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REGENT 1009, DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

A month ago we covered a record that was, to put it bluntly, pretty poor by a largely mysterious and thus virtually insignificant artist who, when going by that initial offering, barely fit into the most generous and welcoming view of rock ‘n’ roll’s borders.

In other words based on that record, Tall Corn, he was somebody ideally suited to be left out of the roll call of artists altogether, especially as we took ever more time to progress into the 1950’s by taking a four month detour to add artists and records initially left out of our coverage of 1940’s rock.

In fact Johnny Crawford was one of those guys we added at the last minute that contributed to this prolonged delay that surely had a few frustrated readers silently urging us to just “Get ON with it already!”.

When we DID add Crawford we acknowledged the seeming incongruity of his presence as musically it wasn’t quite apparent why he belonged, and there seemed to be no historical reason either since he had no impact whatsoever on rock’s evolution. But at the end of the review we said his inclusion would soon make sense and – as you surely have guessed – this record we’re covering today is what justifies his addition to the ranks of rock ‘n’ rollers.
 

 

All Aboard
Before anyone gets too excited thinking this will be some long-lost gem that will take its place among the greatest records of its time, sorry to let you down but it won’t. It IS a good record though, but the more important reason for Crawford being welcomed in is the mere fact that this is unquestionably a rock ‘n’ roll song.

Good, bad or indifferent, that remains the only qualification that truly matters – does the record in question qualify as rock. If so, then by extension if an artist’s other work is on the borderline of the genre it can be more easily rationalized for including that too, if only to try and show their progress in this regard, or sometimes their uncertainty in sticking with it if it’s the later work that fails to show the same commitment.

But even though Johnny Crawford makes the cut due to the totality of his output during his brief association with Savoy Records (and its subsidiaries as this appears on Regent, another label under their umbrella) we’re still somewhat in the dark about who he is, where he came from, how he specifically came about being signed and what his musical mindset was before arriving in the studio under the auspices of the label’s West Coast A&R man, Ralph Bass, who was strongly pushing rock ‘n’ roll as the sound with the most commercial potential.

That lack of information is frustrating because in cases like this we don’t have any sense of how big of a leap it was for Crawford and his band to make in order to successfully fit the requirements for rock membership, or if after they departed the company a short time later with no hits to show for their flirtation with this music, whether they left it behind altogether assuming they remained together as a club attraction.

If Red Cap Shuffle is any indication though, these guys would’ve been wise to stick with it awhile longer, because not only was rock still growing rapidly in appeal, especially for the sax-fueled songs such as this, but they show they clearly have a grasp of how to successfully tap into that despite their relative inexperience with it leading up to their arrival at the studio in late 1949.
 

Now Departing From Track Three
One of the recurring themes in rock’s first two years has been the shifting uncertain ground beneath the feet of black music in general during this era. Jazz had been the first avenue for black musicians to achieve national recognition in the 1920’s and 30’s but as with everything else in society they soon were being pushed aside by white imitators who were deemed more appealing to record companies whose preference for the bottom line over purely artistic aims meant attempting to draw predominantly white listeners.

Black jazz artists still thrived to a degree and bigger names such as Ellington, Hampton and Armstrong had certainly achieved mainstream acceptance, but the disparity in terms of overall sales, promotion and recognition over the 1940’s had tilted overwhelmingly to white acts, at least when it came to moving jazz into middle America’s living rooms. As a result black artists coming from a jazz background were once again seeking to carve out their own unique brand with such innovations as bop that – coincidentally or not – remained commercially underwhelming compared to the predominance of white big band styles that were thriving at the time.

But as all of jazz, both the white and black renditions, began to lose their sway over the popular tastes of America of all ethnicities in the post-War years there was a vacuum that needed to be filled and pretty soon urban blues, gospel and rock all moved in and were jockeying for position in hopes of picking up the commercial slack. This meant a good many jazz musicians who had yet to break through in that field were seeking to improve their career opportunities by branching out into something else. Since horns typically were not part of the standard blues (at least the rawer sounds of urban and country blues) or gospel sessions, that left rock as the most appealing destination.
 

Pulling Out
This group we’re looking at again today were among those who were in the process of trying to successfully make such a move. But in many ways that’d only mean that their efforts wouldn’t be too consistent from song to song, each one trying to hit upon a slightly different vibe in order to gauge which of them had the most potential, just as their lack of consistency would be further exacerbated by the fact they weren’t sticking to their comfort zone to begin with, as each of these were touching upon styles they may have only been familiar with in passing.

Red Cap Shuffle is their most self-assured venture into rock, a full-bore sax instrumental that starts off in unambiguous fashion with a rolling riff handled by all of the horns, but not in a throwback style as you might expect from jazz expatriates, even with that unison approach they employ. Instead they are focused on hitting upon a rougher sound, imparting this with gravity and force that only gets more pronounced when the tenor sax steps into the fray with a swaggering riffing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Big Jay McNeely or Hal Singer record.

If this is Crawford himself then he earns his headlining label credit because he’s fantastic. Though not trying to impart a distinctive melody it’s not altogether unmelodic either and while not reliant upon finding a specific groove it falls into something that qualifies in that regard nonetheless. Crawford’s not attempting to merely be as crude as possible by breaking out every gimmick in the rock handbook, from guttural honks to helium squeals, but his playing has a definite raunchy attitude to it especially when he focuses on the lower end of the tenor’s range and so he manages to keep the excitement at a high level throughout.

The baritone meanwhile – an underused weapon in many band’s arsenals to date – manages to take full advantage of a stand-alone spot of his own, not just adding the anticipated booting low notes but actually being allowed to carry a melodic passage that picks up where the tenor left off. It’s not quite as long, but it may be just as endearing and its slightly different sound gives the entire record remarkable textural qualities, something which is further emphasized by the rhythmic piano playing of Henry McDode and the drumming of Jimmy Miller, all of whom are locked in from the first note to the last.

Though it’s a loose song rather than a tight arrangement they all pull it off with ease, giving a sense of their cohesiveness as a unit which makes you wish they had more chances to expand on what they showed here. But as late 40’s rock instrumentals go this will live up to the most demanding of expectations.
 

Tickets Please
Since there’s absolutely nothing about this record to quibble with, but sadly not enough information on the performers to delve into, we should probably take a moment to explain and moderately protest the title itself.

Though surely deemed innocuous by all involved, including probably the band itself it should be stated, Red Cap Shuffle has a sort of an unsettling air to it when looked back on seven decades down the road. It’s not insulting exactly, more of a reflection of a very regrettable time in history in which the opportunities for African-Americans to have good-paying jobs which demanded universal respect were far more limited.

Ironically one of the more respected professions of this era was found in the transportation industry where the Pullman Porters on trains were exclusively black men who, by virtue of the red caps they wore (regardless of the train line they worked for) were called Red Caps.

Because it offered steady employment in a reputable field Red Caps were held in high esteem by the black community and it was considered a somewhat prestigious profession largely because they had a very strong union which took full advantage of that power to push for social and political change. Since trains were still the most common form of long-distance transportation and because the rail industry needed people to carry bags, serve food and clean up after passengers disembarked (and maybe most pointedly were irreplaceable due to the fact that the Red Caps image was so intrinsically linked to their race that it would’ve been impossible to replace them with white male workers if they’d fired the black porters en masse) the union’s power grew to the point where its President, A. Phillip Randolph, was one of the leaders of the early Civil Rights movement simply because he held such unique leverage over a large segment of white America.

Yet in spite of this the job itself was still demeaning. Pullman Porters were essentially servants to the needs of white America, forced to bow and act gracious no matter the circumstance, reliant on the generosity of the travelers whose tips accounted for the bulk of their pay, all while being forced to pay out of pocket for their very uniforms – not to mention having the cost of any items stolen off the train by these fine upstanding white criminalserr… “passengers” deducted from their salaries – all while feeling the sting every day of being universally called “George” because of the fact the owner of the Pullman company was named George, so of course classy white folk bestowed that name on all of his employees, robbing them even of the dignity of being seen as individuals.

Though in the 1940’s it may have been a few steps above sharecropping, shining shoes and other menial jobs available to African-Americans, and thus appreciated and respected at the time, we should be far less forgiving when it comes to evaluating its place in history.

So you can surely see what Red Cap Shuffle infers – the image of the dutiful servant silently picking up the bags of white passengers and shuffling up and down the steps of the trains and taking them to their compartments and forced to be grateful for whatever spare change they had palmed off on them before they shuffled back down the train’s aisle to enact the same ritual again and again.
 

End Of The Line
But times were changing, slowly maybe, and in ways that initially removed some of this power from the community, as trains were increasingly replaced by planes as well as better cars and roadways which transported people with greater ease perhaps than trains were able. With the gradual decline of the Red Caps in society it meant there would soon be fewer opportunities for the white majority to expect black acquiescence in the specter of everyday life.

But times were changing in other ways that would have even more positive effects and rock ‘n’ roll was not only heralding them within many of their songs but also with its growing popularity were introducing yet another aspect of black culture into middle America. Though we weren’t quite there yet, the sounds heard on records like Red Cap Shuffle were giving a sneak preview of what lay ahead, when honking saxes and tough rolling grooves would form the bedrock of the most popular brand of music the world has yet known.

Johnny Crawford and his cohorts wouldn’t be around to enjoy the fruits of these labors in any real sense, but their presence on this scene – brief though it was – provided one more tangible example of why that eventuality was all but inevitable.

Just as the train industry had found with their Red Caps that they couldn’t do without the black workforce, so too would American popular music learn yet again that they would be nothing without the contributions of the black populace.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Crawford for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)