even the off-shoot of that which was the downfall of concurrent cover versions which had long been standard operating procedures for all artists and all labels…

Those are indeed excellent choices to make when chronicling rock’s impact all of which had far-reaching consequences for the evolution of music as a whole. But they’re not the most impactful changes brought about by rock by a long shot.

For that we have to look at the demographics of the audience for these records as well as the artists making the records to begin with.

Though it’d be months before a rock act made the charts, and only the Race Charts at that, the music was poised to become the voice of young black America, a segment of the population that had rarely (if ever) had their cultural tastes matter in the big picture.

There was nothing altruistic about this however. Independent record companies simply needed to find an untapped market to peddle their product to and since the major labels had ignored that constituency for so long it was ripe for the picking.

Of the older more established black styles, jazz had long since had mainstream appeal and thus the major labels hoarded the best talent there. Down-home blues had strong appeal in black communities but traditionally artists – and audiences – were drawn from specific regional bases (the Mississippi Delta or Texas down south and Chicago or Detroit up north) that were far removed from many companies based in New York or Los Angeles. Cocktail blues recent commercial success on the West Coast had created lots of competition for a small array of artists while gospel had consistent sales built up over time but not the type of immediate dividend potential that a new company would need to stay afloat.

So in some ways rock’s rise was largely just a matter of opportunity. You had a host of desperate independent companies anxious to find a niche to exploit meeting up with a generation of young kids coming of age who weren’t beholden to past styles and who were eager to record and thus readily available to be signed for peanuts. Roy Brown, who just turned 22 as he released the first rock record, was the first of the younger cadre of artists who’d make rock ‘n’ roll their home and in short order the floodgates would open and a parade of kids who barely were out of school came rushing through.

Dick Lewis wasn’t even out of school yet as he finds himself cast into the role of being the first teenage prospect for a future that seems inevitable in retrospect but at the time seemed far from certain.
 


 

Old Crow, New Blood
Imperial Records had been founded in 1946 and as with many novice labels they had a “try anything approach” at first. Though focusing initially on a country line they would make their first significant inroads by recording Spanish language versions of hits – their first star in any sense of the word was Lalo Guerrero – which also explains the company’s name which came from the Imperial Valley in California, home to many Mexican immigrants which was the target audience for those sides. But they quickly realized that even were they to maximize the commercial potential of those fields it likely wouldn’t have been enough to remain competitive and so they began to look elsewhere and started their 5000 series for what was still crudely termed “race music” in the summer of 1947.

Dick Lewis had gotten the first release for that line in August, a very good instrumental called Hurricane Boogie when he was all of 16 years old.

Though he never became a star, Richard (not Dick, despite what his Imperial Records labels credit him as) was a constant presence on the Los Angeles rock scene for a decade, playing with Marvin Phillips, Jesse Belvin, Big Jay McNeely and other luminaries, as well as getting a few releases under his own name or as leader of The Barons. But even with numerous mentions over the years in interviews by many of those he played with who went on to greater success than he did, and in spite of his own diverse output on his own and behind others, Lewis remains one of the figures in early rock ‘n’ roll who’s fallen through the cracks.

Part of this is because his role was largely supportive by nature. When playing piano behind other artists he obviously wasn’t the lead instrument and so he never got the accolades afforded the stars and he recorded few vocals which kept him from establishing more of an identity when he did get his own releases. Actually he seems to have been far more prolific as a live accompanist around L.A. as so many vocal acts needed competent pick-up bands, but of course there’s little documentation of his services in this regard and no recorded work for those shows he played.

Still he’s not completely obscure and we’ll be running into him from time to time here on Spontaneous Lunacy, at least enough to make this early appearance noteworthy, but let’s face it, when you’re 16 and the style of music you’re making will soon be dominated by the young it at least gives him one reason for standing out.
 

Drink It Up
It’s kind of ironic that the first teenager to appear in rock circles is doing so with a song called Old Crow Boogie. Of course 16 years old for a crow is pretty old since their lifespan is about half that, so maybe Lewis was onto something here.

But I doubt that’s the case and because it’s an instrumental and because “old crow” has numerous meanings that might be applicable – from mocking someone who was actually ancient… you know, 22 or 23 years old… who were being driven mad by this newfangled music, or more likely referring to the brand of whiskey that 16 year olds have been known to smuggle from their parent’s liquor cabinet to drink with their buddies – it was just seen as a good fill-in-the-blank term that meant nothing and meant everything depending on your own personal views.

What matters though isn’t what it was called but what it sounded like, and while crude and hardly innovative its sheer energy and the cockiness that kind of playing implies made Old Crow Boogie a perfect fit for the burgeoning sounds of rock ‘n’ roll.

Lewis hits the ground running, tearing off an impressive boogie run showing a solid left hand and a dexterous right on the extended intro which is actually slightly more creative than a lot of generic boogies, mixing up the patterns in a way that keeps you interested until reinforcements arrive.

Those reinforcements come by means of the saxophone, normally a welcome sight… and to some degree it’s still is as you need a respite from the keyboards for awhile just to shake things up sonically. The problem though is it’s not a tenor sax with its deeper tones and weightier presence that is capable of adding all sorts of different textures, from the crudity of its lower range honks to the euphoria of the high pitched squeals. Instead we’re greeted by an alto sax and though it thankfully doesn’t lose itself in any flights of fancy as that instrument sometimes had a tendency to do there’s not nearly as much punch to its solo as there needs to be for the purposes of THIS song.
 

Unable To Fly
The sax is sticking mostly to lower, warmer tones which gives it a little more heft but there’s just a limit to what it can deliver. It can’t get low enough to really add to the rhythm bed but it’s intentionally avoiding the highest register which would’ve at least added some unexpected drama to the proceedings. We get no roller coaster ups and downs as the best and most flamboyant sax solos give us, but we also don’t get the best single sound – rough and sweaty – that a tenor would be able to deliver. Other than giving our ears a new sound to digest after the prolonged workout on the keys it comes off as a missed opportunity.

When Lewis – who’d been adding just enough fills behind the horn to keep him on your mind – returns for the next section he’s more than up for the task, giving us another colorful solo that shifts its pace nicely and shows this kid was not just a skilled pianist but a confident one as well. He’s not merely sticking to the usual boogie riffs and counting on his energy to mask a conservative approach, but rather he’s liberally throwing down some clever ideas and has a much firmer grasp on dynamics than a lot of far more experienced musicians.

But let’s face it, there’s not much more he can do than what he shows here. There are only eighty-eight keys at his disposal and while he may use most of them to good effect there’s not much variety in their aural possibilities and so once again he needs to turn to the saxophone for a second solo.

If we were modestly respectful in our initial assessment of the instrument its first time around out of a sense of politeness or at least an understanding of the limitations of the alto sax’s capabilities in this type of a song, we’re not going to be nearly as sympathetic this time around.

For starters what the horn is delivering now needs to be a lot more forceful because the arrangement of Old Crow Boogie demands it. Fast-paced songs get more frantic and explosive as they go along, that’s the whole point after all, to get you out of your seat and let go of your inhibitions, so while a mid-song solo could reasonably pass muster by merely acting as a bridge from one half to the next, once the stakes are raised and it gets a second chance it has no choice but to pick up the intensity to match what Lewis has already given us.

Sadly it is over-matched from the first notes. Oh it definitely tries to ratchet up the furor of its playing as it goes along but only comes off as sounding wheezy – almost asthmatic – in its attempts to convey the kind of manic excitement the song calls for.

Its presence doesn’t completely offset the better aspects of the record, but whereas a strong horn solo to close things out would’ve lifted this considerably we’re left instead with a feeling of being unfulfilled, of going out for a wild night on the town only to find out all of the hottest joints are closing down early to get a jump on their bookkeeping.
 

Imperialism
We can’t be too critical of Imperial Records for failing to grasp the sounds of tomorrow before they were even out in public – as this was cut in early summer – and pushing to define a style that had yet to make an impact, but in Dick Lewis they had a kid who was ideally suited to understand the changes taking place better than most since he was rock ‘s own target audience – young, black, restless and musically inquisitive – and rather than take full advantage of this Imperial moved on after his initial session rather than let him expand on what he’d shown as the sound of rock as a whole continued to evolve.

Maybe the felt that songs like Old Crow Boogie were more or less interchangeable with not just his other piano instrumentals but also with any number of other artists they could sign to lay down similar noisemakers should these find an audience, but what Lew Chudd failed to realize was that as with any new style the fans who are turned onto it first are going to want to claim the artists who roused their interest in it as their own.

In Lewis they had someone perfectly situated to be that vital link to the generation who would soon transform the recording industry and instead they wasted much of the next two years apparently looking for old crows to appeal to a generation that was on the verge of extinction.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Dick Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)