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DECCA 48110; JULY, 1949

 
 

 

We’re breaking, or at least bending, a rule of the website here by including this record, but for good reason.

Besides, in rock ‘n’ roll rules are most definitely meant to be broken and so in that spirit we can comfortably stretch the inclusionary parameters just a bit to try and show something that’s worth noting.

One look at the title of the record might have some scratching their head as to why this isn’t an obvious selection when tracing the history of rock ‘n’ roll and is instead being included with this meandering long-winded disclaimer. But the disclaimer IS the story here, at least as much as the record is, and it’s with that in mind that we introduce an artist who is not now, nor would he ever be, a rock artist, in spite of what this record might otherwise suggest.
 

 
In the mid-1950’s when rock ‘n’ roll was already eight years old or so, it began to “cross over” to white audiences, which in turn meant major labels who were inclined to view it as a fad sought to capitalize on its popularity and the ensuing curiosity of their usual mainstream adult consumer who were hearing about this music without quite knowing what it was or what to make of it, by covering rock records with acceptable pop stars and promoting them by corrupting the term itself.

Hence we had the likes of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Georgia Gibbs, and a whole host of others advertised as performing “rock & roll”.

Nobody was fooled.

But while the backlash against it by authentic rockers and the dee-jays who played the real deal helped to bring about the end of a longstanding tradition in ALL forms of music when it came to cover versions, the trend did in fact signal something rather noteworthy… namely rock ‘n’ roll was being viewed as commercially potent by the major labels.

That it was also seen as undignified and somewhat contemptable by those same entities was all too predictable, but the mere fact they were disingenuously dabbling in it was a signal that rock’s power was growing ever larger.

But it wasn’t the first time such signs had been made by the major companies to indicate they were willing to lower their standards to latch onto the rock craze to pull in some sales as we’ve seen a few times already in 1949.
 

You Can Have My Money
To date the rosters of the major record companies – Decca, Columbia, Capitol and RCA-Victor – were alarmingly thin of anyone who might be called a rocker. Most of those who WERE situated in the rock field on those labels over the past two and a half years like Albennie Jones, Crown Prince Waterford and Cousin Joe, were those who’d already been signed to record in other – more acceptable – styles prior to that and so it wasn’t certain that the clueless labels were even fully aware that any of them had shifted to this more cutting edge style.

Once the commercial potential of rock had been seen however then the established labels did start to actively seek out a few names who might conceivably fit the bill without completely upsetting the apple cart of respectability these companies prided themselves on. So you had the likes of The Five Scamps, Chris Powell & The Blue Flames and Big John Greer being signed and asked to reasonably replicate the latest rock sounds as long as they didn’t get TOO carried away with it.

But here we have somebody who wasn’t surreptitiously crossing the border into rock without the label’s knowledge as the first group of names might’ve been, nor was he being recruited as a tentative exploratory artist in the field as the second batch of names were. No, this was something much more in line with what would take place down the road with the Como and McGuire Sisters… This was a cynical and exploitative cover record at heart.

It was also a pretty damn good one, as hard as that is to comprehend.
 

The Goal Of Life
So just who is Doles Dickens? Or Dole Dickens as his name frequently got shortened by record companies (inadvertently or intentionally, it probably matters not)? Well he was exactly the type of figure that was ideally suited for these types of major label shenanigans, a veteran musician (a bassist for a number of acts in jazz and jive over the previous decade) who had a good reputation without much to show for it commercially and thus would be more amenable to the idea.

He was first heard on record playing with Eddie South’s band in 1940 and then moved to Steve Gibson’s Five Red Caps, a noteworthy act that had some crucial pre-rock tracks in mid-decade, before he finally set out on his own in 1946, recording for some smaller independent labels who ironically were active in rock starting in 1947/48. But tellingly he didn’t dabble in it himself… not until he landed at Decca Records in 1949 and the company began getting “interested” shall we say in the growing buzz over rock ‘n’ roll.

Despite a handful of exceptional sides from their resident rock acts, Albennie Jones and Cousin Joe, they hadn’t been able to score a hit in this field but probably hadn’t thought it was worth their time or effort to explore it more. After all they had in their midst the most dominant proto-rock act in all of black music in Louis Jordan, who was still wracking up huge hits after laying the musical groundwork for much of this stylistic bastard child and they probably figured that would suffice in their attempts to reach the black market.

But that market was inexorably changing before our eyes and they were now seeing that while Jordan had dominated the charts from 1942-1947, with almost everything he released landing in the Top Five, he was now often struggling to get his latest efforts into the Top Ten and while he’d go on to score some final chart toppers with his best work still to come he was now frequently being crowded out by this rock ‘n’ roll garbage.

So sensing they could be in trouble perhaps, or just realizing that it couldn’t hurt to make headway in something that was rapidly picking up steam, they ventured into rock with the usual cynicism and indignation the major labels were famous for when it came to anything that wasn’t prim and proper. Whether it was Decca’s intent when signing Doles Dickens in June to have him be their sacrificial lamb in this venture, or whether it was Dickens who had the idea this might be worth pursuing once he was on board and they saw the potential benefit in it isn’t really known.

But what is apparent is once the decision to dabble in this field a little more was made Decca took the traditional approach of all major companies when it came to seeking hits outside of their normal milieu, namely they tried piggy-backing on somebody else’s original record (or two, as the flip was a cover of Amos Milburn’s Hold Me Baby, which we won’t delve into here). Of course that was standard operating procedure for all of these labels when it came to latching on to country records, foreign melodies, ancient tunes resurrected by some obscure artist, or out and out novelty records.

Only in THIS case the source of this original record they’d be copying was rock ‘n’ roll.

Or rather Rock And Roll, as in the song of that name.
 

Whatcha Gonna Say Right Now?
Tenor saxophonist Wild Bill Moore had done much to build the ground floor of the rock house – or is that Rockhouse? – with his work alongside Paul Williams on some of the first hit rock instrumentals back in late 1947 and then midway through 1948 he stepped out with a hit of his own that helped cement the term to the music with the title We’re Gonna Rock.

Moore then jumped ship from Savoy Records to Modern Records where he doubled down on his mission statement with the original version of Rock And Roll featuring Scatman Crothers which gave voice to the mindset behind the music with some fairly generic sentiments that were carried by Crothers’ underlying attitude and the musical commitment of Moore and company behind him.

It was a good song for a major label to cynically try and replicate because not only was it affixed with the term itself, something which would likely garner attention on its own amongst the more erudite adult black audience they were attempting to reach (at this point their idea of “crossover” was still confined to the upper crust of the black community which made up their preferred constituency of African-Americans), but it was also something which could be passed off as a novelty to remove some of the stigma from their actions.

Dickens was a good choice to carry out such a task. His band was first-rate, he certainly had passing knowledge of the music itself, or at the very least of the original sources from which it had sprung, and was not someone who was likely to be corrupted by the sounds and demand to wade further into the morass the next time around.

Handling the vocals was Joe Gregory, who constitutes the weakest part of their take on Rock And Roll and consequently which risks having its inclusion here occur strictly on special dispensation from the management. He’s completely oblivious to the proper attitude to convey even these basic generalities. There’s no smirk on his lips as he delivers his lines. No underlying devious intent. No hint of any impropriety whatsoever.

In other words it was the precise reading that Decca probably envisioned and one the true rock fan dismissed out of hand. Gregory was treating it as if it WERE a novelty, maybe not with absolute disdain like so many of the mid-50’s white pop acts would when they were assigned the same basic job, but he’s certainly closer to that ideal than he is to the authentic reading Crothers delivered and which the song deserved.
 

Rock All Night
But the band weren’t informed of this decision, or if they were they ignored it, finding something elemental in the music that appealed to them. It was exciting in a primal sort of way, a chance to cut loose and not be afraid to get their hair mussed in the process. Not only do they attack the song with all of their might but in the end they just may match Wild Bill Moore who needed no convincing as to the music’s legitimacy.

The star here is obviously not Dickens, acoustic bassists generally do not take center stage on any record and this is no exception. Instead, much like on the original it’s the tenor sax which gets the spotlight and that duty falls to Louis Judge.

The arrangement is sped up, probably a sign they were unsure at first of how to approach this and have it come across as exhilarating. But when Judge comes in it’s not his speed that authenticates this, but rather his tone and the sheer gusto he plays with. Throughout this he’s blowing with authority and helped by some slamming work on drums by Jimmy Crawford they give the impression that they actually MEAN it.

I’m sure that came as something of a surprise to Decca, maybe to Dickens too if he was in on their plan, but as insincere cover versions go, which this surely was intended to be, Rock And Roll works just well enough to be included, with a small asterisk maybe, as a rock record.

Like the puppet Pinocchio becoming a real boy, Doles Dickens and his outfit become, for a brief moment anyway, an actual rock band.

It doesn’t mean it’s anything special when taken strictly as a rocker, as the conflict inherent in the singer and band, plus the intent of the label behind them, all but guarantees this is compromised to a degree. But in the big scheme of things what makes this record noteworthy is the simple fact that long before the majors saw the potential in exploiting rock to try and appeal to white pop audiences they had the exact same game plan for trying to pull in some of the black pop audience.

That this one worked better in that regard (aesthetically speaking) than the later efforts probably shouldn’t be too much of a shock considering the shared musical DNA lurking under the surface of Dickens and company, but when we start to have to address the white cover craze down the road it’ll help to be aware of this initial foray into that concept to see that when it comes to trawling for potential hits, the major labels have always been pretty shameless.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Doles Dickens for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Wild Bill Moore (May, 1949)