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KING 4298; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

In the almost two years of rock’s existence to date we’ve met quite a few older artists who came to a career crossroads during the late 1940’s when seemingly overnight the musical landscape shifted around them and left them adrift.

Most of them were not the type of major stars who were able to withstand a significant change in tastes in the black community that was skewing younger and more restless by the day and so with an ever diminishing market for the music they’d been playing for years they were faced with an unenviable choice – either stick to the sounds you did best and fight for the remaining club spots and record releases catering to that, or turn towards what was now setting the pace in black America and start playing rock ‘n’ roll.

Or something reasonably connected to rock at least.

Not surprisingly in most cases the latter choice didn’t work, at least not for long. It was like putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds, merely a way to stem the blood flow temporarily before you passed out and your career all but died.

Though music of all types share the same notes played by the same or similar instruments which in theory might suggest such a switch in direction was manageable, in truth it’s always been the attitude and mindsets behind that playing which have long proved to be the stumbling block to authenticity. Either the artist isn’t emotionally invested in the brand of music they’re being called on to perform or their own backgrounds and experiences are too far removed from that alien style for them to make sense of it and so the results are bound to suffer. Conviction can’t be faked and even for those who were giving their all in the attempt it’s easy to spot an interloper based on their lack of natural comfort in what they do.

As with every new style that comes along rock would have to cultivate its own stars to set the terms of this boundless musical frontier for themselves and those who pre-dated it would quickly come to the realization that they were not welcome to stay long, that is if they even bothered to stop in at all.
 

 
A History That’s Hard Two Beat
Joe Thomas perhaps embodied that dilemma more than anyone as the 1940’s came to a close. He was a renowned veteran jazz saxophonist who had made his name as the featured horn in Jimmie Lunceford’s dynamic swing band starting in 1933, a group which had it not invented that style of emphasizing a rhythmic two-beat in its music outright at least claimed ownership of as much of its patent as was allowable under law.

For a dozen years there was no greater swing outfit in the land than Lunceford’s group and Thomas’s playing as well as his gruff singing at times were crucial to its success. But everything comes to an end and for Thomas he got the end with both barrels as first the swing era began to die out during World War Two and then Lunceford himself died, or more likely was killed by racists in 1947. Thomas gamely attempted to take the leadership mantle of the band in the wake of the tragedy but nothing could stem the tide of shifting tastes and without Lunceford at the helm their drawing power was further diminished and the band called it quits in late 1948.

But Joe Thomas was still relatively young, he’d just turned 40 this month in fact, and had lots of music left in him if only he could find the right route to take him out of the world he’d left behind whose window was largely closing while still taking advantage of his specific skill set in a style that might be a suitable fit.

King Records might not have been the expected landing place for him but all things considered it might have been his best bet – at least if he wanted to connect in rock ‘n’ roll. With a reputation as one of the elite tenor sax blowers in the business it certainly made sense that the likeliest shot at securing a fast hit would come in an era of rock which specialized in the sounds he might be able to conjure up, even if he was technically overqualified for the musical requirements in such a field.

They weren’t going all-in on the idea just yet though as one side of this features Lavender Coffin whose title and theme were more intriguing than the actual song, which was also being done as we speak by Lionel Hampton who turns in a much better – and ironically a more cutting edge – version, though surely Hamp was not aiming at the same audience that King was pushing Thomas in the direction of at the time.

So it was left to Backstage At The Apollo another song with a title that promised all sorts of interesting textures, to establish Thomas as a rocker. A long shot for sure, but as long shots go not a bad bet to place a small wager on.
 


 
 

Look For Me On 125th Street
One thing Thomas had going for him of course was that while he could sing he wasn’t reliant on it. Older vocalists from outdated styles were seeing it much harder to make the grade in rock than instrumentalists as apparently it was harder to teach old vocal chords new tricks than it was their fingers or lungs when it came to playing a guitar or horn.

Still the number of established sax veterans from pre-existing genres who successfully made the jump to genuine rock stars was pretty limited. Those who’ve connected most in rock’s instrumental sweepstakes have been either complete newcomers to the scene, such as Big Jay McNeely and Frank Culley, rockers from the word “go”, or were guys like Paul Williams, Hal Singer and Eddie Chamblee who may have had experience in other forms of music but hadn’t become identified with them and thus were more open to establishing themselves in the best way available at the time.

Thomas had already achieved his fame in another genre entirely and if he were to succeed in rock with anything approaching the same level of acclaim he’d be the first. But he did have some work to study if he were truly interested in connecting, not only in looking at what types of sax rockers sold best but also in analyzing the shortcomings of those from his own era like Big Jim Wynn who largely failed to make their mark in rock despite having an excellent pedigree.

So which tact he chose for his stabs at rock stardom would determine his chances and it’s sad to report that he begins Backstage At The Apollo as if he’s content to keep the curtain at that fabled theater closed altogether by pulling the arrangement from deep within a dusty trunk from his days with Lunceford.

The record starts off with a rapid fire massed horn introduction, like machine gun fire but without the veil of danger that image suggests thanks to the inclusion of trumpets and trombones that give it too shrill a sound.

Worse yet it falls prey to yet unwelcome another holdover from the big band days in the nonsensical vocal chant that follows, a sort of warmed over scat-style refrain that was a decade out of date even had it been done well, but here it’s carried off about as lamely as could be, making them all sound hopelessly out of date.

If THIS was what Joe Thomas felt was a good bet for rock success then the lawyers for King Records were already frantically looking for a loophole in his contract by the first solo to see if they could get away with stiffing him on whatever measly amount he’d signed for.

Things do start to pick up though by that first solo as his tenor sax starts to unwind, backed by a drummer that at least sounds spry enough to hold a steady beat. It’s still nothing that’s threatening to rival even the most average rock instrumental but at least it shows he’s working hard to convince you that he be allowed to stick around for a few minutes.
 

Swinging Or Rocking
We should probably step back a moment and explain that the primary difference between the swing band horn charts and a rock band is where the emphasis lays. In swing, as denoted by the moniker itself, the goal is to SWING. By that I mean play a pattern that is propulsive but locked in with horns working in unison, ramping up the tempo and keeping it melodically sensible. You’d have call and response sections between horns that would excite the crowds and the entire production would give the impression of looseness even as the actual arrangement was tightly constructed.

Rock took elements of that, particularly the rhythmic drive and increasingly frantic conclusions, but stripped away the tightly constructed thrust of the song as exemplified by the larger horn sections and instead let the tenor and baritone saxes go off the reservation with seemingly improvised lines that increasingly flirted with total mayhem. Rock horns gleefully careened out of control while the bottom was held by a tight repetitive rhythm section to keep you moving. The offensive lows and the squealing highs they utilized with abandon broke all of the orderly rules that swing had always embraced, replacing the group aesthetics of swing with a largely individualistic mindset that would come to define rock ‘n’ roll forever more.

It might not seem too dissimilar on paper but on the bandstand there was no mistaking one for the other. The swing mindset was to maintain control even while accelerating the pace, the rock mindset was to lose control regardless of the pace. One was lean and clean, the other was raw and raunchy.

Certainly those who mastered one could handle the other technically, but where the differences showed was in the effort. The more mannered horn players viewed the honking and squealing as musically unsound grandstanding whereas the rock-bred horns couldn’t grasp why the older musicians couldn’t let go of their decorum more willingly to get the almost orgasmic-response from the crowd that was expected in rock ‘n’ roll every time the tenor sax stepped out front for a solo.

Thomas of course was a swing man at heart, yet he – more than most perhaps – was at least willing to try and fit in as a rocker as he makes evident as Backstage At The Apollo progresses.
 

Open The Doors To The Theater And Let Everybody In
At the minute mark this is shaping up to be nothing more than a reasonably competent attempt at mimicking a rock performance by skilled musicians who felt a little uncertain about it all. This looks like yet another prime example which shines an unforgiving light on the basic generational split in any cultural movement where an age difference of just a few years becomes more noticeable whenever the younger segment of the participants are the ones confidently setting the terms.

Picture a wedding where the bride and groom are in their mid-thirties and there probably won’t be too much self-consciousness among the guests out on the dance floor, surrounded by others of their own generation, but if the members of that wedding party head to a club populated by 23 year olds the next weekend they’re unlikely to even go out on the floor and might make a quick dash for the door after just one round of drinks.

But somebody forgot to tell Joe Thomas that he was a bit over the hill for this kind of thing as suddenly things start to shift as he begins to deliver lines with a little more grit to them. At 1:12 in he lets loose with his first real urgent notes and from there he takes it up another notch, almost spurred on by the challenge to see if he can indeed make the grade in this back alley style. The rest of the band dutifully follows him, now focusing less on their own individual parts and more on creating a suitable platform for Thomas to launch himself from. The churning rhythm they come up with isn’t fancy but neither does it have to be. It’s the simplicity that makes it all come together, letting Thomas take center stage as he rips free of the orderly progression he’d been a part of and now starts to just show off with cocky abandon.

Each stage of the song raises the intensity up another level, building excitement with some nice paint peeling highs with a few intermittent lows and instead of riding the breaks to slow things down to a safe speed they press on the gas, capped by the reliable back and forth pattern at the end – a swing staple, yeah, but done now in a rock motif that shows just how well that idea travels.

Its energy never lags, its enthusiasm never wanes, its commitment to the task at hand only strengthens as they go along. No, it’s not the most modern instrumental we’ll hear by a long shot in 1949 but it does a better job at showing the connection between the past and the present than anything we’ve heard to date and by the end Thomas has convinced you he’s in this wholeheartedly.
 

 
Some flaws still remain, the early kinks still need to be worked out, and I’m sure the skeptical rock audience still needs to hear more from them before making up their mind as to the veracity of Thomas and company fitting into their neighborhood, but this at least assures that they’ll be given another opportunity to win over the fan base they’ll need to satisfy if they’re going to stick around. For a guy who first made waves musically way back in 1933 that was more than you’d ever have expected going into this.

If nothing else Backstage At The Apollo set the blueprint for how those who no longer were getting their room and board paid for at the jazz hotel in town could still find a warm bed to spend the night in the rock hostel down the road, provided they were willing to shed their inhibitions along with their past allegiances and dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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