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KING 4420; NOVEMBER 1950

 
 

 

Over the course of 1950 we’ve seen how the once dominant sax instrumental records in rock have become far less prevalent as the excitement over them waned while at the same time the increasing diversity of vocal tracks gave rock no shortage of alternatives to the noisy displays on saxophone.

Since Earl Bostic was equally at home in jazz, and in fact had basically been dividing his output between the two to keep both fan bases happy, there was no reason to think he’d continue making many rock tracks if his primary means for connecting in that realm was no longer as commercially viable.

But Bostic kept at it, cutting more of his records with vocals to give his rock releases an added attraction for those weary of honking and squealing saxes. On this record the shift is complete, as it’s not the saxophone that’s the main raw at all, but rather what Earl Bostic is singing about that draws your attention.

My how things have changed.
 

 

Would You Like To Hear…
When Bostic started warbling on record it largely came across as either a desperate move to keep up with the times or a creative indulgence for somebody who was always something of an iconoclast.

Singing and playing and instrument may go together like hand in glove for many people, but they are two distinctly different skills beyond simply having the musical knowledge needed to do both competently.

For the most part the vocals on his records were done out of necessity… as in if you have lyrics then somebody has to deliver them… rather than because he was shaping up to be a really good singer.

Though he’s improved some he’s still not the best vocalist around which means that if Way Down had been given to somebody whose primary profession was singing then it’d potentially be a great record. But even with Bostic’s modest abilities at center stage this is a surprisingly solid performance in every way.
 

When He Gets Bold
The highest praise here goes not to Earl Bostic, singer, nor Earl Bostic, saxophonist, but rather Earl Bostic the songwriter who gives us a lyrically dense record that has an actual plot, a vivid three dimensional character and keen-eyed cynical perspective that are well beyond what most three minute rock songs of the day were able to offer.

In that way Way Down is like a short film rather than just a snapshot with a few captions.

Bostic tells us about a guy “from Hicktown” who’s financially well-heeled and attracts the ladies but whose lack of experience means he winds up getting fleeced by the sharpies in the big city.

The theme itself is promising but the real joy is found in the how Bostic packs so much information in brief descriptions that are then piled atop one another forcing him to use a rapid fire pace to get them all out.

In an era where sometimes even the best songs have very few words, this one makes up for it by cramming so many images into each stanza without lessening the impact that it comes across almost like a template for what Chuck Berry would do down the road. As such it stands as one of the better creative moments of Bostic’s career and remains an underrated aspect of his musical persona.

Now that being said, yeah, you’d like a more accomplished singer getting these messages across for while they don’t require a powerful voice or dominating presence, the more clever facets of the song would probably be better handled by someone else as Bostic’s tone is a little too high and harsh, rattling your ears more than drawing you into appreciate what he’s saying.

But what he’s saying is more than enough to keep you entertained as this poor sap finds the women slick and money grubbing, the men all angling to cheat him of his dough, getting him drunk and leaving him high and dry. The details abound, the rhymes are clever and the chorus – despite just being the title line repeated twice – stretches things out as it rises up in key which makes it a great sing-along proposition.

If Bostic’s voice emanated from his chest rather than his throat to give it more presence this would be hard to beat because it’s already clear that he knows how to sell the sarcastic attitude perfectly.

Maybe that explains why he hands over the instrumental reins to others… he was too busy having fun singing to grab his saxophone and join in the musical side of the equation.
 

Cut Him Down
For arguably the most technically skilled sax player in all of rock to sit out a record credited to him is rather astonishing. He may in fact play some, the intro sounds like it might have him in the mix, but he’s definitely not a featured performer here.

Instead the primary support role goes to Count Hastings, the tenor player and a great musician in his own right. In some ways this is a wise decision, as a song like this benefits from a slightly deeper tone on the solos, but as we’ve seen in the past Bostic himself was more than capable of getting more guttural sounds out of his alto.

Hasting gives us component that pretty well but what he’s unable to do is go bonkers on his horn like Bostic often did and that’s what Way Down really needs to send it over the top – a wild, free-for-all instrumental break to replicate the head-spinning environment that this fictional character finds himself in.

If they’d wanted to let Hastings get the first solo, that’s fine, but the second really needed to go to Bostic to ramp up the excitement, especially as when he comes back for the final vocal refrains he’s showing no restraint there. Since playing wild, not singing, was his specialty, it’s a shame we didn’t get to hear him do what he does best. But don’t let that deter you, for this is merely a minor quibble, not an outright complaint as the record exceeds any and all expectations in every other way.
 

Hangin’ Out With The Bummers
Considering all of the changes afoot in rock ‘n’ roll it’s good to see Bostic keeping up with the times rather than throwing in the towel just because his preferred approach has cooled a bit commercially.

That doesn’t mean he’s throwing all his weight behind rock ‘n’ roll though, as he delivers a a version of Merry Widow Waltz on the flip-side which clearly is aimed at another constituency altogether.

But it’s kind of fun imagining the people who came for that song, which was first heard in the German operetta The Merry Widow from the turn of the century, flipping the record over and encountering the balls to the walls excitement of Way Down on the other side.

As good as it is however, because Bostic’s primary skill set isn’t being highlighted it’d be misleading to have this take its place among his absolute best sides, but if you were throw this in a playlist of mostly instrumental cuts from him it’d make for a really impressive change of pace.

As long as Earl Bostic was willing to broaden his approach just to stay connected to rock ‘n’ roll then we can’t complain and if in the future he can do this kind of thing and remember to blow his own horn in the process then maybe he’ll finally decide to give up those other musical pursuits once and for all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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