REGENT 1021; JULY 1950



Ask most people who go to the gym all the time why they work out and you’ll usually get the same answer.

To stay in shape, be healthier and to look better.

But beyond that there’s no real end game involved. Most people aren’t training to compete in the Olympics, aren’t bulking up to deal with bullies in the office and aren’t even putting that acquired strength and stamina to good use in more mundane pursuits – like lumberjacking or overseeing cattle drives or something.

That’s not to disparage the activity itself, it’s good that people care about their appearance and physical well-being, but the thing about working out is it’s only good for as long as you do it. If you stop working out after five years then it won’t take five months to lose muscle mass, strength and endurance.

Johnny Otis was early rock’s most devoted fitness freak, hitting the gym as it were far more regularly than most of his peers… albeit with musical instruments rather than weights and treadmills.

Though nobody really wants to see other people working out when there’s physical strain involved and they might get hit with flying sweat, when it comes to musical workouts there’s always a market for records featuring a good band jamming to stay in shape even though there’s no real end game in this kind of exercise either.


This was part of a session cut in Chicago of all places while Otis’s crew was on tour in June and I’m assuming that it was done because they had written some songs they were anxious to get down on tape while the ideas were still fresh, because as prolific as they’ve been the last six months I can’t imagine they were running out of releasable material already and needed to restock the shelves at Savoy Records… though you never know.

Either way, they did get a Top Five national hit out of the date so obviously it paid off, but it’s interesting that rather than a typical four song session they cut six songs, the final two entries being both sides of this single and with Freight Train Boogie being an instrumental it was almost as if Johnny Otis was rewarding his band for working on what should’ve been their day off.

All of them are getting a chance to shine here on a song that’s well conceived, smartly arranged and well played… and yet still is sorta lacking the kind of stop you in your tracks hook that all great instrumentals need to really made it memorable.


On The Right Track
We start off with Johnny himself clattering away on the vibes being echoed by Devonia Williams’ on piano… or should that be phrased to have Williams taking the central role on piano with Otis merely providing the accents to her lead? I dunno, but it sounds the same either way, lively if not invigorating.

When Williams definitely moves into the forefront though Freight Train Boogie takes on a nicely aggressive edge and any chance to hear Lady Dee bash the ivories is always welcome. When the horns join in they’re playing a prancing riff in unison while she and drummer Leard Bell provide the emphatic rhythm and if the horns are slightly behind the curve in the current rock landscape it probably has more to do with the makeup of the horn section itself than their specific mindsets, as you have three trumpets and a trombone taking part, outnumbering the saxophones which can’t help but give this a slightly 1940’s big band jazz feel.

When one of the trumpets gets a growly solo you cringe a little at the tone even if you admire the attitude it’s being played with as it clearly is being used to replicate the train’s horn which gives the song its title.

Luckily it doesn’t overwhelm the entire record as it steps aside after establishing that motif and we get a return to the previously played Williams-led transition which segues into the next solo, one which is far more appropriate for 1950 rock ‘n’ roll… namely Pete Lewis’s snarling electric guitar.

Behind On Trims
It’s fairly safe to say that even in the most astute circles of rock fandom of summer 1950 there wasn’t much market for a true electric guitar instrumental… in fact, of the few who’d rolled one out before none had made much of an impact… so blending Lewis into a larger ensemble was probably a smart thing for the song’s commercial impact.

But that doesn’t quite mean it makes it a better song either, which ultimately should be the first consideration.

As always Lewis is a revelation on the instrument, his skills are prodigious, his playing style is distinctive and his attitude is ferocious and though the latter might have a tendency to overwhelm other instruments, especially those – like trumpets – rooted in past styles, Otis manages to separate them enough in the song to let them exist within their own space while also forcing the trumpet to take on a rougher quality to not seem out of place once Lewis appears.

The real problem therefore isn’t that they sound incompatible but rather that what they each play sounds very transitory. In other words they’re a series of solos – with another to follow played by Otis on vibes in perhaps his most dexterous moments on record on the instrument – which are all very striking on their own, yet rather unconnected other than sharing a certain aggression.

There’s no hook to be found in any of them, leaving that piano transition to serve as the only real identifiable moment of Freight Train Boogie and so we get the sense we’re witnessing a series of individual exercises (admit it, you were wondering if we’d get back to that topic), which have no real unified purpose.

It’s technically impressive, they all are clearly putting forth their best effort and playing with admirable passion, yet it’s not a participatory sport with a clearly defined goal. It sounds good without being galvanizing for an audience.

Like getting in a strenuous workout, you tend to resist the notion as long as you can but after you finish sweating and straining you feel a sense of fleeting accomplishment, but for a record that’s not really the response you’re going for… I mean, what music devotee would want to resist playing a record but if you happen to get roped into listening you’re glad that you did because you got to hear a top band just flexing their muscles???

As rock fans we certainly have every right to be glad a record like Freight Train Boogie exists to serve as an example of Otis’s bandleading skills – and did you notice towards the end his voice directing that band on the fly which leaked into the mic… perhaps a first for a rock ‘n’ roll record?

But in a way this was a record whose benefits fall more into that historical perspective category rather than providing sheer enjoyment while it plays.

The funny thing about working out is that society knows it’s got benefits but you need to constantly remind yourself what those benefits are to stay motivated to do them. So maybe the better title for this record would’ve been “No pain, no gain”.


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