Tags

No tags :(

Share it

DERBY 713; JULY, 1949

 
 

 

This is a review about a record, but also about numbers.

The meaning of these numbers might not be apparent at first glance but they’re all representative of what the record, and the folks who made it and were its subject, had to endure at the time.

Some of the numbers are impressive, some are merely incidental and maybe some are even relatively insignificant, but all are notable in one way or another to the story at hand.

It’s a story about America in the late 1940’s and about a style of music that emerged from a community forcibly shut-out of the American dream and it’s all tied together with a story about the country’s National Pastime which offered evidence on as broad a stage as possible that the inequities of the country were untenable when challenged.
 

 
The Number Two
As in record number two for Freddie Mitchell as a bandleader after years spent playing in jazz outfits, including those helmed by some of the biggest names in music history – Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Hot Lips Page and Louis Armstrong.

For Mitchell, now thirty one years old and seeing the gradual decline in popularity of the style he’d been playing his entire adult life, the opportunity to not only cut his own records but to also serve as the newly formed Derby Records resident bandleader and music director was a dream come true. The dual nature of his contract with the upstart company ensured that unlike many musicians whose fate would often be tied to their immediate returns on the label’s investment, Mitchell had some leeway when it came to his own output.

Two was also the number concerning Larry Doby, the subject of Mitchell’s second offering on record, for it was Doby who, two years earlier, had become the second African-American to play Major League Baseball when he signed with the Cleveland Indians, integrating the American League as Jackie Robinson had recently done in the National League.

But when it comes to trailblazers while everybody remembers the first, few pause to contemplate the fate of the second.
 

The Number Eleven
Eleven weeks were all that had separated Robinson’s first appearance on a Major League ball field April 15, 1947 and Doby’s initial at-bat in the big leagues on July 5th that same year.

Eleven weeks.

In your lifetime how many major cultural changes have actually taken eleven weeks or less to feel at a personal level? I’m not talking about the event that signals a change, such as a law being passed or vote taking place, I mean the actual change itself being felt across the nation in everyday life, where it has tangible effects on how people behave, how they live their lives and how they interact at every level.

Not often.

Change happens slowly, something we’re seeing with rock ‘n’ roll, a style of music that came into being in September 1947 when Roy Brown released Good Rocking Tonight and launched the rock era. But eleven weeks after that record was released rock hadn’t scored a single national hit so few people were aware of its existence. During that eleven weeks only a small handful of records had been issued by other artists which could even be called rock ‘n’ roll.

So eleven weeks is nothing. A drop in the proverbial bucket in the big scheme of things. A mere blink of an eye when it comes to witnessing substantial cultural upheaval.

When Jackie Robinson played his first Major League game with the Brooklyn Dodgers back in April 1947 it came after a year of careful preparation by the team who’d had him play a full season in the Minor Leagues in Montreal, a far more tolerant city outside the United States where his presence wouldn’t be as scrutinized. Then in the spring of 1947 he’d gotten the chance to play alongside his new teammates throughout spring training, giving him a full month of games, bus rides and locker room interactions in a comparatively pressure free environment where the games don’t count, aren’t scrupulously covered by the press or even attended in great numbers by fans, all of which served to help him assimilate into the team before being unveiled on a larger national stage once the regular season began.

In spite of that groundwork done to ease his transition his arrival STILL wasn’t without incident and he’d face discrimination large and small around the league for years, even as his own team was much quicker to accept him.

Larry Doby had no such measures taken to try and pave the way for his arrival just eleven weeks later. Unlike Robinson who was a 28 year old college graduate with a well-documented history of standing up to segregation (he was court-martialed in the Army for refusing to sit on the back of the bus), Doby was just 23 and had grown up in an integrated town in New Jersey where he was the only black player on his teams and fully supported by his teammates who once voted to turn down an invitation to play a football game down south because Doby would be excluded.

It wasn’t as if Larry Doby hadn’t faced any prejudice, nobody of color could make that claim in the 1940’s – or sadly even now in the 21st century for that matter – but Doby was far more unprepared for what awaited him than Robinson had been. He was a shy, soft-spoken kid who found himself plucked from obscurity after one season on the Negro League Champion Newark Bears to do something no less daunting than what Robinson was in the process of doing, except he wouldn’t have the support system in place to help him along.

Though the Cleveland Indians owner, Bill Veeck, a maverick who had been itching to integrate baseball for years, was in his corner, the team itself had not even been told of the idea until Doby showed up at the ballpark in July. There was no fanfare, no efforts to smooth the transition, either for him or his resentful teammates, he was simply introduced to them and when he went to shake their hands many refused to do even that, some even turning their backs on him and those who did make contact with him did so without any warmth or kindness at all.

Whereas Robinson had the advantage of being one of the best players in the league from the moment he stepped on the field, something which helped to act as a type of shield against some of the potential abuse he faced, Doby struggled mightily that season, hardly able to get into any games to prove himself worthy of being seen as more than a social experiment.

Eleven weeks of Jackie Robinson playing halfway across the country and surpassing the expectations of most fans, opponents and neutral observers alike with his play certainly hadn’t changed the ingrained mindsets of the country at large or even just those in the game who now were faced with being “forced” to accept Doby as well.
 

Fourteen
The ultimate fates of Freddie Mitchell and Larry Doby turned out to both be positive ones, professionally at least. Doby became one of the Indians top players his second season, helping them to a World’s Championship that year and hitting a home run to win Game Four of the World Series. In 1949, where we find ourselves today, Larry Doby would be named to his first of seven consecutive All-Star teams and he’d twice lead the American League in Home Runs on his way to a Hall Of Fame career.

Today one of the streets the Indians current ballpark resides on is named after Doby, while a statue of him sits proudly outside and in 1994 his #14 was retired by the club. After his death the United States Postal Service honored his legacy with a stamp, providing some measure of belated acknowledgement for what he’d done and what he’d represented for so many.

Mitchell didn’t quite achieve those heights but didn’t do badly, starting with this, the song named Doby’s Boogie in honor of the pioneering baseball player who was currently taking his place among the elite in the game.

Who decided to name it after Doby, whether Mitchell himself or Derby Records, isn’t known, but it was an unexpected yet canny choice that showed they were in tune with the market who would be expected to buy this.

Being an instrumental of course it didn’t matter much what they called it on paper, but in choosing Doby’s name to adorn the title they were signaling an appreciation for what they all, artists and listeners alike, were facing in their daily lives.

While Freddie Mitchell was respected enough within the company to be tasked with leading the house band, when he stepped outside of the studio doors he’d still have trouble hailing a cab, being served a meal or renting a room, as would all of those laying down their 79 cents to buy a record honoring somebody who, in a notable way, had shown the world that eventual success was obtainable if only the chances would be granted to prove it.
 


 

Four And Five
Mitchell’s two sides on his initial release last month both had problems but they were far different issues affecting each one. Slider was out of tune and had no sense of structure or purpose other than to create a racket. By contrast The Derby corrected both of those faults but in doing so removed most of the enthusiasm which made the results rather underwhelming.

Doby’s Boogie shores things up in both areas reasonably well. It maintains a spirited level of buoyancy throughout the performance, one which suggests that the band is genuinely upbeat and even excited to be playing this type of music and this song in particular.

They’re not completely convincing, some of it does come across as going through the motions of making some boisterous noise to show they mean it, sort of like a crowd scene made up of well-meaning extras in a movie whose physical movements may indicate excitement but whose blank facial expressions give away their lack of deeper commitment to their characters motivation.

Yet that slight lack of wholehearted endorsement of the sentiments they show are not alarmingly conspicuous. You notice it if, like us, you’re specifically looking for signs they’re playing a part rather than expressing their true feelings, and while it’s definitely visible upon closer inspection it’s not altogether sinking the effectiveness of what they play.

The other interesting aspect of this is how Mitchell shifts the focal point from his tenor sax to Joe Black’s piano. Not only does that instrument take the first minute backed by simple propulsive handclaps and some distant grunts and shouts (which sound unfortunately either like bad sex or someone straining mightily while sitting on the john) but then it gets the first turnabout in the arrangement before Mitchell has his say.

Now when Mitchell comes in he takes this fully into the rock realm, playing a crude stop/start pattern that almost makes you think he’s running out of breath at times and can’t keep going for long, but which is intended to stir up some passion amongst the listeners. It’s certainly not setting the bar too high, but it’s also not aiming too low and if nothing else the attitude he projects is enough to suffice.

But then Mitchell drops back out and hands this back to Black who doesn’t really offer much in the way of wild antics – and he’s too far off mic to really hit you in the gut with his playing – but at least it carries this along, helped by a more audible bass, until, like the last time out with The Derby, it ends with a very intentional long fade, still a rarity on record for the late 1940’s.

Unlike Doby himself, the record is really nothing special, but then again there’s nothing to keep it from being mildly enjoyed either and certainly when taking into account its historical importance it deserves to be heard.

The interesting thing is, and what’s cause for some speculation now, is that in spite of its rather mild formula and modest aims Doby’s Boogie became a genuine hit, landing at an impressive #4 on Billboard’s R&B Charts.

Now of course we’ve seen the growing commercial might of the rock fan and we know full well their affinity for instrumentals so that certainly could be why this charted as highly as it did, despite coming out on a brand new label with no name recognition for the company or for Mitchell himself to pull in sales.

But the other possibility is that the rock fans buying this were also baseball fans who were using their improving economic clout to voice their support for Larry Doby himself, now in the summer of 1949 a reigning World Champion and who was about to make his first All-Star team. That may sound far-fetched but really it isn’t when you stop to think about it.

Since black America had so few opportunities to celebrate their cultural icons in a way that made mainstream society sit up and take notice here was a chance to do so in a very public fashion, one which might’ve even lead to more opportunities in the future when business saw how it could pay off economically. Since such opportunities were limited for the most part when one came along it was imperative that it be collectively embraced to give notice as to the viability of the market.

That holds true even today as the recent massive success of the film Black Panther – as great a movie as it is – was something that was propelled even higher by the cultural stakes as a united community took it upon themselves to prove that such a film could in fact be a blockbuster.

Though Doby’s Boogie as a record is just average for rock ‘n’ roll in 1949, the man it was named for and the people who supported both the ballplayer and the song were anything but average. As an artifact from a time and a place in American history that too often would overlook them all that makes this a record worth remembering.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)