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DUKE 103; JUNE 1952



Normally a new record company is lucky to have even one artist who can credibly deliver a song. Many labels that ultimately went on to have a good deal of success didn’t even start out with that!

But here we have a company that not only had good singers in their midst from the start, but for the second time in their first three releases they have somebody who essentially came off the bench to substitute for a talented future star and proved they were the equal of far more established acts on rival labels.

It was as if Duke Records was going for a leisurely stroll and tripped over a rock, fell into a hole that turned out to be a diamond mine, then climbing out and discovering the rock that caused them to fall was actually solid gold.


Feel Real Gone
In the common telling of the story of Duke Records and The Beale Streeters, the loose-knit group once led by B.B. King who gave the company three hitmakers, the name Earl Forest has been regrettably downplayed, if not cast aside, simply because his career accomplishments can’t compete with the others involved.

In case you’re late to the party that would be Johnny Ace, the pianist who stepped into the spotlight at this same session and came away with one of the biggest hits of the year in My Song… or that of Bobby “Blue” Bland, the group’s regular singer who showed up for the recording date unprepared and had to be replaced by Forest, the drummer of the outfit.

Granted, in such exalted company, it’s understandable that Forest takes a back seat to those two, but he was hardly insignificant in Memphis rock ‘n’ roll, scoring a national hit in short order while also playing behind the hits of others – including Ace – during this stretch.

What’s surprising isn’t that he’s been relegated to an afterthought historically as most writers focus on the bigger names, but rather it’s surprising that Earl Forest was such a good vocalist who seemed to be wasting his talents just sitting on a drum stool.

Now to be fair there were some drummers who made a good career doubling as singers, notably Roy Milton of the vital pre-rock group The Solid Senders. Johnny Otis also began as a drummer and down the road Phil Collins would become more acclaimed for singing than for playing, just to name a few.

But Earl Forest had far more vocal talent than you’d expect to find from a drummer who was merely filling in for someone else in front of the microphone, and Rock The Bottle isn’t even one of his better performances from a technical viewpoint.

Maybe that’s to be expected though, as we’ve already told you that Bland was unable to read and too proud to tell Duke’s owner David Mattis which meant that he hadn’t learned the songs Mattis had given him for this session which led Forest to step in so as not to come away empty handed, but we don’t know if this was one of those songs.

It has Forest’s name on it as writer, as does the flip, so maybe it’s not, but if it isn’t then that would lead to another question of just when he found time to come up with these tunes if he wasn’t supposed to be singing on the session in the first place.

Whatever the answer, we’re just glad that things worked out this way for all involved.

Whiskey Bottles Begin To Rain
I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you this, since I’m assuming as rock fans you have a history of debauchery to authenticate your credentials in this field, but just as there are different ways of drinking with your friends, there are different ways to sing about it.

Most of the time around these parts we’re used to the raucous hedonistic celebrations of booze. The party anthems with loud honking saxes, relentless rhythms and shouted vocals whooping it up.

There’s also drinking with your friends as a form of commisseration over a problem, usually relationship oriented, where you need to get your repressed conflicted feelings off your chest and use booze as a means to be less inhibited about spilling your guts about such matters to your buddies who are more likely drinking heavily along with you so they don’t have to pay as much attention to what you’re actually saying while still seeming to appear supportive in your time of trouble.

Rock The Bottle is neither of these things, nor is it being sung as a form of social lubricant to approach the opposite sex or to get her – and you – disrobed and in the bedroom… even though that remains a priority.

Instead this is one of those songs where the participants are used to these kinds of drinking sessions that aren’t quite as decedent, but still have the possibility of wild things happening.

Forest is a mellow drunk – and yeah, he does sound a little in the bag compared to his normal vocal delivery, so either Mattis supplied him with the right motivation or he’s a really good actor – and because of this the record puts you in the same laid-back mood where the alcohol has removed your worries and gotten you high, but hasn’t made you act up, fall down or pass out… yet.

Like most conversations had while under the influence there’s not too sharp a point to the story being told, in fact there’s nothing much being revealed other than the setting and the activity and the goal of the night which is to forget your cares and have a good time, but when you’re with your pals and passing a bottle around does there really have to be more to it than that?

Want Another Drink To Make Me Feel Fine
As for his friends, they too sound a little worse for the wear.

Billy Duncan isn’t blowing any really lusty lines in the solo, but rather tottering around the room in aimless fashion, yet admirably still remaining on his feet. Meanwhile Ace is locking down the rhythm on piano, probably concentrating extra hard so as to make everyone believe he isn’t as wasted as everyone thinks he is.

There’s also somebody’s guitar making sporadic appearances – we all know this guy who shows up at the party but disappears for hours on end before popping back in again when you tap the second keg – and the combined effect of all of them is to lend modest support without becoming the center of attention ending with somebody with the proverbial lampshade on his head.

It’s not a wild bash by the sounds of it, my guess is fewer than ten people are here to Rock The Bottle which means the mood they give us is entirely appropriate.

In fact, I don’t even think you’d call this a party, it’s more of a casual get together where the ultimate aim which Forest finally admits to is to get with a girl – although which one he doesn’t much care.

By the time the record fades, the booze is mostly drunk, the bedrooms and couches have couples sprawled over them in various stages of in flagrante delicto and by morning none of us are going to remember much about the night other than the overall vibe.

But luckily that’s more than enough to ensure we’ll have another one of these gatherings a couple of days down the road when everybody’s forgotten the effects of the hangover.


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