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SAVOY 671; AUGUST, 1948

 
 

 

In many ways an understudy’s job is to not be noticed. Or at least not to be needed besides providing assurance that they’d do an adequate job if they were called upon to step in. But the hope is they won’t ever have to be asked because that only means something happened to the star.

Yet they wouldn’t be human if at some point those understudies didn’t fantasize about coming off the bench and delivering a knockout performance their first time in the spotlight and becoming a star themselves.

It rarely happens. The role player in sports doesn’t make All-Star teams and win MVP Awards. The nameless extra on a movie set doesn’t go on the be a leading man. And just as sure as you’re reading this the supporting musician doesn’t ever become a hit-maker in their own right.

Except of course when they inexplicably do.
 

 
First Course
In most meals cornbread is a served on the side, something to have along with barbecue ribs or to sop up the last of the chili on the plate, but while every song we review here on Spontaneous Lunacy is served as the main dish for the day, this cornbread in question is worthy of an entire feast by itself.

Back in December 1947 Hal Singer was simply a session musician hired to back budding rock vocalists like Wynonie Harris and Big Maybelle in the studio on their own shots at glory. Though a vital part of the ensemble sax players like Singer were seen somewhat as interchangeable parts and like each otherwise anonymous musician punching the clock for that day’s session Singer probably wasn’t given the time of day by those running the show.

Get ‘em in, lay it down, get ‘em out. Next up!

Making music like this, on labels that were mostly hand to mouth operations to begin with, was hardly intricately planned out. The records these horn honkers performed on, in a style that was still largely untested, had only modest aspirations at the time, no matter what anyone says in retrospect. The hope of everyone involved was simply to sell enough copies to pay the company’s bills next month and for the featured artist in question to get their name out there so they could continue making music for a living and not be forced to get real jobs. None of them, horn players included, likely gave any thought to altering the course of popular music forever with the work they did on those sessions.

By the summer of 1948 of course everything had changed. Rock ‘n’ roll was carving out an increasingly big piece of the marketplace thanks not just to the rough and tumble vocals and often bawdy lyrics of people like the aforementioned Wynonie Harris, but also in large part to the excitement whipped up by the tenor sax behind people like Harris.


Singer had been particularly busy the entire month of December as record companies sweated out the approaching recording ban set to start New Year’s Day by cutting as many sides as possible, including plenty of end-of-the-session instrumentals designed to fill release schedules should the strike last longer than anticipated. When the vocal sides these companies issued ran out, or when the perceived freshness of them began to wear thin months later, the instrumentals that had been cut as something of an afterthought picked up the slack and with their longer shelf-life due to fewer qualities that would seem dated, and propelled by a tough groove or a sense of raucous excitement they became the rather unlikely runaway hits of the year and sent the still infant rock style into orbit commercially.

All of that has been well chronicled over the past few months here. Indeed some of the biggest chart hits and highest rated records we’ve covered so far came from the instrumental stable. The guttural honks and explicit squeals of the tenor sax were becoming more and more ubiquitous on jukeboxes and record players as the year progressed, but as with the promising vocal sides the supply of these instrumentals were beginning to run out as well.

However for all of his session work leading up to the recording ban, Singer himself had not been afforded the chance to cut any sides as a solo artist in late 1947. The closest he came was with fellow sax cohort Tom Archia in Blow Your Brains Out that was released as a B-side by King Records in May 1948 under vocalist Wynonie Harris’s name.

Though Harris exhorted both players on enthusiastically throughout, using Singer’s home state of Oklahoma as the horn player’s identifying moniker, the saxophonists themselves received no label credit. It didn’t matter, that side of the record wasn’t a hit.

Oddly enough, for Hal Singer this may have been okay.
 

 
 

Look Over The Menu
While every musician presumably craves stardom, recognition and the money that comes with it, Singer likely hadn’t seen much future in this noisy style other than the few bucks he could pick up doing relatively anonymous session work on the side. The results of what he’d laid down behind others was almost irrelevant to him. When some of Harris’s sides unexpectedly hit big it was no different for him than when all of Big Maybelle’s sides disappeared without a trace, he’d been paid to do his job on both and that was the end of his interest in these things. After all he certainly wasn’t trying to make a career off the results.

For Singer you see, his MAIN output, his full-time job as it were, was something he’d long dreamed of. A supporting role perhaps, but one that was the envy of most sax players with an eye on the big time. He’d been hired to play in the legendary Duke Ellington band.

For a musician who’d come of age in the 1930s and 40’s this was akin to being called up to play for the New York Yankees or to make your acting debut on Broadway. It didn’t matter that he might not be the starting center fielder or the lead actor, just the fact you were part of the ensemble was more than most musicians could realistically dream of. Duke Ellington was the big time. A superstar. A figure who was already well-into building a résumé that would position him as one of the most monumental artists in the history of 20th Century music.

In other words it didn’t get any bigger than that.

Singer had spent plenty of time working his way up the ladder to get there too. It wasn’t as if he’d had no taste of the major leagues before this. From the successful territory band of Ernie Fields in the 30’s to playing behind rising star Jay McShann and eventually landing a spot in the breeding ground for seemingly half of the instrumental giants of the ensuing decade when he played in Lucky Millinder’s crew, Singer was a rising force in jazz when Ellington came calling.

Today, when the music world has changed so drastically and bandleaders of this kind are all but non-existent in popular music, the importance of this may be hard to comprehend. But in that era a seat in the Ellington band was the absolute pinnacle of achievement, the top floor of the elevator for a musician in this field. Very few who ever picked up a horn would go on to lead their own band after all, but most who tried knew from the start that whatever success their own outfit would have it would pale in comparison to the acclaim of the Duke. Once you made it with Ellington any other career move was likely to be seen as a step down.

But then for Singer fate stepped in, or snuck in through a side door as it were. After cutting a clandestine session to pick up a few extra bucks backing blues guitarist Brownie McGhee while the musician’s strike was still ongoing, Hal Singer wound up being enticed into cutting additional sides for Savoy Records under his own name in June, 1948.

It wasn’t anything Singer had set out to do. Sure, he could use the few extra bucks it put in his pocket and if nothing else it was a chance to test the waters, to add a little drawing power to your own name and make you perhaps a little bit more valuable to Ellington. Who knows, maybe a little buzz created with your own record might just get you an extra solo in their nightly sets. It couldn’t hurt anyway.

Imagine everyone’s surprise – from Hal Singer to Duke Ellington himself – when the resulting session scored one of the biggest hits of the early rock era. Cornbread quickly became a defining record of the rise of rock ‘n’ roll – both as a commercial entity and a stylistic template.
 

Main Dish
The components that made this music so appealing to the masses, as well as so redundant to many of the more schooled players of it, are all present here. Clearly Singer knew what was necessary to connect with something like this. He gives it a snake-charmer intro to captivate your ear when it starts, followed by a repetitive undulating riff to get you locked firmly in the groove.

Cornbread is like a highlight reel of what made these records connect. It’s got the slightly obscene flatulent lows… the longer held notes to work you into a frenzy… the melodic, but still gritty, interlude to let you know he actually knew how to play. Half groove, half churning riff, about the only thing it’s lacking was the squealing highs that Earl Bostic had displayed, but otherwise this is as strong of a rock instrumental as we’ve encountered thus far.

Of course it’s hardly what Singer himself would’ve considered “challenging” music and you have to wonder if he was lowering the standards intentionally, playing with a particularly rudimentary approach as a general put-down of the style, unaware that such a raunchy orgy of sounds was exactly what the rock audience craved.

After he got paid his 42 bucks or whatever Herman Lubinksy deemed fit for the illegal session, Singer probably walked out thinking he put one over on ol’ Herman for giving him something so crass and unrefined as that in exchange for a couple of bucks to buy a nice dinner with that night. For the next few weeks he probably never gave the session or the song that came from it a second thought.

Until it absolutely exploded out of the gate upon release. The public, specifically the growing rock kingdom, was getting increasingly restless for ever more exciting records to sink their teeth into. By the summer of ’48 – after months of rather slim pickings due to the lingering effects of the recording ban – there’d been a few more bright spots starting to appear, many of them, like this, cut on the sly, taking full advantage of the intervening months to know just what sold and therefore what to emphasize and what to discard, and it was largely those records, much more up to date with the audience’s growing sensibilities, that couldn’t help but be huge. That was the audience who dug into Cornbread like ravenous castaways who’d been stranded without solid food for months.

They absolutely devoured it.

The record stayed in the Top Ten for nearly half a year, topping those charts for a full month of that time, and in the process set the bar ever higher for the type of instrumental that would rule until the end of the decade.

Of the honking brand of rock instrumentals appearing in 1948, this was the record that had both the right sound and the biggest response and confirmed what the guardians of good taste and high musical morals had feared – that this cacophonous noise was actually a threat to have real staying power and the next music revolution might feature songs like this as it calling card.
 

 

Would You Like Desert?
Singer, far from being proud of this, was soon out of work with Ellington as a result!

No, not that the Duke fired him for sinking so low as to indulge in rock ‘n’ roll, or even for upstaging him with a record far bigger than Ellington was getting these days, but rather because its overwhelming success afforded Singer the chance to go out on his own, earning top dollar by headlining shows – far more than Duke could pay him to be a mere backing musician in a large ensemble. But in order to do so, to take advantage of this golden opportunity for big bucks and acclaim, he had to keep playing the type of music he viewed as an absolute joke to low-brow audiences who were clamoring for more of the same sensationalistic smut.

Hey, everybody’s gotta make a living, he figured, and swallowed his pride and hit the road, billed from then on as Hal “Cornbread” Singer. Heavens knows how he must’ve silently cringed when he played it each and every night.

In the end Hal Singer went on to enjoy a long, fruitful career, playing saxophone in a variety of styles for decades. After the sax’s presence in rock ‘n’ roll gradually diminished by the early 60’s with the rise of the electric guitar he moved to Paris in 1965 and reached a level of acclaim in that country that earned him the highest French honor, Commandeur of the Arts. At 97 years old as this is being written he is a vital link to the past, among the last horn stars from the vestiges of the big band jazz era, a man who’d played alongside the very best musicians that type of music had ever seen.

Yet he was known by most for the massive rock ‘n’ roll hit he cut in June, 1948, Cornbread, a song he “never liked”. Like many groomed to play higher class music he looked down on the style that had made his name… but it was the style he’d make his living on for quite some time. The food that would sustain him for eternity.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Hal Singer for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)