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MODERN 20-672; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

Of all of the artists we’ve covered during the first two years of the rock ‘n’ roll’s existence none have been more vexing to follow and try to get a firm hold on than Joe Lutcher.

No matter where and when we’ve encountered him Lutcher has seemed to make a career out of just missing his connections, like a man trying to get across country and taking wrong turns every step of the way, breathlessly racing into one bus depot or train station after another only to be told that it had just pulled out.

Then off he’d go, shirttails flying, scrambling just to catch up once again.
 

 
Making all of this more frustrating was the fact that Lutcher had been one of a handful of artists who seemed to have premonition of something major on the horizon in the months leading up to rock’s birth, yet instead of solidly laying down his claim for its development and patenting his invention by releasing something which left no doubt as to where credit should reside, he fumbled away the ball in the early part of 1947, cutting tracks that had the right idea maybe but didn’t go nearly far enough to prove it, leaving the door open for Roy Brown to make a far bigger leap into the unknown and come away with the unquestioned first rock record that summer.

Even after Brown had established the musical genre with Good Rocking Tonight and set the entire rock revolution into orbit when it was released in September the landscape over the ensuing weeks and months was still mostly barren and Lutcher could’ve jumped on board with both feet, feeling vindicated that his own rough sketches of this musical transformation were coming to fruition. Instead he stubbornly stayed behind the curve, almost trying to validate his more tentative ideas as being the more sensible road for rock to take.

Yet in spite of this Lutcher STILL managed to reap some rewards for his efforts, as he notched two small hits that capitalized on the nascent sax instrumental craze that was taking hold of rock in early 1948, first with Shuffle Woogie, an underpowered effort which nevertheless fit into the larger theme that was emerging at the time. The second came about rather unexpectedly when one of those pre-rock excursions, the fatefully named Rockin’ Boogie, was then re-promoted by his former label, Specialty Records, almost a full year after it was first released in order to take advantage of rock’s growing image and scraped the lower rungs of Billboard’s national chart for a lone week.

All of that suggested Joe Lutcher needed only to consolidate those gains in public recognition in order to become a star. After all he seemed to comprehend rock’s potential well before most had even dreamt of it and while he’d been quickly surpassed in terms of vision when it came to rock’s musical and cultural possibilities, there was nothing to say he couldn’t adapt the advances of others for his own use and beat them at their own game, or at the very least remain within striking distance and score a steady stream of hits to back up those first two on the ledger.

Instead he’d score just one more hit in his career before fading into obscurity and missing his chance to be something other than a mere footnote in rock ‘n’ roll as it took over the world.

This is that hit.
 

 

Down In New Orleans
Going in to this you’d at least have to say Joe Lutcher picked a good topic for a song, and a perfect setting as well, as New Orleans was of course the birthplace of rock music and in Mardi Gras you have one of the city’s most indelible – and colorful – images to fashion a vibrant story out of.

As we’ve mentioned before, Lutcher was from Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is a fair distance from New Orleans, but certainly the music from the Crescent City traveled across the bayous and forests enough to be familiar to those in the western part of the state where he was raised.

Unfortunately, as we’ve also said before, the two hundred odd miles aren’t the only way to measure distance, there’s also he concept of time, specifically how the era he came of age in was shaped by an earlier style of music, something exemplified most by the way horns were used, and it’s here that Joe Lutcher, an alto saxophonist himself, consistently falls short in his ideas.

You certainly couldn’t fault him if he’d had overt Dixieland jazz elements in a song about Mardi Gras. The two are intertwined for eternity and to criticize him for keeping that connection in the forefront would be almost purposefully oblivious to the local flavor that highlights the celebration.

But that’s not his problem here because these aren’t horns of that nature at all, but rather a non-regional brand of an older jazz horn mindset which subverts the musical style he needs to focus on if his career in rock is ever going to take off. Invariably it shows that even when he does something well he undermines it by doing something inexplicable to cross himself up.

The record starts off like gangbusters with a heavily amped electric guitar laying down a fierce four bar intro that serves as a rhythmic lynchpin to get you in the right frame of mind. It’s backed by some concussive drumming and does in fact feature some inventive horn parts during this section that are quick and to the point, yet provide a distinct atmosphere to set the mood.

If records could last just twenty-four seconds and be considered a full performance he’d be in fine shape as this is definitely something that draws you in without reservations.

But then Joe opens his mouth and you stop in your tracks.

Now to be fair Joe never was much of a singer and didn’t list that talent on the lead line of his résumé, but if he IS going to sing, and do so for much more of the record than he has in the past where he was usually content to make shouted cameos to ground those songs with whatever conceptual image the lyrics served, then he’s going to have to pull it off credibly. Unfortunately his grating vocal tone is going to make it harder to appreciate without drinking three or four Hurricanes on Rampart Street before listening.
 

Parade Time
But let’s start by focusing on the good aspects of Mardi Gras because there’s plenty of positives for which Lutcher should be commended for delivering. First off, just so we can dispel a particularly onerous myth connected with this song, this record is NOT in any way related to Professor Longhair’s classic Mardi Gras In New Orleans, let alone the same song as many outlets falsely claim. They share the same broad theme, that’s all.

As for that theme Lutcher knows it well, as the lyrics conjure up the right atmosphere in sort of a picture postcard sort of way in that they’re more like succinct glimpses of the carnival scene rather than longer home movies. But quick cuts or not they’re effective in that way, capturing the kaleidoscope of bright colors that exists with their brief peeks in at some of the scenes you’d witness if you were there on Fat Tuesday.

He nails certain aspects brilliantly, the chorus for one is distinctively New Orleans in nature, a shouted refrain reminiscent of some later Dave Bartholomew tracks, something rousing which pulls things together. But in other instances he drops the ball, such as pronouncing the “s” in Mardi Gras rather than keeping it silent, as it should be, thereby detracting from the authenticity in a particularly glaring, and galling, way.

But linguistic difficulties aside, for the most part the side of the ledger which encompasses theme, lyrical touchstones and enthusiasm finds Joe Lutcher’s wracking up points, even if his voice itself is a weak spot.

Ahh, but now there’s the other half of the equation, one which falters in a myriad of ways starting with the construction of the horns and their role in the arrangement.
 

Came With A Golden Crown
We’ve gone to great lengths to cover Lutcher’s over-reliance on outdated horn charts, both in this review and past entries, and needless to say it’s an Achilles heel that he won’t ever be able to overcome. Yet for once he had the right song with which to make that flaw seem not quite as out of step as it usually does in his material because of the subject matter.

The nature of Mardi Gras allows for a certain disconnect from current up-to-the-minute concepts in rock ‘n’ roll brass sections. You can not only get away with incorporating a more traditional New Orleans jazz feel with this but can be commended for doing so in order to “keep it real”… provided you allow the other musical elements to fit into the rock narrative it’ll need in order to connect with that audience.

The latter it does. That guitar intro, the quirky drumming, the basic rhythmic progression carried by piano all fit well into the scope of what rock is at this point and provides us with enough of what we need to hear to win us over.

But Lutcher gives back too many of those gains with his decision on how to employ the horns by never fully choosing which avenue he’s pursuing. They’re not rooted in the New Orleans school of playing enough to firmly establish that local flavor, yet aren’t tough enough to connect with the increasingly demanding rock fan who knows a charlatan when he hears it.

These horns are betrayed by a trumpet – what a surprise! – which wanders around as if he’d just spent a long night hitting the bars in the French Quarter. Nothing he plays fits, either in terms of melodic contributions or in setting the proper atmospheric mood.

The basic riffs the other horns play are okay, though admittedly nothing special which has to be chalked up as yet another huge missed opportunity, but by stepping back from the spotlight they leave more of the focus on the one instrument that is determined to sink this.

Now for all the time we spend railing against it here the trumpet is something that CAN be utilized effectively in rock and particularly in New Orleans rock, provided its approach is refined to either act almost as a percussive instrument with quick blasts, or if it ramps up the ferocity of its playing while curtailing the longer meandering passages the instrument is known for.

Here it does keep things brief each time it’s heard but in the other regards it fails miserably, swirling around like smoke from a particularly invasive cigarette, never giving you a chance to take a deep breath and clear your head of its annoying presence. Every line is badly chosen, poorly played and leaves a bad aftertaste. It’s jazz not just from another era, but another place far away from the carnival environment this song wants to reside in.
 

The Land Of Beautiful Scenes
You’d think that such an inescapable detriment would deep six any chance Mardi Gras had to become the first Joe Lutcher release in rock to pass the average designation, especially since Lutcher himself is taking even more of a vocal role than usual which considering his underpowered pipes is cause for some concern.

That’s not the case however because the other parts are just strong enough, particularly the spot-on lyrics and the emphasis on the boisterously shouted chorus, to make your overall response to this a positive one. The concept itself overrides its deficiencies almost in spite of its creator’s self-inflicted wounds.

Any way you look at it Mardi Gras was Lutcher’s best record to date, was a worthy hit in its day and historically it has come to stand as his crowning achievement.

But then again it’s also further evidence as to why Joe Lutcher was never going to be a star.
 

 

If THIS was indeed the best he could do, a moment where he manages to overcome his own weaknesses which are all still present and accounted for throughout this song, a habit he was seemingly unable to rectify, then you had to be able to predict he was never going to surpass it.

For all of his advances Joe Lutcher was still not ahead of the curve, in fact he was just barely catching up TO that curve and in danger of slipping behind yet again in the straightaways, remaining predictably frustrating to the end.

I suppose we shouldn’t deprive him of the praise he’s deserving of for this record by harping on his shortcomings, but those shortcomings are what ultimately defines him, both in his failures and even now in his successes.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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