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ATLANTIC 868; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

When we first encountered Paul Bascomb on his unlikely, but entirely heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll entry called, suitably enough, Rock And Roll, we were surprised by his move to this kind of low-brow music, as well as encouraged by it.

This was not some teenaged hoodlum just on the scene looking to score with the rising sound of his own generation, one he intuitively understood having grown up in the environment that spawned such noise. But neither was Bascomb a frustrated artist who’d failed to succeed in any of his previous, more typical, approaches and thus was turning towards this new upstart genre, either out of desperation or resignation, to try and stir some interest before his career fizzled out entirely.

Nope, Paul Bascomb was somebody with a solid career in a top-notch band headed up by Erskine Hawkins, one of the most respected bandleaders of the jazz age. He’d co-written the acclaimed “Tuxedo Junction” with Hawkins and their other work included such legendary numbers as “After Hours”, a song dubbed by some at the time The Negro National Anthem. Bascomb’s reputation was lofty enough that he did time in Count Basie’s renowned ensemble as well, while Paul’s brother Dud, a trumpeter, had also plied his trade with Hawkins as well as serving a brief stint with Duke Ellington.

In other words, there was no higher step on the musical ladder either brother could conceivably climb within the framework of the big band motif.

So in 1944 Bascomb went out on his own, with brother Dud in tow, and they cut sides together for a couple of years before breaking up without much success to show for it, certainly not in comparison to what each had left behind. It was now shaping up to appear as if they’d made quite a large mistake in giving up the stability of what they had for the unknown promise of what may be around the next corner.
 

 
But once around that corner there was no turning back for Paul and he subsequently drifted into the seedy environs of early rock ‘n’ roll. Unlike most with his more educated musical background he actually liked what he heard and like a true convert decided to join in the fun. He promptly switched his attribution to Manhattan Paul, either to differentiate between styles or used to signify which records would feature his newly debuted vocal performances (or perhaps most likely to act as an alias should he be indicted by the musical community for such behavior), and was off and running, stating his intentions loud and clear with the aforementioned call to arms Rock And Roll.

Apparently the stint with Manor Records which resulted in that record had just been for those initial sides and now as a free agent he was signed by the still up and coming Atlantic Records for a similar one and done session to try and build upon what he’d recently offered.

Now as stated in other reviews the people in charge of Atlantic – Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson – were both hardcore jazz fans in good standing, well versed in Bascomb’s earlier (and more successful) life as a full-fledged jazz musician. Signing somebody of his pedigree meant that Atlantic could potentially make serious headway into the jazz realm, which at the time was still much more of a solid, stable market with a far broader reach than the young upstart rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet as they’d done with their two previous jazz expatriates Tiny Grimes and Joe Morris, the label issued them playing rock ‘n’ roll. The difference was with Grimes and Morris the decision to pursue that style came about as much by chance as conscious intent, since it was their rock sides which were cut alongside of the more expected jazz-based material and it was the former which connected with audiences, prompting a full-fledged change of direction in their career course.

With Bascomb that decision to move towards rock seemed to be made by the company as soon as he first entered their studio – whether because of the appeal of his last effort, or the recent success they had with those rock sides from Tiny and Joe. Whatever the reason though, and whoever made the call on what to cut they sidestepped jazz entirely and – with this side anyway – set aim on conquering rock in unambiguous fashion from the word go.
 

Anything You Can Do I Can Do… Better?
This is our second look at the song Hard Ridin’ Mama, a title, a theme and a framework perfectly suited for rock’s unsavory reputation. Any uncertainty as to its place in the world was done away with when looking back to see who first laid it down on wax – none other than Wynonie Harris whose version from the previous winter came just before his breakthrough as rock’s first superstar a month later.

But whether that interpretation of the song was all it could be was another matter. While we at Spontaneous Lunacy gave it an average rating in February 1948, the ground rules for what would be considered average suddenly changed overnight when Harris’s next release (on a different label), a little ditty called Good Rockin’ Tonight completely overturned the expected standards, raising the bar and rendering anything else as being potentially out of date.

So with plenty of time to absorb those changes, as well as the subsequent rock experiments that followed by other artists, the overriding question with Bascomb’s attempt on the same song would be: How will Manhattan Paul adapt this and improve upon it in order to make the grade in this new musical context?

First we have to look back on Harris again, but to save you from flipping back and forth incessantly I’ll recap the plusses and minuses of his Hard Ridin’ Mama. The positives boiled down to two words… Wynonie and Harris. The song’s theme was right up his alley, an alley strewn with empty liquor bottles and a discarded brassiere (or two).

As could be expected with Harris he relished sinking his teeth into such a promising song whose lyrics spoke to the deviant pursuits of a hound dog on the prowl and he delivered it with as much enthusiasm as was possible before you had to hose him down and/or lock him up before he ravished every female in sight.

The downside of the record was that the musicians and backing vocalists were apparently recently released from a monastery and frowned upon such abhorrent behavior and so they decided to deep six his chances at succeeding with his carnal pursuits by playing in the most uninspired manner possible while the vocals behind him conveyed impotence in every syllable they uttered.

So that’s Bascomb’s template to work from, but keep in mind the stakes have been raised in the ensuing 11 months by record after record of raunchy sax solos and barely contained horniness in the vocals of a number of similarly themed titles.
 

No Saddle
Right off the bat Paul, as befitting his day job as a top saxman, steps things up with the horn intro. Harris’s straitlaced brass section were playing charts three years out of date and it robbed the song of any thrust from the moment its pants were unzipped. Bascomb on the other hand plays a churning riff that lets everybody know what’s on his mind from the get-go. Advantage: Bascomb.

But then there are the vocals to consider and Wynonie’s voice dripped with experience that Bascomb simply can’t convey. It’s not that Paul hasn’t been past first base with a girl before and thus has no idea how to behave in the sack, but in comparison to Harris, who reputedly lost his virginity at the age of five with a girl thirteen years his senior, then went on to put so many notches in his bedpost that it looked like an Indian totem pole by the time he was twelve, it’s going to be rather difficult for Bascomb to compete with such a track record of sexual impropriety.

Sure enough Paul’s voice is too high, coming off as if he’s more excited than self-assured, whereas Wynonie’s drawn out baritone showed him to be in full control of his emotions and the situation at hand. Advantage: Harris.

The backing vocals are another story entirely though. As briefly touched upon Harris was saddled with aspirants from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, rejected for their lack of singing ability, certainly not any violation of the church’s morals requirement which by the sounds of it they upheld proudly until their wedding night, if not months later.

Bascomb’s crew of vocalists may not be quite the suitable brand of perverts that would make this aspect of the record a strong suit, but nor are they the type who assiduously avoided looking at dirty pictures or copping a feel after band practice. They show themselves to at least be familiar with the attitude and desires needed to pull this off. As evidenced on the flip-side where these same Three Riffs were woefully out of tune on a dismal pop number, they may be a little lacking in their equipment but they aren’t ashamed to… umm… whip it out and show off what they DO have, and that eagerness bodes well. Advantage: Bascomb.
 

No Guiding Line
Which brings us to the arrangements themselves, often the tipping point for success or failure, as a poorly conceived arrangement can negate a lot of positives, whereas one that’s smartly planned out can overcome deficiencies in other areas.

The Aladdin approach with Harris was outdated in conception. Forget about the playing itself, which is not only a topic already covered in depth but also is separate from how it was drawn up. The best laid plans and all that… sunk by technical incompetence… is hardly the fault of the arrangement. Yet that wasn’t the case at all.

Behind Harris they didn’t come up with anything suitable to compliment, let alone match, his wholehearted enthusiasm in singing this ode to an insatiable female lover. The melody is wrapped in ribbons and bows, nothing being emphasized to suggest what was going on behind closed doors and as a result everything was left to Harris to get across what kind of bump and grind gymnastics were taking place.

Bascomb avoids these fatal flaws and here his experience as a top-notch writer, musician and experienced bandleader really pays off. For starters the drums are given one of the most prominent showcases in rock to date, specifically the way they ramp up the excitement mid-way through, slamming offbeat accents, adding to the cacophony.

The saxes are the real stars though, blowing up a storm and becoming more unhinged as they go along. It’s easy to see what they were listening to going into this affair, as the most exuberant aspects of the rock instrumental sides that have come out in the past year are all over this arrangement’s DNA. The rowdy mid-section of Paul’s record stands as the highlight, even as the backing vocalists endure their worst elongated stretch in the otherwise decent support offered.

I suppose you can knock a little off for the more traditional – and unexceptional – way they close it out, their one nod to a dated approach, but overall this aspect has no suspense when waiting for the winner of the round to be announced. Advantage: Bascomb.
 

And The Decision Goes To…
Tallying up the positives and handing out demerits for the negatives we wind up with a score of 3 rounds to 1 making it seem like an easy win for Manhattan Paul.

Ahhh, but you’re forgetting the other X factor already hinted at… a recurring theme on Spontaneous Lunacy no less – which is CONTEXT!

All songs over the now seventy years and counting of rock’s existence are NOT being compared with one another straight up when determining their scores. A record that gets an eight for 1952 is not necessarily the same as an 8 for 1972 or 1992. Weighing the respective merits of songs cut years apart as if they were being judged by the same listeners perspective would reveal far too much about the reviewer’s tastes and experiences themselves and not enough about the songs.

To be fair in our approach… to be accurate in the evaluations… to be representative of the different circumstances the songs came out of… the context of the era always must be taken into account. Records are therefore judged against other records of the SAME market period. A song that perfectly fits 1955’s musical landscape would sound completely out of date if it were released in 1965 and so that would have to be reflected in the scores. Likewise a song which is well ahead of its time for 1983 may merely be typical for 1985 when the rest of rock catches up and so the groundbreaking aspect needs to be shown when grading it for 1983 whereas two years later it wouldn’t factor in because it no longer would be groundbreaking.
 


 

And so it is with the vastly different musical environment of this relatively short span. It may only have been eleven months on the calendar, but they were an eventful eleven months, especially since so much of the material pre-dated that time thanks to the ongoing recording ban that rendered old ideas as current in lieu of any fresh new ideas.

But when the ahead of their time sounds like Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight came along, or when record companies broke the ban and had their artists cut new material in violation of the strike, thus enabling them to update those sounds, then the difference was even more striking. That meant you had to keep up with THOSE shifting standards, which seemed to move forward in leaps and bounds, particularly since mid-summer.

Because of this Bascomb’s Hard Ridin’ Mama is no longer at the front of the pack. Even though it is superior to Harris’s take on the same material, thus is a more enjoyable listening experience when comparing them to one another, by this point they’re no longer being judged on equal footing.

The advances made in rock overall in that time means of course Bascomb would have an advantage, he’s had more time to assess and fix the shortcomings from those records which had been released at an earlier point in time and more feedback from audiences to better target their specific and evolving requirements for a suitable record.

But whereas other artists releases this month will be pushing even further ahead, giving us records that are cutting edge for when they’re first heard, thus resulting in above average examples of rock ‘n’ roll as it exists in December 1948, Bascomb doesn’t do that. This record, in this context at this time, was reduced to average by virtue of stronger competition.

Nothing exists in a vacuum and so Manhattan Paul and Atlantic Records once again find themselves scrambling just to keep pace because in music the clock never stops spinning. While Hard Ridin’ Mama is more or less the (average) sound of today, making it better in one regard than Harris’s sound of yesterday, neither one at the moment they were released pointed enough towards the sound of tomorrow to make them above average for their specific moment in time.
 
 
SPONTANTEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Manhattan Paul (Bascomb) for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Wynonie Harris (February, 1948)