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GOTHAM 209; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

What’s the definition of “greed”?

I don’t mean the one found in the dictionary – n. selfish desire – but rather the universally applied standard which separates degrees of greed ranging from merely discreetly wanting something to openly coveting it.

Is it greedy to hope for something you don’t really need in order to live a fulfilling life, like say a singer wanting to a huge hit record to see what it was like to be a star, or does it only reach the greed level if you desire far more than what you actually need? Like say that same artist wanting to score fifty hits over the course of their career?

For J. B. Summers, a rock vocalist with some appreciable talent in a field he was well-suited for at a time when rock ‘n’ roll itself was growing ever more commercially potent, it probably wouldn’t qualify as greedy to request a single hit record from Santa Claus so he could get his name more widely known to the public.

But apparently ol’ Kris Kringle deemed this music to be an abomination and so he put Summers on his naughty list just for asking and left him a necktie and handkerchief set under his tree instead and told him to go out and get a real job or next year he wouldn’t even get the necktie.
 

 

Tired Of Being All Alone
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight it’s tough to understand how J.B. Summers could never break through even though he had plenty to offer musically. With a strong commanding voice, a delivery that was brash and bold yet remarkably well judged and aided by a stable of backing musicians (any one of three different outfits to date) who handled their business quite well, there was every reason to expect that Summers would soon be at least a moderate sized star.

His material was consistently better than average with topics that fit perfectly into rock’s established perspectives and he recorded for a fairly stable label in Gotham Records who’d scored a number of hits with multiple artists over the last few years.

So why wasn’t he more successful? Nobody knows. That’s the question that plenty of quality singers and musicians have asked in all sincerity over the years when they’ve failed to live up to expectations.

As 1949 drew to a close he found himself in the ideal setting for his brand of rock, an era that placed a high value on lusty shouters who didn’t have much need for lyrical ambiguity, and yet even with all of his ducks in a row he was still on the outside looking in when it came to becoming a reliable seller.

That’s why you really couldn’t blame him for running the risk of appearing greedy by declaring rather adamantly I Want A Present For Christmas. Though Summers wasn’t in fact asking St. Nick for a hit record in his stocking, he WAS asking for something even better to take his mind of his lack of commercial returns… “a fine brown baby” who presumably would be able to comfort him after not getting a hit out of THIS record either.
 


 
 

Leave Your Reindeer Outside
It’s pretty easy to see why this song didn’t become a holiday standard over the years, even though the so-called “present” of a good looking girl is probably at the top of a lot of Christmas lists no matter the era. Though it isn’t out and out salacious – there’s no kinky references to what might be done with whatever carrot was left out for the reindeer for instance – the general mood isn’t exactly suited for sing-alongs around the piano on Christmas Eve no matter how lax you are about acknowledging the more spiritual origins of the holiday.

I Want A Present For Christmas is a classic thematic juxtaposition, taking the obvious inference as to what would constitute an acceptable gift and replaces it with something deemed largely unacceptable by most of society. “Most”, that is, outside of rock fans who spent much of their time listening to songs that were racy as can be while crudely propositioning each and every girl in sight as those records played.

In other words if you were familiar with the tender odes to love as envisioned by Wynonie Harris you were sure to be able to relate to J. B. Summers’ perspective.

Luckily Summers isn’t content just to shock you with the early revelation about preferring to get a shapely girl to unwrap Christmas morning rather than a sweater or pair of socks, for while the story that follows might not lead anywhere – other than the bedroom – it has plenty of fun in getting there, using a bounty of descriptive lines to make this quaint winter scene come alive.

What’s interesting is the song wasn’t written by Summers, as you might expect considering the topic, nor was it contributed by the usual Gotham session musicians/songwriters Harry Crafton and Doc Bagby.

Nope, this was penned by none other than Tiny Grimes, both words AND music, even though reportedly it’s not Grimes backing him on this side as he’d done on Drinking Beer earlier in the fall.

A few oddities strike you about this information, the first is that while Grimes certainly was a fine songwriter, he wasn’t generally one who penned these types of off-color lyrics. For starters most of his own tracks were instrumentals and even those which weren’t had more… tranquil topics. But good for him if he did come up with this, since there’s always a tendency to cast a little skepticism on Tiny’s musical allegiance coming as he does from a jazz background. I Want A Present For Christmas is definitely NOT something that would be found on the bandstand of that style, so he deserves a Christmas card for that alone.

The other interesting thing is that there IS a lead guitar which stands out here, but presumably it’s Crafton playing it, though the record’s credits read Doc Bagby’s Orchestra, which as we know a) wasn’t an orchestra and b) usually contained Crafton on lead guitar, though it could certainly be Grimes I suppose, but it seems unlikely Gotham wouldn’t want to give their newest signee (and far more marketable name) the appropriate credit on the label if Tiny was sitting in.

Whoever it is however does a fine job lending some atmosphere. The sax may hog the majority of the spotlight during the solo, and the tone of the two instruments are too close to one another to be really effective playing off one another, but each takes on the right mood throughout this… sultry, edgy and just laid back enough to not give away their anxious state of mind as Santa makes his rounds.
 


 

Fill Up My Stocking With Some Girl My Age
When analyzing this record, and Summers in particular, there doesn’t seem to be many reasons why he wouldn’t connect with the same audience that had made Harris such a star and who’d already bestowed temporary star credentials on far more limited vocalists such as Joe Swift.

Though Summers doesn’t possess a very supple vocal instrument he’s definitely effective with what he has to offer. He’s brimming with confidence and using a very measured tone, one that is both assertive and restrained at the same time. His pace is spot on, not rushing through this in a misguided attempt to convey enthusiasm like Crown Prince Waterford, someone who on paper was remotely similar in theory, would invariably fall prey to. Summers seems to know his limitations and as a result he comes across as being in total control of the situation.

For one thing he’s not fighting the musicians, locked in some machismo-laden battle for supremacy to prove which one is the drawing card. The two entities play well off one another, balancing the arrangement and keeping both the story and the musical accompaniment on the same page. It’s not a boisterous record, the tempo is moderate at best, but it’s self-assured in its delivery, knowing that the story works best when it isn’t in a hurry to get to whatever punchline is deemed most entertaining.

In short I Want A Present For Christmas is a record that any listener who did more than merely sample the biggest rock artists greatest hits of the day would be glad to hear. These were the type of releases that confirmed rock’s status as a continuing vital presence on the landscape simply because it was so effortlessly good. There was no need for showy musical tricks to draw attention to it, no hint of any novelty-like gimmickry in its theme to try for greater word of mouth appeal, nor were there any signs of creative uncertainty as they tried to figure out what might hit the most targets in hopes of securing a hit.

That this didn’t become a hit is unfortunate, especially for Summers, but in a way you can argue that it’s also somewhat reassuring that a record this well made no longer stood out because there were so many good rock releases on the market at any one time.

Everything that a rock fan could reasonably ask for at Christmas 1949 was wrapped in a neat little package here. A juicy subject with some entertaining lines to draw a smile, a unified arrangement that judiciously utilized each of the components and all of it delivered with a casual assurance from everybody involved.
 
 

 

A Pile Of Loot Under The Tree
One of the… I hesitate to say drawbacks so I’ll say one inevitability of getting so many gifts at Christmas is that oftentimes something really nice doesn’t get fully appreciated when it’s opened. You thank the person if they’re in the room with you, or if not you merely tell those who are there who didn’t get a good look at it what it is before moving on to the next present.

It isn’t that you don’t like it or can’t use it, but it’s just that you’ve got a whole pile of things to get to and your curiosity about what’s under all of those bows, ribbons and shiny paper still waiting to be opened keeps you from taking the time to stop and really savor the one in your hand at the time.

I’m guessing that’s what happened here. Maybe Gotham released it too close to the holidays and so it didn’t have time to build sales. Maybe because there were only so many spots on a jukebox for holiday fare that quota was already filled in the types of joints that catered to the rock crowd. Maybe the failure of Summers to make a name for himself his first few times out, in spite of good records, kept away potential listeners who might have given I Want A Present For Christmas a try.

Or maybe it was just that J. B. Summers had his sights set on the wrong gift in the store window and while I certainly hope the mistletoe got shaken from the rafters Christmas night if he got the girl he asked for, he might’ve been smarter to take a long term view of things when submitting his list to Santa Claus.

If he had been more greedy regarding his career prospects and asked for the hit record instead it’s a pretty sure bet that had he gotten a best seller there’d have been plenty of beautiful and willing girls who would’ve followed in short order… without the need for additional assistance from jolly fat men in red suits who work just one night a year.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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