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SENSATION 24; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

When you’re a kid there’s a lot of officially sanctioned competition you’re asked to endure for the amusement of adults, from schoolwork that hands out grades to assess your abilities and determine your class ranking to the ever popular public humiliation of spelling bees, science fairs and all sorts of youth sports where deranged parents yell obscenities at officials when a call goes against their kid… before those same adults hand out Good Sportsmanship Awards at the end of the tournament without a hint of irony.

One of the more interesting things along these lines are School Field Days usually held at the end of each school year through about sixth grade in which classes compete in races and games where they give cheap colored ribbons to reward every snot nosed kid who made it through the 50 Yard Dash without needing to stop to ask for directions to the finish line.

After about second grade kids don’t really take these things seriously. They’re happy about not having to sit inside a stuffy classroom for one day in late May but otherwise it’s not really achieving anything worthwhile because kids already know who the best athletes in their school are and don’t really need, or want, a fistful of blue ribbons to prove it. But since adults in charge of these Field Days think these things truly do matter to kids they want to make sure nobody feels singled out for being completely inept at hopping around in a sack they don’t just hand out the blue, red and yellow ribbons signifying first, second and third place, they ALSO give everybody who competed a light blue ribbon saying “Honorable Mention”.

This is intended to be a nice gesture except for two very important factors they tend to overlook: 1) losing badly isn’t considered honorable in any way by those competing and 2) the kids who receive these are already humiliated enough by finishing behind the cross-eyed girl with a club foot in the long jump and so they sure as hell don’t want it mentioned again by being handed a worthless prize for that ignominious achievement.

So what does all of this have to do with music? Is this just an excuse to haul out my drawer full of blue ribbons and offer one last hearty ”Nah-nah-nah-nah-nahhhh-yaaa” to those who lost for old time’s sake?

Thankfully no, I’ll spare you that sorry sight. But I’m afraid that I’m doing something bound to be just as embarrassing by falling into the trap set by those well-meaning teachers from our childhoods because as much as it goes against every instinct I have borne out of years of Field Day eye-rolling at the teachers handing out those Honorable Mention ribbons to the kids who tripped in the relay race because they can’t even tie their own shoelaces, I’m about to essentially do the same thing here and give credit to someone who merely made it to the starting line.
 

 

Not Whether You Won Or Lost
What’s an Honorable Mention supposed to imply anyway? These aren’t runner up citations for those who just finished outside of the winner’s circle, someone beaten by a tenth of a second after a ultra-competitive race. Instead Honorable Mentions serve as nothing more than official recognition that you took part in the event itself… essentially a ribbon handed out for just showing up. An attendance award in other words. A official thank you for getting out of bed in the morning, putting your shoes on the correct feet and trudging to the bus stop to make an appearance at the event.

So you can see why they’re scoffed at by the very people who are being given these things.

But in music there’s a higher bar being set for just being among the few who get to compete on a national stage, one that DOES infer some skill has already been exhibited by the artist to get the invitation to take part in this shindig in the first place. A recording contract is an achievement unto itself when compared to the long list of people who suffered through years of music lessons and still can’t play more than a two-fingered version of Jingle Bells on the family piano or make it through Moonlight Sonata without screwing up.

Once you DO make it into the ranks of a professional however, you’ll suddenly find the bar you were so proud of clearing to get into the studio has been raised considerably and now your success or failure will be based almost entirely on the outcome of the records you make.

This is all the more fraught with peril for you because oftentimes it’s not even the quality of those records that will determine your fate, but rather the commercial reception to your work. Whether the record itself is really good or atrociously bad, a hit record is what gets you the blue ribbon you’re seeking.

Needless to say Doc Wiley did not get any blue ribbons. Or red or yellow for that matter. All he got were those pale blue ribbons signifying Honorable Mention – a worthless piece of glossy fabric to stick in a scrapbook to show his grand-kids that he indeed competed for a brief time.

But unlike three-legged races at Field Day where the play by play account of your mad dash for the finish line are lost to the memories of third graders whose minds were rotted away by excess sugar consumption, with Wiley we actually get to go back and view the race in all of its glory and either exonerate him for not finishing in the money or to add to his disgrace by laughing at him as he blames the sudden onset of a charley horse after the gun sounded for his disappointing seventh place finish.
 


 

Write Against Your Name
I suppose it should at least be mentioned that Doc Wiley really wasn’t a rock artist, at least not a full-time rocker. But then again he also wasn’t a full-time blues, jazz or pop singer and as far as we know he wasn’t a member of a barbershop quartet or a banjo player for a folk group either.

In other words he was just a musician, a reasonably talented pianist and vocalist who was conversant in most of the popular styles of the mid-Twentieth Century American musical vernacular. Call him a poor man’s Cousin Joe if you want, though since even Joe was hardly a “name artist” that might not be saying much… then again, Cousin Joe at least had the name recognition to publish an autobiography late in life, whereas this review might be all ol’ Doc Wiley can hope for to recount his days in the music biz, so with that in mind we’ll try and do his career justice.

Truthfully a major reason why he’s being written about here is because Wiley is one of the more fascinating figures we’ll come across – not just for the startling breadth of his musical forays over the years but also for the sheer scope of his other endeavors in a life that began at the tail end of the 1800’s – 1898 to be exact – making him to date the oldest artist we’ve encountered thus far who could be said to have contributed something, however minimal, to rock ‘n’ roll.

Arnold “Doc” Wiley’s life was about as colorful as they come – running away from home to join a Chinese circus as an acrobat when he was a kid, to performing vaudeville with his wife and later his sister in the 1920’s while playing everything from ragtime to straight blues to boogie woogie, he truly did it all. His life’s ups and downs could double as a book on the American experience as a whole during this time – arrested for violating prohibition in 1930, acting on stage and in a movie a few years later and becoming a card-carrying Communist along the way.

Though Wiley primarily made his living by playing on the road – making the comparison to Cousin Joe an apt one for that reason too – Doc was cutting records as early as 1925, backing a Washtub Band as well as performing his own songs for such labels as Paramount, Brunswick and Columbia. When the Depression hit the opportunities for black artists to record were severely curtailed and he went years without another record.

After World War Two however the market opened up and he found himself drafted into the ranks of Sensation Records out of Detroit who seemed to specialize in older pianists who’d had some success years before in another style who then were able to adapt to newer sounds. But whereas Todd Rhodes, their primary artist in this capacity, wound up with hits for his efforts, Wiley wasn’t so fortunate, though perhaps that can be chalked up to the relative youth of Rhodes, who at 49 years old at this time was a mere child compared to the 51 year old Wiley.

As might be expected for someone like this his output ran the gamut of styles that had achieved some popularity recently – the flip side to this being far more bluesy for instance – but it was on Wild Cat Boogie where he introduced himself to rock ‘n’ roll.
 


 
 

How You Played The Game
The song is just a basic boogie that with slight modifications might’ve been equally at home in a half dozen other styles over the past two decades. The fact it was recorded in December 1947 and only got released two years later attests to its simple but timeless nature allowing it to fit comfortably in rock whereas his other sides cut at the same time headed in different directions that would make them decidedly incompatible with rock’s most basic precepts.

It’s an instrumental so we don’t get to hear Wiley’s tenor voice cut loose, but his piano is front and center and receives plenty of support from a nice melodic alto sax and a fleet-fingered guitarist who each get soloing spots and contribute greatly to the overall atmosphere.

Wiley’s piano and the saxophone are in lockstep to open Wild Cat Boogie getting things off to a rambunctious start before they take divergent melodic paths – Wiley playing the consistent boogie rhythm while the sax plays a staggered lead, speeding up, slowing down and dropping out before jumping back in time and again. The effect is really quite good, the two instruments complimenting each other rather than clashing in spite of – or maybe because of – their different approaches.

Because the sax is given room to breathe while Doc never lets up on the song’s essential drive the arrangement, though sparse in terms of components, seems remarkably full. The alto blows with the grit of a tenor at times and Wiley lets his left hand play “heavy” giving it a presence that gets broken up when the guitarist comes in featuring a spidery tone, crawling along the perimeter of the record with a deft touch and subtle flair (dig the “Jingle Bells” lift thrown in briefly).

Towards the end of the guitarist’s solo he adds some more power to his playing before Wiley takes over on the lead, the others now sliding back into discreet supporting roles. It stalls in momentum slightly towards the end, almost as if they were either unsure of how to end it with a bigger bang or maybe being overly cautious because the take was going flawlessly and they didn’t want to mess it up now. The closing notes give it a bit more of a rousing finish and it’s not hard to imagine Doc having a sly satisfied smile on his face as they wrapped things up for the day.
 


 

One Great Scorer
Now we hardly need to tell you that a fairly generic piano/sax/guitar boogie, even one as well played and smartly conceived as this one, wasn’t going to change Wiley’s fortunes at THIS stage of his career. Artists in their early fifties (though, to be fair, he was “only” 49 when this was cut) were not going to be at the forefront of a musical revolution that was building an audience of ever-younger followers.

But things might not have been different had it gotten a release shortly after it was recorded when things hadn’t quite settled in the rock field. Granted, back then Sensation Records didn’t even have national distribution and so it’d be hard for it to storm the charts outside of a few Midwestern cities, but they had an arrangement with Vitacoustic at the time that might’ve helped to spread the word on Wiley (his name appeared in an ad they ran in January of ’48, but this record obviously wasn’t what they were pushing) and a short time later they’d switch their distribution to King Records which is what propelled Todd Rhodes to fame… and which led to their downfall ironically when King tried to abscond with Rhodes for themselves.

King did in fact re-issue the first Doc Wiley record, but that was a bit too old fashioned to make any headway in the evolving market and by the time Sensation issued Wild Cat Boogie as 1949 turned the page to 1950 Wiley had moved on and music as a whole seemed to have moved on without him yet again.

But what this shows is that talented artists, regardless of their origins or their vintage, have a way of making time stand still if they play with a genuine commitment to delivering what’s called for, whatever the style in question. Doc Wiley wasn’t a natural fit in rock obviously but for a brief time he squeezed in the uniform all the same and looked pretty good all decked out in their colors.

In the end however the only “color” that effort gets him is the dreaded light blue Honorable Mention ribbon for making this one appearance on rock’s stage, a sign that he took part in something that would far outlast him.

But think about this… for a fleeting moment it was actually possible for a man born in the 1800’s… someone who’d traveled the country in Chinese circuses and Vaudeville acts, relics of a distant forgotten past and who’d made records long before the Stock Market Crash sent the world into an economic tailspin… to release a legitimately good rock ‘n’ roll record.

That in of itself deserves a more than just an honorable mention on these pages, but since that’s all we’re able to give him we’ll close by saying it was an honor for us to be able to mention him in this comprehensive account of rock artists big and small.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Doc Wiley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)