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GOTHAM 228; APRIL 1950



Of all of the rock stars of the late Nineteen-Forties there may not have been any more unlikely figures earning that recognition than Jimmy Preston, an assuming club musician from Philadelphia who merely got a chance to cut records when the local Gotham label needed to have someone playing on those records to justify trying to sell them.

In other words it was a marriage of convenience. Preston was a passable alto saxophonist in an era that preferred dynamic tenor horns and was a modest vocalist when the style he was attempting to make a career out of gravitated towards brash showman with robust voices and personalities to match. Yet he was nothing if not hard working and a quick learner and with each release Preston’s stock rose considerably, and with each new plateau, both artistically and commercially, his confidence grew and he ended the 1940’s as a legitimate star who seemed certain to have a long rewarding career ahead of him.

Instead his career was already heading into the home stretch.


Setting The Alarm
You may remember that our very first meeting with Jimmy Preston way back in late 1948 was on an instrumental. It was a predictable and safe choice for both Preston and Gotham Records who when surveying the rock landscape over the preceding months couldn’t help but notice how popular sax instrumentals had been, turning anonymous session musicians into hit-makers overnight. So putting one and one together they came up with Messin’ With Preston, a decent first effort which showed he at least had the basics down pat even if it had no real chance to compete with the best of the sides that had defined the rock genre over its first year.

What was more surprising though was he abandoned instrumentals entirely after that, focusing on vocals where he’d seemed to be at an even greater natural disadvantage against the competition and yet it was there he excelled and never looked back… until now that is.

Early Morning Blues is his first instrumental track in a year and a half and though they’re still popular as a whole, the furor they’d been causing over ’48 and ’49 has largely died down. Considering Preston’s own limitations as a sax player you’d think he’d want to side-step any risk of overexposing himself, but he’s not alone in the studio remember and now he’s got some new heavy hitters to showcase.

The most notable figure we’re being introduced to here is someone who’s been around music for over a decade already and would go on to last much longer than Preston as a vital contributor to rock.

Bill Doggett, the pianist/organist who founded what would soon become Lucky Millinder’s acclaimed band starting in the late 1930’s before going on to a highly successful career as a sideman and arranger, first for the Ink Spots throughout much of their most successful run in the early to mid-1940’s and then joining up with Louis Jordan in 1947 for the end stretch of Jordan’s phenomenally popular run as the #1 star in Black music in the decade leading up to rock ‘n’ roll.

A brilliant bandleader who was content to take a back seat to others when it’d help the songs, Doggett could play with the best of them when need be and over the years was a remarkably prolific composer, cutting twenty years of classic instrumentals across all styles of rock. But while he was already very accomplished he was still getting his feet wet in rock ‘n’ roll and so it’s probably best to temper your expectations heading into this.

High Noon
Though it’s Doggett who gets the writing credit for this, the focus isn’t really on him at all and if it wasn’t for his high profile origins – and his later career highlights – chances are nobody would take much notice of who came up with the idea for it.

Early Morning Blues is a rather subdued mood piece featuring a bank of high horns almost sounding like they’re trying to replicate violins with their tone, and which are played against a more spry circular riff underneath by the rhythm section before it settles into its melodic skin which sounds far too old fashioned to stir much interest.

Things heat up a little bit as it goes along with some languid tenor sax and piano interplay by Doggett that shows a remarkable amount of dexterity and lightness of touch, even if it’s still keeping in the slow lane. It’s modestly tuneful but lacking any real power to draw you in.

Luckily though we get something unexpected to distract us with the sudden appearance of guitarist Bill Jennings, someone who B.B. King openly emulated over the years and who’d go on to a long career as a jazz musician in between cutting rock sessions where his biting tone lent distinctive character to such tracks as Little Willie John’s Fever.

Jennings was left-handed and like some other future southpaw axe-men of note he played his instrument upside down without reversing the strings, giving his playing another unique component that made him stand out in a crowd.

Here his part is short but very sweet, a solo midway through wherein his notes flow like liquid gold, tickling the senses in such a way that when he bows out and the horns come back in, none too exuberantly on their part it must be added, you wait with baited breath just hoping he returns.

Well the good news is he does, though he’s reduced to answering the horns for the next section but manages to contribute some fierce lines in the process, keeping it high in the register, slicing through the droning brass and reeds that are now more of a detriment than a benefit to the song.

It’s Jennings show through and through but unfortunately he’s on stage for far too short a time to give this the kick it really needs. When he makes his exit the record at least has the dignity to bow out rather succinctly instead of lingering in the doorway hoping we invite the rest of them in.


It Gets Late Early Around Here
Even with Bill Jennings stellar work on guitar and a pleasant enough melody that the horns slowly work over, this has all the hallmarks of a stop-gap release… filler in modern parlance… which is rather unusual for someone of Preston’s stature unless he was running out of ideas.

Whatever the case may be Early Morning Blues has the sleepy aura the title suggests which is hardly what Jimmy Preston needs to keep up his winning streak.

Any artist, no matter how good, is allowed to slip up once in awhile and release something a little subpar. As misses go this at least gives us something new to think about when it comes to how Preston might feature a new wrinkle in his act from this point forward, but what nobody knew at the time was that his day in the sun was growing shorter and when taking that into consideration this pleasant but unassuming record surely wouldn’t be what he’d want to be remembered for.


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