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GOTHAM 175; MARCH, 1949




If you want one word to hang your hat on as an artist in the attempt at making a successful career in rock ‘n’ roll that’s not a bad one to focus on.

The attributes of musical skill and charisma are certainly the bedrocks of the upper echelon artists but there aren’t many of those acts to go around at any given time. The bulk of the roster is always going to be made up of a succession of moderately talented professionals who in the big scheme of things are fairly interchangeable. The key to sticking around for more than a brief moment in time is how well you progress from one release to the next.

Everybody entering the music field dreams of hitting big with their first record and while that certainly has been known to happen, and generally will ensure that the artist in question remains a household name for awhile, it can often be a millstone around their neck if they never come close to living up to that debut again. The rest of their career becomes seen as something of a let-down, their success viewed as more of a fluke than a validation of their talent.

By contrast artists who carve out lengthy and rewarding careers from somewhat modest beginnings find that with each ensuing high point a growing level of respect and admiration goes with it which can be a far better bet for long term viability. In an industry that spits out yesterday’s stars like watermelon seeds at a summer picnic the ability to continually improve your work and your standing in the rock community each time out may be the most impressive feat of all.

All Night Long
Jimmy Preston was on the surface the most unlikely of rock stars to begin with, surely someone who at a glance would shape up to be more of a transitory visitor than an established presence for very long. Bookish in appearance, already well past the age where he would be seen as a contemporary of the younger-skewing rock audience, and with a decade of small time club dates around Pennsylvania to his credit as his most notable credentials on his rather skimpy résumé, Preston nevertheless capitalized on the growing need for saxophone players who weren’t averse to heating things up with their playing and who had no burning allegiance to the loftier jazz world to look down on such crude honking, and parlayed that into a record contract as 1948 drew to a close.

If you were to take all that you could ascertain from that mini-bio and make an educated guess as to the likelihood that he’d not only succeed commercially but also aesthetically in rock ‘n’ roll chances are you would give him almost no shot at being anything more than a tax write-off for Gotham Records before he was cast adrift and returned to playing increasingly insignificant dives around Philadelphia.

Of course you’d be wrong. We’d ALL be wrong in this case because Jimmy Preston beat those odds with a steady progression of material that went from fairly good right out of the gate with Messin’ With Preston, an instrumental that clearly was designed to tap into the excitement of that realm of rock, something which could’ve been exploitative in lesser hands but which he carried off reasonably well, to credibly showcasing the vocal attributes he possessed on the follow-up Numbers Blues a few months later.

But while two solid – if unpretentious – records are more than most artists who threw their hat in the ring could hope for, it was still no real indication as to his prospects going forward as rock rapidly evolved after the recording ban that ate up much of 1948 finally ended. But you underestimated Preston at your own risk, as he proves he was up to the challenge of heightened expectations now facing him as he offers up the scalding Hucklebuck Daddy, a record that not only matches the work being created by the elites but in some ways surpasses it.

Like Clark Kent whipping off his glasses in the nearest phone booth, tearing open his off-the-rack suit to reveal the iconic red, blue and yellow Superman costume, Jimmy Preston shows that beneath his mild exterior resides something of a musical superhero.


Ride On!
Any lingering doubts people had as to the artistic intent of these rock pioneers gets obliterated each time we encounter a new release like this which positions itself squarely amidst the realm of the manic rock brigade that has attracted so much attention in the past year.

You might argue that it was a calculated effort to latch onto the bedlam those records were creating, but if Jimmy Preston wasn’t up to the task of convincingly embodying the hell-bent attitude required it could sink his chances at sustaining a recording career a lot faster than if he tried for more modest returns. To a demanding audience there’s nothing worse than a poser and the higher you set the bar, the more risk you’re voluntarily taking on in the process.

Preston needn’t have worried because Hucklebuck Daddy starts off in high gear with riffing saxes that sound as if they are already on the verge of pandemonium. Though there’s still a hint of a more refined tone laying under the surface their playing is so impassioned that you barely notice. The faint piano hammering out the rhythmic underpinning only adds to the furor and so when Preston comes in after such a frantic opening you half expect him to fall flat on his face. Surely he can’t keep up with THIS… can he?

Yes, he actually can.

His full-throated voice doesn’t have the deep resonance of a Wynonie Harris or Joe Turner who might’ve sent this song into orbit had they been handed it in the studio, but Preston doesn’t pull his punches any, afraid to look silly by being so uninhibited. He jumps right in with the passion of a true believer in the rock fairy tale that was being spun with each new hit that reached the market and delivers a robust performance that at times rattles the windows with his infectious spirit.

From there on in everything about this is aimed at making the listener lose control of their senses. It’s the showstopper on the bandstand crammed into just under three minutes of organized mayhem. Each component is working in tandem with the other facets – the beat never relents, the horns never stop churning, the vocals never soften below a dull roar, the enthusiasm the band displays in their playing and vocal responses never lets up.

If you were to try and distill each aspect of the stereotypical rock hit to date this is surely what a team of musical scientists would come up with, right down to the apprehension of the title of the biggest hit to date in the realm, The Hucklebuck, to use as the catch phrase and point of reference to alert the masses as to its connection to what’s gone before it.

But that raises the inevitable question about this unlikely eruption from Preston and company… is it GENUINE?

I’m not simply being cynical about it in asking, I’m actually very curious. Since nobody involved seems to have ever been asked about it and now are able to answer questions only if they’re directed through the post office overseen by St. Peter, this uncertainty as to their mindset poses a dilemma of sorts.

As good as it all sounds in the heat of the moment, bodies grinding on the floor while the last drink goes straight to your head and distorts all sense of time and place, the sober analysis that comes with it the next morning hints at something slightly artificial beneath the surface.

Listen again to the construction of those horns, just a little too brassy for their own good. It might be merely due to the make up of the band and their instruments and maybe the inclusion of one outdated piece that taints the others ever so much, or it could be a case of musicians from another stylistic background applying the methods of those who were born and bred to be rockers in a way that was more effective than they had any right to be, simply due to their approaching it wholeheartedly, yet unable to fully disavow their past.

And what of Preston himself, who throws himself into the song with unbridled enthusiasm but who retains just a little bit of the pre-rock attributes of someone like say Bull Moose Jackson in his delivery. That’s masked somewhat by his fuller, slightly deeper voice, but just as the affable Jackson was only a vital link to rock without ever fully stepping foot in the field himself, could Preston be merely a less conspicuous interloper due to the fact that, unlike Bull Moose who had a long list of credits that pre-dated rock, Preston was a newcomer to the recording field? Even the chanting hook that forms the crescendo to the record which is designed to send listeners over the top, features Preston affecting a catch in his voice which takes on a somewhat gimmicky tone without it being emphasized. Does its presence betray any reservations about the song’s viability in Preston’s mind?

Lastly, how about the sentiments the song champions in the lyrics? Is the sexual suggestiveness as blatant as it seems, or are the participants simply using it as a euphemism for the decidedly non-sexual act of dancing? Is the rambunctious attitude they rely on throughout an authentic expression of an overriding urge to commit anarchy as they make it appear, or are they only a series of rather simple, shallow clichés designed to mimic what others in rock were advocating without actually offering any plans for imminent destruction?


This Is What She Shouts At Me
I’m not sure I know the answer to any of these questions but I’m also not sure it matters in this particular case.

Usually any whiff of insincerity will bring about quick retribution from the defenders of rock’s reputation and you have to admit that a good deal of Preston’s background – not just recent background either but the flip sides of his first records, a tame ballad and a stale novelty respectively – would suggest that he was merely adapting to a trend.

But even if you firmly believe that to be the case, and insist that Preston if left to his own devices would’ve surely taken a more middle of the road approach which was already a few years out of date, the fact is on THIS record he did no such thing. In fact on all three sides of his we’ve covered – songs containing far different attributes from one another no less – he managed to adhere to the requirements of those types of records exceedingly well.

With Hucklebuck Daddy he does more than that. He goes balls to the wall to prove himself a rock artist and nearly injures himself in the attempt. As the full fuselage of the horns are blasting away during the frenzied break you could care less about where his true musical heart lays and simply hang on for dear life while you enjoy the ride.

If this WAS a put-on meant to latch on to a larger movement he’d earned it with what he’d been through just trying to catch a break along the way. He was entitled to compromise his own ideals if that meant finding success after more than a dozen years with little to show for his efforts. When this charted in April reaching #4 on the national listings it was an amazing display of progress from earning $36 or so for playing a bar in South Philly on a typical Friday night a year before.

It was also however an equally impressive feat of musical progress from his more humble beginnings on record just a few months earlier. Each step along the way he improved in every conceivable area – musically, vocally, structurally and thematically – and that’s no slight of hand no matter what his intent may have been.

In the end I really have no idea whether this was authentic or just an artful interpretation of somebody else’s musical vision and that alone says a lot about its quality. What I do know beyond any doubt however is that if it was a deception it was the greatest musical forgery yet conceived.


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