Tags

No tags :(

Share it

FREEDOM 1526; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

There an age old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

It’s been attributed to many people over the years, though perhaps it was an advertisement for men’s suits in the 1960’s where it actually passed into the common vernacular, but whether it originated with some deep thinker or a Madison Avenue shill the meaning of the quote is pretty straight forward.

The way others will perceive you often has as much to do with their first encounter with you as with whatever you do after that. Positive, negative or indifferent, their initial reaction will at the very least be something you will have to work hard to change.

Which is why it’s so unusual that both sides of the official debut of saxophonist Joe Houston are… vocal records?
 

 

My Baby Put Me Out
Of course Joe Houston’s actual debut on a commercial recording came under somebody else’s name, Big Joe Turner, and on that record – Fuzzy Wuzzy Honey – from earlier this month he acquitted himself quite well, holding his own with the hurricane voiced Turner by blowing up a storm on the sax, which is what he does best. The problem with it however was even though Turner called out his name in the song the record itself obviously didn’t come out under Houston’s name and even if it had it probably only sold roughly fourteen copies and none outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

So this is the record is where Joe Houston will essentially introduce himself to the public and give his opening speech as to who he is, what he stands for and where he’d like to take listeners if they choose to follow him.

Yet strangely he does none of that.

We have to wonder the role Freedom Records might’ve played in all of this. We know that they got both Turner and Houston – almost as a package deal – after the two had befriended each other in Baton Rouge when Houston was hired to provide backup to Big Joe when he came through town on tour. They got along so well that he and Turner cut that local session together for tiny Rouge Records which was in business all of fifteen minutes before the two of them headed across the Texas border to cut some more sides for Freedom, a much more established company.

Turner was the big catch for them. Nationally known for over a decade and at times a legitimate star in various styles, he may not have yet fully broken through in the rock market but clearly had it in him to do so with the right support, something Freedom Records with its top-notch house band, The Hep-Cats, certainly had to offer. So the question is how much attention did they give to the 23 year old kid tagging along with him? Were these sides essentially viewed as write-offs for the company or were they really thinking that they might make some waves commercially and give them another viable young potential star to build their operations around?

If the latter is the case you’d never know it by either side of this single, for they largely eliminate the very thing that had the most potential for establishing Joe Houston as an artist on the rise – his horn playing! Instead they each feature vocals and relegate his sax to the background which is a strange way to promote the fact that you’re a holy terror on an instrument which for the past two years had defined the sound and the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll like no other.
 


 

Won’t Be Hanging Around
Usually we praise a sense of stylistic diversity in an artist’s recordings but that goes on the theory that they’ve first established their primary style well enough for a change of pace to be noticed in the first place and appreciated for its differences.

But nobody really knew who Joe Houston was yet, even though he’d played for a couple of years on stage behind a few bigger names, so maybe he was simply thinking that a backup role was going to be his lot in life and he figured he might as well get used to it right away on record. It wouldn’t be a view he’d hold for long thankfully, but on It’s Really Wee Wee Hours he doesn’t seem to be resisting being put in that rather confining box.

At the very least he’s credited among the vocalists, something he did occasionally over the years, though nowhere near as often as he cut instrumentals. But considering that an otherwise obscure cat named Julius Stewart sang lead on the flip-side of this, Waycross Mama, and now Houston and his fellow bandmates are the ones singing here, you wonder why neither he nor Freedom Records thought it might be helpful to at least let him do what he did best.

Now to be fair, the top side was halfway decent and Houston’s contributions on sax were a big part of that, but at the very least you need to have one of the two sides focus exclusively on what you have to offer and “mediocre singing” is probably not going to be the first line anyone would suggest he put atop his résumé.

The horns that DO kick this off are slow and plodding, maybe by design as they take on the characteristics of a train lazily heading down the track, a visual element that a lot of songs have used the past two years. It’s effective for conjuring up that image but that image is somewhat at odds with the story contained within. It’s Really Wee Wee Hours is not exactly a song about traveling – though the character IS leaving the girl who he’d prefer to stay with and I assume he’s not going on foot – but it’s more of an incidental element to the much larger plot and so the impression it gives doesn’t really bolster the narrative.

As for that narrative the slow unveiling of the particulars of the aftermath of this breakup mean we don’t really get too involved in the characters or their plight. It’s forty seconds before they even start singing and while the uninspiring instrumental intro does it no favors the vocals themselves aren’t about to change that impression much when they come in, even though they aren’t too bad in their sing-songy group delivery. Then again they’re hardly compelling enough to draw in curious listeners either.

At least we get a sense that they’re actually sticking with a legitimate story though, light on specifics though it may be. Their voices are despondent and they seem resigned to their fate (come to think of it, maybe dating three guys at a time was too much for this girl and that’s why she broke up with them!). The melody will stick in your head and that also helps make what they’re saying seem a little more consequential.

But even so we don’t get any variation in what they’re telling us. Every line has them ruminating on her reasons for ending this relationship without trying to rebut them in any way. They’re not making a case as to why she should reconsider, nor are they even telling her she’s wrong in her assessment of them. They seem to either agree with her position or just don’t have the heart to dispute her even if it means they’ll never see her again. It’s meant to evoke sorrow but it comes perilously close to having us pity them for their weakness of character.
 

A Little Ol’ Lonesome Town
Because of the tone the lyrics set the music has little choice but to mirror that tone in order to work. The good news is that means the song isn’t pulling in two different directions, but the bad news is the single direction it IS pulling in isn’t exactly one that we’re all that enthused about.

The horns, which should be the focal point on any Joe Houston record, are uniformly underwhelming. They don’t screw up their lines, there’s no missed notes or anything, but they are basically non-essential components. They set that initial mood then disappear for the next one minute and forty seconds – indicating that they’re the ones who are singing – but when they return they’re lethargic and uninspiring again. There’s no solo for Houston to even strut his stuff. A solo wouldn’t have to be fiery, it could be moody and reflective to fit the proceedings, but he does have to make his presence known somehow if he’s going to be deserving of getting an artist credit for the record.

Instead the best instrumental aspect of It’s Really Wee Wee Hours is undoubtedly the guitarist, whoever it is. The piano probably gets as much space in the arrangement, mostly innocuous treble key fills before adding some more emphatic build-ups heading into each stanza, but it’s the guitar which stands out with grace and efficiency, playing lines that are alternately mesmerizing, provocative, atmospheric and adventurish. Its tone has just enough vibrato to make it haunting without becoming distracting and he changes pace at different points which forces you to keep your ears tuned to him rather than the more droning sound of the combined voices he’s competing with.

But as nice as his parts are it brings us back to the same question we had at the start which is why an aspiring saxophone star is voluntarily taking a back seat to another instrument, or for that matter why the horn players as a whole are featured more for their singing rather than for their primary job which is their playing. I wouldn’t suggest trying to answer that question though since there’s no logical reason to be found no matter how hard you look.
 

Don’t Have No Place To Go
It’s not altogether unusual for a B-side to dial things down, to showcase a different element of a band’s repertoire, but that’s usually done to have it stand apart from something more dynamic on the top side of the single.

What this record does is give us two modest examples of Joe Houston’s secondary musical persona, songs which have little chance to draw much interest on their own and which have no chance whatsoever to alert the world to Houston’s strengths as an artist.

Freedom Records got the standard four songs in their one session with Houston and rather than use those to at least reinforce their reputation as the label with the most explosive examples of rock – and do so by throwing a wild sax into the mix, since that’s the one thing they could be accused of lacking – they instead give you middling efforts that are unobtrusively acceptable maybe, but easily forgettable.

About the only thing Joe Houston could be happy about with It’s Really Wee Wee Hours acting as his debut is that not enough people heard it for it to make a first impression on you. Atypical for him in every way this is the song you hear at ten minutes past three in the morning when you wake up in a sleepy haze and realize you forgot to shut the radio off hours earlier. When that happens you reach over in the dark and hit the switch and by the time your head hits the pillow again the song has already vanished into the ether.

When morning comes and the sun rises you have no conscious memory of the record or the artist which means – if you want to look on the bright side of things – that there’s still a chance for Joe Houston to make a more lasting second first impression in the future.

For his sake we hope he does.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Joe Houston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)