The disparity between the work that rock’s best producers crafted for others and their releases as artists in their own right is readily apparent.

Other than Mitch Miller, whose obsequious Sing Along With Mitch albums sold oodles of copies, none of the prominent 1950’s producers who also performed had much luck with their own releases.

Every now and then Dave Bartholomew would issue a great record as a lead act but he’d make the charts on his own only once in his career even as he was churning out hit after hit for a wide array of stars under his command for over a decade.

In blues circles Willie Dixon could do no wrong behind the console, but on his own records as one of Chicago’s great bassists, he likewise only saw the charts once.

So the failure of Maxwell Davis, the brilliant West Coast producer and one of the top saxophonists in all of rock, to score a hit is hardly an anomaly, but that didn’t mean he stopped trying.


Cooling Down
As we’ve repeatedly told you, over the past two years the presence of the wild honking sax instrumentals that dominated the landscape – and the charts – in 1948 and ’49 suddenly died down and the instrumental as a whole enjoyed only sporadic commercial success.

When it did break through however usually it was a record that held the attention of the fan base for an extended period, showing that the market for instrumentals hadn’t completely dried up, but that the bar for getting a hit had been raised considerably.

The key it seemed was finding a combination of traits that would capture your attention instantly via a memorable hook and at the same time keep you coming back for more with an addictive groove.

That was easier said than done however as even Maxwell Davis found out with Popsicle, an inane title completely inappropriate for this type of record but which probably seemed like a cute way of forging a connection with the hot summer weather even though it hardly suggests anything hot being contained within.

Yet Davis was not one of rock’s best songwriter’s for nothing and since he was equally proficient on his instrument you still kept hoping he’d figure out a way to give us something that was melodic yet tough, artistic while still being commercial.

This effort may get him closer than he’s gotten in the past, but in the sweltering August sun it can’t help but drip onto the sidewalk rather quickly.

In The Heat Of The Night
Well, he’s got the slow groove part down nicely here.

It’s a calm mellow sound, intriguingly mysterious if you close your eyes and let your imagination run wild, but at the same time it doesn’t do quite enough to penetrate into your subconscious and embed itself there.

You can tell he, or maybe Aladdin Records, was aiming to match Night Train, the #1 hit from Jimmy Forrest earlier this year. The similarities are clear upon inspection with the gently rolling melodic rhythm at this record’s core, but just different enough to avoid being seen as an exploitative rip-off.

Davis was a better sax player than Forrest, but doesn’t have the hook to fall back on in Popsicle, meaning this is reliant on his ability to coax pleasing tonal shifts from his horn as a substitute.

He does it well enough to keep you interested, but there’s only so much he can do to get you fixated on the subtle differences between the smokier notes that seem to drift from the haze and the more pleading cries the horn makes as it inches up the scale.

Still, this is ideal music to serve as the backdrop for a certain kind of late night ambiance. It’s got the whiff of seduction to it making the song appropriate for an assignation in a smoky bar-room after the crowds have filed out, or maybe better still, the aftermath of that meeting where the girl and guy retreat to some apartment for a brief romantic tryst.

In those settings this works well, but no matter how much of a Lothario you consider yourself to be, they remain fairly infrequent occurrences in the lives of most of the listening audience and thus not something you’ll have much cause for revisiting on a regular basis.

By the second half it even starts to let that part of its appeal slip ever so slightly, sort of transitioning to the “cigarette after the deed” aura before returning to the slinkier upscale pursuit that it opened with. Though drums, bass and piano are omnipresent, they’re never in the forefront and so it remains entirely up to Davis’s tenor to get us across the finish line, which it does, but not with any sudden bursts of momentum.

Because the record is lacking something more memorable in its melody, the rest of the rock fan base is not going to have the impetus to keep it on the turntable for very long, even if it provides a nice mood changer in the midst of a stack of more frantic sides.

Come Morning
As evident even with his work behind others, Maxwell Davis was someone not entirely comfortable with commanding the spotlight. He was a master of the discreet arrangement, of adding small touches to create a more vibrant picture, rather than someone who shone the spotlight on one brazenly ostentatious aspect to seize your attention.

That trait did him well when backing others, but on his own it could be something of a hindrance when he needed to turn your head more just to let you know he was still plugging away in a quest for a hit.

We can credit him for his musicianship on Popsicle even if we can’t really praise it for any originality shown, but while that limits our appreciation to a degree, it’s hard to find fault with his arranging decisions.

Any option at his disposal came with very obvious pitfalls. Of the instruments taking part, the only other one suited for a brief soloing spot in that mid-section is the piano and we’ve seen how precarious that could be. Too light and dainty and it changes the disposition of the record for the worse. Yet to add anything more percussive or rhythmic would break the carefully constructed spell it cast.

In retrospect you might suggest giving the bass an 8 bar interlude, maybe with the drummer’s light touch on the cymbals in reply, which could be used to suggest just a hint of impending peril… fitting for a hook-up between two strangers if you want to continue to evoke all sides of that image you’ve created… but musically speaking was a bass solo really something that a rock record would use in 1952?

Probably not, so we’re left with something that is nice enough while it lasts, but like most late night rendezvous, largely forgotten by daybreak.


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