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EXCLUSIVE 51X; SEPTEMBER, 1948

 
 

Though it may seem odd in a way, it’s actually very appropriate that we are now first introduced to a truly legendary figure in rock history via a recording credited to someone else entirely. But anyone with even a remote familiarity with the name Johnny Otis shouldn’t be all that surprised, for Otis, perhaps more than any other big name in rock, became just as renown historically for the vast array of artists he discovered, wrote for, played behind and/or produced as for the records that came out under his own aegis.

The story of Johnny Otis is a long and fascinating one which we’ll have plenty of opportunity to delve into in the near future on a hundred or more records where he is the credited artist. But for purposes of THIS record, where Otis is on the periphery, it will suffice to give the basic background that informs you that the son of Greek immigrants who immersed himself in the vibrant black culture around him as he was growing up in northern California had gone on to become a respected drummer in what were then known as “territory bands” (his particular territory originating in the Rocky Mountain area and was all black in personnel aside from Johnny, as was usually the case throughout his career) which led him, in a roundabout way, to Los Angeles in the late 40’s, namely Central Avenue in Watts, where his musical career, recording career and every other career he got into (and there were LOTS of side careers along the way) promptly took off.

Joe Swift was one of the first who benefitted from Otis’s relocation and professional aspirations, but unfortunately not much is known about Swift. In the many books written by or about Johnny Otis, Swift doesn’t get so much as a mention, which is particularly odd considering that this was an actual HIT (#10 on the charts) and was officially credited to Joe Swift with The Johnny Otis Orchestra, leaving no doubt as to Otis’s contributions, so you’d think somebody would’ve thought to bring it up to him over the years. Unlike a lot of early rock efforts that were deemed musically illiterate noise by the so-called experts of the day Billboard Magazine even gave this high marks (an 84 out of a 100) saying “A smartly conceived rhumboogie novelty cleffed in a catchy stop-time, with effect lyrics, Swift’s warbling projects”.

Okay, so it’s not up to the standards of Spontaneous Lunacy’s brilliant and thorough reviews, but they had less space – and usually much less interest in rock music – with which to work, so we’ll cut them some slack.

In any event Swift thereby becomes one of the rare figures in the vast Johnny Otis universe who slips through the historical cracks which provides us here with the opportunity to exhume his musical corpse for dissection and if possible try a little Frankenstein-monster type rejuvenation for his legacy because this song really smokes!
 

Spied Him One Night And Began To Shout
Swift wrote this himself, as he did all of his material, but Exclusive was right in crediting Johnny Otis on the label alongside Swift as the performers, for while Johnny’s voice is nowhere to be found his fingerprints are all over the arrangement which is among the finest constructed ones rock featured in the 40’s, as even the squares at Billboard couldn’t help but notice.

That’s Your Last Boogie starts like a door slowly cracking open from a darkened silent hallway into a smoky room that’s already jumping with excitement but in more of a slinky cool manner. There’s a party going on inside alright but as with any party worth its name the bumping and grinding is only part of the story and we don’t even get to that for awhile. First we have to get in the door, grab a drink and get situated, and luckily for us as guests of this soiree the crack crew that Otis oversaw was the hip welcoming party there to greet us.
 

 
It kicks off with claves of all things, imitating a finger snapping rhythm that rivets your attention, then are joined – one at a time – by drums, bongos, maracas and piano, each one falling into place for a bar before the next jumps in too, like an impromptu conga line after a few too many at the office holiday party.

As entrances go this is impeccably played, utterly distinctive and most importantly, catchy as all get out. The interlocking/overlapping polyrhythm they lay down is much more advanced than most of what we’ve encountered thus far in rock ‘n’ roll and it’s obvious they were sort of flexing their musical muscles in ways most bands either weren’t capable of or simply felt was too tricky for audiences to pick up on, so why bother?

Yet here it works brilliantly, especially once the band members start vocalizing behind it about 18 seconds in, giving it the FEEL of a party in full swing as that door is now opens all the way and the total effect hits you in the face like a blast from a furnace.
 

You’ll Be Hearing This Graveyard Tune
So you walk right in, grooving along to the beat, checking out the revelers, immersing yourself in the “get down” atmosphere they’re masterfully setting. At this point, as the piano struts along, surely leading you down the road to perdition, you’re thinking this is just gonna be one hell of a funky instrumental, but then Swift jumps from the dance floor to the bandstand, grabs the mic and starts singing thirty-three seconds into the festivities, almost sounding like an impromptu performance at first as he pauses to collect his thoughts after the ominous opening line:

There was a chick, what a girl
Built up fine, teeth of pearl
She had a guy, doin’ him wrong
He caught her one night and started singing this song
THAT’S YOUR LAST BOOGIE!

The stop time vocal used there that Billboard describes adds immeasurable tension and anticipation to each stanza, like Swift has had too many cocktails at this party and throws his arm over your shoulder and drags you to the side to give you the low-down on the sultry vixen who’s commanding all the attention in the center of the floor, gyrating as her body glistens with sweat and the fabric of her dress is clinging to her in all the right places. He’s gonna set you straight so you don’t go offering her a ride home and wind up stopping off for a drink in some sleazy dive and then give her your heart that she’ll wring out and cast aside after (or maybe even before) a much anticipated roll in the hay.

It’s an effective device to deliver this tale of deceit that continues when the subjects change to “another case that I recall” with similarly duplicitous details that eventually wind up with the narrator knocked out, literally, by the girl in question. As well-crafted as the refrains are, each containing a new set-up, then building drama and offering a climatic payoff, they never fail to ring true.

These tiny slices of life scenarios offered up in the lyrics are things which went down all the time in every vibrant community that would hear this record or those who would find their way into the party itself. The characters are representative of the listeners themselves, their friends, family and neighbors, all struggling to stay afloat during the week so they can make it to the weekend and go out and have a good time. The ones who took it a bit too far and had a good time with more than just the one they were currently attached to became the subject matter for the song, but even there they aren’t being scorned or cast out, just sort of gossiped about, put down for being caught if nothing else.

If you want a good impression of the type of lively black community that was the market for rock’s first year, That’s Your Last Boogie paints a pretty vivid picture of it.
 

 

Here I Lay
Which is why it pains me to say that the weakest aspect of the song are Swift’s vocals themselves. Certainly not enough to derail it by any means, but they’re keeping it from true immortality and perhaps even keeping it from – dare I say – utter perfection.

It’s not that his delivery itself is bad, far from it, as stated the stop time effect works flawlessly, but Swift has the sort of voice that leaves a lot to be desired. It sounds almost as if he’s been in bed all week with an awful cold that’s left him stuffed up, but upon hearing the party downstairs he couldn’t resist climbing out of bed and stumbling down to join in on the fun, thinking that with a snort or two from whatever bottle’s being passed around it’ll clear his sinuses up.

It didn’t.

If the writing credits are to be believed, and we have absolutely no reason to think otherwise, Swift deserves much of the praise for the song’s impeccable storyline. Otis undoubtedly worked out the arrangement, either by himself, with other band members or maybe Swift himself, but the entire production, whoever is responsible, is first rate. This is undoubtedly the best backing track to a song we’ve yet heard in our journey’s through rock’s first calendar year.

Otis’s conga drum solo in the break with some sinister maracas working in tandem make it sound like a voodoo ritual about to get underway before Devonia Williams’ piano comes along to chase the devil back to the sidelines where at least ol’ Satan he can grab a drink and get down with whatever sexy demons are too twisted to care that he’ll make off with their souls if they let their guard down. The whole track just shimmers with a kind of coiled lurid excitement that is palpable from the moment the stylus hits wax.

So since the conception of the song was his to begin with Swift therefore had every right to sing on it, but when it sounds as if he did so with his nose pinched shut (or clamped shut with pliers by the sounds of it), that decision is what drags this down just a bit. In the hands of a Roy Brown or Wynonie Harris it’d likely be immortal, but even done by singers with simply different flaws than Swift, say the cracked enthusiasm of Tiny Bradshaw, this would’ve been an all-time classic. But Swift just doesn’t quite cut it as a singer and as such the air is let out of the balloon ever so slightly.
 

 

Start Crooning This Advice
Don’t for a second let those words of restraint deter you from indulging in this cauldron of musical joy and decedent sin however. By all means this is a record that deserves… NEEDS… to be known more and celebrated for the rich feast it did bring to the table. In a way I feel bad disparaging Swift at all since he HAS been forgotten by history, even by Otis himself when he recounted his life’s story over the years. About all you can find no matter how hard you look is Swift being merely mentioned in passing that he was the featured performer on the first of Johnny’s many hits. The fact that this record is so brilliant makes that lack of recognition almost criminal.

But then on the other hand I look at the dual credit on the record label, I listen to the record’s obvious strengths and just as obvious weakness, and wonder to myself if I’d been around back then, if I had gone to that party, had one helluva good time and staggered out with this song on my brain then when I sobered up the next day and tracked down this record and studied those credits if I would’ve correctly picked the name that would go on to stardom and eventually to immortality and which would be soon forgotten.

I like to think I would’ve and the name that would deserve the praise would be the musicians involved, IE. “Johnny Otis & Orchestra”.

If so then I don’t feel so bad after all. I think in most cases the cream does rise to the top in terms of career arcs and so, while typically skimping far too much on the details, history ultimately got it right in the long run. Johnny Otis was the budding star here and he’d go on in short order to prove this was the case. But even if he hadn’t, even if none of those involved were ever heard from again, in the end this is just a great record unto itself and Joe Swift, whatever the extent of your contributions, you should be remembered for having a major hand in something this special.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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