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APOLLO 414; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The second half of our introduction to Eddie Mack is much like the first half, wherein he’s trying hard to fit in but is still hampered by a lack of familiarity with the requirements of the job.

The band behind him struggled even more at first, their jazz backgrounds giving them the skills to adapt but not the mindset to make that musical transformation entirely convincing.

As a result Mack’s first effort makes for something of an uneasy fit as rock ‘n’ roll increasingly begins to view such artists as interlopers and frauds.

But fear not, this is all part of any style’s evolution. Just as a snake sheds its skin and caterpillars transform into butterflies, humans first have to learn how to crawl before they can walk… and then swipe their parents car keys to go on a joy rides when they reach their early teens.

So it is with aspiring rock ‘n’ rollers coming from different backgrounds who have to figure out how to leave behind the pastoral antiquated musical surroundings they came of age in so they too could conquer the world.
 

 

Thinking About My Baby That I Left So Far Behind
Of course, the fact Eddie Mack was on that road in the first place was a good sign. It meant that rock ‘n’ roll was now being seen by artists and independent record labels alike as the smartest bet for success, a sea change in the thinking that existed prior to 1949 when jazz, pop and even blues were far more respected within the black music industry.

But as we know over the past two years rock had made steady incursions into the charts thanks to the connection the music forged with young music fans seeking a form of cultural identity unique to their generation. Rock ‘n’ roll was most certainly it in that regard, its take no prisoners and make no apologies attitude was intoxicating to the increasingly assertive post-war outlook and with each scream, each honk and each brash lyric that connection was made ever stronger.

Yet for someone like Eddie Mack, just shy of thirty years old who’d gotten into music as a profession before rock ‘n’ roll arrived to give him another option, that would be an outsider point of view for him to take. He pre-dated all of this noise but found himself now having to make a decision whether to throw in with this movement when he finally got his chance to cut records after a number of years making headway in New York jazz clubs.

Would he stick to what he knew best and probably felt most comfortable in, even though the commercial potential for it was growing less viable by the day, especially for those – like him – who didn’t yet have national name recognition in the jazz-blues field? Or would he try to jump on board the now rapidly rolling bandwagon of rock ‘n’ roll which was drawing more attention from independent record labels who could’ve cared less about the musical and cultural implications of it, but who merely followed the dollars it was generating.

The answer is Eddie Mack did both – simultaneously. Not on the same records exactly, but rather on different sessions for different labels with altogether different aims.

When legendary jazz trumpeter Cootie Williams was looking for a vocalist in the Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson mold for a session on Mercury Records he turned to Mack who did a credible job suggesting Vinson’s unique style without merely imitating it down the line. Those were records for an audience of yesteryear, diminishing in number and in strength, yet still very much a reliable market to try and reach.

Yet when Mack got the chance at the same time to cut sides under his own name for Apollo Records he headed in a different, more modern, direction even though he had equally jazz oriented musicians behind him. As we see it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions at first but as often happens with rock ‘n’ roll the more committed someone is to making the grade as a rocker the better their chances at figuring it out sooner or later and Mack was nothing if not genuine with his efforts.
 

A Thousand Things On My Mind
It’s hard to know what to make of this decision, namely because we don’t know whose decision it was, his own or his record label. Certainly both entities had equal reasons for venturing in this direction, just as both of them had equal credibility issues once they did.

Apollo Records had been a typical 1940’s independent label – owned by a Jewish couple, Ike and Bess Berman, but specializing in black music, in their case gospel primarily, along with jazz tinged blues, or blues tinged jazz if you prefer.

Their company was solvent at this time largely thanks to Mahalia Jackson, The Queen Of Gospel, but while she actually did score a massive hit in 1948 with Move On Up A Little Higher, a single that moved literally millions of copies at a time when that was virtually unheard of for a black record (and another in Silent Night that probably topped a million the same year), those types of across the board best sellers were rare in a field where it was largely long term sales built up over a couple of years that made it a viable commercial field.

Outside of their gospel line, which also boasted The Dixie Hummingbirds, their roster was pretty thin when it came to potential hitmakers so when rock ‘n’ roll appeared and started grabbing more and more of the black market it was only natural that Apollo try to jump on board.

But just a cursory look at the artists they enlisted in this effort shows they had absolutely no idea how to go about it. If ever there was a mismatched hodgepodge of names it’s the Apollo Records entries in the rock field to date. They had Wynonie Harris at the very dawn of rock in mid-1947 when he was still wandering about the musical countryside and had no idea that his salvation lay just around the corner with this new musical style. They also had the enthusiastic but incredibly limited white shouter Doc Pomus before he’d realized that songwriting, not singing, was his ticket to stardom. They got their best rock output to date when teenaged sax player Charlie Singleton made his recording debut this past summer with the very effective Keep Cool, but then inexplicably they didn’t keep him on board for some reason. And now they were taking their shot with Eddie Mack who first started singing when rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t even been a glimmer in its old man’s eye.

Hardly the most promising lineup for making headway in this genre.

But aside from just the headlining artists themselves, there was the little matter of the backing musicians culled from the New York jazz session scene, primarily ex-Erskine Hawkins sidemen led by Bobby Smith. Sure they were fine players and in Smith they had an experienced arranger, but the question was how compatible were they going to be with this type of music, at least to start with.

All of which means you were bound to have some growing pains which maybe is why Behind Closed Doors is such a good title for such an effort… something they needed to work out behind closed doors before unveiling it to the world.
 


 
 

I Wonder If You Feel The Way I Do
These are tough records to grade because the rock field as a whole was steadily improving, shoring up their earlier deficiencies and so the standard grade is much different than it was a year, or two years, ago. There’s no longer much justification in cutting slack to artists who fall short in one area or another and like the top side of Mack’s first release in the rock field, this one is too compromised in its individual parts to fully connect.

The first issue we have with Behind Closed Doors is its lack of a distinctive image. It starts of interestingly enough with a piano behind pounded on the treble keys in rudimentary fashion before settling down, and is soon joined by a lithe electric guitar line. But this is sort of the definition of oil and water, not the instruments themselves but the manner in which they’re introduced. It’s a discordant combination, one starts off purposefully harsh and crude, the other comes in slinky and beguiling and they try and meet somewhere in the middle.

I’m sure they were thinking the contrast would work, that the suddenness of the intro would grab your attention and then pull you in when they attempted to converge, but instead it places it on unsteady ground from the start, leaving it up to the NEXT sound, whatever that may be, to choose a side and pull it in that direction.

Unfortunately that sound is Mack’s over-exuberant voice. While we complimented him for his energy on Kind Loving Daddy, saying he was trying hard to fit into the rock atmosphere with how he delivered his lines, here he is trying a little TOO hard and consequently he overdoes it.

There’s a vast difference between a resonant shout, like a Big Joe Turner possesses, and merely raising the volume and dialing down the nuance as Mack does here. He comes across as if he’s trying to be heard by his doddering old deaf aunt or something, where all subtlety goes out the window.

So far we’ve had three pieces, the two which go hand in hand, the bruising keyboard work and the overamped vocals, but those are the least appealing of the three and as a result they turn the third piece, the slithering guitar, into an awkward appendage. It’s like riding a bike while wearing a snorkel.

But just because the guitar is the best of those three elements doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the ideal centerpiece of a re-configured record however. The solo confirms this as it’s very well played but lacking something all the same. It’s got a decent tone but no edginess, a melodic bent to it but no memorable hook. It’s apprehensive in a way, almost as if there was a feeling that if left to its own devices it might overwhelm the rest. But the problem is the rest of it, namely Mack himself, already IS overwhelming with each word he bellows and so they don’t quite fit together.

Remember too, the electric guitar has yet to full integrate itself into rock ‘n’ roll for there to be a solid blueprint to follow. Those who’ve succeeded best at it aesthetically, like Goree Carter, have typically done so by being aggressive with it and letting it set the entire tone, but few have heard those records perhaps (especially in New York) and so there aren’t too many musicians and A&R men who are on board with that approach yet. When it HAS been used as a complimentary piece it hasn’t been the elongated runs shown here that have grabbed you nearly as much as the quick hits, the accent fills and the responsorial lines.

In other words it’s an instrument still figuring out its role and while each note played here sounds fine in isolation, there’s an obvious disconnect with everything else on the track, something that gets revealed even further when the horn section comes in for its own solo two thirds of the way through, sounding a couple years out of date. It doesn’t last long and they shore it up somewhat as they close out the record behind Mack, but you get the idea that each component is operating independently of one another and that’s never a good thing.
 

 

Sometimes I Feel So Blue
If we could turn down the volume on Mack’s vocal mic we might have the peace of mind we need to better study the lyrics and hope those can draw our attention, but don’t count on it for another generic story line meets us when we do. He’s without his woman, though it was his decision or so he claims, and he’s hoping to get back to her soon. I’m guessing he’s on the road, maybe a seasonal worker on a farm, or a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, or maybe he simply went to the big city in search of some doctor who can fix his hearing problem which is why he’s yelling so loudly at us after we paid 79 cents for his record.

Whatever the case he seems uncertain if his girl even wants him back, but because we get conflicting reports in the few lines he gives us, and no backstory, no confession if he really is to blame, nor explanation if he’s not, then we really don’t care enough to suffer through a night of having our ears ringing after three minutes of this.

Why these slightly older vocalists equate volume with rocking when its not called for, we don’t know, but it’s certainly one of the more fatal misjudgments one can make when moving into the rock field early on. Once he commits to this approach there’s not much else Mack can do to swing our loyalty to him, and with the backing musicians struggling with determining their own identity we’re left with a bunch of mismatched parts again and no compelling reason to want to see them reassembled with the proper instructions to see what might come of it.

If you want to be exceedingly generous you can commend them all for giving it a fair shake and not looking down on rock ‘n’ roll as a style unworthy of them, but that only gets you so far and when you’re choosing which of the dozens of rock releases a month to lay down your money for, you definitely aren’t handing out points for effort alone.
 

 

Eddie Mack had to know upon hearing the playback of Behind Closed Doors that he really had no chance to make a breakthrough in rock with this type of thing, and that meant he had a few choices, none of which were too appealing. He could give up and go back to playing a style of music that was falling out of favor and which still had far more established names in that realm for him to have to compete with for whatever jobs were left. Or he could invest the 30 or 40 bucks he may have gotten for his work here and buy as many records of rock artists who HAD figured this out and study them until he absorbed all their lessons and then tried again.

Or he could go back home and use that loud voice of his to yell at his parents for not waiting ten years to have him so that he’d have come of age closer to the rock era and wouldn’t need any lessons in how to do it right.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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