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EXCELSIOR 536; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

A gold star for all of you who immediately noticed the label number to this and thought it a bit familiar.

I’m guessing that nobody noticed, unless of course you already know the circumstances surrounding this record and were looking for it right off the bat.

So to explain the convoluted circumstances and get everybody up to speed…

In December, 1948, Excelsior 536 was released giving us our first record in which Johnny Otis’s name was the credited primary artist. In fact we covered both sides of that single, Happy New Year Baby, featuring Lem Talley, his baritone sax player, on vocals, and the far more torrid flip, Barrelhouse Stomp, which unleashed to the world Big Jay McNeely’s second tenor sax detonation of the month after his debut solo effort, Wild Wig.

So what are we doing, one month later, back reviewing Excelsior 536 unless somebody at Leon Rene’s label made a typographical error of some kind?

Well, welcome to the singles era of music history when quirks like these were somewhat common.
 

 
In fact in cases like this they were done for good reason, albeit only at a certain time of year, when record companies sought to extend the commercial window of titles affixed to the other side of a holiday release by removing that Christmas or New Year themed side once January was underway and there’d be less reason to play and/or buy it, and replacing it with another song not confined to just about a month of the year. Since most artists… well, most artists on smaller labels at least… weren’t cutting TWO songs celebrating the holiday season (though The Ravens, as we saw in November, did just that), it became necessary to pair the Christmas (or New Year’s) offering with a non-theme oriented song. If THAT song showed promise on its own, as Barrelhouse Stomp certainly did, then they all thought it’d be foolish to let it die a quick death by keeping it tied to a record that was touting an event that was already over and done with.

Hence the re-issue. We’ll see it soon with The Orioles as well, who removed It’s Gonna Be A Lonely Christmas from Jubilee 5001 and exchanged it for Dare To Dream, an insipid supper club pop offering we won’t bother even dignifying with a review (despite Sonny Til’s credible vocal performance). In that case it might not have really been necessary, as the flip side AND the new title didn’t stir much action themselves. In fact it’d be altogether rare if any replacement song held much interest. After all if the new side was really worth showcasing wouldn’t it have gotten a release unto itself?

Normally yes. But in this instance the substitute was not only even better than the song it replaced, but also vying with the fireworks displayed by the song it now shared a piece of wax with, and together they acted as a loud and scintillating advertisement for Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Watts where this kind of music – raw, vibrant and cutting edge – was being played every night of the week. Thus while the original release was a solid two-sided record, the re-issued version was arguably the best two-sided platter of any rock record to date and gave notice that the action happening in Southern California may be poised to wrest control of the rock scene from New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit and New York.
 

Open The Doors
We’ve discussed the unique and addicting environment of Otis’s thriving new club when reviewing Barrelhouse Stomp, the first such club to specialize in this specific type of music with their nightly revues which featured a who’s who of Southern California instrumental hot-shots and vocal stalwarts.

The 1940’s music scene in general was rife with nightclubs with house bands that were quite popular, the only difference was in the type of music they presented compared to The Barrelhouse, which was far more raw and unsophisticated than what was featured elsewhere. But had that been the extent of their careers together, as vibrant as the atmosphere was, as many people who grooved to the music each night, once the doors closed and the club shut down, the musicians moved on, the sounds changed, the music they churned out would be but a dim memory of those who frequented the club. Go through the trade papers of the era and you’ll see lots of clubs in lots of cities featuring lots of quality house bands… Now try and tell me what their music SOUNDED like.

Unlike most, Otis’s music was captured on record. In what has to be his most inspired moment in a sixty plus year career of high points, Johnny Otis’s genius was to feature each of those artists on wax, preserving their contributions for posterity while also building a formidable stable of stars by spreading around the notoriety to all of those in his orbit, not hoarding the acclaim for himself, but sharing it equitably.

Over the next few years Otis will almost certainly be featured in more reviews on these pages than anybody else, his name usually adorning the labels as the primary artist for a sense of commercial continuity, yet the featured performer on them will change with alarming frequency.

Here we are introduced to “Pete Lewis… and his Guitar” a prescient declaration for those encountering him for the first time, as the moment the needle hits the groove Pete Lewis states his case as a frontrunner for the still yet to be fully claimed “First Rock Guitar Legend”.
 

 

Rising In The Dead Of Night
Most of those who came of age well past rock’s actual 1947 birth have been indoctrinated to think of the guitar as rock’s defining instrument, at least until hip-hop became rock’s dominant style and rendered the guitar slightly anachronistic, at least in terms of how prevalent it remains today.

This will no doubt change as well, trends come and go, new styles of rock are created to appeal to new generations of listeners, and usually those who prefer one particular era or style are prone to railing against the validity of everything outside that narrow scope.

But for most of rock’s evolution, now seventy year and counting, the guitar DID play a very prominent role in the instrumental makeup of the music and of the image associated with that music. Certain styles utilized it more than others but the guitar’s versatility, adaptability and portability all made it a preferred means of conveying the music to the masses.

It had to start somewhere though… for as we know the foundation of rock wasn’t built on the guitar at all, but rather tenor saxes and pianos, drums and bass, and glockenspiels… Well, not glockenspiels, but if you had to actually think for a moment about what records we’ve reviewed to date that featured glockenspiels (that would be none) it only goes to show how little of rock’s output so far had placed the electric guitar front and center.

We’ve seen it so rarely in fact that we can count its most exemplary performers on one hand and still have a finger free to flip off whomever has drawn our ire most recently. George Freeman of Joe Morris’s crew, who soon departed. Tiny Grimes, the four-string wizard. Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, whose mighty licks were ganged up on by an unsympathetic horn section while the producer shut off the lights to let the brass section work Lewis over with their instruments for being so bold as to try and compete with them. Billy Butler was the one who probably had the most consistent output with his axe to date yet other than being name-called by Albennie Jones in the midst of one song otherwise went uncredited and thus remained unknown to the general public.

If you want to be generous you can toss in a few others, Gene Phillips early on who straddled the fence stylistically before going back to the older brand of music he was more comfortable with… certainly whoever was playing on Joe Turner’s Low Down Dog is worth a shout out… Jimmy Liggins reportedly played a pretty good guitar in a rough hewn style but Specialty Records wouldn’t even let him showcase that skill on any of his records at this point, showing just how low on the totem pole the instrument was.

That’s not a very lengthy list to be sure and we’re already almost a year and a half into rock’s history. Maybe that glockenspiel joke isn’t such a joke after all when it comes to what instruments might set the next trend in rock ‘n’ roll, as it’s not lagging THAT far behind in being showcased compared to what we’ve heard from the guitar thus far.

But that’s about to change with Midnight In The Barrelhouse which, while not “first” in any sense in terms of prominent appearance of the guitar, WAS the first to declare that the instrument was throwing its hat into the ring and expected to be taken seriously from this point forward.

With Pete Lewis manning the strings, it’d be kind of hard NOT to notice it.
 

Center Stage
Pete Lewis was typically billed as Pete “Guitar” Lewis, which leaves no doubt as to what he specialized in. Virtually everything else about him however was far more murky.

Lewis was born in 1913, somewhere in the South according to Johnny Otis’s lone mention of him in his book Upside Your Head. Most reports you’ll find online having him being discovered at the Barrelhouse Club in 1947… except the Barrelhouse Club wasn’t around until after that.

In other words it’s all guesswork and fabrications based on threads of information so small they can’t be expected to weave together a coherent biographical sketch. And so the life story of Pete “Guitar” Lewis boils down to his recordings made over about an eight year period before alcoholism led to his dismissal from Otis’s band, his subsequent homelessness the next decade and his anonymous death soon after that, just another wino according to whatever coroner who was assigned with tying the tag to Lewis’s big toe before moving on to the next case.

I don’t know if that coroner was a music fan, or if music is even allowed to be played in a morgue while work is in session, but if so the music that particular cold stiff wino had made while alive years earlier could wake the dead… maybe then he’d be able to answer some questions we as a society never thought to ask while he was around.

Like how the hell did he learn to play like a messiah of the instrument?
 

 
 

The Sun Shines Brightest At Midnight
It starts off with a startling tone, full-bodied and harsh… almost violent by its very nature and warning of imminent destruction before suddenly it fades and the piano enters light and discreet just for a moment by itself, the calm before the next storm. When Lewis returns to the fold he’s now playing an edgy lead as if the guitar was strung with barbed wire as the horns softly moan in response, surely replicating the sound of whatever wounded animal was now caught in that guitar’s fierce jaws.

Ten seconds in and you’ve already been knocked on your ass, kicked in the head and thrashed around by an instrument which prior to this, no matter how much of a rock fan you were, you hardly even noticed was on the stage. Yet on Midnight In The Barrelhouse it’s at center stage, the spotlight fully on it as all of the patrons alternately edge closer to hear the licks he’s dishing out, while at the same time keeping on their heels so they can quickly turn tail and run should he unleash something else as frightening as what he kicked it off with.

Lewis’s playing is the embodiment of musical tension, strung out over the more familiar backing which retains a semblance of order and discretion. He rips off some single-string solos that warp your sense of balance, the sound being so otherworldly compared to the usual fare of the day in rock that you aren’t quite sure whether to duck for cover or groove along with it, especially as it gives no hint of what’s to follow.

Normally records, especially instrumentals, have a more predictable progression built upon well-established musical boundaries all instruments must adhere to. True, those basic ground rules were recently upended by the increasingly frantic tenor sax workouts, but even in those cases, while the resulting passages they featured were completely unhinged, even maniacal in their intent, they STILL followed a pattern that was easy to discern from a distance. Start off slow and then gradually build up the pace until you were sent into a frenzy. Anyone watching a drag race or seeing an airplane take off could understand the basic concept of that.

Not so here, where Lewis changes tactics throughout, unleashing every trick in his arsenal… laying back and playing cool and easy, then abruptly striking the strings as if they owed him money, before easing off and playing a lick so sublime before the bridge that you might not even notice it if you are too shaken by what preceded it.

The bridge does return us to some sense of normalcy for a while, as the trumpet gets a weary solo that grounds things momentarily. We’ve railed against the out-of-date sound and approach of that particular horn since the beginning in rock ‘n’ roll, as nobody had yet figured out how to use the trumpet in an effective manner by reining in its tendency to overwhelm the arrangement with its squawking. But here they come relatively close to finding an appropriate niche for it, letting it act as the respite from the heat the guitar has built up, its slow pace and shrill metallic echo reorienting us to the more established musical benchmarks.

Even now though the spotlight remains on Lewis who cleverly shifts gears, offering up a prancing progression on guitar that sounds more hospitable than his earlier assaults on the senses.

Of course it doesn’t last as he soon reappears with the same ferocity that he began with, but at least by this point the listener is aware of his brass knuckles approach and have their guard up for the little good that will do them.
 

Jazz Noon
By the close you are as wrung out as the strings he bent, twisted and abused during the course of the song, left feeling positively brutalized sonically by what you’ve just heard. But despite the ferocity itself and the alien sounding technique used to achieve that sound what stands out upon closer inspection is how effectively it was all put together.

Even back then, when it was SO outrageous compared to the average rock ensemble’s output, there had to be an appreciation of the skill set involved, in particular the layering of the sounds as each stage builds upon the previous mood just completed, a masterful sense of how to heighten the drama by the arrangement.
 

 

The end result is haunting, menacing and yet strangely intoxicating all the same. It’s a tour de force of musicianship, but also of musical concept, knowing just what they were working towards from the very start. Compared to many of the sax-led instrumentals that had no sense of direction and just told you to hang on for dear life as they took you for a wild ride, this had its destination in mind from the beginning and methodically, yet no less excitingly, took you into the atmosphere that existed each and every Midnight In The Barrelhouse.

That was the hour when the couples, already worked up and worn down from a night of high living, would slow dance in the crowded club amidst a one-of-a-kind milieu created by the heat from the bodies, the scent of the ladies perfume and the men’s sweat mixing into its own distinct odor with the lights down low and the clock all but irrelevant.

There was a term for hour this among nightclub performers, Jazz Noon, as that was when musicians had to be at their most wide awake and alert. With their unusual schedules that found them sleeping during the daylight hours, having breakfast in the evening and going to bed as the sun came up, the midnight was their midday and places like The Barrelhouse were their entire universe – a workplace, a home, a way of life, something this record magically captures and transports us all back to that world each time it’s played after dark.

It’s no wonder that when Lewis was removed from that environment his own life ceased to have meaning and came to an all-too inglorious end in the harsh glare of the sunlight.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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