Tags

No tags :(

Share it

MIRACLE 155; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

It’s a given that in any project of this size and scope, one which encompasses thousands of artists, musicians, songwriters and producers over seventy years and counting, that we’d have to eventually deal with the topic of death.

But our first encounter with mortality isn’t the result of an artist sudden’s passing, nor is it some behind the scenes figure who is drawing his final breath, but rather the soon-to-be dearly departed is… a once vibrant record company.

Let’s all bow our heads in a moment of silent reflection.
 

 

Ashes To Ashes, Dust To Dust
Miracle Records was no mere blip on the radar when it came to early rock ‘n’ roll. The company had in fact released the single biggest rock hit of 1948 – Long Gone by Sonny Thompson, featuring today’s focal point Eddie Chamblee guesting on sax who contributed the song’s most identifiable hook. The two of them followed that up with a second Number 1 hit that same year with Late Freight and both Thompson and Chamblee separately had additional Top Ten national hits to their credit as did the company’s resident bluesman Memphis Slim.

In other words, had you been forced to make a prediction at the start of 1949 which notable independent record label would be the first to bite the dust you’d have likely chosen a lot of their rivals – including future cornerstones of rock Atlantic, Specialty, Imperial and Aristocrat (Chess) – long before you’d have landed on Miracle as the the one who’d be picking out a graveyard plot.

But as we’ve chronicled here over the past year there were plenty of signs of trouble on the horizon when Miracle seemed to think that they could rest on their laurels and spent most of the eleven month recording ban twiddling their thumbs rather than cutting new songs under the cover of darkness as so many of their competitors were doing.

Even after the musician’s strike came to an end in December 1948 Miracle didn’t hustle their artists back into the studio right away, instead choosing to release older sides still in their vault in a leisurely fashion, probably thinking themselves smart when they managed to get minor chart entries with a few of them. But that initial flurry of sales for those sides was strictly thanks to the name recognition of those artists and once audiences heard what was on those subpar leftovers their interest dried up pretty quickly.

By the time they finally got around to cutting sessions again in the spring of ’49 their momentum had irrevocably stalled and the scene was crowded with new competitors who’d raised the stakes with more innovative approaches on record labels with more aggressive management.

Throw in the fact that Miracle hadn’t even bothered to use their recent success as an enticement to lure new artists to their doorstep to bolster their ranks and it’s not exactly hard for any competent diagnostician to read this patient’s test results and know they weren’t going to be long for this world.

Therefore it’s almost grimly ironic that this record – the second to last ever issued on Miracle – isn’t a slow mournful dirge that typically accompanies a funeral procession, but rather a song called Jump For Joy, a decidedly optimistic sort of tune, almost as if even after seeing the the embalmed body strewn with flowers the disbelieving family is convinced that the corpse will somehow leap from the coffin and start dancing around the room, reassuring the grieving congregation that the rumors of their death were premature.
 


 
 

Big Town
What’s so striking about this last gasp of the company is that rather than a throwback sort of sound that recalls their heyday this record is looking ahead and exploring certain ideas rock will get into in grander fashion down the road giving some indication that Miracle Records might’ve actually transitioned fairly well into the 1950’s if they’d gotten that chance.

Eddie Chamblee of course is one of the many jazz-reared rock saxophonists who defined rock’s early days, though he tended to lean towards a mellower approach as opposed to the furious honking of his peers. But while there’s plenty of his trademark sounds to be found on Jump For Joy there’s also something quite unexpected, namely of a steel guitar chipping in with a series of counter-lines that appear throughout the record which hints at rockabilly around the corner… or maybe more precisely early country-rock, making this one of the earliest signs of that particular brand of stylistic transformation.

The song starts off in a more traditional manner however, horns riffing and the guitar just adding slashing notes to elevate the excitement, but as soon as the vocal chanting begins to set the scene for what follows it’s joined by a steel guitar that sounds as if it were imported directly from Nashville.

It’s being played by Lefty Bates who normally used a traditional axe but for whatever reason he switched to steel for this one. Naturally that’s going to bring an entirely different vibe to the table compared to… well, compared to just about everything we’ve heard in rock to date.

Around the bend Bill Haley would be the prime practitioner in bringing this instrument into rock ‘n’ roll courtesy of Billy Williamson of his Comets (although even there it was often awkward and superfluous) but obviously audiences in 1950 would have no reference points for this sound suddenly showing up in their music. Since we know what’s to follow in rock we can better grasp how it would eventually be made to fit in the arrangements but to hear it coming from Chamblee’s band throws you for a loop.

It’s an incongruous sound, conjuring up very distinct – yet distinctly different – images that were alien to rock as a whole at this point, especially the sounds that Chamblee and his ilk have been highlighting over the past few years. As a result you’re not quite sure whether to be open to this sound, suspicious of it, or repelled by it and your opinion of it may not remain the same from one spin to the next.

It’s certainly interesting though and because it doesn’t attempt to take over the song, sticking almost exclusively to a ringing response to the vocal lines save for a rapidly played scratchy riff a third of the way through that’s kept well in the background, you tend to view it as a curiosity more than a new evolutionary wrinkle in rock’s progression.

(They went even further however on the flip side, Blue Steel, where it becomes the lead instrument and while Chamblee’s contributions are really good the song belongs to no genre as there’s too much conflict between its parts to be suitable for rock, country, jazz or blues).

If nothing else though this last session for Miracle does show Chamblee adding to the creative spirit rock thrived on, admirably looking for something new and different in an attempt to shake up expectations.
 


 

Gonna Make Every Joint On Central Avenue
The other aspects of the song are more in line with what we’ve come to expect, though maybe not quite what we’ve come to expect from Chamblee himself, as he contributes vocals to the song that do a reasonably good job of establishing a basic setting and some semblance of a plot, not to mention imparting it with the mindset of those who were constantly looking to head out on the town and cut loose at every opportunity… in other words, the essential rock ‘n’ roll viewpoint in life.

Chamblee’s singing is fine, though he’s not being asked to do much and he gets plenty of help from the rest of the band who chant the title along with him in the chorus. The scene he describes is generic, but appropriate, name dropping Central Avenue, a street that most cities and towns probably had but was most famous as the main drag of Los Angeles’s African-American community, and when he tells you he and his girl are “hitting all the clubs” there you don’t exactly need a map and compass to know what he’s referencing even if you’re situated halfway across the country.

But all of that description is just to make sure you know the thematic point of Jump For Joy, as if the title itself was somehow too ambiguous. In case you’re slow to catch on, that’s the edict of having a good time with the rest of your community, those who truly came alive at night amidst the sights and sounds of a world after dark, all of it running to an endless soundtrack of hot licks and sweaty riffs.

This record has plenty of that, even if that steel guitar continues to throw off your senses slightly, for the rest of the track remains familiar enough to get your motor racing. Since Chamblee is singing he has to restrict his playing to the breaks but they’re good ones at that, as he and fellow saxman, Charles Stewart who is honking away on baritone, provide plenty of action.

The music begins to heat up after the first minute, initially with a rather simple riff by Chamblee to gradually ramp things up while pianist Prentice McCarey hammers away in the background. Then Stewart comes along dropping bombs like an air-raid attack with lines that are loud and crude and leave little to the imagination, easing up some by the end so as to give Chamblee a safer tailwind to fall in behind him so he can take over the lead again down the stretch.

Eddie’s parts naturally sound more restrained than what preceded it but they’re energetic enough to work and are emphasizing the rhythmic aspects of the instrument rather than the jazzier melodic touches he might’ve been inclined to try and get away with a few years back.

Though the attitude shown by everyone might not be too aggressive it’s not exactly timid either and they strike a nice balance between pushing it and holding back that thankfully doesn’t come across as compromised. When you throw in the unexpected nature of the rogue steel guitar you wind up with a record that would hardly be the first instrumental you’d reach for to define 1950 but its experimental nature makes it worth anybody’s time to hear.
 


 

Going Back Home To Stay
Miracle Records would release one last track next month, an ancient sounding country blues record by Johnnie Temple, before shutting their doors in the spring amidst a flurry of legal action.

Chamblee ironically was one of those filing a complaint with the Musician’s Union against Miracle’s owners Lee Egalnick and Lew Simpkins for not paying his musicians for this session (a paltry $145 at that!) and Eddie himself had only gotten paid weeks after they cut this on January 25th, which also marked the last time they were able to use the studio because the company hadn’t settled its bills there either. Miracle even switched to a far cheaper label design for these last couple of sides to try and save a few pennies, showing just how broke they were at the time.

Yet in spite of their troubles Jump For Joy provides plenty of evidence that one of their most reliable artists was willing to change with the times, even get ahead of the curve potentially, and not let his ideas get stale, making you wonder what might’ve happened if they’d simply managed their finances better and invested their earlier profits back into building their roster with like-minded artists.

Within a few months they’d see their label liquidated by the IRS for failure to pay back taxes as King Records swooped in and snatched up the rights to their old masters for a pittance. Thus ended a roller coaster ride for the company that saw them reach great heights before everything bottomed out. An inevitable fate for most companies in the long run maybe, but sad all the same.

R.I.P. Miracle Records… you may not have been around for a long time but you helped contribute to the good times as rock ‘n’ roll got itself established. For that we thank you and bid you a fond adieu.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Eddie Chamblee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)