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MODERN 20-729; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Irony as an underlying theme in rock ‘n’ roll songs probably didn’t really take hold until sometime in the 1960’s, though there are surely a few notable exceptions that predate any concerted movement to inject it into the lexicon.

But even if it were more common in the music’s earliest days it’s doubtful that Little Willie Littlefield had it on his mind when writing and recording this storming cut which kept him riding high as one of rock’s most potent forces.

However in retrospect – unintended though it might be – we can allow ourselves to smile over the irony of a brash teenager who was a long way from the rocking chair himself, delivering such a rambunctious performance that compelled you to get out of that chair, regardless of your age, and boogie until you dropped.
 

 

Rocks Me All The Time
Though the idea of different artists competing for the same “slot” in the big picture rock scene at any given time is largely fan or media driven and somewhat irrelevant in the commercial fortunes of an artist who finds himself intrinsically linked to someone else, in this case the similarities between the two Houston born pianists is too obvious to overlook entirely.

If nothing else you’d have to say that with his closest stylistic “rival” Amos Milburn in the midst of releasing a string of hastily recorded cover songs rather than originals the door was open for Little Willie Littlefield to over take his greatest inspiration in the hearts and wallets of the rock constituency.

Doubtless there was still room for both on the jukeboxes and turntables across the country but you know how these things go – the quest to be the perceived leader of the pack and all that – so while Milburn undoubtedly had the name recognition and track record to keep him viable no matter what he did, Littlefield was no longer just a talented imitator, he was a legitimate threat who only seemed to be gaining in strength with each new release.

Though his biggest successes to date, It’s Midnight and Farewell, were both slower mournful tunes where he got to show off his aching delivery to full effect, we know that Little Willie was equally proficient on uptempo numbers, though early in his career that mostly took the form of instrumentals where got to bang the piano keys into submission.

But here on Rockin’ Chair Mama he not only returns to that flashy playing style he did so well, but he also got a chance to sing in a far more enthusiastic and uninhibited fashion which we’re happy to report suits him to a T.
 


 

‘Til I Want No More
What makes this record stand-out, even beyond the reckless energy everyone possesses, from the singer to the band, is the utterly off-handed nature of Littlefield’s vocals.

He sounds as if he’s practically winging it from beginning to end and yet in spite of that risky attitude the song is so well-constructed underneath its potentially shaky façade that it holds up even when Willie seems as though he’s just leading some after hours jam session.

Rockin’ Chair Mama starts off as a rather straightforward boogie, well played but nothing out of the ordinary as Littlefield’s light fingers are skipping across the keys yet still able to get suitably heavy when they need to establish the drive the song exists on. It’s a rousing sound for sure, one we’re glad he hasn’t abandoned, but if you were to assume that it’d be another instrumental from his earlier bag of tricks you likely wouldn’t be the only one who’d quickly be proven wrong.

When Little Willie does open his mouth with an inviting ”Yehhhh-esssss” the energy manages to pick up even more and while virtually nothing he sings has much narrative value, in this instance it hardly matters. He may only be loosely stringing together some vague generalities but they at least touch on a lot of the prime subject matter rock has been investing in for going on three years now… besides, it’s not exactly what he’s saying, but rather how he’s saying it.

In that respect Littlefield sounds as if he’s having himself a ball, reeling off praise for his girl, the title character as it were, who doesn’t sound like some arthritic granny knitting in in the corner rocking chair.

Though we’ve noted that the term “rock” can take on different meanings depending on how it’s used, here there’s no need to parse the word for any subtleties – it means sex. Wild, noisy and exhausting sex by the sounds of it as Willie acts very much his age here – the typically horny teenager who is still more excited about the prospect of getting to actually “do it” with a willing partner than he is about the act itself – just relishing the chance to delve into the manner in which she “Rocks me to the floor… ‘til I want no more!”.

But of course he DOES want more, at least once he recovers from their first tryst, but then again that’s what the musicians behind him are here for, to give him a chance to rest up for the next steamy go-round.
 

All Right, Blow It, Boys!
Obviously Littlefield’s piano is the engine driving this bus, pounding relentlessly throughout with a solid left and intermittent right hand flourishes that keeps it from getting stale. His melodic choices are consistently interesting and energetic, but as good as he is he’s got plenty of help in the form of the rip-roaring saxophones that anchor everything in place.

To date Littlefield has cycled through tenor sax players like bandleader Artie Shaw went through wives (six of ‘em by 1950, in case you were wondering, on his way to eight in all). He’s already played with such notables as Don Wilkerson (now with Milburn and later Ray Charles) and Buddy Floyd, as well as probably Maxwell Davis in the studio and soon he’d add Floyd Turnham to the growing list.

Who’s playing on this session from December isn’t clear, it came in the period between Floyd and Turnham, so one of them is likely, although it could be Davis sitting in as well. He doesn’t make things easy for us by calling out to the sax player, boisterously telling him to “blow”, but never by name. So we can’t give credit to the figure who deserves it, but we can definitely sit back and appreciate what they have to offer us in the way of horn pyrotechnics that are alternately seductive and startling, gritty and sensuous. Throughout the gaudy display nary a note is out of place yet it seems freshly conceived rather than excessively planned out.

It also sounds of the moment… a “50’s” styled solo, compact and to the point, rather than the sometimes more hit or miss jazz derived solos from late last decade. It’s funny sometimes how that divide comes right as the calendar turns, but these two solos – and those like it from this specific moment in time – honestly wouldn’t sound out of place six years down the road.
 


 

As good as both the sax and piano sound throughout Rockin’ Chair Mama there’s one other distinctive element that we briefly touched upon earlier but really needs more of a spotlight thrown on it and that’s Littlefield’s semi-spoken asides heading into the instrumental breaks.

We’ve heard these before, the improvised spoken lead-ins that so many artists, Milburn foremost among them, have thrown into their performances, something to cue the musician being called on to solo but also to act as sort of a sonic bridge between the vocal and instrumental elements, but here Littlefield turns it into one of the most crucial components of the song.

His enthusiasm is evident, as is his compatibility with the band as he shouts out to them almost as an extension of his singing. Like with the solos themselves it all seems off-the-cuff but amazingly efficient in its purpose, meaning they either got incredibly lucky or they were remarkably intuitive when it came to realizing how to best establish the atmosphere the song needed. Once that hook… that connection… is established, it never lets up.
 

Your Cradle Of Love
In the end that’s what the record is built upon – atmospheric joy that can be used as a stand-in for whatever scene you want to imagine. If it’s the musical revelry you focus on then this is the perfect party starter for any wild bash you can envision. If it’s the lyrical situation you cast your eyes on then we don’t have to tell you that you’ll be seeing some potentially X-rated antics going on before long.

But if it’s merely the image of this group of young musicians gathered in a studio and led by a kid not yet out of his teens who is overflowing with the confidence of someone who knows full well he’s at the top of his game AND arguably is scaling the highest peaks in rock – or at least starting to reach for those precipices – then that’ll work just fine here too.


 
Rockin’ Chair Mama is all of those things and then some. It might be trying to do no more than simply harnessing the overall spirit this generation of rockers flushed with success were feeling as the 1950’s dawned, but in its no-frills approach it manages to raise the stakes even further.

Everywhere you look around the rock kingdom at this time you’ll see the same type of atmosphere… the scene is jumping, there’s plenty of drink, dancing and dames to go around, and with guys like Little Willie Littlefield at the helm it’ll be a long, long time before this party winds down.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Little Willie Littlefield for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)