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FREEDOM 1522; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

For a musical style with so many different strands of DNA running through its family tree you’d think rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest days would have far more hybrid records than it does… especially songs that lean more heavily to one of the supposed direct ascendants of the entire genre – namely the blues.

But the idea that the blues directly spawned rock ‘n’ roll has always been one of the biggest myths going, a belief that only began to catch on years later but since that time has been drilled into people’s head until they stopped questioning it.

As we’ve seen though the pure blues have had relatively little do with rock’s emergence, but that’s not to say that some of rock’s vast cadre of artists weren’t versed in the style enough to play it if they so chose.

Goree Carter was one who easily could’ve done so, but thus far anyway he’s chosen not to.
 

 

Show You Points And Figures
A teenager is by definition an intractable individual.

We don’t know for sure what discussions, if any, Freedom Records had with their most talented artist, 19 year old Goree Carter, regarding his musical output. Maybe they just turned him loose in the studio and enthusiastically picked from among the embarrassment of riches he produced when looking for his next single.

Somehow I doubt that.

Just as teenagers are intractable by nature, record company executives are meddling by nature. Though almost universally unskilled in singing, playing instruments, writing material, even producing records, they’ve long tried to dictate the direction their artists pursued, all with the smarmy assurance that they “know the market best”.

If that’s so you’d think their track record in releasing hits would be a little higher than it was.

When Freedom Records opened for business in March 1949 they were probably not in a position to be very choosy about where they might snag some hits, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have an idea of where to cast their line in search of those hits. Texas was a hot bed for blues guitarists, not like Mississippi maybe, where for awhile it seemed as though one out of every three male African-American children born in the state grew up to be a pre-eminent blues guitarist, but Texas certainly had its fair share of major players of the late 1940’s starting with T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Lightning Hopkins and Gatemouth Brown.

It wasn’t just simply that those guys came of age in Texas and so maybe some record label thought it was something in the water that helped give them their ability in that field, but it was the existing musical tastes of the region itself which shaped the direction of those growing up there. Just as Kansas City in the 1930’s gave birth to a certain regional style, and the aforementioned Mississippi spawned the Delta Blues strain, Texas audiences regularly sought the flashy guitar work and more downcast sentiments of the blues.

One look at the regional charts of 1948 and 1949 makes this abundantly clear. The percentage of down-home blues records that made up the Top Ten records in these locals was consistently higher than almost anywhere else. Whereas other areas of the country would latch on to the major blues hits, the Texas towns that were polled (strangely never Houston itself) also embraced things like Crayton’s Why Did You Go or Walker’s Vacation Blues, along with sides by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, that went comparatively unheard elsewhere.

So wouldn’t it make sense that Freedom Records would steer somebody capable of performing the blues in that direction? Of course it would and that’s what they seemed to want early on at least, initially urging Carter to do his best T-Bone Walker impersonation. But that’s where we get back to the intractability of the teenage mind.

Carter stated he didn’t want to follow someone else, he wanted to blaze his own trail and that meant rock ‘n’ roll. When his first side in that realm, Rock Awhile, was so hot it nearly burned the studio to the ground Freedom Records probably was elated… until it failed to hit, even locally. As did the next rock release. And the next. And the one after that.

When their other rocking efforts from the house band led by pianist Lonnie Lyons and sax player Conrad Johnson were similarly unsuccessful commercially, yet Ethel Mae, a pure blues cut (written by Crudup no less) and sung by L.C. Williams became the company’s first legitimate hit (one which adorned the flip side of another terrific pure rocker Shout Baby Shout that failed to draw much notice on its own), whatever early enthusiasm the record company might’ve had over rock ‘n’ roll’s potential surely waned a little and it wouldn’t be surprising if they’d want to take shelter in the older and far more reliable sound of the blues.

So maybe, just maybe, that’s what we have here, as they tried to get Carter to reconsider his decision, or at least compromise a little, and add some more overt blues elements to his songs. Or perhaps they just went digging into the tracks he already laid down looking for something that might suffice in this field, because while it certainly isn’t alien to rock, What A Friend Will Do pulls Carter back in the direction of the blues just enough to be called a hybrid record.
 

I’ve Got A Lot Of Friends
The guitar is this song’s link to the blues. Though of course that same guitar, albeit played much differently, was also used to invigorate rock when Carter unleashed it back in the spring. But the difference between them comes down to two things which remain flexible – mindset and technique.

On songs like She’s My Best Bet, the top side of this release, Carter’s mindset was that of a revolutionary, someone storming the gates of the castle determined to overthrow the musical monarchy. His technique was far more aggressive, his playing much faster and more fluid and his tone was much higher giving it a very distinctive sound that just sounded like someone trying to hold onto a live wire while standing in a puddle of water. The electricity just flowed through him.

But on What A Friend Will Do he eases back on the urgency, downshifts his pacing and alters his tone so that it sounds more dry and brittle. The licks themselves are malleable enough to fit in either genre comfortably, but the textures feel bluesy in a way his other work doesn’t.

If that change alone had been enough to re-classify Carter, or at least slot this one song in the blues bag, then maybe Freedom Records would’ve been happy… if only to gauge its response and see if it made any difference in sales or jukebox spins. But Carter’s not alone in the studio after all, he’s still got The Hepcats behind him – though they’ve been re-dubbed The Rocking Rhythm Orchestra, which probably cancels out some of the veracity of the blues label they might otherwise have been hoping to pick up for this – and as we know The Hepcats were born rockers.

Though Carter’s guitar is the lead instrument it’s got plenty of competition from a rather unexpected source – Nunu Pitts on bass, who delivers the most prominent role that instrument has had on any rock release that we’ve come across so far. You have to remember this was the days of the stand-up bass fiddle, hardly the easiest instrument to showcase any dexterity on, which is one reason why it’s remained in the background so far. But while Pitts doesn’t try to goose his playing up with speed, he is impossible to miss because his plunking bass lopes along in the foreground, getting multiple solos as well, and gives this almost a cartoon quality to it which is quite endearing.

Think of some dimwitted character slowly sneaking up on someone as the bass mimics the footsteps and you’ll get the idea. It may be plodding along in low gear, but it’s somehow bouncy sounding just the same. Who knows, it could be that Pitts got tired of being stuffed in a corner for the sessions and simply moved himself closer to the microphone, but he’s front and center for much of this and the feel he helps establish is a winning one.

Ahh, but we still have other cats in the band, all of them hep as can be, who add their two cents to the proceedings. Lonnie Lyons carries out the rhythm on piano while the horns drone hauntingly behind them all, creating a sound that is both mournful and yet unsympathetic in its tonal qualities, conjuring up the image of looking out onto a desolate cityscape and watching the rain roll down a window late at night.

In other words, though what Carter does ties it enough to the blues to maybe get a waiver to play in that league, his teammates are having none of it and keep pulling him back into the rock precincts. Maybe a much more sedate version of rock than we’re used to with him, but one that everybody from Roy Brown to Amos Milburn have explored with success over the past two years.
 
 

 

You Got To Help Me, Baby
It’s always a good move to diversify your sound, your perspective and your overall approach from time to time and so hearing Goree Carter morosely reflect on the fact he’s “slowing sinking down” as opposed to leading a hell-bent party with his singing is going to be a welcome sight. There’s certainly not much new ground to till with the subject matter but Carter’s proven to be a very solid writer whose lyrics are deceptively insightful and this is no exception.

The title itself offers a hint to the storyline but it’s an intentionally deceptive one as What A Friend Will Do… or at least what a friend in THIS case will do… is snuff out his hopes and dreams and steal his girl as soon as his back is turned. Some pal.

Carter eases you into these revelations though, he doesn’t even get around to revealing that juicy plot twist until the second stanza while the payoff about his wife only gets sprung down the stretch. The reason for this is because What A Friend Will Do isn’t about the friend or his actions at all, it’s about Carter’s increasingly frazzled state of mind. Whether that was caused by this series of acts or more likely whether his paranoid behavior precipitated these things isn’t clear, but Carter is investing this character sketch with all of the emotional anguish he can muster. These are the vague slightly incoherent ramblings of a man who is facing adversity all around him and expects more help than he’s getting from those close to him.

In short it’s a reflection of general despair, and a good one at that, where the individual charges he lays might not even hold up to scrutiny, but the feeling of widespread betrayal is all too real to him. He’s not even strong enough any more to lash out, get angry and fight back against the oppressive forces he’s faced with, so he allows himself to wallow in self-pity and resentment because that’s a feeling he can easily harness and thus it gives him a sense of power and control he doesn’t get elsewhere in life.

For a kid his age it’s a pretty accurate picture he paints of something he was surely far too young to have experienced for himself.
 

Tried To Strip My Pockets
Though not a hit – not with the blues crowd, nor with the rockers – What A Friend Will Do seems to have made an impression on somebody at least because Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson would come out a few months later with Ashes On My Pillow which owes a lot to this structurally, as well as sharing some of its themes and general outlook. Carter’s voice, which employs a throaty catch throughout this, is right from the Vinson playbook, so if Eddie did borrow the idea from Carter, the younger rocker certainly borrowed liberally from the older star in how this is delivered.

Vinson, since we haven’t mentioned him much around here, was one of those transitional figures whose popularity just pre-dated rock ‘n’ roll. Someone who wasn’t quite blues, not exactly jazz, surely not pop and yet not vibrant enough to slide into rock when it came along.

In other words, a hybrid figure, which is fitting since if he DID get any inspiration for his song from Goree Carter it was one of the few that Carter cut which also straddled a few stylistic lines.

Both are good records in their own way though oddly it didn’t do either of them much good getting them into the charts. But for Carter, far from being a wasted venture or worse yet, a misguided attempt by Freedom Records to push him into another realm, Goree Carter once again showed why he was shaping up to be one of the more intriguing artists in all of rock, for even when he shelves his greatest natural attributes he still manages to come away with a song that has plenty going for it to make it worthwhile in the end.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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