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GOTHAM 166; NOVEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

A little over a year into rock’s lifespan and we’re already starting to close to door to the influx of older artists whose careers pre-date rock ‘n’ roll altogether.

That’s not to say that those who’ve already made their presence known coming from other music backgrounds such as Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Todd Rhodes, Joe Morris, Tiny Grimes, et. all, are no longer going to be welcome in rock’s house. Far from it. Once established here they’re going to remain firmly entrenched as rockers unless – and until – they consciously decide to head elsewhere.

No, the split that we’re referring to is the one surrounding the entry INTO rock from this point forward. While rock solidifies its boundaries with each passing month, the litmus test for inclusion becomes ever higher.
 

 
It only stands to reason after all. Artists who’d been plying their trade elsewhere without much tangible success had been prime candidates to wander into the rock field back in late 1947 in large part because rock’s own ground rules were hardly well-established. Thus artists with tenuous connections to its core attributes had been able to accentuate those facets of their music in order to potentially find a receptive audience. If it worked, if the response was positive, then they could move further inward, shedding their older skin and taking up residence squarely in the rock neighborhood.

But time was of the essence, the longer they waited to make their move the more improbable it became. By the final months of 1948 the rock field was a crowded one and the majority of those finding success were relative newcomers, those who had no allegiance to a previous brand of music from another age. Roy Brown and Amos Milburn, The Ravens and The Orioles, all belonged to the generation that was propelling rock to the heights it was now reaching with startling regularity. They weren’t altering their own musical DNA in an attempt to fit in, that’s who they were from the start.

So for the older gentry, the veteran acts still looking for their big break, the odds that rock ‘n’ roll would provide it amidst much stiffer competition were growing ever dimmer. Jimmy Preston may very well have been the last one admitted under the open door policy that existed to this point. From now on those that followed his lead would have to force their way in.
 

Last Call
Jimmy Preston was already 35 years old and his music career was on the verge of extinction in 1948. His musical advancements had been slow in developing. He’d only been able to put together his own band rather than play behind others three years earlier and yet even in that time he was no closer to making headway than he’d ever been.

Surely he’d begun to ask himself some rather uncomfortable questions. At what point do you simply give up, sell your saxophone and head back home, tail between your legs and start painting houses for a living? Preston hadn’t even made any records yet, he was strictly a club musician and one without much hope for seeing his prospects improve.

The jazz and big band sounds of his own formative years were well-established and yet if his résumé was any indication he had proven he didn’t have what it took to carve out his own place in that world. His skills on his alto sax as a jazz musician were modest at best and on top of that the market for that music was beginning to recede. New styles and trends were pushing aside the old as the increasing popularity of crooners were changing the focus from big bands to the lone figure singing in front of those bands. Meanwhile the more adventurish and less easily accessible sounds of bop were pulling instrumental jazz further from the middle of the road mainstream tastes.

Preston was ill-suited for both of those avenues and his window of opportunity in this realm was therefore closing.

Then rock ‘n’ roll came along and offered salvation.
 

 
But just because rock EXISTED in September 1947 did not mean it was widely recognized throughout the music industry, nor did it mean that record labels who may have been aware of the exciting new sounds appearing on the horizon were combing the countryside scooping up each and every artist who potentially might be able to make a record that fit in this style and appeal to the burgeoning audience.

Add in the looming recording ban set to start as 1948 rang in and you can see why the first year of rock had such limited practitioners, and also why those who DID have some experience in other types of music, thus some name recognition and a history of making records, had opportunities that those lacking in these areas – like Jimmy Preston – did not.

A year later though, with the ban crumbling and rock releases making up an ever greater percentage of the hits in black music, the record labels hurriedly attempted to capitalize on what had now moved well past the stages of just a fad and even a trend and was firmly establishing itself as a genuine movement worth pursuing.

Gotham Records, begun in New York but moving soon to Philadelphia, was a small time operation that nevertheless had some actual verifiable success in this field with Earl Bostic and just recently The Dixieaires. But Bostic’s sides had gotten wider exposure when King Records re-issued them while The Dixieaires were a gospel group moonlighting in rock’s hazy border region. So the label probably figured why not look for somebody who might allow the label to compete even better in this growing field?

Somebody in their own backyard.

Thus it was Jimmy Preston from nearby Chester, Pennsylvania who through a fortuitous mix of timing, circumstance and logistics as much as anything, got the chance to turn his fortunes around.

The rest though would be up to him.
 

Nothing To Mess With
If you happened to put the other side of this record on your turntable first back in November 1948 you might never have given Preston the chance to make good on his newfound opportunity. In fact those rock fans hearing Let Me Call You Sweetheart might have run him out of town on a rail, if not burned him at the stake, even with its solid sax solo and a few heavy drum kicks thrown in the mix. Much of the rest of that side of the record is sappy and bland, even though it’s entirely possible that it was all a send up designed to mock the square music they were now about to upend.

However to make a send up work it has to be clear that’s their intent all along which means they need to have a track record as rockers, something they were yet to acquire. Furthermore they seem a bit too comfortable with the outdated mindset that side contains to really be convinced that they’re not playing it straight.

For Messin’ With Preston thankfully there’s far less doubt regarding their intent to rock.

First off it’s an instrumental, which places it squarely amidst the most dominant rock sound of the day, giving it a format to follow as well as an established receptive audience to hear it. On top of that, just so that audience has no confusion over its content, it’s got a title that’s emblematic of a lot of the similar rock hits that preceded it in this realm, one which vaguely suggests some anarchy imbedded in its grooves as well as cagily promoting the artist by slipping his name in too.

Of course those are all surface attributes – important ones for sure, but not the deciding factor in determining its potential success. That of course will always come down to the music itself.
 

Starting with a melodic circular riff replicating fanfare for some mild celebration, with piano and drums lending incidental support as it goes on, it doesn’t seem promising for his chances of acceptance.

There’s a structural tentativeness to it all, a sense of not wanting to push too hard, of being almost afraid to offend, which is hardly the means with which to be noticed as a saxophonist in the rock jungle circa the fall of ’48.

But as it churns along the emphasis on the grittier side of the sax starts to show. It’s still nothing too ambitious. More exotic than erotic, but it at least contains evidence that they’ve correctly pinpointed the appeal of the instrument. Its primary aim seems to be trying to mesmerize rather than knock you on the floor with power and fury. While it never quite reaches its goal it also doesn’t deviate from the attempt like those horn blowers who are conflicted about the whole idea of pandering to a rock audience.

Instead Preston remains firmly in the pocket, adding no watered down interludes designed to appease the establishment, his commitment to the required approach is unquestioned. Though it doesn’t take off into uncharted territory, honking and squealing up a storm, it also doesn’t relent on what it DOES offer, which is a halfway decent song, something modestly seductive even.

Now “halfway decent” is hardly going to be enough to get Preston’s name on the charts. With a roll call of frantic blowers already battling for supremacy as this record was released Messin’ With Preston doesn’t fit the mold of the type of sweat-flying, lung-shearing workouts that are vying for the spotlight.

But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Unless you’re wielding the kind of weaponry that is required for such a torrid sax-showdown it’s best to find another route to connect and as of this moment Preston doesn’t possess the firepower in his band to create that type of explosion. So instead he attempts to deliver a more subtle earworm and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work to a degree. The melody sticks in your head like a bad cold in February and long after it ends you can still hear its refrains echoing in your memory.


 

Stick Around
That’s enough to cover his entry fee and to earn his keep, at least for the time being. In a way it’s actually commendable – Messin’ With Preston is almost the definition of the prototypical record in rock for 1948, a year dominated by the sax instrumental. It’s certainly not the best of them, but neither is it close to the worst. It’s simply fitting.

Preston may have been hoping for more than that when he entered the studio. All artists envision coming out with a record that’d set the world on fire and make them a household name, but then again, having waited so long for his chance at making a record he’s probably just glad to be here and by sticking closely to the standard which is already widely accepted by the masses, unambitious as it might appear, it gives him a higher chance at being accepted, even if in the process it cuts down on his chances at surpassing those high hopes for a runaway success.

But in a field that was being shaped ever more by younger artists with more modern outlooks Preston’s greatest achievement may have been just being admitted to the party. Once inside, when his coat comes off and he sidles up to the bar and loosens his collar, that’s when we’ll be better able to determine if he’s got any legitimate right to stay for the long haul.

For now he’s perfectly welcome to stick around awhile longer, but since he doesn’t fit the profile expected of rockers at this point there’s no doubt he’ll have one eye out for the bouncer all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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