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GOTHAM 206; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

There’s something rewarding about seeing somebody find their way in life.

I’m sure it’s a more meaningful experience for parents who watch their wayward kids who finally buckle down sometime in their late twenties and embrace a reasonable form of responsibility, but the basic mixture of pride that somebody you took an interest in eventually getting their shit together and excitement over what they now have to offer is pretty much the same no matter the circumstances.

Early rock ‘n’ roll probably gave more opportunity for this phenomenon than any other period during the music’s seventy plus year history, as so many of its initial wave of artists came from disparate musical backgrounds that had varying levels of compatibility.

Many saw in it a way to break through commercially and joined in the movement out of a sense of career desperation but were unwilling to do more than superficially alter their previous stylistic approach which meant they met with predictably underwhelming results and were never heard from again. Others may have had similar reasons for trying their hand in it but were more sincere in their efforts to conform to the wilder aesthetics rock called for, yet for all of their good intentions they just didn’t have what it took to stand out. They were too far removed from the cultural and musical upheaval taking place to really be convincing no matter how much they tried pretending otherwise.

But then there were a handful of names who likewise seemed to have no business being on this stage, guys who came of age in another era with far different musical standards to uphold and yet, when they were recruited by record labels interested in making headway into this emerging genre but altogether uncertain of just who was capable of connecting in it, they found their calling in ways they never expected. These fish out of water may have flopped around a bit at first as they tried to tried to adjust to their new surroundings but in time they adapted, some even excelled in this new land.

Jimmy Preston was one of those who was glaringly conspicuous in his presence when starting out, a mild looking thirty-something bespectacled alto sax player and modest singer in a world increasingly dominated by tough tenor players and unbridled shouters in their early twenties… but as unlikely as it seemed before long he was holding his own against them all.
 

 
I Hope I’ll Soon Be Back
Perception is an unavoidable aspect of registering the impact of an artist. In Jimmy Preston’s case the initial perception of him was as an enthusiastic, modestly talented fringe artist. Someone who, because of all of those aforementioned biographical facts from his age to his nondescript looks, was bound to be considered rather inconsequential. As a young rock fan you may have liked some of his records when they came out in late 1948 and early 1949 but even when they were really good, such as Hucklebuck Daddy, you probably weren’t going crazy for the artist behind them, thinking him some harbinger of a new day, someone destined to be an icon for your generation.

He just didn’t have it in him, you thought. Forget about the fact he resembled a high school math teacher, or that he played the alto sax, the least compelling saxophone in the horn section. If you were in your mid-to late teens you might not have known he was more than twice your age, nor should it really matter if the music he was making fulfilled your own requirements, but you’d still subliminally process that information and come to the realization that he wasn’t likely to to be defining your emerging cultural perspective nearly as well as someone who was much closer to your own age and background.

Then of course he did just that with the rousing call to arms of Rock The Joint and suddenly your perception changed.

Or did it? Surely it changed while listening to that song as you’d be unable to envision someone in a bow tie and glasses who was hip enough to be spouting lines about musical anarchy while his rowdy band whooped it up like drunken reprobates behind him, but if you’d seen him, whether in person or in an ad for his records, there was bound to be a disconnect. A sense that you’d stumbled upon a trade secret in some way. You may still love what Preston had come up with but you were now more inclined to think of it as “performance art” rather than a manifestation of his own outlook on life.

This would’ve been more than confirmed if you heard – and then saw – Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames, another former Philadelphia club act (like Preston) who’d come out with a slightly MORE scalding take on Rock The Joint in November even though he looked like your clueless uncle at a Christmas party trying to awkwardly converse with his nieces and nephews by dropping a few slang phrases into his talk while you roll your eyes and pray that you didn’t inherent any of this guy’s DNA.

So the perception then, and certainly now when we’re more inclined to think of such things, is that some of these acts whose music you loved, Jimmy Preston among them, and maybe a good deal of rock ‘n’ roll itself for that matter was a bit of a put on. A role they were all playing to sell their wares to a public that was inclined to have more faith in someone who gave off a certain vibe than those who didn’t.

But is perception by itself, based on nothing more than appearance and some randomly chosen demographic markers, any way to determine authenticity or merit in music?… In ANYTHING?

No, of course it’s not. And if Jimmy Preston hadn’t already proven that definitively with his last effort then he sure as hell doubled down on the idea with Going Away which should’ve settled the issue once and for all. When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll the most important thing isn’t date of birth, gender, race or facial features, what matters is merely how committed to the music you are.

Preston, in case there was any lingering doubt, is never anything but fully committed in his endeavors.
 


 
 

Be True To Me
If you’re a rock purist you may take exception at the instrumental components of certain rock acts over the years. Surely the sight of Don “Sugarcane” Harris and later Papa John Creach playing violins on stage at rock shows was probably initially jarring to those who expected pounding pianos, honking saxes, snarling guitars and slamming drums, but in each case the bowed instruments proved their worth, at least in those circumstances.

Similarly while the image of Ian Anderson balancing on one leg while playing a flute has been laughed about for a half century it should be noted that Jethro Tull, the group Anderson fronted, didn’t too badly in the rock realm either.

So while we here are known for our aversion to the “lighter” toned horns, namely the trumpet and alto sax, what we really object to when it comes to those instruments is not their presence so much as their approach when called upon for rock ‘n’ roll. Both horns were still being played predominantly by those who learned their technique on them for another idiom altogether and hadn’t yet figured out how to adjust for a new musical frontier. Eventually they would… even the trumpet by the 1960’s with James Brown, the Mar-Keys and Sly & The Family Stone leading the way, would find a way to make it work.

Though the Prestonians hadn’t quite solved the problem of what role to assign for these under-powered horns, on Going Away they overcome this with sheer gusto as the opening features them delivering a rolling intro that seems to want to sweep you up in the excitement of the moment and largely succeeds. Yeah, a more prominent tenor and baritone would help, but they’re not hamstrung by their reliance on the higher horns and once the shouts of wild encouragement rattles around the studio you settle in, confident that you’re in the right place.

The song is nothing special on paper. Little more than a collection of free floating verses seemingly picked up at a half price sale by music publishers who were unloading some of their stock, the lines are familiar enough if you’ve listened to a wide array of Twentieth Century music, but what they’re braying about is hardly important, what matters is how they’re delivering it.

Preston’s nasal voice hasn’t improved any, probably nothing short of a new respiratory system will make him a commanding vocalist, but as always he’s full of enthusiasm and is smart enough to stay within his capabilities. He never reaches for a note beyond his grasp, nor does he try and scream his way past his limitations, as if that showy display of intensity alone will convince anyone that he belongs. Instead he relies on his comfort with the rhythmic nuances of the song, the natural exuberance you have when you’re in lockstep with a churning band, and the confidence you’ve acquired knowing you’ve already been accepted by the intended audience thanks to his string of big sellers.

But while his voice itself is hardly worth mentioning, his singing is another story altogether because there’s plenty of evidence within that if anything Preston was underrated as a vocalist.

Take for instance the doubling of words in the line ”I’m going away, baby, but I hope, I hope I’ll soon be back”. It catches your ear right away because that intentional repetition makes the line work rhythmically. Preston wrote the song himself and whether he put that on the lead sheet or if in the process of running through the song he realized that it needed that to keep him on track I can’t say, but it unquestionably gives the line an added punch and keeps you locked in the groove, not only providing proper scansion but also giving it a sense of emotional looseness that is captivating.

Or how about him dropping down on the bridge to deliver the line about how lonesome he is as if he’s confiding it to you in private, trusting you to keep that part secret. Obviously THIS was written in, the key change alone tells you that, but for somebody to whom singing had been secondary in his background he handles the shift effortlessly and it makes his “character” all the more endearing because of the way he handles this personal revelation.
 


 

With Nobody Else But Me
While Preston himself is deserving of a lot of praise for his role in this what puts Going Away over the top is the unflagging energy of the band. Though this might seem like a pretty standard requirement for a rock group the fact remains that as often as not there’s one component, if not two or three, even in really good records, where it slips up just a little.

Not so here. Again, while nothing about it stands out, nothing ever betrays its intention to get you up and moving. The horns may be lacking in heft, but not in spirit. The drummer may be relying more on the cymbal than we’d prefer, but he never lets up the crucial 4/4 beat. The piano doesn’t get a solo to rattle the keys, but it also doesn’t add any ill-chosen light cocktail club notes to dress it up any. All told The Prestonians aren’t the best band by a long shot, but they attack this as if they were, letting it all hang out and trusting that their energy alone will compensate for any lack of individual stars to highlight.

There IS someone here vying for that, a saxophonist, with a pretty good solo midway through – starting off fast, like someone racing to catch a bus before finally seeing the bus is waiting for them so they slow their pace. It remains frantic enough, with some higher pitched squealing thrown in, to keep it more than suitable for its role here.

Now on Rock The Joint they’d important Danny Turner from Chris Powell’s Five Blue Flames (which as we said in the review for the Powell cover version, is probably why it turned out so good, Turner already knew the song and what worked) but here Preston calls out ”Blow Len”, which seemingly removes Turner from the equation. He’d later work with a cat named Danny but Len and Dan aren’t quite similar enough to say that it’s could be him either. So who knows.

Regardless of who’s responsible though they’re a cohesive unit, spurring each other on and yet staying out of one another’s way as much as can be expected for a song that never lets its foot off the pedal.
 


 

I Ain’t Goin’ To Stay
There’s obviously not much chance of anything Preston might come up with that will capture the power of Rock The Joint, a song that is helped immeasurably by its setting, specific terminology and even the unexpected nature of being knocked flat on your ass by these guys who generally speaking were a little more sedate in their previous efforts.

Of course it also doesn’t hurt that it’d have an array of cover versions and remakes over the next few years to further imprint that song into the collective consciousness of those interested in rock history… and we’re guilty of that here too, having mentioned it numerous times in the review for THIS record.

But considering that anything short of lighting themselves on fire was bound to seem like a let-down by comparison, Going Away eases your fears considerably when it comes to wondering if they’d just gotten lucky and caught lightning in a bottle. This eliminates any thought they didn’t belong here and proved them to be right in tune with what was driving the rock ‘n’ roll bus as the Nineteen Forties wound down.

Yes this is slightly generic in nature but that’s by design, as they’re smart enough to have already figured out one truism about perception when it comes to music… if you want to be respected in rock ‘n’ roll the most important thing might be to just stop caring what people think of you and let the music, and your enthusiasm playing it, speak for itself.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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