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SAVOY 731; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

As we begin to enter January 1950 I don’t think we’re at risk for letting the cat out of the bag by informing you that the headlining stars of this first year of the new decade was undoubtedly Johnny Otis and his coterie of rock ‘n’ rollers.

This is well documented historically after all and it’s not as if we haven’t already mentioned it in past Otis-centered reviews, so anyone unaware of the narrative surrounding Otis and his crew going forward will have to accept my apologies for blowing the secret.

But while their releases covering the next twelve months will result in a whopping TEN Top Ten national hits for Otis and his associates, including three #1’s, plus even more regional hits, what is arguably more interesting than just charting the successes is trying to figure out how much their concept of this music was shaping the future of rock as a whole, possibly taking it in a new direction that the public eagerly went along with, or whether it was merely a hot band riding the wave of interest until it crested.

The answer to that question when studying their other non-hit material released this year is… well, actually, a little of both.
 

 

A Cat Came Along…
For someone who fast became the biggest star of the year, Johnny Otis may have been the least likely in all of rock to gain that type of notoriety.

There can be no doubting his musical aptitude, after all he counted among his many talents: bandleader, talent scout, songwriter and producer, not to mention a being an accomplished drummer, a skill that was now mostly on the shelf thanks to a hand injury that forced him to switch to vibes instead.

But he didn’t sing – at least not yet.
 


 
While most of the records had his name as the primary artist (though ironically this one has him listed second), his lack of vocal turns meant he was never really the focal point. Instead he had a stable of vocalists who would take the lead on his records and though their names would be featured on the label they were seemingly interchangeable, at least to a degree as far as the public were concerned.

You can claim it’s self-serving or you can call it ingenious, both are probably equally true, but if becoming a bankable entity in music requires building a reputation (IE. making a name for yourself), Otis managed to do just that in spite of the revolving cast of characters on those records. For though the hits he churned out may have had many different combinations of singers on them the one constant in the public’s mind was Johnny Otis which is why HIS name as the connective tissue between them all was so vital when it came to securing those hits.

On Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’ the new name we have to contend with is Leon Sims… except there IS no Leon Sims… not exactly anyway.
 


 
 

Fully Packed
It’s no secret, in part because he himself always talked about it, that the most crucial lessons Otis had learned in his years in the music business came from owning and operating The Barrelhouse Club in Watts. There he put on nightly shows with a wide array of in-house talent – musicians, singers, comedians – all designed to give audiences something different, a nightly variety show that would have something in it to appeal to everyone.

When he made the move to the recording studio he adapted that approach enabling him to come up with records of all shapes and sizes and styles. Whatever idea he had for a song he was sure to have someone in that vast retinue of performers who was ideally suited to pulling it off.

Leon Sims was just such a person, except as stated there WAS no Leon Sims, that was just an alias for this one record used by Floyd Hollis, the regular MC and resident comic at The Barrelhouse Club who was drafted by Otis to handle some vocals over the years. In the future when assigned to sing he would take on the moniker Redd Lyte, which gives some idea of his comedic background I suppose.

Sims/Hollis/Lyte is a great choice to head up this song even though it is devoid of any real comedy, which is what you’d expect out of him if you knew who he was and what his primary role had been on stage. But in truth he actually has a pretty good singing voice, a robust low tenor which really sells the fairly standard – albeit suggestive – story this song uses.

You’d be excused though if it wasn’t Sims you noticed first because the instrumental support gets heavily featured to start with courtesy of James Von Streeter’s urgent tenor sax intro that heightens your anticipation before it settles into delivering mellow fills that seem to be floating through the mist in the background.

But when the vocals come in Sims is hardly intimidated by the strong opening set by the horn, instead he picks up on it by employing the same direct manner in his singing, forceful and confident falling just shy of swaggering. Sims isn’t crass about delivering the content by any means but he’s clearly singing with a smirk on his face, no doubt thinking of some of the images he’s conjuring up and that helps to give the song sort of a racy vibe that implies it’s naughtier than it may actually be, a key selling point for sure.

When Sims ramps up his vocal intensity after a break it’s not necessarily an explosive moment but it packs enough of a wallop merely because of how it’s framed. His judgment is excellent, he never tries to artificially oversell it but nor does he pull back and act oblivious to the primary topic. He may not be a vocalist destined for stardom but he’s perfectly suited to this song in particular and rock ‘n’ roll in general.
 

Curves In The Front
But once more it’s important to remind you that with a band this good behind him the record was never intended to act as the Leon Sims Show, no matter what the credits suggested. With anything involving Otis there are are always other considerations to take into account, starting with his own role as the bandleader and arranger in the studio and on stage.

First off it needs to be stated that this wasn’t a Johnny Otis original – it was actually written by the same woman who had penned Double Crossing Blues, Jessie Mae Robinson, and a version of it had already been cut by Paul Bascomb a month earlier. Yet Otis vastly improves that earlier model by easing back on the tempo and streamlining the arrangement while still allowing his vaunted musicians to provide plenty of punch in their standalone spots.

The centerpiece of Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin would be Pete “Guitar” Lewis who takes whatever gaps there are to be found in the hijinks and inserts lines that feature plenty of suggestiveness on their own, adding a sinister feel with a series of fills that snake their way through the more prominent instrumental support of Lady Dee’s piano and Von Streeter’s tenor sax. Whereas Bascomb’s version was frantic to the point of frazzled, this in turn shows how musicians can exude confidence by remaining totally in control which maximizes the overall impact of what they’re playing.

When Lewis gets his first solo it invigorates the track yet somehow manages to fit in seamlessly with the saxophone that takes the second solo. He even plays harsher responses to Von Streeter during that stretch which features the one slip-up when the sax wanders off-key momentarily before pulling it together. Lewis though doesn’t falter, his lines are succinct and full of coiled energy even as he never rips off a dazzling run you remain fully aware that if he chose to he’d probably shred the song to pieces.

Yet by allowing himself to remain in check it balances the arrangement perfectly. Each of the main components, Sims on vocals, Von Streeter’s sax and Lewis’s guitar, work in unison and keeps it from tilting one way or another too far.

In this sense Otis has to be given credit as it was he who arranged it and by mixing these elements together, handing out the parts judiciously and keeping each one at an appropriate level, it makes Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin that much more potent. It’s a full sounding record that has shed its allegiances from the past that Otis had been often prone to sticking with for too long, planting it firmly in the present while also hinting at the future.
 

Curves In The Back
As good as this is there’s some question however as to whether this was even initially included on the single’s original release.

It’s been reported over the years that when Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky quickly issued Double Crossin’ Blues after playing it for a local DJ who flipped for it, he didn’t even have a B-side for the record and so he threw on an unaffiliated instrumental (Back Alley Blues) by another band called The Beale Street Boys before this was added as soon as possible. Then again it’s also been written that said instrumental actually came out on a later re-release of the top side of this a few months down the road, which makes even less sense.

Since this is the one involving Otis and this is also the most common pressing to see, whatever the story behind the alternate song being used has become little more than a footnote in history. Unfortunately Sims… err… Lyte?… umm… Floyd Hollis???… or whatever name he was using to elude persistent creditors or disapproving mothers, would also become something of a footnote in Otis’s story.

That’s certainly not fair as one could even argue that the style they showcased on Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’, while not containing anywhere near the uniqueness of the monster hit on the other side, was actually their best bet for long term success. It’s more generic for sure but wouldn’t that make it a better prototype for future songs than the more idiosyncratic Double Crossin’ Blues could ever be?
 


 

We won’t go QUITE that far, but it does have more elements that would go on to shape rock’s sound down the road and that makes it as important in one sense as the huge hit found on the other side would be in another sense. Whereas that one established Otis’s name, along with that of Little Esther, giving them the commercial cachet to catapult them to stardom, this side shows Otis wasn’t reliant on a quasi-gimmicky bit of subversive humor to make that stardom last.

The only thing about this that is wrong is the title is a bit misleading because it turns out in Johnny Otis’s orbit there was suddenly a whole LOTTA shakin’ goin’ on… wait, let’s leave that term for a few other people down the road.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Paul Bascomb (December, 1949)