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FREEDOM 1507; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

It’s always a welcome revelation when an otherwise obscure historical name seemingly pops up out of the nowhere and pulls off a great record, such as was found on the top side of this release where pianist Lonnie Lyons stepped out in front of the loose knit studio band he was a part of and – with ample help from his highly skilled cohorts – delivered a blistering distillation of all of rock’s edgy excitement.

It’s the type of unexpected delight that makes the archaeological crate digging through rock ‘n’ roll’s cobweb strewn attics well worth the time and trouble.

But now that Lyons has made a name for himself, at least to us if not the world at large who still would raise a collective shrug at mention of his name, he’s going to start coming with some expectations from now on. We might not really think he’s going to consistently match his audacious initial effort that grabbed our attention so completely that time out, but after all if you’re here on a site like this to begin with, spending your time reading all of these treatises to long lost scratchy slices of the past it stands to reason that you’d at least be curious to see how close he might come to living up to his potential from here on in.
 

 
Chances are he won’t of course. Although let’s face it that’s hardly going out on a limb to say. After all if his name vanished from memory before his records even stopped spinning way back then, what chance is there that more than just that one lightning in a bottle side will be found amongst his meager output? Maybe even the nature of stumbling over a record by a complete unknown without any reason to think it’ll be more than adequate is why we (or just me) found Flychick Bounce so interesting in the first place.

If that’s the case then low expectations – or NO expectations as it were – helped him immeasurably and now, with decidedly higher anticipation awaiting its flip side we’re bound to be let down.

But before we resign ourselves to that outcome before the song even begins we have to keep in mind that we’re not JUST banking on Lonnie Lyons, pianist, part time vocalist, full time wine drinker, to somehow come up with another winner, we’re also placing our bets on the same stellar crew of musical desperados known off-handedly as The Hep Cats, led by saxophonist Conrad Johnson and featuring guitarist Goree Carter whose belated legend as a visionary was finally secured more than a half century after he stopped recording and fifteen to twenty years after he died.

Those guys, along with the rest of the Houston based session aces, young, forward-thinking and restlessly ambitious, were going to have a say in the matter too. Maybe then, with all of them contributing something to the proceedings, Lyons might surprise us yet again on Far Away Blues and send us out into the world with a newfound resolute faith in underdogs everywhere, causing us to place obscenely large wagers on a succession of lame horses, over the hill fighters, basketball teams tanking for a better shot at a high draft pick and drawing to an inside straight.

But just in case the more realistic odds play true to form after all you better keep one hand on your wallet all the same.
 

Bring Your Mighty Love To Me
When studying the participants on these sides the question that begs to be asked centers on the role of Lyons in this band to begin with. We don’t have much information to go on with him, no pictures even to see what he looked like, and all we know are a few biographical facts along with some reminisces thirty years down the road from Carter. As we can tell Lyons was a very good pianist but was that the reason why he was drafted into this studio combo, just to hold down that chair, or had he designs on singing himself and was he signed by Freedom Records with that in mind all along?

It’s entirely possible he was simply enlisted to sing the rudimentary lyrics of Flychick Bounce to justify putting his name on the label as an artist rather than flooding the market with Goree Carter singles, as they would’ve been at risk for doing had they’d given this to him to sing as well. But when you listen to Far Away Blues you wonder just how much faith they could’ve had in their pianist to deliver something in this vein.

Lyons hardly possesses dulcet tones and on the invigorating Flychick Bounce it was really the nature of the song itself, little more than a rousing party invocation played with measured intensity, that allowed him to carry the tune off effectively as a singer. He wasn’t asked to do any heavy lifting, he merely had to pick up the song in one spot and carry it to the next drop off point without tripping and falling.

That’s hardly an insult, we’ve seen plenty of full-time singers who couldn’t even do that much, but Lyons’ singing was also not the main reason we were praising the record either, even if WHAT he sang was endlessly engaging in its rather limited aims.

Since Far Away Blues relies much less on instrumental prowess than its celebrated A-side and happens to be a ballad which requires more insight and sensitivity from its vocalist, the chances Lyons will step up and deliver something noteworthy in that regard probably falls somewhere along the lines of him growing wings and flying over the bandstand as he sings it like a canary.

In other words, I hope you listened to me about keeping one hand on your money.
 

I Wanna See My Baby
Unlike his beguiling passages on the flip side, Conrad Johnson’s alto sax starts this off on uneasy footing, its tone sounding a little too sterile to stir up any passions – both in us and in Lyons when he comes in.

Though both settle down quickly enough, Johnson easing into a lower register and Lyons giving it his best half-cocked Amos Milburn impersonation, it becomes obvious that they are faced with an uphill struggle in their quest to even battle Far Away Blues to a draw.

Different types of songs require different types of skill sets and the weary melancholia of Milburn’s sturdy vocal pipes are perfectly suited to the late night laments he so frequently delivers. On the other hand Lonnie Lyons has the kind of voice where sincere despair goes to be snickered at by the bullies on the corner.

It’s not that he’s coming off at all like he’s whining incessantly, or was somehow deserving of his fate, but rather he’s not engendering any sympathy for his plight because unlike Amos who can make you feel every bit as despondent as he does with the wave of a hand, with Lyons you are most assuredly remaining a neutral observer to his misery.

On one hand you DO feel sorry for him a little as he bemoans how he’s searched for his girl every night and day to no avail, even as you wonder what he might’ve done that led to this break up, but on the other hand you’re thinking of whether that halfway decent girl you saw him at the bar with last week is the one who slipped away and whether or not you can come up with a plausible excuse to leave the table so you can head out on the town to track her down for yourself.

Now there are times in this when he channels some of Milburn’s vocal attributes with modest success. A word here, maybe a whole line there, and if you’ve had a few too many cocktails and aren’t really paying close attention to his tale of woe you may convince yourself that Amos wandered into the bar and is sitting two seats down crying over his own doomed affair. But there’s two problems with that scenario. The first of course is it’s NOT Amos Milburn and so not only does that impression quickly fade when Lyons can’t maintain the illusion on the next line, but in the process it also has you wishing you WERE listening to Milburn spill his guts out to you again and so you’re a risk to wander off with a nickel in your hand in search of a jukebox that is carrying the latest Amos Milburn record to spin instead.

I think it’s safe to say that the first rule of thumb for starting a recording career is that no artist should want to conjure up another to the extent that you find yourself reaching for the real deal rather than listening to your own record a second time.

The other problem with this approach is that you’ve set yourself up to fail by encouraging the comparisons in the first place. If you have to compete with a more qualified artist due to certain unavoidable factors such as the fact you’re both rock piano players from the same neighborhood in the same era, at least don’t venture completely into his backyard stylistically to challenge him on his own turf.

So it is here with Lyons who can’t help but fall short in any comparison to what Milburn does so effectively.
 

So Far Away
Lyons does his best in spite of the odds stacked against him. He doesn’t falter in his effort any and he’s at least reasonably convincing in his misery. The lyrics hardly give him enough weapons to work with however, further hampering his chances, as their generic sentiments sound as if they’ve either been cribbed from other songs or all of the men in rock’s early days somehow hooked up with the same woman who treated each of them with vindictive cruelty before leaving them all stranded with broken hearts, empty pockets and three types of incurable venereal diseases.

The real problem though – and the real surprise for that matter – is the tepid support he receives from his bandmates. These are, after all, the same crew that astounded us both times out in the past, backing Goree Carter on the impossibly exciting Rock Awhile as well as providing stellar back up on Flychick Bounce.

Maybe it’s just that they were more suited as a combo for the type of high octane rocking they were called on to do in those instances, but I don’t think they’re incapable of playing this well, there’s certainly moments where they sound very solid in what they deliver. No, I think the problem comes with them not working out a better game plan with which to start, leaving too much of the responsibility with the horns who struggle to find a compatible tone with Lyons vocals and are content to merely embellish the somber mood with standalone passages rather than trying to tie it all together with a more unified arrangement.

Lyons is the best musician on this track, or at least is playing the best in relation to his own work as a singer. It’s not even that he’s matching the mood, he’s not, he’s the liveliest thing on it, his piano fills sounding spry and restless against the more subdued accompaniment of the others, but it’s that contrast which works well and makes you want to hear more of it from the rest of these Hep Cats as well.

Surely if anyone were capable of it they were. You can easily envision some tasty licks from Carter on guitar, a stinging run midway through or a some more fierce accents in the fills. Instead he remains mostly in the background, his playing is decent enough but intentionally unobtrusive and as a result it makes his presence seem almost non-existent.

The others are similarly lacking in assertiveness. You get demure drumming save for one brief flourish towards the end and throughout it all the other horns keep their heads bowed as if at a graveside service for the singer rather than at a club trying to rouse him from crying in his drink. When they finally do perk up at the end it sounds good simply because it sounds different, giving the impression that Lyons isn’t going to head into the bathroom to try and flush himself into the Gulf Of Mexico after his lengthy sob story.
 


 

Every Night And Day
I’m being more harsh on this than it really deserves. As an Amos Milburn knock-off it’s hardly good, but at least modestly adequate. It still doesn’t explain why you’d want to hear an imitative Milburn when his records cost the same 79 cents you’d spend to hear this, though I suppose 78 of those cents would be going to hearing Flychick Bounce on the other side which you’d listen to approximately 99 times out of every 100 spins you gave this record. But I’m not really down on this so much as I’m simply indifferent to it.

All of which leads back to something mentioned in yesterday’s review, that of the missed opportunity for Freedom Records to credit this aggregation of talented artists, who each have their own unique specialties, as a BAND rather than giving them standalone releases under one name or another as solo artists and forcing them to carry off material they might not quite be suited for when instead they could support each other and build a much more diverse catalog by letting each one handle what they’re best at.

In 1949 that would be a novel approach, something not done in rock music, nor really in popular music outside of the big bands who carried different vocalists. So I suppose you can’t fault Freedom Records for not having a crystal ball to see into the future and discern that was the way to go even though it hadn’t been tried yet.

But we’re under no such obligations even though I’m constantly asking you to consider these songs in the context of the era. In this case however I’m granting myself an exception simply because the solution seems so obvious. We’ve seen what negative effects the split artist credit on two sides of a single can do – ask poor Smokey Lynn about thediminishing prospects of his career when you get the time – but if The Hep Cats were being credited as a group then it wouldn’t matter who sang lead on what song, provided the group itself was consistent behind them.

Lonnie Lyons was well suited for the uptempo A-side which required him to simply match the enthusiasm of the track, but here he stumbles when called upon to deliver something requiring a little more subtly and insight. Yet the concept of the song itself was okay, certainly the idea of pairing a ballad with something more rousing is always good, and so they just needed to hand it off to somebody else. With a half dozen guys drawing paychecks, or a crumpled bill and bottle of whiskey as the case may be, they certainly had enough options to choose from.

You might not think that says much about Lonnie Lyons’ artistic prospects, but it’s not a reflection on his weaknesses so much as it’s a better assessment of the talents of the group as a whole. Your job as a record company is to provide each artist the best chance to succeed, for if they succeed YOU succeed.

They showed they certainly COULD succeed by giving us something well worth hearing on the top half, and even Far Away Blues isn’t really awful, but the fact remains that Freedom Records had one of the stronger stables of artists of any independent label at this time and within two years they were finished. Somebody has to take the blame for all that underachieving and it shouldn’t be Lonnie Lyons that’s for damn sure.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Lonnie Lyons for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)