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FREEDOM 1506; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

If anything has become evident thus far in rock’s journey, even just twenty months into the proceedings, it’s how diverse a genre rock ‘n’ roll was from the very start.

From holy-roller vocals celebrating earthly decadence to fragile vocal harmonies ruminating on love’s tenuous possibilities… From subversive harmonies hinting at something lurking under the surface to storming sax-led instrumentals that leave nothing to the imagination. Rock ‘n’ roll was staking out the wild terrain of a new frontier far removed from the settled lands of pop and jazz.

Its unifying features weren’t found so much in specific musical or vocal attributes, rigid definitions designed as much to exclude as to include, but rather it was defined by outlook and attitude (along with a certain undeniable musical modernity), a shared vision between artist and audience united by the circumstances of their backgrounds. Rock ‘n’ roll was music for those kept out of the mainstream due to race – and youth – who wound up forcibly upending the mainstream with brash determination.

If the blues was music for those on the outskirts of society wearily resigned to their fate, rock was for those who sought to overthrow their cultural oppressors in the most rousing way possible.
 

 
Goree Carter was someone who could’ve easily gone in either direction, blues (a consistently commercial and respected genre, albeit in a decidedly second tier bracket of mainstream musical styles) or rock, a style that at this point was rapidly climbing the commercial ladder but lagging well behind in the respect department.

In fact like many other Texas born guitar hot-shots of the time Carter was influenced by blues kingpin T-Bone Walker, an electric guitar pioneer in the field who was currently enjoying his biggest run of success (indeed, from January 1947 through February 1950 Walker would score 9 hits… his ONLY nine chart hits of his storied career). The direction Goree Carter’s career would likely head therefore should seem fairly obvious – he’d choose… or be steered to… the blues.

But no, Carter became a rocker and became one by CHOICE. Although he loved Walker’s technique and would play that style enthusiastically on stage he was determined to not become a Walker imitator on record and resisted those who were urging him to merely follow in T-Bone’s formidable footsteps. Instead he set out to define himself as something different by heading into a comparatively newer style of music, one without much precedent when it came to guitar practitioners, and in the process laid the groundwork for almost everything that followed in that regard.
 

Feeling Good This Morning
The artists we’ve covered to date here on Spontaneous Lunacy who will transcend their specific era – Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, The Ravens, The Orioles, Paul Williams and Big Jay McNeely most notably – are those who’ve established crucial archetypes. In some cases it’s an entirely new approach that upends everything you’ve come to know, in other instances it was merely an important tweak to an already established formula. But when it happens the artist no longer is merely defined by their hits or even their deeper body of work, they’re defined by their influence on future generations.

Society tends to celebrate those whose names are most often referred to as influential by other big names, which unfortunately rarely ever included guys from THIS era due to unsettling demographic realities and lack of coverage issues both at the time this music was current and in the years since when it came to acknowledging rock ‘n’ roll of this particular period, but the fact of the matter is you don’t credit influence merely by who others name check in interviews. If so you’re doing it all wrong. The reality is that much of the time artists are influenced by people they might never necessarily have heard first hand, but rather a specific sound that gets filtered down through the years from one record to another.

Yes in some cases it IS one artist hearing it, replicating it, then spreading it wider (Fats Domino using the triplet style that Little Willie Littlefield set into motion for instance, which then grew ever more popular thanks to Fats decade long run as the most consistent hitmaker in rock). But other times it’s a sessionist recalling something they vaguely remember and suggesting it in the studio. Or a record label or producer looking to capitalize on a sound that seemed promising and seeking out other artists who can play something similar.

That is precisely what Freedom Records were TRYING to do with Goree Carter, hoping he’d consent to play T-Bone Walker styled blues. In fact his first effort WAS a pure blues offering called Sweet Old Woman Blues that had been recorded surreptitiously as he was asked to play to “hear how he sounded” without being aware they were secretly recording him. He then saw it released without any contract being signed as the B-side to that rare phenomenon of a split-artist single, pairing him with the aforementioned piano rocker Little Willie Littlefield (on last month’s Littlefield Boogie).

If “Sweet Old Woman Blues” was the type of blues he’d have ventured into had he stuck with that genre (sparse sounding, forlorn vocals, modest and maudlin accompaniment) then Walker had no reason to worry about being supplanted as the state’s premiere bluesman.

That’s not what Goree Carter wanted to do however. Goree Carter wanted to rock! Once signed to an actual contract – albeit one that never put more than $35 or $40 in his hand for his work – he shook free of the label’s desire that he subject himself to imitating another artist and promptly shed himself of the blues altogether and stepped… leaped is more like it… into rock ‘n’ roll and promptly helped to forever redefine it.

We don’t quite know what route the sounds found on Rock Awhile took to get from Goree Carter here in 1949 to Chuck Berry in 1955 and beyond, as history tends to only focus on where it went from Berry – The Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, et. all. – but what we DO know, or SHOULD know and freely admit is that here’s where it began.

This is the blueprint of the so-called “modern” rock sound.
 


 
 

Throw Away My Blues
That’s not to say, or even suggest, that the rock styles that existed before this without prominent lead electric guitars are somehow old-fashioned and anachronistic. Those styles lived on, and live on today for that matter, even after the guitar increasingly elbowed its way to the front of the stage. But here’s the point in history where that instrument truly went from anonymously (and modestly) supporting the horns, pianos and drums on record, to showing precisely how it could take the lead if given the chance.

Rock Awhile therefore opens up new possibilities in the sonic template and adds more vibrant colors to the rock palette, a song Goree Carter wrote on the spur of the moment in the studio which would instantly transform the rock landscape.

Though Carter’s guitar is the most prominent and dazzling component of the record, smartly it’s not the entire focal point of the record.

It makes its presence known right away however, kicking things off with two stinging licks that are designed to capture your attention out of the gate, but then he drops out and lets the more familiar tenor sax and piano carry the more melodic structure of the prolonged intro. That serves to ground the song for the sensibilities of those who’ve missed the handful of (commercially underwhelming) rock guitar led tracks to date by Jimmy Lewis, a Joe Morris side and one or two others, while still allowing Carter to make his presence known with more sizzling accents while the drums refuse to sit back and let the other instruments have all the fun, throwing in his two cents as this gains traction.

The result is a blistering attack that lasts a full forty seconds before Carter’s guitar steps out front again as the lead-in for the rest of the performance.

Carter’s vocals are solid enough, delivered in an effective throaty semi-shout, but his role as a singer on this is simply to serve up some lyrical placeholders so the song has some coherent structure that allows you to reasonably follow along. There’s no storyline here to latch onto, no real characters or setting to get your bearings, no scenery to get a picture of what’s flying by. But none of that is needed, in fact it’d be superfluous under the circumstances, and so wisely the lyrics are nothing but a series of loosely connected exclamations regarding the festivities designed to convey verbally what the sheer vibrant emotions the music behind it is stirring up in every listener.

Each refrain rides a piano boogie bolstered by a kicking backbeat before both give way to another searing instrumental passage, mostly highlighted by Carter’s driving guitar. His tone, his pace, indeed even some specific licks are a portend of what’s to come down the road in rock with Berry and countless others. You can say that once the guitar became ever more prominent due to advances in technology that favored the electric guitar as a live instrument it was inevitable these discoveries would be made by someone. After all there’s just six strings and not too many ways to manipulate them to produce melodic variations, but Carter’s approach is what those who followed settled on most. A loud almost harsh sound bordering at times on distortion, constantly pushing the pace, seemingly reckless in its intent as if driving too fast down a winding street at night with no headlights, but somehow remaining between the lines all the same.

Gone from this were the vestiges of jazz which many earlier rock guitar parts drew from, with their understated melodic touches, drawn out and given space to breathe. Carter’s guitar by contrast seems to cram notes together then forces them out like projectile vomiting, which even without envisioning the Technicolor yawn of such a scene, you can imagine that playing in a way that suggests such a thing would get Carter forcibly ejected from any respectable jazz musician’s bandstand if not locked up on suspicion of being possessed by Satan.

But interestingly Carter is also taking this well beyond blues mindsets as well, Walker or no Walker. The blues at the time generally had far more discretion in its guitar leads than this adheres to. The lines were cleaner, there was plenty of separation between instruments, each part was much more structured and orderly. For the most part there were no orgiastic unhinged performances as Carter displays here. If anything that type of playing was deemed too crude for blues, almost as if it was giving into the derogatory stereotypes of blues as a low-class backwards musical genre.

That’s not to say Walker and others didn’t venture in this direction at times (though usually not on A-sides), but Carter makes it the central premise of the entire record and it defines his entire style going forward. In the process he introduces a new image to the rock lexicon: the guitar as an explosive device, a sound that was capable of driving the entire record, defining the attitude of rock even more as something barely controllable, hence dangerous.
 

 

Won’t Believe The News
The cacophony of the entire performance, each lead instrument – sax, piano and guitar – taking second half solos with the drums slamming behind them, pushed rock ‘n’ roll even further over the brink. The style was already veering close to anarchy in its gaudiest moments, further distancing itself from the accepted standards of proper music, but there was always the hope that it all might burn out once the sound of those honking saxophones and churning rhythms became repetitive and monotonous. Sooner or later the eardrums of its listeners would grow weary, if not explode, when confronted with the same types of aural assaults.

But with Rock Awhile Goree Carter found new ways to offend the straight-laced sensibilities of the mainstream and new ways to excite the restless hordes of rock fans who were requiring ever more potent musical highs to sustain their buzz.
 

 

The 1940’s rock sound was undeniably centered on the tenor sax, loud, lusty and lewd, but Goree Carter gave listeners a sneak preview of the future, not just the mid-50’s but the 60’s, 70’s and beyond. It’s not a better sound, nor even a more appropriate sound, but it IS a necessary sound because it transplants the initial exhilaration found in those raw sax solos to another instrument ensuring that rock’s DNA could in fact successfully mutate and thereby resist efforts to be inoculated by society in the hope that it wouldn’t spread further.

Everything about Rock Awhile right down to the title itself obliterated the hope of keeping the music quarantined. The virus was now too strong, too infectious, too resistant to any vaccine to be eradicated. The hits were coming fast and furious and while this wasn’t found among them on the charts, owing more to Freedom Records lack of experience and distribution than anything, in many ways this was even more potent than the records that sold quick but faded fast, because its sound was an epidemic that would soon take over the world and be passed along for generations to come.

Even today there is no cure for this… not that you’d want one.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Goree Carter for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)