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SUPREME 1535; AUGUST, 1949

 
 


Here’s a question to consider: Is it even remotely possible to be surprised by a stylistic curveball delivered by a relatively new artist who’ve yet to establish much of a track record as to the type of music they specialize in?

Probably not.

In the case of Eddie Williams and his inconsiderately named Brown Buddies the answer would be “definitely not” provided of course you knew the track records of the two key figures in the band and their musical backgrounds which were somewhat removed from rock.

So why then are we interested in a record that takes them uncomfortably close to their more mainstream alter-egos?

Well, because up until now Eddie Williams And His Brown Buddies had been positioning themselves far outside of their cocktail blues upbringing and carving out a decent sideline as a rock group and now that they’ve hedged their bets with this we’d like to know why.

Now you can say that it was only done for a B-side and therefore it was something of a throwaway track, not a conscious effort to move in that direction as a whole and that’d be true enough. You could also say that when in a rush for a song to finish a session this was something they could do in their sleep and so it made sense in that way as well. After all, who really cares what they did if it was never intended to be the focal point of this release?

Fair enough. But all of those points become moot when it was this compromised track with which they scored their one and only national hit and thus rendered their unquestioned rock efforts that led up to it a mere footnote in their story.
 

 

Went Away And Left Me This Morning
To bring everybody up to speed about this quartet who recently arrived on the rock scene, its leader Eddie Williams was the bass player in Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, the pre-eminent cocktail blues outfit of the day. That group had defined that popular urbane style for much of the 1940’s but had recently lost its lead singer and pianist Charles Brown who went out on his own and scored one of the biggest hits of the decade in the same classy uptown style with Trouble Blues, a record that actually was just ending its run at the top of the charts after an impressive fourteen week stay as this was released.

Because Moore’s group had been in a little bit of disarray following Brown’s departure last winter Williams had put together this side group to explore a different type of music. Along with guitarist Mitchell “Tiny” Webb and drummer Ellis Walsh, the group employed pianist, singer and songwriter Floyd Dixon as their frontman. Just twenty years old Dixon was already shaping up to be one of the more versatile artists on the scene as he was cutting solo records for Modern that sort of half fell into the Charles Brown (and thus Moore’s Three Blazers) cocktail blues milieu, albeit with a slightly more rural bent to them, scoring one hit already and with another just about to break through.

Therefore it’d be reasonable to assume that when they all got together they’d head in the same direction, one long proven to have commercial appeal. Instead they tried their hand in something far more daring – rock ‘n’ roll. But it was an odd type of rock ‘n’ roll, one that was decidedly quirky and even a little exotic on such cuts as Blues In Cuba.

You couldn’t even rightly call it a hybrid sound because it wasn’t drawing from anything immediately recognizable, let alone two easily identifiable styles, but no matter, for whatever you called it the sound was mildly alluring and certainly admirable in its attempt to carve out their own distinct musical niche. Whether that niche wound up moving more towards the accepted rock sounds and got embraced there was still up in the air to a degree, but it fit best in that genre for a variety of reasons and because it was so far removed from the long established and unchanging parameters of cocktail blues, the obvious field to slot them in otherwise, it made their inclusion in rock all the more sensible.

So maybe the fact that the A-side of this release, Red Head ‘N’ Cadillac was their most unquestioned rock offering it made the decision to include something that veered much closer to their past musical identities seem like a natural and fairly harmless move to make.

But when Broken Hearted wound up superseding the rock track in the public’s mind it immediately altered the group’s image and essentially ended their run as viable ambitious rockers.

The credit, or blame if you prefer, for that sudden stylistic shift therefore falls on this otherwise innocuous song which makes it historically relevant in rock’s story, even if it falls on the farthest edge of the rock territory… that is, if it even slips into the country at all.
 

Won’t You Call Me Long Distance
Cocktail blues, for those not familiar with it or uncertain of its parameters, has a very hazy aura to its sound. The term comes from the higher class establishments it was most suited for, places where the men wore suits and ties and the ladies were in fancy dresses. It might not be an elegant white tie and tails joint with valet parking, but it wasn’t a seedy dive next to the waterfront either. You could be reasonably assured of having hors d’oeuvres that came along with drinks which were served by waiters in elegant glasses, not beer in bottles with peanuts that you got for yourself at the bar.

Musically the instruments were played lightly, almost suggested if you can imagine that, rather than emphatically stated with any real purpose. The piano was the lead but it mostly just toyed with the melody, while the guitar was jazzy and clean but detached in its playing, all while the bass thrummed away unobtrusively in the distance. Most of the time there are no drums used at all, or if they’re allowed in the room they add only discreet rhythm and no semblance of a back-beat that might risk stirring up trouble. It was a mellow atmosphere all around.

Along those lines the vocalists in cocktail blues motifs were seemingly singing from a dream state of mind, commenting on events without necessarily being emotionally attached to them, as if they were a reflection of the artist’s subconscious rather than flesh and blood. The mood of the songs was generally somber but not distraught, mostly melancholy ruminations on life, love and loss.

Yet it was a highly pleasing sound, one that found favor with fans of both jazz and pop, and was ironically much further away from the dominant blues styles of the day in spite of what its terminology might otherwise suggest.

Broken Hearted tweaks that description just enough to make it not quite a perfect fit in that realm, even though at a glance it’d certainly qualify.

Dixon’s extremely nasal – almost nasally clogged – lead is drawn out and somewhat caricatured, expressing grief in an exaggerated manner that replaces the normally cool detached – and smooth – vocals the form usually relied on. That in of itself I guess takes this just far enough away from the urbane cocktail blues to render its ultimate classification a toss-up, but otherwise Dixon is adhering to the basic structure of that form, not only with the laconic pace of his delivery but especially the delicate piano fills that highlight the sparse track.

Webb contributes with dreamy guitar as that style all but requires, while the rhythm section is typically subdued. The pace is languid, the sentiments are morose and the excitement is decidedly lacking.

It’s played well… these guys were well versed in what this called for after all… but when comparing it to the vibrant rocker on the other side, or even other subdued rock ballads by the likes of Amos Milburn – another who easily could’ve transitioned to cocktail blues if he so chose – this sounds somewhat comatose.

There’s no sense of any personal investment coming through on this. Dixon obviously could convey these types of downbeat thoughts in this stylistic approach, as he’d do on future cocktail blues recordings – including when he himself was recruited by Williams to temporarily fill the seat left by Brown in Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers – but he seems to be going through the motions here. Playing a song just for the sake of getting it on tape rather than to express anything meaningful artistically. Even if this was more your brand of music there’s nothing particularly vital in its presentation which renders its ultimate success all the more baffling.
 

Worth Ten Million Dollars
All of which brings us back to the overriding question of whether or not they actively sought to cut this to try and build their reputation on, or if they just used something rather familiar to them all as a way to fill out a session.

We can’t tell for certain obviously but I think the signs point to the latter.

Unlike their collection of rock sides which made up their output to this point Broken Hearted is the only thing they did which became a certified hit for them. (The original Saturday Night Fish Fry which Walsh wrote and they recorded before Louis Jordan’s chart topping cover, was obviously their most successful song, all things considered). Yet in spite of that success, which should’ve propelled them to record more prolifically in the months to follow if nothing else, their career came to an end pretty soon after this charted in late 1949.

Here’s where we have to try and speculate on their mindset using the available information.

Since the goal of all artists is to score hits (presumably) and this WAS a hit and a hit in a style they were comfortable in to boot, why wouldn’t they continue recording to follow it up with more hits in the same vein? Furthermore, why would Williams, who must’ve had enough desire to be recognized for his skills outside of Moore’s outfit to form another group with himself as the headliner, leave that behind just when he’d proven he could score on his own to then go BACK to Moore, who was notoriously tough to get along with, whose aversion to long-term contracts deprived them of record label security and who demanded the public credit for their success (and occasionally took undue writing credit), which not surprisingly is part of what caused Brown to leave them.

Wouldn’t all of that indicate that Williams was looking for this very thing? A hit record to establish his name enough to be able to take control of his own career, both as a recording artist and a nightclub act?

Yet that didn’t happen. Though The Brown Buddies would release other records, Williams returned to Moore with a succession of piano playing vocalists – including briefly none other than Floyd Dixon – hoping to return to the heights they’d achieved with Charles Brown. They never would, which is another reason why his success here with someone as skilled as Dixon would appear to be the ideal substitute for him. In one fell swoop he could get away from Moore, get more credit himself and still be cutting hit records in a style he was proficient at while commanding decent money on the road with the perfect frontman for such an endeavor.

But he didn’t. Why, we don’t know.
 

‘Til Judgment Day
All of that tells me that this wasn’t a financial move to form this group, nor was it a power move of any kind so Williams could get more concessions from Moore. It seems, based on the rest of their output, that they’d all simply wanted to use this group as an outlet to explore rock ‘n’ roll – and various other creative itches – and when it was something familiar which scored they sort of gave up on the idea and drifted apart.

Williams, Webb and Walsh wouldn’t return to rock circles again, but Dixon was another matter altogether. For the most part he would go on to make rock his primary creative outlet for the next decade, though he too continued to cut cocktail blues on the side and even some deeper blues from time to time, establishing himself as a true musical chameleon in every sense of the word.

Then again it’s worth noting that musicians tend to be the last people to classify their music by descriptive genre terms and so it’s quite possible that none of them gave a rat’s ass what category it fell under and just cut music for the hell of it.
 

 
There’s something to be said for that kind of creative openness, but around these parts where we’re specifically trying to tell the story of rock ‘n’ roll and nothing BUT rock, songs like this are confusing diversions we uncomfortably have to address every so often when an interesting but unorthodox act who’d seemed committed to rock before this suddenly – for whatever reason – decides to throw us a curveball.

So yes, let the record show that Broken Hearted was indeed a hit, but the rock enthusiast that I am would like to think that when assessing its sales it was really Red Head ‘N’ Cadillac on the other side which the audience was seeking all along and the trade papers merely credited the wrong tune.
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Eddie Williams & His Brown Buddies for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)