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DERBY 741; JULY 1950



In roughly six weeks times, from mid-June to late July 1950, Derby Records released three singles by their resident star, saxophonist Freddie Mitchell, this being the third of those records and the one which – due to its theme – had the obvious tie-in with the season making their decision to issue it now fairly sensible.

What wasn’t sensible however was Derby’s lack of concern about flooding the market and allowing his records to be continually shuffled out of jukeboxes for the next release before the first could even gain traction, thereby undercutting their own commercial prospects.

Though it stands to reason that this wasn’t a record they could’ve held over until the fall or winter, it seems that they were caught off guard to discover the length of the seasons hadn’t changed from previous years and maybe they’d have been better off consulting an almanac at the beginning of 1950 and planning their release schedule a little more prudently to avoid these kinds of overlaps.


What Happened To Summer Droughts?
Considering how enthusiastically we greeted the onslaught of honking saxophonists in rock over the past few years it might seem out of character to then be decrying the most prolific among them for issuing too many of these instrumentals, but while Freddie Mitchell’s own contributions to the records remains generally strong, his concepts of arranging – specifically the heavily featured piano where it seems only the treble keys are functioning – make his records equal parts torture and bliss in many cases.

Last time out however it was double-barreled torture as Fish Market Boogie was awful and Till Tom Boogie was worse, not to mention well removed from rock which meant that we got to mercifully avoid reviewing that side.

Maybe it was so bad that there was widespread revolt among the stores and jukebox distributors who had received the shipment from Derby and in an attempt to rectify their business associates they quickly tried to remedy their poor judgement by sending out Summertime Boogie in its place.

Or at least that’s what they probably hope we’d believe.

But in fact these were all scheduled and it’s now becoming obvious that none of them, and that includes Freddie Mitchell himself, seemed at all aware of what separated the good records he made from the bad ones.

That’s a troubling sign going forward. Usually people who hope to find success are at least aware of their strengths and weaknesses and emphasize the former while trying to shore up, or at least disguise, the latter, but in Mitchell’s case he plowed ahead while drawing from both his good attributes and his bad traits in equal measure.

Though that ostensibly remains true here, the one mitigating factor that at least manages to soften his worst instincts has always been the presence of a good melody. When he’s able to “steal” songs from skilled songwriters like Irving Berlin on Easter Parade then he can usually overcome the presence of a tin-eared pianist, and that bodes well for him today, for there are few songwriters more accomplished in this regard than George Gershwin… hardly the most likely name in rock circles, but when it comes to this song anyway, whenever it gets appropriated usually something interesting comes out of the attempts.


And The Listening Is… Easy?
Because we know exactly what’s coming in terms of how Mitchell and company will approach this, our main concern is that they don’t allow the piano too much time handling the main thrust of the song.

Summertime is such an indelible tune it’s fairly difficult to screw it up completely, but if anyone can it’s surely Art Sims and his concrete fingers.

Sure enough as the record begins there’s Sims taking center stage… or should I say, enter stage right, as he seems to forget that he has a left hand and he’s allowed to use it on the bass keys of the piano to establish some verifiable rhythm. But as always he sticks defiantly to the treble keys, played one at a time – apparently he had just one finger and I have a thought as to which one it was, since he seemed to be flipping us off with it on every session he did.

But not even Sims is inept enough to screw up Gershwin’s classic entirely and while he certainly doesn’t add anything of value here, he does manage to keep the basic song intact, though it helps enormously that other horns – more big band in construct actually – are providing a very soft bed for him to diddle over.

Just under a minute in Mitchell comes into view at last, playing the melodic line with admirable intensity. His tone for the most part is good, at least early on, but even more than Sims, who generally stuck to the appropriate notes with little embellishment, Mitchell decides to improvise slightly and that’s the weakest parts of this.

He never strays too far from the song as written, but when he does he can’t seem to add anything compelling. Normally a saxophonist – whether in jazz or rock – will use the lead sheet as a starting point and build on it, either by playing some very technically impressive runs before returning to the source, as would likely be heard on a jazz rendition by a top flight musician, or in the case of rock ‘n’ roll the sax would beef up the sound, digging deep into the notes as if he wanted to eviscerate them, yet the energetic thrashing of the familiar would elicit a more visceral response from the listener who’d feel liberated by the seemingly disrespectful beating being handed out to such hallowed material.

Mitchell seems almost as if he’s searching for a thread he can pull, a line to upend with whimsy or a passage where he can rough up with a gritty interpretation, but finds neither. Then again he doesn’t get so lost that you walk out on him either, making this a record where you expect both more out of him than you get, but also where you are anticipating how much worse they can screw it up.

I can’t tell if that’s a backhanded recommendation or a criticism dressed up for appearance sake, but either way it tells you just about what you need to know of Freddie Mitchell’s shaky reputation a year into his career as a rock act.


High Humidity
Considering how bad his worst records have been this is certainly listenable and for once doesn’t contain anything that will leave you cringing.

However considering how much of an indestructible warhorse of a song they have to work with, Summertime Boogie is a record that they only needed to remain upright while playing to come away with something acceptable so we’ll hold off on throwing them a parade for simply doing that much.

That’s all this is in the end… acceptable. Not anything too good mind you, lest we start expecting more out of Freddie Mitchell, but not so bad that we’re dreading his next appearance altogether.

Think of it like a summer where the weather is warm, not too much wind or rain, but lots of clouds blocking out the sun. You still are thankful it’s not 28 degrees and snowing out, but at the same time you’re bemoaning the fact that you can’t spend ten hours at the beach every day.


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