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The frustratingly underdeveloped career of one of rock’s first practitioners takes another interesting twist, one that admittedly didn’t do him much good commercially or in terms of historical legacy, but which nonetheless offers another fascinating reason not to simply overlook him entirely.

The reason for that, you ask? Well, how about the possibility that this may well be the first novelty rock song? The obvious precursor to The Robins, The Coasters, The Olympics and others who mixed comedy with music to great effect. The Treniers might disagree with the claim of this being first but when studying this one a little more closely it just may be the early rock record that best qualifies.

It also may be a whole lot more than that.

Get In Your Car
Joe Lutcher, as we’ve covered already, was the brother of Nellie Lutcher, pianist, racy chanteuse and jazzy R&B vocalist of note. Joe’s musical sensibilities were more rough hewn than his sister who never jumped into the rock fray herself, whereas he was an early advocate for rock ‘n’ roll but was frequently dissuaded from pursuing such tawdry smut by Specialty Records chieftain Art Rupe, a man who’d ironically go on to specialize in some of the most hell-bent rock ‘n’ roll on the market within a few years. But now that this music was starting to make serious commercial headway, including Lutcher gaining some modest hits out of it once he’d left Specialty for Capitol Records, Art Rupe pulled out a track Lutcher had cut before his departure and issued it in the hopes of latching onto the movement.

Its rather pre-historic musical construct probably sank any chances of that happening but what it shows is that Joe Lutcher’s ideas from the outset were ahead of the curve, even if he soon fell behind the curve stylistically when others less beholden to the past stylistically raced by him.

As could be expected because of its slightly earlier vintage this is somewhat restrained musically speaking, but don’t take that as criticism because in this case the music is just window dressing for the real performance of note, the vocal skit that would be worthy of any of the budding variety programs on that new fangled television invention that was starting to pick up steam when this record came out (There were now thirty-one regional stations on the air in the United States in June of 1948, kids!)

This was clearly modeled on one of 1947’s biggest hits, the semi-spoken vaudeville skit, Open The Door, Richard, which hit the Top Three on the R&B Charts in no less than FIVE versions, including Jack McVea’s rather tepid big hit that’s most remembered today, Louis Jordan doing a slightly more credible take, but frankly all overshadowed by the originator of the act on stage, Dusty Fletcher, whose two-part opus of the song was the brilliant recreation of a drunk stumbling back to his rooming house and finding himself locked out by his roommate Richard.

While the other versions cut down considerably on the detailed humor, Fletcher, as you would imagine since he was a comic not a musician, highlighted the mumbled asides in true comedic fashion, including the showdown with angry neighbors complaining about him making so much noise and the cop who eventually shows up to haul his ass to jail, all of which was a masterful performance of dialect, timing and visualization. As with all of the versions it’s aided by the gently swaying sung chorus repeating the title line, which was McVea’s notable contribution.

It was one of those records that everybody did, all reaping sizable sales (The Charioteers take on it comes in a distant second to Fletcher in terms of quality, the others simply pale in comparison) and even white acts got in on the craze. The record was such a hit that the catchphrase became one of those universal buzzwords used in nightclubs, on radio and in society in general, its meaning needing no explanation and remaining a familiar response to jokes for a number of years thereafter.

Obviously it was still plenty hot when Lutcher entered the studio and came up with a different take on a similar situation, modeling it on the Richard bit. The framework though was where the similarities ended.


Start Your Engine
The stuttering horns that open The Traffic Song would seem to distance this from rock ‘n’ roll but they serve a specific purpose here as they’re made to blur the line between horns and the police sirens as Lutcher is pulled over for running a red light and is promptly hauled into court to face these rather innocuous charges. But whereas “Open The Door, Richard” was a comedy bit where the performer, a drunken reprobate, pitiful but harmless, was the focus of the humor, in Lutcher’s song there is a much deeper social vein lying just beneath the surface, one known by virtually all of its potential audience – the unfair treatment of blacks by law enforcement and the double standards of justice doled out for defendants whose primary “crime” is the color of one’s skin.

As such the humor itself is not up to the level of Richard’s travails. It’s ironic humor at best so you’re not exactly meant to be laughing along with the details he reveals throughout, but the that also means the message has the potential to be much more powerful. Though the targets he chooses are ripe for assault, rather than slowly build the particulars over the course of the song which would allow for him to get more frustrated by the circumstances as he goes along before finally delivering the payoff, he instead jumps right TO that payoff, almost so the audience knows the scoop right away and there’s no confusion over the matter.

The brief intro leads right into the charges being presented in court as Lutcher tries explaining his side and before three words are out of his mouth the judge cuts him off, finds him guilty and sentences him to “24 days and one dark night” in the slammer. While a perfectly accurate (and absurd – unfortunately the two are synonymous in these cases) it loses its impact when delivered so quickly. There’s no chance for the anger to simmer before the outrage of hearing the sentence. The sung refrain of that cold harsh sentence makes up the vocal hook before the horns playing their riff come back, though now those notes sound as if they’re pitying his plight rather than merely announcing it.

Unfortunately as good as the idea itself may have been, as much potential as the song has to alternate humor and pathos, once Lutcher reveals the outcome he lets off on the throttle so to speak from here on in and the last half of the song, including three more stanzas in which he explains how difficult it is to be always seen as a potential criminal due to nothing more than heredity, is somewhat restrained. Though the descriptions are true enough, and obviously are still all-too true even today, the bulk of the song is lacking both the seething resentment the situation deserves and/or the comic absurdity that would’ve exposed the legal proceedings for the prejudiced farce they always have been.

This is precisely where Lutcher should’ve applied even MORE pressure and attacked the system with increasing outrage and humor. But regrettably he doesn’t… though in a way you can’t really blame him.


Stalled In The Breakdown Lane
Lutcher had the right idea and a solid base from which to build the story on, one drawn directly from the everyday experiences of both he and his audience, but in the end he pulled back and undercut the effectiveness of The Traffic Song.

For starters he uses an almost childlike sing-songy vocal delivery, almost to mollify any angry rednecks by suggesting that he was a meek and harmless sap, not a potential rabble-rouser out to target the men in blue for their gutless and shameful acts. He hints at it just enough so that those in the know can read between the lines (the Case #131313 he uses being the most obvious), but that’s all he’s comfortable doing for reasons that should be entirely clear.

What could’ve been momentous therefore is reduced to something of a curiosity instead.

It’s still worth hearing for its unique historical context if nothing else, and though as always with Lutcher at this point it may be on the farthest reaches of rock aesthetically it does have some musical inventiveness to go along with the plot particulars, but what his decision shows – especially seven decades later – is the depth of these problems that don’t ever seem to go away, no matter what year we find ourselves in. The underlying skittishness at the mere thought of standing up to a corrupt and lawless legal system rears its ugly head here as well, so even when that reality is the entire target of the song the artist is forced to soft-peddle it so as not to “offend” the perpetrators of this backwards “justice”.

As happened earlier with Andrew Tibb’s protest song Bilbo Is Dead, which similarly eased off on overtly tackling the issue for reasons of self-preservation, you need to keep in mind for Lutcher too that this was still the late 1940’s after all, when the means with which to combat this societal evil were rather limited, and the consequences for doing so were still all too real.

Just two years earlier in 1946 there were six lynchings of blacks – officially reported that is. Though that number went down to 1 each in 1947 and 1948 (two too many it shouldn’t need to be pointed out), we weren’t THAT far removed from an era in which double digit lynchings per year were the norm… 18 in 1935, 15 in 1934 and 24 in 1933. A decade before that the average lynchings per year of black folks was over 50 and in 1901 it was over a hundred. Joe Lutcher was born in 1919, when there was 76 black men reported lynched, in most cases the perpetrators facing little or no consequence of their crimes, so the reality of this type of vigilante “justice” inflicted upon African-American citizens with scant protection under the law (the very law agencies he was targeting here) was still fresh enough his mind to act as its own warning… Don’t step out of line Joe, or you could be next.

Moving Violations
From the vantage point of 69 years in the future we wish he’d pulled no punches, but then again the law really hasn’t changed that much as recent events of police brutality, constant harassment and cold-blooded murder by cops on black citizens so vividly show. So in the end I suppose you can’t really blame Lutcher for holding something back to protect his neck. After all intimidation and virtual immunity from official repercussion for their acts has always been law enforcement’s most effective and insidious weapons and we need to keep in mind that Lutcher’s career meant traveling across the country, performing these songs on bandstands in lots of remote towns, then driving to his next gig through countless dark nights on a lot of desolate roads patrolled by men who didn’t exactly want their actions questioned or mocked. Who’s to say that had he sung this with no details spared if he ever would’ve MADE his next gig somewhere down the road.

So while we’re left feeling a bit unfulfilled by the record, which since that’s what gets reviewed here it has to stand on its own musical merits and in that regard it falls short, though we fully understand the reasons behind those decisions. In the end Lutcher’s role in bringing the novelty approach into rock – a major development in the big picture of things – winds up paling in comparison to his attempt to bring a sense of social protest to the style at the same time.

That result of those efforts on this record wound up being not quite what they could’ve been is probably the most telling aspect of it all.


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