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KING 4318; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Alfred Hitchcock was known as the master of suspense, a director who specialized in stories of creeping dread and real life situations with unexpected twists which spiral out of control.

But one of his favorite – and most effective – devices was the use of mistaken identity that puts an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest… all posing the rather basic question of what would you do if you were suddenly thrust into the shoes of somebody else as they were staring down a perilous fate?

In 1949 Hitchcock was about midway through his golden period which had begun in the early 1930’s and as such he still had plenty of classics still to come. But if he needed any inspiration for a story, or rather evidence that the “wrong man” theme wasn’t as far-fetched as it might appear, he need to look no further than saxophonist Joe Thomas, who was currently riding high on a hit that by all rights was the work of another artist.

Thomas thereby became a rare example of the wrong man who was in the right place at the right time. But even if he wasn’t facing jail or death for his switching places with somebody else as Hitch surely would’ve done had he been directing this rock ‘n’ roll production, that didn’t mean the mistaken attribution on his last record didn’t put Joe Thomas in a rather difficult position going forward.
 

 
Swing Shift
The full backstory to Joe Thomas’s rather interesting “dilemma” can be read in the review for Page Boy Shuffle, on which he played but was not the credited artist when it first was released on Sensation Records.

That record was done by Todd Rhodes who, for some reason still not adequately explained, had Thomas sitting in with his usual stellar band. When that record got picked up for wider distribution by King Records, as they’d been doing for close to a year with all of his Sensation output, they put the record out as by Joe Thomas.

Now was this a mistake or was it intentional? If it was the latter would that be a smart idea if you were trying to get Todd Rhodes into the fold for the King label, especially after it became a huge hit, costing him the rightful recognition for it, both at the time and in the years since?

Or were they trying to boost Thomas’s marketability on the back of Rhodes’s work, figuring this way they’d get another potential star out the deal since Joe Thomas was NOT a member of Rhodes’ band and therefore wouldn’t be tied up with him for the long term?

I can’t see how that makes sense, though a lot of things Syd Nathan did while running King Records weren’t sensible. But in this case nobody knew this record was going to be a hit so the risk of alienating Rhodes probably outweighs the reward of promoting Thomas, but you never know.

Furthermore, Joe Thomas – though not a household name – hardly needed any boost in his musical credibility. This was after all the featured tenor sax star of Jimmie Lunceford’s band for years and Lunceford’s group was widely considered the pre-eminant swing band in America for the 1930’s and ‘40’s. After Jimmie’s death in 1947 Thomas took it over but without the leader’s name out front and with the changing tastes of post-war America, the band began to break up, leaving Thomas in search of a gig.

Due to his reputation and talents though he’d have plenty of offers. For years he’d resisted putting together his own band, preferring to stay with Lunceford, but now he’d have no choice. He signed with King and yet instead of immediately cutting his own tracks he winds up sitting in with Rhodes, which is a little bewildering on the surface. Was this done at Rhodes instigation, or at Thomas’s, or even King Records themselves as this was the first Todd Rhodes session they themselves oversaw?

Whomever can claim credit for it, the decision might’ve been a wise one even without the ensuing success of Page Boy Shuffle, simply because it was one of their better options to move Thomas in a direction where growling tenor saxophonists were making waves in the rock market.

By comparison the swing band market was dying, if not already pronounced dead, and unless Thomas scored with something quick he very well might head back to the safety of an established jazz band. In the past both Count Basie and Lionel Hampton had tried recruiting him to their outfits and both were still in business in 1949 so it’d stand to reason that they’d see an opportunity to pick him up if his initial efforts as a solo artist didn’t pan out.

Whatever the real story is, the record with his name attached to it DID become a hit, a big hit, and that meant even though it had been a Todd Rhodes record to begin with, the one who stood to benefit from its success would be Joe Thomas… provided he followed it up with something that appealed to the same brand of rock fan who’d Rhodes had been courting for the past two years.

That however was hardly a sure thing.
 

Swing Ain’t Got That Thing No More
Thomas’s style was unique when he joined Lunceford. For starters unlike most musicians of that era – and all of the musicians in Lunceford’s band – Thomas didn’t read music, putting him at a disadvantage for that style where groups would play such a wide array of songs on the bandstand that you needed to be able to read the music in front of you.

Normally the lack of this ability would be enough to get a person fired, we’ve mentioned in the past that Lunceford got rid of future rock vocalist Cliff Trenier because of this very reason, but Thomas proved himself too good to jettison, as he brought to the table a drive and power that other horn players seemed incapable of matching. So Thomas got a reprieve and soon was taking an ever bigger role in the band’s arrangements.

But we’ve seen this generational shift at work before. Thomas represented one of the first of the “new breed” of artists when he first joined Lunceford – somebody who would in many ways help to modernize their sound as he represented the younger generation who approached things differently than their elders.

But now Thomas himself represented the older generation in comparison to the rock artists who’d come along in the years since he’d first appeared and so it’d be he who’d have to adapt to keep up and that’s not always easy to do, either musically, or more often conceptually.

Working with Rhodes, one of the few who HAD been able to make that transition already, might’ve helped him though. Thomas was used to being subordinate and so for him it might’ve been easier to allow himself to simply play what Rhodes laid out – to do his job as that job was defined to him. But now he’d have to be the one to determine which job had to be done and how to do it. On Tearing Hair he shows why this was easier said than done.
 

Male Pattern Blandness
Stop us if you’ve heard this before.

If Thomas hadn’t gotten credit for Page Boy Shuffle there’s a chance that this record wouldn’t be included here. Then again, it’s got some elements that fit in fairly well. I guess it’s all in the perspective you take when looking at it.

Such was the evolution from the jazz era to the rock era, where the two styles, though often seen as unrelated, were much closer than they’re usually given credit for.

The opening of Tearing Hair is an arrangement from another time, one that has little connection to rock. That doesn’t mean it hadn’t been USED in rock, especially early on, simply because it had been so popular in swing that many artists, producers and record companies viewed it as a reliable approach, no matter what you called the music it was affixed to.

But in short order those records which leaned towards this type of tightly played group horn exercise started coming up short when it came to eliciting a fervent response from the new rock audience. An audience which viewed the sight of each and every horn sticking in tight formation, the higher end of the brass section getting the biggest spotlight, as something hopelessly archaic.

The musicians probably couldn’t understand this. Not only had it once been viewed as incredibly exciting, but they were certainly fulfilling the requirements of pacing, energy and enthusiasm that rock supposedly was making its name on. What those holdouts didn’t grasp though was the changing expectations as to how to most effectively deliver such rousing workouts.

In swing technical precision was emphasized above all else, whereas in rock a sense of musical crudity was favored because it sounded more authentic. Then there’s also the fact that by this point the swing charts like this starts out with had become overly familiar. If you were a twenty year old rock fan you’d been hearing this kind of thing since you were ten years old, even younger perhaps, which meant you had every reason to feel that it wasn’t being made for you and your tastes, but rather your older brothers and sisters, or even – God forbid – your parents!

That’s the generational rift that separates musical eras. The idea that in order for something to be fully embraced by the music fans coming of age it has to be NEW and thus intended for their ears, not those who’d already laid claim to some earlier form of music.

As a result, while very well played, the first half of Tearing Hair is out of place here. The riffing horns are too structured, the excitement is too calculated and the first solo???? On TRUMPET? OH MAN, is it square!

Kicked off by a stand alone bass, the horn comes blundering in squawking up a storm. He wisely keeps its tone as low as it can get, but that only stops us from turning the record off and chucking it in the garbage altogether. But even if we let it play out this isn’t anything that will get any rock fan to give these guys another chance after this.

The first minute of the record is a case of mistaken identity all right. We mistook these guys for rockers, but surely we WON’T make that same mistake again.

But then, just as we’re about to give up on them and move on to someone else, Joe Thomas steps in to try and right the ship.
 

About Face
There’s no question that Thomas has got a big hole to climb out of if he wants to be able to keep his membership in the rock ‘n’ roll club and what he does over the next minute – while admirable in his attempt – likely wouldn’t convince us he really does want to be in the rock stable. I’d go so far as to say that he realizes the crowd is growing restless and so more out of a sense of professional pride than anything he’ll just do what he can to keep you from walking out on him and embarrassing the band.

But remember, Thomas has got a deep enough bag of tricks that he’s compiled over the years to be able to rummage around in and find something more suitable for this audience if he puts his mind to it and sure enough he ramps up his playing, trying to hit on the right combination of sounds to win you over. But it’s hardly something he can just leap into all at once, changing the entire feel of the record on the spot and have it make sense. So most of the second minute, while he might be preventing you from making a mad dash to the exits, try as he might he’s still not getting you on the floor and shaking your… whatever you want to shake.

For those of us in the audience who have a measure of respect for all eras and styles, even if our allegiance is firmly with the rock movement, we’re going to feel a little sorry for him at this stage and try and give him the benefit of the doubt. We’ll stay in our seats, eyes fixed on the bandstand rather than on the clock, and when he finishes we’ll put down our drinks and give him some mild applause for the effort alone. He’s certainly playing hard enough to earn that much. In fact we feel a little guilty as we can see him scanning our faces as he plays, trying to gauge how this is going over and surely knowing that we’re merely being respectfully polite.

So as he nears the last minute he makes another readjustment on the fly and it’s here that he finally figures out what kind of unruly reprobates like us he’s got in front of him and so he reaches down to the deepest regions of that aforementioned bag of tricks and pulls out just what it is we’re looking for.

From here on in, Joe Thomas leaves no doubt he could exist as a rocker – THRIVE as a rocker even – and while I’m sure he wouldn’t want to have his old friends catch wind of this tawdry performance, he’s not thinking about them now, only about connecting with us.

His riffs become shorter, cruder and more explicit. He hits highs on his horns that we never thought likely and lows we never dreamed possible. In short he throws off his jacket, pulls off his tie and for awhile seems as if he’s even going to tear off his pants and shimmy naked on the floor with whichever women get to him first… and by this point there’d be a pretty big contingent lining up to do so too.

To think the same crew that started this song as if it were 1939 have, in just three minutes, taken us ten years in the future… or rather have caught up to those of us in the present. But they’ve done it. That we can’t argue with. The last minute is definitely rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe some of the other horns are still a bit out of place in harmonics, but not in their commitment. They’ve gone all-in on this style, at least for this one performance, and have come out the other side with some legitimate credibility in this field.

Maybe these guys knew what they were doing after all. Even the name – Tearing Hair – becomes oddly appropriate with everything they’ve gone through in the course of this song. The fact that it’s really THREE songs, or three stages of one song representing the last full decade, makes it rather difficult to judge, but who cares. As a time capsule of the 1940’s this would get a much higher grade, whereas when confined strictly to the rock community it’ll have to pay for the meandering trip down memory lane it took us on before blowing the roof off the joint.

I guess we know deep down that Joe Thomas and company won’t be sticking with us for long. He just wasn’t made for these times and we respect that. But in case he changes his mind, we’ll be leaving a seat open for him all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 

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