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MODERN 20-661; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

It’s fair to say that of all of the recurring “characters” in rock ‘n’ roll’s early story arguably none have played a more tenuous role than Joe Lutcher.

He’s been an intriguing figure from the start, a saxophonist/singer who in the months before rock kicked off in September 1947 was pushing to head in that direction himself, only to be met with record label resistance to his visionary ideas.

That the ideas themselves weren’t quite as advanced as what would soon follow and set rock into motion certainly may have hindered his ensuing development, as now, in order to compete with the first generation of budding rock stars, he’d be forced to play catch up to their stylistic advances rather than strictly following his own muse and hoping that would instead be what lead the way into the future for all of music.

He was too headstrong however to fully acquiesce to the trends launched by others and thus his own records often represented an odd musical schism, rock on an alternative road so to speak, one that happened to not be quite as musically driving and culturally reflective of its audience which undercut whatever claims for a more lasting legacy he might otherwise feel entitled to.

Yet he was reasonably successful at the time all the same, helped in part by the 1948 recording ban which left all of music, not just rock, in a holding pattern that allowed Lutcher’s slightly behind the curve ideas to not seem quite so outdated, simply because others weren’t allowed to push the ball forward themselves.

So Lutcher hung around on the edges of the rock circles for the majority of his career, never to enter the inner circle of the music, always continuing to march to his own drummer, hampered for remaining just ever so slightly out of step with the main narrative the rest of rock ‘n’ roll followed.

While his intractability was admirable in a way and he continued to be creatively restless in some of his pursuits, Joe Lutcher was ultimately foiled by the inescapable truth that his talents never seemed to quite live up to his ambitions.
 

 
Next Stop: Pasadena By Way Of New Orleans
It’s important to keep in mind that Lutcher, who we should remind those who’ve forgotten from past reviews, was a former sidemen for an older generation of black musicians, among them Nat Cole and the Mills Brothers. His sister was Nellie Lutcher who rose to fame with a string of racy jazzy-pop hybrid records just as rock was taking off in an entirely different direction. Joe himself just turned thirty years old in 1949 and so his own musical background and life experiences were at the very least coming from a slightly different perspective than many of the younger musicians who were now leading rock’s charge into a new frontier.

But Lutcher – as always – wasn’t content to remain on the sidelines watching the events unfold, nor was he willing to fall into lockstep with the rest of the rock movement and conform to their exact standards and so, starting with this release as well as for the foreseeable future, Lutcher attempted to meld together, awkwardly at times, the new rock sounds and aggressive mindset they inhabited with the New Orleans jazz of his youth (he was born in Louisiana) in the hopes that might help to set him apart and gain him some notice of his own.

It’s an interesting concept in theory yet what it shows is that even when trying to be inventive in his pursuits Lutcher was still out of step with the current music landscape. New Orleans after all was the birthplace of rock, a melting pot of styles that in 1947 gave way to the sounds of tomorrow as shown by Roy Brown, Cousin Joe, Dave Bartholomew, Chubby Newsom and a host of others on the near horizon. Yet Lutcher himself was essentially a Crescent City expatriate, having left the city for the West Coast in 1941, so he’d missed out by just a few years on the revolution that re-shaped New Orleans music, and by extension spread throughout America.

He was certainly aware of it, he’d have to be if he was listening, and his songs reflected some of these changes, particularly in some of the more aggressive horn solos. But he also seemed stuck in the past when it came to WHICH elements of the New Orleans sound he adapted when taking on this new direction. For all of his ambitious aims he didn’t seem quite able to grasp what was holding back his otherwise solid ideas, either too focused on his own experiments to notice their shortcomings, or too obstinate to care.

With Pasadena Rumboogie he takes his first real swing at mixing Dixieland ideals with rock aesthetics and – as often is the case with him – the results, while interesting, leave something to be desired.
 

 

Where On The Map Are You?
There is a very notable difference between something showing stylistic diversity, wherein the various pieces, while coming from different sources, all seem to fit together seamlessly, and something which instead reveals stylistic schizophrenia.

Pasadena Rumboogie is an example of the latter. Not completely and not at all times during its two minute and forty second run time, but it exemplifies Lutcher’s frustrating inability to connect the pieces in a fully coherent way.

Maybe some of this conflict of ideas can be discerned from the mere title alone. Though the music has an undeniable old school New Orleans feel to it, which we’ll get to momentarily, the title doesn’t reference the city at all, choosing instead Pasadena, which is odd considering the lyrics are pointedly non-descript about its origins, thus the name seems to be something conjured up to give the ensuing song a recognizable link which it obviously fails to do.

The most famous Pasadena is the one in Southern California, ten miles south of downtown Los Angeles, warm year round, home to the Rose Bowl and a booming technological industry that took off during World War Two with defense contracts.

Lutcher, having lived in L.A., certainly could be referring to this well-known city. Or he could be referring instead to Pasadena, Texas, which is located near the Louisiana border, a suburb of Houston, famous in recent decades for Gilley’s Nightclub, operated by country music legend (and cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis) Mickey Gilley. Since Lutcher was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana this makes even more sense, as Lake Charles is almost a hundred miles closer to Pasadena, Texas than it is to New Orleans.

But regardless of the origins of its title the music it contains is equally confused as to its destination, never quite sure stylistically if it’s coming or going.

The song kicks off with an intoxicating drum pattern before giving way to an indecipherable high pitched shout and a tight horn riff. As such it has an exotic air to it, like a nightclub trying to pull you in with visions of a tropical jungle motif and overpriced fruity drinks with umbrellas in them. Yet as shallow a scene as that implies the music manages to maintain your interest.

For one thing the horn section retains a sense of modernity that so many songs on the outskirts of rock at this stage fail to do by giving too much of the arrangement over to trumpets. Not the case here at all, as it’s the saxophones which lead the way and keep their playing in the pocket with brief refrains that won’t allow for any flighty indulgences. They’re aided immeasurably by those drums, even when just adding a thudding closer to each line it adds weighty anticipation to the intro that has you curious as to where this is headed.

Where you DON’T expect it to head is naturally where they take it next, that of a vocal section that raises far more questions than it answers. It’s nothing more than a self-promotional advertisement for the band, telling Big Bill (Ellis) to “Blow like you always do!” before Joe reminds Bill to let him blow too (he was an alto saxophonist by trade don’t forget).

The saxes then wind their way around one another, all pretty well conceived and played with the right amount of grit to be fully compatible in the rock world. Behind them – both the vocal section and the horn solos – are Booker Hart’s gripping drum patterns, which represent the most alluring aspect of the arrangement by remaining slightly ominous in nature.

For the most part Pasadena Rumboogie is an instrumental, a song meant to show off each member of the band in an interesting way, and by the midway point when Harold Morrow’s piano takes over as the horns blow a soothing repetitive circular riff behind him it does just that. There’s nothing spectacular about any of it, the most important aspect needed to get rock fans pulses quickening – the horns – are certainly acceptable but hardly gripping in what they play. It’s shaping up to be a serviceable song, nothing more, nothing less.

Then, with absolutely no warning and no explanation, they all suddenly pack their bags and take an unexpected detour to New Orleans… circa 1942.
 

Old Meet New
I suppose it should come as no surprise this deviation from the mood they were faithfully building along the way happens precisely when the trumpet enters the picture. We’ve laid out the dangers in letting trumpeters run wild on rock songs and the reasons for placing very firm limits on their appearances. The tone of the instrument, not to mention the style of playing it had subsisted on for so long, meant it wasn’t designed to FIT IN with the rougher saxophones once the latter forcibly took over the horn section. But since so many outfits had trumpet players, guys who were talented, well-liked and had presumably done nothing wrong other than find themselves in a new world they hadn’t anticipated and for which they weren’t quite suited, the bands tended to keep them around and watched as they agonizingly tried to adapt their sound to that of a new genre that had no need for them.

In this case the offending trumpeter is Karl George, a longtime Lutcher cohort, as was all his crew for that matter, but who succeeds in taking this song from 1949 back in time to a period when Dixieland was in vogue.

Now it’s certainly not straight Dixieland music for anyone inclined to quibble about such designations, but it owes a lot of its ideas to that style, particularly in the discordant melodies it adds to the song. Yet in rock that approach doesn’t quite work. For one thing it changes the mood, as if you looked out your window in July, saw blazing sunshine, green grass and flowers, then opened the door only to step out into a six foot snowdrift.

Furthermore the most beguiling aspect of great Dixieland is how nimble its musicians are about not falling into musical conflict when they’re playing different patterns. At its best it’s a sight to behold the way the different instruments step around one another, but here, where they’re simply not schooled in such feats, they wind up clashing.

Making all of this more noticeable is the return of the vocals… or rather the return of somebody emitting vocal cries of anguish as they’re stabbed, strangled or seduced by an alien life form who’ve gotten them to speak in tongues, garbled beyond recognition like a poor send-up of the scat-talking jazz hipster which itself was a dozen or more years out of date.

At this point you’ve forgotten what it was that you initially liked about the song and are now merely wondering what drugs they’re ingesting.

Not to fear though, for apparently they performed a mid-song exorcism to drive the offending demons that were possessing their souls out into the night air and they reclaim a measure of musical sanity by returning to the basic riff topped by a solid enough solo, presumably by Lutcher on alto, to close things out as the drummer rides the cymbals and things settle back into some predictability.
 

Going My Way?
Needless to say as intriguing as some of this had been Pasadena Rumboogie had absolutely no chance at starting a trend, or even fitting smoothly into the playlist of most rock fans circa 1949.

They wouldn’t necessarily turn the record off should it come on but it was doubtful they’d seek it out. Even the earlier horn riffs we spoke well of had their own moments of discordant vibes that made this more of a mish-mash of collective parts, some admittedly good, others tolerable and a few that have to be called fairly dreadful.

What’s most frustrating – for Lutcher as well as for us trying to make sense of his career in the hope he figures this out in time to pull himself up to the A-list of artists – is that he’s clearly got a sense of what he wants to do, a vision that he believes in and is willing to pursue, commercial trends be damned. Yet because it was something that wasn’t going to win out over the dominant rock styles taking hold, yet was close enough to it that it also wasn’t going to be seen as a separate, if parallel, style unto itself, he’s stuck in a netherworld of his own creation.

Each time he’d come close to hooking up his ideas with the more mainstream ones proliferating rock – and yes, he’d do so with this type of music as well in a short time – he’d be thwarted again when rock surged ahead in another direction and left him behind.

Admirable in his non-conformity yet cursed by it all the same, the ultimate fate of Joe Lutcher was probably never in doubt. Forever the outsider doomed to be remembered more for ancillary connections to bigger names in music than he himself could ever become.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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