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Okay, mystery solved.

Sort of.

On our review for the top side of this record we wondered why the official credit for it on the original record label went to Don Johnson And His Band rather than Smilin’ Smokey Lynn, the singer who made his presence known with every word he uttered… (not to mention screamed and wailed) throughout the delightfully animated performance.

It’s not that Johnson and his group weren’t proficient in what they did. In fact they were very effective, playing a tight churning groove that never let up, never went off course and never lost sight of the goal of the record which was to provide Lynn, and the listener for that matter, with enough adrenaline to run a triathlon in the morning after drinking and dancing all night while out at the clubs.

Which is precisely what they did (serve up that music, not the bit about the triathlon – those races weren’t even invented until 1974).

But why on earth would Specialty Records not want to promote the likes of Lynn, a vocalist who had definite potential to be a consistent seller, if not a star, in favor of a trumpeter of all things?

After all Johnson’s choice of horn alone already placed him about five years behind the times when it came to achieving stardom, particularly in rock music which was already showing the trumpet the door for the most part when it came to a featured role in the arrangements. The past 15 months had shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the tenor sax that was the well-deserved focal point of rock’s unbridled energy musically, while vocally it was the very types of singers that Lynn personified who were getting much of the acclaim.

But instead they went with Johnson’s name as the primary artist even as it was Smokey Lynn who was the featured performer. Now to further confuse matters we have today’s record – the flip side – an instrumental credited to Johnson. Because Lynn doesn’t appear on this side you think you have it all figured out, don’t you? That since Johnson’s band was spotlighted on both sides it’d be more consistent and sensible to credit him as the artist on both.

Well, normally that might be a reasonable idea, except take a closer look at this B-side. Did you notice that the title itself refers to another musician in the band!

[Cue the head-shaking eye-rolling emojis.]

You have questions? WE have questions! Hopefully we’ll also have answers.

What’s In A Name?
The song is called Jackson’s Blues, so the next question I think is pretty obvious: Just who the heck is Jackson and what in the name of Philip Michael Thomas is he doing taking the title of a song being credited to Don Johnson?

Well the answer is he’s Earl Jackson and he’s the saxophonist who gets the spotlight on the song bearing his name. Just for the record though it means that on the A-side Smokey Lynn got the spotlight but not the artist credit (aside from the “Featuring” designation… and you thought that was just a 21st Century phenomenon?) and here Earl Jackson gets the spotlight – and the title – but not the artist credit.

Don Johnson, by leading the band on both sides and staying relatively anonymous in the background, gets those honors.

Mmmm…. well, I didn’t say it was a GOOD answer, just that it explained it a little more.

Why Specialty didn’t split the credit for each side might make sense, though tune in over the next few days when we get to Littlefield Boogie for a rebuttal on that point. They may have thought that with the instrumental being the better bet for a hit during the most dominant stretch of instrumental hits in rock history that when in doubt credit the musicians featured on that instrumental, not a singer.

But that still doesn’t fully explain why Johnson, the trumpet player who is just incidental on this side, got credit (I’m assuming because it was HIS group, much like Joe Morris got credit even when sax player Johnny Griffin was given the largest role in a song), OR why Lynn’s showcase was the designated A-side if you wanted to promote the band instead.

Regardless of the machinations behind the scenes that led to this, at least it fills in a few blanks that we had after yesterday’s review (and may also spur me into listening to both sides of a record again before writing the review for the first side!).

It also gives some indication as to the motivations behind Johnson stepping away from Johnny Otis’s outfit and Specialty’s incentive in signing him. It’s kind of hard to turn down the chance to chase a hit when a style you’re familiar with is knocking them out one after another.

Bandwagon Jumpers
So that’s the story behind the record, as much as I can fill in anyway, so what about the record itself? Was it worth all of the effort to placate (or reward) Johnson for the remote possibility of a hit?

Not really.

It’s not that it’s a bad effort by any means but in the context of what WAS hitting consistently there’s no sense while listening to it that Jackson’s Blues was a sure thing, or even a strong possibility of eliciting interest.

So naturally having said that we have to report that – surely in another of fate’s efforts to confound us all – this actually DID become a hit, albeit a small one, cracking the national Billboard listings on the Race Charts for a lone week. Shows what we know.

Oh I’ll admit most of the toys from the now standard bag of tricks get pulled out and played with here and with reasonable effectiveness… the churning underlying horn riff played by the ensemble? Check. The tenor sax ramping up the grittiness during the proceedings? Check. Hitting a few obscene low notes along the way? Check. Winding its way into the higher notes to convey a sense of wild abandon? Check.

But you can also quickly skim a recipe and merely toss a bunch of necessary ingredients themselves into the pot without measuring properly, cooking long enough or adding the spices that bring out the dish’s flavor and make it all come together yet still call it a meal even though it’s hardly worth serving up, and that’s what they’re all guilty of here.

To start with there’s really not a strong melodic thrust to all of this. The riff underneath Jackson’s sax is the most memorable aspect of it all, but it’s also pretty basic. Those thinking of something as captivating in that regard as Sonny Thompson’s crack crew on Long Gone will be sorely disappointed to hear this is merely going through the motions of finding something just effective enough to get noticed without it being strong enough to make a lasting imprint on the listener’s consciousness.

Thus it’s left to Jackson, a pretty fair honker actually, to make sure that the song does more than simply serve as fairly rote background noise to a party where the band is hardly noticed. Plenty of guys have taken on that roll and made it work – Earl Bostic certainly was going to be demanding your attention, at least a year ago he was before his work started becoming (temporarily) more sedate. Hal Singer left no ear unbent when he went about his foray into this world last summer. More recently Big Jay McNeely has turned ordinarily civilized listeners into raving maniacs when he steps to the bandstand, so it’s obviously something that is achievable with a little effort and a lot of lung power and imagination.

Jackson isn’t lacking for effort and though he doesn’t always finish what he starts as strongly as he began on both sides of the record (remember, he handled the solos on the flip as well), I think he’s more than capable of blowing up a storm if needed. But where he falls short is in the conception stage as he’s just not thinking in terms of working the audience into a frenzy, or if he is then he doesn’t quite grasp the particulars of that task.

We’ve gone over the blueprint many times so it’s not necessary to break it down once again, but the cliff-notes version states that you need to have a well-drawn out game plan that either comes charging in from the start and never lets the listener catch their breath, or you have to progressively build to a furious climax over the course of the record, each step getting higher and louder and more risky in its maneuvers.

On Jackson’s Blues I think Earl Jackson DID have a game plan and I think he DID follow it. There’s nothing about it that sounds haphazard or sloppy or unsure of itself. The problem is that he assumed (or Johnson, who got credit for writing it, though that could be another perk bestowed upon him by Specialty) that by simply hitting the right notes and gradually increasing the volume and the emphasis of certain attributes that would more than suffice.

The problem is these kinds of instrumentals aren’t best laid out on paper. Sketched out, yes, if only so they know where they’re headed as do those backing the saxophonist. But that only serves as the basic roadmap to the destination, it doesn’t tell you how to steer, how hard to push down on the gas pedal, which lane to use and how close you come to driving off the road while zooming in and out of traffic at an unsafe speed.

For that you need something more than just a map. You need enough high octane fuel to get you there. Jackson doesn’t provide that. There’s no sense of recklessness here, no moment where he bears down hard and unleashes any fury. He merely approaches it in a workmanlike manner and thus it’s lacking the conviction needed to fully connect. Maybe the fact it dropped off the charts after a single week shows the audience whose interest was piqued at first listen realized its shortcomings pretty quick themselves and moved on to something else.

Move On Down The Road
So chalk this one up as merely a quaint Sunday drive through the countryside. They stay within the speed limit, never are in danger of getting ticketed for reckless driving and aren’t about to run out of gas or blow a tire in the process. They may travel the same roads, may see the same sights and pass the same traffic headed in the opposite direction as the more invigorating sax-led outfits in rock, but the other cars and pedestrians along the roadside won’t even take notice of these guys as they pass by.

The McNeelys and his ilk on the other hand will be causing a panic as their chopped and channeled hot rods tear around every corner at top speed and the sound of their engines will soon mix with the sound of a half dozen patrol car sirens frantically chasing them to lock them all up.

Any wonder who it’ll be that causes all the heads to turn from the sidewalk?

Both McNeely and Don Johnson played briefly with Johnny Otis’s band but pointedly they never played, or at least recorded, together. If they had maybe Don Johnson would’ve caught on to the way these engines need to be fine tuned and thus been able to tell Earl Jackson just what he needed to do in order not to be left on the side of the road ten or twenty miles in the rear view mirror of where the sax instrumental was headed in early 1949.


(Visit the Artist page of Don Johnson And His Band for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)