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Small record labels just getting off the ground generally don’t have much going for them to make their jobs any easier. Though some of the entrepreneurs involved might have a background in the record business, it generally is one that touches only upon one aspect of it, like say stocking jukeboxes or maybe producing records for someone else.

Once you get tired of collecting sticky nickels out of those jukeboxes, or get fed up with being gypped out of your salary by the tightfisted owner of another company for whom who were working you decide to start your own company so you can be the one ripping off your employees and berating the jukebox ops for not putting your records in the best locations, but even with all that experience it’s still an uphill climb towards solvency.

This journey up the ladder of success is made all the more difficult because as a new company rarely are you afforded any ready-made stars to assemble a roster with and so you’re left to pick through some vagabond journeymen, a few secondhand jazz expatriates looking to make a name for themselves by branching into a more undignified style of music, or – in the case of Harold Conner – a complete unknown, one of many hopefuls appearing on the scene now that rock ‘n’ roll seemed to afford ambitious kids with yet another pipe dream to pursue before they came to their senses and got a job paving streets for a living.

As for the ultimate fate of those short-lived record companies? Well… what do you think became of all those unsold records they issued? Yup, they were melted down and mixed in with the macadam for the freshly paved road you just drove over in your brand new 1950 Pontiac.


I Know My Time Ain’t Long
We shouldn’t be too harsh on tiny Ivory Records of New York, though on the surface the basic M.O. just laid out for independent companies of the late 1940’s fits the bill perfectly in this case as well.

Started by a former secretary for another record label (Dial Records which housed none other than Charlie Parker as their most notable star) Ivory Records was the second of three labels which briefly used that name during this overall era, the first being one of the rare companies owned by an artist himself, our good friend Ivory Joe Hunter who ran his back in the mid-1940’s, and the other being one out of Houston which would appear in 1957.

This Ivory Records lasted longest however, which doesn’t say much considering it was out of business in about a year’s time. At least Hunter had gotten a national hit out of his endeavor, though we have to admit it sort of helps when the owner himself is also a talented artist who gave them that hit back in 1945 with Blues At Sunrise… though Exclusive Records wound up picking it up for national distribution and thus got the they got the historical credit for it.

But while lacking in the big names or big hits let’s not entirely dismiss this second Ivory Records for in Dagmar Van Haur they had one of the few – and I mean very few – female owners of a record company in the early rock era. We’ve met one of them in Aristocrat’s Evelyn Aron, but she’d soon sell out to Leonard Chess and that meant woman at the head of the table in this field were pretty scarce. Only Bess Berman with Apollo would effectively crack the all-boys club, at least until Lillian McMurphy with Trumpet (a blues label that featured Elmore James) and then Vivian Carter, one third of the triumvirate that ran Vee-Jay Records as one of the top indie labels for just over a decade from 1953-1965, came along to give the ladies some much needed representation.

So while Van Haur might not have made a go of it in the long run, her presence alone was a step in the right direction coming as it did years before the women’s lib movement provided a little cultural support for such ambitions.

One wonders whether Van Haur was attuned to what Evelyn Aron was putting out on Aristocrat during this time because Harold Conner, Ivory’s most promising young artist, seemed to be channeling Aristocrat’s top act to date, Andrew Tibbs, on I Done No Wrong, a decent attempt to show us a different side of his musical persona on a ballad after impressing us with his uptempo romp yesterday.

If I Don’t Get Well
As game plans go, you gotta admit this is a pretty solid one any way you look at it.

From the perspective of Ivory Records it was in their best interest to recruit untested kids with stars in their eyes who’d be so eager to make records that they’d be more likely to suffer in silence at the lack of accouterments that typically went with it, such as flashy wardrobes bought by the company along with associated fringe benefits such as Cadillacs to tour in. In fact they might not even protest the lack of royalties if they managed to score an unlikely hit and there was even a chance if you’d blown all of your own lunch money just getting the company off the ground that you could convince them that it was the accepted practice for rookie performers to buy sandwiches and sodas for the backing band, the producer and the label owner during their first recording session.

But the real reason why young acts were preferable isn’t only their naivety but rather because they had plenty of youthful ambition that wasn’t worn down by years of lessening returns for their efforts, plus they were more apt to be in tune with what musical trends were on the rise than some middle-aged stuffed shirt behind the studio glass you hired to oversee the A&R department.

To that end Conner’s appropriation of Tibbs’s vocal delivery on I Done No Wrong shouldn’t be altogether surprising, for Tibbs made for a natural figure to model yourself on for young artists dreaming of reaching for the stars. As the owner of a hit record while still in his teens and possessing a striking tenor that could wring pathos from any lyrics with his intense gospel derived vocals, it’s easy to see why for two years or so Tibbs had a number of imitators.

But aside from merely focusing on the similarities in style, the use of a song that showcased a level of emotional despair was an equally smart decision for both Conner and Ivory Records themselves. Getting back to the concept of a well-formed game plan, the idea to pair something uptempo with a song that grinds things out at a slower pace was always a wise move as it gave listeners two distinct choices when deciding on whether to give a record a chance. Then whichever side received a more favorable response could be repeated the next time out while either fine-tuning the other attempt or discarding it in favor of a third stylistic approach.

Of course it shouldn’t need to be stated that the artist in question should be capable of tackling these different concepts and luckily Harold Conner seems up to the task.

Don’t Shed No Tears
Choosing such a prodigiously talented role model as Andrew Tibbs had its drawbacks however, particularly if you were counting on reaching the same constituency as he’d connected with. Though Conner has a good voice, unlike Tibbs he’s had the vocal chords of a mere mortal and so a strict comparison between the two is always going to favor Tibbs. Then when you factor in Andrew’s upbringing in the gospel community (his father was a preacher) it makes the job of matching him all the more difficult since it was Tibbs’ masterful use of melisma – “worrying” a line – that gave his records such an edge.

But we don’t know that Conner didn’t have his own gospel roots to draw from either, so it’s possible that he was on a little more even footing than we’re giving him credit for. Regardless though, it’s not his background we’re judging, it’s the results and on I Done No Wrong Conner has a firm enough grasp on the particulars of this delivery to suffice.

To start with it’s an interesting topic for him to be delving into, for whereas on the other side, I’ll Get You When The Bridge Is Down, he showed his lack of experience in the broader world as he reacted to his girl’s wandering eye with a response that was slightly immature and not too well-thought out, here he’s telling us that he’s got TOO MUCH experience with the age-old bugaboos of “whiskey, dope and women” and now, on his deathbed, is repenting for his sins by having the doctor add another sin to Conner’s résumé for eternal damnation by having the Doc lie to his mother for him by telling her that he did no wrong to spare her feelings should she be inclined to blame herself for being a bad parent.

If you think we’re going to criticize this deathbed perfidy, coupled with his litany of vices in his all-too short life… think again!

Now it’s not that we’re going to praise his illicit activities mind you, but we’re going to congratulate him for at least giving us a fascinating story line to think about which is far removed from the usual mundane topics so many songs tackle like falling in and out love, having no money and no prospects.

I’m sure that after his latest bender he too has no money or prospects, not to mention no meaningful romantic relationship to comfort him either, but he’s not sobbing on our shoulders about that at all, instead he’s thinking of his dear old mom whom he’s probably kept up late every night since turning thirteen with his delinquent behavior that landed him on the critical list in the hospital.

At least he sounds sincere in his regret over what he put her through – and maybe deep down he genuinely is sorry at that – but then again there have been many people facing the pounding headache of a hangover, or someone waking up and seeing the face of a one night stand laying next to them who they don’t remember even meeting, prompting them to say with utter conviction in those moments – “Never again!” – only to be back at it the next weekend when they feel better.

My guess is that’s what will happen with Conner as well once he’s given a clean bill of health and criticized by the doctor for his hypochondria. I’m not saying this because I’m a cynic but rather because he’s so willing to add to his offenses by feigning remorse when all seems bleak. He’s not fooling us for a minute, and it’s doubtful that he’s going to convince his mother either if she’s got any sense in her head, because we all know there’s a pattern to bad behavior that is rarely cured by a moment of sober reflection in a sterile hospital room… not when there are so many more girls to screw, drinks to swill and drugs to pop.

Still, the perspective alone is refreshing for a rock song, not because it breaks new ground entirely (Wynonie Harris surely took out a patent on all of these activities before Conner took his first nip, though of course he never acted contrite about it like Conner is doing) but rather because it addresses these sins head-on without turning it into a temperance lecture. Instead we’re meeting him in his downward spiral and there’s no sure sign he’ll be able to climb back out and that alone makes this compelling.

Got Me In This Awful Shape
Unfortunately while Conner himself is in the midst of spinning another fabrication for the benefit of his poor mother when he announces I’ve Done No Wrong, the same can’t be said for the band behind him who are in fact doing plenty wrong, even if on the surface their attempts to stick to the straight and narrow are probably genuine.

The backing for this once again is credited to The Do Ray Me Trio, an older group with experience in a mellow pre-rock style and by virtue of their hit from the year before on Commodore Records they were also the biggest names on Ivory Records so it makes sense that they’d be used in a supporting capacity when possible.

But while the slower pace and mournful tone of the song may be more suited to their regular approach they find themselves befuddled by a saxophone who joins them for this number, something which normally is a boon to a rock record’s chances (and indeed on the other side it would’ve been most welcome) but here the sax is given too free a rein and never comes up with anything that adds to the emotional gravity Conner is showing and at times almost seems to be mocking him by the lilting manner in which he plays.

While that might be funny if it was intentional, as if the sax player knows that Conner will be drunk three hours after he’s discharged from the hospital and is laughing at him pleading for last rites, but it’s clearly not meant to be drawing any laughs from the gallery. Instead he’s trying to highlight the swelling anguish Conner is exhibiting to make his words hit home even more, yet they’re too unfocused to pull this together. The basic idea behind his attempts are alright but that’s a hard role to pull off well because you need to suggest rather than declare, meaning you have to play half as assertively and half as much for it to work.

Because the horn doesn’t do that, though to be fair it doesn’t get carried away either which make it even more inappropriate, you wind up distracted more than pulled in and since the other instruments aren’t given anything to do but keep time it doesn’t get the support it really needs to carry this off completely.

Like anyone finding themselves in dire straits of their own doing, whether a character in a song or an artist singing that song, your success – at recovery or at securing a hit – will be partly dependent on who you surround yourself with and while it’s doubtful this was going to make much noise commercially even with a top notch sax behind him, the slight disconnect between he and the horn wind up making this fall short of the better effort on the top side.

But even though neither song contained on the record had what it took to be big hits there’s still plenty to appreciate on both sides to make Harold Conner someone worth watching. He’s got a good voice with enough stylistic diversity to be viable in two distinct approaches, both of which have no shortage of success in rock to date.

Lived Too Short
Ivory Records might not be to blame for the shortcomings and like Conner himself who’s just starting out, their own inexperience is something that can be overcome in time, but as we know in music time is the one thing that is often in short supply. Record companies need steady income that can only come from hits in order to promote and distribute the next batch of singles, while artists who find themselves beset by incongruous musical visions brought about by mismatched support in the studio frequently are unable to get back on the right track in time and become increasingly tied to a failed concept.

I Done No Wrong therefore aren’t the words either party should be using to describe this record, even though in the big scheme of things they probably did as much right as they did wrong.

But it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that statistical trade-off winds up with a rather average result.


(Visit the Artist page of Harold Conner for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)