ATLANTIC 940; MAY 1951



The last year or so bandleader Joe Morris has release so many records featuring vocals on them, whether his own, Laurie Tate or recently Billy Mitchell, that you might’ve forgotten that he had made his initial claim to fame on instrumentals.

But with his star sax player Johnny Griffin having departed to return to his first love, jazz, and at the same time seeing the lessening interest in romping instrumental tracks as the Fifties dawned, Morris made the decision to expand his repertoire and didn’t look back, scoring his biggest hits in the process.

Still, you had to think that sooner or later he’d want to remind people of the musical prowess of his band… the only surprise is that he does so here with a surprising new element brought to the forefront of his sound.


Alone In The Dark
In case you were inclined to peak ahead if you haven’t heard the song to see what the “new” element is that makes this song stand out, we won’t keep you in suspense.

It’s the electric guitar… and in fact the performance here is one of the most alluring things we’ve heard played on the instrument to date.

Unfortunately we can’t tell you who it is… not because we don’t want to, but because we’re not sure. The one source that has some of the personnel listed says it’s Roy Gaines, a hell of a guitarist for sure, but one who had only just started playing that same year… at fourteen years old… in Texas no less, not New York. According to Gaines himself he only played locally and not on record for a few years, though he in the mid-50’s he worked for a time with Joe Morris, which is clearly where the rumor began.

So it’s definitely not Gaines, but then who is it? One of the guys peering out the window of their new tour bus as it’s being christened in the parking lot for a publicity photo?

Maybe, but the only one we can identify for sure is Morris himself, standing out because of his expanding girth as much as because he and new vocalist Sarah Lou Harris (replacing Tate) are the only two members of the outfit on the ground amidst the sea of white faces including Herb Abramson (l.) and Ahmet Ertegun (r.).

Well, how about the possibility of it being none other than our old friend Jimmy “Babyface” Lewis, who sat in with the band as a vocalist at this session back in January and will be the featured singer on the far more tepid flip side, but someone we also know as one of the best guitarists around even if he rarely gets a chance to show it off.

Though Morris surely had a regular guitarist in his group, he never really featured him and so it stands to reason that if Lewis was going to be singing some with them, it might pay to have him break out the axe too for an instrumental like Midnight Grinder… but that’s just a guess.

Whoever it is though should get top billing here, because he’s unquestionably the main draw of this record.

Night Moves
At first it’s not what the guitarist is playing that is special, it’s just a slow boogie riff after all, pretty simple to play, but rather it’s his growling tone which sets this apart.

It sounds dangerous, almost as if it’s a wild animal warning you to stay away lest you get bit. The pulsing sound however is far too enthralling to keep you from inching closer to try and get a handle on it.

Unfortunately for you Joe Morris is trying to force you to stay back by using one of the more reliable methods in rock – an outdated horn chart – which provides the melodic bed under which the slithering guitar. It’s not that their own repetitive riff is out of place but their tone is bad, too high as usual, and when an alto takes a brief solo it veers perilously close to being completely atonal.

If Morris only envisioned the guitar as a supporting player in this arrangement it will surely go down as one of the worst decisions in rock history, especially if the horns stick to this game plan too much longer.

Luckily Midnight Grinder starts to take on the characteristics of its title, that grinding guitar line working its way front and center by the one minute mark, snarling with ferocity while the horns settle back into a more appropriate supporting role of their own, shoring up their weaknesses in the process.

When the tenor sax steps into the breach next things pick up even more, for instead of being dismayed that the guitar is no longer out front you rejoice because whoever THIS is (again, names apparently were not deemed important by the company, as since they surely weren’t getting paid they shouldn’t expect to get credit either) brings just as much passion to his part as the guitarist delivered.

The middle section of this are the ingredients for a perfect rock instrumental – an undulating guitar topped by a sultry tenor sax, going at it in a way that sounds almost carnal. If they had harnessed that for the full record this would easily be among the best rock instrumentals of the entire decade.

Too bad Joe Morris wants to take part more and shoves the tenor aside to let his trumpet take up valuable space. Though he’s not terrible here, certainly finding a way to fit slightly better than most trumpet parts in rock songs to this point, he’s not adding anything vital and is only taking away time better spent watching the guitar and sax copulate together on the studio floor.

Luckily that guitar never lets up for a single second and the other horns are adding a discreet throbbing part of their own before it drifts back into the original pattern that seemed so out of place at the start. It may sound slightly better now, but it’s doubtful that it’s because they’re playing better, but rather because you’re still breathing the fumes from that middle stretch and are sure to remain intoxicated by it for hours after the record comes to a close.


Grinding Away
Putting aside the woeful lack of paperwork that ensures historical anonymity for those so deserving of praise, we have to say that Joe Morris, after capably keeping Atlantic’s floundering company afloat for much of its first two years, has managed to stay relevant even as the label has brought aboard a plethora of solo singers and vocal groups who will go on to define them over the next half dozen years.

With Laurie Tate he gave Atlantic their first chart topper last fall which guaranteed he wasn’t left out of the plans for the future and now with Midnight Grinder, even though it wasn’t a hit and even though its best attribute might not have actually come from one of his own band members, he’s shown that there’s still a place for the kind of addictive instrumentals the company relied on in its earliest days.

Though there’s still flaws here that at times seem potentially insurmountable, the presence of two brilliant musicians – whoever they may be – ensured that when given the chance they’d turn the tide all by themselves.

The surprise is that in doing so they managed to lift the rest of the record higher than you thought possible, hopefully letting Morris and Atlantic know – as well as any other bandleaders out there taking notes – that when you have instruments like these which have more visceral power than the rest of the band combined, you better use them properly because if so they can redeem almost anything.


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