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Coming off his third national Top Ten hit in the past two years, the latest one coming on his very first release with a new label no less, and featuring a new female vocalist to take some of the responsibility off the former sax player turned “singer by necessity”, you’d think this would be time for Jimmy Preston to take a victory lap of sorts.

After all, when he was starting out he seemed like one of the least likely rock acts to become a star and now there’s no question that’s just what he’s become.

Instead it was proving to be a last gasp, not because he’d used up his best ideas or because the musical environment was changing and he couldn’t adapt, but because instead of being promoted like a star he was treated almost as an afterthought.


Have You Got Eyes For Me?
You sort of have to feel sorry for Gotham Records. One of countless small independent record labels that sprang up in the late 1940’s they’d made the most of their limited means by signing a few major talents, building their careers up methodically until they were bankable stars only to then see them depart for so called “greener pastures”.

The green of course meant more money, not necessarily better opportunity.

While saxophonist Earl Bostic did indeed land at a more well-equipped label with King Records, the same couldn’t be said for Jimmy Preston, who after scoring two big hits on Gotham amidst a run of great sides and smaller regional hits left his home town Philadelphia based company and landed at New York’s Derby Records where he immediately got his third hit with a rousing cover of Oh Babe! this past fall.

You’d think his new company would be thrilled and do everything they could to promote its follow up, Rock With It Baby, another duet with Burnetta Evans who had already proved herself to be a perfect sparring partner for Preston. Instead they allowed it to die a quick and lonely death in the marketplace amidst a sea of indifference.

This was not uncommon for Derby who had flooded the market with Freddie Mitchell records for the past two years, releasing as many as three of his singles in a month and then wondered why their business was floundering, unable to match the rising fortunes of rival companies across the country like Imperial and Atlantic Records, both of whom begun with no better prospects than Derby had when starting out.

But of course in the midst of all this the guy you really had to feel sorry for was Jimmy Preston himself, regardless of it perhaps being a bad decision to leave Gotham for a company like Derby that seemed perpetually unable to capitalize on whatever good fortune came their way.

Sometimes it pays to stay put with the devil that you know.


I Woke Up Screamin’
To be fair, this is not a record that jumps out at you and screams “hit” the first time you hear it. The song in fact starts off rather modestly with a light piano sort of wandering around in the dark before someone flips the light switch on so the band can get its bearings.

Once they do however it settles into a fairly pleasant groove, nothing too energetic but with a subtle rhythmic pull that soon works its way under your skin. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual slam-bang arrangements that Preston’s hits had been built on, and if it’s a less commercial sound it’s not exactly out of step with the mid-tempo tracks that have formed a sometimes underappreciated cornerstone of early rock.

Granted the horns are a little erratic in their tone, whining a little more than moaning which doesn’t suit the lyrics which center around a playful semi-sexual give and take between Preston and Evans, but the sax solo makes up for it a little, grinding away nicely for awhile, though pulling up just short of going for the groin as it were.

But while the musical backing is solid enough, where Rock With It Baby places its bets is on the back and forth exchanges of the two vocalists who deliver varying amounts of horny desire while resisting the urge to make an all out play for the other and reveal just how badly they want it.

The banter is sharp enough to get the point across without violating any laws of decorum and their deliveries sell that which can’t be more explicitly stated, as he’s trying to remain as laconic as can be and she’s teasing in return without growing frustrated by their all talk, no action scene. This is more or less the standard male-female duet playbook that would be followed over the next decade from everyone from Shirley and Lee to Gene and Eunice, all of it fairly effective in its somewhat limited aims while bound from revealing more by the straitlaced restrictions of the day.

You buy the legitimacy of their supposed relationship though because of their mutual comfort levels and despite not quite having the kind of revealing coda to it that at least suggests what happened when the lights finally went out, we’re not dense enough to scratch our heads and wonder what took place after they brought us right to the bedroom door before shutting us out.

You’re Doing Me Wrong
So, was this good enough to be a hit “as is” if only Derby Records had held off on releasing it until the end of January once Preston’s previous hit had dropped from the regional charts… or spaced it out from other strong Derby cuts coming out around the same time… or had they just promoted it with the zeal an artist of his stature deserved?

Well, considering there was still just ten spots on the national charts and some all-time classics released in early fall were still dominating those charts, maybe not, but in different pockets of the country where tastes may differ and where one label’s reach doesn’t quite extend as far, then yeah, Rock With It Baby could’ve had enough juice to inch its way into some listings, if for no other reason that Preston’s name carried with it a strong enough reputation to get people interested.

Furthermore if you aren’t knocked out by it right away it’s still the kind of record that grows on you with repeated listening and that comes with increased opportunity to hear it, something this seemed not to be afforded.

Now had they bolstered the sax parts and made them far more suggestive by coarsening their tone to match what the lyrics are hinting at, then yes, that’d be enough to at least make it competitive in the jukes where its vaguely suggestive tone would’ve gone over better with a more appropriate backing.

The problem was coming off a hit that paired Preston and Evans they needed to drive home that duo’s commercial potency, maybe give them something analgous to what Johnny Otis had with Little Esther and Mel Walker, where they could split releases and double their take in the process.

Instead Derby, as they often did, seemed to be content to let things play out by chance, costing themselves bigger selling records, stronger audience loyalty and, as it turns out, the contentment of the artist they’d just lured away from the label he’d risen to fame on.

But that’s what happens when you treat all of this so cavalierly… your time to make an impact is shorter than you think, so when you have an artist as potent as Jimmy Preston on your roster don’t shortchange a single release or you may not get too many more.


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