KING 4475; OCTOBER 1951

 
 

 

When it comes to solo musicians rather than singers, even the best of them tend to be forgotten in time.

It’s all too easy to overlook the importance of someone whose name was more familiar to fellow musicians than the general public and because human beings are verbal creatures we tend to gravitate towards singers rather than those who speak via an instrument.

There may be no more skilled saxophonist in history than Earl Bostic… a view shared by many of his contemporaries… yet despite a few prior hits he too seemed destined to be completely anonymous when he hung up his horn unless something happened to firmly connect him with the broader public.

Something like… this.
 

 

The Song That I Hear Below
Few artists we’ve covered were more interesting in their choices early on than Earl Bostic.

A respected jazz virtuoso delving into raunchy rock ‘n’ roll as soon as it came into play with such titles as Hot Sauce! – Boss and 845 Stomp which were solid regional hits and helped to define the take no prisoner’s approach of rock sax instrumentals right out of the gate, he seemed inspired by the freedom it provided. But then just as quickly, in what would become a pattern for him, he seemed bored by it and moved on.

Though he’d score on major hit that spring with Temptation, a great record in its own right, he then largely paid only sporadic attention to this brand of music as he went back to jazz, tried his hand in pop and tackled anything else that caught his eye, including cutting some vocal tracks.

Eternally restless, Bostic was shaping up to be a fascinating artist with frustrating catalog.

The same charge may in fact be true for his work following the chart topping Flamingo, as critics assert he tried too hard to duplicate that success with similar sounding records. But since Bostic recorded everything under the sun (you’d be hard pressed to find a more prolific recording artist of the 1950’s) it was ultimately King Records who were trying to recapture those sales and choosing the singles they felt had the best chance to do so.

Besides, we’ll get to those down the road, for now this is the story of how a jazz turned rock saxophonist reached back to jazz to take a song introduced by Duke Ellington in 1940 and gave it a gritty yet shimmering makeover for a record that was almost non-classifiable by modern standards of the day, unless you want to be one to suggest it was the first stripper’s anthem or perhaps the inaugural space age bachelor pad record… if hoodlums crashed the pad in search of booze and sex that is.
 


 
 

Like A Flame In The Sky
What made Earl Bostic such a memorable musician wasn’t just his unrivaled chops, his speed, his technique, his scope… it was his effortless power in addition to those qualities.

We’re used to tenor saxes digging deep inside themselves and metaphorically ripping their own guts out via raunchy notes but Bostic could do that on an alto, a much higher and more traditionally delicate horn, and he did so not just for a note here or there, or even one passage, but rather the entire song.

Flamingo on paper is defined by its intoxicating melody, something that in the original was heightened by the vocals of Herb Jefferies. Though his singing sounds awkward and stilted in an age of rock, but it’s not hard to see the possibilities in the tune itself which Bostic eagerly took advantage of turning in the defining performance and rendering the lyrics and vocals all but unknown to those who’ve encountered it since… and he did so by keeping the melody but ramping up the power.

His lines are fantastic, speeding up and slowing down with such precision that it gives off the effect of being in some drug induced haze at times. But as great as that sounds it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without the tone he gets for the alto sax throughout the record which gives even the most florid of passages a sandpapery quality that is intentionally used to counter the band which has been instructed to play it straight.

With Gene Redd’s vibraphone as the other prominent instrument sounding polite and dainty, though still mesmerizing thanks to it playing mostly brief flourishes rather than straight melodic runs, you get this constant juxtaposition between the two – light and airy and fierce and rough – all while drummer James Cobb is subtly adding a steady and increasingly forceful beat even though much of his most notable work in the song is done on cymbals.

Yet it’s that simple arrangement – a push/pull dynamic with hot and cold tonal qualities – that makes Flamingo sound so invigorating. Bostic never lets up once, he’s the centerpiece of the entire record even though he never gets what you would call a “solo’, a stretch where he improvises and goes off the reservation. Instead he rides that melody into the ground, digging so deep with it that you’d be shocked to find there was no canyon left where the studio had been standing after he finished.

Though it is true that many styles have claimed this record for their own, and it does have shall we say “indistinct boundaries”, Bostic’s playing style fits squarely in rock parameters. It’s loud, definitely aggressive, unusually rhythmic and utterly committed to creating a groove.

Maybe it’s lacking the wild histrionics so much of rock sax playing was known for, but adding that just for the sake of doing so would only be imitative and what makes his best work stand out is the fact he takes songs and re-imagines them to the point where you can’t imagine what they sounded like before he laid his hands on them.
 


 

Where The Sun Meets The Sea
The history of recorded music – not just rock – has tens of millions (hundreds of millions?!?) of songs to peruse if you have a few free centuries to spare, so with all of that to sift through it’s natural that artists as talented as Earl Bostic might have been relegated to the “also ran” category if not for this.

Flamingo became the first rock sax instrumental to top the charts since the summer of 1949 after sax-led rockers had chalked up five of them in less than a year leading up to that and seemed poised to be an unstoppable commercial force going forward.

But that’s when rock’s musical diversity suddenly exploded as that decade came to a close giving audiences no shortage of options to get their fix when it came to excitement on record and as a result saxophones were increasingly left to pick up scraps from a table they had once – briefly – lorded over.

This didn’t mark a return to glory for the style as a whole, but maybe that was simply because the other sax-gunslingers knew they weren’t going to be able to take this concept any further than Bostic did right out of the gate.

But who could complain when some things in the right hands wind up being perfect the first time out.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Earl Bostic for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)