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GOTHAM 190; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

Why didn’t they just do this to begin with?

That’s a question that can be asked far too often of record companies in the annals of rock history and while everyone acknowledges that hindsight is 20/20 and thus it’s unfair to criticize decisions of the past based on the outcomes of the future, that’s not the case here at all.

What Gotham Records did here was not just hurt the chances of J. B. Summers, their newest contracted vocal artist, but they also sabotaged the prospects of the sax player they’d signed at the same time who shared Gotham 186, each getting one side for their own debut.

It didn’t take long for the company to see the error of their ways and they attempted to rectify the situation by pulling back that single and replacing it on the market with two separate releases, one for each artist.

This was J. B. Summers amended effort in that regard and what the new side proves is they should’ve done this from the start.
 

 
Tossing Records Out The Back Door
One of the unfortunate secondary themes throughout rock history will be the way record labels affected the output of their artists, often in a negative way either by underestimating the interest in something that sounded ahead of its time, or trying to hedge their bets by sticking too closely to a proven formula.

It’s not a very enjoyable topic to keep returning to, even though it’s a necessary one simply because of how much these decisions impacted what audiences were able to hear, particularly since bad decisions could curtail an artist’s otherwise promising career.

Gotham Records was hardly in a position to be choosy with what they issued. Their biggest star to date, Earl Bostic, was now being forcibly taken by King Records who had provided wider distribution for his Gotham sides until they’d decided they’d rather have him for themselves and with their far greater resources it wasn’t difficult to make happen. This meant Gotham was down to just one reliable hit maker on their roster in Jimmy Preston.

So in the spring of 1949 when two new local artists were signed, Eddie Woodland, a saxophonist, and J. B. Summers, a vocalist, the prudent thing to do would’ve been to push both artists equally. Instead they issued Gotham 186 with an instrumental by Woodland on one side and a vocal by Summers on the other.

Nothing could’ve been more counter-productive for every last one of them. Label and artists alike.

But let’s TRY and look at it from their perspective and see if we can make some sense of this. Here’s what we know: They’d cut four sides that day in the studio, two instrumentals and two vocals. In their brainstorming they figure that by splitting them up, one of each per single, they’d be hedging their bets… not for an initial hit but for a quick follow up should either side of the first record score with audiences.

Whichever it was, the Woodland instrumental or the Summers vocal, they’d then be able to put out a follow up to take advantage of it without having to bring them back in the studio.

I’m guessing that was their theory. But I KNOW that theory falls apart rather fast because here it is a month later, with neither side having stirred much interest, and they pull that first split single back off the market and do what made the most sense to begin with… pairing the two Eddie Woodland sides (on the forthcoming Gotham 196) and the two J. B. Summers sides on this record.

A day late and a dollar short. Or perhaps a month late and $42 short, as that was approximately the session costs for a day in the studio.
 
 

 

Don’t You Play Me For No Chump
However much you liked Summers’ first effort, Stranger In Town, and for the record we liked it a lot, it no longer really mattered if they were still hoping for a hit. Gotham’s distribution of the record was now in disarray. Retail outlets and jukeboxes that had carried it when he was splitting time with Woodland weren’t going to discard those in exchange for Gotham 190 with the same track they already had, coupled with an entirely new song.

As for those who HAD bought the record and liked what they’d heard, would they be (rightly) pissed off that they were being forced to buy the same song they’d already paid for in order to hear one more from Summers? That is if they even knew about it as Gotham’s promotional budget, as scant as that probably was, also had probably been depleted and it’s doubtful that most flipping through records in a store and seeing Stranger In Town would memorize the label number and see that it was different and then flip it over just in case Gotham had done something as inexplicable as reissuing it with a new B-side.

But for the three people in the land who did just that we have a surprise for you, Back Door Mama is a fairly good song in its own right that makes for a fine alternative to the more uptempo contents of the A-side.

In other words it would’ve been ideally suited to have come out a month ago on the original single.

Now truth be told J. B. Summers was rather limited in the types of approaches he could offer. A singer with a full throated roar positioned somewhere between Wynonie Harris and Crown Prince Waterford at their most unhinged, Summers had a vocal engine which spewed plenty of smoke, a gas pedal which stuck and faulty breaks. Yet somehow he’d managed to control the vehicle reasonably well, or at least keep it from hurtling over the side of a cliff, and with the right material he could take you for an enjoyable, albeit slightly harrowing, ride.

On Stranger In Town he’d opened up the throttle completely and was aided and abetted by Woodland’s bunch racing their motors behind him in support. His raspy voice fit in well in that setting and gave a certain rakish charm to his egotistical character who envisioned himself as being more in demand by the ladies than he actually was in real life, but wasn’t about to let his failure to hook up with anyone temper his expectations and cause him to modify his tactics around the softer sex in the future.

If this were another such exercise in rampant machismo then maybe you could see why Gotham hadn’t wanted to put it with the top-side after all, but that’s certainly not the case. Back Door Mama, in spite of its rather suggestive title, actually does its best to rein Summers in. It’s not always successful in its attempt, but Woodland’s crew doesn’t give up trying.
 


 
 

It kicks off with a gentle piano and Woodland’s laconic sax which sounds positively soothing compared to what you might’ve been expecting based on “Stranger”. It’s a very seductive sound, well played and melodically intriguing and you’re thinking that if Summers can just match the mood they’re in the process of creating, regardless of the story, this might even equal the more urgent A-side.

With a set up like that you don’t have to take more than one guess to know he didn’t follow that game plan, but you’ll have to admit the mere thought that he might was nice while it lasted.

That’s not to say that Summers is completely out of place here, even as he bears down way too hard on the first word of each refrain, overcompensating for his lack of ability to vary his delivery, surely realizing what this calls for all while he knows he can’t provide that.

In the hands of say Roy Brown a song like this would take on added dimensions that could wring out every drop of emotion a human being is capable of possessing, leaving audiences limp after hearing it. But because he’s not equipped to handle that approach Summers wisely didn’t craft the song that way. Instead the story is confined to basic platitudes rather than mined for deeper insight and as a result it manages to work well enough in his hands because of its built-in limitations.
 

Not Treating You Right
There’s hardly any originality in the sentiments offered here, as Summers substitutes righteous indignation for genuine emotional anguish at finding out his woman has another paramour who is literally waiting at the back door while Summers heads off for work out the front. You can certainly understand his being perturbed but it’s awful one-dimensional as a result of his demeanor as expressed through his delivery which never drops below a dull roar.

I suppose you can commend him for not bludgeoning her with a candlestick or killing them both and stuffing their bodies in a gunny sack and burying them under the parlor floor, as happens in quite a few rock songs dealing with infidelities (not to mention which happens anytime that dastardly Colonel Mustard is in the vicinity during a game of Clue).

But Summers state of mind over these deceptions only work if he still is crazy about this woman and nothing about his demeanor or his comments about her indicate that he has anything but contempt for her. There seems to be no deep seated pain at losing her love, nor any pangs of regret for the events that led up to this, whatever they were. We see the fallout without ever getting a sense of the lead-in to their problems. At some point the fire between them must’ve gone out but who’s fault that was, or how long ago it began, we never know.

Woodland and the band do their best to give this a sense of balance, trying to suggest more sorrow than Summers is willing to reveal, but that gets undercut by the singer’s insistence on hollering from start to finish rather than using a more meditative quality on at least SOME of the lines. Had he mourned over these developments for awhile and then flew off the handle as he realized his marriage was falling apart it’d be far more effective.

Back Door Mama still works in a limited sense because the two musical entities, in spite of their different tactics, somehow wind up not clashing altogether, but if Summers was more measured in how he let this unfold it’d go a long way in getting us to sympathize more with his plight. Instead we’re left feeling mostly indifferent to his tale of woe.

After all it’s not US she’s cheating on.
 


 

If you want to feel sorry for anyone in this whole sordid affair I think it should be Eddie Woodland who not only does the most notable job here with his understated backing, but who also saw this Summers character horn in on HIS session to begin with, robbing him of half of his own debut record, and now gets that half re-issued with a new B-side before Woodland was afforded the same opportunity.

Oh well, the participants presumably got over the wrongs done to them, both in the song and in their careers, and have long since passed on, so all that’s left for us to do is try to piece together the circumstances of all of this – the record company machinations as well as the particulars of Back Door Mama itself – and see what we can make of it.

But like most such events in life there’s no easy answers, just more questions.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of J. B. Summers for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)