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GOTHAM 188; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

The nature of the B-side in the singles era was something that seemed unusually difficult for a lot of artists and record labels to figure out.

Do you give the record buyer more of the same approach you tried on the A-side, doubling down on your bet as to what they’d appreciate most, hoping that by giving them two choices firmly within the artist’s strengths you’d be more likely to have at least one of those efforts draw their interest?

Or do you use that opportunity to offer up something drastically different, something to show the artist’s versatility or with which to create a different response in the listener?

Record companies never seemed quite certain of which choice offered them the best returns and so often it was a coin flip as to which tactic they’d try.
 

 

We’ve made our position as to the optimal role of the B-sides very clear over the past two years here at Spontaneous Lunacy as we firmly believe that by giving consumers two distinctly different options you have the opportunity for a wider array of positive outcomes than by sticking to only one unchanging approach.

A ballad and an uptempo song give audiences a much different response, thereby giving more incentive for them to turn it over and maybe in the process be turned onto something they otherwise might not have ever sought out on its own. Since it’s doubtful (though not impossible) that two songs on the same single will be of the same high quality it makes little sense to present an inferior cut in the same approach as the superior top side. A song with an entirely different feel doesn’t face that quandary and thus audiences might also be a bit more generous with their response.

Creatively speaking it gives the artist themselves a chance to expand their repertoire far more than they would if a record label has decided that one type of song always had the most appeal. It’s no secret that The Orioles suffered for sticking largely to heartfelt ballads and with both sides of every single having the same basic concept and sound it tended to get monotonous after awhile which hurt their commercial returns in the long run and kept them in a creative rut.

But as we said record companies were never all that aware of this, or if they were they largely ignored the obvious benefits to letting their artists tackle new approaches, even if just to flex their creative muscles a bit. So when you DO get a chance to see someone branching out and trying something new it’s reason to smile, to offer a pat on the back… or in this case, to raise your glass for a toast and take a drink or two… or three… or four.
 

From Head To Feet
Jimmy Preston has had it good in this regard compared to many of his contemporaries in rock ‘n’ roll as he’d gotten the chance to tackle multiple types of material thus far in his career. From instrumentals to novelty songs, mellow crooning and storming rockers, he had shown he was at least competent at most of these, but as of late he’s proven that he excelled at the most audacious uptempo celebrations, first with Hucklebuck Daddy back in April, his biggest hit, and now with the A-side of this record, Rock The Joint, which would also hit the Top Ten and become his most enduring contribution to rock history.

Gotham didn’t know that yet of course in the case of the latter but they had to at least suspect that song had a really good chance to hit big based on not only Preston’s earlier success with that style, but also the other rock songs that were most frequently finding their way onto the hit parade.

So with Drinking Woman they apparently felt there was no need to try and compete with the incendiary top side with a similar song that could never measure up to it in a million years, so instead they headed in another direction entirely.

Rather than frantic, this one is methodical in its pacing. Instead of an upbeat celebration, it’s a downcast lament. Preston’s voice even takes on a different hue as he sings, a bluesier roadhouse kind of delivery, while the Prestonians arrangement is much more sparse than we’ve heard before.

All of that is admirable in their intent, but whether these changes alone make for a great record is another story altogether.
 


 

Every Day, Every Night
The first issue we have with Drinking Woman is the drinking woman herself. Or rather, the lack of any information outside of the fact she “drinks a gallon of juice everyday”.

Let’s just pause to say this probably isn’t orange juice we’re talking about here, though if it is then Preston will have to explain some of the consequences her juicing seems to be having which has him complaining about why it costs him so much and why she wakes up “with a real fat head” every morning.

So I think it’s safe to assume it’s liquor that’s the real culprit here, which is a well-traveled road for singers of all styles to delve into, as apparently musicians – as befitting those who ply their trade in nightclubs where such spirits are consumed in great quantities – wind up in relationships with many a young lady whose elbow is constantly bending (or so I hear). But even though it’s been used for more songs than we can count, we have to admit that as a starting point for a story it offers many interesting possibilities.

None of which Preston explores here with anything resembling actual insight!

Unfortunately he’s reluctant to give us her backstory, probably for fear of having her doting grandmother, who raised her from a lass and thinks she’s a meek librarian or Salvation Army worker, find out about her taste for the hard stuff. By eliminating that angle we don’t have any sympathy for either the girl or Preston (maybe we have a LITTLE sympathy for her non-existent grandmother whom we just made up for the sake of this review).

The reasons Jimmy and boozing Betty are together would go a long way in establishing a reason to care about this dilemma and maybe offer some help. For starters, why is she drinking? Is it something he did that led her to the bottle? Is it something she lacks that she’s trying to compensate for, perhaps feeling more at ease around strangers with a few belts in her? Was their relationship on solid ground before she started guzzling gin? Was he belting her for some indefensible reason and she’s now taken to drinking simply to have empty bottles with which to hit him back?

If her drinking is causing him to go broke, as he claims, why doesn’t he just leave her? He tells us he loves her “from her head to her feet”, which is sort of sweet until you realize he said it just to have it rhyme with the next line that informs us “she’d rather take a drink then sit down at a table and eat”.

Suddenly the first sentiment doesn’t seem quite so touching anymore.

The problem is the song itself is transparent and one dimensional. An idea that seemed to have legs but as with so many who imbibe to excess it’s the legs that are the first thing to go out from under you and then you’re left sprawled on the floor, a body waiting to be walked over, stepped on or kicked.
 

A Real Fat Head
But while what Preston tells us isn’t in any way interesting unless you work stocking liquor store shelves and are trying to discern what to keep in stock, the way he tells us has a little more character to it.

Not a lot mind you, but a little.

Preston is really not a bad singer, though he’s hardly a great one, but at the very least he’s always fairly effective in what he tries and Drinking Woman is no exception. His quasi-bellow is perfectly suited for the kind of generic song this is shaping up to be, but generic doesn’t get to be called that without the vocalist imparting it with the requisite amount of misery and despair, both of which Jimmy seems to have in abundance.

What else he has in abundance are good musicians who refill his, or rather her, glass with their playing. Though not given many chances to really stand out they make this work by simply never stepping wrong.
 


 
 

The piano and bass interplay that opens this is well done, lending anticipatory drama with the former while the latter instrument, getting a rare brief solo in a rock record, sounds like a sly payoff.

The drummer who excelled on Rock The Joint has much less to do here but he’s playing with the right amount of emphasis, not letting the backbeat fall by the wayside despite the lackadaisical tempo it’s saddled with. When he does get a chance for a more emphasis as each line comes to an end he doesn’t disappoint, bashing the tubs with aggression.

The piano is the primary accompaniment during the bulk of the song, or rather it’s mic’ed to be most prominent and by hammering away on the treble keys it’d be hard not to notice even if it were left lower in the mix. But he’s giving this whatever thrust it can claim, making sure there’s plenty of build-up for the rather weak resolutions found in each stanza.

Really though, what you and I both know is going to make or break this instrumentally is the horn section. Both that will be largely determined by what horns are featured and which are left out, as well as the mindset they have in how they’re presenting themselves. If they lean too heavily on the higher range horns and play too light and jazzy then no amount of piano pounding or drum rattling will be able to salvage this.

Luckily they’ve seemed to have turned the corner on that unfortunate vestige from the past, as this arrangement is a tightly run ship, giving the most responsibilities to the brass that’s earned it, namely the saxophones.

Though again while what they play is hardly difficult or even ear-catching, it’s played with a calm self-assurance that so many earlier rock songs – better overall rock songs no less – often had trouble doing. These guys are locked in, gently swaying but in a dirty sounding way. The solo is a typical nightclub refrain, a gritty accompaniment for a striptease act that doesn’t quite shed all of her, umm… inhibitions shall we say. Yet rather than be seen as a let down when it doesn’t pay off with more bim-bam-boom it constantly gives the impression every few bars that the NEXT dramatic flourish will be more revealing.

As for its effectiveness here, well it’s a lot like that striptease performance, you keep listening reasonably satisfied with what you DO see even though after awhile you know you aren’t going to see much more and the song itself isn’t going to get any better.
 

All My Pay
As is often the case with such precarious balancing acts this is a tough record to really be fair to in all honesty. It does give us something to contrast with what we heard on the A-side and basically fulfills everything it set out to do in that regard. Topically, musically and vocally they all hit their marks reasonably well. Lyrically they let us down some but as shown with Rock The Joint the specific words don’t always matter as long as the rest lives up to, or surpasses, expectations.

Drinking Woman doesn’t do so primarily because it aims far lower and so when it hits what it was targeting there’s more of a collective shrug of the shoulders than an enthusiastic response.
 

 
It’s not a BAD record by any means and it fits in fairly well with what rock was leading up to this, if not quite where it’s headed in the future. But it also never aspired to be anything MORE than what it is, which is a serviceable B-side, something that won’t have anyone buying the single for what’s on this side, nor will it get more than a curious spin on the jukebox to hear what it contains. Once heard that same person will never waste another nickel on it when that nickel could get them another couple of minutes of heart-pounding exhilaration with what’s on the top side.

So how do you grade something like that? We give them credit for succeeding in what they set out to do and acknowledge that most of the record contains very recognizable elements that are modestly appreciated, even after the bar has been raised considerably from the early days of rock when this basic no-frills approach found more favor.

Yet when you’re not aiming very high it’s not so hard to live up to those rather moderate goals and so you run the risk of over crediting them for merely not falling on their face.

If I go with a (3) it’s probably too low, but if I go with a (4) it might be too high, so take your pick. My own decision was arrived at simply because for once a record company clearly understood the nature of the B-side and the band entrusted with delivering that type of record was able to do so without too much trouble.

Fairly low standards I suppose, I won’t argue that, but by this point Preston has made a name for himself as something of an overachiever and so giving him the benefit of one more doubt for something that still shakes out as moderately substandard is keeping with that theme.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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