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REGAL 3233; JULY, 1949

 
 

 

When assessing an artist’s chances of breaking through there are three factors that seem to take precedence over all else.

Talent, opportunity and timing.

Talent gets you opportunities to record and then it’s a matter of timing as to whether your work has a chance to find a receptive audience.

But while those will greatly boost your odds they aren’t guarantees by any means as Erline Harris proves. She had all three working in her favor and yet she never scored a hit and remains an historical non-entity for the most part… a curiosity at best, a complete unknown at worst.
 

 

Went To The Well One Day
When we first met Erline Harris back in April she was on the DeLuxe label run by Jules and David Braun who’d launched this brand of music back in 1947 and since then had turned records into hits and artists into stars before losing the company to Syd Nathan who took control of it in order to get his hands on Roy Brown, who invented rock ‘n’ roll and was the biggest star DeLuxe had.

The Brauns then started Regal Records and managed to take a lot of their roster with them, Harris included, though she was hardly on the same level as Paul Gayten, Annie Laurie or Chubby Newsom all of whom had made the national charts for the earlier label. But it was clear why Erline Harris was getting another opportunity because one listen to her and you could tell she certainly had the potential for stardom, singing in a rhythmic style with a strong appealing voice with equal parts confidence and sly wit.

Which brings us to the last of the trifecta, her seemingly impeccable timing.

Not only was Harris’s style a perfect fit for rock ‘n’ roll so was her repertoire. Her first record Rock And Roll Blues had obviously been positioned to take advantage of this growing movement which quite naturally led to her being dubbed Erline “Rock And Roll” Harris. Far from just being an exploitative moniker designed to turn a few heads she was a true believer in the music, something she definitively proved upon moving to Regal soon after and cutting the top side of this single, Jump And Shout, which was even better than her debut.

These weren’t ambiguous songs that might fly over the heads of prospective listeners, nor were they compromised by conflicting musical ideals. Harris was leaving little doubt that – at least when it came to stirring the passions of listeners – rock ‘n’ roll would continue its ascent up the popular music ladder with tracks like these. Just as importantly she was also stating her own claims for being among the style’s most potent forces going forward.

Remember also that females in rock were still in the statistical minority, an unfortunate reality that would be hard to shake for years, but which when looked at another way at least provided her with the ability to stand out since she wasn’t competing with a vast pool of candidates to became the leader of the women’s side of the rock ledger. In the future when the physical beauty of artists, particularly females, would play an ever-more-prominent role in determining stardom, the plain looking, slightly hefty and middle-aged Harris wouldn’t be hampered by not being able to compete with the likes of her gorgeous labelmate Chubby Newsom since the overwhelming majority of listeners wouldn’t ever actually see either one in person or even in a photo. All that mattered in 1949 was how they sounded, and while that should be all that matters now too we know that wasn’t always the case.

As for how Harris sounded? Well, it wasn’t just her two most declarative statements that were worth hearing, even the oft-neglected B-sides like Never Missed My Baby held plenty of appeal of its own, even if few – then or since – managed to hear it.
 

Take A Rocket Ship
Though this is another song beset with a few issues regarding a horn section that is lagging behind the curve, the effect they have is more one of nagging annoyance rather than a glaring disincentive to appreciating the record overall. The horns are lively at least, playing in tight unison on the intro with a string of short, clipped notes rather than letting them air out their lines as too many arrangements hearkening back to the previous era had a tendency to do. Because of this you quickly stop focusing on them and turn your attention to the woman at the microphone who charges in, breathing fire.

Harris doesn’t have a very rich voice by any means but she’s mastered its sinewy textures, knowing how much pressure to apply, when to bear down and when to pull back. Most importantly though she’s fully aware of what her role is on Never Missed My Baby, which is to impart the eagerness, the excitement and the eroticism of the song’s content.

The lyrics require some careful scrutinizing because at first glance they appear a little bit conflicting as it would seem that she’s both dismissing the notion she’d miss the guy she’s with and yet acting as if she’d do anything in the world to get him.

The key is deciphering the alternate uses of the word “miss”, as she tells us she never missed him when he said goodbye after they rendezvoused somewhere, yet if she missed him, as in failed to connect with him when he was around, then it’d be too much for her to bear.

But our lessons in parsing the stupefying intricacies of the English language aside this record’s greatest strength is not about delivering a coherent storyline as much as it is just conveying an emotional urgency that is captivating to hear. Besides, there’s plenty of good lines within to latch onto that need no interpretation, particularly the bit about the wild animals, actual animals that is, not animals falling under the heading of human males, though you can certainly be forgiven for confusing them with the snakes, sharks and lions she claims she’d tangle with to get her man.

She sells every word of this as if her happiness, if not her life, depended on it, bringing such charisma and vivaciousness to it that you hope she’ll be allowed to sing this free and easy forever.

Sadly that’s not the case, not in an all-too short career, but also not on this record itself, as those pesky horns drop back in for an extended – though hardly welcome – visit.
 


 

Hang My Head And Cry
We may have tolerated the horns on the intro since they were merely acting as a prelude to the main event, but now they elbow her out of the way, commanding the spotlight for themselves and doing none of them, Harris, Regal Records or their own reputations as musicians, any good.

The first solo comes on tenor sax just short of a minute in and while it’s hardly anything great it’s not altogether bothersome either. His tone could be deeper, his playing could be rougher and his attitude more passionate, but it doesn’t cause him to stand out as not belonging here… though then again he’s not exactly standing out as a highlight of the track either.

But when he hands the ball off to the trumpet we’d gladly reconsider our previous assessment of the saxophone and gladly bring him back for an encore because here’s yet another case of an ill-chosen instrument belonging to another time being asked to fit into this milieu and failing… not because the trumpeter has no talent as a musician, but because the music itself has yet to find a suitable role for that horn.

He plays with the requisite flair, breaking off notes with confidence and I’ll go so far as to say with a fair amount of skill. If this were a jam session in jazz from 1946 I’d be on board with what gets played, but as we know this is NOT a jam session from jazz and it’s not 1946, it’s 1949 and a rock record like Never Missed My Baby is in need of something more lowbrow than what a trumpet can offer in order to properly whip the song into a frenzy.

Try as he might the high pitched squeals that he emits give off the wrong impression. Yes, it’s insistently frantic but it’s not compelling. Had they instead featured a baritone sax hitting unseemly low notes, or a second tenor honking away and dueling with the first tenor in a back and forth slug fest, then that would be far more appropriate for the type of performance they were after.

I suppose you can be glad in this instance that they didn’t turn to another instrument that we might’ve championed for other songs of late, such as a guitar or piano, because they’d be equally out of place here and may even drag the energy down in some way just because of the different tone they bring to the table. At least with the trumpet we can admit that he keeps that energy from flagging but it’s still the wrong choice by whoever was arranging this, probably Paul Gayten, who had a habit of being unnecessarily loyal to musicians he had worked with for awhile and thus handed out a solo to one which would’ve been best left to someone else.
 

Come Back To Me
However don’t let the choice of horns (and dammit, that trumpet plays a counterpoint down the stretch behind Harris that further impedes her progress) dissuade you from what works so well here, which is almost literally everything else, above all Erline Harris herself.

Her closing statement is dripping with the kind of effortless confidence that we swoon for in rock as she and the female backing vocalists (fast becoming a Gayten production trademark) trade off on a rapid-fire exchange that sounds like a Tommy Gun peppering a Model T Ford in gangland Chicago during prohibition… the effect is galvanizing.

The other musicians are holding up their end in fine fashion as the drummer and especially the bassist, Frank Fields most likely, are locked in a groove that give her the solid support she needs to overcome most of the concerns you have in hearing too much of that trumpet. It’s a song that needs tweaking, not radical re-working and were it played at full volume in the midst of a string of rowdy cuts after midnight when your guard is dropped, your inhibitions are lowered and your senses already worn to a frazzle I’m not sure the missteps would even be noticed much.

It’s also important to keep in mind that this is just a B-side, something that many labels put little or no effort into at all, and while Never Missed My Baby has notable flaws that keep it from greatness, the majority of the components allow it to approach greatness in the first place.

Erline Harris was in many ways exactly what rock ‘n’ roll needed, a sassy female with casual swagger that would allow her to stand toe-to-toe with any man in the field, even the loudmouthed braggart she shared a surname with who all but invented swagger.

Instead all of the talent, the opportunities and the timing she needed and seemed to possess amounted to nothing in the end, a casualty of bad fortune, not the first and hardly the last in that regard.

We can’t blame one trumpet for that so we need to look in the mirror and place the blame where it rightly belongs – on us, or rather on our predecessors who while their consistent support of this kind of music helped to make rock ‘n’ roll a juggernaut in under a decade’s time also had a few instances where they just whiffed on someone whose efforts warranted far more support than they got.

Or maybe it’s just that every once in awhile someone can have the right timing when it comes to being placed smack dab in the midst of a musical environment which is best suited to their unique talents and yet also be the victim of bad timing in that there was no one around like us to champion her to the masses. Seven decades later these efforts can’t help but come across as being too little too late, as we know all too well that no amount of retroactive praise will change her fate.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Erline “Rock And Roll” Harris for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)