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Do you remember these guys?

If not, you’re excused because it’s been awhile. Almost two full years to be precise, as in December 1948 when this makeshift group – all studio musicians drafted into service to cover a potential hit just about to be released by a rival company – found themselves with a hit of their own when their version of the song in question actually got released first and soared up the charts.

Since it had just been a marriage of convenience nothing more was heard of them collectively until now when another New Jersey based company pulled them in… or at least pulled in the singer who merely took the name with him… and tried to duplicate that feat more or less by covering a song rapidly taking over the country.

This time they were decidedly less successful.


The Night They Were Playing
This is another song we could easily do without reviewing as only a few components of it qualify as rock, but around here we like to try and tie up loose ends and so we’re meeting trombonist turned warbling singer Milt Larkin again with a group dubbed The X-Rays, though it’s highly doubtful these were the same musicians who were called that the first time around on Savoy when they covered The Ray-O-Vacs I’ll Always Be In Love With You and got a Top Ten hit out of their duplicity.

You’ll remember that the choice of their name at the time was designed to lead to confusion regarding which version of the song was which, though when that ad hoc group included Hal Singer on tenor sax it probably didn’t matter what they were called because it sounded pretty good.

Larkin himself had a long history in music and was the kind of jack-of-all-trades figure that made him reasonably attractive to record companies looking to cash in on whatever hot trend was developing, which is precisely why as 1950 wound down Regal Records brought him in to cover a record that was the biggest hit of the season.

Tennessee Waltz, originally a country weeper from 1948 by Pee Wee King (an unlikely figure in that he was surely the only Polish Jew country bandleader in music history) but the song was now in the process of being taken to the top of the charts by pop star Patti Page who sold it with genuine heartfelt emotion that made people from all demographics empathize with her in her reading of the sad tale.

Page’s version is such an iconic record that no survey of the dawn of the 1950’s music scene can be complete without mentioning it as it even topped the R&B Charts across the country at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was clogging up most of the spots.

Naturally this led to covers of the cover and Erskine Hawkins, a jazz legend, cut a version first, but he wasn’t the only one obviously. Larkin’s soon followed and impressed nobody. Too jazzy for rock, too rockin’ for jazz and nobody was going to best Page’s double tracked vocals for poignancy.

Yet while this is an otherwise entirely forgettable rendition, what’s notable about it is simply the fact that Larkin’s “X-Rays” were still deemed a somewhat bankable name to try and draw interest today.

How Much I Have Lost
The selling point of this song I suppose are the vivid lyrics about a couple who go to a dance where the one twirls around the floor with a friend of the singer (whether from the perspective of a male or a female it doesn’t matter, they’re interchangeable in the story) only to have the friend sweep the other off their feet and they fall in love before the song is over, leaving the narrator on the sidelines watching in despair.

The situation of course is ridiculous and says far more about the guy (in the original King version, sung by and with lyrics by Redd Stewart) and his own insecurities than the scene itself. The melody is fairly nice, certainly memorable in any event, but it’s really more something you can’t shake once you hear it rather than something you actually long to hear.

In Larkin’s hands however the melody of Tennessee Waltz is butchered because he can’t for the life of him find the proper meter to sing in. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the to-and-fro pattern of a waltz and stumbles like a drunk man walking on the deck of rickety old skiff, in the process exposing the lyrics for the transparent pap they are.

The fact that Patti Page was a woman probably had more to do with this song’s success than anything, as the gender flip allows more vulnerability to be expressed and she seems genuinely surprised at what occurs in the story and powerless to stop it. Women could identify with it that way while men could feel compassion for the girl telling the story.

But when a guy sang it the girls probably laughed about him whining and the men listening vowed to lock their own wives or girlfriends up – or at least refuse to take them dancing – so the same wouldn’t happen to them.

Larkin’s version elicits a totally different reaction however as it’s obvious the reason why his girl left him was because he sounded like he was deliberately mocking this dance they went to as a couple with his drunken awkward phrasing and she was just afraid he’d embarrass when she introduced him to her friends and family and so she found the first halfway decent guy there and left with him to avoid that fate.

Surely everybody unfortunate enough to listen to this song is embarrassed by hearing him struggle to convince you that English is his first language. Luckily for him though the band were well versed in the language they were using to make this slightly more palatable.

An Old Friend I Happened To See?
Because this is structured as a stately waltz – and one dripping with sadness in the usual arrangements – the presence of a noisy tenor sax seems out of place, but it’s the one element that firmly brings this into the rock realm and also the only aspect about the entire record worth even two cents of its 79 cent sale price.

We’re not really sure who’s playing it however. Maybe it was Singer making a return to session work, or it could be someone from Paul Gayten’s band. Based on a few snippets of an interview that Larkin gave once upon a time it may have been Howard Biggs’s studio group backing him. Larkin called The X-Rays his vocal group at the time, so it was obvious he had taken the name for his own use and it no longer referred to the specific group of musicians Savoy had paired him with, but whoever is on that horn clearly knows what they’re doing even if Milt doesn’t.

Though some simple drumming and the horn riffs that frame the entire song are in line with rock aesthetics they tend to lose their way during the choruses leaving it up to the star relief pitcher to come in and get them all out of this jam.

As soon as the tenor starts to blow you somehow manage to forget – if only briefly – the horrible vocals and the uncertain rhythm track that adorns this record and focus entirely on the solo replete with a stuttering section followed by a ratcheting up of the intensity that makes you wish they just cut Tennessee Waltz as an instrumental.

Granted based on that you’d have no idea of what song it even was since he’s not following the familiar melody at all, but at least it’d have been a lot more fun to hear than the record it got crammed into just to satisfy those who still recognized the group’s name and expected something more exciting than Milt stumbling around in the woods of Tennessee looking in vain for the song he only has fleeting recognition of throughout this painful ordeal.

Stolen From Me
So why even bother including this? It’s getting a terrible score and to be honest I don’t think any version, Page’s included, is all that great. It’s a fairly trite song with a decent melody at best and while she sings it great the whole thing still seems too contrived to be able to hit home as it did with so many people.

Well, there are two reasons this is here… the first is to give an update on Larkin and whatever X-Rays he was referring to because whether or not they were ever a legitimate group they DID play a fairly prominent role for a brief second in rock’s history leading up to this and we like to keep tabs on people like that if we can.

The other reason we’ve added this rendition of Tennessee Waltz is because we’re constantly striving to show what the larger music scene was doing as rock has emerged and began to grow into a cultural behemoth that would soon annihilate everything in its path. To that end we’ve always had in our cross-hairs the standard industry practices of covering each rising hit with as many versions as possible and we’ve also repeatedly criticized the way the major labels tried to turn their handful of rock groups into pop acts with poor material and bad arrangements.

So it’s only fair to show the other side of that coin from time to time, such as when a respected indie label with solid rock credentials took a pop hit of a country tune and had someone cover it to try to “rock it up” in hopes of getting some exploitative sales.

Thankfully that plan didn’t work out any better for Regal than it would have for Mercury if they’d had Patti Page cover Professor Longhair, off-key yodels and all.

With that settled we can send this dreck back to the dust bin where it belongs.


(Visit the Artist page of The X-Rays for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Stick McGhee (January, 1951)