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SCOOP 9001; NOVEMBER, 1949




Yesterday we closed out the review for the flip side of this release by saying that while many of the individual parts of that record had been quite good and the overall idea was sound in theory the clashing arrangement sent it into disarray and curtailed its effectiveness.

But we ended the essay on an optimistic note by saying that if they merely tightened it up and tossed out those attributes which were in conflict with the overall intent they might have something really good to offer us.

This side of the record is the proof of that, one which – while not perfect – has a much more focused concept and execution and shows why the initial promise shown by James Von Streeter was something to get excited about.


Serving Up A Tasty Dish
No matter what era or style of music we’re talking about there’s always trends to be aware of when looking back. From a modern vantage point we can see where they begin, though occasionally we have to dig deep to find the precise moment where an idea was first presented long before it got noticed and took hold. But once that’s accomplished we can trace its course as it begins to make waves in its original form before it gets taken up by those in the industry merely seeking the residual cachet and money from the sound after it peaked creatively.

Sometimes though, as with rock in its earliest days, there weren’t quite enough cynical exploitative outlets around to capitalize on these trends and so they were able to last longer than they would a few years down the road when the path from inspired idea to market saturation was a much quicker route. That’s not to say there weren’t independent record labels looking to cash in on the commercial power of sax instrumentals, we know there were plenty of those, but there weren’t quite enough OF them – record labels or eminently qualified and willing sax players – to dilute the output so much as to turn off those who liked their rock untainted from too many interlopers.

James Von Streeter was no interloper. He was the real deal and would have a long career in rock playing on some huge records, but he never scored a hit under his own name. Why he didn’t is still not entirely clear. It could be that he never had the resources of a really viable record label to launch his solo career. He was the initial artist of Scoop Records, getting the first two releases on the new Los Angeles label, which tells you they didn’t have any experience or connections to help him on his way. How far did their distribution stretch to would you say? Maybe Encino?

Then again it could be that Von Streeter was simply more comfortable in his regular gig working behind Johnny Otis, leaving the responsibility for coming up with the songs, the arrangements and the production, not to mention the promotion and handling all aspects of the contracts and touring to someone else. Von Streeter would stay by Otis’s side throughout their run of hits for a decade but at the same time he’d be free to relax, score dope and mess around while waiting until the next recording session or live show. There was less glory in that maybe, but there was also less pressure and hassles along the way.

But that didn’t mean he was completely averse to taking his own shot at a hit if an opportunity was thrown in his lap and so when that chance presented itself in the fall of 1949 he took it.

You can hardly say it was surprising that a novice record company would go after a respected tenor sax player in their bid to establish the label as a viable rock outlet, nor is it at all surprising that in the process they adhered to another ongoing trend when naming the records, as the colorful title Hog’s Knuckles attests.

Among the frequent subjects that record companies used for naming these burning sax instrumentals over the past two years was the culinary tastes of African-Americans from the South. Whether it was Cornbread, Pot Likker, Cole Slaw – or as on the flip side of this record, Chit’lins – the record charts often read like a menu at a soul food restaurant.

This was Basic Marketing 101. Target the prospective audience with not only the music they’d be most eager to hear, but with a title that let them know in no uncertain terms that it was meant for their ears.

Thus two trends combine to form one.

A Full Plate
On the aforementioned top side Von Streeter ran into problems thanks to a few too many instruments vying for our attention at once while using far different approaches with which to do so. The competing horn parts marred the first minute thanks to a group effort of the others which seemed woefully out of place while Von Streeter’s own sax style playing on top of that was exactly what we’d come to hear.

Though the same musicians are playing on Hog’s Knuckles the arrangement here wisely decreases the presence of the other horns, relegating them to a supporting role while giving their spot at the forefront of the instrumental lineup to the guitar which brings a much needed balance to this side. Not only does it provide a great contrast in sonic textures, but that in turn allows Von Streeter’s sax to be heard more clearly, no longer competing with the rest of the brass and getting lost in the mix.

It takes a few seconds to get its bearings however as the guitar launches this with an ever so slight concession to an earlier era. It’s just a little too clean in how it comes off, its tone not quite thick enough even though it’s far from thin and reedy sounding. There’s a slackness to the strings that makes it appear somehow tentative, whereas a sharper sounding attack, or one featuring more of a buzzy distorted vibe, would make your hair stand on end.

Even if his lines are shortchanged ever so much by not emphasizing a more assertive attitude the skill of the guitarist is plainly evident and it’d be hard not to be impressed by the fleet-fingered runs and the precision of his playing. But he’s merely the appetizer for this meal and when he steps aside the main course is served steaming hot and that’s when it all comes together.

Von Streeter has no such problem finding the right tone, he’s locked in on it right from the start. His lines are the aural equivalent of physical exertion… somebody straining while lifting a heavy load but gritting their teeth and getting it up all the same. A determination evident in the brawny rough-textured sound. There’s no traces of jazz sophistication here, this is other-side-of-the-tracks music as midnight rolls around, when the roadhouse at the edge of town has exceeded their capacity by a hundred people, all of whom are juiced to the gills and sweating profusely but loving every minute of it.

Raw, primal, urgent rock ‘n’ roll. Perfect in the moment you’re immersed in that scene but always hard to bottle and take home with you to get the same effect without the colorful surroundings.

…But while you’re in that moment, ride it for all it’s worth.

Get Your Fill
The song takes off without caring much about its direction. It’s a series of snapshots, some in focus, others merely a blur, of a night of constant motion.

Early on we get the hypnotic entry as you walk into the joint, people already in the midst of getting their groove on while you’re merely trying to get your bearings. As you wade deeper into the fray, getting jostled around, you can either push back, doing your best to remain on solid footing while insisting others give you some room, trying to dictate their movements as well as your own, or you can just go with the flow and trust that the crowd is on your side and thus you’ll all either fall down or remain upright together.

In the midst of this bedlam is Von Streeter himself, rampaging along with increasing fervor as he goes and if you’ve made the right choice and aren’t fighting against the surge of the crowd, letting yourself get caught up in the excitement, then you’ll have no complaints. Melody? Sensible riffs? Undulating groove?… Nope, not here, not now, not tonight. But you don’t mind their absence because what you get in their place is nonstop atmosphere.

It never loses its primary forward thrust, if that’s what you’re fearing. We know full well that there have been far too many instrumentals that wander around aimlessly, robbing those songs of their focus, but that’s not the case here. Hog’s Knuckles might not have the traditional musical hallmarks that you’ve come to rely on, but it retains a definite progression of moods that add up to something recognizable. Call them “movements” if you want, though it’s hardly that formal, but you’re able to follow along from one to the next without wondering how you got there.

Much of this is due to the simplicity of the concept itself. The drummer just keeps pounding away relentlessly, the piano adds a few notes to break things up, the guitar lines come to the forefront intermittently after that opening, but then recede into the background just as quickly. Even the other horns, mercifully unburdened by the constant focus on Von Streeter, just riff along in the background… you hear them without ever really noticing them, which is the way it should be.

Even when things slow down and Von Streeter squeals like the pig who lost his knuckles… err, rather the hocks that make up this dish… there’s plenty of hollering, screaming and whistling going on in the background to keep you occupied. None of it pushed artificially into the spotlight, trying to create a mood out of slight of hand, but rather they all seem to belong in the background as if this were actually a fully realized portrait of the festivities of a night on the town. It may be just an act but it’s a legitimate one and that makes all the difference in how we respond.

Just Desserts
As records go the lack of a familiar structural framework might have done it in when it came to eliciting a demand to hear it coming out of a jukebox or spinning on a record player in the sanctity of your own otherwise quiet house. But as much as any record we’ve come across to date Hog’s Knuckles makes for a pretty fair recreation of a party in full swing.

It also shows – or confirms after his initial effort, Landslide, proved his worth – that Von Streeter indeed had the skills and the right frame of mind to be a star in this realm. He didn’t become one however and so you can pass off the lack of commercial returns over his career to his own lack of name recognition or the small labels he recorded for, or the fact that his primary allegiance was to Johnny Otis and so all of his own records, fewer in number than we might’ve liked, simply got lost in the shuffle.

But there’s another possibility too, which is that James Von Streeter was at heart a live performer, one who thrived when the sounds from the audience screaming and dancing and fighting and… something else that starts with an “f”… were just as loud, raucous and uninhibited as what he was playing on stage.

Was there an audience for this type of sound? Of course there was, but it’s just that the audience for it were too busy out on the town to stop at a record store, or too exhausted once the parties stopped to remember to pick one up the next morning.

Or it could be that compared to the real thing even this faithful recreation was lacking something in the way of tastes, smell and random nocturnal assignations with shapely strangers to fully suffice and so we’ll just save up our money to hit the next party tomorrow night instead, knowing Von Streeter will probably be there blowing up a storm.


(Visit the Artist page of James Von Streeter for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)