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SAVOY 709; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 
With only a few more records to go before we get to the 1950’s we’re going to take some time to add in a few 1940’s songs we either overlooked or intentionally avoided for various reasons when first covering this ground. It won’t take long and hopefully will paint a more vivid picture of the first era of rock as we head into the second era in the next week or two.
 

 

When artists fail to find success despite possessing a fair amount of talent in a style which had definite commercial appeal I’m sure there’s a natural inclination to look for excuses.

There was a lack of promotion by the label.

I cut some great songs that got shelved by the company.

My record came out at the same time as (fill in the blank with a smash hit of the time) and got lost in the shuffle.

The dog ate my homework!

As you can imagine most of the reasons don’t hold much water. Good artists releasing good records may not always become stars but there’s rarely elaborate conspiracies that are responsible for holding them back.

Yet in the belief that everyone who feels they were wronged deserves to make their own case, we now present Jimmy Smith who might actually be onto something when he says events out of his control did him in.
 

 

Think About The Future
Let’s begin the review by telling you that this is actually our second encounter with this artist and yet our first official meeting with Jimmy Smith.

That pertinent fact is one of the keys to Smith’s claim of injustice as unlike most artists who cry foul when it comes to record company neglect Jimmy has actual proof that Savoy Records dropped the ball on advancing his career.

The reason is they released his first single, highlighted by the very good Cheatin’ Women, under the name Kansas City Jimmy, which was someone’s inexplicably dimwitted idea of trying to establish Smith as a viable rock artist by using a city he wasn’t even from as a stage name in order to make him appear to be a 50 year old bluesman rather than a 20-something rock artist.

Of course it didn’t work and while the moniker he appeared under may not have actually had much to do with its failure to accrue any sales or jukebox spins, the fact is they’d probably undercut his chances to appeal to the right audience with that decision and so now a few months later they were apparently making amends by releasing his second single under his own given name.

You have to admit that as dumb decisions go this one is pretty bad on Savoy’s part. But that being said we need to play Devil’s advocate here and ask two questions of our own. The first is, despite the ill-chosen artist name for that first single, was there a guarantee that it would’ve been successful had it been issued under a different name? I mean, as good as Cheatin’ Women was there have been debuts in the rock field by other artists just as good, if not better, that were released over the past year that have also failed to score and yet that didn’t stop the likes of Johnny Otis or Little Willie Littlefield from becoming stars in the future.

Secondly, the failure of the record issued under the Kansas City Jimmy heading wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, hinder the chances of a record credited to Jimmy Smith from making an impact. It’d be one thing if the first release had stirred plenty of interest and then they put out a second single under another name altogether and it failed to get noticed because the fans of the first had no idea the same cat also did the second. If that had been what happened to Smith then you’d have a better case to make. But if the first record didn’t sell under one name then the second one with a different name wasn’t starting off in a hole.

So yes, while we agree with the complaints Smith was probably making about how his career was handled by Savoy – something which will continue to be a thorn in his side when his final release next year reverts back to the insipid Kansas City Jimmy name and does so on a different label, as Savoy switched him to their little-used Acorn subsidiary – the truth is the enduring quality of the music on the records they release will still be what matters most to consumers.

Maybe not wanting to face that harsh fact of life and have his protests shot down by us, Smith turns to his Ma-Ma in hopes of finding a more sympathetic ear to listen to his grievances.
 

Rock From Side To Side
Few behind the scenes figures in 1940’s rock were as vital in codifying the exuberant sound of the music as Ralph Bass was shaping up to be.

Born Ralph Basso (née: DuBasso) in New York in 1911 and raised in a Jewish household he became an accomplished violinist at a young age… all things which obviously made him the ideal candidate to become immersed in black rock ‘n’ roll as he neared forty years old.

Captivated by music of all sorts his whole life he made his way into the industry in the early 1940’s where he worked for the Black & White Records label and while there dealt almost exclusively with black artists ranging from blues guitar legend T-Bone Walker to jazz chanteuse Lena Horne and saxophonists Jack McVea, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, building his own name and reputation in the process.

In time he’d cement his legend by running King Records’ vaunted Federal subsidiary in the 1950’s bringing in such legendary acts as The Dominoes, The Midnighters and James Brown, the latter of whom he signed over owner Syd Nathan’s fierce objections. In the late 1950’s he’d move to Chess Records and over the next two decades he became their primary producer which meant that Bass played a vital role in three of the most storied independent record labels of the rock era.

The first of those was Savoy who signed him as a producer in 1948 to establish a West Coast base of operations where he’d be able to sign local talent and record them at his own discretion. His first notable act was Big Jay McNeely who in just two sessions for the label established a new and more exhilarating sound for sax-led instrumentals. This was done by suggesting the songs were barely controlled anarchy on the surface but which required a surprising amount of planning in their arrangements to pull off effectively.

That would become a Bass trademark, not necessarily due to his own contributions in the actual creation of their sound necessarily, but rather it reflected his personal interest in the more raw and uninhibited side of rock ‘n’ roll in the artists he sought out and then gave them a supporting environment to unleash those sounds to the world, something which helped to ensure the overall rock style wouldn’t conform to the tamer pop or jazz aesthetics in time.

With that mindset established it’s no surprise that he’d be intrigued by what he heard in Jimmy Smith, a raw voiced piano pounder whose approach could be relatively crude at first glance but who possessed an energy that was invigorating in the right setting. Bass’s job was to make sure his material could be worked out in the studio to capture what was surely a more freewheeling sound on stage.

That’s the goal of Ma-Ma, a rousing ode to a shapely woman who isn’t exactly being celebrated because she makes for an ideal mother figure.
 

She Belongs To Me
Way back in 1943 Lucky Millinder, a vital pre-rock bandleader whom we’ve mentioned numerous times before as he was the one who gave Wynonie Harris his first national exposure as well as being the breeding ground for such crucial rock figures as producer/songwriter Henry Glover, released a song entitled Big Fat Mama which was one of the many songs that hinted at the changes over the horizon.

A few years later in 1947, minutes before rock itself was born, the song was revived by Roy Milton, another of those monumentally important pre-rock artists who acted as a midwife for rock ‘n’ roll. Gene Phillips, who dabbled in the outskirts of rock himself before thinking better of it, also tried his hand with the tune but both of them were bested by King Perry who had the best take on it. All of those versions of the song dating back to the early Forties had a back and forth exchange between the lead singer and the backing vocalists in the groups boasting about this hefty bundle of love.

This is NOT that song!

But it IS undoubtedly inspired by it which provides yet another example of how all musical ideas borrow from the past, whether intentional or not.

Jimmy Smith’s Ma-Ma has the same basic concept as the unrelated mothers… err, “mamas”… in that he is captivated by a full-figured beauty “with her meat shakin’ on her bone”.

His sheer enthusiasm carries the song – as if it had any choice but to be pulled along by his gleefully uninhibited vocals – and while the lyrics are essentially perfunctory by nature (they’re really just expressions of horniness that barely manage to keep their pants up) he’s not having any trouble conveying his unbridled lust for this woman and that alone is plenty enjoyable to hear.

Like those other songs of a similar theme from years gone by there’s a vibrant back and forth exchange during the chorus which is little more than Smith shouting the title and the others egging him on with a “Yes! Yes!”. Handclaps add to the increasingly chaotic atmosphere and just to remind you there were actual musicians in the studio and not just drunken revelers who wandered in from the bar there’s a good bottom to the rhythm provided by an insistent bass and simple drumming. There’s also a slinky guitar that finds its way to the forefront early on, though it seems to wander off before long. What’s missing from all this mayhem, somewhat surprisingly, is Smith adding anything on the piano which might’ve been seen as one too many explosions for this to endure and risked sending the instrumental track into orbit.

Instead it’s the horns that take the spotlight throughout most of this which is both its blessing and its curse.
 

Forget Your Used To Be
At times it’s hard to believe the horns are not two separate groups spliced in from two separate recording sessions, even though the energy they all play with is pretty consistent throughout the track.

Let’s start off with the good… if not the great… which is the downright explosive tenor sax solo, one that is ricocheting off the studio walls sending everyone else in the room diving for cover. There’s nothing orderly about this, he clearly has no idea where he’s going when he starts, there’s no structure to it and thus no way for the rest of the musicians to interact with him, they’re simply left to react. But considering how many times a sax has been told to improvise something suitably exciting and only come off sounding utterly confused in the process, whether too tentative to interest us or if they ramp things up they end up being too unfocused to make any sense, we’ll take this alternative, as out of control as it may be. Whoever is handling that job here manages to deliver just what’s needed at every turn.

It’s also suitably unhinged to mesh well with all of the rest of the pandemonium we’ve heard so far on Ma-Ma and if the notes he’s playing are without rhyme or reason at least the direction he’s taking it in is never in doubt – it’s like a lit fuse headed straight for the nitroglycerin.

So surely with that setting the mood the other horns are going to respond with equal fire and explosiveness, right?

Wrong.

Though the other horns are playing with the appropriate gusto they’re not the right weaponry to add any collateral damage. Hence we come to the age-old (well, really two year old) problem of pitting the brass section against the reed section.

The difference in their tones and consequently the differences in their roles, means they are bound not to meet on equal terms no matter what their intent is. The group riff the trumpet led horns contributes, both in the first section before the sax solo and then following that saxophone coming out of the break, might be played “right” according to their instructional books but the brass is too straitlaced to convince you of any deviancy. They’re the honor roll students in the school cafeteria caught up in a food fight looking wide-eyed at the action with goofy grins on their faces but in spite of their evident enjoyment of the scene they never actually throw any food, nor knock over the lunch counter to grab reinforcements.

In other words they may make plenty of noise here but they don’t do any damage… other than to the legitimacy of the song.

Their presence mostly gets overwhelmed by the rest of the rioting going on so we can overlook it to a degree, but considering it’s likely that Smith didn’t come to the session with his own eight piece band that means Bass was the guy who hired the musicians for the job and we’d expect him to know what pieces will fit and which won’t beforehand and whittle it down to the bare essentials. Bigger horn sections are not the solution and often are the Achilles Heel of rock in this era and for something aiming to be as wild as Ma-Ma clearly was the solution was to streamline the arrangement by eliminating those out of place horns and then bar the doors and hope you get a finished take before the swat team arrives.
 

Really Go To Town
Songs that go boom in the night are all but guaranteed to be well-received in the heat of the moment in the club, at a party or anytime and any place you have a large, loud and presumably inebriated crowd of roughnecks, ruffians and roustabouts looking to lose their senses.

In that setting Ma-Ma fits the bill to a T. There’s enough energy found within to light up a small city if you could harness it and that’s probably the only recommendation you need to hire Smith and company to play your after-hours bash. But that type of manic performance which works so well in the appropriate setting is a little harder to work flawlessly on record which will typically be listened to in a much more sedate environment. Yes, the excitement will still be palpable and yes, there’s plenty of vicarious fun you can have by immersing yourself in this when you need a pick-me-up if you’re alone, but in those circumstances the flaws inherent in such wayward displays of musical carnage will be a little more noticeable and a little less tolerated.

Though there’s really not much of a song here it still packs a wallop and comes recommended as an example of what kind of music was leading the charge as rock attempted its brazen takeover of good taste and decorum, but the crazed white-knuckle sensations you’d probably get when hearing it live surrounded by fellow lunatics won’t quite pack the same punch when you’re put back in your padded cell at the loony bin and are forced to listen to it stripped of its supportive environment.

Maybe that’s the best case Smith can submit to explain his lack of success – back then music didn’t come with visuals.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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