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MODERN 20-708; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

This is a review for those among you who were deemed at one point or another during your formative years to be an underachiever… someone smart and talented who for one reason or another failed to live up to your potential.

On second thought maybe this review should be dedicated to your parents… those who anguished over your apparent lack of drive and determination, who pleaded with you to buckle down and try harder and whose every attempt to threaten, bribe and cajole you into taking your responsibilities seriously were met with maddening indifference.

In spite of their ongoing frustration over the fact you seemed determined to fall short of expectations in life they stuck by you all the same. Maybe not always with a smile on their face and I’m sure they lost their patience with you more times than you care to remember, but in the end they hoped that somehow, someway, you’d come around and see the light.

For those of you who eventually did pull things together and become a success thereby ending your parents suffering – probably with a casual nonchalance on your part, as if you were offended such a result was ever actually in doubt – the relief felt by your family was palpable.

Maybe even in between disgruntled comments about ”What took you so long?” they allowed themselves a satisfied look of contentment born out of the realization that all of the time spent badgering you and all of the late night worrying they suffered when they thought they weren’t getting through to you had finally been rewarded. They had earned the right to be proud… of you and of themselves.

In other words their emotional investment in your unfocused lazy ass finally paid dividends and they could celebrate.

This review knows just how they feel, because Joe Lutcher, that immortal underachiever who had shown so much foresight in the days leading up to rock ‘n’ roll’s birth in mid-1947, who seemed poised to be one of its visionary leaders, a star pupil throughout its formative years, maybe the class valedictorian when it finally graduated high school and became a major genre on par with pop and jazz, only to let them down each and every step of the way, flunking classes, setting school records for detentions and being perpetually on the verge of dropping out… has incredibly just earned his bachelor’s degree from the college of rock ‘n’ roll.

This record is the diploma hanging proudly on his parents wall.
 

 
 

 
Unfulfilled Potential
The saga of Joe Lutcher has been one of the most interesting, if not always rewarding, ones to recount here on Spontaneous Lunacy in our first few years. He was a confounding blend of contradictions in every way – an artist who was among the first to sense the coming changes on the horizon in early 1947, who went so far as to leave Specialty Records because they were pushing him to cut slower blues ballads rather than the uptempo proto-rock he favored, and then promptly got his chance to do as he pleased – at major label Capitol no less! But rather than take advantage of that opportunity he promptly reversed course and cut a bewildering array of halfhearted compromised tracks even as rock ‘n’ roll had coalesced and blossomed in the interim.

Yet he also got some small hits out of these excursions and so that alone would appear to be more than enough to provide him with a safe haven to be even bolder in his experiments. But while his output improved upon his move to the more hospitable Modern Records in early 1949 he was still lagging well behind the leaders of the rock field, hamstrung by his stubborn refusal to adjust his thinking, to realize that his own early ideas had been appropriated by others where they’d been radically reshaped and now that was the sound that had found favor with audiences. Instead Lutcher seemed to think he could slow down time, turn it back even, to accommodate his penchant for slightly outdated approaches.

As a result history hasn’t been kind to Joe Lutcher even if he retains a modicum of name recognition thanks to some lingering awareness for his hit Mardi Gras, even though that derives largely from the completely mistaken belief that it has something to do with Professor Longhair’s immortal cut Mardi Gras In New Orleans (for the record it DOESN’T!). Lutcher also benefits, if you can call it that, for being the one who influenced Little Richard to forsake rock ‘n’ roll at the height of his popularity to turn his focus to religion instead, as Lutcher himself had done.

So while his name is marginally familiar, his musical legacy is decidedly lacking… and for mostly good reason. Though he did indeed contribute to the experimental nature of post-war musicians who sought to redefine and re-craft the current styles to suit their generational and cultural needs, he was merely one of many who thought that way and his own forays into spearheading this movement were among the weaker efforts as it got underway.

When he finally began to apply himself a little more the others had built up too much of a head start and he seemed to get discouraged and even a little surly about it. To keep the underachieving kid analogy going, he responded to his parents mild praise for earning a C+ in a class he’d been pulling straight D’s in with a scowl when they told him he could do even better if he really tried.

We know what happens in that scenario. The kid will scoff at the suggestion, frustrated that even when he does better than expected it’s not quite enough to earn unambiguous praise for his minor achievement and in protest he’ll go right back to leaving his books in his locker, forgetting his homework and never studying for tests, destined to slip back down into the realm of the underachieving fraternity.

Except he didn’t. Joe Lutcher responded in a way that every single parent with indifferent unambitious offspring hopes they will when they try coaxing them to crack open a book and improve those grades even more.

He responded with arrogant determination, as if to say to all those who doubted him, “Okay, you want to see how good I am, here you go!”

And so Foothill Drive becomes his term paper, the one his yearly grade rests on, the one everybody assumes will be a D+ at best, and instead he hands in something approaching a gem.
 

A Sense Of Direction
Lutcher’s best attributes always seem to have a tendency to be offset by his worst, resulting in songs that have the two entities pulling against one another, dragging the entire thing down in the process.

To start with he’s a decent alto saxophonist in an era that demands great tenor sax players. He’s got a pretty good one though in Big Bill Ellis yet he winds up giving more playing time to trumpeter Karl George which makes the songs seem instantly dated.

Lutcher’s got interesting ideas however and considering the era we’re talking about where rock instrumentals are so vital it seems pretty obvious that he should be focusing on those to take advantage of this. Yet invariably he winds up adding his own badly sung vocals, sometimes just a few lines to serve as an identifying feature, and consequently it take the records out of the instrumental realm they’d best be suited for.

It seems that each time he makes an adjustment to address one of these issues and improve upon it he winds up making another change which adds its own problems to the mix. One step forward and one step back defines Joe Lutcher’s career more than most.

Until now.

With Foothill Drive he takes three steps forward, if not more, and not only doesn’t take one back, he doesn’t even look behind him to be tempted by the urge to go backwards in some other way. Everything about this is perfectly conceived, measured and applied to get him a deserved rock ‘n’ roll hit in the process.

But not only did it fail to chart, in the years since it’s been totally forgotten even by those with an affinity for a handful of other more exotic Joe Lutcher tracks. That seems to be the story of his life, even when he makes across the board gains in every single aspect of making a record he can’t be rewarded for it. Let’s try and correct that oversight a little bit here.

Let’s start with the fact that he’s using the most modern sounds as his focal point of the arrangement for once. It features a guitar, bass and drums in the intro, slow, anticipatory and a little exotic. Many times though artists will come up with something that has you leaning in, building your expectations only to let you down as soon as the main part of the song begins. If anyone was likely to fall prey to that tendency it’d surely be Joe Lutcher. But this is a new and improved Joe Lutcher, one who finally listened to those nagging parents and disgruntled teachers and shows he was paying attention all along.

When the meat of the song begins fifteen seconds the horns play a circular riff that gets bolstered by fierce, sharp guitar accent notes all while the bassist and drummer keep up a steady beat behind them.

The horns may be on the higher end of the tonal range than we like to hear but they aren’t hampered by this. They play fast and precise, driving the riff into your brain. Usually the altos and trumpets which are featured here are known for focusing on pleasant whimsical melodies at the expense of everything else but that’s definitely not the case here, as their purpose in this arrangement is to be invigorating rather than melodic. They’re intentionally repetitive and their goal is simply to get you revved up for what follows, namely those replies by the guitar after each refrain. We can hardly believe our ears at the moment those horns drop out and give over the spotlight to that guitar and urge him to really cut loose.
 

The Right Path
In commenting on a half dozen Joe Lutcher tracks to date we’ve mentioned the guitar only a few times, yet never the guitarist playing those licks, which sort of tells you how inconsequential he generally was.

Not so on Foothill Drive, as Ulysses Livingstone plays some of the most invigorating hair-raising licks yet heard in rock, alternating his tone from the higher thinner sharp sounds to a deeper, fuller, more sinister feel. His solo, lasting a full twenty seconds, is edge of your seat exciting. It keeps you off balance and yet never careens out of control. He’s got you in the palm of his hand, if anything he’s pulling you along with him to peak around the corner into the 1950’s when the guitar will take early lessons like the one showed here and with ample water, sunlight and fertilizer will watch them grow into something even more astounding. For once Lutcher isn’t behind the curve, he’s ahead of the game.

Everything after that exhilarating first minute is bound to be something of a disappointment unless they raise the stakes even further. Since they don’t do that you’re probably expecting a retreat back to the safer and more mundane aspects of their past hit and miss efforts.

Guess again.

No, they DON’T up the ante with what follows, nor do they quite match what they’ve already laid down in the first third of the song, but they don’t hand back much of what they’ve already given you either and that alone is cause for celebration.

The horns come in next, Lutcher’s alto specifically after a blaring introductory fanfare from George’s trumpet. He’s got the floor for twenty seconds himself and while his lighter horn isn’t quite suited for the type of down and dirty trench warfare instrumental rock has become known for, he’s hardly holding back with what he does offer. Joe plays with the requisite passion, accentuating the rhythmic thrust of the song, and acquits himself well enough for you not to be longing for something else.

Following another of those circular riffs by the horn section as a whole we get Ellis taking his turn on tenor, which is where we’re hoping it will match the types of explosions we’re used to from other artists, the kind which has you ducking behind tables so you aren’t hit with any flying shrapnel.

He doesn’t give you that, which I suppose is disappointing, if only because we’re so accustomed to getting it elsewhere. But Ellis either doesn’t quite have it in him to deliver on that precedent or determines it wouldn’t be in his best interest to let on that he’s lacking in the lung-shredding power the best in the field features, so instead he takes a different road, one that’s not quite as satisfying maybe but has some good moments as he winds his way around a more intoxicating melody while letting Booker Hart keep part of the focus on his drums so as not to break the mood too much.

When they slow everything back down to repeat the alluring intro in the fade you’re completely won over. You check the record label to make sure it’s the same band that always came up a day late and a dollar short and you shake your head in stunned disbelief that they finally – and indisputably – seem to GET IT!
 

Honor Roll
I’m sure at each college graduation parents sitting in the family section think back wistfully at the long and sometimes torturous road they took to drive their children to that point in life where they’ve made the transition to adulthood and responsibility and are now receiving the publicly recognized acknowledgement of their abilities. They remember all of the times where it seemed they weren’t getting through to their kids, when arguments ensued and kids who got grounded vowed to never speak to them again.

Those moments passed, as they usually do, but it’s never a sure thing that the kids will make it through to the other side with the requisite skills to succeed in a modern world that demands ever more of them than it seemed to for the parents.

But when those kids who appeared most recalcitrant in their opposition to their parents wishes, who refused to believe the demands placed on them were in fact “for their own good”, wind up making good in the end, the journey for both was probably well worth it.

On Foothill Drive Joe Lutcher made his parents proud. Or at least he made those in the rock world proud who hoped that he’d eventually fulfill the promise he showed so early in his musical life.

Now he has. It doesn’t mean he’s destined to be a star, or that his career beyond this will be an enduring success, but at least for this moment in time everyone who watched him struggle to find himself and meet the goals that seemed tantalizingly out of his grasp can stand up proudly and applaud his tenacity that got him on that stage in cap and gown to receive his just honors.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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