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ATLANTIC 888; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

They say things happen in threes. Deaths, plane crashes, scandals… all sorts of bad news would qualify and there are plenty of otherwise intelligent, educated and reasonable people who don’t believe in any superstition or paranormal activity who will insist this “rule of three” is proven fact.

They are of course wrong. It’s not true, at least not any more true than can be statistically explained.

The reasons for believing otherwise however are fairly easy to discern. For starters there’s the saying itself, which as many times as it’s been repeated when three bad things actually do take place in a short period of time, reinforces the idea that it always happens, when in fact there’s probably been hundreds of individual bad things that have taken place in complete isolation in the months or years since the last series of three concurrent unfortunate events.

But then there’s also something called probability, which is as simple as flipping a coin and having it land heads up (or tails up) three straight times. That’s not very hard to do – especially if you don’t specify which result you’re predicting beforehand – and while getting either one three consecutive times is not the expected outcome it’s not so unlikely as to be alarming.

Lastly there’s this: When three adverse outcomes follow one another in close proximity it never fails to draw attention which in turn reinforces the myth… kind of like when a musician, we’ll call him, I dunno, “Frank Culley”, releases three consecutive songs that all feature the same stupid oddball trait which intrinsically harms the results of those records there’ll be someone like us here to point it out in a lengthy review which in turn will lead even more people to think that bad things really do happen in threes.
 

 

Three Strikes And You’re Out
In his first session for Atlantic Records back in January 1949 Frank “Floorshow” Culley, a 30-something year old saxophonist who used his growing reputation from working in clubs to sign a deal with an up and coming label, laid down his first four sides for the company.

Those efforts resulted in one national hit – Cole Slaw – and one record – its follow-up, called Floorshow, which was named after him – that boosted his reputation in the field of rock sax stars even higher.

The B-sides for those two singles were modest, slightly jazzy efforts that reflected the backgrounds of Culley himself as well as the musical interests of Atlantic Records hierarchy, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson who, despite the company seeing their only mild commercial successes thus far come from rock sides, not jazz, were still not quite sure that rock was where they should place all of their hopes. So with Culley, as with the two ex-jazz cats who’d gotten them their first notable sales as rockers, Tiny Grimes and Joe Morris, they split the difference, pairing rock sides with songs that had more jazz in them and let the market decide.

And decide they did. Record buyers and jukebox mavens alike chose the rock sides and so you’d think the course would be set and rock would be the style of choice for all future sessions.

We know that wasn’t to be.

Oh, they definitely began tempering their jazz instincts more on songs with more solid rock aesthetics at their core, but they still found themselves eyeing the fading jazz market with a wistful longing that was somewhat hard to explain considering their business required them to actually sell as many copies of their records as possible and those jazzier sides hadn’t sold squat for them.

But unlike Grimes, who had a deep résumé as a first tier jazz guitarist before landing at Atlantic and switching his focus to rock, or trumpeter and bandleader Morris who came out of the vaunted jazz band of Lionel Hampton before discovering once he was on his own that rock paid the bills on the debts run up by his jazz excursions, Frank Culley had no notable history as a jazz musician.

He might’ve WANTED to be a jazz star, he may have greatly preferred the music and his heroes might’ve run the gamut from Ben Webster to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges to Coleman Hawkins, but we have no definitive proof of this, nor much indication of it even. Culley didn’t get a chance to record until 1948 and when he did his style was already squarely that of a rocker. He’d built his name – or GOT his name we should say Frank “Floorshow” Culley – by playing this kind of balls to the wall style that year in clubs. He also cut tracks as a sessionman behind rock stars like Wynonie Harris and then when he signed with Atlantic his first two A-sides were both rock performances. You’d think that might settle the matter.

But then again, one of the other songs cut, Central Avenue Breakdown, was a jazz tune written by Lionel Hampton, while the other, The Snap, may have had rock elements woven throughout them, but attached to them like barnacles were a contrivance meant to suggest a hepcat jazz mindset… a spoken word patter of nonsense jive.

Now, almost a year later on both sides of this single cut in September he’s at it again… for the third time.
 

Quiet Down
Usually when a record label releases something… let’s say… “inappropriate”, we can cut them some slack by pointing out that independent companies back in the late 1940’s didn’t always have much to choose from when it came to finished sides by any of their artists.

The standard procedure then, and for years to come, was an artist would only enter the studios two or three times a year in between touring when they just happened to be in town – New York in Atlantic’s case – and hopefully they’d have worked some material up on the road and be ready to record it. The session would last three hours and they were expected to lay down four songs, therefore giving the label two singles to release (A & B sides) over the next few months.

Notice there aren’t many options in that scenario as to what to issue. Other than which song you wanted to pair with which other song, and which of them was going to be designated the plug-side, the decision was essentially made simply by what four ideas the band brought to the session. That was the case back in January at Culley’s first session, but oddly enough it wasn’t the case now.

Not by a long shot!

Culley had entered the studios twice in August, right after Cole Slaw (which had been released way back in March) had finally left the local territorial charts the month before. Floorshow was being released as they convened to record his next batch of singles and it too was clearly a strong cut made to appeal to rockers. So you’d expect them to try and take what had worked and do something in a similar vein while maybe offering up something different – slower, more of a groove than a honker – for the B-sides.

Who knows, maybe they did, but we never got to find out because both of these sessions comprising seven songs (including two with the same title cut on separate days) were never issued, rejected for some reason.

Unfortunately we have no idea WHAT that reason was. Were they deemed to be noncommercial? Poorly played? Beset by some mechanical trouble in the recordings themselves? Maybe they failed to mic someone properly or couldn’t capture a clean sound. Or were all seven sides just not close enough to the hit formula they – and other rival honking sax men in rock – had succeeded with to date?

Well, if the latter is the case you’d never know it, because when they came back in September and cut Rumboogie Jive the approach was, if anything, further removed from the hit sound that Culley and others had already achieved many times over in rock ‘n’ roll.

For one thing, he was back in a dark nightclub again acting like a wayward hep-cat.
 

Do They Really Jump?
Both sides of this release feature the disclaimer – I’d call it a warning – that reads: “Instrumental With Talking”. The B-side of their last record, The Snap, didn’t state that on the label but probably should’ve to keep you from being startled by the conversation when it interfered with the music.

On all three sides it was distracting, not to mention out of place and artificial sounding, but on the first two we covered you could do your best to ignore it because it didn’t completely overwhelm the musical attributes. But on Rumboogie Jive it reaches an epidemic and takes center stage, meaning if you aren’t a fan of eavesdropping on a drunken conversation that leads nowhere, then you are bound to be upset.

The focal point of the record, musically speaking that is, ain’t Frank Culley, at least not for most of the playing time, but rather Harry Van Walls. On the top side of this, After Hour Session, we mentioned how great a pianist Van Walls was and his playing here won’t change that assessment much, even though he’s hardly doing anything noteworthy. He barrels along from the opening notes, playing a boogie that serves as a backdrop to the larger concept which dominates the record in a way you didn’t think possible.

That concept is a running dialogue between Van Walls, who sounds slightly off-mic, and Culley who asks him a series of questions, not like a reporter but rather like a friend trying to “talk up” and encourage his pal who’s often stuck in the background. Though I’ll be nice and say that’s a generous move on Culley’s part, the resulting exchange does neither one of them any favors.

For starters it’s awkward as can be, as both of them are trying to seem natural all while knowing they are being recorded doing something neither one has any experience – nor presumably any previous desire – to explore. If they wanted to be orators then get into politics, or read the news on radio, or even get into acting if you want, but don’t under any circumstances try using those “skills” on a musical performance. After all, was Walter Winchell playing a kazoo while spreading gossip on his radio show? Or was John Wayne playing a banjo when shooting it out with somebody on the big screen?

So Frank, for goodness sake don’t try trading witty banter with your piano player, talking about the Rhumboogie Café and asking about the kind of girls that can be found there.

When Culley stumbles over his lines – maybe not written down in advance, but surely worked out in terms of the topics and general sentiments they were going to present – somebody involved should’ve passed it off as a joke, thereby taking the stigma off the musicians for having this convoluted idea in the first place and telling them to cut the nonsense and just play music.

Instead they kept it in… and it only gets worse from there.
 

I’m Gonna Blow It Now
In the past two efforts of theirs which included this nonsensical chatter they at least had the good sense to play something that would otherwise be able to stand on its own musically, but not here.

Rumboogie Jive is so tied in to the spoken-word structure that the music serves merely as brief interludes to the jumbled verbal repartee between the two men. When Culley “asks” Van Walls if they “Can really do the coffee grinder like you say when the cat blows that tenor horn?” that’s meant to serve as a lead-in to Culley’s stand alone spot it comes across every bit as stilted on record as it does in print.

Yet when Culley finally shuts his yap and starts to play he shows why his primary occupation, that of a saxophonist, was a well chosen profession because his lines are reasonably effective and delivered with a nice lighter tone, the held notes in particular are something that in a better conceived piece would be most welcome, but he’s so anxious to put the instrument down and start another soliloquy that he cuts this best part of the “song” short.

At least this time around he’s inquiring about the sexual promiscuity of the girls at this club but at this point if you were sitting next to these two guys at a bar, you’d ask for your bill and head down the street to someplace that features a band that can drown out the conversation from surrounding tables with some actual music!

Lord knows you won’t find that here.

Not only was this a bad idea in theory but it was poorly executed and totally noncommercial besides. Even if you want to grant the two main participants a modicum of credit for what they play, so be it, but keep in mind they themselves are far more focused on what they say and so you never get a chance to enjoy the brief snippets of music contained within.

The fact that they had tried this three times now and in none of the songs were the spoken sections a positive is bad enough, but on Rumboogie Jive the idea reaches its inevitable nadir and kills any chance they had of scoring… with the girls or with the record.

I guess bad things DO happen in threes, which is a good thing because if true it means we don’t have to encounter this dreadful concept a fourth time.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Frank Culley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)