CHESS 1465; MAY 1951



Record companies are in the business of selling records.

Sometimes that’s forgotten, or at least downplayed, when viewing the contents of those records, but the truth is the owners of these labels could care less what or who were on those records as long as they could find a way to sell it.

To that end if you didn’t know any better there was a lot about this release and its promotion that might fool you.

In fact, that was more or less the entire point.


Music On The Bluff
Chess Records, flush with the recent success of Rocket 88, were not only starting to focus on rock ‘n’ roll more than they had been, but also on the city of Memphis where that song had been recorded.

They weren’t shy about playing up the connection as best they could here either, as the ad for this record made clear.

But unlike their ads for Jackie Brenston’s hit which – despite being their biggest selling record to date and their first #1 hit – never bothered to show his face but instead had line drawings of rockets and what not, this one actually showed the smiling profile of its nominal star – Lou Sargent – who at a glance you would assume was white.

Except he wasn’t. For that matter he also wasn’t Lou Sargent… technically anyway. Rather he was Luther Steinberg, the trumpeter for Tuff Green’s powerhouse Memphis band in the late 1940’s who was now leading his own band on Ridin’ The Boogie and who the company – unbeknownst to him – re-named Lou Sargent for reasons that are all too clear.

Apparently taking advantage of promoting a very light-skinned African-American in print ads in the hopes of expanding their network of distributors and jukebox ops to those who didn’t deal in black music wouldn’t work if they thought he was Jewish instead. Ahh… America in the fabulous fifties ladies and gentleman, the land of the free and home of the brave! and all that crap.

In their attempts to fool people though Chess missed out on highlighting someone whose credentials as a musician couldn’t be more impressive.

The Family Business
It’d be hard to find a more illustrious musical family than the Steinbergs of Memphis, Tennessee.

Their father Milton had been in W.C. Handy’s band (The Father Of The Blues) and performed for nearly a half century around town. Among Luther’s dozen siblings his sister Nan sang with Fats Waller, while his brothers Wilbur (the bassist on these sides), Morris and Lewie were all professional musicians as well, the latter being the original bassist of Booker T. & The MG’s and co-writer of probably the greatest rock instrumental ever recorded (sorry to spoil our future review – just forget I said it when get to it sometime next decade).

For what it’s worth, since we usually have a greater affinity for radio personalities than we do record label owners who invariably get more mentions around here, Luther later married Martha Jean Jones – a/k/a Martha Jean The Queen, a truly legendary on air personality for the entire second half of the Twentieth Century, first for the famed WDIA in Memphis for much of the Nineteen Fifties and then in Detroit for the next forty years and their daughter Dianne Steinberg has had an acclaimed singing career of her own that’s spanned countless genres on record, stage and screen over the years.

Musical royalty indeed.

Like the other Memphis cuts that came out on this label, Ridin’ The Boogie was laid down by Sam Phillips at 706 Union Avenue at a time when he was desperately trying to prove his worth to Leonard Chess by giving him more songs in the same vein as the first hit he sent them.

Chess was obviously anxious to see if lightning could strike twice and if in the process he could delude you into thinking of the artist – and more importantly the company – was not quite what they appeared, well, that was the business he was in, wasn’t it? Selling you a bill of goods.

Memphis In May
We’ve only had a few opportunities to examine the woefully under-recorded Tuff Green band, Memphis’s premier outfit and a proving ground for talented musicians over the years, but when we have gotten the chance to study them the thing we’ve tried to convey is they were so popular around town because they were so good at every style. Jazz, swing, blues… even country, they could capably deliver whatever was needed for the venue they were playing that night.

Here Steinberg and company – many who were veterans of Green’s outfit – are being asked to provide something rocking and they complied with Ridin’ The Boogie, an instrumental that gives the band a way to show off their skills using a very reliable foundation. The problem is they were “better” than the song required them to be and at times here they seemed to want to prove it, sometimes to the detriment of the record.

The introduction for example is a bandstand staple, something designed to get chattering patrons to quiet down at the start of a set where the piano and drums are essentially calling the class to order. There’s a crispness to Jeff Greyer’s drumming though that is a little too classy for what we need… instead of a crack and a thump he kind of tries combining them and comes up with a thwack instead – I bet you always wondered where that term came from, didn’t you.

In the clubs they were playing it worked fine, but on a rock record it’s too passive… too polite… too “good”.

Things improve slightly with the riffing sax and piano boogie that forms the basis of the song as Greyer’s drumming gets more assertive as well. Phineas Newborn Jr.’s work on the keys is particularly interesting when he’s still behind the sax, dive bombing the treble keys in a way that makes it sound like rain drops made of crystal hitting the pavement.

Steinberg gets his chance on trumpet, an instrument that is far more at home in jazz than rock of course, but he’s just acting as the transition with a briefly repeating refrain leading into Newborn’s extended solo which shows why he was long considered one of the best pianists around

Both hands are busy as can be, the left is anchoring the bottom while his right hand is dancing around – “showing off” is the technical term I believe – but who’s going to begrudge him that with how well he’s playing. As his brother Calvin, a famed guitarist in his own right, put it when describing one of rock’s foundational pieces, “sanctified boogie woogie“, and that certainly describes what Phineas is up to for most of this.

The longer it goes on however the farther astray he gets from those foundational rock parts, clearly itching to show what more he can do, but he manages to reel it in before handing things back to the horns to take this to the finish line with Steinberg closing things out with the appropriate flourish on trumpet.


The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Truth
As you surely know – because it’s in the heading on every single page – this website is The History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll – Song By Song.

But maybe that should read “record by record”, as that’s what we’re covering, the records that came out… simply because that’s all we have in our grasp TO cover, their recorded work.

Most musicians however made their living on stage, not in the studio, and few did so better than those gathered here. They were widely reported to be the absolute best in the business and listening to Ridin’ The Boogie you can tell why.

These guys were good musicians. Better musicians in fact than many rock acts with countless hits to their name. But being better musicians doesn’t make them better recording artists when it came to this kind of music.

A band that churns out simplistic rock records in the studio couldn’t outplay these guys on their best day, but they could play this kind of music better on record because it’s all they did and they weren’t aiming to do more than that. The drummer would lay down a crude beat and wouldn’t feel embarrassed to emphasize it. The horns would be even cruder than that, honking away like drunken boors, but they’d lay into that dirty sound rather than ease off it. The pianist might be mind-numbingly repetitive but by never deviating from that basic groove he’d lock you in for the two minutes the record was spinning.

On the bandstand though, where Luther Steinberg and friends earned their money, you couldn’t do that if you wanted to keep working… the audience wouldn’t want it, your employers wouldn’t want it and you, the musician, surely wouldn’t want to keep playing “dumb” all night.

But in the studio sometimes you had to play dumb if you wanted to succeed and in case you were wondering that’s not an insult, it’s a job requirement. These guys however were too smart to play dumb, but at the same time they weren’t smart enough to dumb down in order to make it as a rock outfit with hit records.

That’s music’s Catch-22 in a nutshell.


(Visit the Artist page of Luther Steinberg for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)