KING 4401; OCTOBER 1950



When in doubt return to what you know best.

Or where you know as it were.

Here the one-time Jimmie Lunceford sideman, a band that ruled Harlem in the 1930’s, returns – in name at least – to the site of so many past glories.

But even Joe Thomas has to know that if he goes back in time musically he’s got little chance of connecting with the residents of that borough in the midst of a rock upheaval.


Back To 125th Street
For much of the Twentieth Century when you wanted to refer to the tastes of African-Americans you could substitute the word Harlem for any of the more proper designations common at the time – Colored, Negro, Black…

When Billboard magazine began their charts chronicling the records popular in the black community they were listed on the Harlem Hit Parade… even though it supposedly represented the entire country.

Their rival publication Cash Box had regional charts for all the big cities… Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans… and yet they used Harlem rather than New York to designate what listeners in the biggest city in America were buying and playing.

It was obviously never intended to be politically correct but it had been so universally accepted over the years that it went unquestioned by most. They were synonymous in people’s minds.

But 1950 was a long way off from the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties and Thirties and whether Joe Thomas was just feeling nostalgic for days gone by, or if he felt that naming a record Harlem Hop was still a viable selling point in the world that had emerged since that time, isn’t clear, but what is certain is that names won’t help or hurt a record nearly as much as the direction of the music contained within.

Luckily for him, while this record isn’t quite looking forward in its approach as would be advisable, it’s also not looking backwards, making it something of a placeholder for his long term prospects in this field.

Opportunities Unlimited… And Unfulfilled
The pace is pretty moderate, the rhythm is clearly present but subdued and the melody is pleasant but hardly catchy.

Those aren’t exactly attributes you’d attribute to Harlem’s musical legacy or to anything that could reasonably be referred to as “hopping”.

That said however Harlem Hop isn’t a bad effort, just relatively unambitious.

In fact it’s kind of reflective of Thomas’s entire mindset at this point in time, a modest effort by a veteran musician who is finding himself slightly out of his element but gamely trying to keep pace. He’s not about to create a racket with his horn and yet he’s also not throwing in the towel and playing for the senior citizen circuit either. What you’re left with is aural wallpaper – a fairly nice pattern and color maybe, but nothing to catch your eye.

The group horns that kick this off are steering clear of any moldy attributes that too often mark those kinds of introductions whenever there’s a bank of horns working in tandem rather than just one out in front. That’s good news because the record isn’t starting from a hole it dug itself but even so it still needs something coming out of that stretch with more kick to it to transition to Thomas’s lead role.

Give it some weightier drumming, or a briefly pounding piano, or let those horns deliver some sudden dramatic staccato riffs… anything to shift gears more noticeably than they do.

Instead they glide into the next section which isn’t a dramatic enough shift and you may even find that because of this you’re slow to catch on that Thomas has stepped out for his solo until he’s already fifteen or twenty seconds into it.

The drummer is providing a steady beat and the piano is now rattling the keys in between bars, but even when the sax starts to dig a little deeper it’s not stirring any emotions with what’s being played. It comes across like a warm-up exercise rather than a potential show-stopper. In spite of this however there’s still an admirable quality to it that’s hard to quantify when breaking down the individual parts.

This was a band who’d been through the grind together for years, knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and had an innate sense of byplay, all of which is on display here. As a pure rock record it’s none of the things we generally seek in instrumentals – whether raucous and exciting or containing a mesmerizing groove – but it works all the same simply because everything fits together… easy to overlook for sure, but generally fairly pleasing when you do give it a little more attention.

When I Call You…Run The Other Way
As unpretentiously ordinary as this side of the record is, at least it’s got a fairly sensible approach for this day and age.

The flip side on the other hand shows the tug-of-war going on within Thomas as he delivers a vocal on Sooey Sooey Baby that is oddly detached and laid-back. It’s definitely… interesting… even slightly enjoyable in a quirky sort of way, but it’s almost inconceivable that he’d think this would cut the mustard for 1950.

Then again I’m not sure it’d make much more sense in 1945 or ’40 or 1832 for that matter.

But that’s the eternal truth about music isn’t it? Occasionally you’ll have artists who see into a future that they will help to shape as they break away from the previous standards that others had set before they came along. Lunceford was one of those guys, so Thomas certainly had first hand experience working with somebody ahead of their time.

The overwhelming majority though are those who are comfortable in their own era, brief as each era actually is, and then as soon as the terrain starts to change they fall out because they’re not capable – and sometimes not willing – to adapt.

It’s rarely a lack of musical skill that holds them back, but rather a lack of vision, interest and excitement over what tomorrow might bring to really want to explore it themselves.

For Joe Thomas, someone who started playing professionally more than twenty years ago and had been at the forefront of one musical revolution already, the fact he was able to competently adapt as the 1950’s got underway playing in a whole new style was commendable, but that doesn’t translate to sustained relevance either.

Harlem Hop was proof of this. A song that acknowledges the present, makes reference to the past, but can’t see the future.

This isn’t a knock on him at all, just a signal that the shadows are getting longer and his time is growing short. It happens to everybody sooner or later.


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