UNITED 119; APRIL 1952



Now what?

Those are words tinged with equal parts confusion and dread when it comes to artists who unexpectedly score with a huge hit in a genre they were perhaps not seeking to become a part of in the first place.

When you succeed at something that nobody, including maybe yourself, your own record company and certainly not the general public, had any inkling would happen, you’ve almost assuredly backed yourself into a corner.

If you deviate from that sound and head back to what you had initially intended to do all along, you’re almost sealing your fate as a commercial disappointment from there on in.

But if you follow the path you inadvertently wandered down, trying to acquiesce to somebody else’s idea of what you should be doing, was there any real hope your heart would be in it?

Now, knowing all of that, just what DO you do in that situation?


Pulling Into The Station The Following Morning
Give Jimmy Forrest credit… he did more or less follow his own muse after this, fame be damned.

Truth be told, the tenor saxophonist who was yet another refugee from jazz who struck it big in rock ‘n’ roll – albeit it with a rocking version of a jazz riff taken from Duke Ellington which he called Night Train – was probably amused and a little bewildered by the widespread acceptance of that song in rock circles… though why should he be?

It had everything that rock fans wanted – a churning groove, an instantly identifiable hook and strong gritty playing.

But once it became a #1 hit, on a brand new label no less, United Records, one of the few black owned companies in the business, he knew their solvency might depend on giving them something more commercial than the lightweight jazz he had in mind, such as the flip side, Big Daddy, where the only thing alluring about it was the title.

Though I’m sure he was wary about being pigeonholed as a rock act and endlessly forced to comply with its rather repetitive musical mindset for sax instrumentals – a la Hal Singer who was more or less offended by his own success in this field – Forrest had to at least try and take advantage of this commercial response.

Maybe if he could get another smaller hit in the process with something like Big Dip the combined effect of two hits would allow him virtually unlimited opportunity from record companies to explore his more personal interests, all hoping for another commercial smash, while earning headlining spots in nightclubs across the country as a result of his newfound stardom.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but then again that first hit was SO massive that he really didn’t need a second one to get the same end result anyway.

An Honest Title
Right away we can see the dilemma guys like Jimmy Forrest faced that other, slightly younger, more open minded rock-based sax stars did not.

Someone who came of age as rock ‘n’ roll was taking off, like a Big Jay McNeely or Joe Houston, may certainly have appreciated jazz but they were far less provincial about its qualities. Rock was king now and they were not only willing participants in its takeover, but key figures in its rise and thus could afford to be magnanimous when looking back at the dominant style which preceded it that was now on its way out as a musical trend-setter.

But to artists who had been born and bred in jazz, who had used that music as a form of self-identity and were now feeling threatened by the encroaching popularity of rock ‘n’ roll, their outlook was bound to be a little more defensive when it came to what they played. Thus when Jimmy Forrest found he had to concede certain attributes to rock in an effort to win over some of that audience, it’s likely he was almost hoping for failure so he wouldn’t be forced to keep pretending to actually like this music.

As a result Big Dip is a compromised track from the start, trying in vain to balance his jazz tastes with rock concessions without doing justice to either one.

The intro features a decent stuttering riff played with good tone over faint bongos but it’s lacking the urgency to pull you in fully and without a memorable hook on display you’re merely waiting for something more compelling to happen, probably assuming that it will be coming when he gets into the meat of the song.

Instead that’s where Forrest veers more towards jazz and while he maintains the sandpapery tone that is a rock staple, his lines are wandering too much to connect. Even when adding cruder endings to each of them, probably feeling they’re a little beneath him but willing to go along with it to satisfy expectations, it comes across in much the same way as ending a bland sentence with a series of exclamation points… little more than needless punctuation signifying absolutely nothing.

It’s not that his playing skills are at fault, just his mindset. A jazz soloist (and this is sure to offend jazz purists, though it’s meant not as a criticism, merely a exceedingly broad observation) is given to expressing a musical train of thought in the moment, which means it can meander and take unexpected routes to get to the intended point. It works great in jazz where live improvisation is the general rule of thumb.

But rock ‘n’ roll is a music made in – and for – other environments where you need to be direct in making your points, preferably making them more than once and as emphatically as possible with catchy hooks, riffs and rhythm, all of which are sorely lacking here.

So in the end this is a jazz musician playing what he perceives to be a rock song while largely sticking to a jazz mindset and as a result it doesn’t cut the mustard with either fan base, which may have been what he wanted all along – make a perceived effort to comply with rock with his gruffer sound, yet give the rock fan nothing to latch onto and watch the song fail, allowing you to go back to playing jazz that doesn’t sell.

Congratulations, Jimmy, you’ve succeeded!

Giving Us The Slip
Though we’re kinda picking on him here, don’t feel too sorry for Jimmy Forrest. He got his hit and his name is remembered as a result of that last release… in addition to presumably getting songwriting royalties for it which meant he wasn’t panhandling in his later years.

He also got far better gigs as a result of that song and chances are he never even had to play its half-hearted follow-up, Big Dip at any of them to keep the patrons satisfied.

But it does show the weird box rock ‘n’ roll put a lot of artists into when one particular song was picked up on by a fan base it may never have truly been intended for who then turned it into a major hit they never would’ve gotten had it only reached the ears of those they were initially aiming it at.

We’ve seen it happen in rock countless times already and occasionally some artists, like Joe Morris and Sonny Thompson, managed to reconfigure their musical approach as a result, embracing and capitalizing on rock ‘n’ roll, seemingly without too many reservations and enjoyed long fruitful careers in this field.

But then there are others like The Ray-O-Vacs who’ve been struggling to figure out their niche, whether they should move closer to rock’s aesthetics to try for another hit, or give up on it altogether and settle into the club scene, a choice they’re still not close to firmly settling on after three and a half years of indecision.

Forrest was wise enough to understand that his hit had been something a fluke and while surely grateful for the doors it opened and the attention it got him, wasn’t going to change who he was and how he envisioned himself as a result of it, nor was he going to try and balance those two disparate and mostly incompatible needs forever.

He chose the music – HIS music – over stardom and consequently would soon leave our music behind for good and while we’re grateful for his one enduring contribution to rock, not this one, we have to respect him for his decision. Stay true to yourself.


(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy Forrest for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)