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EXCELSIOR 541; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

One of the eternal struggles rock musicians have had over the years is attempting to find ways with which to deliver songs about sex in ways that simultaneously skirt the censors enough to not be banned outright while still being able to titillate audiences who easily see through the thin veneer meant to imply harmless allusions to something OTHER than the bedroom topics the songs are actually about.

If you make your references too vague you lose the shock value and thus the immediate reaction of those listening who all get the joke at the same time when done unambiguously. Yet if you make it too blatant to guarantee the response you want from your audience you’ll also be guaranteed a red flag be handed out by censors and thereby lose a lot of the potential exposure the record otherwise might enjoy.

Now at this juncture, in mid-1949, there wasn’t much radio airplay to concern yourself with, for there were only a few stations bold enough to play rock ‘n’ roll and even then it wasn’t dominating the playlists anywhere. Jukeboxes in certain locations with adults consuming plenty of imbibing drinks probably thrived on the raw and raunchy sides, but just as many locales (those catering to more respectable trade) might steer clear of songs that were off-color in nature, not wanting to scare off customers who may not appreciate hearing things that generally happened behind closed doors.

Though the accepted standards of decency (whatever you construe that word to mean) evolve over time, becoming more lenient with each successive generation save for a few moments of regressive backlash, the problem of how to push boundaries even further remains unchanged even into this century. As evidence we still have “Clean” versions of songs being pushed for airplay while the unedited versions are what people really want to hear.

Maybe then it should come as a form of consolation to those still fighting for freedom of expression in song to go back to the beginning and see that although battle remains the same the progress made over the years has been considerable as any one taking a bite out of The Jelly Roll can attest.
 

 

Sweetness
One of the methods of distraction Otis was undoubtedly counting on regarding the contents of this are the different possibilities concerning the subject of this record.

Jelly rolls are a sweet treat that are good to eat.

…Then there are also the kind made in the bakery.

(C’mon, no groaning, that’s a good, if obvious, double-switch joke)

The fact that the first usage, the X-rated one, is simply a euphemism while the second is a proper noun affixed to a widely known desert means that Otis could attest that the record was about the kind that comes in the box.

(Oooh, there’s another double meaning joke, actually triple meaning if you study it closely, though this one at least started out somewhat unintentionally when thinking of how to phrase that line).

There’s been a few of these “are they or aren’t they” records we’ve encountered to date, starting with a record credited to saxophonist Tom Archia, but featuring vocalist Sheba Griffin decrying the loss of her Cherry. Not satisfied with that Archia was a co-conspirator in another off-color series of double entrendes put to music on Fishin’ Pole, showing his mind was in the gutter when it came to both the male and female anatomy.

In these cases and others like it the key is always how clever the euphemisms are and if they’re tied to music that can stand on its own rather than merely being a loose backdrop for a series of smutty one-liners that lose their charm after one or two listens.

In other words, if the record was actually about the G-rated stand-in for the real meaning would the song have any appeal on its own, be it musically, vocally, instrumentally? If so, the record could transcend the peep show/dirty comic book appeal and have a much longer shelf life than it would if the biggest drawing card for it was hearing somebody say a naughty word or two.
 

What’s To Eat?
Otis and company had another potential meaning with which to play with here, giving them additional terms to a-hem fool around with, as well as to throw the guardians of good taste off the scent a little more. The Jelly Roll was also a dance, certainly named for, or at least with recognition of, the slang referring to female genitalia, but without the direct association which could be otherwise damning.

In the future there’d even be a male hairstyle called The Jelly Roll which was forever immortalized on an episode of Leave It To Beaver, and in THAT instance I’m pretty sure that there was absolutely no thought of it referring to something immoral… though come to think of it, the show WAS originally going to be called “Wally And The Beaver” but the producers were supposedly worried about having people think it was about wildlife… or a particularly horny boy chasing girls in an attempt to score.

But anyway… where was I? Oh right, the possible misdirection tactics Johnny Otis was employing to try and reasonably hint that this song was referring to either dancing or food when in fact it was about neither.

Because of the three distinct possibilities he’s able to mix and match the specifics being used so that you are never quite sure which in fact it is. At times it seems like he’s definitely describing the dance, as vocalist Lem Talley announces…. “Cmon let’s jelly roll“, which is clearly meant as an activity not a descriptive term for something below the belt.

Yet at other moments the sweet tooth of listeners is tempted by references which might have you envisioning a plate filled with “so much jelly roll“.

But all of these are rather flimsy when you get right down to it. The dancing substitute is the one most consistently alluded to, as Talley keeps saying “wants to” jelly roll, as opposed to “wanting her jelly roll”, so by that measure it’d appear that if it were sexual in nature it’d be the sex act itself that was the substitute meaning, rather than the equipment used by females to perform that act.

But needless to say at every other turn there’s absolutely no disputing what The Jelly Roll is really all about.
 

Dream About Jelly
Since it’s doubtful that many pre-pubescent tykes are lurking about this part of the internet to get their kicks by reading about racy sexual topics found in 1949 rock songs of all things when they could just as easily watch full unedited porn scenes shot this year and see for themselves what this song only casually describes (or so I hear from the collection of unsavory characters hanging out on street corners as I help little old ladies across the street to earn my good conduct merit badges) I’m pretty sure I can drop the pretense of modesty and get into the particulars of this song without causing anybody alarm.

Just to be safe though I’ll add this disclaimer: Spontaneous Lunacy does not endorse the partaking of any activities spelled out in the song this review covers. Any enjoyment of such acts is merely to establish editorial credibility required for the analysis of the musical merits of the record.

With that taken care of we can get down to business.. such as it is (needless to say, insert your own jokes at every chance as you see fit).

The Jelly Roll jumps right into bed with no foreplay – via a musical intro – as vocalist (and nominal baritone sax player of the group) Lem Talley leaves no doubt that this particular culinary delight is not served on a plate but rather is a different type of desert. You’ve heard of breakfast in bed, well this is a late night snack designed for the same room, telling his baby to “lock up all the doors“. What you expect, whether in the song or in the actual events inspired by such proclamations, is a loud and uninhibited assault of the senses, be it physical or merely aural. Instead the momentum is immediately stalled as the accompaniment emerges in surprisingly subdued fashion.

Not so surprisingly it’s the infernal trumpet as the focal point of the arrangement which acts as the cold shower to this potentially steamy encounter. It’s not that John Anderson plays his lines badly, it’s just that they’re lines from a 1943 jazz song about war relief transposed to a 1949 rock song about S.E.X.

In other words the mood he casts is sort of like having your mother drop in for an unannounced visit just as you and your significant other are undressing each other in heated passion.

Talley’s descriptions do their best to reignite the smoldering fire with references to blowing a fuse and then, in what is by far the most explicit passage, he reports:

I went to see my baby
She said Daddy I’m so cold
Put some heat in my furnace
Throw in another lump of coal

All of that is well and good, you shouldn’t need a translator to explain the meanings which remain pretty obvious for anyone who’s made it to third base, but none of this gets you excited which is the main requirement for both the act itself as well as for listening to a record about said act.

Anderson’s trumpet is again the culprit here, his instrument possessing a virginal sound by nature, one as straitlaced and non-suggestive as a milquetoast seminary student who’s never been kissed. His prominent role in this makes for a curious, almost indefensible, decision on the part of Otis, who as we know from past excursions has no trouble coming up with rousing and intoxicating arrangements when called upon to do so. Here the song demands such adventurism to make the payoffs work and instead it’s as if he took the cover of a stag magazine (as I believe they were called back then) and replaced the contents with articles about gardening and recipes for Jell-O salad. You open it up, magazine and record both, expecting to be aroused and are dismayed to find you’ve been a victim of a bait and switch.
 


 

I Heard My Baby Scream
Just when you’re about to cry foul though salvation comes in the form of a familiar face, Big Jay McNeely, whose presence reaffirms your faith in Otis, in male-female dynamics and in humanity itself.

Though his solo takes up all of twenty-three seconds, they are the 23 seconds which form the orgasmic climax of the record. A bed-rocking, headboard banging, springs squeaking carnal display which while not even close to his own precedents in this field, when dropped in the middle of an otherwise prim and proper musical setting as The Jelly Roll was shaping up to be they’re bound to stand out and make you start to feel the type of stirrings in your own nether region that frankly you expected to get long before his arrival.

Then just as suddenly as McNeely arrived he bows out again and leaves the rest of the song to the others, which comes as quite a let-down, even though to be fair Otis’s drums and Devonia “Lady Dee” Williams on piano are seemingly getting it on in the shadows with appropriate enthusiasm to at least reassure you that everybody involved with this instrumental affair aren’t completely inexperienced between the sheets.

If the criticism of the musical setting they’ve placed most of this action in has you ready to look elsewhere for your thrills, someplace with more emphasis on the bump and grind techniques needed to get these implications across, there’s still the lyrical aspect to make walking out that door not an out and out guarantee.

Talley does all he can with the limited support he’s offered, giving us another somewhat subtle and roundabout eyebrow raiser with:

Round about five
We hit that mellow jive
Shifted gears, man alive
What a fluid drive!

I can’t quite explain how he took us from the bedroom to the garage but the imagery Tally uses is still entirely appropriate. If you need the fluidity required in this kind of driving explained you’re probably not going to be understanding anything about rock ‘n’ roll and should switch your musical interest to 19th century waltzes.

The problem is, in this case anyway, the band led by one of rock’s greatest practitioners has yet to fully understand rock ‘n’ roll himself. Though Johnny Otis’s abilities as an arranger aren’t in question, his decisions here certainly are. The line about “mellow jive” is sadly all too appropriate for the musical framework he attaches to an otherwise decent peek behind the bedroom doors.
 

Do Like You’re Told
There wasn’t enough attention paid to this record to run afoul of whoever was in charge of dispensing morality lectures at the time and so The Jelly Roll never even got the underground notoriety it was probably hoping for.

That’s probably a good thing in retrospect considering some of the ideas are still behind the times and thus it wasn’t going to do Johnny Otis much good in advancing his career as a rock visionary. But he was smart enough to make the necessary adjustments over the years to keep abreast of the emerging trends and swap out musicians who were no longer a comfortable fit in the new sonic vistas for ones who were better suited to the task and fear not because he’ll get up to speed again soon enough.

But that doesn’t help this record which in spite of some definite strong points courtesy of McNeely and Talley has too many outdated flaws built in for it to fully overcome. It’s not something that you’ll necessarily ever object to hearing and might even get some enjoyment out of, but considering the promise that lay within such a song it hardly lives up to its billing.

How you react to this effort may say more about you than the record itself. For those lacking in more… umm… satisfying experiences, you might easily be convinced to overlook the somewhat unappealing attributes of the object of desire here just to get to The Jelly Roll itself.

But for those who’ve had their share – of more appropriate rock songs that is (wink, wink) – you know that occasionally the effort to get some jelly roll is really not worth the trouble and ultimately this is one of those instances.

Sorry ladies, but no doubt it’s the same for you when it comes to what the fellas have to offer from time to time as well.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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