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DERBY 738; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

When you’re a sax player who’s primarily cutting instrumentals in an era where you might be expected to release six or eight singles a year – two sides per record, remember – and you’re also being tasked with backing the recording sessions of other artists on the label in your “spare time”, you need to find a way to meet that constant demand for material.

Freddie Mitchell found that the easiest route was simply to steal… that is, to cover other records taken from unrelated musical genres and make them into rockers by honking away and usually adding the word “boogie” to the titles to let you know these records weren’t for that song’s original constituency.

Though he was occasionally able to turn old standards into something worthwhile for rock, most of the time these efforts were creatively limited at best, completely uninspired at worst.

After a year of this he was apparently running out of jazz and pop catalogs to strip down so he turned his eyes towards country music and wound up with something that had some definite promise… for both genres moving forward.
 

 

A Zig And A Zag
By this point in our look back at rock’s earliest days I think we’ve dispelled any misguided notions that country music had anything whatsoever to do with rock ‘n’ roll’s birth and subsequent advancements and popularization.

Rock ‘n’ roll had been created in such a way that made it unique, taking elements from various unrelated styles and fusing them together to form something entirely new. It wasn’t a off-shoot of jazz or blues or gospel, it was a complete bastardization of all of those and yet didn’t rely on any of those singular influences to even be called rock, as plenty of songs drew from one but not the others and a different song would mine the others while completely disregarding the first and yet they’d all be immediately identifiable as rock.

Country music, or hillbilly as it was still widely known, was another thing altogether. It was a separate, fully formed and already widely popular major genre unto itself and thus unlikely to have something emerge from it that would be SO distinctly different that it would break away from it altogether and start its own separate musical genre.

Furthermore because the cultural DNA of rock was about as far apart from the social fabric of country there was little chance for natural cross-pollination between the two… at least until it was done with much more intent on the part of specific artists… like Hank Garland and Freddie Mitchell.
 

Tell ‘Er The News
Hank Garland would come to be one of early white rock’s secret weapons as a session guitarist who put some of the most identifiable licks behind the likes of Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley (notably the iconic answering riff throughout Little Sister), and The Everly Brothers, though truthfully he gained most of his notice for playing rock-like guitar parts on sort of country-pop-rock hybrids like Bobby Helms’ Jingle Bell Rock.

Like many guitarists of the day he had the chops to play jazz, and would do so with Charlie Parker among others, but he was a country boy at heart and after hearing Maybelle Carter play that’s the direction he gravitated towards.

In 1949, at just 18 years old, he came up with Sugarfoot Rag as a warm up tune to get his fingers moving and it was so infectious that they had to get it on record.
 


 
 

Garland’s guitar is years ahead of its time, playing clear, crisp, vibrant licks that flowed like quicksilver from his fingers and while the guitar was hardly the instrument of choice for rock ‘n’ roll there were SOME rockers – Goree Carter foremost among them – who’d shown what the guitar in the right hands could mean for rock, bringing a sizzling electricity to a song.

With this performance Garland seemed to be echoing that sentiment and had the record stuck exclusively to his guitar, or if it had used a tenor sax as a second soloing instrument, then we very likely would be talking about it as one of the best rock instrumentals of the era and a breakthrough for white artists – and country artists – moving into a black genre years before that was the case.

Instead, as was all but required for the era, Sugarfoot Rag pledged its allegiance to country music by including an extended fiddle breakdown which takes it into square dance territory… well played, energetic and fun I suppose, but so culturally removed from rock’s identity that it might as well have been from another planet.

Even when Garland returns for an extended workout that turns your head again, it’s the fiddle that follows which reminds you just how far apart the two genres, country and rock, were.

The song though was a smash, selling a million copies and then leading to a vocal version by Red Foley, the country star who seemed intent on covering every song possible (although he had labelmate Garland deliver the guitar solo for that one too – no dummies were the folks at Decca who understood the source of its appeal).

Because the song itself was so focused on that guitar though it seemed improbable that a rock act would tackle it, let alone a saxophonist, but Freddie Mitchell likely wasn’t focused on the instrument itself but rather the energy it produced when he set out to try and harness some of that energy for himself.
 


 
 

Came Home With Plenty Of Swag
Without the frantic guitar to open his take on the song, Mitchell chooses to move the first lyrical stanza that Foley added to the intro in order to set up what follows.

Though the lyrics are typically corny and do little to impart the right mindset for listeners expecting something more cocky and brash the placement of them up front helps to give the song shape because right away Mitchell storms into view, honking rather than bleating, his tone is full and rich and most of all it’s assertive, setting a proper mood.

The vocals don’t let up and despite their lack of polish as singers the band actually delivers them surprisingly well once they get into it, even adding a much more pronounced descending melody to the end of each stanza which makes it come off much better than Foley’s more upbeat rendition.

Mitchell’s Sugar Foot Rag takes on a slight air of menace as a result of the altered vocal progression and the muscular saxophone that neither of the country versions possessed. Of course this being a Freddie Mitchell record we know what’s going to trip him up before long, and right on cue the next instrumental break features that gawd-awful tinny piano which should be outlawed for all the damage it’s done to his output. Somebody in that studio with a pair of wire cutters would’ve been hailed as a hero had they gone in after dark and destroyed the last two octaves on the piano the night before Mitchell was scheduled for a session.

Thankfully it doesn’t last long and the vocals return us to more solid footing after which Freddie comes back for another sax workout, trading off with a baritone in a somewhat wandering part, but it’s the final solo just before the two minute mark where he shows us just what he was capable of.

Spurred on by the exultant cries of the others he rips off what undoubtedly is his best work to date, ferocious playing, repeating one note with fury heading into the fade, a musical hurricane of sorts making it a worthy pairing with Garland’s equally dazzling work on the original when it comes to realizing the possibilities of both instruments.
 


 

One For My Honey, The Other Is Mine
Despite its overall quality and the most aggressive playing of his career to date, this didn’t do much for Mitchell and Derby Records would release another single on its heels just a few weeks later.

In the big scheme of things Sugar Foot Rag (as Mitchell spelled it, dividing the first word on Garland’s into two), would be a minor footnote in the song’s considerable legacy.

The original record showed the world what Garland was capable of, and for that matter what the guitar itself was capable of. Blues, jazz and country music all were in the process of working out how much of a role the instrument should play in their respective genres while rock, the one genre that ultimately would fully realize its potential, was content to leave it to just a few intrepid souls to see what they could do with it.

Eventually Garland would join them, but before he was able to fully leave his mark on rock he nearly was killed in a car crash in 1961 leading to a long hospitalization with extensive electroshock treatments that rendered him unable to play so much as a note. Eventually he re-learned the instrument but never came close to showing the skills that once came so effortlessly.

Though it’s his later 50’s and early 60’s work that earns him the few mentions he gets in rock circles – and his original of this song that got him his nickname and made the deepest impression – maybe his greatest contribution to rock came through this rendition of his most revered work, not for what it meant unto itself exactly, but rather that by trying to interpret what Garland had laid down on guitar, it opened up a line of dialogue between the genres that eventually would pay dividends down the road.
 
 
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(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)