Tags

No tags :(

Share it

ATLANTIC 884; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

You’d think that if ever there was a match made in heaven in the world of rock ‘n’ roll it’d be this one.

Our first prospective date is a supremely talented teenage rock singer whose ability on electric guitar was second to none, yet who hadn’t fully been allowed to unleash it unencumbered on any of the three stops he’d made in his young career thus far, Aladdin, Savoy and Manor Records. Though he hasn’t met with any success in this musical dating game his potential – as a songwriter, singer and instrumentalist – seems unlimited.

For a potential suitor we’ve found a somewhat more experienced partner, albeit one who knows what it is to be unlucky in love, having failed to even get a peck on the cheek their first year in the dating game before finally clicking with a few fleeting romances.

So we’re setting up the likes of Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis with Atlantic Records, sending them out for a night on the town, all expenses paid, in the hopes they both might find true and lasting love.
 

 
Have You Heard?
Of course because this is a convoluted dating game program for our amusement, we’re going to send along some spies with hidden cameras to capture their interaction and see if they have any hope of becoming a full-fledged couple. We promise to use proper decorum however if they reach the bedroom on their very first date… though by the sound of things that’s not something we’re going to have to worry about.

To recap the particulars about this pairing in a little more depth for the uninitiated in our audience, Jimmy Lewis was an 18 year old kid who had shocked people with his guitar pyrotechnics in the months just before rock ‘n’ roll exploded out of the gate in September 1947. While recording for Aladdin he’d unleashed a double-sided record that hinted strongly at what was to come, but was agonizingly held back by an outdated horn section which tried to wrest control of the songs from him.

He’d put up a valiant fight but he was a 16 year old kid who didn’t have the strength or experience to out-slug a roomful of adults brandishing brass weapons and so it was left to his next stop, at Savoy, where we first met him officially, for him to stake his claim as to his place at the forefront of rock.

Grandma And Grandpa was a strange name for something looking forward, but he made an effective case for his takeover of the rock sound that may have shed those earlier antiquated horn arrangement ideas that had held him back, but rock as a whole was still tied to the more aggressive and far more suitable horns, namely the tenor sax, when it came to generating excitement. That this sound was so effective meant that a now 17 year old Lewis was still going to have a tough go of it when it came to convincing others that his guitar had the power in it to be equally explosive if given the chance.

He moved next to Manor Records where he had his best showing to date, lyrically, vocally and with some scintillating guitar work, yet once more he was betrayed by an outmoded concept of the role a brass section should take. We keep waiting for somebody to pass the word that these trumpet and alto-sax laden arrangements were doing nobody any favors – they weren’t appropriate for rock, yet Lewis was hardly suited to appeal to the jazz or pop listeners those horn charts were created for – but too often these record labels were slow to catch on.

That’s why it’s so promising that he landed so quickly – one month after his last Manor record was released – at the doorstep of Atlantic.
 

Hang Your Head And Moan
Now at this point in time Atlantic Records was hardly near the pinnacle of independent label success, commercially or aesthetically, and nowhere near the legendary company they’d go on to become, but recently the building blocks were starting to fall into place that made such an outcome more likely.

They’d largely abandoned the “cast a wide net” mindset they had when they started when they’d tried recording artists across the musical spectrum with a mindset of throwing everything against the wall to see what would stick. By now they’d found out what would stick and it was rock ‘n’ roll. First it had been sides from Joe Morris and Tiny Grimes that found modest, yet consistent, success, and then they’d scored an unlikely big hit in Stick McGhee’s Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee which nearly topped the national charts. Soon after they came out with So Long by Ruth Brown which nearly matched McGhee’s feat in terms of broad appeal.

The direction seemed clear at last but of course in the music business nothing – no matter how obvious to outsiders – is ever quite that simple.

Missteps immediately began piling up as they’d inexplicably followed up McGhee’s rock smash with a record where one side was squarely in the down-home blues idiom and the other is a beguiling mix of pop and blues, a decision which is all the more indefensible considering they had another pure unbridled rocker cut at the same session as his hit that was sitting on the shelf gathering dust.

So much for being visionary. Hell, so much for being able to see mere inches in front of their faces for that matter!

But these frustrating gaffes aside Atlantic was at least starting to grasp the potential of rock ‘n’ roll if nothing else and thus far when confronted with artists best suited for that realm they were able to extract some quality records out of them and would do so with increasing regularity over the next few months until it became obvious that rock was truly where it was at and they put all of their efforts into conquering it.

So that’s where we find ourselves the last day of August 1949 when Lewis, newly signed to the label, entered the studio for the first time under the auspices of Atlantic and cut his initial sides for them. Yes, he wrote them both himself, so the concepts for the songs, their pacing and delivery, fell on his shoulders, but the production and arrangements were surely shaped in large part by the men behind the glass at Atlantic and its here where the match made in heaven takes a detour into a less divine area of town.
 

The Only Lover Who Could Love Across The Sea
We may be letting Lewis off the hook – and putting Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson ON said hook – unfairly, since we don’t know who suggested what in the studio, but it’s hard to believe that a cocky teenager who played guitar as well as he did would voluntarily toss that guitar into its case and put that case in the hall closet when he stepped on the studio floor for the first time to impress his new employees.

I’ll ask it this way: In your experience have you EVER known a teenager (whether yourself or others) to NOT want to show off if given the opportunity?

I didn’t think so.

So that’s why the arrangement to All Night Lover Blues strikes you as being an uneasy compromise between a record label seeking to make headway into a broader marketplace and an artist not wanting to piss off the adults in the room by petulantly stalking out and refusing to play unless they actually LET him play his guitar.

Oh it’s here, they at least acquiesced into letting him keep it in his hands for a sense of security if nothing else, but he’s barely playing it despite plenty of opportunities where it’d make perfect sense to showcase it.

But instead it’s the piano, playing slow and deliberately, which kicks this off while Lewis provides muted answers in the intro and then dull chording behind the main body of the tune itself. The problem is there’s nothing much else to compensate for its absence. There’s a tenor sax somewhere in the room, but he seems to be more interested in playing bid whist in the corner with the similarly under-used drummer than contributing to the atmosphere musically. Honestly we get just one moment where the horn is distinctly audible and that’s right as the vocals come in, from then on it’s lazily blowing an uninspired single note drone so far off-mic that if he got paid so much as a dime for his efforts he made off like a bandit for what he contributed.

The same can be said for the drummer who had a little shuffle going at the start and then could’ve discarded his sticks altogether for what he was called upon to do. When the stand-up bassist is the most active of the rhythm section and he’s barely notable, that tells you all you need to know about the backing track.

The pianist is Ernie Freeman, one of the more talented musicians and arrangers of his era, but he too was nearer the start of his recording career and hadn’t quite made a name for himself, so who knows if he’s the one responsible for the sparse accompaniment here. He gets the only solo and while it’s played pretty well, it’s hardly worth getting excited about.

For excitement we have to hope Lewis is up to the task, but as we see he’s half-asleep here as well.
 
 

 

Cry, Cry, Cry Baby
We’ll grant you that not every rock song has to be exhilarating, nor even uptempo, and that there’s plenty of room in the rock canon for slower meditative songs to touch upon another mood. But All Night Lover Blues is a recruitment poster for narcolepsy, a song that focuses far too much on the “night” in the title and not enough on the “lover” part, which presumably would involve some bed-spring testing athleticism if nothing else.

The story is told from a third person perspective, meaning Jimmy’s not even taking part in this tale. He’s telling about a guy who apparently was quite successful with the ladies but who is now despondent because the girl he was with has left him.

Okay, so if this guy is enough of a stud with the ladies to have a song written about him why doesn’t he go out and get another girl? Shouldn’t they be lining up to meet somebody who’s such a catch? I mean, there’s certainly more than one of them in the world after all and plenty are willing, ready and available so you don’t need to bore us with your misery – or your buddy’s misery delivered second hand to us as it were – when you could be acting as a wing-man to get him another girl who can last all night.

If one won’t suffice, maybe he could take them in shifts, an hour or two per girl, that’d surely make the night go by faster… not to make for a much more interesting song!

Instead he drags this out until we all feel as though it’s four AM and we’re wide awake, checking our clocks with dread at the thought the sun will soon rise and we’ll have gone all night without a wink of sleep.

But then again maybe he’s sympathetic to our plight and that’s why he’s singing this in such a lethargic manner, hoping to make us drowsy enough to fade into dreamland. He even seems to be channeling Andrew Tibbs a little in his vocal mannerisms, though usually Tibbs showed much more emotion than Lewis is mustering here.

The song is also devoid of any interesting lyrics to keep us interested that way. He incorporates a brief snippet of the Marines Hymn… ”From the halls of Montezuma…” but screws up the concluding line, replacing “to the shores of Tripoli” with ”to the LAND of Tripoli”.

As if we already weren’t beating our skulls against the headboard, this will only further our frustration with a song that seems ten times longer than its three minute running time.
 

Packed Up And Gone
It’s hard to imagine how any of them, Lewis, Freeman or Atlantic, thought this song had the appeal necessary to get Baby Face off to a good start with the company. It not only is dull and dreary, but it doesn’t give us any indication as to the best facets of his ability. If this was your first time encountering Lewis you wouldn’t even know he played an instrument, let alone played it so brilliantly. That’s what is so hard to understand about this. Normally you’d want an artist’s first record on your label to act as a calling card for their talents, a sneak preview of coming attractions, something to give listeners an indication of what they can expect each time they buy a Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis record. Because of that urge to define him right out of the gate you may even be guilty of focusing too much on those aspects to the detriment of a more well-rounded song.

If that had been the case here, if they had turned Lewis and his guitar loose in the studio and told him to play as if his life depended on it, then whatever excesses the final product would contain could be easily explained.

But THIS?!?!?

There can be no plausible excuse for All Night Lover Blues, an underwhelming, uninteresting, unnecessary excursion into detached mourning for someone else’s lost love which is a sign that Atlantic Records, even after its recent successes, clearly doesn’t know which way is up. Granted not every move a company makes is going to be the right one and sometimes it’s exceedingly difficult to read the fluctuating market… but not in this case, not at this point and certainly not with this artist!

With Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis there was only one choice to make – let your new hellbent rocker “bend hell” with his playing – yet instead they somehow allowed him – maybe even encouraged him – to put you to sleep. It’s decisions like this that make you wonder sometimes how Atlantic ever survived into the 1950’s let alone the next century!
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)