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SAVOY 5547; MARCH, 1948

 
 

 
In another dimension it wouldn’t have been Roy Brown who got credit for kick-starting rock ‘n’ roll but rather Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, rock’s first visionary guitarist, an underrated vocalist and ultimately a tragic and forgotten figure who never received one ounce of the credit he rightfully should’ve earned.

In a career filled with hope and expectations and signed to some big name companies along the way that all saw in him an artist who could potentially define the music going forward, none of that promise amounted to much in tangible terms. Lewis remains without a hit, without a legacy, without even glancing recognition from the majority of those who call themselves rock fans.

Let’s try and change that here and start to give him the props he so rightly deserves.
 

Standing There Looking Like He Never Looked Before
Back in June 1947, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis made his recording debut on the Aladdin label (and yes, Babyface was an appropriate nickname since he looked about 16 years old, which I suppose wasn’t that surprising since he WAS just 16 at the time!) on a two-sided scorcher Riding With Jimmy b/w Lonesome Road. It was such an incendiary record that even the normally staid Billboard magazine declared: “Instrumental duel between the guitar and ork, but it’s Jimmy’s rock ‘n’ roll shouting that emerges the clear winner”.

And despite the date it was released it WAS rock ‘n’ roll at that. Well at least most of the components of rock were present but it was that pesky orchestra mentioned in the review that held it back from fully establishing it AS rock ‘n’ roll in the public’s mind and in the history books.

Such was his cursed fate, a harbinger of things to come.


In those records the horns were single handedly trying to stop time from moving forward and they largely succeeded, making it sound as if a vocal and guitar track from a few years down the road were grafted onto a backing track already three years out of date by 1947 standards. Lewis’s guitar fought valiantly against it, delivering scorching licks on “Lonesome Road” and a primitive buzzing tone in “Riding” that are well ahead of their time, but it was for naught because of those damn horns.

It wasn’t just their tone but the charts themselves, particularly on “Riding With Jimmy”, where only the impetuous saxophone sounds like it’s even paying attention to Lewis but unfortunately the sax player can’t play worth a damn and only delivers a few moaning honks. “Lonesome Road” is a bit more modern, thanks largely to Jimmy’s scintillating guitar that refuses to take a back seat in a more basic arrangement that reduces the horn section to just blaring interjections, but the song itself and Lewis’s vocals are both a bit weaker than the flip.


Still, compared to everything else out at the time it was revolutionary. A sneak preview of what was to come in the music world, like expectant parents seeing the first ultrasound of their future offspring. Rock ‘n’ roll was definitely kicking in the mama’s belly and by the sounds of Lewis’s enthusiasm the baby was anxious to get out and make some real noise.

Naturally we had to wait the full nine months for Baby Face Lewis to emerge from the womb, by which time his siblings had already arrived and established the rock ‘n’ roll family name leaving nothing but some hand-me-down gifts and soiled diapers to greet Lewis upon his appearance in March, 1948.
 

Did You Hurt Yourself Trying To Do The Things You Used To Do?
So that’s where we find ourselves, with a newborn Baby(face) in a nursery full of already noisy tykes a few months his senior, trying to get himself noticed above the racket the others are already making.

He’s jumped ship to Savoy, but just for this one session, which strangely has him attempting perhaps to rein in what he’d done so well the first time out as if someone involved thinks the otherworldly sounds and overall exuberance he’d showed on those earlier sides were the reason why that hadn’t quite clicked with the public. Luckily though someone else made the astute observation that having Grandma And Grandpa manning the horns was probably a mistake and so they sat the old goats on the sidelines and simply named the song in their honor instead so they wouldn’t feel neglected.

What we get is sort of a handcuffed Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis in many ways. The chugging first section has a sense of coiled intensity in his playing, projecting an ominous mood that seems ready to explode at any moment. Unfortunately HE is fully under control throughout all of this. There are no sudden twangs or runs on his guitar that hint that a jailbreak is imminent, and his vocals are perfectly measured as he sings about the centenarians keeping their love life vibrant by their outlook alone.

Finally at 45 seconds in the lid starts to come loose and like a poisonous snake the guitar rises from the basket, its hood opened and tongue flickering with a lethal warning. But rather than strike, Lewis himself is the one who seems transfixed by it, humming and chanting along with the notes he’s fingering on the axe, like a drunken frat-boy with annoying natural talent that even when inebriated can’t be kept from view. Yet by doing so he’s undercutting the guitar’s effectiveness in the process, almost turning it into a gimmick, or something that needs to be disguised so as not to alarm the nursing home patients who would recoil from anything too modern sounding.
 

The Same Old Dance
It’s a disheveled song as a result, captivating and hypnotic at times, but somewhat uneven. The whole thing leads nowhere but in circles and while the playing itself is excellent, standing out all the more because we’ve been offered so few precedents in rock guitar with which to compare it, but there’s no cutting loose as he’d done on those earlier sides. Now that we don’t have the horns to contend with we want to hear him unleash his power yet instead he seems content to only tease you with it.

When he eases off the guitar and resumes his vocals they’re delivered in a half-spoken stop-time delivery and so it’s left to the story itself to pick up our interest. But do we care about the geezers he’s singing about or are we all just waiting to see if he’s going to rip off some more biting lines on his guitar?

No on both counts. We don’t care about the story, which isn’t bad but not anything to be excited about, and worse still he doesn’t unleash any pyrotechnics either to draw our attention back. Though the threat of that lurks under the surface, returning to the same feel it had at the start, now there’s no payoff looming to keep us riveted. The guitar is good, VERY good for its day, but it’s not enough. A mere drop of water on the tongue of a parched man. By the time he wraps up the story and sends us on our way with a brief guitar figure that’s more clever than vicious, it’s almost a let-down in spite of the overall abilities that still were tangible throughout the record.

It wasn’t likely done to intentionally torment you but if it were it’d be hard to tell the difference. Like a stripper who keeps the good parts covered, it’s enough to get your attention but in the end it’ll frustrate you as much as get you aroused.

 

 

Just To Pass The Time Away
Maybe without the expectations brought on by Lewis’s pre-rock sides that had anyone who heard them salivating over what he might produce next time out we might feel even a little more kindly to dear old Grandma And Grandpa here. After all, it’s not THEIR fault that their grandkid felt he had to keep his greatest talents under wraps so as not to scare off an audience that presumably wasn’t ready for what he had to offer.

Except they WERE ready for it!

Though the guitar itself has only been used in brief supporting roles, and none too daringly as of yet, the overall sound of excitement and exhilaration, whatever instrument that produces that feel, has shown its worth by this point.

Thus far in rock we’ve seen more and more the saxophones honking and squealing up a storm, their clamorous racket attracting an increasingly enthusiastic response with each new side that features them. The backbeat that only months earlier had barely been hinted at was now the defining characteristic of the hottest record in all of rock ‘n’ roll, Wynonie Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, which was soon to be the hottest record in ANY style of black music. The wild unhinged vocals that had seemed so alarming when rock first launched back in the fall were actually becoming commonplace by now.

So why wouldn’t a breathtaking new sound designed to stir the animal instincts of the musical masses that were gorging on rock’s new freedoms be met with the type of ecstatic celebration that had greeted those other alien attributes?

In all likelihood it would have.

During this stretch in rock’s infancy when a lot of what was offered seemed like stale leftovers and barely warmed up dishes, those which took the greatest stylistic risks also made the biggest impressions. Of course when they’d cut this track back in the fall they couldn’t have known this but Lewis himself could’ve anticipated it based strictly on the reaction he was presumably getting from those around him. Even if there were those who were repulsed by his ostentatiousness on the instrument, that in of itself was as strong a visceral reaction as one could hope for and the truly visionary pursue those paths at all costs, if only to see where they might lead.

Instead it’d be left for others to slowly integrate the jagged electric guitar riffs that would re-shape rock down the road. Though Lewis will remain on the scene for quite some time, getting many more opportunities to impress (and will indeed do so in case anyone was thinking of not sticking around to find out), his one shot at true immortality by breaking new ground in the most dramatic way possible at this precise moment – before anyone else on the scene seemed capable, or willing, of coming close to matching it – would fizzle away.

Soon others with their guitars at the ready would creep up alongside him and though it’d take awhile for any of them to really make hay with it commercially, the mere presence of erstwhile competitors in this realm, each one carrying the ball a little further down field, took full glare of the spotlight off Lewis and he never made it back onto center stage.
 

The Last I’ve Seen…
Since I’m sure many who don’t feel like waiting for the rest of his reviews that will follow over the next seven years or so here will go looking for further information regarding his eventual fate I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that his career came to an abrupt end when in 1963 he was arrested in a drug sting operation at his Manhattan residence with over two hundred grand in heroin ready to be sold. Law enforcement agencies claimed the bust broke open a nationwide narcotic ring in the process.

I guess by then he knew that the guitarists who followed him in rock had no intention of stepping aside for the guy who beat them all to it and who, if they let him on stage with them even at that point, might still put them all to shame, so he sought “other employment”…

The prison band that Elvis Presley sang about so presciently in “Jailhouse Rock” really began to wail when Baby Face Lewis joined them on his axe, but sadly unless you were among those serving time with him you’d never know it as he faded into oblivion, just another wayward rocker who ended up going to hell like those who railed against the music always warned would happen.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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