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When your popularity is based in part on circumstances rather than on something more tangible it’s never an easy thing to come to grips with.

The seventh grader whose mild sarcasm in class makes them seem slightly rebellious at a time when most kids are still unsure of themselves will find that by eighth grade that same attitude is passé as their classmates have found their own voice and the ones who at the same time develop a more laid-back confidence will vault past them in the social status department.

The same has been true in music for years as Joe Morris was in the process of discovering over the past year. He’s well beyond the type of social development that junior high school is known for, but musically speaking he took advantage of the same type of uncertainty and inexperience of his classmates… err labelmates… in the recent past to establish himself as one of the brightest stars on Atlantic Records.

But over the last year those in that classroom with him have come into their own, grew into their bodies and have emerged more popular than ever while ol’ Joe is still trying to draw attention to himself by merely talking out in class.


This Is What I’d Come To
The circumstances that helped Joe Morris get established are well documented around here… a former jazz sideman he benefited from a tight band who intuitively understood the requirements of rock when it emerged and took advantage of the fact that few others, especially on Atlantic Records, could make the same claim.

When he returned after a brief sabbatical elsewhere and lost his greatest weapon in saxophonist Johnny Griffin, he was smart enough to read the landscape and understand that instrumentals were no longer their best bet and so he brought aboard a vocalist in Laurie Tate who helped him get his – and the label’s – first chart topper in 1950.

But Tate became pregnant and left and at the same time other acts on Atlantic, from Ruth Brown to The Clovers to recently arrived Big Joe Turner, stepped in and scored hits that were just as big and all of whom had either more versatility than Morris’s crew had shown, or had such a distinctive style that it allowed them to stand out in a crowd.

Billy Mitchell became Morris’s go-to vocalist and while good – later finding his niche with those same Clovers – he wasn’t going to compete with the heavyweights of rock as it came into its own and now it was left to Morris to try and adapt yet again.

So on If I Had Known Morris adds a female singer in Teddy Smith to help out, surely trying to still conjure up the dynamic that Little Esther and Mel Walker had achieved with such great success a year ago for Johnny Otis.

But even THAT prototype was now out of date and while Mitchell and Smith turn in a solid performance here, there’s still a sense that they all seemed content to follow the old rules of the game while the rest of their brethren were starting to break curfew and explore their budding maturity in ways that Morris wasn’t yet – and may never be – comfortable doing.

Down And Out
With its creeping horn and piano opening there was little chance of this record grabbing you by the collar and forcibly yanking you into its orbit with a sonic explosion that was hard to ignore.

Instead this had to gradually work its way into your subconscious with a subversive melody, great vocals and captivating story… things this record falls just a little bit short on.

Now the first two are certainly decent, after all, piano triplets have been a core component of mid-paced rock songs for decades and the gently swaying vocals of Mitchell and Smith are easy to get stuck in your brain because of their nursery rhyme-like qualities, but no matter how well executed each of those areas are, there’s nothing captivating about them on their own.

Which means If I Had Known is reliant largely on the story and while it may be harsh to call it the weakest part of the composition, it’s just not designed to be all that memorable.

The two of them are portraying a couple who’ve broken up and are singing to each other – and WITH each other – in sort of a split-screen scene, both of them relating the same feelings of course because aside from a few solo spots for one or the other, they’re singing the same lyrics, but as a result there’s no tension. One of them isn’t trying to get the other back, they aren’t trying to break through to someone who doesn’t want to have anything to do with them anymore… instead they’re just commiserating on their misery which means if they’re smart they’re probably getting back together as soon as the song ends.

A nice happy conclusion to the plot in real life I guess, but on record it comes across as just sort of running on a treadmill. They both sound nice, their voices compliment each other well enough, it’s a pleasant listening experience and the examples used in the lyrics are more or less relatable for anyone who has ever failed at love, but none of it GRABS you.

At best you hope they work things out while you leave them behind to head down the street to catch Ruth Brown or Joe Turner belting songs out at another joint because that’s where the action is now, not hearing these two moping around in the shadows, stealing furtive glances at one another and trying to summon up the courage to actually do something about it.


Father Time Can Heal A Broken Heart
In some ways I guess you could say this was a little ahead of its time… not in a way that’s particularly influential on the advancement of rock ‘n’ roll as a whole, but rather it does use a technique that would become a steady presence in the later fifties – that of the tandem male-female duet on mid-tempo songs.

Of course while that was indeed something which was frequently used, it also shad somewhat limited appeal, or rather was never quite as popular as a guy and girl trading off, thereby allowing each singer’s personality to shine through rather than subjugating themselves just so they can mesh well together.

Still, If I Had Known is certainly more than competent for what it tries to do musically, but by this point competency is no assurance of success and in this world you’re judged by the circumstances you find yourself in as much as anything.

As 1951 drew to a close the rock landscape was far too vibrant for something this modest to make an impact. While on some record labels its mild aesthetic appeal might be enough to offset its lack of a commercial response, that wasn’t the case on Atlantic where hits were coming fast and furious.

Though Joe Morris was the man responsible for the company’s firm footing to begin with, that was when the kids in his class didn’t know what they were doing yet. Now that the rest of them have figured it out and are the most popular kids in school, Morris is left hoping that he can somehow do just enough to not be completely forgotten and left behind by the time they get into high school.


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