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DECCA 48123; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Has there ever been more of a disconnect between multiple related meanings of a single word than with the word “compromise”

The one definition states pretty unambiguously that two parties make concessions to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement. Neither side gets all of what they want but they get enough where it’s to their benefit to give a little to get a little in return.

Yet the other definition rips that reason to shreds by stating emphatically “to accept standards lower than desirable”.

They’re describing the exact same thing basically but wherein the first definition sees a compromise in a positive light the latter sees it as a sell-out.

In late 1940’s rock ‘n’ roll there were still quite a number of rock artists who were attempting to compromise between fulfilling their primary constituency’s needs while at the same time trying to reach the audiences of their past output in another realm altogether.

Yet the results of these efforts to come to a reasonable middle ground was increasingly being viewed by BOTH fan bases as selling out… their work was now deemed to be “compromised” by this split intent.

Sometimes you just can’t win…
 

 

Movin’ On Up
For those who’ve been with us here for the duration – or have (wisely) gone back to beginning and plowed through nearly six hundred reviews in an effort to fully understand how rock evolved – we need not remind you that Atlantic Records, soon to be one of the foremost record labels in the entire music industry and pillar of rock ‘n’ roll, had but two bankable artists its entire first year and a half of operations… guitarist Tiny Grimes and trumpeter Joe Morris.

Both were ex-jazz musicians turned rock bandleaders whose output, including a few national hits and more regional hits, were about all that kept the wolves from Atlantic’s doorstep through early 1949 when the company finally landed some reinforcements in Stick McGhee and Ruth Brown, each of whom scored huge hits right out of the gate and apparently made Grimes and Morris superfluous.

Actually we don’t know that for sure, but it is a little odd that both Grimes and Morris left in late summer, although to be fair the standard recording contract at the time was for two years and each went to a label that could be seen as a step up. Grimes landed at Gotham Records, another small indie but with greater success thus far than Atlantic and where Grimes would also be given additional work as a songwriter and leading sessions behind some other artists.

Meanwhile Morris ended up signing with Decca, one of the vaunted major labels who probably sold more singles in an average week than Atlantic had sold in two years. Decca was surely looking to make further inroads into rock with artists that had a better pedigree on paper than most of the shady characters who plied their trade in this roughhouse music and Morris, who had a long jazz pedigree after doing considerable time in Lionel Hampton’s band – who recorded for none other than Decca Records – before heading out on his own, would more than fit the bill in that regard.

So maybe Atlantic DID want to keep him but couldn’t match Decca’s offer. Since record labels are rarely loyal to artists once they stop selling it’d be perfectly ethical for Morris to use his recent success at Atlantic to parlay that into a better deal with a better label with better promotion.

But the one thing Decca was NOT better for Morris was their overall musical direction which was conservative to the hilt. This was not only true with white artists in the pop realm, like Bing Crosby, but also for the label’s biggest black stars, such as Louis Jordan whose success in this realm was unprecedented.

Though Jordan’s music was brilliantly innovative for its time and socially conscious to boot, laying down much of the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll during the early to mid-1940’s, by the time rock itself came around in late 1947 Jordan was the “establishment” and thus the next generation, grateful though they may have been for his lessons, were looking well beyond that.

Decca however was not.

They still believed that long term success was built on meeting the needs of solvent adult buyers, those whose tastes would remain stable over decades, rather than trying to cater to every whim of the young who’d yet to make up their mind it seemed as to what they wanted in life and in music.

That was about as wrongheaded a decision as you could make, especially since the post-War economic shifts brought far more jobs and far more money into society meaning the younger generation had cash to spend, fewer responsibilities to deplete that money and a much greater passion for music than their elders.

So rock ‘n’ roll took off and the older established artists and their aging styles began to flatten out commercially. They still were profitable but no longer unchallenged in the marketplace – unless you read Billboard magazine which focused inordinately on radio and retailers that specialized in more traditional outlets when compiling their charts than did Cash Box which had its finger more on the pulse of younger audiences where rock was now regularly thrashing their older counterparts.

As a result Decca viewed Morris as their ticket to connecting with the younger audience thanks to his recent work on Atlantic, while at the same time being able to satisfy older listeners if he added more respectable jazz-components back into his songs such as on Portia’s Boogie, his debut for the label.

Needless to say it didn’t quite work out the way any of them had hoped.
 

Course Adjustment… Or Coarse Adjustment?
We can’t be sure of course which entity, Decca’s hierarchy or Morris himself, was most responsible for this move… these concessions… to the jazzier pop based mindset.

He’d had no intent of moving into rock when he first landed at Atlantic in 1947, largely because rock itself was just gestating at that point, but hearing the early sounds and finding them exciting, he made very definite moves in that direction at his own impetus. But at the same time he continued to cut jazz material, not as a sideline but as his primary output. To him and the band those other rowdier excursions, still without a name to even categorize them, were probably just new variations on the same basic music – more aggressive and maybe with a slightly sinister edge to them compared to what they were used to – but hardly something any of them thought would change western civilization.

Then it did just that… not for HIM necessarily, at least not yet, but those sides, such as Lowe Groovin’ and The Spider wound up becoming the sides that drew the most attention, albeit from a far different audience than he’d set out to please with his jazz output. So Atlantic began pairing them, a rock side and a jazz side, on each release and let the market dictate his direction.

Time and again rock won out and it wasn’t particularly close.

But now he was seeing other acts who had no conflict in their choices as he surely did, who were taking rock even further and while he and his group were more than capable of keeping up if they so desired, not all of them DID desire that. Saxophonist Johnny Griffin, one of the best at his job in all of rock no less, was growing restless with this cruder form of music and so with a new label marking a new start maybe this was seemed to them all to be the perfect opportunity to head back to safer ground and leave rock ‘n’ roll to the younger crowd.

After all, while Atlantic might not have had the connections to get jazz records played, Decca surely did.

But as we mentioned Decca wanted to bridge that gap, meaning Morris and company wouldn’t be able to jettison rock ideals completely even if they wanted to, which is what makes Portia’s Boogie such a mixed bag.
 

Nobody’s Business If I Sneak Around
Being with a new label with bigger goals the real question was how they’d attempt to define Morris out of the gate and at first glance it wasn’t promising.

On the top side, we have Sneakin’ Around, a song that was penned by Jessie Mae Robinson who’d also written some big records for Amos Milburn. She’d get a big hit out of this one too when Rudy Render, a somewhat classier pop slanted vocalist, landed at #2 on the R&B Charts with his version of the song. That record had already cracked the charts when Morris entered the studio in late October so it was plainly obvious they were just hopping on a hit, a typical major label ploy for the times regardless of style.

The interesting thing however is that Morris didn’t try and match the smoother rendition of Render, but rather he transformed it into a take off on the recent mega-hit by Jimmy Witherspoon, Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The theme of this new song was already closely in line with that one and Morris reworked its arrangement to adapt the pace and overall mood of Witherspoon’s smash which would become one of the biggest hit records of all-time, residing in the R&B charts for an astounding 34 weeks.

It was a smart move commercially as he briefly cracked the Atlanta Cash Box listings for a week in late December with it, but it’s not a great record for Morris who doesn’t have the vocal chops of either Render or Witherspoon to pull it off, nor is the uptown blues motif close enough to rock to be reviewed here in case you were wondering.

But while covering a hit song while mimicking another bigger hit might be good for some sales, it wasn’t good for establishing your own identity on a new label, so we turn to the other songs Morris cut that day to try and get a better sense of his mindset starting with this, Portia’s Boogie. I don’t know who Portia is, and don’t much care, choosing instead to hear what kind of music she’s into, hoping it’s far closer to the best rock sides that Morris had laid down at Atlantic.
 

A Portia In The Storm
With Elmo Pope hammering out the intro on the piano’s treble keys there’s at least a rhythmic foundation to build off and if the horns that follow are a little classier than we’d like they’re not taking us into the supper clubs altogether. The sax is adding just enough of a bottom in the cappers to each line that it holds our attention if nothing else, but there’s still a feeling this is aiming above our heads.

Essentially there’s two competing forces at work on Portia’s Boogie. On one hand you have the band as a whole who are veering towards a more refined aesthetic. It’s not quite at risk for being called too classy or elegant to have us demanding our money back, but it is too blandly nondescript for us to be won over by it. In other words, the boogie in the title is merely some subterfuge to get rock fans to buy this expecting the best.

They don’t get the best however, for while Pope’s piano solo midway through is well played with a lone stand up bass acting as counterpoint it’s the type of music that is meant to be listened to raptly while seated. Rock ‘n’ roll, as we all know, is meant to fight to be heard over the raucous crowd grinding away (on their feet or on their backs) on sawdust strewn floors.

For fulfilling the needs of that no-good crowd we’re left with Johnny Griffin, the saxophonist ironically who would soon leave Morris’s employ to return to jazz full time. It had been Griffin who had coaxed Morris into leaving Hampton’s band where both had been employed and while Johnny presumably wasn’t doing so with the anticipation of rock ‘n’ roll be created in the months to follow, when it DID come to pass he wasn’t averse to wading in and honking away, helping to define rock’s overall early sound. His dominant presence also ensured that Morris’s connection to the dominant trait of rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t severed, as it might well have been had Joe’s own trumpet been utilized more in a leading role rather than Griffin’s saxophone.

Once again it’s Griffin, and fellow saxman, Bill McLemore on baritone, who drag this back into the rock camp, first with a brief grinding solo early on and then stretching out during a longer second break which is more adventurish without sacrificing any grit, giving this almost a yearning quality in his lines that are fairly enjoyable, though hardly memorable.

But unfortunately that’s the gist of the most overt rock textures Portia’s Boogie has, the rest is taken up with Pope’s piano and the full horn section playing a light mild riff with only the momentary rejoinders by Griffin adding any spice to it.
 


 

Wearing An Old Hat In A New School
As B-sides go this is serviceable but nothing more than that, the problem is that it’s still better for our tastes in the rock kingdom than the stylistically misguided A-side which itself is a pale imitation of a definitive song in another genre.

As much as we’d like to say for certain what Decca had in mind for Morris, we’re no closer to figuring out their plans for him than we were before we heard either side. If anything we might be farther away from a definitive answer. They didn’t even bother promoting this, which is curious considering he was new to the label and thus presumably a new name to distributors not used to dealing with his brand of music, and could’ve used the introduction a few ads would’ve gotten him. Instead Decca was far too busy heralding the latest releases of their biggest stars – Bing Crosby, Russ Morgan, The Andrews Sisters, Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan – none of whom really needed a special push, to give the returning prodigal son any attention.

So much for the publicity machine of mighty Decca Records.

But maybe it’s for the best they didn’t promote this too much, for although there’s nothing altogether wrong with it the record is hardly good enough to waste the ink on, nor is it indicative of what Morris and company did best.

Times had changed in the three years since Joe Morris and Johnny Griffin had cut records with Lionel Hampton under Decca’s roof and though they themselves had admirably changed with the times for the most part, the record company they returned to certainly had not. Whomever was responsible for trying to put the breaks on their recent musical progress in order to conform to the label’s image, the lackluster results spoke for themselves. Portia’s Boogie wasn’t a hit, nor did it deserve to be.

Moving up in the world shouldn’t mean having to take a step back first to do so, but in 1949 it was all but required in the mainstream of the music industry where rock ‘n’ roll was viewed with suspicion, confusion and often even hostility. Therefore it’s not surprising that they’d compromise musically, nor is it at all surprising the results of that would sound so compromised to our ears either.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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