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ATLANTIC 878; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

One of the most prevalent themes we’ve seen in rock’s early days has been how rock ‘n’ roll needed to distance itself from existing musical styles in order to fully take hold as a cultural force in its own right. Naturally their success in this was hit or miss at first, with artists initially unsure about how emphatically they could break away from accepted techniques and still find a receptive audience.

But as a stream of younger artists who were not in any way tied to previous perceptions of what constituted quality music came along and as many of the more daring excursions in rock became legitimate hits, the generational divide, musically and culturally, suddenly become abundantly clear. Rock ‘n’ roll was the music of the present and of the future and because of that the holdovers from the past were increasingly losing their place in the rapidly evolving landscape.

Every so often a song came to embody these changes and here, thanks to being cut by two figures headed in opposite directions, we have a perfect case study of this trend to delve into.
 

 
Left Him In The Hole
The particulars of the case are as follows: Joe Morris we’ve met many times. The former trumpet player in Lionel Hampton’s band had headed out on his own with saxophonist Johnny Griffin in tow in mid-1947 and though they weren’t actively seeking to chart new ground musically they were amenable to the possibility when it arose and versatile enough to pull off whatever type of music was deemed commercially and artistically promising.

Atlantic Records also got their start in the last days of 1947 and were equally willing to try whatever might get them some sales. When the more rocking sides cut by Morris (amidst a fair amount of jazzier sides to be honest) were among their biggest sellers – okay, among their only sellers – that direction became foremost in their thought process heading forward.

But here’s the unlikely left turn, the apparent deviation from the path they were on, as Beans And Cornbread was a song that was in the current repertoire of none other than Louis Jordan, the pre-eminent pre-rock black superstar whose popularity was still unassailable but whose musical style was now increasingly slightly behind the curve.

Something had to give here.

Was this evidence that Atlantic Records still saw more potential in trying to pursue the older market that Jordan still commanded rather than throwing their fate in entirely with the younger rock audience, or was it a sign that Joe Morris, just 27 years old but who came of age before rock ‘n’ roll had reared its ugly head, was more comfortable in yesterday’s sounds after all?

Or – as unlikely as it seems – was this an example of two artists using the same song to each state their own musical manifesto, the results of which made the division between eras and styles all the more evident to those still somehow doubting such a chasm really existed?

Somewhat surprisingly it’s the latter.
 
 


 

Gonna Be A Big Fight
A lot of the confusion or uncertainty, call it whatever you want, about this record comes from the sequence of events that led to both versions being cut and released.

For starters there’s the writing credits to contend with, as Atlantic credited Joe Morris as the sole composer of the song while the Jordan release has himself – under his wife’s name Fleecie Moore, which he commonly used much to his consternation later when they divorced and she kept getting HIS writing royalties – and Freddie Clark listed as writers. Clearly they are the same song so somebody is lying about this.

The next point of contention is the recording and release dates of each version as Jordan cut his take on April 12th with Morris laying down his a month later on May 11th. However Morris’s definitely was released first. Though most sources list it coming out in July it was reviewed in the June 25th edition of Cash Box magazine so the timing is probably a few weeks off. Furthermore the review doesn’t mention Jordan’s at all because his would not come out until August, that much we definitively know. So based on all that conflicting information you don’t know WHAT to think. Certainly in 1949 the general public, knowing only when the songs came out, would’ve assumed Jordan covered Morris, but this was a unique set of circumstances and so people shouldn’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion.

There’s a few things to keep in mind starting with the fact that Jordan was so prolific, thanks in part to recording for a major label, Decca, which could afford to have one of their biggest sellers in the studio cutting countless tracks without worrying about the cost. So you need to keep in mind that Louis Jordan always had a backlog of material sitting on the shelf.

The next thing you should know is that at the time Morris’s take on this came out Jordan was still charting with his version of Cole Slaw from earlier in the year as well as with Baby It’s Cold Outside (the latter, a song that was featured in a just released film and subsequently recorded by a string of male-female duets hit, among them Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer which hit the Top Five in May, despite the song later becoming a Christmas standard because the theme is all about snow and winter weather).

Jordan’s version of that tune was a duet with Ella Fitzgerald that had to be rush-released to compete with the Whiting and Mercer hit which was heading up the charts, so perhaps not wanting to cut into those sales Decca merely held his Beans And Cornbread in the kitchen for awhile longer.

But that leads to the question of how Morris got a hold of it months before its summer 1949 release by Jordan.
 

A Big Knot
Since Joe Morris died in 1958 we can’t very well ask him and apparently all of the hundreds if not thousands of writers who interviewed Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun over the years were too busy asking him about partying with The Rolling Stones to bother inquiring about something that might actually provide much needed information on rock history.

So that leaves the old standby – speculation – to try and plug in the gaps. Needless to say don’t take any of these possibilities as absolute gospel but the most likely scenario centers around the fact that Jordan reputedly had been playing it for two years by that point yet was unable to get it down on wax to his (or Decca’s) satisfaction until April of ’49. So if that’s the case then he might very well have played it somewhere, either on stage or even just a jam session of some kind after hours at a club, which means musicians such as Joe Morris and Johnny Griffin who certainly had access to the venues where Jordan reigned would’ve been able to pick up on it.

But what that doesn’t satisfactorily explain is the seeming coincidence of Morris and Atlantic Records deciding to cut it precisely at that moment – May of 1949 – just a month after Jordan laid it down. How did they know, assuming they did, that Jordan had nailed it at last in the studio and that it likely would be issued soon? We’ll likely never know.

Whatever the case may be Morris’s Beans And Cornbread was released as summer began which meant Decca and Louis Jordan could hold off releasing theirs only so long, waiting perhaps to see what kind of a response Morris got. When it began to stir some interest after a few weeks they had little choice but to speed up their release schedule and issue the original to head off any competition.

It worked too, Jordan’s topped the charts by the fall while Morris’s faded into history. But what’s fascinating aren’t the results as seen through the prism of commercial acceptance, but rather the musical approaches that showcased what each artist was after and how they differed quite noticeably in that regard based on their respective audiences for the two divergent genres.
 

Blew His Top
Though not close to the biggest of his 18 #1 hits, Beans And Cornbread is one of the more quintessential Louis Jordan’s songs containing all three components of his musical appeal. To start with it’s exceedingly catchy, shuffling along at a steady clip with a melody that sticks in your head long after it ends. The second facet that makes it prime Louis Jordan material is how its theme is tied in with specific cultural benchmarks for his core fans, in this case via the kitchen where such a dish filled many a stomach over the years and was something which, while not alien to white listeners certainly had much more familiarity to black audiences in terms of it being a dinnertime staple in this community.

The final aspect that marked it as a typical Louis Jordan number is of course the humor, both in the lyrics themselves which places the two foods as actual adversaries complete with a fistfight (how either beans or cornbread reshaped themselves to have appendages I don’t know, nor do I care so long as the song works), but also in his delivery which takes on all of the attributes of the kind of breathless recounting of battle that was apparently not confined to the Ezzard Charles vs. Jersey Joe Walcott fight for the vacant Heavyweight Title.

Now as good of an artist as Joe Morris was there was no confusing his skills with Jordan’s. While Morris could hold his own as a bandleader he could not equal Jordan as a vocalist or, as would be emphasized here, as a comedic actor.

So for Morris’s version of Beans And Cornbread to work he’d have to find another way to put it across and that he does by downplaying the humor and ramping up the musical punch.

The first sound is noisy and discordant before they quickly pull it back together and jump right into the chorus as the group behind him claps along with drummer Philly Joe Jones emphatic beat while chanting the title as a rousing refrain while the cymbal adds the punctuation to make this sound more anarchic. This is some of the most insistent drum work we’ve come across and sets the tone for everything that follows.

When Joe jumps into the ring he’s not trying to get you to laugh, or by the sounds of it even crack a smile despite the silly nature of the lyrics. He’s taking this scenario seriously, unable to see the humor in it perhaps, but more likely unwilling to admit that he does. But that decision is a wise one in some ways – especially if he knows he’ll have to compete with Jordan soon… so why venture to his home turf to get your ass kicked?

By presenting it in a straightforward manner as he does, Morris makes the hostilities between these two dinnertime staples seem authentic. There’s a definite veil of danger here, almost as if Beans and Cornbread were simply the nicknames of two neighborhood toughs rather than something served on a plate at the local greasy spoon.

All of this is accentuated by the record’s high point, the violent nature of the musicians. Not only do we have Jones taking out his aggression on the skins and cymbals behind the drum kit but we also have a horn section with a bone to pick, lead by saxophonist Johnny Griffin who flexes his muscle with particular pride during the solo which is as rough edged as anything we’ve heard from him to date.
 

Knocked Him Out Of Sight
By now we could care less about the particulars regarding the fictional combatants. After all the whole concept of the record if taken at face value is one of fairly childish humor, and having recently dismissed the viability of actively seeking laughs in a rock record with the failed attempt by Johnny Otis on Pay Day Blues we’re more than happy to disregard the entire premise and just substitute a real beef between two real life adversaries which gets bolstered by some roughneck playing by all involved.

That’s what rock did so well, injecting a menacing attitude into music, usually done instrumentally without resorting to lyrical claims of mayhem, but if it’s a fight you want to hear about Beans And Cornbread will give you a fair blow by blow description of that to go along with the battering the instruments are getting. It’s still too contrived to be a truly great record, but it’s a very good one and evidence that guys like Morris were shaping music in ways that the older guard were never going to be comfortable doing.

Of course when Jordan’s more sly comedic version came out he was the one with the hit, as befitting his major label resources and track record. To be fair, Jordan’s is probably the slightly better record too… with one major caveat.

Louis Jordan’s Beans And Cornbread belonged to yesterday in every regard. Musically it adhered to the approach of past musical styles whereas Morris’s was emphasizing the sounds of today and tomorrow in his, which while increasingly popular were not yet as widely known and appreciated by the larger market as Jordan’s were.

Thematically though is where the two really distanced themselves from one another. The Jordan persona is of someone who still feels the need to cloak their intelligence and to keep any confident assertive attitude that could be intentionally misconstrued by the white masses under wraps by projecting a harmless simplicity by way of humor. He did it incredibly well and on a song like this it seems perfectly fitting, but increasingly in black America that approach was becoming more discomforting.

I wouldn’t go so far as to ever call Jordan a caricature designed to appease white America’s ignorant views of blacks, but you have to understand that there was some compromising that needed to be done when Jordan was in the process of crossing over to middle America in the early 1940’s. At the first sign that he was a potential threat to white America’s racial homogony he would’ve been shown the door if not locked up or lynched. So he did what he needed to do to avoid that fate, smiling and clowning to make society let their guard down enough for him to get in the door. They weren’t smart enough to know he was mocking them and if challenged he’d be able to play it off by playing dumb, though of course he was anything but stupid.

But so much had changed over the past few years since Jordan had broken through and rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t about to make those same concessions. The more aggressive approach Morris and company take here was still a dangerous one to project but it was also one that endeared them to the generation which was in the process of elevating rock music to the levels that perhaps only Louis Jordan himself had once known. That they did so in a way that flaunted their attitude made rock persona non grata for not only mainstream white America for decades but also ironically enough in the generation of black Americans epitomized by none other than Louis Jordan.
 

Clean Your Plate
What’s so great about looking back at musical evolution and the culture that evolved along with it, is seeing (and hearing) the divide grow ever wider. In 1949 the still largely unknown Joe Morris was at a decided disadvantage compared to Louis Jordan when it came to all of the things that seemed to matter – mass popularity and acceptance, a strong record label and a carefully constructed persona to promote their wares – and it’d appear based on those factors that if Morris wanted to be elevated to the big time he’d have to move closer to Jordan’s blueprint.

But that tactic would of course be wrong, for the only thing Joe Morris needed was to wait just a little bit longer, when the generational tide shifted and those who had made Louis Jordan the biggest star in their galaxy faded from prominence and were replaced by the next generation, one already becoming more powerful by the day, who didn’t care about hearing jokes about food tussling on a dinner plate but would rather hear the fight over the direction of music that was taking place at the same time, one which they were now poised to win.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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