KING 4434; FEBRUARY 1951



Was this one of those randomly picked titles, something faintly humorous designed to try and get listeners to give an instrumental record a chance on the jukebox, if only to see what it might sound like with a name like this?

Or was it a not-so-subtle jab at the kind of music the skilled musicians in Joe Thomas’s band were being asked to play to earn their keep with King Records where they were expected to masquerade as an enthusiastic rock outfit to reach the masses?

Either way the effect is the same… it’s a record you might sniff from a distance but you aren’t necessarily going to chow down on it.


Are You Hungry?
At a glance you wouldn’t think that February 1951 was particularly special when it came to rock ‘n’ roll. No legendary artists burst onto the scene, no transformative record was released, no major events happened outside of the death of Cecil Gant, and even he was somebody who was more often than not just hanging around the periphery of the style, not defining it.

Looking further we see there was only an average number of national hits (five) coming out in the month, four of which were by already established stars (two by Amos Milburn, one each by Ruth Brown and Little Willie Littlefield) yet even those were not career defining records and in Littlefield’s case it was one that was decidedly average.

Of the records that didn’t have huge commercial returns there was only one we judged perfect (9 or 10) but even that was more of a personal choice based on specific tastes and it’s for a record which probably doesn’t have universal acclaim, at least not to that extent.

So going by these markers you’d say that February 1951 would hardly be most people’s first choice if we were drafting the best months in rock to date. Yet as subjective though these scores are by nature, we deemed more than seventy percent of the releases coming out this month to be average or better with almost half of the songs landing in the vaunted green numbers where the really good records reside.

What accounts for this? While record companies might hold back good records until after the holidays, that usually meant they’d be released in January, not a month later. Was this just some random fluke that happens every so often, or was it because we’ve started to trim back just which records we cover around here, excising some non-essential hybrid flip-sides in an effort to get things moving in this never ending quest to chronicle all of rock history, seventy five years and counting.

Well, it was probably both actually, a freak occurrence AND more discerning choices about what to include, yet here we are ending the month with Dog Food… a song that was exactly the thing we’ve been cutting back on lately, a hybrid flip-side which inevitably will drag the cumulative score for the month’s releases back down a notch.

Hey, we gotta make sure we don’t become too predictable around here.

Table Scraps
This is a record that comes about when a reliable hard-working band who is dutifully cutting songs a little outside their comfort zone and doing so with an admirable sense of professional pride, are nearing the end of the day and are given the chance to do something more in line with their own tastes.

Not completely removed from their main goal mind you, which was still to have some commercial appeal in rock ‘n’ roll, but at least a song where they might have a chance to not be so intentionally simplistic in what they play.

I know, I know, with a title like Dog Food you’d think that if anything in their arsenal would be simplistic, this would be the one, but maybe that was done to mislead you into thinking you were getting a dumb rock song with repetitive riffs and a monotonous beat.

Instead you get a jazzy song where the side musicians can actually show they have manners and decorum, musically speaking that is.

The primary section of the song is melodic enough to qualify as reasonably catchy and fairly tightly constructed to make sure nothing is out of place… and it’s all boring as hell as a result.

Well, maybe boring is the wrong word. Try “classy” or “mild” or “genteel” or “modest” or “pleasant” or…

No, I was right the first time, boring it is.

Ingredients For An Appetizing Meal
Herein lies the problem with artists having radically different perceptions regarding the music they’re being asked to play and what they feel is good music as for two years now we’ve seen Joe Thomas swallow his pride and attempt to conform to the decidedly lower standards required for rock ‘n’ roll and perhaps this tune was a form of not-quite silent protest.

Yet even here he manages to bring just enough rock grit to the table during his sections that this qualifies under the term. His solo is hardly anything special but at least it stands out compared to the laid back vibe everybody else in the band is giving off and his tone is really good which seems to suggest something a little more grimy than the others were comfortable with.

At a few points when he digs down a little after the midway point you even might be prone to thinking it’s all better than it first appears, but don’t let his relative enthusiasm fool you for long. It’s just that the vitality of his lines compared to the snooze fest the others are laying down has rousted you from dozing off and as a result you overreact to its qualities.

As with most records made by good musicians in a self-contained band there is a fair amount of skill in terms of how they trade off and in particular how the backing horns ease back and surge forward when giving Thomas space to maneuver, but otherwise this is a jazz band tired of being asked to be a rock band deciding once again to be a jazz band while maintaining the outward appearance of a rock band in the hopes no one will notice.

Did you follow that? If so you’ve just paid more attention to one paragraph describing a record than you would’ve given the record itself.

It may not be so bad as to be called musical Dog Food but like the sloppy gloop that comes from a can, this record might fill a hole but it’s not going to taste very good going down.

Chow Time
So why bust up February 1951’s winning streak with a record that just as easily could have – and probably should’ve – been left out of the month’s tally?

Simple. Because the point of trying to tell rock’s full story is to show its highs and its lows in equal measure, to somehow explain why certain trends began and others ended and why some artists succeeded and others failed.

Let it be said that Joe Thomas didn’t fail… Dog Food aside. He’s had some legitimate success that was well earned and has maintained a professional attitude throughout his tenure with King Records playing music that was hardly his first choice.

But in terms of pure skill Joe Thomas was better than many, if not most, of his competitors in this realm. He had the experience, the technical ability and the writing and arranging facilities to consistently put out above average rock records if he chose to and yet he didn’t because he was lacking the one thing that ensured greatness in this field.

The desire to actually be a great rock act.

Rock ‘n’ roll was never about just skill and technical proficiency, it was about a burning need for self-expression, to reflect who and what you were through that music. Yet Joe Thomas simply did not want to be defined by THIS music, no matter how well he could have played it had he tried.

Whether consciously or not, Joe Thomas held back just enough to not allow his name to be forever associated with rock ‘n’ roll. He was a great jazz musician who now found himself in an era that demanded something else… something he did competently enough to earn steady releases and occasional praise, but nothing more.

All the way he still desired to play great jazz. The problem was this record wasn’t great jazz OR great rock ‘n’ roll and so it was soon forgotten.


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