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GOTHAM 216; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Surely it’s only coincidental that the title of this song would seem to be a confident – albeit premature – statement regarding Jimmy Preston’s ongoing “rivalry” with fellow Philadelphia club performer turned rock ‘n’ roller Chris Powell that we wrote about yesterday on the flip side of this release – a competition which Preston may have won commercially but was lagging behind ever so slightly aesthetically on their head to head match-ups.

But then again timing is everything and maybe wanting to influence the judges scoring the bout at home he declared himself to be the winner in no uncertain terms and since having an ego seems to be a pre-requisite for being a rock star to begin with, Preston was likely taking no chances at being overlooked.

However as Jimmy surely knew, the final decision – as always – rests with us, the listeners, regarding the veracity of his claims for any mythical rock ‘n’ roll championship.
 

 

Life Is Just What You Make It
Let the record show that while Preston never held any legitimate title, at least as far as they could be determined based on commercial returns or even widespread acclaim, for the past year (since the start of 1949 that is) he’s been one of the more improbable long shot contenders for the rock ‘n’ roll crown.

One look at him though with his scholarly appearance and you’d be apt to dismiss him outright which is why this act of defiant arrogance on They Call Me The Champ is such a welcome sight, laying out a manifesto on romance if you will, a sort of big-picture game plan that the narrator is confiding to a member of the opposite sex. This unexpected move can be taken either as a reckless display of confidence that is more than likely to wind up with the girl scoffing at him if not slapping his face and walking away in disgust, OR he’s trying to run this idea by her, almost like a test case study to see her reaction.

Though it’d be entirely up to the female listeners to judge whether or not this concept of his had what it took to win them over, those of us watching from the sidelines are free to offer our own reactions to his brashness as it unfolds with surprisingly candid admissions on Preston’s part.

His basic premise is this: Confidence itself acts as an aphrodisiac and advertising your wares – be it his sexual prowess, his diamond ring or his fame itself – is really no different than any other form of salesmanship. Certainly women have always done so visually from the beginning of time – I mean, have you SEEN what Cleopatra was wearing in ancient Egypt? WOW! – and so whether you’re hawking vegetables, automobiles or yourself the basic rule of marketing is to boast of your product’s attributes… even exaggerate a little.

What Preston’s doing here is remarkably effective in that regard as he smartly sidesteps any grandiose claims about his appearance, which could of course be easily refuted in just a glance, and instead focuses on his supposed reputation as a lover. Though this approach runs the risk of being crass, the lyrics are even-handed and well chosen, balancing the overall self-aggrandizement with a pragmatic attitude that takes some of the edge off his conceit.

He’s smart enough to know that if he applies too much force in coming onto her his cocky attitude runs the risk of losing whatever charm it possesses and instead becomes creepy and discomforting – to the target of his attention as well as to the listeners – and so by stating his “credentials” in such a casual way it gives the impression that she’s free to take it or leave it at her discretion.

He delivers this in such a way that you envision him sitting back rather than leaning forward in the bar, smiling in an off-handed way rather than leering with barely concealed lust, and having that preternatural calm pull her to him naturally… although if this tactic has been honed to perfection over the years with a trail of one-night stands in his wake then it goes without saying that the admiration we’d be inclined to give him for be so self-assured would disappear faster than her brassiere in the front seat of his gleaming 1949 Mercury on some desolate country road.

But we’ll hold off on that judgment for now and focus on what he’s saying to see if the lyrics can tip us off as to his true intent and consequently help us decide whether or not we should walk her safely to her own car later tonight, if not back Jimmy into a corner to let her make an even faster getaway.
 
 


 
 

I’ll Admit That’s Mighty Cool
Most songs have roughly three stanzas, plus the chorus, to do all of the following things: 1) Establish the main character’s perspective. 2) Set the scene. 3) Describe the action. 4) resolve the plot and lastly… 5) Give us a reason to listen beyond all that via memorable lines, a catchy melody, and a committed vocal performance.

Preston does all of those things admirably on They Call Me The Champ without a single wasted word. The title line sets his persona right out of the gate, delivered with easy-to-take self-assurance that largely eradicates any thought that his braggadocio stems from insecurity, as so many people’s does in life.

He then makes it clear he’s talking to a girl who he’s attempting to “woo”, but as already stated he’s not using a hard-sell tactic, but rather just pontificating about his seemingly charmed love-life and you get the sense if she smiles and just says it was nice to meet him and then walks away without so much as giving him her number he won’t be at all bothered by it, confident that another girl will soon happen by and join him for a drink without him having to do more than flash her a toothy grin.

He does all this with a flair too, dropping lines that are both on point for the topic and dripping with cocky charm – comparing himself at one point to Romeo and Juliet before tossing in a slight hint of self-deprecation to close it out which eases off the pressure enough to not be offended.

Essentially this is a Wynonie Harris song that keeps its fly zipped up, but as great as Harris was and as much as he embodied the basic character being laid out here it’d be hard to envision him doing TOO much better with this than Preston, who sings this with a slightly harder edge to his voice that gives it the raspy presence to convince you he’s speaking from experience.

Technically speaking he’s just as good as the material… His stop-time declarations are flawless, never pushing a single line with too much emphasis or conversely not enough emphasis to sell it properly. His held notes are powerful and resonant and his tone is rich and full-bodied from start to finish. This is easily his best vocal performance to date and one more reminder of how remarkable his progress has been from his modest beginnings as a saxophonist who merely stepped to the microphone so he could add a few vocals to his repertoire and mix things up.
 

Where To Find That Groove
Throughout all of this the band has been churning along behind him discreetly but effectively. There’s no real opportunity for them to steal the spotlight from Preston since the story is the real drawing card here and so that takes up the bulk of the arrangement, but their work adds to the atmosphere while remaining largely in the background.

The highlight – and the canniest decision – is the striptease drumming during and after each of those stop-time sections, the snare and/or bass drum punctuations following every line and then four quick cymbal hits to close them out bringing to mind introductions at the midnight show at The Boom Boom Room or some such exotic club across the tracks where the stunning Lottie The Body was appearing.

The melodic weight of the song-proper falls to the sax which might be pitched slightly higher than you’d expect – more of a bleating tone than a honking sound – but even that fits into the general motif. It implies the same sort of suggestive on-stage hanky-panky that would be going on in such a place without descending into parody.

As with the image of the meek looking professorial types – such as Preston – being the ones stuffing dollar bills into the strippers G-string, often in life it’s the most unlikely figures who make for the most potent of adversaries as a lot of rock acts were discovering when it came to Jimmy Preston. They Call Me The Champ might not be quite a factual statement, (certainly Roy Brown and Amos Milburn would be beg to differ), but that his performance comes across as so authentic is the best argument as to why it was at least not as outlandish a claim as it might appear on the surface.

At the dawn of 1950 if you had a dollar to spend on a rock record and wanted to be assured of getting your money’s worth it’d be hard to find any artist who’d deliver as consistently as Jimmy Preston, which considering where he started out was an achievement that justified whatever bragging he wanted to do.
 


 

Treat Me Like A King
Preston’s story is a testament to his dogged determination to succeed in this realm, his firm grasp on the basics of the style that sped up his learning curb considerably, and an uncanny sense of what worked best, both for himself and for rock music in general.

Add in the fact that so often in life somebody’s success comes down to their confidence in what they’re trying to do and not shying away from a challenge because it seems daunting on the surface, attributes which Preston embodies as well as anyone.

Though at first glance it’d be hard to envision him as someone who could rightly claim They Call Me The Champ and truly mean it, the fact is that at this stage of his career if he wasn’t quite a champion, his ability to hold his own in the ring with any opponent no matter how well-hyped they were, made Preston a legitimate contender in any weight class.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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