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DECCA 48126; DECEMBER, 1949



Last month we reviewed the first effort of Joe Morris after his move to major label powerhouse Decca Records after his successful stint at helping to get struggling independent label Atlantic off the ground.

With the change in residence however came inevitable questions regarding his musical direction now that he was with a company which tended to look disdainfully on this unruly music and probably wished the whole movement would go back under the rock it crawled out from.

Yet Decca also realized that this music was selling quite steadily and they wanted to latch onto it in some way, provided they could manage to do so without sullying their own lofty reputation in the process. Hence the signing of an artist they’d had in their employ once before when he was a fairly anonymous trumpeter in the respectable jazz band of Lionel Hampton a few years earlier. He’d shown then that he could toe the line of decorum and so surely they felt that if anyone would be capable of – even willing to – rein in their more ostentatious rock attributes and still come up with something plausibly marketable to the rock audience it’d be Joe Morris.

How well he balanced those divergent aims however remained to be seen.


Why Do You Bring Me Down?
The first session Morris’s band had under Decca’s auspices came in the last week of October. We don’t know exactly when he signed with the company but his final Atlantic session took place way back in May. Doing some brutally amateur detective work we can surmise that his Atlantic contract ran for two years, since that was fairly standard in the industry and because Atlantic itself had only started up in the fall of 1947 and Morris was among their first signings. His initial session for them had been December 12, 1947, just over two weeks before the recording ban hit and stopped all studio activity – at least officially – for almost a year.

So let’s assume that it was a two year deal and that he signed with Atlantic in November 1947, that would mean Decca would have to wait until that time was up to ink him to a deal. But let’s face it, he was almost certainly in the fold earlier than that, probably they came to a handshake agreement in the summer sometime but they had to wait out his Atlantic contract before they could even think about issuing something he did for them regardless of when it was actually cut.

Whether the October 28 date was the first day they were legally allowed to bring him in, or if they simply jumped the gun and filled in the dates later, I don’t know, but it seems that it was a hastily arranged session because they cut three tracks rather than the standard four that day. For a company like Decca who prided themselves on being very well prepared this was somewhat unusual and that more than likely means the reason for it was to get Morris to lay down a take on the rising hit by Rudy Render called Sneakin’ Around, which had broken into the national listings earlier that month.

They’d need a B-side for it of course so he cut two other songs for them to choose from and they picked Portia’s Boogie, which was a modest effort at best that had enough of Johnny Griffin’s saxophone work to gain entry into the rock listings here, but they didn’t try and emphasize that aspect of it and so it sort of fell flat anyway.

The other song they recorded that day was this one, Lowdown Baby which Decca may have deemed the better of the two and thus chose to hold it over for a later single since their hopes for the initial release were being pinned on “Sneakin’ Around”.

When that record only got mild interest in the South, making a one week appearance on the charts in Atlanta, Decca probably figured it was best to let Morris try and make it with original material and that would give them a better idea if he could in fact bridge the gap between the type of music they felt was respectable and the lower grade music they felt was anything but acceptable to their sensitive ears. So, returning to the studio in mid November, Morris and company cut another three songs, giving them six in total, or three singles.

It would be the last session they’d cut for Decca, which sort of tells you that after hearing the results, or seeing the returns on those results in the market, they figured he couldn’t be fully cleaned up from his association with rock after all and it was best to part ways with him before he dragged the respectable company down with him.

Of course to our way of thinking that bodes well for Joe Morris’s career in rock ‘n’ roll, the field we’re interested in… one man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that. Decca might have indeed felt this type of music was poison to their well-bred tastes, but whether this is meaty enough to fill our stomachs in the rock kingdom is another thing altogether.

Your Clothes Ain’t Fittin’ You Right
We probably don’t need to remind you that Joe Morris plays trumpet, nor do we need to remind you that the trumpet has for the most part proved somewhat incompatible with most rock songs that have tried to incorporate it into their arrangements in anything more than a complimentary fashion.

Instruments have a way of becoming associated with certain styles and once established in that field, especially if the genre in question is popular, it becomes hard to disassociate the sound with that form of music.


The trumpet had been defined by jazz from the start. As soon as Louis Armstrong was heard on record in the 1920’s the dye was cast. Jazz ruled American music for the next two decades during which time the trumpet led the charge, its sound cutting through the airwaves like a flaming arrow.

Armstrong was arguably the greatest single musician on his instrument of anybody in any style of music ever, but he was hardly alone on the jazz stage when it came to famed trumpeters. Buddy Bolden was actually the one who got things started before King Oliver and Armstrong came along to establish the sound on record and once they had made the scene and showed what that horn was capable of the floodgates opened. Bix Beiderbecke, Bubber Miley, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Teddy Buckner, Freddie Webster, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry James, Hot Lips Page, Fats Navarro, Ernie Royal, Cootie Williams and Miles Davis all brought immense talent and innovation to the table and ensured that the instrument would be thought of eternally as a cornerstone of jazz.

Morris of course had been one of them, not quite as accomplished at the time he was working with Hampton in the mid-1940’s, but certainly on his way. But then he departed with saxophonist Johnny Griffin, forming their own band with the intent on following the same path that other jazz groups had… until rock ‘n’ roll came along and changed their focus.

It was unintentional at first, as jazz and early rock were close in enough in style that the participants might not realize they were making a conscious break from the former. But when their more rhythmic hard-driving records were the ones to draw notice, and did so from an entirely different audience than the jazz coterie, the musical division between styles became apparent and their success in that new realm pushed them to pursue it even further.

The thing about it though was it hadn’t been Morris’s trumpet which had gotten them there, but rather the grittier more flamboyant saxophone of Griffin… an instrument that had been present in jazz but hadn’t quite defined it as it would define rock. As those ground rules for succeeding in rock became increasingly apparent Morris had little choice but to take a back seat in the proceedings.

Until now.

Lowdown Baby is an attempt to reassert Morris’s spot in not just his own band, but also make a case for the trumpet to take center stage in rock ‘n’ roll itself.


Where Did You Stay Last Night?
If you’re gonna step into the spotlight and make a statement you might as well make a bold one and that’s exactly what Joe Morris does here. Whether it’s a statement any of us in the rock audience is prepared to hear, or wants to hear for that matter, is another question entirely. Needless to say we’re not expecting this as his trumpet gets the first fifty-five seconds to itself on one of the longest preludes to a song we’ve yet encountered.

He plays well as always and I suppose we should be glad he gets a chance every once in awhile to stretch out some, but it’s jarring to hear because it in no way is likely to excite a rock fan… something which may have been by design if he was being extolled by Decca to edge away from the more overt rock touches in his material. That also could be why he decided to jump ship back to Decca in the first place, after all, it must be kind of an affront to your ego to finally be headlining your own band and being told you can’t really play as much as your sidekicks because your instrument is all wrong for the style you happened to get swept up in along the way.

But whatever his intent Morris is a smart enough bandleader to know that he’s going to have compensate for the trumpet sounding out of place to his usual listeners by doing something that pulls it back into their line of thinking before they leave en masse. He does this early on by giving the drums and piano a prominent role in the first transition thirteen seconds in, then lets those instruments continually add accents for the rest of his lead-in. As a result your resistance to it softens just enough to be curious as to where it’s headed next.

As drawn out as the intro is you still are reasonably sure that it’s not going to be an instrumental because of the way it’s structured. Its slow contemplative manner is merely an introduction to a story, which means that someone is going to have sing some words before long and that task unfortunately falls to Morris himself, hardly his strong suit as a musician.

So for the second time in the first minute of the record he’s going to have to try and offset a inherent weakness with something to make it a bit more palatable which doesn’t bode well for Lowdown Baby and its chances of overcoming our rising skepticism as to its worth.

He’s got a pretty standard theme with which to work – dissatisfaction with his girl – so it isn’t likely to break any new ground lyrically… although at one point he says “one of these days I’m gonna start thinkin’ and I’m gonna kick you… right out of town”. I was expecting him to say he was going to kick her in the teeth or something, which at least would’ve brought a shocked laugh.

So without any surprises in the story we’re left with the vocal delivery of a part-time singer to bolster the song’s chances at transcending its conflicted aims.


Looking Poor And Raggedy
Joe Morris may not ever have gotten a recording contract based on his singing ability alone, nor would have sought one, but he’s not incapable of delivering an effective vocal lead provided he’s not being asked to do too much.

He’s got some tricks up his sleeve to take some of the onus off of his uneasy delivery, most notable here is the way in which he bridges the first few lines with a moaning humming technique which gives it an endearing off-the-cuff feel the first time through. The problem is he repeats it again and again until you realize it wasn’t the ad-libbed spontaneous move it first appeared to be and rather was a written gimmick inserted to try and fool you into thinking otherwise.

Then there’s the arrangement for us to contend with. The mood and lyrics are entirely serviceable but unfortunately there’s absolutely no variety shown as it unfolds. It ends in the same manner it started and traverses the same unchanging scenery throughout the song. His sadness over his girl’s unfaithfulness has led to increasing annoyance bordering on anger, yet that progression is already in the rear-view mirror when the record starts. In other words we’re dropped into the middle of the story at a point when he’s fed up with her for past transgressions so we don’t get to see that unfold. Instead he prepares to take the next step of this fateful journey, be it a forceful and perhaps violent confrontation or simply the more cathartic dismissal of her by tossing her cheating ass in the gutter, slamming the door and changing the locks. But he doesn’t tell us which because that part of the story remains in the future.

So we not only don’t we get to see the action that led up to this, we don’t get to see the follow through which promises even more action. Instead of action all we get is talk, meaning he might only be voicing these complaints and threats out loud to salve his wounded pride.

Because of this the tone of Lowdown Baby remains stagnant. Mournful accompaniment with some intermittent pulse-quickening touches to show his mounting frustration. With no way to shake this pattern up we’re left in a bottomless pit of gloom and misery with no resolution to be found, be it musically or thematically.

So let’s barge into the studio and shove whatever startled old school producer Decca was employing aside – it’s doubtful he’ll fight back after all – and take over this session and breathe a little more life into this.

We really need to make just one change which will transform the record by adding anticipation into the mix, offering both a respite from the downhearted vibe and also add to the vitality of the song while still remaining true to the theme.

Get Johnny Griffin to stop thumbing through a magazine in the corner, take out his sax and whip it into a frenzy. All we need is just a 15-20 second mid-song break, ramping it up after Joe says he’s at the end of his rope with this girl and then let Griffin’s horn deliver a suitable outcome for that thought.

It’s up to you to decide what that interlude would represent – an argument, a knock-down drag-out fight, or simply a firm demand that gets her to respect him and might lead to some vigorous make up sex – let your imagination run wild. But after Griffin winds it down Morris can return, even if it’s only to let us know that he actually hasn’t done anything about it yet and that part was merely him fantasizing about a better solution to his problem.

The story therefore wouldn’t be changed but the record would be, giving the listener a way to become more viscerally involved as well as to show off the figure in the band who is capable of standing toe to toe with any of rock’s most acclaimed honkers.

One Of These Days…
Without that however the record never leaves its lane as other more exciting vehicles speed along rock’s highway. Morris and company don’t turn off down an exit to head into another part of town, as maybe Decca was sort of hoping they would, but Lowdown Baby just can’t keep pace with the type of traffic that is now setting the pace in rock ‘n’ roll.

Morris gives it his all and to be fair what they’re playing, and even what he sings, doesn’t have any glaring flaws in it, but neither does it have anything that would really recommend it.

The record isn’t bad, just inconsequential and considering that Decca’s sales expectations are far higher than what Morris had when he was on Atlantic, an underwhelming single that skews towards stylistic limbo is going to have a much more negative impact on his opportunities on that label in the future.

It probably should go without saying that each time out, but especially when you’re trying to impress your new company, you need to offer up your boldest efforts, songs that you believe in, performances that speak to your strongest audience base, to ensure continuing relevance. This record doesn’t do that. It might not set them back any, but it also doesn’t advance their cause or make much of a case for Decca to keep following this path.


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