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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.
 

 

One of the most significant aspects of trying to build a career as an artist is something that might not get talked about much, at least in comparison to such obvious things as having talent and strong material, and that is the word consistency.

Successful artists don’t all have to hit the ground running their first time out of the blocks of course and a lot of them, most of them probably, wind up gradually improving upon their initial efforts as they gain more experience, but that’s a natural progression that most people in any endeavor make.

Consistency is another animal altogether, one that gives some insight as to how likely it is the artist will be reliable from one record to the next. Without some indication that they’ll be able to sustain their initial momentum they become somewhat expendable. If you can’t count on them to at least live up to the standard they’ve set then you begin to look elsewhere for someone who can.

Jimmy Smith, or Kansas City Jimmy as he was known the first time around, has a somewhat different – though related – problem when it comes to consistency. It’s not that the individual songs themselves are dramatically up and down but rather the best aspects found in one song wind up being the worst aspects in the next.

However you try and spin it that’s a type of bewildering inconsistency that is bound to do him in whatever name he goes under.
 

 
You’re Supposed To Draw A Crowd
Based on the collected output of his rather brief recording career Smith wasn’t a very versatile artist – a rough energetic shouter who bashed the piano with demented glee – but that alone is hardly cause for concern.

Having those attributes as his calling card means he’ll never vie with the upper echelon artists in early rock, guys like Amos Milburn, Roy Brown and Ivory Joe Hunter, who had the stylistic adaptability to weather any change in tastes, but it’s not as if being fairly one-dimensional was a roadblock to success either, provided you were consistently good in what you specialized in as Wynonie Harris showed.

Even a few duds mixed among the stand-out tracks could be tolerated to some degree, as long as the highs were high enough to keep audiences feeling you were worth the risk to invest another buck in each release hoping for the best each time out. The Orioles were living proof of this, as were The Ravens who were more often than not able to shift the blame to the record label for attempting to cross you over into the pop realm rather than sticking with what had gotten them so far to begin with as rockers.

Then of course there was the tried and true excuse of singling out the producer or the musicians for saddling you with inappropriate arrangements, highlighting an outdated horn section or not emphasizing the rhythm enough to make the record come alive, and if all else failed you could always chalk up an occasional misfire to simply having to contend with a sub-par song along the way.

But it was much harder explain falling short when both the composition and the arrangement were right up your alley and the failure to capitalize on them as well as you should’ve was laid at your own doorstep, as is the case with Talking Boogie, a song Jimmy Smith himself wrote but which sounds as if he forgot how to sing once he got in the studio, making this one of the more curious examples of an identity crisis we’ve come across.
 


 

Let’s Make This Joint Rock Good
We’ll start by focusing on the good aspects of this record because in some cases they are very good… precisely because they have no confusion over what it is that Smith is best suited to do.

The primary components of Smith’s best sides are all present and accounted for with Talking Boogie. Though it starts out at medium speed it quickly increases the tempo, or at least gives the illusion of doing so by adding more instruments to his piano intro which makes everything seem to surge forward in the arrangement and as a result the song is emphasizing excitement which is right up his alley.

The fact that Smith’s piano is back in the mix is also a good sign, as generally speaking it’s always in the best interest of an artist who plays an instrument to feature it on their recordings. Even if they’re not a virtuoso you can make the argument that it creates an added measure of commitment in what they’re doing, but since Smith is actually a fairly skilled pianist his contributions on the keyboard gives the arrangement an added texture that’s entirely welcome.

…About that arrangement. On the top side of this, Ma-Ma, we knocked a point off for the brass section holding too much sway. On that song the tenor sax solo was scalding but the other horns book-ending it – despite playing with the proper enthusiasm – conflicted with it thanks to their tone. Here that’s not a problem. The trumpet and trombone are present but they’re kept in the background, riffing unobtrusively, keeping from drawing too much attention to themselves, content to merely add a few flavors that aren’t going to overwhelm the rest of the dish.

Now all that being said this is nowhere near as strong an arrangement as the A-side of the record. The explosiveness, the edge-of-your-seat anticipation, the sense of being in a speeding vehicle with no way to pump the brakes is missing from Talking Boogie and even with two decent sax solos – the second of which is longer and more captivating than the first – we’re not quite as invested in it all.

It’s serviceable however, their basic concept can’t be questioned and the execution is fine all around, and if it’s not taking this to a higher level, merely keeping it at an even keel, it’s still making sure the framework of the song has no defects to trip up the record in that regard.

The last component that we’ll focus on on the positive side of the ledger is the subject matter, something which in previous efforts has fit the definition of crude… and that’s hardly a bad thing either.

Guys like Smith are looking to stoke the imaginations of those wanting to lose themselves and their inhibitions with a night on the town where for the first time all week the audience isn’t beholden to anybody, not their spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, not their boss, not their landlord or bookmaker. To that end Smith’s not spinning any elaborate stories within these songs but rather merely expressing a few widely held beliefs centering around life, love and general revelry.

The theme he probes here is the latter, specifically the music that serves as the focal point of most parties worth their sordid name and reputation. The fact he’s name dropping himself into the mix as a pianist of some renown who can get people moving is the kind of good-natured braggadocio we tend to like in our rock stars. In fact in just a few short lines he basically runs down the entire concept of rock ‘n’ roll itself, telling us the music needs to be loud and is supposed to draw a crowd. That might not be too insightful – it’s not as if those attributes were a closely guarded secret – but is reassuring to hear him state this unequivocally nonetheless.

Which is why it’s somewhat surprising that he’s not saying any of this in precisely the way we’re used to hearing him sing.
 

My Name Is Jimmy And I Know Just What To Do
We’ve had three prior songs to study Smith’s vocals – and will get another two sides in the months to come to revisit him – and on all of those songs he sounds, well… different.

Better. Stronger. In fuller, richer voice.

Yet there’s nothing specifically you can put your finger on as to the cause for his weaker performance here. He’s not pitched too much higher than he has been at other times, so it isn’t a question of him starting in a key where he’ll have trouble keeping the song within a comfortable range. It’s not that he’s taking the lines too fast and is losing a grip on the melody as a result and spending most of his time racing to catch up, nor is he attempting to artificially put the brakes on to slow it down to fit the song’s structure. We know certain singers, like Wynonie Harris, had trouble with ballads, while others, like Sonny Til, never got much chance to take anything at a pace above a crawl. While the same may be true of Smith – that he prefers songs to zip along at an appropriate cruising speed – this definitely is right in that zone.

There’s also no sense that the way in which he’s delivering the lyrics are a problem for him. Despite the title Talking Boogie doesn’t employ a talking meter, they may be slightly conversational lyrically but he’s singing them in a normal manner, riding the rhythm and using the proper projection… well, let’s say instead his “usual” projection, which tends to emanate a little too much from his nose, but that’s hardly breaking with tradition when it comes to Jimmy Smith.

In other words, anyone looking for reasons as to why he doesn’t quite seem to be on his game here won’t find it in any of those areas. So what it is the problem?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but no matter how often I listen, and no matter what else is surrounding it, whether his own songs or songs by other artists from this same time, and whether similar tempo and energy or something slower or without singing at all just to offset it, he doesn’t sound quite right.

He’s straining in ways we haven’t seen before, almost as if he’s got a sore throat and is struggling to get through it. He never was a great singer even on his best sides but he was always more than suitable enough for the arrangements, as his enthusiasm and intensity were precisely what the songs called for. Here his enthusiasm is still there, but he seems less driven somehow. Like a car used to high octane fuel suddenly using something weaker.

Because the musical accompaniment is also using a slightly watered down mix in terms of grit and passion more of the responsibility falls to Smith to make up for it and, if possible, spur the others on to raise their game. Instead by the last stanza he’s lost, not just does it go off the rails lyrically, either because he forgot the words and ad-libbed or because they weren’t sensibly written as a conclusion to begin with, but vocally he’s fighting to stay in key and barely is able to keep his voice from faltering.

That said it doesn’t crash and burn and for the most part they still deliver enough of what you require to get some pleasure in the record. We can’t fault their effort but the lack of that undefinable spark… the belief that the only thing on any of their minds is sending you into a frenzy… makes this something of a let-down.
 

You Do Stay On My Mind
Everybody is entitled to a bad day where things just don’t click. Goodness knows there are plenty of reviews here that were not quite as sharp as I hoped they’d be (this one included) but the difference is most people in life, or in blog writing, get many more chances than Jimmy Smith will get.

For someone going to a steady job fifty weeks a year, or a kid attending 180 days of classes in school, or even a writer churning out 600 reviews on 1940’s rock ‘n’ roll, a few days that fall short isn’t the end of the world. But for an artist who cut only twelve sides over three sessions, and had just half of those songs get issued (under two different names on two different labels no less!), there’s not as much leeway granted you when you miss your mark. Every effort has to be on par with your best because you might not get another crack at things.

So it was for Smith who despite a clutch of good performances would never get another opportunity after his contract with Savoy lapsed. He’d go back to whatever the Jimmy Smiths of the world do – in his case playing music in clubs, maybe performing back home with his brothers again – but without a hit to his credit even those jobs would dry up sooner or later.

It’s a testament to the basic ingredients that rock was now liberally using on most songs that Talking Boogie is as good as it is. There’s a lot to like here and maybe if this had been the only thing from Smith we’d ever heard it’d stand out a little more. I could certainly see it being called an average release for mid-1949 in this field and wouldn’t object to that score in isolation.

But careers aren’t exactly judged in isolation. Expectations rise when you’ve put out two much better sides and this is where consistency – that sometimes elusive element – factors in to our evaluation of him. On almost every side there’s something that worked well at other times that they somehow regress on. Sometimes it’s highlighting the wrong horns, other times it’s leaving out his piano, or shortchanging the story and then it becomes frustrating as we ask: If they got it right before, why can’t they see that it was right and take steps to ensure they get it right again?

Usually the answer is they were trying something different and not all new approaches work and so in those instances we can at least admire the attempt to mix things up a little.

But this time out there’s no explanation that will suffice. This wasn’t a change in tactics, just a change in delivery and when that’s the weakest aspect of this the blame has no choice but to fall on the artist. There’s still some good stuff here, but not good enough when we can plainly see – and plainly hear – what would’ve made it better was simply doing another take.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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