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GOTHAM 175; March, 1949

 
 

 

We started out our last review covering the A-side of this Jimmy Preston record with the word “Progress”, a simple concept to ensure an artist’s advancement – creatively and commercially – by merely improving upon your last effort in some basic way.

Preston had done that since first appearing on the scene back in the fall of 1948, each release showing very definite progress in both concept and execution culminating with his best record to date Hucklebuck Daddy that surely convinced any doubters that the professorial looking, modestly talented Preston was indeed a worthy presence on the late 1940’s rock scene.

With its subsequent success on the charts his unlikely career arc taking him in rather short order from a 30-something year old bandleader playing local Pennsylvania clubs to a national recording star in rock ‘n’ roll was shaping up to be the type of rags to riches tale that gives every aspiring musician the belief that they too can buck the odds and make it.

So with that feel-good story now established we can hit you with a question. You’ve all heard the saying one step forward two steps back? Well how about one step forward and ten steps back?
 

 
Oh Won’t You Come Back, I Want You To Come Back Home?
Unfortunately records in this era have TWO sides to them and Preston thus far had crammed all of his best ideas on the A-sides while leaving the B-sides ill-conceived barren wastelands.

Though understandable and even defensible maybe when starting out, as an artist is trying to draw attention to their potential not their consistency yet, the neglect of the B-sides had been just an unfortunate but hardly too noticeable blight on his budding career.

Not any more. The thing is once you start making verifiable progress, especially once you enter into the realm of the hitmakers, you’re now being scrutinized more for every side you release… even those B-sides.

So while we might’ve cringed at the woeful and offensive Chop Suey Louie back in January, it was largely overlooked while we focused on the far more solid Numbers Blues, something that gave us a far better estimate of the progress he was making. But now that he’s fulfilled – and even surpassed – our expectations this time out on the top side Preston can’t expect to slide when it comes to the flip-sides of his records. After all with more people liking his latest song more people will be buying the record itself and more will be turning it over to find out what it contains on the B-side, hoping that it might be something almost as good as the A-side.

It’s not.

It’s not even close. In fact it’s something that calls into question all of the talk about Jimmy Preston making significant progress over the past six months and has us wondering if our lingering concerns over his credibility on the scene were based on far more than just the general perception that no quality rock star could be cursed with such a scholarly appearance.
 

 

Once I Was Happy
We’re going to be referring back to Preston’s previous reviews quite a lot here, not in an effort to get you to go back and read them (though obviously you’re encouraged to do so) but because we’re now forced to reconsider some of our earlier conclusions, or at least call into question some of those initial assumptions.

The first of these occurred when we were analyzing his chances at success when he was signed out of the Philly club scene by the local Gotham label who were hoping that since saxophonists were the hot thing in rock at the time, and since Preston fit the bill in that regard even though he played alto not the more rambunctious tenor, he was as good a bet for a fluke hit as anyone Gotham Records might otherwise be able to sign.

That kind of thinking was hardly sound for a more established label with a wider array of options but Gotham was a small time operation looking for hits wherever they could find them. Though certainly not someone you’d ever expect to build a long-term career with, he wasn’t a very big risk for them to take either and if the label happened to strike pay dirt even once with him it’d be a sound investment. Preston for his part seemed to understand what he was there to deliver and his debut Messin’ With Preston did a reasonably good job at placing him squarely amongst the instrumental sax brigade that was dominating rock at the time. Nothing more, nothing less.

For his follow-up we were pleased to see that aside from being just a one dimensional figure who could only blow a horn he could sing too, and not too badly at that. Surely this gave him a leg up on guys who had to only stick to instrumentals even if that approach theoretically remained a better bet for securing his first hit. But on Numbers Blues, while not a hit, the lyrics and his firm grasp of their underlying meaning showed that he actually COULD be equally effective with vocal records as well. Suddenly – and unexpectedly – he was shaping up to be a viable double-threat.

All of this came together on Hucklebuck Daddy, a song that combined the rousing horn work we’ve come to expect by this point in rock topped with Preston’s vibrant shouting on a somewhat suggestive lyrical romp that takes us from the club’s dance floor to the singer’s bedroom with the horns and drums combining to aurally replicate their nocturnal activities in crude but wholly effective ways. Audiences loved it and the label were rewarded for their shot in the dark on Preston when they got a legitimate Top Five hit in the process.

Anything from here on in would be gravy.

…Unless you were the audience themselves who now had heightened expectations for more of the same when it came to Jimmy Preston. Rather than wait months for the next single to get another fix from him they anxiously flipped over the record they were so thrilled with already in the hopes that the salaciously labeled Sugar Baby would equal or perhaps even surpass what they’d already heard. With your imagination envisioning what shouts, cries and squeals might be found within you’re immediately hit with a cold blast of water, rapidly dousing your musical and carnal arousal thanks to badly misjudged vocals and insipid lyrics those vocals are forced to carry.

As you angrily dry yourself off you begin grumbling to yourself that THIS was indeed the Jimmy Preston you feared might be lurking under those glasses all along.
 

 
 

The Skies Were Blue, Now They’re Grey
Let’s start with the notion that the idea behind Sugar Baby is problematic, especially for someone whose age and appearance are two strikes against him when it comes to being taken seriously as a typical rock act.

The gist of the song is that Preston’s been dumped by his sweetheart for reasons he can’t understand, though I have a pretty good idea why, as will you too once you hear him whine incessantly to his girl as she walks out on him.

Though this is a rock history blog not a relationship advice column I think I can combine the two by saying that you are NOT going to get a girl who’s left you to reconsider if you are showing that you are a spineless emotional wreck who needs mothering far more than a girlfriend, just as you are NOT going to appeal to a rock fan with a record that by all rights should contain a spoken tag wherein he asks you to change his diaper once the record stops spinning.

In other words if you want to convince the world that you’re a suitable rock star don’t act like the prototypical 40 year old virgin whose world is coming to an end because one girl has had enough of you. Instead the authentic rock star would scoff at her walking out on him and have three girls lining up in the hallway to take her place as she carries her bag past them on her way to the elevator. Heck, Wynonie Harris would already be in BED with the three girls and would probably ask his now-ex-girlfriend to answer the phone on her way out because it’s likely a fourth girl in need of directions to his apartment!

Preston’s sad-sack attitude acts as a referendum on his own lack of self-worth making this a totally unsympathetic character he’s offering us. He’s not so much broken-hearted as he is emotionally desperate because of his ineffectual nature. He sounds as if he knows that whatever combination of luck, chance and selling his soul for a few rolls in the hay with this one girl will be impossible to replicate again and it doesn’t make for a pretty picture of crumbling masculinity.

Making it worse though is HOW he sings this, which is a combination of a bellow and a moan that’s constantly in danger of wandering off-key as well as completely losing the melody at every turn. We all knew going in that Preston never had the strongest voice, even at his best he was a bit nasal and had an odd tone, but comparing this to the top side where he easily overcame that with determination and enthusiasm Sugar Baby comes off as something he sang after just waking up, his head still pounding from the night before, his nasal passages clogged and his throat in need of some strong tea or something.

His subpar vocals make you take even more notice of the banal lyrics and their misery inducing sentiments, the combination of which is going to be far too much for him to overcome, especially when presenting a suitable “image” is – and always will be – his most vital concern as an artist.
 

I Hope You’ll Return Someday
Before we callously sacrifice Jimmy Preston on the alter of the undeserving rock stars, torching his body for this unfortunate misstep and walk out on him before he’s even done smoldering, let’s at least mention the positives because Preston’s past work has certainly earned him enough respect for that much at the very least.

The backing track isn’t that bad. At times it’s actually fairly good. There’s nothing much going on during the bulk of it but it starts out with an entirely suitable horn riff before settling into a light groove carried by tenor sax and piano. If anything Preston accentuates the general passivity of their arrangement by falling out of step with them from time to time, but that reflects more on him than anything they’re doing wrong.

But redemption in life comes in many forms… except in early rock where redemption comes in one form above all others, namely the tenor sax solo and here they salvage this record as much as could ever be hoped for by letting loose with a gusty passage that starts with a squealing riff that provides the most authentic moment on the record. It’s a brief ray of sunshine in an otherwise overcast day but even as it quickly turns the burners down to prevent the pot from boiling over they at least have managed to generate a little heat as it winds and twists and squirms its way around the melody. When Preston’s congested vocals return you scowl with displeasure, wishing that Gotham Records had done the sensible thing and stuck his alto sax between his lips (if not taped his mouth shut altogether) and let this be an instrumental.

Not only would that keep the group’s hand in that particular pot, which would bode well for their long term viability should Preston’s vocals become afflicted with this same malady each time out, but it’d just offer up more diversity in terms of their material which is always a good thing for artists in general.
 

 

Why Are You So Mean To Me?
So three singles into his career and we’re still unsure about Jimmy Preston’s place in all of this. He definitely belongs in the rock family, he’s proven that beyond any doubt, but he’s also shown that he’s hit or miss when it comes to just simply knowing what to do. Though his A-sides have all shown a solid grasp on the rock concept and consistent improvement in each facet of the performances, the B-sides, two of which we avoided reviewing altogether because they were so inappropriate for rock, have given us pause.

There’s a lingering suspicion that Preston wasn’t so much a natural fit in rock as he was a well-meaning charlatan, something we even worried about when he was busy wowing us with the top side of this single. It’s proving to be a hard concern to shake, this idea that he was merely someone called upon to deliver material in a style he might not otherwise have explored and thus was always going to struggle to make you believe he was legitimate. The desultory Sugar Baby only reinforces that fear.

He wasn’t trying to con you necessarily, he seemed to genuinely want to convince you of his earnestness and be taken seriously, but when your talents themselves have built-in limitations, be it your voice or your own experiences that shape your on-record persona, it becomes a constant struggle just to remain on even footing knowing all along that no matter how good your last returns were it could all come crashing down in an instant.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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