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MERCURY 8183; MAY 1950



The era of the honking tenor sax instrumental in rock has already peaked, at least in terms of dominating the landscape, as now we’re hip-deep in a wave of ever more diverse vocalists taking up increasingly more space in the vast spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll.

Saxophonists will still play a prominent part of the music for another dozen years or more of course but the further we get into the Nineteen-Fifties the more they’ll be seen as just one facet of rock’s musical potion, not necessarily the defining ingredient.

So it’s nice that to sort of cap off that glorious thirty month run we’re able to get two legendary names – one who’s already contributed to a slew of great vocal hits with his horn, the other who’ll become one of the towering figures in that role over the next ten years – sharing the stage to remind everyone just why these instruments were so vital in establishing the genre in the first place.


Let’s All Give A Listen
As covered on the top side of this single, the stellar Boogie’s The Thing, we speculated on it being something of a jam session… a chance for the backing band – which in truth was less a self-contained band and more a thrown together collection of some of New Orleans best musicians – to get some name recognition as well as sort of serve as a reward for them playing behind everyone from a future legend in Professor Longhair to promising hopefuls like Alma Mondy and rather forgettable also-rans like Theard Johnson over the course of a week when Mercury Records of all companies decided to tentatively take a swing at rock ‘n’ roll.

So assuming that’s essentially what these two songs were it stands to reason that the anchors of the band, the two saxophonists, would be given the opportunity to shine.

In order of seniority they were Leroy “Batman” Rankins of Roy Brown’s Mighty Mighty Men who was among the first to treat saxophone playing as an athletic event, famed for bar-walking, laying on his back and swinging from the rafters in live appearances… and Lee Allen, up and coming star of the studio scene who’d go on to be featured on lots of the greatest hits by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Shirley & Lee and a host of other New Orleans giants and who would still be knockin’ ‘em dead into the 1980’s playing with The Blasters.

Allen would get a few chances to cut some instrumentals later in the decade and even get a hit out of it too, but honestly those were sort of tamed down for the crossover American Bandstand market and so any chance to get a less diluted version of his genius is welcome.

As for Batman, aside from starring in a string of massively popular movieswait a minute… aside from his work alongside Brown, a vocalist who understandably didn’t take a back seat to anyone, even a saxophone playing superhero, this allows us to put Rankins’ playing in greater focus, which clearly was one of the selling points when cutting this track for the band.

Even the contrived title, Bat-Lee Swing, is one of those unexpectedly nice touches which tells you just how well thought-of these two were by their peers who hope to craft a workable song around them to make this record more than just a thoughtful but ultimately hollow gesture.

Ride, Bat, Ride
A snarling guitar with horns answering in succinct fashion leads into a slightly unexpected vocal (presumably Theard Johnson again) that basically just sets the scene and introduces us to the participants, technically removing the song from the instrumental bag, but brief enough to not overshadow what we all came to hear.

In essence this is similar to what was done back in 1948 when Wynonie Harris came out with two records under his own name (Blow Your Brains Out in the spring and Blowin’ To California that fall) which featured his bellowing exhortations to the main stars of the song, saxophonists Tom Archia and Hal Singer, who proceeded to honk and wail for the majority of the running time.

Harris of course was a much bigger draw than whoever is calling our attention to Rankins and Allen and maybe in those cases some listeners were disappointed he didn’t take a bigger role. Not so here as the less time spent on the lead-ins to the sax solos, the better off Bat-Lee Swing will be.

Rankins is up first (speaking of firsts, the next picture I see of him will be the first… a disgraceful commentary on how artists of this era were deemed insignificant by society at large) and he’s playing with some admirable aggression early on using a nice rough tone that you wish he’d gotten to display even more here. Because of the extended vocal intro however he’s forced to keep his first showcase unfortunately brief but while he’s in the driver’s seat he’s getting the engine to hum by focusing on a churning riff rather than trying too hard to establish a melody.

There’s no wild highs or lows being broken out, no flashy pyrotechnics, but he’s providing the kind of raunchy groove that would go over great in a live setting with more room to expand on it.

Blow, Lee, Blow
As Rankins wraps up his initial stand-alone spot the vocalist returns to essentially introduce us to his partner in the reed section, telling us he blows nice and sweet… which in rock ‘n’ roll is not quite the compliment it was likely intended to be.

Luckily Allen is paying little attention to those dignified proclamations and he’s got his own ideas how to best promote himself. Though it’s true that his tone is a little more subdued than Rankins had exhibited, but it’s got enough grit to it as it rides a more circular melody to leave us satisfied with his spot as well.

But here’s where things start to lose their way a little – not entirely, but at least gets temporarily derailed.

When Allen wraps things up the horns, not just Rankins and Allen, but the others as well, climb in the ring and all start to go at it. It’s still focusing primarily on the two headliners who take the bulk of the lines, but there’s some brief diversions as a result which begins to lay bare the fact that Bat-Lee Swing wasn’t necessarily designed to be an all-out show-stopper – as most wild-eyed rock enthusiasts might prefer – but was instead given a more traditional structure to adhere to.

If those sections had been a little more single-minded in their intentions the results could’ve still been more than acceptable, but instead this tries to bring a little bit of everything to the table without letting any one mindset dominate.

Thus when they start getting worked up again down the stretch and finally consent to honking low and squealing high while trading off with one another, it’s too little too late to truly make this the kind of calling card both of them were deserving of for their skills.


Get Side By Side
Usually when great artists release a record that is a slight disappointment there’s no qualms around here about laying into it because we know that the artist will be back in front of us in no time with another release and thus another chance to redeem themselves.

But not so here. Bat-Lee Swing was an anomaly in the release schedule for both Rankins and Allen, a chance for each to get a little more glory after residing in the background on the records of others.

Both play well enough here to modestly recommend at least checking out the record – and honestly we’d do so for no other reason than to hear a little more of them than you’re usually afforded the opportunity to do as sessionists – but we still have to take the record AS a record and judge it accordingly.

Though there isn’t anything wrong with it and it makes for a pleasant enough listen all the way through, there’s also no risk taking involved, no determination to play so hard that they’d risk leaving a crater in the studio floor. Since this side of the single wasn’t going to be the focal point of the release anyway they’d have been far better off to go for broke rather than to just be demurely acceptable.

This becomes all the more frustrating here in the future when we’re craving the opportunity to hear both of these cats in their element, blowing up a storm and trying to incite a riot as they so often did in live venues. We can’t go back in time to check out a set they were playing at the Dew Drop Inn, so these records are all we have to supplement the handful of testimonials regarding their incendiary reputations as performers in the right setting.

So while you won’t think any less of them after hearing this perfectly adequate record, you also won’t be inclined to think much more of them which is the real crime here.


(Visit the Artist page of George Miller & His Mid-Driffs for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)