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GOTHAM 211; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Long ago somebody invented calendars for the most basic reason of all: So that we would all know when we had a holiday and got to enjoy twenty four hours free from responsibility.

Granted that’s a pretty self-serving reason but in our society people have always thought of themselves first and since it’s people, not aardvarks or butterflies or camels who are likely reading this, I guess we can say that if we all benefit from these self-centered acts then what’s the harm, right?

Similarly there’s always been a self-serving reason for coming up with song titles in the age of recorded music, namely to act as a way to promote those records and give some way for the potential audience to know what it is they can expect when they plunk down their money for a record.

Apparently though somebody forgot to tell Gotham Records and singer/guitarist Harry Crafton about this because on this release they went with a title that gave absolutely no hint that the song contained on it had anything to do with Christmas, which is the entire focal point of the composition…

Unless of course they had also been forsaking calendars and therefore didn’t know there was a holiday coming up that could be reasonably assured of getting them a few more spins had the populace been aware this record was connected to the holiday occurring on the twenty-fifth day of each December.
 

 

Another Year’s Gone By
Life is made up of a series of small, almost microscopic, decisions that most people give little thought to individually, and while few of those decisions are monumental unto themselves they have a way of adding up very quickly and determining your fate.

It’s doubtful that your failure to look both ways before crossing an empty street will wind up with you flattened on the grill of a speeding tractor trailer truck unless you’re Wile E. Coyote, but if you take unnecessary risks each and every day – from smoking cigarettes to driving after one drink too many to trying to take a selfie leaning back over a bottomless pit – you probably won’t be celebrating too many birthdays.

Gotham Records celebrated ten birthdays but they could’ve surely reached their teens and twenties had they made better decisions along the way. While none of their choices were out and out disastrous, things you look back on and recoil with shock that anyone could be so stupid, they nevertheless had more than their share of questionable acts that gives some indication why they failed to reach the end of the even the Nineteen-Fifties when they had plenty of reasons to think they’d last much longer, from the fact they were among the first labels to devote much of their output to rock ‘n’ roll starting its very first year in 1947, to the fact they were located in Philadelphia which had a pretty solid base of artists to draw from.

Instead of taking full advantage of these things however they always seemed to be slamming their thumbs in doors or tripping over their shoelaces or falling asleep at the wheel.

We’ve already seen how they’ve cost themselves one potentially strong artist in tenor saxophonist Eddie Woodland when they stupidly paired his debut single with that of vocalist J. B. Summers back in June, giving neither one a chance to command the spotlight. Woodland, maybe sensing he’d be better off getting a job as a plumber, left by the fall and though Summers has stuck around he hasn’t recovered commercially from that early misstep.

They’ve also made similarly dubious choices with Harry Crafton after pulling him from the band where he was the ace guitarist alongside bandleader, pianist Doc Bagby, and they tried getting some singles out of those two without really knowing which one to credit on the labels. Now that they’ve figured out that you can in fact let BOTH of them pursue their own solo careers at the same time they’ve “solved” that problem to a degree… or at least they’ve let Crafton have a few singles, this being his third. But now we’re forced to deal with another stupefying decision on Gotham’s part in the fact that Bring That Cadillac Back is a Christmas song disguised as something else, which anyway you look at it surely isn’t going to do poor Harry Crafton any favors.
 


 

It’s Christmas Morning… No Really, It Is!
Christmas records hold a unique position in the music industry. Though their potential sales and airplay when first released is limited to about mid-November through the first week in January (unlike non-holiday records which have potentially much longer lifespans, up to 30 or so weeks in the late 1940’s for the biggest records) they have a huge advantage DURING those six weeks at the end of each year.

For starters stores that sold records were going to put things with Christmas themes up front during that time to draw the interest of a casual shopper. Likewise a jukebox operator was probably going to reserve five or six slots in a 25 record jukebox for something that was sure to get far more nickels deposited in it to hear when those stopping in from doing their Christmas shopping will be in the mood for one of these seasonally themed ditties. The handful of radio shows that played rock ‘n’ roll in 1949 would also be likely to give a new rock Christmas tune a few spins to see if it caught on.

But as intriguing as the title Bring That Cadillac Back might be at a glance, it certainly wasn’t going to get any of those Christmas-related perks even though the song itself deals explicitly with Christmas.

Here’s a few stats to chew on: In the last few weeks of the year the regional charts in Cash Box would not only show that recently released Christmas records by such huge names as Amos Milburn and Little Willie Littlefield were topping the listings in various cities, but also Christmas songs released LAST year by The Ravens and The Orioles were charting again, as was a new offering from saxophonist Freddie Mitchell.

Meanwhile non-rock Christmas tunes by Nat “King” Cole, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Felix Gross and even a winter themed blues record by Lester Williams, whom we met for the non-holiday rock flip-side, were charting as well. Now keep in mind there are but ten spots to these charts and while not all of those records were making the Top Ten in each location, they were selling enough to make them in at least one which is more than we can say for anything Harry Crafton was putting out.

So considering you have this opportunity just once a year and for the most part just once, maybe twice, in an artist’s career since few artists ever release more than one holiday-themed record, wouldn’t it make sense to actually have their Christmas offering be a little more obvious than this? I mean, using a Cadillac as the hook to draw in record buyers, distributors and disc jockeys hardly screams “Feliz Navidad!”

Isn’t that the whole point of making records… to sell them? That means you use the best promotional tools you have at your disposal and Christmas records being sold using the holiday as a selling point is about as basic as it gets.

But Gotham Records shows a remarkable lack of basic awareness of the realities of the market once again and since Crafton’s hardly a major name to begin with who can count on guaranteed sales out of the box, and since he won’t be getting a flurry of attention for pushing the Christmas theme to the limit either, that means he’ll have to gradually build an audience for Bring That Cadillac Back by word of mouth alone. By that time it’ll be late January or early February and anybody’s interest in hearing about Crafton’s bitching about his girl leaving him on Christmas will have vanished along with the leftover turkey, the Santa Claus display in store windows and the Christmas tree whose brown needles have long since fallen off and been tossed out with the trash.
 


 
 

Tried To Give You Almost Everything
For a record that contains so many positive attributes it also has more than its fair share of head-scratching negatives beyond just the lack of any overt mention of Christmas in the title.

So let’s start with the title it DOES have, Bring That Cadillac Back. It’s a demand, or at least that’s how it reads, therefore even those unaware of the seasonal circumstances of the story you expect to have a record that leaps out of the speakers, aggressive and insistent in its presentation.

If you did happen to be one of the roughly 23 people who already had some familiarity with Crafton’s specialty (that would be his guitar prowess) this expectation would be heightened considerably and you’d assume you’d be getting something along the lines of Goree Carter who’d rip off a snarling intro backed by a rousing band before launching into an uptempo vocal performance that was direct and to the point.

Instead Crafton comes creeping in like a cat burglar disguised in a red hat and coat on Christmas Eve to make off with your silverware while you sleep. His guitar does indeed take center stage and is nicely played, but it’s at half the pace you’re anticipating and without any of the electricity coursing through it to keep you on the edge of your seat. Talk about misleading you!

He’s backed by piano and drums that add a nice atmosphere and which, had they named this No Presents On Christmas Morning or something would’ve set a perfect mood. He’s certainly not being discreet about the subject of the song however because he mentions “Christmas” in virtually every single stanza whereas “Cadillac” is just on the periphery of the story and even then it shares space with the diamond ring he also bought her (apparently Crafton got paid far more for his session work than was the going rate at the time!).

Crafton sings superbly, which is a little surprising because of course that wasn’t his primary occupation, his first release Saturday Night Boogie, was an instrumental in fact and his follow up Roly Poly Mama featured him using a rather generic, but mildly effective, uptempo shout, but here he manages to show the right amount of confusion, hurt and melancholia to win you over completely.
 

When I Looked Around
Lyrically it’s a bit of a mixed bag, though the lines are all interesting at least, but they do present a rather obvious question, namely how well does he actually KNOW this girl in the first place?

The reason we ask is because he buys her all of these expensive gifts and has her as the honored guest for Christmas dinner but then he reveals that after he drank too much, which along with the tryptophan in the turkey (that they had for dinner “on Christmas morn”, something the rest of us call breakfast when eaten that early!) caused him to doze off before desert, she promptly stole his bankroll and took off in her new car.

Now assuming she’s not just taking it out for a joyride – still a very real possibility since it’s STILL CHRISTMAS MORNING as he recounts this! – he’s dismayed by her sudden disappearance. Well, bypassing the obvious explanation – that he’s a sucker – I’m far more interested in her seemingly sudden appearance in his life in the first place, as he also tells us that when he met her she was dead broke and which by all accounts was on Christmas Eve when she was “lonesome too”. Apparently feeling in the holiday spirit, or tipsy from too much spiked eggnog, he then bought her an entire wardrobe and invited her home to roast chestnuts or something.

In spite of the improbability of this all happening in the course of twenty four hours it’s a good story and he’s utterly convincing in the role, which isn’t as easy to pull off as it might seem. He doesn’t come off nearly as stupid as the lyrics suggest and he really just wants “his” car back, hence the title line which closes out the song in rather grimly ironic fashion.

Yes, there ARE a lot of aspects about this record that show an astounding amount of carelessness, if not a total lack of comprehension that seemingly small details like song titles, sensible plots and a better understanding of how many hours are in a day can make or break a record that needs all of the help it can get to be noticed for the right reasons. Here those right reasons are how good it all sounds, from the backing music to Crafton’s wry vocal turn to the overall atmosphere. It’s probably not a record that would be anyone’s absolute favorite gift to open, but it certainly is one almost everyone will appreciate and that’s where the focus should’ve been.

But instead we’re forced to take all of these negative factors into consideration when grading a record and question the competency of those making it. Unfortunately because of all of that Bring That Cadillac Back is a present most people were sure to miss on Christmas morning, seeing as how the package wasn’t labeled properly… or who knows, maybe it even got left in the back seat of the Caddy that some conniving hussy is speeding down the highway to Reno in as we speak.
 


 

On Your Merry Way
I guess when going strictly by the sheer enjoyment someone gets while listening to any record it might not matter that this song doesn’t make much sense. After all flying reindeer, toy-making elves and a fat man sliding down chimneys with a bag of toys is hardly hitting ten on the credibility scale either, so I guess we’ll just have to take tales like this for what they are, merely entertaining stories to pass the time with until it’s time to open presents.

The saddest part of this though is the simple fact that Bring That Cadillac Back had enough going for it to make Harry Crafton’s Christmas very merry indeed… aside from getting ripped off by this girl that is. It might’ve even been good enough to become a hit record with a more appropriate title. Not an all-time classic on par with Winter Wonderland or Frosty The Snowman, but certainly good enough in 1949 to be one of those ten to fifteen songs in heavy rotation for three weeks in December.

I’m sure if he HAD gotten a hit with a better title attached to it he wouldn’t have minded losing his fancy car, a diamond ring or whatever hunk of change he had laying around his pad.

You can’t buy hits after all and so when you come up with a record worthy of being one – without having to rely on Santa Claus to give it to you – then you just hope that your record company isn’t being run by evil Professor Hinkle-like cartoon characters who are lacking the holiday spirit and who’ll take any chance of a hit away by swiping the magic hat from the talking snowman and naming a Christmas record after a damn car!

Back to the workshop boys, you have to get “biz-ee, biz-ee, biz-ee” at getting a better sense of how the record business works so you don’t screw up our presents next year too.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Harry Crafton for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)