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MODERN 855; FEBRUARY 1952

 
 

 

Something here isn’t right.

That’s not surprising. Rock history was never something meant to be taken seriously and so as a result many of the names, dates and details were either badly recorded or entirely fabricated along the way.

But surely public performances promoted by a well-known disc jockey who specialized in putting on widely acclaimed live shows around Los Angeles for years had to be accurately chronicled.

Yet here we are, throwing the claims of this live gig from Gene Norman’s Blues & Rhythm Show taking place in July 1950 out the window because of who wrote this song.
 

 

When He Knocks On My Door
Though the unofficial title of rock’s greatest songwriters may never be settled to anyone’s satisfaction – nor should it be – there’s no question that high on any list will be Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who may not have invented the art-form, but they sure polished it up a lot.

Because of that enduring acclaim their story is pretty well-documented, including by the duo themselves, and while their memories of certain events may not be as precise as the pedantic nuts who write about this shit would want, it’s pretty safe to say that they remember when they first met. May 1950.

Oh, and by the way, they’re also very clear about when they first wrote together, July 1950, after Mike was fired from his job at the Orpheum Theater.

This record, Lovin’ Jim, sung by Little Mickey Champion live on stage and issued in February 1952, was written by them. That’s not in dispute.

However if this really WAS from the show on July 16, 1950 it begs the question how on earth they managed to get it to Champion within a day or two of sitting down together and putting Mike’s notes behind Jerry’s words when they were complete novices in an industry that didn’t know they existed yet.

In other words, the date of this gig is wrong. It wasn’t July 1950 as all of the articles claim, it was 1951, which also makes far more sense in terms of the gap between its recording and release dates.

Since Leiber and Stoller talked at length about their start in their own autobiography, bringing up such early efforts as Jimmy Witherspoon’s Real Ugly Woman and The Robins release from winter 1951, That’s What The Good Book Says, songs that only true aficionados of their work are even remotely familiar with, it stands to reason that if Champion was singing this at a huge gig mere weeks after they first laid eyes on each other in Mike’s apartment, they probably would’ve thought to mention it in one of the thousand or more interviews they gave over the years.

So forget the date, focus on the song and remember to do your own double-checking on anything being presented as facts along the way.
 


 
 

Just My Size
If you were to take the accumulated musical tastes and backgrounds of the notable participants associated with this song and try and come up with something equally representive of all of them, this is probably what you’d end up with.

The band is that of Mickey Champion’s husband, Roy Milton, The Solid Senders who were one of the vital pre-rock groups of the 1940’s who helped carve out that niche where their jazz upbringing was channeled into more populist terrain, streamlined with an emphasis on rhythm rather than sophistication, yet still more than capable of peddling it nice and easy when called for.

Champion herself, though primarily a rock vocalist during the bulk of her recording career, was well versed in blues, albeit the classier styled West Coast variety with its own jazz leanings.

Meanwhile Mike Stoller was an aspiring bop musician with classical aspirations while Jerry Leiber was a self-described hipster in love with the off-color humor of Black culture full of sexual innunedo and witty wordplay.

The aforementioned Real Ugly Woman had been cut as a live record by Jimmy Witherspoon in late 1950, one of their first efforts to make it on tape and hit the market, so it was only natural to try and replicate that to a degree with Lovin’ Jim… for all we know maybe Jim refers to Witherspoon, though it’s just as likely because it rhymes with the line “let him in” and if you think the door Leiber has Champion refer to is one with hinges and a knob you are a true square in every sense of the word.

Because of the slower pace and more ornate accompaniment by Milton’s crew – at least compared to the more jumping top half – there’s a nice push-pull dynamic here between the racy undertones of the lyrics and the classier presentation of the band with lots of piano, trumpet and muted guitar to fool you into thinking this is something relatively genteel. That in turn enhances the depictions of lust that Champion is selling, in effect allowing the music to act as the cover for the real story which she conveys to the audience as if they’re being let in on the joke.

Are the lines themselves worthy of the audience’s screams? Mmm, not really, after all Jerry Leiber was an inexperienced teenager writing about the sexual desires of adults who’ve been around the block before, but he’s definitely got the right idea with insights such as “he looks like a saint, but really knows how to sin” which Champion adds immeasurably to with her delivery, especially the dramatic pauses before the punchlines, gives this enough meaning to draw a response.

Everything else it needs is being capably filled in by the vivid imagination of those in the audience then and those who hear it now.
 


 

He Rocks Me, He Rolls Me
It’s safe to say this song, with the same type of respectable backing, wouldn’t work nearly as well in a sterile studio environment, something which shows the importance of the communal exchange between artists and audiences in rock in different settings.

A studio record, well rehearsed with written charts, perhaps with post-production effects added in and judicious edits made to create a seamless recording, needs to use other common bonds – usually subject matter and shared outlooks – to forge that connection between those making the music and those listening to it. Rock over the years seemed to do that far better than pop and jazz, and in different ways than blues or gospel.

A studio version would have to change the music to highlight the naughtiness with grinding riffs and stop-time rhythm to get the same points across in a manner befitting the subject.

But there was another way to make those who were mere witnesses to somebody else’s artistry feel as though they were taking part in it, and that was in live venues where a song like Lovin’ Jim could come to life in ways that were impossible to replicate artificially.

This is hardly a song that stands out in the vast catalog of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but as an early – though not quite THAT early – example of their shared musical viewpoints it stands up well enough because it tips us off as to what to expect down the road.

Let’s call it: Sophisticated skank. Somewhat crude ideas being expressed, either lyrically or musically if not both, with a more refined framework that feels natural rather than forced.

That’s the key to their genius and while this record is far from genius, the basic blueprint for their legacy is already on full display.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Mickey Champion for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)