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MACY’S 5000; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

History tends to lionize those who pursue one all-consuming passion in life, forsaking all else to achieve their goals in that realm no matter the obstacles, no matter the resistance, no matter how long it takes.

What history tends to forget however is that most doggedly single-minded individuals often don’t get anywhere in their pursuits, either stymied by a lack of interest in their output, perhaps a lack of good fortune in catching the one break they feel they need, or maybe they’re just cursed with no discernible talent which keeps them on the outside looking in for eternity. They had the same commitment to their objective as those whom history lauds but instead of being remembered for their efforts they wind up bitter and disillusioned, seen as abject failures at the very thing they devoted their life trying to achieve.

But I suppose those are the extremes on both ends of the spectrum, what’s far more common are those who comprise the bulk of humanity, those who might have a preference for the type of life they want to live and work they want to do – or music they want to play – but who are malleable enough, or realistic enough, to take what’s presented them and make the best of it. Most people may start off trying to make a go of it in their preferred occupation but once the bills start piling up they need to make a stark choice. Either stick it out against increasingly long odds and wind up busted or look elsewhere and earn a living doing something just a little bit different.

A handful of musicians at the mid-century mark faced just such decisions. They had enough talent to get recording contracts under a variety of musical guises but were willing to try their hand in whatever seemed most promising at the moment. This flexibility might ensure they stuck around longer in some cases but without choosing a side with which to firmly establish themselves it meant they rarely ended up with the fame and fortune of those who were unshakable in their resolve to make their mark in just one brand of music.
 

 

I Got Lots Of Lovin’
Lester Williams was just shy of thirty years old when he made his debut on record with this release but it was an interesting three decades that led to this moment. The Houston native who had served in World War Two had become a devotee of T-Bone Walker who throughout the 1940’s was busy redefining the blues as the first electric guitarist of note in that field.

Suitably impressed by what he heard Williams decided to try for a career in music himself, but not by playing juke joints and fish fries as might be expected of an aspiring blues act, but rather he enrolled in The New England Conservatory Of Music which just happened to be the oldest and most prestigious school for music in the country. Many of its graduates were recruited for symphony orchestras while others were training for careers in opera, all of which probably made the blues loving African-American from Texas seem somewhat out of place amidst the student body full of white cellists, violinists and mezzo sopranos.

But Williams tried fitting in, studying piano and voice and though a good student he dropped out before graduating. Yet in spite of the absence of a piece of paper that claimed to those who treat such things with reverence that he in fact knew what he was doing musically to the satisfaction of stuffy professors, he wound up with a career that was arguably the equal of any of his classmates in more respected fields.

Heading back to Texas he picked up the instrument he really wanted to play, the guitar, and taught himself and when Macy’s Recordings started up in 1949 in his hometown of Houston, joining the likes of Freedom Records as a prime destination for up and coming artists in the Gulf Coast region, Lester Williams showed up at their doorstep and – even without a diploma – was given a contract.

Since Williams was Macy’s first signing outside of the country field they had no established sound to conform to and their options with him were wide open. But with all of the possibilities he provided them he also posed a distinct problem for them, as in they needed to determine which route might have the best chance for commercial success.

This is hardly an unimportant question for a new company to ask of itself and its primary artist because first impressions are likely to be lasting ones. If we eliminate pure pop music from the considerations – though Williams WOULD wind up cutting a record later on which can only be described as pure pop – and similarly dismiss country music, or hillbilly as it was still being called then, what do we have left and what might Williams excel in creatively?

In 1949 there were two acceptable answers: blues and/or rock ‘n’ roll.

Not that jazz still wasn’t viable and respectable, but generally there weren’t many solo guitar playing jazz acts, even those who went to the New England Conservatory Of Music. We can similarly exclude gospel since we’re not entirely sure that Williams was religious. Now the fact that Williams had gotten interested in a music career because of the success of T-Bone Walker, a bluesman through and through, you might think the obvious direction for him to head would be the blues.

And he did. But he ALSO headed into rock ‘n’ roll right from the start, but whose decision this was… Williams or the record company?

Either way though it gives us another one of those historical context lessons that readers here are growing sick to death of reading about …can’t get enough of! Before you start to have second thoughts let’s forge ahead…
 

Sit Down On My Knee
Because Lester Williams never became a star he likely wasn’t interviewed much over the years even though he lived until 1990. Those who might have conducted interviews of such figures were primarily focused on blues and so it’s doubtful he was ever asked about his choice of musical direction when starting out beyond inquiring about his influences which would lead to Walker and thus to the belief that Lester Williams was a blues artist from the very beginning.

Yet as we know nothing could be further from the truth. In fact if you had to weigh the two dominant styles he performed based on total output that fell squarely in one field or another and the distinctiveness and quality of those records you’d probably come away saying he was a rocker first and foremost, if for no other reason than Williams didn’t conform much to the style of blues that was dominant back then, even when he WAS ostensibly cutting blues tracks.

For starters there’s the horn section. It’s not that the blues couldn’t have horns, though most arrangements eschewed them entirely and even those which did feature them down the road rarely had them as the dominant instruments, but in Williams’s tracks they provide the primary accompaniment. For the most part his guitar is secondary at best.

Then there’s the lyrics of his songs which as we’ll see over time are mostly positive, even exhilarating, in their depiction of his love and his life (and his love life). In other words, he’s very rarely feeling blue… which is of course the source of the genre name for the blues.

Hmm, funny how that works, isn’t it?

We’ve said many times here, and will say it again many times in the future since it bears repeating… the blues represent a specific worldview, one which is downbeat, even pessimistic, or at least generally lacking in optimism. It’s a music designed to alleviate burdens by giving voice to them, to turn sorrow and heartbreak over failed relationships, missed opportunities and a lifetime of hardships and oppression into a communal support system.

That’s both its genius and its reason for existing in the first place and to deny that, or even just downplay it, does the blues a great disservice.

The blues are a terrific, vibrant, endlessly interesting and enjoyable music but it’s a very different music than rock ‘n’ roll which is a genre that celebrates life to the fullest, one that is boldly optimistic and largely upbeat and positive in its themes.

In the late 1940’s the blues were entering a new level of commercial possibilities with the advent of the electric urban blues movement, yet the subject matter remained just as forlorn as ever. T-Bone Walker may have framed this perception best by declaring They Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday’s Just As Bad), while Muddy Waters first hit was I Feel Like Going Home, as starkly depressing a lament as you’d ever find in any form of music.

Lester Williams may very well been perfectly content to follow that path as well. Texas was one region of the country that still largely favored blues over rock ‘n’ roll according to the local Cash Box charts and so it’s hardly surprising that the “hit” side of his debut, Winter Time Blues, is the blues number. It’s a thoughtful introspective song with a delicate guitar, piano triplets and mournful horns. Not the most seamless fit in blues with that instrumental lineup maybe, but thematically it unquestionably fits the bill.

What DOESN’T fit in the blues motif is what’s found on the other side, as the unambiguously titled I’m So Happy I Want To Jump And Shout makes perfectly clear.
 


 

I’m So Happy
There can be no mistaking the state of mind Lester Williams is in even if the first words out of his mouth weren’t ”I’m so happy…”, because the tone of his voice and the giddiness he sings with can’t be contained.

He’s pitched in a higher range that catches you a little off guard at first, making it a little tough to get a firm hold just who he is, how old he might be and where he’s from. There’s an exuberance in his voice that could be taken as inexperience in a studio, like he can’t believe he’s getting a chance to cut a record, or it could simply be that he’s chosen that delivery because it suits the character he’s portraying here, that of somebody who… (well, let’s not beat around the bush because he certainly isn’t making any bones about it)… somebody who just had sex.

As in literally he just finished the deed and is now crowing about it on record!

So much for discretion.

But then again rock ‘n’ roll was never known for its modesty or for keeping a lid on your emotions and so his boastful attitude fits perfectly with the rampaging music behind him: horns bursting, drums stomping and piano churning along underneath as if the band members had also just emerged from a brothel.

Williams is positively radiant here. Though that higher tone is a little under-powered he more than makes up for it with his technique in which he rides the rhythm like a pro, rolling with each twist and turn as if he’s done this a hundred times before (cut a record I mean, not get laid).

His boasts might call into question just how lucky he HAS been with the ladies prior to this – though at twenty nine years of age with a wife and children I’m assuming he’s not a total novice in the bedroom – but the utter delight he sings with is actually kind of refreshing to hear. Let’s face it, quite a few rock singers we’ve met so far have spent many a record shooting their mouths off about their ability in the sack – Wynonie Harris might just as well have taken out a patent on it – and with most of them the focus is on the singer’s prodigious talent in this regard, but here Williams isn’t bragging about his own prowess but rather is telling us how elated he is that his girl is giving him this (apparently unexpected) treat and as such she’s the one getting the accolades from him throughout the song.

Maybe he should’ve asked her first before he spread tales of her bedroom artistry in the streets, but it’d be hard not to feel good for this fella because his response to her beckoning him back for another tryst is as pure an expression of joy as you can find. There’s no posturing here, Williams is positively elated.

Jump and shout indeed!
 

My Joy And Pride
There are no lyrical surprises to be found, nor much of a story beyond the simple premise being expounded upon for a couple of verses, but nor is there any crudity or salaciousness. Normally we might want a little of that to spice things up but here it isn’t necessary because the overall spirit conveys all of the details for our minds to conjure up.

The sax solo starts off hard charging then as it tapers off after awhile it still keeps things firmly in the pocket. Williams urges him on vocally as the drums are keeping pace, everything fitting together tightly, no stray instruments seeming out of place, no ill-advised interlude to change the mood and no sign that any of these guys ever so much as LISTENED to a blues record, let alone cut a pretty decent one on the very same day which would adorn the flip side of this.

That’s what makes I’m So Happy I Could Jump And Shout such a solid performance in spite of its rather basic components and limited aspiration. Lester Williams is so caught up in the moment (and yes I’m referring to singing again, not anything carnal) that you’re happy just to go along for the ride. This wasn’t a record that set out to conquer rock ‘n’ roll in one fell swoop with something so thrilling that you were gripping the edge of your seat, but it never wavered in its commitment to the attitude it needs in order to fit in with the other reprobates and hell-raisers that made rock what it was.
 


 

When it wasn’t this side but rather the blues cut that began making noise you’d think surely Williams would rethink his plan of attack and focus exclusively on the blues, if for no other reason than maximizing his commercial potential, but he didn’t do that. Oh, he still released plenty of blues cuts along the way but no more than his rock efforts which came out steadily for the next decade or so.

I guess that goes to show that whether we’re talking rock music or amorous attention from the opposite sex there’s a few things so powerful that you’ll want to pursue them again and again once you’ve sampled it for yourself.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Lester Williams for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)