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DECCA 48126; DECEMBER, 1949



In the Nineteen-Forties the general rule of thumb when it came to hit records was ”When you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all” thanks to the propensity of cover versions across the entire industry.

Cover records were not the sacrilegious offense they later became, in fact all new releases were seen as fair game for other artists to try their hand at with the hope being they’d steal listeners away from the original. Since everyone did it there was nothing underhanded about it, each record company jumped on whatever song showed promise, often covering them multiple times for different markets – pop versions, country versions and something for mainstream black audiences – all hoping to get a piece of the pie… a pie they all figured would be bigger the more versions existed to make the song itself more widely known.

But in 1949 what black audiences were increasingly demanding was rock ‘n’ roll, especially the younger generation who were buying an ever greater share of the records, and yet rock acts were shaping up to be far different than anything that had come before them in any style because by in large they were hitting big with original songs, not somebody else’s hand-me-downs.

In due time rock’s preference for originality would be the very thing that would put an end to cover records in all fields of music, pop included, but even as early as 1949 the sighting of a rock artist coming out with a cover record was becoming quite rare…

Unless of course you were one who had just been signed to a major label who hadn’t yet gotten the memo that rock ‘n’ roll sort of looked down this type of thing.


It’s Worth Ten Million Dollars… Well Not Quite TEN Million, Maybe Just Two Or Three Million
Let’s face it, we know why Decca Records signed up Joe Morris. They realized this rock thing was like a bad case of herpes and was going to be plaguing their business for a long time and so they decided that since their own artists who’d made up their skimpy roster for this field – Cousin Joe and Albennie Jones – hadn’t produced any hits, despite both coming out with truly great records along the way, they’d better look elsewhere.

Naturally they settled on someone who could be passed off as something more respectable in case their board of directors – or their mothers – came to the office wondering who was in Studio A that morning. Morris was the perfect solution to their problem since he had been a “legitimate” musician whom the Decca hierarchy was familiar with thanks to his stint with Lionel Hampton’s band and thus they felt that he might not have completely sold his soul to rock ‘n’ roll. With their prodding they may have even expected him to return to a style more their speed while letting his burgeoning name recognition among rock fans work to the label’s advantage, giving them an artist they could promote as rock without necessarily having him disgrace their reputation by playing the music they looked down upon.

We also know why Joe Morris – in spite of this compromised intent on the label’s part – went to Decca Records after his two year deal with Atlantic was up. Decca was the big time, a major label with a huge promotional department, distributors in every city who got those records stocked in all of the big retailers across the country, not just the small Mom And Pop stores in the sticks like Atlantic, and most independent companies, catered to at this time.

Morris also knew the power of the Decca brand when it came to securing nightclub appearances and the recognition factor appearing on the label offered him. He’d seen it firsthand with Hampton and he knew that the biggest star in all of black music over the past decade, Louis Jordan, was on Decca as well. Heck, Jordan had even appeared in movies thanks to the pull he’d been able to cultivate through his records and while duplicating that feat was unlikely for Morris, it certainly couldn’t hurt to be positioned on a label where such a thing was at least remotely feasible.

It also needs to be stated that for Joe Morris the chance to move up in the world wasn’t seen as selling out, as maybe it should’ve been had those artists been more aware of the disdain the major companies had for their brand of music, not to mention the audience who listened to rock in general, but rather this was a status thing that all musicians could appreciate. It was a chance to see your face in full page trade ads… to perhaps get a shot at recording a duet with someone like Ella Fitzgerald or even Bing Crosby… and maybe even get paid in actual dollars for making music, something which a good many independent labels who specialized in rock ‘n’ roll failed to include in a lot of their contracts.

But in spite of our acknowledging the motives for both parties – and even giving begrudging respect for those aspirations on each of their parts – we all know how this is going to turn out. Decca Records had no real intention on conquering rock ‘n’ roll if they had to do so on rock’s terms musically and Joe Morris had no chance of using Decca’s prestige to reach a bigger market unless he gave up the music he’d been succeeding with for the past two years.

Too bad we weren’t around back then to tell them both how futile their efforts would wind up being.


If You Can’t Write Me, Baby
We started off this review talking about cover records because this is of course what major labels had a tendency to do and so it’s hardly surprising they’d do so with their new signee as soon as he stepped foot into their studio.

So much for musical autonomy.

Looking at Morris’s track record prior to this we see that almost without exception he, or his band members, wrote their own material. Now in their first session for Decca they were cajoled into tackling Broken Hearted, a rising hit by Eddie Williams & His Brown Buddies.

Do you think Morris was having second thoughts already?

The interesting thing about this choice for a cover song though is the fact that Eddie Williams’s group were themselves transplanted from another field, namely that of cocktail blues (Williams, you recall, was the bass player for Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, who were one of the twin towers of the cocktail blues idiom when they’d been fronted by pianist Charles Brown, the other tower belonging to Nat “King” Cole).

It’s probably not surprising that Decca wouldn’t look to say Wynonie Harris or Roy Brown or Billy Wright to try and rip-offto try to respectfully cover… but rather they’d focus on someone who similarly might be drawing some of their appeal from a less uncouth segment of the music buying populace, thereby hoping to sort of forcibly pull the rock market closer to the hazy middle ground between other genres where they, Decca, would be far more comfortable treading.

So putting aside the fallacy of their reasoning for a moment, there’s another odd aspect to this particular choice, namely the fact that Williams’s original Broken Hearted was so atypical in the first place for that group as well. While in the studio at their first session those in charge of Supreme Records asked if they had something a little more rural sounding than what they’d been doing so far, showing that even smaller labels were trying to hedge their bets when it came to appealing to different stylistic constituencies. So pianist/singer Floyd Dixon offered up this song he’d gotten from songwriter John Hogg and then further highlighted the bluesier aspects of it on the recording, making sure the slow tempo and his draggy vocals emphasized the downbeat lyrics to suit the label’s request for more “down home blues”.

In other words their record – budding hit or not – wasn’t one Decca should have necessarily been looking to emulate, whether they genuinely wanted to make inroads into rock or whether they were more intent of staking out a more upscale musical territory that might “clean up” rock enough to suit their purpose.

Luckily (I guess) Joe Morris wasn’t exactly going do an entirely faithful rendition on his version of Broken Hearted Blues, which sort of stands to reason considering his own background.


Charge It On The Other End
There are two differences between the Williams and Morris takes on the song that you notice right away on this. The first is that Decca added the word “Blues” at the end of the title, maybe to be able to pass it off as blues should anyone complain about the other alternative, though this is certainly far less bluesy than what Williams did. That leads to the second difference, the musical one, which is Morris had his roots in jazz, not blues, and jazz used horns. Morris of course played trumpet and his primary cohort Johnny Griffin played tenor sax and they were hardly going to be silent on a record just to conform to the arrangement of the original record.

As a result we get a totally different feeling to Broken Hearted Blues as it kicks off, brass wailing before gradually slowing down and settling into the downcast mood both versions share.

Morris has been doing more singing of late and he’s not that bad of a vocalist when he doesn’t try and do too much and here he doesn’t have to do much at all to get into the proper state of mind. If anything he actually is singing this better than Dixon, whose tone is far too nasal and sleepy sounding to really sympathize with his plight. Morris by contrast sounds dejected but not defeated, which ironically is an attitude that is far more at home in rock circles than blues.

That being said this is still on the outskirts of the rock community which is probably precisely what Decca wanted out of them. The backing music behind Morris is slow, droning and muted with some sprightly piano fills being about the only thing that stands out and gets your attention.

The instrumental break however has no problem getting your attention, though it has a bigger problem in getting rock fans to not jump up and turn the volume lower. Maybe Morris was afraid he was exposing himself too much with an aspect of his musical persona that was not his specialty and that’s why the first chance he got he grabbed his trumpet and made sure he drowned out any lingering thoughts of his vocals, but the vocals were better than the trumpet because the trumpet is too loud, not just in contrast to the rest of the record but in terms of the record’s content.

Put it this way: If Joe IS really down in the dumps about his girl leaving him, and by his singing we have no reason to doubt him, then the horn being so assertive is naturally going to conflict with that interpretation, making this somewhat schizophrenic. It’s not that his playing is exuberant or anything, it’s a mournful clamor if such a thing is possible, but it’s hardly compatible for the vocal refrains which is what is most important to make any of this work.

When he returns after the break his voice does try to turn up the volume a little to match it and that helps a little, but we’re not invested enough to really care. Morris’s efforts are commendable considering the position he was put into by his new label, but even though Broken Hearted Blues modestly improves upon what Williams and Dixon laid down it still can’t turn it into something positive for his career path or for rock’s evolution and it sure as hell isn’t going to establish any middle ground between divergent styles as Decca might’ve hoped.

‘Til Judgment Day
One of our favorite pastimes around here is taking potshots at record companies for their many foibles. Of course that’s not exactly a difficult task, it’s somewhat like shooting fish in a barrel or winning at poker by using a marked deck. But while some might claim it’s gratuitous it actually becomes important to do just to show how the two entities were so often at odds with one another, pulling in opposite directions while claiming to be after the same results. Yet record companies frequently did nothing to help those artists maximize their potential and often seemed to intentionally undercut the career prospects of their artists at every turn.

Such is the case with Decca Records and Joe Morris. They saw him making headway in rock ‘n’ roll and knew it was becoming an ever more viable commercial style, so they signed him up to get their foot in the door. But then they had him just do two sessions, and not even the normal four song sessions, but rather two three song sessions, meaning instead of four singles he’d get just three. In both of those they then had him cut songs by someone else, as if they didn’t trust his own songwriting instincts or abilities.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough of an indignity, they issued the first two singles one on top of the other, just weeks apart (if that) and their vaunted promotional muscle didn’t bother flexing for his benefit, as they kept his name out of their holiday ads while touting the usual suspects who didn’t need any additional help selling records.

No wonder after this experience Joe Morris would head back to Atlantic, where he may not have always gotten whatever royalties were due him, nor did he have much opportunity for expanding his brand (as they’d call it nowadays) but at least he didn’t have any resistance to the musical path he was now faithfully following and in the long run that type of benign support was worth far more than whatever the elitists at Decca Records had to offer.

That Broken Hearted Blues didn’t make any impact was to be expected considering the misguided thinking on the record label’s part to record it in the first place hoping to reap some benefit off rock without dirtying their hands in the process, but that it turned out to be halfway decent anyway is a testament to Joe Morris’s professionalism, which come to think of it probably should’ve been expected too.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Eddie Williams & His Brown Buddies (August, 1949)