SAVOY 697; APRIL 1949



It was a common occurrence for saxophonists in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, something which was carried over from jazz instrumental showcases for horn players… and that was the tackling of a standard.

The reasons for this were easy enough to understand. It was one less song that had to be conceived by the artist to complete a “four songs in three hour” session. These standards also had durable and familiar melodies that would be widely recognizable to audiences, thereby piquing a potential customer’s curiosity and making it easier for them to get into it on first listen. Finally it offered the musician the chance to add plenty of elements of their own unique playing style to the arrangement that would exhibit their creativity.

But how many of them really took advantage of that opportunity to re-imagine those standard songs and really put their own stamp on it? Moreover, how many – if any – actually went for broke and tried to obliterate the song’s origins to come up with something utterly distinctive as a way to establish themselves as someone who had their own musical vision that wasn’t about to be reverential to the ideals that most in the music industry held dear?

Sadly the answer is not nearly enough.


River Walk
Back in June 1948 Hal Singer, session sax ace who was poised to join Duke Ellington’s acclaimed band, took the money Savoy Records offered to cut a single session on the sly during the midst of a recording ban to give the label additional material in the style that was unexpectedly tearing up the charts – that would be rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals – in the hopes that their clandestine activities would give them a leg up on their competitors.

But what was Singer’s mindset for all this? He’d been successfully moonlighting behind rock singers for months, adding some raunchy parts to vocal boasts about partying and sex and booze, but all of that was done anonymously… where his own reputation wouldn’t be besmirched by the association with such tawdry material. But now that he was being asked to play in that unruly style under his OWN name would he be trying to take a different tact, perhaps using this session as a way to promote his own musicality, or was he simply using it as a way to make a few bucks?

We don’t really know, but by the looks of it he didn’t really come in prepared with songs and arrangements written out in advance. He might have had some general ideas going in but considering that the best track was the last one cut it is more likely that he was creating on the spot, building up to the kind of song that everyone wanted out of him. Producer Teddy Reig probably used the earlier sides to encourage him to give him more or less of something for the next tune, then they all refined those ideas in the next take or the next song. Finally the collaborative efforts resulted in Singer coming up with what turned out to be Cornbread, the last – and best – track they laid down.

Had he gone in with those ideas already worked out it stands to reason they’ve have cut that one first – put your best foot forward and all that. You’d want to show it off, to give yourself the most time – and thus the most takes while the band and producer and engineers still had their enthusiasm high – to get a version down you felt strongly about. THEN you move on to other, lesser, ideas and finally you’d close it out by tackling a standard as “filler”, or in this case a potential B-side.

Instead they led off with Swanee River, using it as a warm up of sorts, a way for the musicians – which included Wynton Kelly on piano, Heywood Jackson on drums, bassist Franklin Skeete and trombonist Milt Larkin (whom Singer would later back in December when Larkin fronted the made-up group The X-Rays on a session to get out a quick cover of another group’s song) – to get comfortable working together.

Because of that sequence of events there’s not much likelihood that you’d get a particularly noteworthy record out of this rendition.


At Risk Of Drowning In The Swanee River
The record starts out about as mild and uninspired as you could possibly imagine. The intro featuring the two horns sounds positively sickly, almost as if they had just crawled out of hospital beds moments before the tapes rolled. When the others come in they manage to steady themselves a little but it’s still an even money bet if they’ll make it to the end of the take without collapsing into a coma.

But maybe this is why adapting a standard is a safe bet, because they seem to come equipped with handrails designed to hold themselves up as they get their legs under them, the familiar melody providing surer footing than something one of them dreamed up themselves while still attached to life support in those hospital beds.

Once Singer bites into the meat of the song’s juicy melody he gains strength, if not exactly inspiration, and the song becomes both recognizable and depressingly predictable. Singer’s sax is joined by Larkin’s droning trombone to create a hazy sepia colored image of the distant past, not necessarily musically distant (though it’s certainly not forward looking at this point) but rather in terms of signaling placid contentment, two words that are an anathema to rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s taken at such a languid pace that the highlight during this stretch is Skeete’s lonely bass notes which stand out because there’s nothing else in the sparse arrangement to distract you from noticing them. Swanee River at this point is shaping up to be little more than a late night exercise in a desolate night club where the few patrons left nursing their final drinks are vastly outnumbered by bartenders and waitresses, none of whom are paying any attention whatsoever.

Or to give it an analogy suitable for the title, this is a pretty dry riverbed you’re walking through, barely getting the cuffs of your pants damp even in the deepest spots.

Floating In The Swanee River
But with saxophonists, especially the more skilled variety as Singer certainly was, there’s always a risk on giving up on them before the record ends. Many’s the time when they start to show more life after an underwhelming opening… or in this case a desultory first minute and a half!

Things do indeed start to pick up in the second half as Singer finally starts to show a pulse. He’s blowing with increasing passion, filling his lungs with blessed oxygen and then exhaling in a rhythmic manner while his fingers show they have the dexterity to operate the keys in a way that produces actual notes that sound reasonably coherent and… dare we say… even vibrant at times!

When he drops down to give a flatluently crude honk it produces the desired effect – a grin, maybe even a full-on smile – as Reig and company realize that Hal can – and is possibly even willing to – drop his pretensions and deliver a passable example of rock.

With that sign his status in the infirmary is bumped up from the critical list to being listed in stable condition. He’s not going to be discharged from the hospital just yet, but at least he’s not going to have the bead-jiggler sitting by his bedside ready to deliver last rites on his rock career before it even gets started.

Down The River And Down The Drain
Now obviously that’s hardly the most ringing endorsement for this record. A professional saxophonist delivers a modest version of a song that surely every kid in high school band played with equal or greater proficiency at one time or another.

But that brings us full circle to where we can better judge Singer’s excuse for delivering a subpar performance on an unimaginative rendition of a classic from the Great American Songbook.

When Hal Singer accepted Herman Lubinsky’s offer to break the musician union’s strike and cut a few songs for a fistful of dollars (knowing Herman it probably wasn’t many dollars and might’ve just been a fistful of coins he’d picked up on the sidewalk on the way to work), he probably just shrugged and went along with the idea since he was used to being used in studio settings for a couple of bucks. He never thought anything would come of it. Certainly not a hit record, nor a viable career in a new field.

Because of that Singer largely went through the motions, choosing a song in Swanee River to start with that offered little in the way of commercial appeal just to get one track out of the way. At a time when the average session fee was $42 for a musician do you know what this one song earned him? Ten dollars and fifty cents! It’s doubtful he stopped to call his wife to let her know they could eat sirloin steaks all week because of his good fortune!

So I’m sure Hal Singer was simply thinking they got what they paid for. He gave them something, but not something too valuable. He wasn’t looking to advance his career any with the songs he was recording on this day and approached it all with a decided lack of enthusiasm. It was only after hearing the constant urging from the control booth that the competitive fire in his belly began to be stoked and when it did his professional pride kicked into overdrive and Hal resolutely dug down over the final two songs they cut that day and really tried to earn those last 21 bucks he had coming to him.

Though this first track was little more than a throwaway, considering the session wound up producing a Number One hit I’d say Herman Lubinsky got his money’s worth in the end.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Little Willie Littlefield (January, 1949)