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DERBY 733; MARCH 1950



Though the term “beating a dead horse” is a gruesome thought, the concept behind the saying is actually pretty sound. After all, why wouldn’t you want to criticize somebody for taking what once was an original idea and constantly referring back to it in all they do, trying to wring every last ounce of credit they can get out of it in the process until it loses all meaning?

For Derby Records and their star performer, saxophonist Freddie Mitchell, they found a winning formula early on and have steadfastly stuck to it by taking time-worn musical chestnuts and rocking them up and then affixing each title with the word “boogie” just so you were absolutely sure of their intent.

Now here they are once again doing just that, giving that equine carcass another whipping. But while the origins of the song itself might seem to most people in 1950 to be a rather curious choice of material for a rock act to (pardon the pun) take a whack at, those knowing whose creative mind the song originally sprang from reveals just how suitable for this transformation it actually was.


Sweet Memories Of The Long Ago
The state of Idaho is hardly known for their music. The most notable rock act to come from there is probably Paul Revere of The Raiders, a very underrated 60’s band historically, but even there you have to realize that while his name was in front of the group he wasn’t the lead singer and if not for sharing the same moniker as a far more famous 18th Century patriot the band would’ve chosen a more conventional 1960’s image than those affixed in Revolutionary War outfits and the piano playing Revere would be a barely remembered sideman at best.

All things considered Idaho is probably vying with the sparsely populated Alaska for last place among state’s rosters when it comes to musicians (oddly enough, Mississippi, which as we took great relish in pointing out a few weeks back is last in almost every meaningful cultural category, from education to economics, would be the landslide winner for most impressive musical heritage… go figure!).

So given these facts, and keeping in mind that Idaho was known primarily for their potatoes not their musicians, then you’re probably asking yourself what possible reason anyone could have in writing a song about such a place.

But someone did for in 1942 Idaho was one of the biggest hits in the country for Benny Goodman, one of the most storied jazz bandleaders in history (who, in case you were wondering, was from Illinois). But it wasn’t Goodman, nor his vocalist Dick Haymes (born in Argentina and relocated to Los Angeles) who were responsible for this ode to an otherwise overlooked state, but rather this public tribute was courtesy of songwriter Jesse Stone (of the Kansas Stones in case you were pondering asking that rather obvious question next).

We’ve written at length about Stone already and will continue to do so for years to come because he was one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in rock’s development thanks to his arranging and producing duties for Atlantic Records, but he was also a songwriter of renown dating back to well before rock was even a glimmer in its jazz papa’s eye and among his more successful tunes was this one.

What made it interesting is that so many white artists (Guy Lombardo was another who scored big with it) were cutting a song written by a black man, an early pre-rock example of musical integration.

In Goodman’s hands the tune is about what you’d expect for the era and big band style – blaring horns followed by a lighter sweeter melody line played by Goodman’s clarinet, all of it catchy but hardly revolutionary. Haymes is singing fairly generic lyrics about its scenic beauty, but you could conceivably replace them with different words about the Arizona desert or the Colorado mountains and not change anything but the readings on your compass.

Or you could drop the lyrics altogether – as Freddie Mitchell did – and look to breathe new life into it by calling it Idaho Boogie while taking on a much more aggressive attitude that rock was now well known for in every state in the union.


Where Yawning Canyons Greet The Sun
We know what the changes will be… or at least SHOULD be… when it comes to re-working this for rock ‘n’ roll so if you were aware of the song’s history when dropping a nickel in a jukebox to hear this in 1950 you wouldn’t necessarily be curious about their general approach. We assume that Mitchell will flex his muscles on sax and try and blow the roof off the joint and the record’s success will depend largely on how far he takes it.

So the real question we’d have going into Idaho Boogie is how much will they rely on Mitchell’s horn to carry the record. After all in Goodman’s rendition eight years earlier he had a huge band that split the chores pretty evenly, plus they had a singer to add another element to the equation.

Should Mitchell be forced to carry the entire weight of the arrangement on his slender shoulders than you could see how this repetitive it may sound after nearly three minutes of nothing but a solitary saxophone in the vast wilderness those discarded lyrics spoke so fondly of.

But remember, this isn’t their first time in tackling this kind of stylistic remodeling and their game plan has remained remarkably consistent from one song to the next and that means it’s being led off by the piano which again is pitched very high – Derby loved emphasizing those tinny-sounding treble keys – and takes on the essential melodic responsibility in the process. Not surprising, certainly by this point not inventive, but which remains reasonably effective in setting the song up properly all the same.

This lighter touch allows us to appreciate the melody better and even reveals that Stone’s song originally may have been an “inspiration” for Joe Liggins’ 1945
The Honeydripper
, one of the most vital pre-rock small black combo records of the Forties that planted the seeds that eventually grew into rock ‘n’ roll.

The piano may be the most prominent instrument early on in Mitchell’s record but it’s not the only sound we hear, as the horn section is providing the rhythmic bed, slightly muddy sounding actually and not all that tight in their playing, but which saves this from being simply another two fingered concerto that so many of Mitchell’s records were at risk for becoming.

The transition from the plinky sounds of the piano to the growling tones of the sax forty five seconds into the proceedings finally orients your senses and puts you in the right frame of mind. Mitchell has long since shored up the early indecision he showed on his first few efforts from last summer and has got the appropriate lung power and theatrical sense to pull this kind of thing off with relative ease. His solo is precisely what the record needs to meet expectations, yet tellingly it never surpass those expectations either, content to deliver just enough of the goods you require to have any complaints.


Another Night Is Done
There’s really not much more to this record than that. If you find the basic melody nice you’ll appreciate the quick return of the piano for another long interlude to put the song back in a more familiar setting.

If you – like us – prefer the uninhibited mayhem that a well-played tenor sax can bring to a performance than you’ll be anxiously awaiting Mitchell’s second appearance in which he resolutely honks away, in effect obliterating much of what preceded it. When he runs out of steam, or reaches for notes too far out of his reach, it falters a little, but by then you’ve either accepted their overall agenda of re-imagining a standard for a rock setting or you haven’t.

Idaho Boogie isn’t the best example of how it can be done by any means, but it’s hardly the worst either. Jesse Stone’s basic structure remains intact even if the extremes on both ends of the sonic scale are far more radical than anything he might’ve conjured up at the time.

Nobody is ever going to claim this was very ambitious but it was practical and oftentimes that’s the better bet for staying afloat in the marketplace which is about all Freddie Mitchell and Derby Records seemed concerned with. So any dead horses out there, be sure to have someone stand guard over you so they can keep this Mitchell character from beating your poor corpse with his saxophone again.


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