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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
Joe Morris, the ex-jazz trumpeter whose records were about all that kept the wolves from Atlantic’s doorstep during is initial two years, was with Atlantic Records no more. Once his contract was up he “returned” to Decca Records, the major label which scoffed at rock ‘n’ roll but weren’t dense enough to realize the style was becoming a thorn in their side commercially and sought to make some tentative inroads with the rock audience.

Rather than resort to scouring the alleys for the shady type of characters who plied their trade in this roughhouse music they instead looked to those who had a better pedigree on paper and Morris, who’d been with Lionel Hampton’s vaunted jazz outfit who had long been among Decca’s most successful black acts, seemed to be the ideal fit for their more conservative musical outlook.

They weren’t going to be asking Morris to push the envelope stylistically to try and get ahead of the curve as rock ‘n’ roll progressed, but rather they were going to ask him to rein his music in a little more, for 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.

As a result Decca viewed Joe Morris as their ticket to connecting with the younger audience thanks to his recent work on Atlantic, while at the same time they hoped he wouldn’t offend older listeners, and in fact might even appeal to them 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.
 

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, Sneakin’ Around, a cover of a recent Rudy Render hit, albeit carried out in the style of uptown bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon’s Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, which shows you just how little Decca seemed to trust Morris to come up with something both respectable and commercial if left to his own devices.

That would prove to be the fatal flaw in not just Decca’s rock excursions, but ALL major labels, none of whom viewed this music with any respect let alone any fondness for it artistically.

Decca brought Morris on board ostensibly to shore up their one weak market yet didn’t let him really explore his own muse and then on top of it 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. 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, all while Morris’s debut for them was treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, something they seemed embarrassed to admit they were now pursuing, however halfheartedly.

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 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)