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EXCELSIOR 540; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

The early recording career of Johnny Otis has been notable for a few things, starting with the sheer diversity of his supporting players, many of whom got featured appearances in his songs, or in some cases got their own releases under their names while still remaining in the fold in his band.

Many of these were culled from his primary pursuit at the time, running the Barrelhouse Club in Watts, a thriving nightspot for this new breed of African-American culture which was manifesting itself in rock ‘n’ roll. Among those to have emerged from their amateur night competitions were Big Jay McNeely, Pete “Guitar” Lewis and the vocal group who starred on the top side of this release, and who provide backup on this side as well, The Four Bluebirds who’d soon adopt the name The Robins and be a fixture in rock for the next decade.

While all of those artists were emblematic of the dynamic musical styles of rock that Otis was successfully replicating on record, he also sought to somehow convey the vibrant atmosphere found at the club in other ways, one of which was in trying to showcase the humor that played such a large part in the stage shows that took place each night where comedians kept things jumping in between the musical revelry.

But over the years the odds of finding success by using comedy on musical records would prove to be no laughing matter.
 

 
Hear Ye, Hear Ye
We can cut Johnny Otis some slack for stubbornly trying to draw laughs from skits married to music at this point simply because there wasn’t enough evidence to show how difficult it was to do yet, particularly in rock ‘n’ roll which required – or its audience demanded – a more vibrant musical setting than pop music did.

With the biggest record from a few years back still fresh in everybody’s mind – that would be Open The Door, Richard a riotous skit by Dusty Fletcher that Jack McVea had set to music – the possibility that this could become a fairly regular occurrence seemed more promising. To use a rather obvious pun, the door was open for others to give it a try themselves and Otis in particular was determined to make this idea work.

But a comedy act that connected on stage did so using far different techniques than a musical act whose natural attributes were far more suited to a record. Without the visual component and the shared audience response that added to the humor in live venues there was bound to be too much lost in translation.

Otis’s first such attempt, as well as a subsequent one to follow, took the Barrelhouse Club’s comedienne Cathy Cooper and tried shoehorning her act into a song called Alimony Boogie. Yet while the premise was decent the limitations of a record conspired against it to hold it back.

Comedy is all about anticipation, pregnant pauses, sideways glances and perfectly judged timing before the payoff comes. A music record is primarily ABOUT the payoff. When someone has to rush through the routine to meet the record’s demands the laughs had better come with each and every punch-line or else the listener will feel far more let down than they ever would by a mediocre musical passage. After all they’re trying to make you crack up and failure to do so is a pretty damning indictment of the jokes.

So with that in mind I’m sure most might think that better jokes are what’s called for in order to realize the potential of the concept. But while that certainly wouldn’t hurt it’s not going to be a cure-all for the chances a comedic record has to make a splash. Instead you need to focus on the music and making sure the delivery of the lyrics are good enough to pass muster with listeners even if every single joke falls flat.

On a record called Court Room Blues they finally manage to strike a perfect balance.
 

 

I Promise To Be Good
I don’t want to criticize the Cathy Cooper led Alimony Boogie, or its follow up around the corner Pay Day Blues too much, lest this become about her perceived shortcomings, but it is important to contrast the records themselves to see how a slight shift in approach makes a world of difference.

Though Cooper could sing she wasn’t a singer by trade, at least not someone who was going to earn a full time living with her pipes. So the songs she was enlisted to perform on wax kept her vocal chores to a minimum. Just carry the melody enough to keep in moving forward while hoping what she was saying was funny enough to compensate.

But here Lem Tally gets assigned the lead “role” as a guy hauled to court for running a red light and while it is true that Tally’s main job was as Otis’s baritone sax player he was also a credible singer with a bunch of vocal performances to his credit. As much as his singing skills do contribute to Court Room Blues comparative success aesthetically, what helps even more is that the vocal lines were written straight. In other words, change the words but keep the delivery and it’d likely have the same appeal.

Tally’s vibrant uptempo delivery barrels along, hitting all of the right inflections for the music rather than trying to artificially focus on hitting the inflections for the humor. It does do that as well at times, especially the further it goes along, but it’s secondary to making sure the song’s musical integrity is upheld.

As a result this sounds like a song, not just a comedy routine shoved awkwardly onto a record, even though it starts off with something that would be more at home in a movie, as the judge bangs his gavel and calls the rowdy court to order (The Four Bluebirds, who are the featured performers on the A-side, are here to add to the background ruckus). That structure is much more cinematic in presentation with a fleet-fingered piano highlighted throughout to keep things humming.

Now here’s where it gets confusing. The vocals – and piano – are credited to Darby Hicks. There was no Darby Hicks, it was an insider joke that originated when it was played on Otis himself when he was a young inexperienced member of another band and was told of this Hicks character talking shit about him. He finally got so upset he demanded to confront him only to be let in on the joke that Darby Hicks was fictitious.

Otis then used it as a frequent pseudonym, usually for Devonia Williams on piano, and that was generally assumed to be the case here. Well that’s her playing but unless she had a very convincing sex change operation, or swallowed a gallon or two of pure testosterone for breakfast, she is not playing the role of the judge. Whoever it is though, band member or outsider (my guess is the latter), he’s the one who is given the responsibility of delivering the humorous interludes which Tally then responds to by singing his own lines.

That’s the key to all of this working as well as it does. The comedy is grounded in two ways, the first of course is the reality it depicts where black citizens are forced to accept as “normal” the never ending indignities of police harassment and legal injustice. That’s the source of the outrage that exists under the laughs and is something the rock audience at the time (as well as today) knew all too well from their own experiences.

The other way in which the trading off between vocalists grounds this is by keeping the outright jokes – those spoken asides by the judge – separate from the musical thrust that is being delivered by Tally as he bitches about his predicament. Because of this decision the song itself never gets derailed by the humor. The Hicks parts are merely acting as interludes to launch the next refrain, much like how on other records a guitar or sax solo would take on the same task.
 


 

How’d You Pass Your Driver’s Test?
As well as this is structured however, the primary failing – and what makes this simply a success for its type of record rather than a top notch record overall – comes from that music, which shortchanges them all.

Williams is fine on the keys but as is so often the case the horns are the ones who deserve to be locked up. Trumpets, trombones… the usual rogue’s gallery of offenders… conspire to make the crimes of Tally’s primary accomplices sound like nothing more than a collection of pickpockets rather than muggers who assault you with the heavier sounding horns like tenor saxes.

When the more appropriate horn finally does come into play courtesy of Big Jay McNeely it’s a relief, but even Jay seems to be on his best behavior and as a result his lines are still not too threatening and soon even he gets dislodged by John Anderson’s trumpet solo which frankly is the true crime in this ordeal. Where’s the bailiff when you really need one?

As a result of the underpowered accompaniment – though Williams does her best to shore up their deficiencies by herself as she manically works over the ivories – Court Room Blues lacks the punch to be deemed too much of a menace to society.

All of which means the burden falls back on the lyrics – and thus to some extent the humor – to make this work. Yet instead of undercutting the record, as often happens when too much of the focus is placed on garnering laughs, here it lifts it back up, primarily because it eschews punch-line jokes in favor of more comical characterization. Tally’s desperation becomes increasingly pitiful in the face of the judge as he awaits sentencing, begging, pleading and eventually whining indignantly as he’s about to be locked up.

The twist to the story, and the funniest aspect, is the judge actually tries bargaining with him, as if Tally needs to agree to the sentence in order to be put away or something, and eventually he wears the judge down who ultimately gives up in exasperation. All of this takes place in what can rightly be called the coda, as the music and singing ceases for this extended resolution, something which also works from a conceptual standpoint as it frames the record in its biggest laughs while never detracting from the primary song housed in the middle.

In the end, even though they walked out of the courthouse with their freedom, was this a strategy that would garner them hits down the road? Probably not. But it was definitely more than enough to keep them from being locked up in musical jail this time out and so Court Room Blues stands as proof that you could in fact inject genuine humor into rock ‘n’ roll and have it work well enough to be recommended, even admired.

Case dismissed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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