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GOTHAM 195; AUGUST, 1949



What is it about a Saturday night that makes it so much different than any other night of the week? Is it just that for most it is the only night which is smack dab in the middle of two days of leisure, a once a week respite from the burdens of responsibility?

That’d be the sensible answer, as people are always looking to relax from the daily grind of school or work. Friday nights run the risk of having you be too tired from your workday that led into it, while a Sunday may find you well rested heading into your last night of the weekend but you know you have to take it easy just the same since you can’t be too worse for the wear on Monday morning when you’re back on the job.

But Saturday is different, you’ve had a full twenty four hours to rest up before you head out for the evening and, just as importantly, you’ll be getting another twenty four hours to recover from whatever misbegotten adventures you enjoy while you’re out on the town.

Rock ‘n’ roll is hardly a music designed for the seemingly endless gauntlet that takes you from Monday through Friday, nor is it the sound to fill your day of rest on Sunday. But if any music can cover each and every aspect of the hell-raising of a typical Saturday night then rock ‘n’ roll is surely it.


Who? What? Where? When?
We’ve just gotten through excoriating Gotham Records for their short-sighted decision to pair up two separate artists on opposite sides of a single, something which did none of them – J.B. Summers, Eddie Woodland or Gotham Records themselves – any good.

They then had to make a belated attempt to rectify this by pulling back that original single and splitting it up and issuing two singles, one for each artist, with new B-sides. Naturally this didn’t work either because it came about too late, a month after the original record had come out and so all it did was cause confusion at the time and consternation ever since for those of us trying to document their idiocy.

So of course they didn’t learn their lesson because they kept doing this. Most recently splitting a Panama Francis instrumental with a vocal by Mary Louise on Gotham 193, each one getting lead credit on their side of the single, and now on Gotham 195 we might have yet another example of a split accreditation, sort of… possibly… I think.


Not that I’m casting about for sympathy or anything, but this job of combing through the depths of forgotten records made by companies which ceased operating a half century ago and of which there may be less than a few hundred copies of those original 78 RPM records still in existence isn’t exactly easy. I’m not a record collector and have no desire to be one. Coming of age in this century the idea of actually physically owning music, be it on records, tapes or compact disc, is kinda alien to me. I just want the sounds themselves. Normally that’s been all I’ve needed around here to make this project run smoothly but sometimes it causes problems, such as the fact that I have yet to SEE Gotham 195 to be sure of how it was credited.

I’ve seen mention that it actually came out under the name of Doc Bagby’s Orchestra and some character named Tiny Tim got a “featuring” spot for his vocal performance on a cover of Amos Milburn’s excellent In The Middle Of The Night on the flip side of this. Whoever he was Tim really couldn’t sing, at least not well enough to carry a record, his foggy voice seeming incapable of lending any emotion or depth to the song.

Anyway, that same source said that guitarist Harry Crafton got a featured mention for this side, the instrumental Saturday Night Boogie. But I don’t know if that’s true. Certainly Crafton IS the primary performer here, the lead instrumentalist, which is why I’m slotting this under his name, but there’s a chance that it’s Bagby who got official credit.

Making this worse if it is true is the fact that Crafton would get lead artist credit (with Bagby now getting supporting credit) on the very next record issued by Gotham, Roly Poly Mama, on which Crafton not only plays but sings. In other words Gotham had no idea what they were doing when it came to building an artist’s name recognition and kept making the same stupid mistakes month after month. It’s frankly amazing they lasted another decade in business before going under because they were completely clueless in most every way.

Of course maybe the reason why they stayed afloat for longer than they really deserved based on their business acumen was because they had in their midst musicians like Harry Crafton, a very good guitarist who helped bring that still neglected instrument to the forefront of rock ‘n’ roll.


Saturday Night Is Alright For Guitar Workouts
So now that we’ve wasted hundreds of words settling absolutely nothing and maybe only dragging us deeper into the mire let’s just put aside the pesky historical details long forgotten and focus on the actual music itself, the raison d’être for this website to exist in the first place.

Let’s start off by saying that if Doc Bagby did get lead credit he certainly didn’t deserve it because if he’s actually present ON the record he must be just conducting the “orchestra” like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Leopold Stokowski.

Just for the record Bagby was a pianist who anchored the Gotham studio band and backed a lot of artists along the way and he was certainly good at what he did, but on Saturday Night Boogie he doesn’t DO anything. If the piano is in the studio it’s gathering dust because this is essentially a two-man duet between Crafton’s guitar and whoever is playing saxophone, possibly Joe Sewell.

Because we haven’t had too many guitar-led instrumentals in rock to date the inclusion of such a prominent sax is a good way to ensure there’s a more overt connection to what HAS been so prevalent over the past year or two. But just having a saxophone on the track doesn’t ensure that it fits into what they need to do to hook listeners and that’s where this goes off course.

Crafton is obviously the centerpiece, he’s not only playing the boogie foundation it needs to ride but he’s also getting the featured solos and it’s his instrument that is getting played up in the mix, taking center stage throughout most of this, which is the problem.

He’s playing very well, that’s not the issue at all. He’s boldly assertive from the word “go”, tearing into this like a ravenous dog. The boogie progressions are certainly effective in setting the pace, though he’s not exactly trying to reinvent the wheel here, a boogie is a boogie is a boogie after all, but he’s able to effortlessly shift from that to whatever explosive run he needs to exhibit to justify his role as the focal point. Those are what are designed to rivet your attention and that’s what’s going to have to carry most of the load.

But is the electric guitar designed for this? Or more pointedly, has the electric guitar’s strengths and weaknesses over the course of extended soloing in rock ‘n’ roll been properly assessed yet as of late summer 1949?

The answer to that is no. While many of Crafton’s solos are good and all of them are well-played, they tend to overwhelm you because they come one after another. If you jump into the track at any point from thirty seconds in when he starts his attack to about the 1:53 mark when he finally eases off, and listen for ten or fifteen seconds at a time you’ll probably come away raving about him.

It’s not that all of what he plays is very difficult but all of it is exciting because he goes at each one full-tilt, sounding as if he’s on the edge of his seat for the entire ride. But at a certain point you either have to jump off that edge or fall back into your seat because that’s how things are supposed to work – build-up leads to pay-off. Here there are no pay-offs, just repeated build-ups. The riffs themselves may change in admirable fashion but without any variations in the sound itself you just get numb to it after awhile. That’s where you need a Bagby to take over on piano, or a drummer to throw in a head rattling break… or – since apparently the sax player was the only other one allowed near a microphone – where you need the horn to forcibly take control for awhile.

Theoretically the sax player might have been willing to do so, but if so, he sure wasn’t able to do it with any real skill.


Monday Morning Sounds For A Saturday Night
We do eventually get a chance to study the saxophonist’s abilities because in the tail stretch he IS allowed to take the lead. But even though we just got done complaining about the one-sidedness of this arrangement, after hearing what the sax has to offer we’re already hoping that Crafton changes his mind about abdicating his spot and jumps back into the lead.

The sax is underpowered at best, asthmatic at worst. It sounds like a boy trying to do a man’s job, or rather an alto trying to do a tenor’s job and the results are disheartening.

It’s not just the closing solo that’s the problem though, it’s the fact that throughout this the sax is blowing a counterpoint which is weak and ineffectual. It’s good that there’s something for the guitar to play off I suppose, and the idea of using a sax is an astute one from the standpoint of properly assessing the rock landscape. That we’ve already acknowledged and won’t second guess the decision itself here. But whoever is playing it, whether it’s Sewell or Danny Turner who sat in a lot on Gotham sides recently with much better results, or just some 14 year old kid they let wander in the studio, it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

There’s no body to what’s being played. It’s thin and wheezy and not very melodic to boot. It seems to fade in and out of the mix and if you focus on it at times you’ll almost think it’s a horsefly or something that flew in the window and is now buzzing annoyingly around your head.

Unfortunately he’s got no destination in mind (the fly or the sax player) and so he’s got no sensible route he’s taking to deliver his lines. He was probably told to just play something suitable and stay in key and they’d give him a nod when he could solo. Maybe the reason why Crafton kept at it for so long on the guitar was because he was dreading the moment when he handed it off to this lackluster horn.

When he finally does get his chance the sax tries to show he’s got some testosterone but if so it’s hardly naturally produced by his own hormones, this is the bottled variety that doesn’t hold up well under pressure. He sounds like a sick sheep as he bleats rather than honks and squeals, turning what could’ve been a solid duet into something you wished was a one-man band even though we’ve already said the electric guitar wasn’t ready for that responsibility yet.


Back To The Old Drawing Board
There’s certainly enough of what Crafton does here to make this work just enough to be interesting, if only as an early prototype of what would follow down the road when artists and producers figured out how to best utilize an instrument that was still feeling its way in the dark at this point.

But as a record that has to stand on its own Saturday Night Boogie mostly winds up just seeming irrelevant. Something hardly worth noting in the big picture. Not only was it a missed opportunity for the instrument that it features and a wasted chance for the man playing it to make a name for himself, but also for Gotham Records to put their own stamp on the rock sounds as we inched closer to the new decade. Of course they’d have no reason to think that the electric guitar would go on in due time to re-invent rock ‘n’ roll, but if they’d simply had a higher standard when it came to what they settled on before issuing their records they certainly could’ve salvaged this with a stronger – more diverse – arrangement.

Get a better sax player, or a second sax, be it a more robust tenor or a baritone to give it some heft. Wake Bagby up and tell him to take the boogie progressions on the keyboards to free Crafton up to make a more dramatic entrance a third of the way through, then tell him to back off and let the saxophone with bigger balls take over for the mid-song solo before Crafton returned to get a second spot to himself after which they could duel their way down the home stretch, the sound of yesterday and today vying with the sound of tomorrow.

Instead this Saturday night excursion is one that found them hitting all of the dead clubs in town, then when they decided to go somewhere else a little more jumping they stepped outside and found it raining so they hopped in a cab and headed home instead. They’ll now have to suffer through an interminable week before they can taste freedom again next Saturday night… just as the guitar will have to wait awhile before getting another shot at a starring role in rock.

We can certainly be glad this record exists, if only to show why the instrument’s ascension was no sure thing, but its primary function should be to provide future axe-wielding hot-shots with a blueprint to show that less is more sometimes and most importantly of all how nothing will ever be a substitute for a good supporting band playing a tight well-conceived arrangement. Some rules, no matter what style of music we’re talking about, remain iron clad and that basic definition of how to make a good record is surely at the top of the list.


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