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GOTHAM 170; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

After just a cursory glance at the title you’re already cringing. Even if you have only a general familiarity with the era this came out in, one rife with derogatory references to non-WASP culture in all forms of entertainment, it’s natural that you’d be fearing something so offensively dreadful awaiting you when you listened to the record that you’d probably consider giving up being interested in early rock ‘n’ roll altogether and turn your attention to studying something more palatable and wholesome, like cannibalism or ancient medical procedures involving leeches and boring holes in the skull to let out “the sickness”.

But then again history of all kinds involves dealing with some problematic subjects and there’s no reason why music should be any different in that regard. If the goal of this site is to give readers a thorough survey of the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll in the context it came out in then that’s going to mean having to confront all sorts of evils, many of which we’ve already focused on and will continue to do so unflinchingly for the duration.

Yet there’s a difference between tackling those subjects when they’re the main topic of a major part of the story and actively seeking them out and surely the B-side of an artist issuing just his second single who has yet to hit his stride was probably something that we could side-step without leaving a gaping hole in the narrative.

Which we did… that is, until we circled back and added this to the lineup more than a year after skipping it the first time around.
 

 

Just Gimme Some
Aside from being pedantic completeists, there’s obvious reasons for including as many songs as possible, especially from rock’s early years when the number of potential inclusions are far more limited to begin with simply because there are fewer artists partaking in this brand of music. One reason we reconsidered and added it at a later date is because what ultimately succeeds in rock is only part of the story, the other – equally important – aspect to cover is what fails and soon falls by the wayside

After all, rock’s ultimate trajectory was never set in stone, there were thousands of stylistic choices to be made along the way which would determine the the success or failure of the genre as a whole. Though in retrospect the “right” choices may seem obvious to us they hardly were sure things at the time and that makes their success rate when it came to choosing right much more impressive when you understand the alternative options they wound up discarding.

Another reason to come back and review this is that Jimmy Preston’s rise from a most unlikely thirty-something club musician to a leading rock act happened so quickly that failing to analyze one of his first efforts in that field on record is somewhat negligent. We’re telling rock’s story as a whole first and foremost but we’re doing so by exhaustively covering each artist’s individual story as best we can and that means looking at as many relevant records of theirs as circumstances allow. Preston won’t be around for all that long, even with a good deal of notable achievements around the bend, and so the more of his work we can delve into while we have the chance the better it is for painting a full picture of his career.

But the last reason that ultimately made the decision easier is that in spite of its unsavory title the actual record itself doesn’t really contain anything in the way of objectionable lyrics or ideas after all. In fact it’s actually a pretty straightforward – if hardly creative – run-of-the-mill rock song that just happened to have its worst attribute right up front on the label.

So if it’s possible to be both better than anticipated for not stooping to deal in caricatures as we all feared and at the same time to not be quite as good as it might’ve been with a little more effort, then Chop Suey, Louie is just such a record and those kind of stories, thorough repetitive at times around here, are always worth telling.
 
 

 

I Know What It’s All About
After that lengthy explanation involving this song’s roundabout route to inclusion you might be prone to checking our Jimmy Preston page to see what other records of his we’ve already reviewed, expecting to find that this is our fourth side since this is his second single.

But it’s only our third to date for a different reason, one more defensible than original decision to keep Chop Suey, Louie back in the kitchen.

That’s because while the one side of his debut, Messin’ With Preston, was an unquestioned rocker, a typical rousing sax instrumental that placed him squarely in the rock idiom, its flip side Let Me Call You Sweetheart was an execrable pop ballad that showed everyone involved, from Preston to Gotham Records, were still not certain as to rock’s validity and wanted to cover their asses in case the bottom fell out on this upstart style before long.

We also don’t know what type of music Preston and company were performing in the Philadelphia clubs they’d been honing their trade in for the last few years. We know it wasn’t likely to be full-throttled rock ‘n’ roll since that only came into being a year earlier and thus he had to be at least conversant in something more established, be it light jazz, modern pop or some kind of Louis Jordan-inspired pre-rock experiments. Since he didn’t take that last approach on record – not even with this song, whose title suggests a poor man’s Jordan – and since we already know that Preston as an alto sax player wasn’t good enough on the instrument to lead a respected jazz band, that leaves the kind of bland weightless pop as the best bet.

Which is why it’s so refreshing to see that once they were in the studio somebody had the good sense to look at the landscape and deem that style a dead-end creatively and commercially and instead urge Preston into heading into rock more fervently. To his everlasting credit Jimmy Preston not only didn’t object to that suggestion, but wholeheartedly embraced it and then quickly made huge strides in how well they adapted to it.

Quickly yes, but not quite quick enough to save Chop Suey, Louie, a song which may in fact be edible if you haven’t eaten for days but probably doesn’t have enough nutrients to sustain you for long.
 


 
 

Bring Me Something To Eat
Though the contents of the song itself are relatively harmless, the title was surely thought up to be something memorable, catchy and faintly humorous. Those aims had decidedly mixed results – memorable, yes. Catchy? Not so much. Worth a chuckle or two? Not at all.

So it’s surprising to see the songwriter in question was one Rudolph Toombs, who’d go on to be arguably the best writer for hire in rock during the early 1950’s. He’s not off to the best start with this since the bland lyrics and almost childlike melody are the two weakest components.

Not awful mind you, just not anything special either.

Chop Suey, Louie has got a long horn intro, part of which sounds somewhat outdated with the higher tones dominant in more of a typically big-band brassy sort of style, but in the midst of it is dropped a more robust tenor which gives it enough muscle to have you know this is indeed a rock song.

When Preston puts down his own horn and steps to the mic his vocals are largely unadorned as he sings in a stop-time pattern that allows for brief replies to his lines and little else. Now this can be an effective technique provided you have two things this song lacks, namely a stronger vocalist and better lyrics.

The story tries to be… well, I guess “droll” would be the appropriate word to use here. It’s not meant to make you laugh out loud, the lyrics aren’t clever in their wordplay, nor is there any real plot to examine. It’s a half-witted character sketch, not about some guy named Louie, he’s merely the waiter at this joint that Preston is hanging out at, but rather it’s about Preston’s food preferences.

He runs through all of the dishes he can think of by means of saying that while they might be perfectly fine, they’re not his choice for the best food in town. Now I can’t imagine the same restaurant having potato salad, ham and eggs AND chop suey on the menu, but then again I can’t imagine someone saying that subgum chicken and chop suey is preferable to much fuller meals that you could presumably get elsewhere on the block.

The inference of course is probably meant to be that Preston, playing himself no doubt, a scuffling club musician who finds himself eating at odd hours of the night at whatever joint is still open after the gig ends, doesn’t have the funds to buy more expensive dinners. He never brings up anything like steak or swordfish or something that involves more culinary expertise to make properly. Instead he reels of a list of things typically served at a counter rather than a table with fine linens and silverware.

But none of it is really that appetizing – I mean both the food items and the lyrics. There’s no witty lines, no set up to the reading of the menu explaining how hungry he is, where he’s coming from and whether this is a planned late night dinner or an act of desperation brought on my a rumbling stomach. It doesn’t matter because even if they had an entire backstory the selling point of Chop Suey, Louie is merely his appetite for this dish, all without even a description of the smell and the taste to make your mouth water.
 

I’ll Leave Them To You Both
Whatever their culinary habits may be, the Prestonians (as they were known) are at least proving adaptable to some of rock’s musical requirements, specifically the work of the tenor sax player who proves to at least know what is required to pass muster in rock ‘n’ roll.

Now granted what he’s playing on Chop Suey, Louie has already been surpassed in intensity by a number of fire breathing horns over the last year but while it’s hardly anything special by comparison to the elite in the field, his solo is actually fairly strong, alternately focusing on establishing more of a melody than the rest of the song featured, and coming up with some more dynamic interludes.

The switching off of emphatic notes is something that doesn’t have quite the power to be convincing but as he winds up the solo he contributes some impressive blowing and then in a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment in a vocal turnout that follows he does a fluttering squeal that works really well and has you wishing he got more of a role earlier in the record to kick the song off better.

The others meanwhile are just serviceable, keeping the rhythm functioning while not contributing much else. There’s no other instruments that get a soloing spot, not even a responsorial moment to shine, and so you end up just sort of nodding along absentmindedly to the simple beat and losing focus.

When the best thing you can really say about a song is that it’s not a novelty record, nor does it contain anything demeaning as you feared, that’s probably not much of a recommendation.
 

 
The joke about Chinese food of course is that you’re hungry again an hour or two after eating and that line would be appropriate to describe Chop Suey, Louie as well. It’s not that it tastes bad or anything, but it merely whets your appetite for something more filling.

That said, like Crab Rangoon and walnut shrimp, or some boneless ribs and fried rice, I’ll eat it and enjoy it to a point, but with music, as with food, when it comes to the kind of meal that you require to keep you going it’s going to take far more than a little chop suey to get you through the night.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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