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SAVOY 5547; MARCH, 1948



One of the fatal flaws people make in the present day when looking back in time and trying to assess decisions made in the past is how difficult it can be to properly judge the context of those times. Unless you truly understand what was popular at the time, not to mention what was acceptable and what wasn’t, it’s a sure bet that people today will always be questioning the limits those non-creative industries such as music or film seemed to put on themselves.

But while depicting people swearing in a 1942 film might’ve been far more accurate than having them hold their tongue it just wasn’t going to be permitted and thus the rest of a film, which does hold up well, would never have gotten made.

The same is true of music. We can bemoan a song for not having certain rhythmic or lyrical elements we take for granted in the Twenty-First Century but we can’t realistically expect someone from 1948 to know about them or to have any clue why they’d potentially improve upon the records they were making any more than we can expect the person who enters the studio today know what will make their song better to those who hear it in 2090.

Everything is of its time and at best you just want to be slightly AHEAD of your time, such as being the first to sense a change on the horizon and take advantage of that in the present to bring it to a wider audience and help that change become a reality.

In rock ‘n’ roll we’ve seen that happen already – rock itself was the definition of that musical and cultural change soon to transform America – and we’ll see it plenty in the future, but the idea that any artist or record label has a crystal ball and can accurately predict what experiments will be brought to fruition over the next decade and which will disappear without a trace is asking the impossible.

But what of those elements which weren’t completely new to their ears… things which had a precedent in music circles already even if they hadn’t fully flowered yet. What if you had in your midst somebody who was perfectly capable of exploring those sounds in ways that would in fact push the boundaries and put you in a position to take advantage of that before those sounds became ubiquitous? What if the absolute best aspects of that artist’s creative heart lay in their ability to draw those sounds out and make them into something coherent?

Then if you fail to allow them do so, aren’t you the one being negligent?

That was the question in the 1940’s with Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, a teenage guitar whiz who, save for a few incendiary licks in some of his songs, was reined in so as not to appear too radical in an industry that viewed anything even the slightest bit off-beat to be a risk hardly worth taking.


I Feel Like Walkin’
If in the summer of 1947 David and Jules Braun, hearing Roy Brown wail like no tomorrow on the song which launched rock ‘n’ roll had said, “My god, we can’t do that! Why don’t you re-write it and sing it like Bing Crosby, then maybe we’ll have something marketable”, we wouldn’t be here today talking about any of these records because they wouldn’t exist.

A few years later if Sam Phillips had said, “If I could find me a white man who had the Negro sound… I’d be lynched alongside him… Maybe I’ll get into dentistry instead of running this record company”, then it’s fair to say there wouldn’t be many white folks reading this website because rock would’ve remained exclusively in the culture where it began.

But the idea that artists and those attempting to chronicle them are restless by nature, determined to break accepted boundaries to find something new is what makes the art they create so interesting… and ironically often what makes it even more marketable, since “new and exciting” are things that have the ability to sell themselves.

So why then did most of those involved with the career of Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis fail to follow that same creative daring that had the potential to set him, and their companies, apart? We’ve seen it already with Aladdin Records who released Lewis’s first sides which contained elements in them which foreshadowed what was to come, even going so far as to lead Billboard into dubbing them and the music which followed “rock ‘n’ roll” back in mid-1947.

Yet instead of push it even further into the extreme, they held him back by assembling a horn section which had no desire to look into the future and if anything who wanted to remain firmly rooted in the past.

Around the corner we’ll encounter the same problematic views behind held by Atlantic Records who get lots of credit, we might say far too MUCH credit, for being ahead of the curve with their musical mindset, but in Lewis’s case they showed they had no more foresight than Aladdin had when it came to which direction to steer him.

Sandwiched in between those stops was Savoy Records, the first really successful independent record label of the 1940’s boom which had already proven to be a hospitable place for the early be-bop movement in jazz and then more recently were responsible for launching the honking sax instrumental trend in rock ‘n’ roll, and yet with Lewis – maybe because he wielded an electric guitar rather than a shiny horn – they couldn’t see what was staring them in the face either, namely the future of rock ‘n’ roll.


No Place To Go
In early 1948 the parameters of rock ‘n’ roll weren’t set in stone yet by any means and so there was always the potential that songs which didn’t adhere to the most obvious traits it had taken on to date would be at risk for being considered something other than rock by those in the industry.

Some of this was by intent, after all it was conceivably easier to sell something to an already established constituency of pop, blues or jazz than to expect that a still-forming rock audience would instinctively pick up on each new wrinkle in the emerging sound. But while that may have been true enough theory the bigger problem was in not allowing new variations to fully form within rock’s borders.

Such might be the case on Dusty Road which sort of is ill-fitting stylistically in any ONE genre.

Obviously due to the prominence of the electric guitar in blues over the past half dozen years or so (ever since T-Bone Walker established that instrument as a cornerstone of the genre) meant that there’d be plenty who’d assume any black artist who played that instrument outside of getting the occasional spotlight in a big band, by definition must be a bluesman.

That feeling was probably strengthened by the fact that this song in particular a downhearted ballad and generally speaking the slower the track the “bluer” the sentiments. It doesn’t take much therefore to infer that the song, and perhaps Lewis himself, were angling to make it in that field rather than rock ‘n’ roll, especially since we’ve yet to see any rock act really push hard for the guitar to take on more than a supporting role in the arrangements.

But that’s ironically what happens here as well, as Lewis’s guitar is featured only briefly in the intro, starting strong before fading out almost immediately, almost giving up the idea of transforming rock with the means at his disposal. Once he steps aside his guitar stays in the background for the most part, adding flavor with some fills but not taking the lead when it most calls for it. Unfortunately nobody else steps up to take its role at the forefront of the arrangement either as the piano and light drums carrying the load without doing anything to stand out themselves.

Just Knocking Around
As cautious as the musicians are in stepping up, at least there’s Lewis’s voice to appreciate something always undervalued by those focusing exclusively on his guitar. Here his singing is handling the entire melody of the song since the instruments are unwilling to lend a hand in that regard either, with Baby Face singing the rather straightforward lyrics with a reflective quality to his voice that adds enough depth to keep you paying attention even as the droning tempo would try your patience otherwise.

Of course nothing quite prepares you for when he drops in a line about his lack of compatibility with his girlfriend and how just looking at her at times prompts him to think how he just might “want to take her life” . It’s delivered so casually that you recoil in shock a little since nothing about the story leading up to this hinted at any violent dispute between them, nor does anything he say that follows indicates he followed through on it. But that just winds up making it more of a red herring than a key plot point, something to garner attention rather than spin a more complex story.

Basically he’s just expressing general dissatisfaction in life and that is one of the random unfocused thoughts that crosses his mind during the course of a day and is nothing to really take seriously.

But truthfully that’s maybe the best way to sum up the song overall, a nonessential throwaway, nothing to take seriously… at best a typical B-side that was designed to feature some different aspect of the artist that wasn’t showcased on the lead side of the single. On Dusty Road he keeps things in the slow lane and whoever was along for the ride instrumentally follow his lead in that regard, filling their parts with modest efficiency and nothing more.

Lest we forget though this is Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis we’re talking about and somewhere along the line if he knows what’s good for him – and his budding reputation – he’s got no choice but to break out the very thing that had surely gotten him this opportunity to begin with – his guitar.

Trying To Make Life Worthwhile
That moment comes during the break mid-way through right after the piano emphasizes the shift coming up by playing with a little more authority as the lead-in to his solo.

Though the mere sound of his guitar perks our ears when it arrives, sharp and full, buzzing with electricity and suggesting a storm front moving in, the solo that follows can’t help but be a let-down simply in how the song itself is crafted. Since it’s a ballad Lewis can’t dramatically increase the tempo, and thankfully I suppose he doesn’t awkwardly try to just to inject a little more life in the track, yet by staying true to the mood of the song your initial enthusiasm for his presence wanes pretty quickly even as what he’s playing is carried off with understated skill.

The real problem with this section however isn’t his playing, nor anything specifically that he himself was responsible for in the writing, but rather the blame lays on whoever was producing this and failed to contract a saxophonist to offset the barren sound it has with just the three instruments (well, four technically, since there is a bassist buried somewhere in the mix… good luck finding him).

Had they employed a sax player – an alto, not a more robust tenor who would’ve overwhelmed this song – they could’ve either started with the horn in the solo spot and had Lewis answer him to provide a distinctly different feel, one mellow, the other edgy, or they could’ve even split the two solos up with a vocal and thus had them both get their own standalone spot to let them each indulge a little more in what they played. The differences in those arrangements would’ve simply been in the sound textures the song would offer, Lewis’s guitar would contrast nicely with the horn even as the overall downbeat mood they both emphasized would’ve remained the same.

But as it is Dusty Road is far too stark and monotonous to really captivate us. The individual parts themselves are okay – fair anyways – but they don’t add up to anything noteworthy. It’s kind of like spelling two and three letter words in Scrabble, you’ll pick up four points or so at the most, but when your opponent is wracking up double digits with each longer word they lay down you just won’t stay competitive in the game for very long.


Won’t Treat You Right
Jimmy Lewis, if he was going to make a go of it as a rocker, wouldn’t stay very long in this game if someone, be it the record company’s studio henchmen or Lewis himself for that matter, kept aiming for safe mediocrity rather than striving for daring exceptionalism.

Sure it’s easy to say now that Dusty Road was nothing more than B-side and therefore wasn’t carrying the weight of selling the release on its shoulders, but in 1948 it was jukebox spins more than sales which rock releases counted on and so a single with two must-hear sides was going to have an advantage over something with only one.

Besides as a general rule of thumb it’s in every artist’s best interest whenever they step foot into a studio to lay down as many top shelf songs as possible to make the choice for which to issue as the A-side a lot tougher on the record company, especially when you still haven’t made a name for yourself and have no track record of success to fall back on.

However many chances you get in a career to put out your own records is never going to wind up being enough for really creative musicians and so anything that can merely be called “harmlessly satisfactory” has to be viewed in retrospect as a missed opportunity for all involved, especially when the artist in this case was capable of so much more.


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