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GOTHAM 211; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

The last thing anybody wants to have said of them is that what they produce in life could just as easily be done by somebody else.

I think it’s safe to say that if your work is seen as interchangeable with whatever temp worker wanders aimlessly into the office on a Monday morning then maybe it’s time you reassess your choice in careers.

Naturally this is hardly the type of ominous rumination that an artist wants to see acting as a lead-in to one of their records, even if being a featured performer was something of a sideline for the artist in question, as it was for Harry Crafton.
 

 

Nobody There But Me
We’ve met Crafton on a couple of records released under his own name thus far and ran into him a few more times as a songwriter and guitarist which were his primary occupations and he’s impressed in each of those roles. Whether his most burning career aspirations included being a star in his own right or if Gotham Records simply saw the value in adding him as a standalone artist to fill up their label’s rather limited roster however isn’t entirely clear.

Whatever his goals though he was hampered oddly enough by the fact he was such a good guitarist in an era that didn’t yet value the instrument as it would in a half dozen years or so. Don’t get me wrong, good musicians are rarely going to be penalized by listeners for playing well, no matter how blasé that audience might be about the sonic textures of the instrument in question, but still it’s tough to make headway commercially when your greatest skill isn’t going to advance your cause much.

As we hit on yesterday with the top side of this, the non-Christmas titled Christmas record Bring That Cadillac Back, Crafton was also hindered in many ways by the company he was recording for. Gotham Records will be around for a decade and although in that time they had some good artists and released some very good records they never made any discernible progress as a company. Even with considerable artist turnover and changing trends in rock they remained eerily stagnant commercially, never taking one step forward yet never really falling one step back either.

Early on their top artist in the rock field was Earl Bostic, a former jazz saxophonist who scored a few regional hits for them with 845 Stomp and Hot Sauce! – Boss and then surpassed those with Temptation before King Records worked out a distribution deal with the smaller label, re-issued that record themselves and helped make it a national hit. But their ulterior motives were quickly exposed as soon Bostic was recording for King exclusively, leaving poor Gotham in the lurch. Yet a year later Gotham managed to replace him by doing the same thing to Atlantic Records when they signed that label’s most consistent seller, Tiny Grimes. Essentially it was a wash, swapping out one respected jazz cat turned rocker for another.

A few years down the road when their romping horn driven bands like Jimmy Preston’s group left for greener pastures the company managed to shift their focus to the burgeoning doo wop field with acts like The Capris and Lee Andrews And The Hearts which allowed them to transition from one rock style to another which coincided with the interests of the generation coming of age. Though the entire rock field was more crowded then which sort of obscured their modest success in this area they remained solvent because much of the East Coast cities, such as their hometown Philadelphia, were devoted to these street corner sounds. Thus, even without being able to land that one major star to elevate their stature, they stayed reasonably competitive.

We might fault them for failing to create stars – or simply sign up established ones – which undoubtedly hurts their long-term reputation, but in one rather prescient move they enlisted some of the top session musicians in rock as solo acts giving them a working relationship with people like drummer Panama Francis, sax star Sam “The Man” Taylor, pianist Doc Bagby and… guitarist Harry Crafton, who could then be called upon to back others and ensure the tracks themselves weren’t lacking even if they were being fronted by singers without much appeal.

The trade off for that was the sometimes underwhelming cuts those musicians churned out, such as So Long Baby which makes you appreciate his side job all the more.
 


 

This Stuff You’ve Been Putting Down
There has to be a moment in the studio whether you’re the producer in the booth or a participant on the floor when you’ve run down the song in question a few times and just know you aren’t getting a record that will stir any interest.

On days when you have an otherwise productive session this is hardly the end of the world. If you’re cutting four songs over three hours and at least two of those songs are really good and the others are merely serviceable B-sides it’s nothing to get too worked up about. As long as they’re fairly capably written and played and don’t have any glaring flaws then you’ll have no problem issuing them on the back of something much better, knowing it’ll hardly get listened to.

Maybe that was what they were thinking here but if so they were overestimating Crafton’s appeal and name recognition that he could get away with something so… mundane, even on a B-side.

For someone like Crafton, someone still looking to make a name for himself with the public, you needed to issue his best work backed by even better work… or something like that. We might not expect him to be great but we need him to deliver material that’s at least consistently interesting, things that will give you a reason to check out this artist in the future.

It may be that you work to highlight his best traits, that would be his guitar, even if that’s not foremost in the mind of the marketplace, at least then you give them something you know will stand out. Or since Crafton has already shown he can write then be sure he comes up with a song that’s exceedingly well crafted, where the story itself has some depth and memorable lines to catch your ear and – since he’s a studio habitue – an arrangement that shows real creativity letting the other musicians play off one another and build towards something truly special.

So Long Baby does none of these things. At best it’s competent and professional, which is merely to be expected not celebrated.

 

 
 

The song features a slow, almost draggy, pace with little in the way of instrumental flourishes which matches the tedious lyrics about another one of these no-good women all musicians of this era seemed to wind up with for some reason (who knows, maybe Wynonie Harris hoarded all the fun loving ones for himself – I wouldn’t put it past him).

The components used are run of the mill, there’s not a single aspect of it that jumps out at you, nothing to show they spent much time on it. The droning horns set a downhearted mood but the lines themselves are tired, uninspired and all seemingly pulled from the dog-eared arrangement book that passed from one house band to another at a string of dingy nightclubs.

Crafton’s guitar gets in some nice subtle licks every so often but they’re given no more responsibility than to serve as atmosphere when what the song desperately calls for is a mid-song gut-wrenching, fist-clenching, string-bending, heartrending solo to get across his despondent frame of mind. If he’s supposed to be so blue then we need some sign of his inner turmoil and the guitar is the one instrument more than capable of delivering that, especially when played by someone with his ability. Yet he largely keeps it under wraps, letting it surface only to fill in a few holes in the arrangement, and so rather than sympathize with him for his troubles we’re merely annoyed he’s stopped to tell us about them and hope we can come up with a reasonable excuse to make our exit.
 

You Played It Much Too Cool
In spite of the weak framework and lack of quality materials, or at least under-using the materials they had which were good, there’s still a few rays of sunshine which peak through the overcast skies.

I suppose that shouldn’t be altogether shocking since these guys weren’t some hacks who just stepped into the studio for the first time, but what IS surprising is that the most enjoyable aspect of it is the least expected… namely Harry Crafton’s vocals.

He was never going to be known for the quality of his voice but we’ve seen other successful artists, including his labelmate Jimmy Preston, working with equally modest pipes and do quite well with them by taking advantage of their best qualities while concealing their weaker points. Here Crafton shows us that he actually has much better tone than we’d given him credit for in the past. There are times on So Long Babywhere he holds certain notes well past what we thought he was capable of and the results are entirely pleasing to the ear.

One of the things which gives away an untrained vocalist, or someone lacking in self-confidence when they open their mouth, is the habit of cutting their lines short, not wanting to over-expose their voice to critics. Another tip-off as to someone’s lack of experience is the tendency to overemphasize certain lines, as if they think volume equates with effort and implies greater meaning when they bear down harder on a word or two.

Crafton doesn’t fall pray to that at all here, in fact he shows remarkable restraint and judgement, letting his words drift into the ether as if he’s caught up in the real life aspects of the story and is confused and worn down by what’s happening to him. Those moments, most of which come early on, connect best, giving us some insight into his predicament.

But the longer it goes on the more he falls back on the typical amateur tricks we just spent a paragraph criticizing. Granted he doesn’t do a complete about-face and hit every vocal landmine in his path, but his voice swells unnecessarily, and unconvincingly for that matter, at the midway point to try and compensate for the horns, drums and his own guitar falling well short of conveying the right amount of despair. By now the tenuous feelings we had for his dilemma slip away, never to return.
 


 

Woke Up This Morning Crying
What’s frustrating about all of this is not that what they play itself is bad, but rather the fact they seem to have no ambition on this to try and make it GOOD. All they seem to want is to come up with something that just won’t embarrass them when it’s put out.

So Long Baby can’t be called embarrassing, so I guess mission accomplished then, but the bigger mission should’ve been to try and establish Harry Crafton as something other than simply a sideman stepping into the spotlight.

That he’d go on to release a lot of singles over the years tells you that he, or Gotham, took this work seriously over time, but apparently not seriously enough to work towards getting something with more substance down on tape.

Instead this is a song that unless you were tasked with writing roughly two thousand words on it is something you’d hardly notice as it was playing. For someone who was still in need of an identity it’s not the best thing to be able to say that Harry Crafton could’ve just as easily been replaced in the studio with any one of a hundred different interchangeably anonymous artists who could’ve come up with something exactly the same as this without too much effort.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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