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Whenever you’re introduced to an artist for the first time there’s always the habit of trying to predict their chances for long term success and creative development based on those initial returns.

In the best cases an explosive arrival leaves no doubt that they’re going to effect the natural order of things and will go on to re-shape the musical landscape in some significant way, but even then we don’t really know how lasting those changes, or their career, will wind up being. Over time there have been plenty of new artists who entered the public’s consciousness with a bang and soon faded from recognition, destined to be brief shooting stars rather than remaining an eternal celestial body in the sky.

But most of the time when an artist first comes into view there’s no sense of what their ultimate fate will be. Their potential is often obscured by their inexperience and can be further hampered by a lack control over their early output. Record companies making the initial choices of what material to record, what take of what song to issue first and what aspects of their persona to promote also complicate matters and as such it can be quite some time before the artist in question gets to steer their own ride.

When hearing this progression happening in real time with the end results of their career as much a mystery to the artist and record label as it is to you the listener, the early signs of their potential, or lack thereof, are somewhat vague. You may THINK you spot some indication that they’re headed for greatness buried in their songwriting or delivery, but unless those attributes are developed further there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to overcome the long odds and find bankable success.

In THIS case however that’s hardly a concern, for there’s nothing reasonably positive about Joe Swift’s songwriting or singing style to have you believe that he’ll be anything more than an incidental performer on the stage, sure to be ushered off before you’ve even found his name in the program.

Yet when far removed from the winter of 1948 and the uncertainty of his ensuing career trajectory which existed at the time and replaced with seven decades of hindsight where we know he soon made his mark on rock evolution we find ourselves… thoroughly confused and frankly more than a little shocked.

People All Laugh
Upon hearing the of the nasal vocals and crude but hardly clever or salacious lyrics of Joe Swift on Chicken Leg Chick nobody whose eardrums hadn’t been punctured in a freak accident involving Wile E. Coyote-like head trauma from having their skulls caught in explosive devices would’ve ever predicted even momentary stardom for him unless Swift was quickly taught to sing from his diaphragm or had his nose tuned at the very least.

Yet not only will Joe Swift score a genuine hit of legitimate quality and historical importance around the corner, not to mention some lesser regional hits along the way, but he’ll do so without ever solving, or even disguising, his overwhelmingly honking flaws as a performer.

Now truthfully in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll Joe Swift is hardly a major name, or even a minor one for that matter. His biography is thoroughly lacking with even such basic information as his date of birth, his formative experience and what species he may have inherited his odd singing tone from all being completely unknown to us. But at a time when rock music was still far from being a commercial powerhouse Joe Swift did in fact knock one out of the park, helping to get the music noticed by the public, respected in the industry (if only for its potential sales) and in the process providing the means with which a genuine future legend and game changer named Johnny Otis was able to get his foot in the door as a national recording star.

It’s easy looking back on Swift’s career to credit his success entirely to Johnny Otis’s involvement on those later records and leave it at that. After all Otis’s résumé is a couple miles long replete with countless credits as a songwriter, musician (drums, piano and vibes), talent scout, producer, singer and bandleader not to mention various other enterprises which placed him in the center of the musical universe for years.

Surely it’s not far-fetched to suggest that Swift was merely an accidental beneficiary of that short-lived connection which saw Otis’s first rate band called upon to back Swift for Exclusive Records in the fall of 1948, especially since the commercial returns that he enjoyed all stemmed from those sessions with Johnny’s outfit. Once their association broke up soon after it didn’t take long for Swift’s days as a recording artist to quickly come to an end.

But the record buying public weren’t exactly familiar with Otis’s name, at least outside of a small area in Los Angeles, nor would they necessarily focus all of their interest on the aspects of those records that he was responsible for while completely ignoring the guy who was writing and singing the songs themselves.

In other words Joe Swift, as imperfect as he clearly was as a performer, did have some measure of appeal to the listening audience that enabled him to sustain a viable career for awhile. Furthermore on Chicken Leg Chick (also on Exclusive) Johnny Otis is nowhere to be found, meaning he was signed to the label on the basis of his potential to sell records with his OWN talents. So for fairness sake as well as to satisfy our genuine curiosity we need to examine those records thoroughly to see if the talent was there all along or merely brought out by the skills of others down the road.

Mellow, Gone And Groovy
Though of course we’d have no way of knowing this at the time when deprived of his subsequent catalog, it seems likely that the basis of Swift’s appeal to Exclusive Records had to have been with his writing. Putting aside the fact that he’s a painfully limited vocalist, the songs he composed are nothing if not unique and that’s something that stands out no matter what voice is delivering the lines.

On Chicken Leg Chick the humor is evident in the title itself and the image it conjures up of some gal whose physical attributes are decidedly lacking to say the least, unless of course you find a woman with legs like a peppermint stick to be intrinsically appealing.

Swift delivers this critique on his girlfriend with bemused resignation. You might think he’s even suggesting he somehow got stuck with this gal and can’t shake her, or perhaps he’s not dumping her simply because she’s deaf enough to not complain about his bellowing voice and so he’ll hang onto her for the time being. But rather than put her down for the benefit of those mocking his choice in women he then goes on to lists her virtues and declares proudly that he’s going to remain with her, stating unequivocally that he “couldn’t find a better hen”.

What makes all of this somewhat endearing is Swift’s good-natured acceptance of the snide remarks he’s surely receiving about his choice of sweethearts from the others around the barnyard as it were. He acknowledges their points, never disputing the criticism they’re laying at his feet for choosing her, but insisting with modest self-assurance that she’s got other features which more than make up for it.

Now normally this is where most rock singers would brag about her ability in hay. There’d be some risqué boasts about her ability to peck, or some comments about how he ruffles her feathers and lays him the choicest eggs or something. Some artists (we won’t name names, but it rhymes with Bimonee Garis) would surely be bragging about his own status in the barnyard and how he’s the cock all the chick’s crave.

Your enjoyment of that type of song might be far more evident on first listen but double entendres tend to wear thin once the punch lines become familiar over multiple spins and unless it was sold with a lot of rhythmic thrusts and musical mayhem it wouldn’t necessarily be any more appealing than a less flagrant approach.

Swift doesn’t take that more obvious tact to put this across, choosing instead to almost leave you guessing as to what her best qualities really are, something that winds up piquing your curiosity a little even as he never really drops any eyebrow raising hints to keep you coming back for more.

The Foundation Is So Thin
All of this is reinforced by the modest accompaniment by bassist Red Callender’s veteran group which seems altogether incapable of aurally stimulating a listener with a suggestive guitar lick, piano flourish or off-color honk of a horn. The opening, an alto sax blowing a mellow refrain, gives no indication any ribald tale might possibly ensue and when Swift never veers into that territory, despite plenty of opportunity, you wonder if he was toning down his delivery to match them, or if they’d conspired with Swift to keep this PG-rated from the outset.

Even the guitar solo midway through is so subdued it nearly puts you to sleep and when Swift tries to shift into falsetto for some type of emotional impact it only adds to feel that this is all more suited for an after-hours run-through of an idea that will be fleshed out considerably before they ever debut this on the stage in the next week or so.

In a way though the mild sound it embodies suits his matter-of-fact recounting of this relationship, bolstering the humble persona he employs. But while it certainly fits the overall tone it doesn’t do the song any favors when it comes to getting noticed. No song calling itself Chicken Leg Chick and opening with a wisecrack about the girl in question can claim to be above the kind of primitive coarseness the subject matter suggests. Yet their complete sidestepping of any further putdowns or sly digs at her comes across as misleading if not out and out false advertising.

It’d be one thing if this were designed for mainstream white pop consumption, where anything even potentially racy or insulting was handled with kid gloves, the artists and labels content to merely hint at some unstated impropriety while still being able to maintain it was all harmless and innocent fun should the moral police come breaking down the doors. But Exclusive Records weren’t in that market and Joe Swift had absolutely no chance at rubbing shoulders with Arthur Godfrey and his insipid mega-hit Too Fat Polka with its punch line I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me, all delivered with a breezy chuckle to distract you from the fact that overweight girls everywhere wouldn’t leave the house for a year after that record’s inexplicable popularity added to their grief.

Swift’s road to success – if he were to build his reputation on suggestive songs – would only seem to come from not holding back when it came to delivering such material. His future catalog indicates that he always had an eye on drawing interest with off-the-wall concepts, yet very often he eased up on the payoffs used, as he does here.

Without a commanding voice and shorn of the explosive musical platform needed to overlook his vocal maladies Swift is left to rise or fall on his wit and charm and neither of those is nearly enough – here or just in general – to think he’d ever break out.

Experience Has Taught Me
But while focusing on these deficiencies is only natural it can be easy to miss some of the more subtle positives he might have going for him.

Swift’s basic mindset in terms of the type of artist he envisioned himself as being was something that never changed. He was a lighthearted humorist at his core, someone willing to poke fun at himself and his situation without diminishing his self-respect in the process. In a world which offered absolutely no respect to those in this culture Swift provided those audiences with someone who seemed to be one of them, not someone who thought of himself as being above them.

He wasn’t presenting himself as an infallible idol who expected mass adoration, but rather was showing them he was willing to accept his own shortcomings and still muddle through life with a smile on his face. He might get made fun of, might get knocked down along the way, but he was determined to get back up and keep going, proud of the fact that he had someone, even it was just a Chicken Leg Chick, there at his side.

That’s not going to completely make up for his lack of vocal talent, nor will it fully overcome his weaker instincts as a songwriter, but there are worse things in life than to know your limitations and work within them.


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