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GOTHAM 170; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

After just a cursory glance at the title you’re probably 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.
 

 

Bring Me Something To Eat
Considering the myriad of racist possibilities the title suggests, maybe the best thing we can say about Chop Suey, Louie is it not only sidesteps any and all troubling topics but it actually is kind of boring, all things considered.

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, a song which may in fact be edible if you haven’t eaten for days but doesn’t have enough nutrients to sustain you for long.
 


 
 

It kicks off with a long horn intro, part of which sounds somewhat outdated with the higher tones dominant in more of a typically big-band brassy sort of style, but in the midst of it is dropped a more robust tenor which gives it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 which is probably implied here is that Preston, who is in essence “playing” himself in this story no doubt, is a typically 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)