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KING 4339; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

It’s safe to say that of the dozens of times to date that we’ve come across various refugees from a more established and respected brand of music who through either curiosity or desperation made an attempt to court a rock audience, the results have been mixed at best.

The biggest failure in connecting in this field wasn’t due to any lack of ability but rather their decidedly lackluster attitudes, as skilled musicians tended to look down on a style of music where skill, at least in the technical sense, was often the least important quality in making the grade.

Without embracing the more guttural qualities of rock – the frenzied excitement, the crude attention-getting maneuvers, the racy subject matter and the defiant outlooks of the younger generation as a whole – their efforts were largely compromised and many would soon head back to the safer more stable environs of music from the recent past, content to play milder styles for diminishing returns.

Those who jumped into rock with both feet however and took up the cause as fervently as the kids who made it the hottest musical movement in America as the Forties came to a close were frequently rewarded for their faith and elevated to elder statesmen, giving rock ‘n’ roll a somewhat perverted stamp of societal approval in the process.

But somewhere in the middle of those two extremes were people like Joe Thomas, a respected saxophonist for one of the most acclaimed jazz bands of all-time who fell ass-backwards into rock where scored an immediate hit under convoluted circumstances and thus found himself drafted as a full-fledged rocker.

The question was however: Is that what he really wanted?

Now, months later, we might be getting our answer.
 

 

Joe I Am
To recap for those who misplaced their assiduously detailed notes from past reviews, is Thomas had sat in with Todd Rhodes’s band during the first session Rhodes cut under the auspices of King Records last winter when King’s Syd Nathan was attempting to abscond with the veteran pianist who was still under contract to Sensation, the small Detroit label which King Records was distributing.

Thomas’s involvement may have been part of Nathan’s plot from the beginning, or else it was just a fortuitous situation that developed, as Nathan put out the resulting record, Page Boy Shuffle under Thomas’s name, not Rhodes, then claiming it was a simple mistake even though he was also advertising it as by Joe Thomas from the start.

When the record became a national hit the shit hit the fan, Sensation Records filed suit against King, the distribution deal ended, Nathan lost in court – and thus lost Todd Rhodes for the time being, at least until his Sensation contract came to an end – but still somehow came up smelling like roses by establishing Joe Thomas as a legitimate rock act.

Poor Joe Thomas however had no say in any of this and so when he went into the studio and tried to live up to his newfound reputation as a rocker with My Baby Done Left Me, in which he tries unsuccessfully to sing in addition to play, and its instrumental flip side Tearing Hair in the fall, he was not quite up to the task. His slip was showing, to steal a fairly relevant analogous term, as he – or at the very least his band – was still stuck in the jazzier mindset.

But Syd Nathan was never one to give up easily and so he kept asking, pestering him really, even agreeing to hedge his bets by issuing a song on the flip side of this that was more Thomas’s speed – Artistry In Mood – a classier, very interesting performance, but far, far away from rock.

The trade-off for doing that however was Wham-A-Lam, a record which could be called nothing but rock and which, to everyone’s surprise – ours, Syd Nathan’s and Joe Thomas himself I’m sure – it actually is perfectly representative of everything rock’s sax instrumentals were known for.
 

Gold Sax, Some Ham
Okay, so the group intro – save for the intermittent low honks to cap each line – might be leaning backwards rather than looking forward, but thankfully it’s not looking back a half dozen years or so as earlier efforts by ex-jazzmen tended to be when rock instrumentals were first taking off in 1947-48.

Just so you don’t think we’re overlooking it we’ll even agree the first solo by Thomas is a little more subdued than the best rock instrumentals have generally featured to date. But while it may indeed sound too orderly at times that’s admittedly difficult to expel from your thinking when you’ve been brought up in an entirely different musical environment. Veteran band members like Thomas were used to being fully prepared, fully disciplined and having every aspect of a song fully worked out when they went into a studio. By contrast most born and bred rockers acted as if they were winging it after coming off a bender and that’s certainly going to create enough of difference in approach to be noticed.

But what you should also notice is something that tells us more about Thomas’s evolving outlook when it comes to how he’s treating rock ‘n’ roll. While he may still have the technical instincts that are hard to shake, he’s also forcibly adjusting his thinking on Wham-A-Lam to make sure the proper effects for rock are achieved.

Take for instance the basic grinding riff at the song’s core. Even though it’s played by the ensemble in lockstep formation it has a grimy feel to it… not quite sultry, but not innocent either. Each instrument takes part, right down to the trombone slide to close out each line, but it’s the bottom that’s being emphasized most, not the lighter registers that so much of jazz was built upon.

Then turn your attention to Thomas’s own stand-alone spots which also are focused on the mid-range rather than the higher ends. When he drops down to the lowest notes in his arsenal he accentuates their dirty vibe by having the drummer cap it with a slam-bang roll on the skins, like a flurry of left and rights worthy of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Even when returning the focus back to the song’s basic riffs behind him rather than having him go off the reservation and start cutting loose, the goal is to keep the listener locked in, something that an ill-judged solo would disrupt if not destroy outright. True, he may not be aiming too high with these more cautious decisions, perhaps not trusting his still conflicting instincts, but what a relief it is to see someone choose prudence over pride when it comes to reining themselves in when there was a chance if left to his own imagination he might fall short.

I know, I know, these kinds of compliments are unlike us in the rock kingdom where we tend to favor the boldly audacious over the cautious and timid. But consider the circumstances before you cast judgement on OUR judgement… Joe Thomas was not someone who voluntarily enlisted in the rock army, he was drafted. But rather than going AWOL or vainly asserting his credentials as reason to receive a discharge, he was dutifully rising at dawn, marching in step and perfectly willing to do KP duty in order to fit in.

The thing is, in this case anyway, it works. He’s delivering a song which might not be the best example of rock mayhem we’ve encountered but Wham-A-Lam is hardly out of place with the rest of the honking and storming instrumentals of the day. If HE’S willing to fall in line to meet expectations doesn’t that say more for his character than someone who looks down his nose at this music, giving a halfhearted effort and then claiming the dreadful results they delivered are meaningless because it’s not a true measure of their musicality?

I dunno about you all, but give me a squad of Joe Thomases who were willing to put in the work to fit in rather than an entire division of snobby wooden soldiers unable to adapt to their new terrain.
 

Wham, Bam, Thank You, Man
Our response to Thomas’s efforts of course – seventy years after the fact – don’t mean much in the big scheme of things. Whether we give it our stamp of approval now or not wouldn’t change how his career evolved once he threw in with the undesirables in the rock community. The only thing that mattered then, to both Thomas himself and his employers at King Records, was how well this sold at the time and whether that meant there was enough interest in pursuing this music further to make it worth their while.

In that regard this release definitely served its purpose. Though not a national hit in Billboard, and thus likely to be overlooked even today by historians who for some reason rely on that publication’s back pages for determining success or failure at a time when it was nowhere near an accurate assessment of the interests of the black community at the time, we’re happy to report that the far more relevant Cash Box listings showed that this was indeed a sizable hit in its day.

What-A-Lam not only made the Top Ten in such places as Los Angeles and Savannah, Georgia in March and April, as well as cracking Seattle’s charts in May, but it was still showing up in the listings in Indiana as late as August, giving it a surprisingly long shelf-life and showing that it hadn’t simply been the beneficiary of some big marketing push, or a localized regional taste or that it benefited from a temporary slump in the competition.

Was this record going to be a game-changer for rock ‘n’ roll overall? Of course not, but it was another brick in the wall of rock’s increasingly dominant hold over the marketplace and for a guy who had first risen to prominence with Jimmie Lunceford’s revered jazz outfit another lifetime ago, that was a pretty noteworthy achievement.

There was still no real chance that Joe Thomas would go down in the history books first and foremost as a rock act, but now he was at least going to be included in the rock index under his own name for a hit record that he himself had earned, not one that he’d inadvertently been credited for by a conniving record label owner.

So take this one for what it’s worth, a solid rock instrumental by someone who made a conscious decision to make the move to a booming genre of music that just a year before he probably had no genuine interest in. Once he tried this supposedly unappetizing dish he found that he in fact did like it after all, at least enough to keep eating it for the foreseeable future.

That may not be a complete transformation of his musical character, but it’s notable all the same and makes for yet another sign of how rock ‘n’ roll was moving up in the world… or possibly that more serious musicians were moving down in the world, depending on your where your own tastes reside.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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