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IMPERIAL 5003; OCTOBER, 1947

 
 

 

Rolling dice in the alley over a few crumpled bills while a bottle is being passed back and forth is an alluring, if not altogether accurate, depiction of the type of settings that rock ‘n’ roll thrived in during the early days. At the time there were few nightclubs catering to this music or the audience supporting it, nor even many jukebox slots open for these records – at least until a handful of them started to make some commercial noise a few months down the road. As for radio play?… Think again.

For a teenager like Dick Lewis who got a chance to cut a session when Imperial Records decided to pursue this vein of music it was a good bet that he’d wind up rolling snake eyes and walk away from that game with nothing to show for it. He wasn’t experienced enough to have made a name for himself yet and even if he had quality material the record label just wasn’t strong enough to push his releases onto the charts.

But that doesn’t mean the time in the alley is wasted, for when you’re essentially playing with someone else’s money each roll of the dice brings with it anticipation, excitement and the possibility that you might hit it big and when you’re a kid starting out that’s where your story almost always begins, with dreams.
 

 

A Losing Bet
Because of the lack of artists they had in this field – not just the emerging rock ‘n’ roll scene which was still barely out of the womb, but also the larger black music scene that was already well-established – Imperial Records was placing an undue amount of pressure on these fairly crude instrumentals Lewis came up with to carve out a spot in the scene.

Signed in his mid-teens Lewis had cut an extended session in early summer and with just the delightfully named Poison Gardner as the only other artist currently in the Imperial 5000 series aimed at black consumers the company was issuing these in a mad rush hoping to establish a presence with distributors and jukebox operators. Needless to say that was a foolhardy move.

First of all with just two artists it would obviously help to conserve your resources, put one single of each artist out and promote them nationally in the hopes that one of them would break somewhere. That “somewhere” should be Los Angeles since that’s Imperial’s home base and I’m assuming they’d built up a little goodwill in the region that might help them get a record on a few jukeboxes around town.

But how far does that goodwill go if you’re releasing multiple singles of each artist, either one on top of the other, or even all at the same time (which may in fact be the case, although we’re separating them by a few weeks out of common courtesy so Lew Chudd, the company’s owner, doesn’t look like TOO big a buffoon). In other words, with only twenty spots available on a jukebox what are the chances that somebody is going to set aside four or five of them for multiple singles by two artists with no track record? Furthermore, even if a handful of places DID grant you one slot on their machines there was going to be the risk that each location might choose a different record of Lewis’s, thereby diluting the coverage any one of them would get.

All of this stuff should be pretty self-evident but Imperial was not the only company falling prey to such self-defeating practices and so we can hardly act surprised when none of these singles connected with the general public because of their ineptitude.

Then again, had the general public gotten the opportunity to hear Snake Eye Blues it probably wouldn’t have made any difference if they were on every jukebox in town, the end results almost certainly would not have been any different.
 

Aww… Craps
It probably should go without saying that the problem with recording original instrumentals as your entire output, particularly on the piano, is there’s not much you can do to set them apart from one another, especially if you’re aiming to focus more on generating excitement than exploring melodic innovations.

You have the basic boogie woogie as your go-to exercise and those can be quite invigorating and even commercially successful, but usually on a smaller scale than what we’ll soon see out of tenor sax instrumentals. The reason is the piano simply has fewer options within the course of a single song to shake things up. Whereas a sax can honk away in a frenzy one moment before easing back into a more controlled melody the next without it coming off as schizophrenic, a piano has fewer sonic possibilities to draw upon due to the mechanics of the instrument itself. Keys, strings hammers… that’s what you’re working with and though you can either lighten up your playing or pound away maniacally there isn’t much middle ground, nor are there ways to bend notes and add textures by your approach.

So it stands to reason that the best bet for a kid just starting out would be to focus on the attention grabbing boogies, which is what he did by in large, such as on his debut Hurricane Boogie released back in August. But we’re now on his third single in three months, which means six songs counting both A & B sides, and so it’d get a little redundant to have six similarly storming boogies all trying to grab your ear. Not even the premiere boogie woogie pianists of the past decade, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, had consistent commercial success with that formula and so we should at least be grateful that with Dick Lewis they’re trying to show his versatility with Snake Eye Blues.

In theory that may work well, even giving jukebox operators a different option to choose from if Imperial did in fact put these out all at once, but in practice it doesn’t matter how much variety he shows if the songs themselves can’t stand on their own.
 

Rollin’ Bones
Lewis’s piano starts this off with a little bit of energy before easing back and quickly handing the reins over to the sax to establish the mood. Again, this works in theory but not in practice because of how it’s played.

For starters it’s an alto, not a tenor, which is the first problem, as it’ll be the more robust tenor that will make the most noise, literally as well as figuratively, in rock’s imminent future. But regardless of which horn we’re talking about the flaw here is less about the instrument itself than the underwhelming way in which it’s being used.

Though we can grant them a little bit of leeway for their choices with how to frame the sax’s role here because when they cut Snake Eye Blues there wasn’t yet any evidence as to how it would quickly be used to define the rock idiom by ramping up the excitement, we can’t be quite as lenient on how it comes across when listening simply because as musicians you still have your own instincts and musical judgement to rely on when making your creative decisions, commercial considerations be damned, and this rather tepid playing isn’t likely to stir anybody’s passions.

The initial transition from piano to sax is actually fairly nice… for about ten or twelve seconds that is. That’s when the shift in the sound itself makes the greatest impression and has you curious to hear where they might take this. But as it goes on it becomes painfully obvious they aren’t taking it anywhere, they’re just sort of letting the engine idle softly as they sit on the side of the road trying to read a road map… albeit for a different city than the one they currently find themselves in.

Maybe that’s the best analogy to make considering the age of Lewis who was quite possibly was just getting behind the wheel and learning to drive himself at this time. This certainly resembles that same uncertainty and tentativeness most kids have when they’re sitting alongside their driving instructor for the first time, trying to take in all of the information being offered while at the same time trying keeping your own nerves in check. When you finally turn the key and pull away from the curb it conceivably might be a comfort that you have somebody more experienced sitting beside you to make sure you do what you’re supposed to, but you’re still the one in control of the vehicle and for many that’s an awfully lot of responsibility to handle and so, whether out of caution or fear (or fear of reprisal from the instructor if you’re considering flooring it and seeing what the car can do in the quarter mile!), chances are you’re taking it easy.

That’s precisely what the musicians are doing here, taking it easy, as in barely getting it out of first gear. Symbolic of that is how the sax gets progressively weaker as it goes, not giving it nearly enough gas to keep moving almost to the point that it stalls when it tries dropping down for the most ineffectual honk you’re likely to hear on a rock record over the next few decades.

Surely you must be thinking that if this track is any indication of what’s in store for the genre as a whole when they focus on the sax you’re going to hope they shelve the saxophones altogether and let someone else give it a shot so rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t wind up in the scrapyard before it even gets a couple hundred miles on its odometer.
 

Busted
If that someone else is Dick Lewis on piano however then maybe you’d be better off asking the guy unobtrusively playing the stand-up bass over in the corner if HE’D like to take the wheel next because Lewis’s contributions here are no less rewarding than whoever was playing the alto sax.

We can keep reiterating that in theory their initial ideas held some promise in this regard, as Lewis tries to avoid falling into the same pattern of playing a strong boogie bass riff while pounding away on the treble keys, but as redundant as that’d be at least it has something going for it in the way of energy. Instead Lewis tries to make the keyboard sound quirky and that’s not a word you really like to encounter in rock songs which tells you right away that this gamble isn’t going to pay off.

Like the sax in the section before him Lewis is far too docile when it comes to how he’s laying down his part, almost completely abandoning his left hand so he can show off the right hand flourishes he’s got in mind which center around very unusual glissandos that are designed almost to appear like they’re stopping short. It’s the aural equivalent of pulling off a band-aid and wincing before it’s off completely so instead of yanking it the rest of the way and losing some hair on your arm you try and coax it off by the end.

But that doesn’t work in band-aids or in music and so the central gimmick on Snake Eye Blues falls woefully short.

Who knows, maybe he was trying to replicate how dice come skittering across a felt craps table and then come to a stop, but that assumes he ever rolled dice on a felt craps table to know the impression it’d make AND that he – not the record company – was the one who came up with the song’s title. Neither of those is likely the case. Even if it were the chances that the listener would immediately connect the title to the manner of playing was as far-fetched as it seems on the surface.

Luckily he doesn’t keep at it, shifting back to a more standard approach on the keys after those showy moves, but while his left gets a little more presence neither hand is doing much to keep your attention.

The guitar that follows at least manages to sound somewhat nice as it offers some decent single string runs in a mellow tone, but it too is hardly assertive enough to make much difference. The melody is sparse and forgettable, almost vapid in a way, and there’s no dynamics in the arrangement since they’re not playing together, but instead hand off to one another in much the same way you’d pass the serving dishes around the table at Thanksgiving dinner.

At least then you’d be full by the end of the meal, here, no matter what kind of desert they’d be serving up, you’ll still walk away feeling mostly empty. Let’s just hope when we get out onto the street there’s some of our buddies rolling craps up against the curb in the alley so we might have some fun before we wind up broke.
 

Another Roll Of The Dice
Though we can’t say anything really positive about the results of the record itself, nor about the company’s inexplicable decision to put all of their money on a few quick rolls of the dice with all of these singles by the same artist coming out in rapid succession, but for a teenager Dick Lewis at least isn’t content to churn out slight variations on the exact same approach side after side. In fact the flip of this Basin Street Boogie finds him going back to the old west saloons of the 1880’s in some of his piano stylings and I KNOW they knew a thing or two about rolling craps back in that environment!

None of this, no matter how inventive or unusual it may have been, was going to wind up with him rolling a natural and walking out with a fistful of cash for his troubles. Hell, even if he did score a hit he wouldn’t walk away with a fistful of cash in the wild west of the independent record business of the late 1940’s! But if nothing else Lewis got some valuable experience in a recording studio and had some records to show off to his buddies or maybe to use in an effort to convince a girl to go out on a date with a gen-u-ine recording “star”.

If all else failed he might even be able to pawn them off for a little bit of money to keep him in the game that sprang up on the street. When you’re fifteen that’s about all you can realistically ask for I suppose.

And since Dick Lewis at least managed to avoid predictability with much of this record (though being predictable might’ve helped it some) we’ll follow suit and won’t go with the oh-so predictable score and match the song’s title by giving it a (2). But as anyone who’s ever rolled bones knows, on your come-out roll a three means the same exact thing – you lose.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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