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IMPERIAL 5055; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

In music, which is so often defined by hits, the primary stories recounting that music’s historical legacy tends to be shaped by those hits. They have the verifiable success, and often the lasting familiarity, that makes assessing their impact much easier to discern.

But then there are those songs which manage to transcend their status as hits and come to represent a pivotal juncture in how that music evolved.

As we inch ever closer to the end of the Nineteen Forties in many ways this release marks the dawn of the entire Nineteen-Fifties rock scene… and so of course we find ourselves back where it all began, in New Orleans.
 

 

Come On, Baby, Let’s Do A Fancy Dance
In most cases Jewel King would be a prime candidate for being largely overlooked by the general populace, one hit record or not. But due to the connected stories of those involved with this record she never been completely forgotten by history.

When Lew Chudd, owner of Imperial Records, a Los Angeles based independent label with middling success to date, was looking to get into rock ‘n’ roll now that it had proved its worth he needed someone to oversee those plans in the studio. He found him in Dave Bartholomew, the trumpet-playing leader of one of New Orleans’ hottest bands.

For the ambitious Bartholomew this was a golden opportunity, one that was rare for a black artist in an era of widespread segregation no less. Chudd was giving him free reign to craft the musical output of the label and so when he came to town to get started on this endeavor, Bartholomew needed to find artists capable of carrying out his ideas. He quickly drafted Tommy Ridgley, who was then performing at a club in Gert Town, and Jewel King, a female vocalist who, like Ridgley, had no recording experience but was a local club attraction and brought them in the studio on November 29th, their shot at collective glory riding on the outcome.

Ridgley’s song Shrewsbury Blues became a locally popular record, but it was Jewel King’s 3 x 7 = 21 which became a smash hit, soaring up the charts across the entire country – though in Cash Box they initially credited her as a him by changing the name to “Jules King”! – and she seemed poised to become one of the defining female stars, if not overall stars regardless of gender, heading into the next decade.

But while that turned out not to be the case thanks in part to a series of events that saw her ride to the top abruptly derailed, King’s historical importance in the launching of Bartholomew’s career as one of rock’s great producers, not to mention Imperial Records’ move to the big time as a rock-oriented label, means she’s never been completely forgotten.

Even so it’s nice to be able to say that her legacy (such as it is) doesn’t rest solely on those tangential stories associated with her, but it’s also based in large part on the fact that her one hit more than lives up to its reputation as a defining song of New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll.
 


 
 

Footloose And Fancy Free
How much of the record’s quality is owed to Bartholomew – his arrangement and his band – and how much belongs to King’s vocal skills is up for debate. As baritone sax player, and longtime stalwart in the New Orleans studio Red Tyler, who played behind everyone over the years, said of her, “She wasn’t as good of a singer as Annie Laurie” (the reigning New Orleans rock queen and vocalist for rival Paul Gayten’s band) “but she worked real hard and was a good draw”.

Technically that assessment might be correct. Laurie was more versatile and at her best could certainly out-sing King when it came to nuance and touch, but what Laurie struggled with most often is something Jewel King has down pat from her first moment on record – she had an undeniable presence.

Call it confidence, even ego if you want, or just a strong sense of self, but for a rookie in the recording booth she knew exactly what she was being asked to deliver here and nailed the required attitude as if she was wielding a hammer in the studio rather than a microphone.

3 x 7 = 21 is a song about reaching sexual maturity told in a very upfront manner by someone who is not at all ashamed of what she has to offer those eager male admirers whom she apparently had to fight off just to keep at arm’s length when she was still underage. Now that she’s reached adulthood she can’t wait to harness that power and have fun with guys, both in terms of enjoying the… ahhh… forbidden fruit that highlights this stage in life and just as pointedly she’s going to have fun by also denying her fruit to those she finds unworthy, thereby asserting her dominance over them in the process.

Because of this very specific role she has to carry off – embodying a girl who’s too inexperienced to be called a tramp but is too calculating to be deemed innocent – it’s a performance that can go wrong in a lot of ways. She has to balance the two divergent personas without it coming off as schizophrenic (which by the way it isn’t even in real life as anyone just discovering their own raw appeal can attest) and she has to sell each one without benefit of changing the perspective lyrically along the way.

Yet King does this all with such a deft touch that you simply take it, and her, at face value. It’s a wonderful performance that is as much about acting as it is singing, as her playfulness is coy, but not vulnerable. She’s a flirt who remains tantalizingly out of reach for most of the fellas giving her the eye. It’s not hard to envision that the majority of them will merely fantasize about her from a distance without getting up the nerve to approach her, even as she’s practically beckoning to you as she slides off the bar stool and sashays onto the dance floor as the band kicks it up a notch.
 


 

Have Myself Some Fun
Ahh yes, the band! The other vital aspect to keeping this record churning and further evidence that the guy in charge of this session was destined for bigger things.

The intro is delivered with mid-range horns and backed with a right hand dancing over the treble keys on the piano, grabbing your attention with that initial burst before quickly settling in to that calmer repetitious riff. In the manner it’s conceived it seems as if they’re constantly leading you around corners and down the block, maybe across the street, all while dancing your way through pedestrian and automobile traffic, but in spite of its winding nature it has absolutely no uncertainty as to where you’re all headed.

Once you slip inside the club that was their ultimate destination and King takes over with her a strongly declarative vocal line to kick off that section, the band dutifully falls in behind her, keeping up the spry understated rhythm which by now has you locked in to the groove, mesmerized by its overall infectious quality.

When King tosses in a scat-vocal interlude, something we railed against when tried by the aforementioned Annie Laurie a few times, not only does King handle it with aplomb but the band bolsters this section with discreet hand claps to shift the mood ever so much. The sax solo which follows is economical but punchy, never striving to knock you off your feet by blowing up a storm, but keeping you shimmying across the floor as the baritone contributes some timely counterpoint honks to bridge the gap. Yet wisely even those are kept ever so slightly distant in the mix so as not to overwhelm the track and add unintended comedic tones to what is a deadly serious statement of intent by King herself.

Bartholomew’s skill on 3 x 7 = 21 is in finding the perfect balance between aggression and laying back, allowing King to remain in the driver’s seat while the band provides the purring engine under the hood. Sure enough when Jewel comes out of the horn solo Dave strips away the instruments altogether, letting her refocus your attention on what she’s saying rather than having her compete with the band. Then by placing those lines in a stop-time cadence it further emphasizes her role even as Palmer’s drum flourishes give it just enough of an added kick to get things moving again.

Everything about it, right down to the final skittering drum roll and fading horn coda, imparts what a master Bartholomew was in squeezing out every ounce of sinewy power of the band much to the delight of those who truly know music and understand the intricacies of arranging. In this, his first time fully in control of the finished product, he delivers a record that is truly flawless.
 

 

If I Spend My Money…
Rock ‘n’ roll was born and raised in New Orleans but once it learned to walk rather quickly it wanted to roam the country and as such other artists from other regions – New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and Texas – all came in bringing their own distinct influences to add to the mix. A mongrel child in the best sense of the word.

With DeLuxe Records, a New Jersey label that mined the Crescent City early and often for its sound, having since been appropriated by a Cincinnati label which stripped it of its regional flavor (save for Roy Brown who remained firmly entrenched with them), the most prominent outlet for New Orleans rock had been cut off. Though subsequently replaced by Regal Records, the label started by those same New Jerseyites who took with them the rest of DeLuxe’s Louisiana contingency, their early success over this past year was soon to dry up and they would fail to last long enough to ensure music from the bayou country would have a reliable home.

As a result of this there was a chance that rock ‘n’ roll might be at ever greater risk for becoming homogenized. Its specific regional flavors gradually taken out of the recipe by other record labels in order to achieve a less spicy – and thus presumably more palatable – taste for consumers all across the country, from the cloudy damp terrain of Washington state to the hot and humid swamps of Florida and the cold mountains of Vermont to the arid deserts of Arizona. One size fits all, an intentionally generic sound for the middle of the road masses.

After all, that’s what record companies specialized in – assembly line productions of made to order records conceived for maximum mainstream appeal.

In that formula there might not be much room for the type of quirky provincial tastes that New Orleans specialized in… but now Dave Bartholomew assured that wouldn’t be the case. Thanks to him Imperial Records came to define New Orleans rock in the 1950’s which in turn led other companies to venture down there in search of hits of their own. The musicians featured here would not only cut thousands of records among them in their home town but would eventually migrate to L.A. and keep some of these influences alive throughout the 1960’s and beyond.

Jewel King wasn’t around to take part in any of that, for reasons we’ll get into shortly, but make no mistake about it, while Bartholomew deserves musical credit for the rise to prominence of these sounds, it was still Jewel King belting out 3 x 7 = 21 in inimitable fashion which gave notice to the world that this sound packed a wallop that couldn’t be watered down and thus assured that the New Orleans brand of this music – and rock itself – would make it well past its own 21st birthday.

Seventy years later the music is still “footloose and fancy free”.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Jewel King for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)