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MANOR 1164; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

If anybody in rock’s earliest days was born five years too early to fully take advantage of their specific skill set in relation to the standards of the era they appeared in it was surely Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis.

A vicious electric guitarist in an era of rock that had yet to realize the possibilities of the instrument, Lewis, more often than not, was forced to either tone down his best instincts or was saddled with horn arrangements designed to keep his records closer to the context of the time period he was stuck in. Sometimes they’d even go so far as to push him further back into the past, to the days just before rock began to re-imagine those horn arrangements by shedding the trumpet-led brass sections in favor of a slimmed down tenor sax heavy sound that would define rock going forward. When he was forced to instead share the spotlight with the outdated trumpet-centric ideals from that earlier era the results, as you can imagine, were often schizophrenic.

Lewis thus becomes the rare figure, an ahead of his time visionary saddled with too many records that sit slightly behind the time he found himself in. It’s almost as if he was somebody from 1955 who went back in time to 1948 but was stuck making records with sidemen leftover from 1945.

Talk about cursed, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis was constantly tripping over black cats while walking under ladders on a calendar full of Friday the 13ths.
 

 
The amazing thing is he seemed to suffer this unfortunate fate wherever he landed. One record company not being able to properly assess the right musical setting for his attributes is understandable. Two companies too blind to see what was staring them in the face enough to take advantage of it was troubling. But now Lewis is on his THIRD record label and he’s yet to find a single producer at any of them who could grasp the scope of his talents and place them in the proper context in order to pay off.

The record company he landed at this time around, after brief stints with Aladdin and Savoy, was Manor Records, which at least goes a long way into explaining why THEY let down Jimmy Lewis in this regard, as Manor was a company more attuned with lighter fare than his previous two stops.

Nevertheless once he set up shop there somebody at the company with a functioning pair of ears should’ve at least had sense enough to realize that his distinguishing feature as an artist – that scintillating guitar – needs to be showcased a bit more to make his signing worthwhile.

Sadly, even with Lewis contributing a great self-penned story in I’m Wise To You Baby he finds himself battling with an unsympathetic crew of conspirators seeking to hold him back. Here’s the odd part about it though – at least one of the musicians was a renowned rocker himself.

Ahh, the plot thickens, as they say!
 

Lords Of The Manor
As we can see from the label’s discography to date Manor Records was hardly the realm of cutting edge rock artists by any means. Though their output has contained one really strong release in the rock realm it was by a refugee from the jazz world in saxophonist Paul Bascomb, who took on the moniker Manhattan Paul perhaps to be able to deny he ever was associated with such tawdry behavior should he be questioned after getting caught in a dragnet for consorting with undesirables as most properly trained musicians seemed to fear when it came to the unruly reputation of rock ‘n’ roll.

Manor’s primary acts consisted of The Four Tunes, a vocal group from the pre-rock era who tentatively made some forays into this field and just as quickly pulled back only to get their courage up after a few more releases and try again, all without much luck.

The Four Tunes frequently backed thrush (as they called female singers back then. It sounds vaguely derogatory, or at least condescending, but I figured I’d point it out for more historical context) Savannah Churchill, who was an excellent singer but hardly straying anywhere near to the wilder styles of rock. So unless you counted Luther Higgenbotham or Lenny Herman’s Orchestra (with their oh so delightful Pin-Up Polka) to be pushing the musical envelope it’s hard to contemplate how they saw Baby Face Lewis, a 17 year old electric guitar wielding rocker, fitting in to the staid image they were otherwise crafting.

But we’ll grant them the benefit of the doubt going in, assuming they were seeking to branch out into rock now that its commercial potency was no longer in doubt. If so, good for them. Unlike the major labels who’d get the heebie jeebies if someone suggested darkening their doorsteps with rock ‘n’ roll at least Manor Records were willing to give it a shot.

Not just that but, as mentioned, they assembled a stellar crew of musicians to back Lewis on his one and only session for them, starting with tenor sax ace Hal Singer, now a verifiable rock star in his own right as a solo artist but still drawing steady income by selling his horn to whatever company needed him to add some muscle to their sound on a “for hire” basis.

The leader of the session was veteran alto sax player Tab Smith who’d served time with both Count Basie and Lucky Millinder and would later score a Number One hit in 1951 with Because Of You. Yes, Smith was a jazz cat but as we’ve seen plenty of times already jazz musician by day, rock sessionist by night, was shaping up to be a fairly common thing and certainly nobody could question his abilities.

What they COULD question, presuming Smith also had a hand at sketching out the arrangement, is his musical judgment for weighing Lewis down with horns aplenty.
 

I Took You Downtown
Right away the horns chosen for the intro, which is otherwise well conceived, are all wrong. Though Singer anchors the main riff with his tenor while backed by the anonymous baritone it’s the higher tones of Smith’s alto and the trumpets (not one mind you, but TWO trumpets!) which play the capping notes and thus command your attention, making what might’ve been a suitable rolling boogie into something too lightweight to convey toughness or generate real excitement.

Lewis has no such problem on either front when he comes in vocally. Though his singing was understandably overshadowed by his work on guitar he had a good flexible tone to his tenor voice and an engaging confidence in his delivery which makes you want to hear this story unfold in part because he makes it sound so good, full of witty asides and an anticipatory tension to each line. It also doesn’t hurt that as a songwriter he’s crafted a good tale to hang this all on.

I’m Wise To You Baby, as you might’ve guessed, features Lewis scolding his girlfriend for her shortcomings. Though it’s a well-worn theme the manner in which he presents it, and especially the details he tosses in along the way, make this anything but ordinary and predictable.

The entire song is a spiteful harangue directed at this girl, giving us a first-hand look at his ordeal and as he reels off the hot nightspots they’re heading to in song’s best stretch he caps it off by saying What you say, you ain’t got the dues? I got news for you, I’m wise to you!.

The words flow effortlessly, the image it conjures up – even without seeing or hearing the girl in question – allows you to picture her in perfect clarity, dressed to the nines and on the lookout for her own action while they’re on the town, all while agitating him in subtle ways that grow ever more prominent the longer an unstable relationship lingers.

He’s no angel himself by the sounds of it, at some point he probably envisioned her as nothing more than eye candy to have on his arm as he played the big shot. But he’s convincing in the role and while his threats to her – Don’t stand there looking with your eyes all red/Cause I’m gonna drill you baby until you’re almost dead – are potentially troubling, it’s not quite certain if he means he’s going to pop her one or more likely is extracting what their non-verbal agreement calls for her in order for her to get her money to head out on her own, namely sex, as he follows that up by telling her C’mon and pay them dues.

It’s never a pretty picture he paints but she’s made it clear she’s going out to party with her friends and he feels it’s only fitting that he does the same with his buddies. Needless to say you won’t have to ever worry about buying THIS couple an anniversary present, it’s doubtful they’ll make it to the end of a month together let alone a year, but in spite of this, maybe just because of the nature of his voice, or perhaps because he has a budding awareness of the ins and outs of the legal system, he never says anything that can come off as self-incriminating, the tone of the record remains housed in a fairly conventional “I’m just randomly venting here, no need to take it as more than that” type of manner.
 

 

I Sure Can Play With The Men
While you might be able to parse the lyrics and definitively turn up something that points to more deplorable actions under the surface the real problem with I’m Wise To You Baby as a record is not the verbal assault, but the musical one which vacillates between delightfully bold and sickeningly timid.

That the bold centers around Lewis himself on guitar should come as no surprise to anyone who’s delighted in his earlier efforts, Grandma And Grandpa, which we covered in depth, as well as touching in that review on two sides he made that barely pre-date rock’s official arrival but which clearly pointed the way to the future as well as anything in the summer of 1947.

Here he gets little chance to strut his stuff but when his axe makes its lone appearance midway through he does all he can to make up for the limited exposure by playing a mesmerizing slightly buzzing tone solo, fast and sharp one second, slow and playful another, like a top notch point guard in basketball toying with the opposition with a series of hesitation moves, stutter steps and crossover dribbles. Unfortunately he doesn’t even get to play out the full 24 second clock, as his solo lasts about 16 seconds all told and he makes no re-appearance in the game after that.

The horns are the starters on this team and as such they get most of the minutes on the floor and while Hal Singer for sure, and even Tab Smith, have the ability to put up some solid numbers in the box score neither one brings their A-game to this contest.

Singer for his part never roughens up his tone. Much like the intro which suffered from a similar fate, his solo is a good concept but played with the wrong emphasis, avoiding the honking and squealing histrionics in favor of a more measured approach.

But all of that could be more easily forgiven or at least overlooked if they’d have bound and gagged the trumpeters Frank Galbreath and Russell Green. Time and again, just when we’re beginning to think that archaic instrument, or at least the archaic manner in which it’s most often been deployed in rock, is about to be jettisoned in favor of something more modern here they come again, blaring like the last holdouts from a society band whom nobody had the heart to tell that the party they were enjoying broke up sometime during the tail end of World War Two.

In many ways trumpeters are shaping up to be like those downed Japanese fighter pilots from WW2 who crashed on some remote Pacific Island and never gave up, still plotting their next action twenty years after peace was declared. Truthfully though they did less harm in their part of the world than the trumpeters did in the rock world and this is yet another example of how unsuited those horns are for this type of music.

Their primary role in I’m Wise To You Baby is to close out each instrumental refrain with a combination of elongated siren calls, or three beat measures that quickly gets on your nerves and the always unwelcome squawking that remains their stock in trade. They single-handedly drag this down a full point and if you focus on them more than you should they threaten to knock another point off the score for good measure.
 

Find Out What You’re Putting Down
We won’t go that far, choosing instead to keep our attention on Lewis himself and the three distinct ways he makes this well worth listening to. As a songwriter he shows a flair for interesting perspectives and colorful situations to elevate a pretty basic idea. As a singer he imparts the song with the right amount of energy and gets across his mindset with the way he shades his delivery. Finally as a guitarist, even in the limited window of opportunity he’s granted, he shows why the instrument itself had such limitless potential to shake up the rock world as well as proving once again that if he were given the chance there wouldn’t be many names who rose to fame playing that instrument in rock’s long illustrious history whom he couldn’t stand comfortably alongside.

Yet in spite of all of those positives which add up to a very good record I’m Wise To You Baby still has the feel of something that falls short of the great record it easily could’ve been with just a few adjustments. So lay the blame at the door of Manor Records if you wish, still struggling to adapt to a changing musical landscape, a transition which they would never quite be able to pull off and as rock ‘n’ roll took over an ever larger piece of the pie they’d find themselves with little choice but to fold their tent and leave it to others to exploit.

Or you can cast aspersion on the likes of Tab Smith, and even Hal Singer, who revert back to their first love just a little too much, not quite in their playing as much as in their thinking, and thanks to that the added juice they could’ve supplied to get over the hump just isn’t quite there.

In the end though, even when keeping in mind that he was yet to reach adulthood and thus hardly in a position to assert himself in the face of far more experienced professionals, maybe we should call into question Baby Face Lewis himself and ask why he didn’t merely act like the clichéd petulant teenager we envision all immensely talented under aged prodigies to be. Had he simply taken over the session by telling them where they can stick their trumpets while he rips off a couple of wild over the top solos the record would’ve been all the better for his assertiveness even if the resulting track might’ve left the recording console melting from the heat of his performance.

But had it done so it would have at least given notice to one and all that he wasn’t going to take a back seat to anybody in rock going forward.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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