KING 4367; MAY 1950



Like an acclaimed Shakespearean stage actor suddenly forced to star in a television sitcom, saxophonist Joe Thomas who once was the centerpiece of Jimmie Lunceford’s legendary swing band now finds himself reduced to cutting generic rock instrumentals to keep his career going.

Ignominious though it may have been for him, Thomas dutifully acceded to the demand and came away with one big hit and a string of decent sellers in rock ‘n’ roll but his heart likely was never really in it. He was good enough and professional enough though where you could never question his effort and so provided the motivation remained strong enough for him to want to keep his bosses at King Records satisfied, you were reasonably assured of getting something suitable every time out.

But were you ever going to get anything more than that? A record that transcended its modest aspirations and sought to raise the bar on rock instrumentals?

Mmmm… probably not.


Changing Partners
Though a lot has changed for Joe Thomas over the past few years, he was still gainfully employed with a record deal on a top independent label and unlike many of his brethren he’d made the transformation to another style of music entirely and thus he could put off changing professions altogether for a little while longer.

As things stood nearing the midway point of 1950 he was still riding the reception of Page Boy Shuffle, which was a Top Ten national hit a year ago courtesy of Todd Rhodes in which all Thomas did was guest on but got full credit for in one of Syd Nathan’s most devious gambits. After that, while Thomas proved to be amenable to following it up with other similar rock instrumentals, he hadn’t yet shown he could really match the best of them coming out from artists of the rock generation, but then again he hadn’t fallen on his face in his efforts at doing so either.

Paring up with producer Henry Glover – another refugee from the pre-rock landscape, albeit one who switched roles altogether in addition to switching musical genres – they try and get Thomas back on the right track by coming up with something basic, to the point and above all else, serviceable for the rock crowd.

Rollin’ The Blues meets those modest goals but while commendable enough in their attempt to stick with it, once again Thomas never looks to really go beyond those modest requirements and come away with something truly inspired.

Give ‘Em What They Want
There’s almost mathematical formula at work here that Glover and Thomas apply to every aspect of this record, breaking down other rock sax instrumentals and isolating the parts, distilling them down to the essentials and then putting them back together to suit the stated needs of the audience.

As a result Rollin’ The Blues contains the right amounts of the necessary components but it gives them to you in a very clinical manner because the one ingredient they’re missing isn’t an instrumental or musical element, but rather it’s lacking the right emotional quality.

They’re missing the passion in other words.

From the standard opening of horns playing a staggered riff backed by piano, bass and drums, the record doesn’t hope to surprise you as much as it does to merely satisfy you. Each of these parts is well executed, the musicians applying the right amount of rhythmic bounce aided by an arrangement that isn’t too cluttered and leaves room for the crucial pauses to act as their own “phantom notes” – silence that takes the place of an actual note, but which comes at a specifically plotted point each time through.

There’s nothing out of place with any of it. The drummer is laying down a steady back-beat rather then becoming overly enamored with the brushes and even the trumpet when it arrives is just adding a very faint siren-like response line that adds color without drawing attention to itself. It’s an admirably streamlined sound for a couple of ex-jazz men, churning with single-minded precision and providing the right platform for Thomas to step into the spotlight.

When he does come along he’s playing pretty much what you’d expect to hear, a groove that stays well in the pocket, showing enough flair that you appreciate his abilities but not taking things so far as to get him thrown out of the musician’s union for ostentatious behavior.

It’s a decent melodic part too even though it never falls into a memorable groove and when the baritone takes over it naturally gets more rudimentary without losing the comforting – even essential – repetitiveness of the riff.

The record is unambiguous about its ambitions, wanting nothing more than to be an acceptable dance record for jukeboxes and on bandstands in live appearances at smaller clubs and it achieves those goals with relative ease.

But that’s all it achieves… by design, which is where we start to question their true commitment to us, the audience expected to support them in these endeavors.

Clubbing You Over The Head
If we were among those at a club where they were playing and the atmosphere created by the band leading up to this song was similarly appropriate for our needs, then we surely wouldn’t complain when this started playing.

Thomas and Glover weren’t wrong in their assumptions about what we need in those situations – a good simple riff with no ill-fitting parts that goes on long enough to keep us moving.

Mission accomplished.

But ask yourself this: As suitable as it is for such circumstances, can you envision yourself actually seeking out Rollin’ The Blues on its own? Maybe on a twenty record jukebox if it was one of just two or three instrumentals it might be worth five cents, but if there were more ambitious attempts by artists with a stronger allegiance to rock sharing space on that jukebox then this would be the record that got your last nickel, not your first or second.

Likewise in a club if you’d been up and down all night, dancing then drinking then dancing some more, and were taking a breather for a few minutes when Thomas suddenly launched into this it’s highly doubtful that you’d immediately leap back to your feet, shaking off your weariness and head out on the floor, determined not to miss this as if it promised to be the highlight of your evening.

Therein lies the problem. This is a perfectly acceptable song for what it sets out to do, taking no risks in delivering exactly what is called for, but while that might mean it doesn’t slip up by throwing in a flighty trumpet solo or a quirky piano break, it also ensures that it doesn’t captivate you by letting Thomas try and tear the roof off with his own solo, or maybe carving out twelve seconds for the drummer to create a mini-earthquake with a standalone spot of his own that would send the crowd into a frenzy in a club full of boisterous revelers.

Sometimes to achieve transcendence you have to risk failure and your ability to know which direction to head in that attempt can’t always be scientifically charted beforehand. It’s instinctual by nature and requires a total immersion in the culture to be able to pull it off effectively… and even then chances are you still might miss your mark, but at least then you could say you gave it your best shot.

Safe And Sound… Or A Safe Sound
Joe Thomas was determined NOT to screw this up and thus he played it safe.

The end result is a song that fits unobtrusively into any set-list for a club appearance with rock clientele and a record that won’t be out of place in any jukebox catering to that type of listener.

However the trade off for that is Rollin’ The Blues won’t ever be the record stands out on that jukebox and pulls people in to shove nickels in one after another to hear for three months straight, nor will it be the song that will be overwhelmed with cheers as soon as the first notes are played on the bandstand each night.

An average record for its time in rock history is always welcome and in that regard they did what they set out to do and we congratulate them for it.

But when an average record is your entire goal heading into the session then somehow its success at meeting those goals doesn’t seem quite as admirable.

It’s all in the way you look at it I guess.


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