ALADDIN 3114; NOVEMBER 1951

 
 

 

We’ve just got done reviewing three versions of the same desultory song written back in 1926 by the immortal Erno Rapee and Lew Pollack, a pair that nobody in their right mind would ever claim were influential to rock ‘n’ roll despite these renditions that hit the market in the fall of 1951.

Yet today on the flip side of the last of those versions we have our first meeting with a truly towering figure in American music history who a lot of otherwise sane and rational people will claim was vitally important to rock’s development.

This is an attempt to set them straight.
 

 

I’ll Keep It ‘Til It’s Covered With Age
Great songwriters have never had much trouble staying relevant well past most music’s expiration date.

George Gershwin died in in 1937, a full decade before rock ‘n’ roll was born, and yet his compositions have been mined over the years by such luminary figures as Sam Cooke and Brian Wilson. Irving Berlin may have lived decades into the rock era – even if he was largely retired for the bulk of it – but he made no secret that he hated the style with all his heart, yet even he elicited a good number of rock renditions of his tunes over time.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were among the most accomplished songwriters of the stage in Twentieth Century and yet there stands a decent chance that their legacy will be reduced to one song, Blue Moon, because of the garishly enjoyable doo wop rendition turned in by The Marcels in 1961 in which the most indelible aspect of it was a bass refrain that neither Rodgers or Hart came up with.

None of them were influential TO rock ‘n’ roll even if rock ‘n’ roll blatantly took their work and perverted it for their own interests.

The same should be said for Hank Williams, who in 1951 was the biggest country star in America, a phenomenally talented writer and a singer who deeply connected with audiences, including, let it be said, some future rockers.

But that doesn’t mean he influenced rock’s musical DNA in any way. He wrote good songs though and all genres are in need of good songs, especially in this era when original material was not as much of a consideration for commercial success.

After Williams scored a country smash with Hey, Good Lookin’ it was taken onto the pop charts by Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford and so it’s perfectly understandable that Maxwell Davis would look to adapt a melody familiar across the spectrum for his own purposes as a rock act.

But that’s as far as it goes. Davis, like many others, may have appreciated Hank Williams way with a tune, but there was no actual “influence” on how rock music took shape, not when all of Williams’ songs are so fundamentally country-rooted, from his keening twang to the prominent steel guitars.

As for this song itself… well, it’s annoyingly catchy and certainly popular at the time and even remains recognizable now, but it wasn’t one of Williams’s best efforts to begin with and after you take away the lyrics there’s not much meat left on the bone to pick over.
 

What’cha Got Cookin’?
For those of you itching for a fight on the subject of influence, no doubt you’ll point to the – rather surprising – inclusion of a country flavored guitar that kicks off Maxwell Davis’s take on Williams’ song as proof that it did “influence” rock, if only for this one arrangement.

Yeah, sure.

It IS an interesting decision for Davis to make though, as he’s seeking to leave no doubt whatsoever that this was the same song for those left curious by the title.

Once that passes however it reverts back to Davis’s bread and butter, his tenor sax that is always firmly in the sweet spot of any song no matter its source and any chance to hear him play is usually welcome. The problem is the song’s melody was carried in the original version by the lyrics and that’s where Hey, Good Lookin’ sort of falls apart here.

The Williams song finds the narrator trying to pick up a woman using the rather blunt title line and some equally cheesy follow-ups. It might not be meant as a parody but it comes across as one because there’s no novel twist to the set-up or follow-through. He’s not crude about it, but he’s embodying the hayseed who thinks of himself as a city slicker and it’s hard not to laugh at his attempts.

In 1951, with the original and the pop covers saturating the airwaves of their respective markets, it’d be damn near impossible not to be at least passingly familiar with the storyline and a large hunk of the lyrics and hearing Davis tackle it instrumentally almost forces your mind into filling the blanks the best you can with what you remember… and once you do that’s when you realize just how lame it all is.

Now of course this shouldn’t necessarily hurt Davis’s version. If anything it might make it come across better because the weaker elements are excised, but that’s not the case at all. He plays well enough, his tone is once again full and gritty, grinding the deeper notes out in a satisfying manner, but the main melody retains that sing-along patter which only conjures up those lyrics and vocals.

Things improve in the mid-section where Davis gets to deviate a little from the most familiar riff and with some fairly nice percussion played with the hands rather than drumsticks it’s got a decent vibe to it, but there’s never a moment where Davis stands out enough or the composition itself recedes fully into the background and so you’re left with a bad idea played decently.
 


 

Free And Ready
From time to time around here when we’re talking about other concurrent genres of music, I’ve said that if time was limitless I’d love to do a similar project for blues or classic gospel. Heck, even standard pop – if I could limit it much more than I’m doing with rock – would be interesting to cover in similar fashion.

But not country music. Not for me anyway.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have some merit. All music, especially any music that appeals to so many, has to have something in its work that is worth examining and appreciating, but whether it’s the extreme cultural disconnect or the distinctive instrumentation differences or just all those damn cowboy hats, the allure of country music eludes me entirely.

Hank Williams though, despite embodying all of those things, is clearly a major talent even if Hey, Good Lookin’ wasn’t his crowning achievement. He generally wrote very detailed scenarios with clear lyrical and musical hooks and those songs proved enduringly popular for artists across the spectrum to return to over the years.

We’ll get some excellent rock versions of his best songs down the road, but if all you knew of him in 1951 was this song that kicked things off in that regard, it’d be really hard to see what the fuss was over him and nothing Maxwell Davis could do here would change that.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Maxwell Davis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)