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SWING BEAT 191; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Why not?

That’s the thought that was probably floating through the mind of the greatest rock producer of the 1940’s who also happened to be one of the greatest tenor sax players in its ranks as well.

To date all of his work has come behind others as he seemed resigned to the anonymous life of a session musician – no glory, little pay, no real chance for advancement.

Now Davis of course was different because he’d ALREADY advanced to the position of arranger and producer – though those things generally weren’t publicly referred to in 1949 – and presumably that entitled him to a bit more money than studio sax players were getting at the time, roughly $42 for four songs to be cut over three hours of work. Yet while undoubtedly it was in the performance of those duties where Maxwell Davis’s future lay that didn’t mean he didn’t have performing aspirations of his own… or at least he saw that he might be able to up his asking price with a hit record under his name now that more and more record labels were springing up on the West Coast and seeking him out to helm their sessions as well.

Thus after more than 25 appearances on record so far in 1940’s rock, surely the most any individual we’ve come across, this is our first “official” meeting with Maxwell Davis, artist.

And not a moment too soon.
 

 
Side Dish
One of the (many) goals of this site is to bring some added attention to crucial figures in rock music’s story that are – for one reason or another – constantly in danger of being utterly forgotten as time marches on. Not surprisingly those without big hits under their own name are at particular risk for being overlooked, even if they actually had far more success in multiple areas than all but the biggest superstars.

Thomas Maxwell Davis Jr. was just such a person. His recording output as a featured artist is rather slim and devoid of any national hits and because the saxophone itself has seen its role in rock diminish considerably over time he doesn’t even get the lingering acclaim that a guitarist or drummer in a similar situation might receive.

His real claim to fame though should obviously be his production work, not to mention the writing credits he piled up, but even that is vastly under-recognized due to the lack of modernly recognizable titles in his catalog. Like so many others of this pre-crossover era Davis’s fading reputation is due to circumstances out of his control. If somehow guys like Amos Milburn and Little Willie Littlefield saw their historical respect rise to the stature they deserve then maybe Davis would get pulled along by that groundswell.

But unfortunately we know by now that’s unlikely to ever happen – despite our best efforts to rectify this – and so Davis is almost certainly on the road to historical oblivion if he hasn’t arrived at that destination already. Not even the fact that he was the producer for the most indelible stretch of B.B. King’s career, hardly a figure who is any less iconic in the Twenty-First Century as he was at his peak five decades earlier, seems likely to stem the tide when it comes to Davis’s position in the musical hierarchy.

But while we’ll acknowledge that sad fate here we’ll still do our best to treat him as the legend he is even as we agree that Hung Out probably had no chance to alter his prospects despite coming out in an era of rock largely fueled by sax-led instrumentals.

Still, it’s far better to have one of his own efforts to study up-close than to merely drop countless mentions of his ability in this area on the records belonging to somebody else.
 

Swinging Along
It’s ironic that Davis, who was essentially running the entire recording operations for multiple Los Angeles based labels, Aladdin and Modern most prominently, but also Supreme and Specialty, winds up making this record for none of the above. Instead he lands at Swing Beat, which was the short-lived name that the former Down Beat Records came up with when forced to change their moniker when Downbeat magazine, the preeminent critical outlet for jazz, bristled at the prospects of having a record company be confused with their magazine. It was thus changed to Swing Beat for just a few short months before they settled on Swingtime Records.

They were certainly familiar with Davis’s work, as he’d played with Jay McShann who was recording for them, as well as doing some work with Lowell Fulson who was the label’s biggest star at the time. Maybe they saw an opportunity to get in good with the guy who was exerting such influence on the entire West Coast music scene by giving him a chance to step into the spotlight in hopes he might decide to take a bigger role in their business. Or maybe there was time left over on someone else’s session and he stepped in to lay down a few things that might be usable.

Whatever the case it’s not like he didn’t deserve the opportunity to cut his own records, especially considering how prominent the tenor sax was in the rock world at the time.

I guess the first question you’d have if you knew at the time Davis’s full story is what approach would he himself take with his own recording career?

Where was Maxwell Davis the artist going to fall in other words? He’d come up the ranks playing with the great Fletcher Henderson’s band while in his twenties before reading the tea leaves regarding the changing market and taking on more session work behind singers who weren’t a part of an established band, as had been the standard for years, and when those independent record labels operating on shoestring budgets with little experience and few skilled arrangers/producers to oversee the proceedings, Davis ably stepped to the forefront, establishing himself as someone versatile enough to handle jazz artists, blues singers and rock ‘n’ rollers with equal aplomb.

This was hardly a cut and dried decision for him to make. Unlike some other sax players, like Hal Singer who generally spoke poorly of the rock sides he made his name on, we don’t know for sure what Davis’s feelings towards that music was aesthetically. He died in 1970 just before researchers began really interviewing those who made this music and so his thoughts on the changes black music underwent over the 1940’s and early ‘50’s went unrecorded. Yet judging by the work behind Milburn, his greatest foil, he wasn’t at all ambivalent about Amos’s direction. He aimed him squarely at rock and came up with two or three variations depending on the material – uptempo or ballads, vocal or instrumental. Within those realms however he was endlessly creative yet at no point did he seem determined to fight progress by reaching back into the past for something a little more mannered, more sedate… more jazz or swing oriented, or for that matter more pop or blues.

Davis merely guided Milburn along the way, aiding his cause rather than trying to shape his career to suit his own (Davis’s) tastes, whatever those tastes were. When he began working with B.B. King he didn’t try and replicate what had worked with Milburn in another field, even though by the mid-1950’s it might’ve been seen as potentially advantageous for King to leave blues behind in favor of the more commercial style of rock. But Maxwell knew what B.B. was comfortable in and not only didn’t try and deviate from it, but in fact subjected himself to King’s rather unusual desire to blend the blues with ANOTHER form of music that B.B. had always been fond of. And so that’s why King’s prime discography differs so much from the urban blues of Muddy Waters and Little Walter or the raw sounds of Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, the other giants of the 1950’s blues scenes. Davis provided King with the full big-band derived arrangements B.B. craved, yet kept it firmly in the blues idiom by highlighting King’s guitar and the lyrical sentiments of the songs. It’s no wonder that King was the most commercially successful bluesman of the 1950’s by a wide margin and Davis was largely responsible for that sound.

Being amenable working behind other artists was a trait which stood him apart as a producer, but when it was his own career as an artist that was at stake, which direction would he choose for himself?

Unfortunately it’s a question he doesn’t fully answer.
 


 

Hung On The Line
The primary issue with this record is that Hung Out never decides what its goal is. Oh it’s well within rock’s parameters, there’s no question about that, but it’s not a cutting edge style of rock as much as it is a reasonable facsimile of it. There are hints of his past endeavors in another style during the intro, not enough to derail it or question its allegiance, but certainly more than is advisable to get out ahead of the curve when it came to rock’s most advanced instrumentals.

Once Davis himself starts digging in it finds an acceptable groove for him to ride, not quite honking or squealing like the most manic rock instrumentals, but close enough for it to sit alongside them. The problem really is he’s too accomplished already to be ostentatious. He doesn’t need to make a name for himself by how gaudy he plays and so he dials it back somewhat. Everything he plays here is solid, nothing comes across as too light and frothy and wisely he doesn’t try and show how classy he can be by trying to impress any wayward jazz fans who might have a glimmer of interest if they knew of him from his days with Henderson. Without knowing who he was you’d nod your head and say he was another one of those rock ‘n’ roll reprobates that had been a blight on the scene the last year or two.

That’s a compliment however if you’re a rock fan, so mission accomplished.

The same can’t be said for his supporting crew, great musicians all, but who put a bit of a tarnish on this when they get the spotlight.

The most familiar name among his cohorts here is probably pianist Willard McDaniel, who would work alongside Davis for years in the studio. He’d deliver some good parts when called upon but generally stayed in the background. Not so here, where Davis generously – and foolishly – hands over the reins to McDaniel and lets him bring the energy level down about twelve notches with a very ill-conceived solo.

For starters he’s playing the middle keys, thereby not giving the listener a deep bottom that a left-hand boogie would produce, nor the more frantic pounding of the treble keys that at its best gives you the sensation of walking a tightrope as they go along. Instead we get a hollow sounding choppy progression that isn’t emphatic enough to hold our interest, nor melodic enough to get us caught up in it. The entire section drags and has us yearning for Davis’s return.

Instead we’re given a guitar solo courtesy of Herman Mitchell. It’s an improvement on the piano interlude but still doesn’t bring us any relief from the shift to the milder side of this composition. THIS part is too jazzy, too slow and too lacking in tension to connect. McDaniel then returns with a little more heft in his left hand, but hardly invigorating. By the time Davis comes back in the song is just winding down and while he leaves us feeling a little better for sitting through it until the end it’s not going to elevate Hung Out into the realm of even the low end of the better instrumentals of 1949.
 


 

Hung Out To Dry
This effort reminds me of the feeling you get when you’ve taken a bad photograph of somebody who is really attractive. Either it’s shot from a poor angle, or maybe their eyes are half shut or their smile wasn’t quite fully formed yet, and so when looking at it you get no real sense of their beauty. You insist to those who see it that this person is a lot better looking than the photograph lets on, and they probably believe you, after all who hasn’t had a bad picture taken of them at one point or another in life, but you still feel as if you’ve somehow let them down by not having something more substantial to show off.

Listening to this you can certainly tell Maxwell Davis knows how to play the saxophone. You get enough of a sense of his technical ability, some hints of his power, a vague comprehension of his melodic instincts, yet it doesn’t quite gel because it’s a picture taken in bad light with distractions all around.

But since this is the first photo of him you have where he’s in the foreground it becomes the image that takes hold if this is your initial exposure to his name. In 1949 it’s not as though there was any real sense of who the behind the scenes figures were in rock ‘n’ roll and while you might’ve seen the name Maxwell Davis on a record label or two you probably wouldn’t have given it any more thought than you would seeing the name Jesse Sailes on THIS record label for his contributions on the drums.

In other words Hung Out wasn’t going to be doing the reputation of Maxwell Davis any favors, even if it wasn’t going to be setting his reputation back any either. In the end it’s just merely another moderately acceptable, if somewhat flawed, entry into the ever growing field of rock instrumental records, certain not to be noticed enough to matter in the big scheme of things.

Sad to say, that might be the best outcome you could hope for considering the mediocrity of the record – ongoing anonymity.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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