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FREEDOM 1523; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on TV, but I think I may have acquired enough rudimentary knowledge of the law over the course of a delightfully misspent youth to have a pretty good eye for blatant legal violations when I see them.

I see them now.

Or rather, I hear them now.

Lonnie Lyons, one of the more unexpected surprises in rock’s first few years, a session pianist who found himself drafted to be a featured artist probably as much out of desperation as anything for a label that needed all of the acts it could muster in its early days, is the guilty party in this case.

The charge against him? Plagiarism.

It’s ironic then that he records for Freedom Records, because if cases like this were actually prosecuted that might be the only “freedom” he’d be associated with for quite awhile.
 

 

An Open and Shut Case
This is hardly a unique situation in rock history, this swiping of songs that get refitted with new lyrics and called something else entirely. Some of rock’s biggest names have done so with alarming frequency – sometimes getting nabbed and being forced to pay up for their transgressions, but often escaping notice and thus escaping punishment for their crimes. One of the things I’m looking forward to around here is exposing the ones that have seemed to slip through the cracks over the years, just to burst a few bubbles for the fun of it.

But this one is TOO easy, too obvious to take much pleasure in revealing, for surely anyone who hadn’t been Van Gogh’d would be able to hear where Lonnie Lyons took Sneaky Joe from.

In fact even the title itself lets on to his misdeeds, though when it’s so blatant can you really even call it sneaky? It’s almost as if he walked into a store in midday, approached the manager and asked him to help carry the goods he was absconding with out to his car so he didn’t have to make a second trip.

The song in question that he’s making off with is Amos Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie, which I suppose is a good choice if you have to turn to a life of crime. After all it was a #1 record for five weeks last winter and one of the defining songs of rock’s first two years. If you’re a jewel thief it makes more sense to go after the Hope Diamond and make off with one big haul and retire than to try and pilfer a few odd rubies and emeralds from various old ladies collections once a week for the rest of your life just to pay your expenses.

The other reason why his choice of targets was a sensible one is the fact that he wasn’t even the first one to… umm… “borrow” the song for his own nefarious use. In fact another artist has done so not once but TWICE already and hasn’t been arrested, thrown out of the musician’s union, dropped from his record label or ostracized from society as might be warranted for such acts. His name? How about Amos Milburn himself!

It wasn’t the first case of a superstar act in rock revisiting their own greatest hits collection for… shall we say “inspiration”?… when seeking another hit. Artists were prone to following-up records with ill-advised “sequels” which were nothing more than blatant re-writes, but Milburn did not even bother trying to pretend he was extending a story he’d already told, but rather he was attempting to convince you these were entirely NEW records, completely unrelated to what you’d already purchased and listened to a few hundred times. The thing about it though – as much as we are loathe to admit it – the original song’s structure was so damn addicting that when he did re-craft it (or actually others re-crafted it for him, as he’d written Chicken Shack but had nothing to do with either of the two rip-offs), first as Jitterbug Parade which was halfway decent and then Roomin’ House Boogie which is even better, we found ourselves torn.

They sounded so good because of course they were built on the framework of something great, but it stands to reason that anyone can do that. You’d never need to write any new songs, just keep churning out the same one over and over again. That’s not a practice that can be supported and artists who try it can’t be given a free pass even if the results turn out alright.

Ultimately we as rock fans want something new to hear, not the same song with a new title. We want to see some effort put into their work not feel like they’re resting on their laurels. Mostly we want to be shown some respect, not treated as though we’re suckers who’ll fall for whatever transparent gimmick they shove at us.
 

I’m Gonna Play This Boogie Again Tonight
In the case of Lonnie Lyons however we run into a different issue – that of taking somebody else’s creation and trying to claim it for himself. Aside from the laughable writing credit he gets for this re-worked Milburn song, there’s the ethical implication that you’re trying to ride Milburn’s coattails and build your own career from that. Sneaky Joe might not have been what they had the highest hopes for (there are no A and B side designations however, so we’re just guessing) but Freedom Records wouldn’t have balked if this had somehow found an audience.

Then what? Do they come up with new lyrics to another Milburn song for its follow-up or do they turn their attention to maybe Roy Brown or Ivory Joe Hunter next?

There’s always a lot of debate whether music is art or commerce – it’s both of course – but while something doesn’t have to aspire to be very artistic to be appreciated, in cases where the only consideration is trying to make a brazen grab for the commercial return on somebody else’s back that’s when you’ve gone too far.

Luckily for Lyons and Freedom records only about 12 people purchased this record – none of them apparently named Amos Milburn or Eddie and Leo Messner of Aladdin Records – and so they were legally in the clear for their heist.

But they won’t be so lucky in the court of public opinion around here, where we get to act as judge and jury and throw the book at them for their transgressions. Furthermore in THIS courtroom those accused of musical larceny are never presumed innocent until proven guilty, but rather we’re heading into the trial assuming they’re guilty as sin and it’ll be entirely up to them to prove extenuating circumstances, or show that we somehow nabbed the wrong parties in our dragnet, or at the very least requiring them to somehow convince us it was all a big misunderstanding.

Yeah, you know just as much as I know that they’re gonna fry for this. So let’s start dispensing some justice, shall we?
 

When Those Cats Get Too Rough
Let’s start off with the positives – yes, there ARE positives to be found on the appropriately named (considering the underhanded circumstances) Sneaky Joe – which is the work of the band.

Now it’s no secret to regular readers that we have great admiration for the Freedom Records house band, otherwise known as The Hep-Cats. They are without a doubt the best self-contained band we’ve come across and here they do even more to prove it because we get to compare it to the top flight session aces employed by Aladdin to back Milburn on his original (and two subsequent updates for that matter). As everyone knows Milburn’s main collaborator in this regard was Maxwell Davis, unquestionably one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in rock history in addition to his unparalleled work as an arranger and producer of these records.

Sam Williams of The Hep-Cats is going to have his hands full to match Davis’s slinky blowing and Lyons himself for that matter is up against Milburn, who is as equally proficient on piano as he is singing. The best Lyons and Williams could hope for is to play them to a drew and even that might be asking too much of them.

But they indeed hold their own, smartly not trying to stand out in what they play but rather they just want to not leave you with the urge to go back and listen to Amos and Maxwell to hear it done “right”.

But it’s the others who add distinctive colors of their own to this, from a subtle guitar line by Goree Carter to the churning rhythm the others play underneath it all to keep it headed in the right direction.

But let’s not get carried away here. These are professional musicians, exceptionally good professionals at that and they aren’t exactly re-inventing the wheel by replicating an already solid performance and adding a few discreet touches of their own. Go out on a Friday night in any reasonably awake town and you’ll find some club where guys are being paid to play somebody else’s songs and while The Hep-Cats are surely far better musicians than any part-time bass player and drummer, essentially what they’re doing here is acting as a glorified bar band.
 

Makes Me Feel Like My Baby’s So Near
So what does that leave us with? A familiar song with unfamiliar lyrics. Okay, then this one ultimately is going to come down to what Lonnie Lyons is imparting in his own words – the only aspect of this song he can claim some creative credit for.

Sneaky Joe – as a title anyway – has some possibilities, but since they’ve stolen everything else about this song we don’t really expect them to do anything really inventive with the story. I mean why start now? But if they want to shake things up and exhibit some genuine originality then this is their opportunity. Hell, we can even offer some suggestions.

How about making it ABOUT Amos Milburn, using HIM as a character in the story, telling us how you walked into the same joint expecting to see the local kid turned national hero and that he was sitting at a corner booth surrounded by girls and running up a bar bill the length of your arm, ignoring you and the other patrons in the place who kept asking him to go on stage to sing a song. Tired of waiting for him you and your buddies, who just happen to be musical superheroes disguised as average Houstonians, wind up jumping on stage and putting Amos to shame.

That’d be a clever twist on a record well worth hearing.

Naturally they make so much move.

Instead we get a story that sounds like it was cobbled together from the outtakes of the Chicken Shack Boogie original shooting script. They even crib the basic sentiment “where all the hip cats meet”. You half expect Freedom Records to use as the record sleeve a discarded menu from Jack’s Basket Room or Ivie Anderson’s Chicken Shack, the two real-life joints on Central Avenue in Los Angeles that provided the basis for Milburn’s hit.

Lyons’s voice is as close to Milburn as he can make it and his cadences are identical. Only his enthusiasm falls short of its efforts to fool you into thinking this was Amos under a pseudonym.

He doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about what he’s been asked to do, as I’m sure his legal team will argue as they plea for mercy, but he was complicit just by going along with this in the first place rather than insisting he wanted no part of this deal. Then to make matters worse he even contributed an uninspired lyrical re-write which further implicates him in this nefarious plot. Sorry, Lonnie, all of the character witnesses you can muster won’t save you from doing time.
 

Sentencing
We’ve already spent more time and space on Sneaky Joe than it deserves but we’re a benevolent court and rather than end this with additional scolding (and hard time) for Lyons and company whose embarrassment and lack of sales for this waste of shellac should be punishment enough, let’s instead offer some general advice, unsolicited though it may be.

Hopefully those reading this epic and endless project of ours need no convincing that you can’t really tackle such a huge subject without an abiding love and respect for rock ‘n’ roll as a whole. I take no perverse pleasure in seeing artists fail, quite the opposite actually. As a music fan you want each record to be a brilliantly realized gem, a song that will bring you untold joy whenever you hear it.

Few of them are masterworks but that doesn’t mean you get cynical and bitter about the uneven ratio of great songs to the merely adequate, mediocre and downright putrid. If anything wading through all of the dross to get to hear those dazzling examples of rock at its finest makes this kind of deep dive listening experience worth it. You may not find something to admire in the litany of misses, but for the most part you respect the effort they made to take their shot at glory.

Except for these kinds of records.
 

 

Lonnie Lyons and his assorted Hep-Cats at Freedom Records have given us plenty to be grateful for and we’re not in any way turning our backs on them for one unfortunate decision. But it begs the question – not just of them, but all artists who find themselves considering similar deceptive practices – of why on earth would you waste one of the few opportunities you have to make a positive impression on the public by releasing something that can’t help but turn that public against you?

There are no lifetime contracts for recording artists. You need to earn your next release each time out or else nobody will give you another chance to cut a record before long. If you fail because your own musical ideas weren’t up to snuff, or because your skills can’t quite live up to the standards of your more successful peers, or even if the audience themselves are at fault for not catching on to the ahead of your time performances that a lot of the Freedom roster was churning out before this, then that’s something you just have to accept and move on with your life.

But if you do fail you sure as hell don’t want to look back and say that one of the records that held your professional fate in its hands was a worthless throwaway that had absolutely no chance in hell to be seen as anything more than the obvious rip-off it was intended to be. Then you really have no one to blame but yourself.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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