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GOTHAM 188; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

Records like this – and the reviews that accompany them – are highly anticipated benchmarks as to rock’s growing prominence, well-known signposts along the road to the music’s mainstream ascension that will be, for many at least, the entry point into rock’s story, something to prove once and for all to the doubters, naysayers and skeptical critics alike that rock ‘n’ roll actually existed and was thriving in black America well before it was introduced to a wider audience in the mid-1950’s.

…Or they’re out sized monuments waiting to be knocked to rubble, songs that are over-hyped and celebrated by those who couldn’t name even one other Jimmy Preston record let alone any of the nearly four hundred rock songs released to date by all of the assorted artists who’ve run amok in the nascent genre as of August 1949.

That’s the dangerous part of this project in many ways. The handful of records from this era that have managed to endure historically are constantly at risk of overshadowing everything else from this specific time period that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll… artists, records and sounds which are vital to understanding the scope of the project.
 

 
 
A good comparison would be Henry Aaron, who in the annals of Major League Baseball history is among the Top 10 players of all-time any way you slice it. Yet watch any interview with him since he retired in 1976 and the only questions, or at least most of the questions, revolve around the number 715. As in the seven hundred and fifteenth home run of his big league career which passed the immortal Babe Ruth for the most homers in history.

One swing of the bat has effectively become all Hank Aaron is remembered for.

Jimmy Preston is no Hank Aaron of course, but just like if you’re writing about Hammerin’ Hank’s career you know full well that you’re going to have to eventually talk about #715 so it is with 1940’s rock and Jimmy Preston’s most lasting contribution to the genre.

Rock The Joint is not just a record that was a huge hit (#6), but was also notable for its cover versions, including one which fully convinced failed country yodeler Bill Haley to ditch the cowboy garb and devote himself to rock ‘n’ roll… Which brings us to maybe the most important aspect of this record historically speaking, as its use of the term “rock” itself further cemented that powerful word and its associated imagery in the public’s consciousness.

All of that comprises the legend that looms intimidatingly large over the record itself.

But what OF the record itself? Can anything hold up under the weight of seven decades of pressure to meet the expectations of those who followed its lead down the primrose path of rock ‘n’ roll decadence?
 

We’re Gonna Rock!
Maybe it’s the fact that the record IS undoubtedly known more for what it spawned than the content of the record itself is what makes revisiting it in great depth a little daunting. The vague impression made by that collective move to consign this to the footnotes of rock suggests it might wind up appearing underwhelming to listeners eagerly anticipating something earth shattering on a title they know better than the actual performance.

Then again perhaps it’s fitting that even years after his death Jimmy Preston routinely encounters diminished expectations. Though maybe by now we also should remember that those expectations are almost always exceeded.

It’s not hard to see why he constantly has to fight for respect. Everything about him from his age (now 36), his appearance (bookish and modest looking), his background (a local club performer recruited into service by a small label to capitalize on a burgeoning trend) and his musical attributes (a passable, but hardly scintillating saxophonist and a somewhat nasal vocalist with not much variety in his delivery), makes him among the most unlikely stars in the rock ‘n’ roll heavens.

Yet don’t look now, but that’s what he’s become. A star.

Hucklebuck Daddy was his first such stellar appearance, a bright luminescent record that hit #4 on the national charts this past spring and confirmed his rise to the main sequence stage of his career (to keep this star analogy going).

It’d wind up being his biggest hit, though obviously not his most enduring record, and its components proved that in spite of his unassuming persona he acutely understood rock’s formula and was able to use that as the essential fuel to burn ever brighter.

His next attempt Hold Me, Baby, was a cover record of a recent Amos Milburn hit that he managed to do quite well even as he was altering its properties to account for the differences in his and Milburn’s musical strengths. Yet because it wasn’t original it wasn’t too visible over the horizon.

But now with Rock The Joint he’s intent on creating a constillation, as this is about as tailor made for rock fans and astrologers alike, a flaming, burning mass of red hot music, each of its properties – vocals, music and ever-present anarchic atmosphere – contributing mightily to the almost nuclear fusion going on within its core.

This is a record that does indeed live up to its reputation, or to steal a line from a later astronomical rock figure of some renown, this is a song whose temperature’s rising until the jukebox blows a fuse.
 

Blow Down The Walls
What stands out most prominently about this song is how it’s positioning itself to be if not quite the first party record in rock, at least the defining one of this entire decade.

Now of course plenty of other records have sung openly about parties since Roy Brown sprang Good Rocking Tonight on the world back in September 1947 and if you’re a rock fan then you’re surely no stranger to waking up many a morning in strange unfamiliar surroundings with no idea how you got there, who you came with or what you did before passing out, but with the unshakable conviction that at least you had plenty of FUN in the whirlwind of activity that all parties with rock ‘n’ roll attitudes must consist of by law.

So party records themselves are not uncommon in rock, then or since, but Rock The Joint seems to be trying to accurately replicate the party itself in real time rather than merely acting as an invitation TO one before the events take place, or the recounting OF one after the fact.

No, this party is actually taking place on the studio floor as they were cutting the track and by the sound of it there are sure to be lots of drunken band members sprawled out amidst the empty bottles and discarded clothing laying about when the recording session ends.

Now about those band members… if you couldn’t quite name them all by scanning their faces you might at least count them and see that there was an additional musician in their midst as Gotham Records brought in another sax player in Danny Turner (of Chris Powell & The Five Blue Flames) which tells you a lot about their goals.

Gotham had rightly determined that frantic blowing by tenor saxes was the road to success in the rock field and since Preston himself was an alto saxophonist of modest means and the other Prestonians may have been well-intentioned and more than competent, they were still at times struggling to compete with the best in the business and so something had to be done in order to fulfill their needs. Thus it was decided that when all else fails adding more rampaging saxophones was never a bad move.

Whether they actually expected Turner to play with such unbridled fury however is not known but his presence ensures that Rock The Joint would leave a mark in the pages of rock history for eternity.
 
 

 
 

High As A Kite
The horns are in overdrive from the get-go, riffing in formation backed by rhythmic hand-clapping before the chanting starts, when Turner takes off in a winding excursion that is the one weak spot though thankfully it remains firmly in the background and doesn’t last long at that.

The boisterous vocals of the others are what you’re focused on at this point anyway as they sound as ideally suited for this task as you could hope. They’re melodic yet exuberant, giving their cries an authenticity that the song requires to be taken seriously. Once they nail that aspect you breathe easier, these aren’t narcs out to bust you for bringing weed or rotgut liquor to this shindig, they’re the real McCoy. Maybe they haven’t had time to get smashed themselves yet but they have other matters to attend to before they can imbibe, namely to create an unholy racket and make certain that everybody else entering this den of inequity has no problem shedding their own inhibitions as soon as they walk through the door.

Very quickly it becomes obvious that if instruments could take on the characteristics of people then the ones played here would be arrested for being drunk and disorderly, which of course is the preferred state to be in for any respectable party in the rock galaxy.

On Rock The Joint they somehow manage to violate every noise statute on the books, careening recklessly around the room, heads spinning, eyes unfocused and unable to feel their legs underneath them and yet – somehow – they never spill a drop of their booze.

The whole band has elevated their playing far beyond what we’ve heard out of them to date. In fact these are arguably the best drums heard yet on a rock record, rattling the windows with well-timed assaults on the skins, but it’s all done with such perfect precision that it doesn’t throw off any of the others from their allotted tasks. The bass and piano play in lockstep to establish the bottom and never fall out of step. The horns are a thing of beauty, tough, brazen and so supercharged with energy that they’re radiating more heat than the sun at midday in summer.

We’ve torn massed horn charts to shreds on these pages for the past two years because usually it’s done with mild intentions and a moldy pre-rock mindset, but here they show how in the right hands it can work wonders. This is nothing short of assault and battery on the senses using weapons of mass destruction and while they leave you battered and bruised it’s done with such zest that you’re proudly admiring every welt and gash they leave on your body, privileged to be a witness – if not a victim – to this type of gleeful musical anarchy that its lyrics expound upon with glee.
 

The Ceiling Is Falling
Lyrics? Did somebody mention lyrics?

I suppose there are some lyrics in Rock The Joint just as I assume there’s some dialogue in porn movies, some action at a golf tournament and some moisture in the Mohave Desert somewhere, but if you can recite any of them other than the circular refrain they’re bellowing throughout this you surely were being forcibly held down for the words to register.

Being as how we’re required to analyze such trivial details as lyrics here for the purposes of the review we can inform you that they’re little more than a roll call of the wild antics after the doors shut and the bodies are writhing half-naked on the floor. But generic in intent though they may be, they’re actually pretty creative at times in the way they describe the atmosphere, especially in the latter half after the sax solo and Preston is fully in command throughout the proceedings.

But even when they hit upon a particularly clever phrase we know they’re superfluous to a degree, needed only to break up the storming musical attack so that everybody’s cranium doesn’t blast off their shoulders and fly into space. What’s NOT superfluous are their cries of exultation that are omnipresent in each and every instrumental break as well as even behind Preston’s vocals. They’re so unhinged, so primal and coming from such an uninhibited place that they become the main message this group of miscreants is imparting.

That’s the point of this song… the point of rock music as a whole after all. A release of tension, a combustion of energy, a collection of hopes and dreams and optimism from those constantly told not to entertain such wild carefree thoughts, not in the racist world of America in 1949.
 

 
 

Until The Law Comes Knocking At The Door
Rock ‘n’ roll music, we keep saying, was born out of a community that was systematically denied respect, freedom, opportunity and virtually every other acknowledgement of simple humanity afforded to even the lowest vagrant in white society.

Yet in spite of this… in spite of being forcibly held back, held down and held under by every single motherfucker with even a shred of power no matter how corrupt and unethical, this same community was able to muster the will to fight through that and celebrate life in the most elemental way imaginable.

Rock music was an alliance between those on the stage and on the floor, of artists and audiences bound together by something larger than any of them. This record was a testament to that shared experience, of the good overpowering the bad in the face of every obstacle imaginable, all funneled into one explosive creation that would change the universe.

If rock ‘n’ roll is the sun, still burning brightly years later, providing life to those in its orbit, Jimmy Preston’s star was destined to be shorter lived. He’s still got a ways to go before he disappears from the sky altogether, but this is the moment his career peaked and exploded in a blinding fiery spectacle.

That it’s overshadowed everything else Preston did and has been hyped to the heavens is therefore perfectly understandable, Rock The Joint is the sound of freedom and as such is the supernova that shines brighter than ever, brief though that moment for him may have been.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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