A lot people might not know the name of the song off-hand and most have no idea who the artist is, but chances are, at least for the rest of the Twentieth Century if not two decades into the Twenty-First, a lot more people had heard this song somewhere over the years than the majority of hit records from rock’s first half dozen years.

That the song came from the smoldering remains of jazz and was performed by someone who was, at best, a rock act by association more than intent and who was recording on a brand new record label that was destined not to be around very long, is the ultimate irony.

Then again great songs built on great riffs taken from past styles have always formed a far greater part of rock’s eternal DNA than most of its fans would like to admit, so maybe it’s entirely fitting as well.


Last Night’s Jazz, Today’s Rock Hits
As has already been detailed at length around here, the era where rock ‘n’ roll was defined commercially and artistically by the raging tenor sax instrumental was relatively brief… 1948 and 1949, after which the sound became repetitive, the vocal artists caught on to the need for unbridled excitement and new artists came along to ensure there was never a lack of qualified personnel available to fill the needs of the growing audience.

The existing sax men were therefore left in a bind. Though that style of no-holds barred blowing still sold better than mellow jazz in the singles market, it didn’t result in many hits once the Nineteen Fifties dawned and it no longer seemed likely to make you a star.

Considering how many of these saxophonists who pioneered the sound were ex-jazz musicians who took a dim view of all that cacophony to begin with, even as they profited from it, this change in the public’s tastes seemed to ensure that once the sales had died down so too would the attempts to create sonic mayhem of all but a few remaining true believers with nowhere else to turn.

But while the chances for commercial success had become statistically more remote, the sound of the saxophone itself was still eminently popular, as proven by the inclusion of more and more tenor sax breaks in vocal group records, a trend that would only grow in stature over the next six or seven years.

Still, you’d have been bucking the odds if you had placed a wager on a sax instrumental hitting the top of the charts at any point in 1952 and if somehow you’d landed on Jimmy Forrest of all people being the one to do it, well… let’s just say on a dollar bet you probably could’ve retired with the size of the payoff once Night Train soared to number one less than a month after it was released and remained at the top of the charts until May.

Once you hear that sultry riff floating in your ears however it became clear that it wasn’t such a bad bet to make after all.


Happy To Get Lucky
Jimmy Forrest had never intended to be associated with rock ‘n’ roll and – truth be told – if not for this one record probably would not ever be talked about in that context.

He was a jazz musician with a good reputation but without having really made a name for himself playing alongside Charlie Parker in Jay McShann’s group in the early 1940’s, then doing a long stint with Andy Kirk and a shorter stay with Duke Ellington as the 1940’s drew to a close.

It was the latter gig that in a roundabout way cemented his legacy because Ellington had a song called Happy Go Lucky Local in his famed Deep South Suite, which briefly utilized the same riff at the core of this song… played there with a little more jauntiness before being transferred from the saxes to other horns which pull it further away from the station as it were, but you can see the appeal of the prancing melody and how adaptable it might be to other motifs.

When United Records started in late 1951 and was casting about for artists, Forrest got his chance to cut a few singles and maybe draw a little more attention to himself in the process, but even he couldn’t have imagined what would follow.

In need of material he turned to that small riff from Ellington, built an entire song around it and – most crucially – played a gritty tenor that was far more suitable to rock than jazz and with it Night Train became one of the most evocative songs of all time, conjuring up images of being on the prowl, a perfectly fitting image of rock ‘n’ roll.

Though both the Ellington and Forrest songs were instrumentals, therefore without themes being laid out in lyrics, they each chose titles having to do with trains which were exemplified by the chugging rhythm they used, as if slowly building steam as it goes.

That it doesn’t reach a wild crescendo is actually a positive, even in a rock setting where that kind of payoff tends to be expected, because it instead allows you to be fully absorbed by the atmosphere which is far more mesmerizing if the mood doesn’t get broken. It may slow down a little TOO much towards the end, but that groove is too good to need much variation to hold your attention.

That’s not to say it’s just an undulating riff however, as the change in melody does shift the focus slightly, but at the same time wraps back into that primary rhythm without causing a clear schism between the parts. What makes this work so well is that it has its own distinctive characteristics which invoke a different – even more exciting – image.

When the sultry sway of the main theme leads into the immortal riff that gets accentuated by Percy James’ atmospheric bongos before Forrest himself drops down in range to deliver the bump and grind cappers to each line on sax, it proved ideal for whatever hip-thrusting tassel-dropping maneuver a stripper could legally get away with in 1952.

I’m sure Duke Ellington, maybe the most respected – and respectable – musician of the 20th Century, may not have wanted to be associated with such things as the international stripper’s anthem, but let’s face it, one thing is certain in life and that is sex sells.

Though the sex this implies – or the menace, or the laid-back hipster cool… pick your poison – all takes place in your mind for the most part, the mood is so vivid that it will never completely disappear from your consciousness no matter how long you go without hearing it again.


The Never Ending Story
The funny thing of course is that it’s hard work to appear this casual, balancing an impenetrable façade with something so catchy, and yet Forrest pulls it off with such ease that the song seems carved out of granite.

Though Forrest mostly stuck to jazz from here on in, the legacy of Night Train in rock proved to be virtually impossible to kill off because each person’s imagination is filling in the scenic details they want to project whenever – and however – they hear it.

Vocal versions followed in all sorts of different approaches, with James Brown’s semi-spoken ad-libbing over that rhythm giving it renewed chart life a decade later, but the appeal of it in any rendition still remains the same immortal riff that Duke Ellington conceived and Jimmy Forrest re-imagined way back when.

With its obvious jazz-roots this is certainly not the most emblematic rock song in the music’s history, but it remains one of the more familiar ones and it’s easy to understand why.

Though all of the associated images of this record are easily within your grasp today on virtually any device you may have, there’s still something special about a song that doesn’t need any visuals to elicit the same response that it did seven decades ago.

Rock ‘n’ roll itself has far outlasted the life expectancy people had for it in 1952, but while the genre may in fact cease to exist someday chances are this record will live forever in some form or fashion… and deservedly so.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Wynonie Harris (July, 1952)