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GOTHAM 203; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

When in doubt there are a few standard marketing approaches that never seem to fail, regardless of the era.

When targeting couch potatoes in TV ads pitch them potatoes, as in potato chips and other fatty snack foods that come in bags that unfortunately for the consumer are just a bit too small to double as a body bag when you’re felled by clogged arteries from eating this stuff while watching re-runs of Mr. Ed.

When trying to draw the attention of men to certain products – no matter what that product may be, from shaving lotion to radial tires – it helps to use scantily clad females who have no earthly reason to associate themselves with those products other than to fulfill the age old maxim: Sex Sells.

And lastly, when you’re a rock artist whose career hasn’t yet taken off quite as you had hoped it would and you need to appeal to a fan base that has been known at times to imbibe in alcoholic beverages at a rate of approximately a quart of booze per song after midnight, well, how about just making a song about drinking lots of beer?

What can it hurt?*

* = Well besides your liver, your relationships, your school and/or job productivity, your driving record, your personality and your lifespan that is?
 

 

In The Morning
Of all the artists we’ve covered to date J. B. Summers is one of only two men we can say made two separate debuts. That, not surprisingly, was a drawback as he and saxophonist Eddie Woodland found themselves sharing a debut record back in early summer 1949 which Gotham Records soon realized was as bad of an idea in practice as it was on paper. They then pulled that record back after a few weeks and put the released sides of each artist back out with new label numbers and new B-sides to ensure that both of them got a full record, A and B side, to themselves.

It didn’t do either of them much good.

Woodland, a good sax player, was unceremoniously shown the door and he never again recorded for any label, a fate he definitely did not deserve.

Summers was a bit more fortunate, for while he had actually seemed to be secondary in Gotham’s initial thinking when they signed them both last May he quickly moved to the forefront of their plans going forward and found himself surrounded by high quality, experienced support to help elevate him to the status of hitmaker.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but not for a lack of effort.

Here we find Summers paired with a new arrival to the Gotham label, but an old friend of ours in rock circles, guitarist Tiny Grimes who left Atlantic Records recently and made the 95 mile journey from New York to Philly where he set up shop, cutting his own records and serving as an overqualified backup musician to some of the label’s vocal “talent”.

Of course Woodland – let’s not forget him, even though Gotham certainly forgot him – had served in that capacity behind Summers and done quite well, in fact he was the best aspect of Summer’s re-issued B-side Back Door Mama. But nobody, up to and including Mrs. Woodland, would suggest that he was a better sax player than Grimes’s ace in the hole, Red Prysock. As for whoever was playing guitar in the Gotham studios prior to Grimes’ arrival, he surely wasn’t going to outplay Tiny even if he’d had the forethought to smash Grimes’s hands in the taxicab door upon arriving at the session.

Maybe the label was looking at this as nut cutting time, wanting to surround Summers with the best band he could possibly have and if he still couldn’t deliver a hit then maybe he’d join Eddie Woodland in line at the unemployment office.

So no pressure on you, J.B., it’s just your career that hangs in the balance here, no reason to worry.

No wonder he went out for a few cold ones before hitting the studio.
 


 
 

In The Afternoon
The basic scouting report on Summers’s weaknesses from his first two sides is pretty straightforward – he was a singer with an often reckless lack of self-control, someone for whom the word moderation was a vile insult and the word discretion might as well have been in another language.

What were his strengths as a singer you ask?

The exact same attributes.

I guess it just depends on your tolerance for such things as to which you category you put them in. He had a pretty good tone, even if he was prone to shouting rather than singing, but either way it was certainly invigorating. Like the obvious prototype for this style, Wynonie Harris, he honed in on the rhythm like a guided missile and rode it for all it was worth. Because of that tendency though there wasn’t much you could do with him other than set him loose on wild prey and have him race off in pursuit, or in musical terms give him a ribald tale touting his off-color proclivities and let him boast about it until you were either caught up in the bravado or sickened by it altogether.

But rock ‘n’ roll is in NEED of such braggadocio in order to keep its surly reputation intact and so we’ll call them positives… provided that he has a suitable song for that delivery.

Drinking Beer would seem to fit his needs. It’s hardly overflowing with lyrical creativity (get it? Overflowing… beer? C’mon, gimme credit for some shallow cleverness around here every once in awhile), nor does it provide any real insight into humanity in its viewpoints, but as a rallying cry for a drunken night on the town with your buddies, it’ll suffice.

Though the record starts off with a rather modest musical intro, light horns churning in unison without much swagger, once Summers kicks open the door it sounds as if he’s got a head start on the festivities by shotgunning a few brews before the tapes were rolling.

Once again he’s in full voice, hollering out a manifesto for the proceedings: “Well let’s have a party and drink up a lot of beer”. The fact of the matter is, shallow though it may be, when you’re of the age where rock ‘n’ roll is busy corrupting your soul you’ve surely heard a good many nights start off with similar sentiments, so why not celebrate it with a song that you can relate to?

Unfortunately that’s about it for the theme. Let’s get drunk. Rather simple… pretty direct… easy to remember I suppose, but hardly very profound when the most insight he can offer over the course of two minutes and forty six seconds is to say that “Wine is fine, but give me lots of beer”. Somehow I don’t think Mr. Summers was any more eloquent stone cold sober either.
 

In The Evening
But people aren’t going to drunken benders to wax poetic on the mysteries of life, just as book club meetings and philosophical debates usually don’t have people doing keg stands between topics, each setting has its own standards of decorum (or lack thereof), so what matters in a song like Drinking Beer is less what is being said and more HOW it is being said… or slurred.

For that job requirement Summers is pretty well equipped.

We know that the aforementioned Wynonie Harris frequently put them away as he was recording, which lent an authenticity to the sessions that didn’t always work to his advantage, as we well remember from the debacle of Your Money Don’t Mean A Thing. But in this case Summers seems to be merely acting the part rather than getting so loose that he’s tripping over his tongue as he goes along.

His lustiness never lets up, even if he’s merely repeating himself throughout. He’s in enough command of his faculties to even ease up on a line when required, dropping down in volume as if to confide something to you before ramping it back up again. It’s hard to claim he’s really standing out on the track with just his enthusiasm and projection skills to make his case for him, but he’s not really being called on to do much more than that and he’s carrying it out with more than enough conviction to make his part believable.

Besides, if we’re going to be let down by somebody it’s surely not the rather limited skills of J. B. Summers… not when we have the first rate band of Tiny Grimes and his soon to be named Rockin’ Highlanders to focus on instead.
 
 

 

I Get A Different Feeling
Had Gotham Records merely enlisted Grimes and company to back Summers in the studio and nobody listening to Drinking Beer was any the wiser until years down the road when the session info was unearthed and included on a CD issued a half century later we might just leave the comments about the underwhelming support to a minimum, saying something slightly dismissive in passing before returning to the general weakness of the composition itself or the rather one-note performance by the singer.

Instead we have our hopes raised because Gotham, surely attempting to publicize their newest signee after Grimes had spent the last year and a half at Atlantic, publicizes his presence on the record label. But if you’re going to go out of your way to give Grimes credit then it’s up to Tiny to earn that attention, if only to ensure that his own reputation isn’t harmed by the association with such a drunken degenerate singer as Summers is portraying here.

He doesn’t do that. In fact, if it wasn’t there staring out at you in print that Grimes not only “led the orchestra” but wrote the song itself you’d never guess he had anything to do with this.

Where’s his guitar? Where’s Red Prysock’s blistering tenor sax? Where’s the edginess, the excitement and the efficiency that are all hallmarks of the Tiny Grimes sound? If you can locate any of those things send a postcard because I think they got lost in the shuffle.

Yes, Grimes’s guitar CAN be faintly heard, but he stays well in the background, and aside from the subdued opening and a good, but all too short closing, there’s no hint that Prysock or Danny Turner on alto were even awake during this take. Only the drummer, Philly Jo Jones, earns his forty-two dollars session fee by contributing the solid backbeat to this while everyone else phones it in, not playing badly by any means but just not doing anything much to add to the presumed excitement they’re supposed to be generating.

To put it another way, musically speaking there’s a lot of foam in this cup.

 

 
Drink That Stuff All Night
At the end of nights like this spent Drinking Beer you’re always a bit dizzy, maybe your head’s not pounding yet but it will be by morning, and while you may be smiling on your way in the door when you get home I’m sure you can’t quite remember why. So it is with this record as well.

It really has no components, save Summers’ own somewhat forced enthusiasm, that stand up to much scrutiny. It’s a simplistic song with unmemorable lyrics, a rudimentary structure and no moments of musical transcendence despite the quality of the instrumentalists on board. It’s intentionally generic in almost every way.

In spite of this it works well enough for its limited aims to be moderately enjoyable. This might be a case of getting the absolute most out of the absolute least we’ve come across so far, which in a way reminds me of way too many underage parties where a bunch of guys and girls get together with little more than an empty house or remote outdoor spot at their disposal and a few cases of beer and enough music to pass the time and wind up having what they’ll swear the next day was a really good time.

Maybe it was a good time in the moment, when all you really care about is being with your friends while free of parental authority. That’s what those parties are really for anyway. You’ll come away from most of them remembering just bits and pieces of various conversations, a few funny things, or more accurately a few things that seemed funny at the time but really weren’t, and maybe if you’re lucky something big might’ve happened like a fight or a break-up or a hook-up that will have people talking for awhile.

What DOES get remembered, not from any one of those parties but rather the accumulated build up of a lifetime of parties over the years, is the overall atmosphere they all seem to share, the unmistakable vibe that you can vividly remember long after last hangover wears off. That’s the lasting value of these nights of debauchery in the long run, the shared experience of being carefree and uninhibited at an age when those two things help define you.

Like the song there’s really nothing much of substance to be found when you get right down to it but you’re glad you had those experiences all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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