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DERBY 725; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

When starting this website back at the tail end of January 2017, just over two years ago as of this writing, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I definitely knew what I wanted to accomplish – analyzing the full history of rock ‘n’ roll music from the beginning, one record at a time – but I had no idea who might be interested in such a deep dive styled look back at music that was already seven decades old.

I also had absolutely no clue what the response to it would be… Mild curiosity? Halfhearted admiration? Violent disagreement? Or a collective shrug…

In other words, just who would be reading these in-depth reviews of records that existed long before most people today were even born. In many ways this project might wind up being like writing reviews of silent movies, or perhaps critiquing the policies of Rutherford B. Hayes whose stint as the President of The United States was from 1877-1881.

Come to think of it I might as well be writing about the effectiveness of mail delivery in the days of the Pony Express…
 

 

Saddle Up
While the site’s readership has been steadily climbing over the past two years, hitting new highs in visits each month since enjoying a big upsurge last summer, there’s still not many signs that these reviews are having much effect.

Case in point: In the last two Freddie Mitchell sides we covered we said how they both were good ideas with strong commercial potential and featured fine sax work by Mitchell himself, but in both cases they were dragged down by the pianist who focused his work almost exclusively on the treble keys in their highest range, making each record sound needlessly clunky as a result when he was featured.

But did anyone listen? Did Derby Records heed our advice and tweak their game plan after reading the reviews? Of course not, because here they are again falling into the same trap with the same predictable results.

I know, I know, you’ll probably tell me that Derby Records ceased operations six decades ago… that Freddie Mitchell passed away nine years ago in 2010 at the age of 92, long after he ceased recording… and that the song we’re reviewing today was recorded in 1949, well before Spontaneous Lunacy even existed!

But that’s no excuse.

Egotistical though it might sound, one of the things we’re trying to do here is provide a public service with these reviews and if people just aren’t going to bother to use them to improve upon their recorded output then why bother? While it may be unsolicited advice that we’re offering that doesn’t mean artists and record labels should dismiss it out of hand, especially when their failure to make the necessary musical adjustments is going to hurt their long-term reputations.

After all, we’re from the future, we should know… and the fact is today’s record has been long forgotten precisely because nobody bothered making the tweaks we implored them to make last time around. Now they’re suffering from that haughtiness.

It’s not that our feelings are hurt but c’mon, we’re not doing this for our own glorification, we’re doing it for them, the artists, and just once it’d be nice to know they appreciate the effort. That every once in awhile they’d heed our warnings, follow our helpful suggestions and give some indication that all of this work isn’t in vain. But I suppose that’s too much to ask.

Come to think of it maybe we’ll shutter this site and start working on a much needed Rutherford B. Hayes Memorial Presidential Website and leave this rock ‘n’ roll stuff to somebody else.
 

Out Of The Stable
There are 88 keys on a piano but truthfully in most songs in which the instrument is played no more than about seventy-one keys might get used. Not surprisingly the keys most frequently played reside in the middle of the keyboard.

The far left side – the bass – creates a sound that is far too deep and resonant to really fit into something more measured. Your left hand generally plays one octave or so from the end of the line and that provides an appropriately sonorous tone which is more than enough to suffice in most songs regardless of style.

On the far right side – the treble keys – you have the tinkly sounds that carry no resonance at all because the pitch is so high and since the strings themselves are so thin there’s no way to sustain the notes. That’s why, save for a few garnishes for effect maybe, like a glissandi, the last octave on this end of the keyboard is similarly ignored by most piano players.

But apparently nobody thought to tell those manning the bench for Derby Records because this continues to be a problem with their recent releases, one which severely curtails the enjoyment of otherwise good songs and fine performances by the label’s only true star, saxophonist Freddie Mitchell. The fact that this is such an easily correctable, or should I say easily avoidable problem makes it all the more frustrating as a listener.

We know that their over-emphasis on the treble keys in their extended solos derails the momentum of the songs while sapping the power and drive they exhibit. We assume that those in the studio had the ability to hear this for themselves as well yet for some reason chose to ignore it.

But we can’t choose to ignore it. For starters our job here is to review each record, the good and the bad, and when “the bad” is so obvious it sort of mandates a strong reprisal. When they then repeat the same mistakes each time out it has the effect of making these reviews much less fun to write and I’m sure much less enjoyable to read, since who wants to simply hear the same thing over and over.

Who but the folks at Derby Records I suppose, who specialized in taking solid Freddie Mitchell sax work and tying a piano to his ankle and dropping them off the side of a bridge, as they do once more on Pony Express.

All we can say is hopefully no horses were hurt in the making of this record, though they might be cringing along with the rest of us each time the piano’s treble keys get another unnecessarily harsh workout.
 


 
 

Galloping Along
We know right off the bat here that we’re in for more pianistic torture as that instrument, not Mitchell’s sax, kicks things off, hammering away on the far end of the keys and coming off sounding every bit as tinny and unmelodic as ever.

Once again it has to be stated in emphatic terms: Those keys are not meant to carry a song! They’re accent notes, something to build towards in a frantic workout but then quickly drop back into a slightly lower register. They don’t have the desired effect unless you contrast them that way, but this clearly isn’t a one time miscalculation that nobody really noticed until it was too late when they were caught up in the atmosphere on the studio floor… no this is an intentional playing style that shows those involved had little grasp of harmonics.

The fact they let the piano bludgeon your ears from the start doesn’t bode well for the rest of the song. Not only are you more likely to hit to “Off” button right away but even if you keep listening the effect it has is to diminish your potential appreciation of what is to follow no matter how much better by comparison that sounds.

That would be Freddie Mitchell, who now must be feeling like the star of an expensive stage show with a fifth rate comedian as his opening act. But, maybe taking a cue from the song title, in he gallops into the picture at full speed like the Pony Express, determined to rescue this from oblivion.
 


 

Mitchell’s got the right idea, playing with a full rich tone and riffing in lockstep with the rhythm section as the piano mercifully all but steps aside, but while we certainly can’t question his effort or his ability, we do have to point out that he’s got no firm song beneath his feet to work from.

Pony Express is just a freestyle performance, exuberant when he cuts loose, yet with no sense of direction. There’s no hook for him to return to which would give us, the listener, something familiar to latch onto after the first time through. There’s also no variance in what’s being played, he’s in high gear from the outset and crosses the finish line the same way.

Maybe that’s in deference to the entire concept of the real pony express, since the novel approach to that method of mail delivery was to have a string of fresh horses and riders along a route, each taking the same pouch of letters from the preceding mount and going full gallop to the next outlet where another would take over. In that way the mail traveled as fast as it conceivably was able to over land in regions where the railroad had yet to be introduced.

Mitchell’s all-out attack uses the same method, but sadly when it comes time for a hand-off to the next instrument he’s got a broken-down nag behind the piano bench and we end up right back where we started this review, bemoaning the peripheral characters for intruding with poorly chosen parts.
 


 

Out To Pasture
There may be a knee-jerk reaction when meeting a record like this that suggests these frantic honking sax instrumentals that rock was piling up like cord-wood before a cold winter in Minnesota had just about run their course. How many new ways were there to cram as much excitement into three minutes with no vocals while utilizing the same basic four or five member instrumental lineup?

Surely at some point you’d just start to sound frazzled, which Pony Express is definitely guilty of itself.

But that’s not the problem. Or rather, that’s only a minor problem, one which in time will become more of an issue as another half dozen years of these excursions are laid to wax, but we haven’t reached the saturation point yet.

The real problem is how tricky it was to create twelve or more really good sax instrumental on demand each year. Though you may think that the absence of lyrics means with one less component to focus on there’s also one less thing to trip you up, therefore it should be easier to come up with something acceptable. In theory that may be true but without lyrics to shoulder the load all of the responsibility falls to the instruments. This is why by the mid-1950’s the sax was more effectively used for a mid-song break in vocal group records where for fifteen or twenty seconds they could go right for the jugular and were often the highlight of the entire production.

But for now the sax – and its cohorts on whatever other lead instruments you had laying around, usually piano, but occasionally guitar – had to work up a solid song… a catchy melody, a great hook and solid rhythmic underpinning all working in tandem… and THEN you could dramatize it with a showy solo to get the blood pumping.

When they can’t quite get those aspects worked out properly that’s when something like a poorly conceived secondary instrument’s parts stand out all the more. Had Mitchell had a more structured song then the same faults with the piano wouldn’t be able to deep six the record entirely.

But when the song itself is weaker then it can’t carry the piano’s weight and they all – Mitchell, the horse and the mail – wind up collapsing and falling down on the trail together… undelivered.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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