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FREEDOM 1513; JULY, 1949

 
 

 

One of the ground rules of this project from the start was to confine the music being covered to rock ‘n’ roll exclusively. It’s not as if there aren’t enough records to review in rock’s now seventy one years of existence (as of 2018) to necessitate “filling out” the rolls with records and artists from other genres just to have enough content.

But of course nothing exists in a bubble untouched by outside influences, nor did rock spring up from nowhere without any DNA coming from previous musical styles. Because of that we’ve frequently made mention of those origins, jazz primarily, some gospel in the vocal approach and the hybrid transitional styles that originally stemmed from jazz but which took on a different look and feel over the bulk of the 1940’s to make it something else entirely.

The two dominant musical genres NOT really touched upon so far are two that often get a lot of credit in some circles for actually spawning rock ‘n’ roll, namely country music and blues.

Their omission here is NOT by accident.
 

 
The blues is a wonderfully deep and expressive music that has formed the cornerstone of popular music in terms of basic structure for well over a century. Jazz originally stemmed from blues and rock stemmed from jazz and thus indirectly from blues. But whereas jazz and rock had an amazing amount of diversity within their histories, transforming themselves over time, shedding their skin like snakes and almost taking on entirely new appearances – always recognizable as jazz or rock but vastly different from era to era and style to style within that larger realm – blues by contrast was largely stagnant.

That’s not a criticism at all, if anything it’s a testament to its enduring strength as an art form that it didn’t NEED to change over the years. But aside from the switch from acoustic country blues to electric urban blues in the late 1940’s there hasn’t been much variation in the approach overall from the outset of the form. Each region and era might have signature touches but the basic construct, instrumentation and thematic devices that existed in the 1920’s remain largely unchanged a century later.

As such the blues was almost incapable of spawning any direct decedents that were not blues themselves. There were no new bloodlines brought into the family tree, no gene splicing or evolutionary changes to take things off in another direction. Blues history is a straight line, or at least as straight as any form of popular music can get.

The famous line by Muddy Waters – “The Blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll” – is little more than a self aggrandizing lie meant to entice the fans of rock towards his brand of music by implying a deeper connection than actually existed.

In truth the blues had a baby and they called it… the blues.
 

How Blue Can You Get?
An overriding theme thus far in rock ‘n’ roll’s journey has been the worldview its artists shared and how that differed greatly from the previous generation of black Americans. The post-war optimism permeated both the lyrics, as might be expected, but also the music itself which was restless, impatient, even explosive in nature. It’s pretty clear that it wasn’t just a reflection of the mindset of this generation, but in fact this generation’s mindset is what created rock ‘n’ roll in order to express those feelings in the first place.

Blues on the other hand was born out of the mindset of an earlier era when people of color were forced to stifle their outrage and to swallow their pride and look the other way at oppression. The same underlying feelings were still there of course in every living soul having to deal with Jim Crow and thus needed some outlet to get through life as a second class citizen but they had to do so in a way that didn’t invite retribution.

The blues allowed you to deal with these harsh realities, giving voice to the despair and misery yet resigned to it all the same. It provided an ideal coping mechanism for these injustices, venting their grievances through music, much like gospel did in a different manner. Blues was also ideally suited musically for the most common victims at the time, largely poor rural southerners without access to more than basic instruments such as guitar, harmonica or piano and who weren’t going to put together larger bands requiring an abundance of time to practice and work out their parts, or the freedom with which to do so. Blues was the music of sharecropper’s front porches where they’d play after work was done, the best of whom found their way from the porches to clubs and a somewhat better life as a professional musician.

It was a simple, though not simplistic, music that was easily learned and passed along from one musician to another and one generation to another, virtually unchanged over time and its downcast themes were as much a benchmark of the genre as the 12 bar structure. To put it quite succinctly the blues was a music for those who in life whose only option was to endure.

Rock ‘n’ roll was music for those in life who sought to revolt, to somehow throw off the shackles of oppression and celebrate life on its own terms.

The two could hardly be more diametrically opposed.

So the idea that someone who was clearly a bluesman first and foremost, and not a very well-known one at that, would somehow not only find his way to full-fledged rocking and rolling but would acquit himself quite nicely in the process, is rather far-fetched. Yet here he is all the same…
 

High As The Sky
Maybe the fact that Jesse Thomas was so obscure is what helps his case on a song where “acting blue” was the LAST thing he was being called upon to do, as its title Let’s Have Some Fun makes abundantly clear.

Jesse Thomas was 38 years old and was marking his twentieth anniversary as a professional artist, having cut his first sides for RCA-Victor way back in 1929! That those initial three sessions – two of which he backed another blues singer, Bessie Tucker – all took place in the two months prior to the stock market crash at the end of October. When The Great Depression sent the record industry into a tailspin the blues were the first type of music to be shown the door at the record companies. It’d take Thomas 19 years to find his way back inside a studio again.

Though much of the musical landscape in that time had changed drastically Thomas, other than switching to an electric guitar, was headed down the exact same path as he’d started on so long ago. He still was a bluesman and after a session at Miltone Records he landed at the start-up Club label and in addition to cutting his own sides he wound up backing yet another female vocalist, this time a gospel singer.

In other words, not much had changed for Thomas. With the blues becoming more commercially potent in the post-war adult market and with the electric guitar just starting to make its presence strongly felt in that field courtesy of T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton, it would appear that Jesse Thomas might finally get a break if he could just find his way to a record company that knew what to do in order to position him alongside those artists.

Instead he landed at Freedom Records out of Houston, a new company with a decidedly more modern musical outlook. Though they would venture into pure blues during their brief three year run, their larger musical sensibilities had already been irrevocably shaped by the house band, presciently dubbed The Hep-Cats when backing Goree Carter, who were led by saxophonist Conrad Johnson and pianist Lonnie Lyons, musicians who specialized in the most unbridled rock mayhem you could find.

To be fair without them steering Let’s Have Some Fun it is highly doubtful that Thomas would’ve headed into rock ‘n’ roll himself. As such this review is as much about them, these young Texas roustabouts who were shaping up to be the premier self-contained rock group before such a thing was commonplace, as it is about itinerant bluesman Jesse Thomas who just happens to be the one caught in the middle of the maelstrom that took place in the studio when he arrived to cut his one and only session for them.

But that said Thomas, as he’s already shown on his handful of sides in the blues field, was perfectly adaptable musically to different ideas. In fact some have opined that one reason why for all of his talents – as a singer, guitarist and songwriter – that he failed to connect was because he was TOO versatile, not sticking to one dominant image like say John Lee Hooker who was coming into his own at this time.

I tend not to follow that line of thinking, he was skilled in all of those areas for sure but he didn’t truly stand out in any way that you need in order to make a name for yourself. He was more than serviceable but not quite memorable.

Except that is for Let’s Have Some Fun where he’s forced to adapt his strengths to those of the band who turn this into a group effort, their enthusiasm spurring Thomas on and keeping this from slackening off in the least.
 

 
 

You Don’t Have To Worry
It’s still fitting I suppose that Thomas gets to kick this off with a harsh toned guitar intro, adding immediate sizzle to the track that the others capitalize on when they come in. He’s earned that much after so many years in the wilderness. Yet the music initially bows to the call and response vocals which immediately let’s you know this is no modest blues after all and gives you fair warning that you might want to grab onto something and brace yourself for what is to follow.

Thomas kicks off Let’s Have Some Fun with the aforementioned vocal refrain the others respond to, but after the first stanza he basically takes a back seat to the others who waste no time in making their presence known as boldly as possible with Lyons hammering the keys as Sam Williams takes the first of multiple solos on the tenor saxophone, dragging this well away from any blues label it could have applied to it and placing it squarely in rock ‘n’ roll. The lyrics that follow are just set-ups for the next round of explosives the band unleashes, but Thomas for his part seems perfectly compliant in this shift to rock, his voice sounding more exuberant than it had before, and for that matter than it ever would again, as he lets loose a series of cries of exultation throughout, alternately responding to the others freewheeling musical stylings and in fact encouraging it at other moments.

That’s the power of rock music, something we keep pointing out around here, the communal aspects it contains are among its most enticing qualities. A sense that the party will never cease and if you want to have a good time, or as the song says “have some fun”, then you’d better come along for the ride. There was always plenty of room to join the party, in fact nobody ever seemed to be turned away as long as their commitment to the music and the attitude rock demanded of you were legitimate.

With Thomas, at least on this date, it was on both counts.

He sounds as if he’s having the time of his life, cutting loose and getting caught up in the atmosphere. Even during the one section where things slow down for Louis Pitts’ bass solo (the first extended one to be heard in any rock song) Thomas leads into it by urging him to “beat it out”.

The sax returns and they largely leave the lyrics behind, shed like the partygoers clothing and inhibitions as Thomas yelps and shouts while the musicians show off, including Thomas slicing his way through a vibrant guitar solo at the midway point, but just one of many sounds that give this record a sense of complete abandon. As if the first rock bass solo that’s included on the track wasn’t enough to make you sit up and take notice Allison Tucker then chips in with one of the first real drum solos we’ve encountered to bring things to an appropriately calamitous ending.

Thomas, like you the listener and really ANY one who gave themselves over to the joys of rock ‘n’ roll, are left worn out by the unhinged ruckus they created together. Each one of them contributing to the feeling of exuberance that separated rock music from everything else under the sun and – as if there was any doubt – which marked rock as decidedly different than the downbeat nature of the blues.
 

 

Say Why!
But let’s be honest, although Thomas gets credited here and contributes mightily with his guitar and unrestrained shouting, this is really a Hep-Cats record in every way and the reason it’s being included. Much like the earlier Lonnie Lyons credited Flychick Bounce, the group effort is the drawing card here and it’s not hard to envision their usual centerpiece, Goree Carter, stepping into Thomas’s role and doing the exact same thing with the exact same exhilarating result.

That’s not to knock Thomas at all, but just to show that Freedom Records, who’d ironically hoped to steer the aforementioned Carter INTO more blues just a few short months ago because it seemed at the time like the more bankable avenue, now have all but corrupted a genuine blues artist and gotten him drunk on rock ‘n’ roll once the label saw what kind of output this studio band was capable of dealing out.

So maybe it’s not surprising, in spite of all the enthusiasm they work up here and the joy they all seem to have in creating this noise together, Jesse Thomas would leave Freedom Records and rock ‘n’ roll behind after Let’s Have Some Fun. A tourist in the land of rock rather than a resident.
 


 
Thomas would stick to the blues almost exclusively after this, whether the more basic no-frills approach that he’d learned coming up or occasionally venturing into a more uptown approach. Though much of it was quite appealing none of it would make much of an impression commercially, even as the blues itself enjoyed its most fruitful years on the charts he could never find the right situation to elevate himself to prominence.

But then again never again did he have the musical backing of a group of hell bent rockers who had a vision of their own to satisfy, one that might’ve drastically differed from his own vision but which enthusiastically welcomed him into the fold of rockers in an all too brief moment where the stars were aligned and the blues suddenly had some fun.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Jesse Thomas for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)