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SAVOY 671; AUGUST, 1948

 
 

 

There’s a common perception regarding Hal Singer’s career, one largely fueled by Singer’s own comments over the years regarding his having to give up the loftier pursuits of jazz to take advantage of his sudden ascension in rock circles, that he was an entirely unwilling participant in the revolution at hand.

Though far more successful commercially with his rock output than with his later jazz albums, Singer’s musical preferences remained firmly aligned with the older, more respected and dignified style.

Yet music is a business and in 1948 rock provided him with a platform to become a headliner earning top dollar rather than a fairly anonymous member of a larger jazz ensemble where he might only get a few chances to step into the spotlight while earning typical sideman fees for his services.

The story goes that Singer – who was about to start his dream job as part of Duke Ellington’s band – was talked into cutting a few sides for Savoy Records on the down-low during a prolonged recording ban just to give the label a few more options for releases if the strike went on indefinitely. He never expected them to hit and when the top side of his initial single became the most popular record in black America he was left to deal with the “consequences”, which meant leaving Ellington and forming his own band and cutting more of these crude rock instrumentals on demand.

But while that’s a good juicy story, and one we’ll frequently repeat here since its veracity hasn’t been called into question, the internal conflict at the heart of the story might be a little suspect because at that first session Hal Singer didn’t just happen to stumble onto a racy rock song amidst a three hour run of classier songs, but rather he clearly set out to deliver rock anarchy on almost everything he touched.
 

 

Wanted: One Rock Artist, Willing To Train
Okay, okay, I know what you’re saying (if you’ve memorized the session logs and have scrutinized all of the available recordings that is), which is that Singer cut four songs that day which were specifically done at the behest of producer Teddy Reig who was asking for rock ‘n’ roll songs with crude honking and squealing interludes that would offend any jazz musician worth their upturned nose.

If he were only fulfilling the request of those paying him for the day’s work then that’d mean he wasn’t following his own creative impulses at all but rather was simply a salaried musician, just as he’d been when honking away like a madman behind Wynonie Harris for King Records on Good Rockin’ Tonight.

In those situations Singer was more than amenable to lowering his own musical standards for the sake of the record and while these had one very notable difference in that they’d be featuring his own name as the featured artist, the basic concept was the same. He was being paid for playing “badly”.

Alright, we’ll buy that excuse, but the funny thing is that OTHER sax players at this time were also being paid to “play badly”, including his cohort on those Harris sides Tom Archia and for the most part few of them – if any – were able to match Singer who carried off this form of musical penance with particular zeal. Even those who willingly ventured into this style looking to cash in by creating the biggest ruckus they could were hardly as successful doing so as Singer was. It wasn’t until the next generation – those NOT aiming to be jazz musicians – came along that there was a massive influx of sax players ready, willing AND able to do what Singer seemed to be pulling off without having his heart really in the task at hand.

This might just mean that Singer was a more talented musician, which may indeed be true, but plenty of talented musicians can’t pull off the most crucial aspect of playing something outside their comfort zone which is to play it with conviction.

That’s the hardest thing in the world to fake: enthusiasm. You need to feel the excitement you’re trying to generate with all of this noise otherwise it doesn’t quite connect with listeners. Say what you will about Hal Singer’s desire to be a respected jazz musician but hearing him honk away on Plug For Cliff and you’d have trouble believing that he himself didn’t believe fully in rock ‘n’ roll’s inherent power to move asses on the floor and to move souls in a form of musical ecstasy.
 
 

 
 

Cliff Notes
It’s an interesting thing that Savoy chose to use this song on the B-side of his solo debut and suggests that this was no one-time only deal they cut with him for a lone session.

The reason for this is because while the top side, Cornbread, was the clear winner amongst the tracks he laid down – and would bear that out by becoming a #1 hit – this one we’re looking at today was the next best thing.

This leads to a rather obvious question: Why would a label in the midst of a prolonged ban on recording new material (not that this stopped them obviously, since they did this session in June, six months into the ban with another six months still to go before it was resolved) want to waste the second best side they were able to get out of Singer on the flip-side of a song they all had to believe had the most potential to be a hit?

If they’d held this back in favor of one of the other two sides, a rather aimless version of Swanee River which does start to heat up down the stretch and which would eventually see service as a B-side the next year, and a song called Jumping At Jack’s which to my knowledge has never seen the light of day, even in the CD reissue market during the last thirty years, then they’d have been girding themselves against not having something suitable for a follow-up to his strongest effort.

But regardless of the reasons behind this decision the fact remains that it’s hard to call the top side of the record a misnomer of sorts when Plug For Cliff doubles down on that style.

Now just who was Cliff, you ask? That would be another in the growing list of disc jockeys that Herman Lubinsky, owner of Savoy, was publicly kissing up to in hopes it’d get his artists some additional spins on the air. Again though we have to ask since the other side of this single was the clear-cut favorite for airplay based on merit, why not hold this one back for the A-side of a later release when the shameless payola attempt might do some good, for surely putting it out now with a DJ’s name plastered on it wasn’t going to get them any more exposure even by Cliff Holland of WOOK in Washington D.C. since he too was going to be playing Cornbread over and over.

Oh well, nobody said the record industry was home to brilliant tacticians so we’ll just chalk this up as par for the course and move on to the record, which while not quite as explosive as the hit side at least manages to keep us in the same frame of mind, which is usually all we can ask for when it comes to B-sides at this stage of the game.
 

Plugging Away
It kicks off with a familiar cartoony riff before settling into a churning riff that is taken in the middle register of the horn as Heywood Jackson rides the cymbals with a little more emphasis than found in jazz where cymbals are often used to the exclusion of the bass drum and crackling snares at times. But with Franklin Skeet laying down arguably the heaviest and most melodic bassline of the first year in rock Plug For Cliff still has a solid bottom to work from, not to mention receiving some notable support by Wynton Kelly’s left hand on the keyboards. As it is the track is balanced nicely, each instrument adding something specific without stepping into one another’s territory in the process.

Now one of the things we’ve touched upon when dealing with sax led instrumentals is the way the songs are structured, particularly the uptempo numbers. Those without the instincts or experience in this field frequently mistake chaotic for exciting and come out of the gate at full gallop with no direction in mind and before you know it they’ve run out of steam or crashed into another musician and sent them all tumbling.

Though the arrangements of the songs that work best may SEEM simple, they’re usually more intricately planned than the stereotypical image of a freewheeling jam session they’re meant to conjure up. Thankfully they all understand this here and have a pretty decent game plan in mind, starting off slow and gradually building intensity until they tear the top off and let them go wild down the stretch.

Admittedly that’s hardly the musical equivalent of The Manhattan Project when it comes to scientific formulas but for musicians it qualifies as advanced thinking, especially for those who tend to look down on the very idea of detonating their music to begin with.

On Plug For Cliff Singer starts to ramp up his playing around 37 seconds in, sort of like an airplane taxiing on the runway before take-off. The anticipatory nature of what he plays gets you leaning forward, expecting to soon be hurled back in your seat when he gets airborne. The engines start to whine powerfully soon after this but though he takes off he’s not climbing to the altitudes you expect just yet.

In fact he might even circle back momentarily as he returns to the melody that the song had otherwise left back in the hangar. It’s just a brief respite though because soon he’s pulling back on the throttle – which remember, in a flight analogy has a far different meaning than pulling back musically – as you start to feel the pressure build in your head as the ground below becomes ever more distant.

The last third of the record Singer is cruising at top speed and throwing in some stunt-plane flying to boot, giving you a few dives to get your lunch to come up as he hits assorted low notes and then zips back up into the clouds, repeating notes until your eyeballs rattle and then going off on another sweep through the atmosphere.

You have no idea where you are by now, the compass has fallen from your hands and you may be a little too nauseous to look out the window to get your bearings, but rest assured Singer’s an experienced pilot and will get you back down on the ground safely, easing the song back onto the runway with a light hand as it winds down.
 

You’ve Got The Job
There’s little question considering the appetite by rock audiences in 1948 for tenor sax workouts like this that whether he truly liked what he was doing here or not, Hal Singer was immensely qualified to lead the charge in rock ‘n’ roll if he so desired.

Savoy’s mistake as stated was in not holding this back for a second single to follow up the best side he’d cut that day. Though it may not have been a chart topper in its own right – though then again, looking at Late Freight by Sonny Thompson and Eddie Chamblee which DID hit number one, maybe this would’ve gone to the top at that – but certainly it was something to be proud of and something which would’ve given Singer further pause before he made up his mind whether to return to Ellington and a staid jazz career.

But while we may complain about the decision to “waste” it on a B-side, what Plug For Cliff shows more than anything is that rock ‘n’ roll was an insidiously addictive sound even for those who seemed to acquire a resistance to the virus. Singer may not have wanted to indulge in these raunchier type of songs but when you’re being egged on, either from the producer in the studio or the sweaty audience in a dance hall full of rowdy rock fans looking to unload their burdens from everyday life in an orgy of music and flesh, it was proving kind of hard to resist giving them all what they craved.

If Hal Singer had truly wanted to remain a jazzman to his core then he wouldn’t have consented to give a record label one of these songs, let alone two! Maybe he underestimated the commercial response to these kind of things, we’ll grant him that explanation for his willingness to be so uninhibited on record, but he was no wet-behind-the-ears kid who was lacking experience on stage in front of a fervent audience, so regardless of what he may have stated later about his decision to venture into rock ‘n’ roll, when he was cutting these songs he knew exactly the kind of response he wanted to achieve for those who heard them.

That he succeeded so well may have indeed been a mixed blessing for him when it came to pursuing the career he truly wished to have, but for those of us who want more rock ‘n’ roll, not less, we’ll leave Singer to deal with his conflicted feelings over the results as long as we get more of the same out of him down the road.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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