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GOTHAM 225; APRIL 1950



What do we have here?… (we DON’T have a label of the single unfortunately).

Well, it’s another track pulled out of mothballs hoping to transform erstwhile jazz drummer Panama Francis into a viable rock act going forward.

Without even hearing it first, if you were in the habit of looking for long shot bets in the spring of 1950 there were a few other wagers that you’d have probably gotten better odds to, among them…

North and South Korea putting aside their differences hosting a neighborhood luau.

Eighteen year old actress Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to Conrad Hilton Jr., a 23 year old hotel heir, lasting a lifetime.

The lowly St. Louis Browns, who had averaged 97 losses per season over the past three years including going a dismal 53-101 in 1949, winning the 1950 American League Pennant in a rout.

Senator Joe McCarthy who’s spent the last few months throwing around reckless charges about supposed Communists in the Government going on television and admitting he was full of shit.

Needless to say if you aren’t the type to put your hard earned cash on the line to try and buck those odds then you probably also won’t be laying any side bets on Panama Francis coming away with a hit single this time out.


Up A Tree
As with the rest of Francis’s releases to date this came from the same session back in March of ’48 in which would be his chance to make a name for himself as an artist yet throughout the session, though he was credited as composer, Francis winds up taking a back seat in the proceedings on virtually every single track.

Making this more curious is the fact that Gotham Records had their own house band working alongside him, handling the heavy lifting in the arrangements and since Francis was hardly a recognizable figure to anyone outside of hardcore music circles it doesn’t make too much sense to sign him to a recording contract in the first place when most of these performances could’ve been done just as well with a session drummer and had the credit go instead to guys already under contract.

Such is the case with Peach Tree Shuffle, as Francis – after at least prominently featuring his cymbals on the intro – winds up quickly ceding the spotlight the rest of the time, mostly to George Kelly’s saxophone.

Even during that intro Panama has to share space with Doc Bagby’s piano which carries not just the melody but more of the rhythm than the drums as Francis lays off the bass and snare for the most part, maybe not so subtly hinting that his jazz mindset was still taking precedence in his creative concepts.

Luckily the other musicians are more forward thinking and it’s on their shoulders this record will have to be carried. Francis never lets up on those cymbals which at least keeps it sounding jittery enough to plausibly get mistaken for “excited”, but you tend not to notice them much when the horns barge in.


Peach Pits
The horns are far from a saving grace though as they’re a little too mannered to suit our needs, especially to start with as they play in unison before Kelly takes it on his own with only incidental support behind him.

He’s got the right idea in playing with a more lusty sounding tone but it sounds as if he’s merely improvising because there’s no rhyme or reason to his part. He’ll play a line, take a breather, play another and do the same, as if he were thinking on his feet but with a bit of uncertainty about how far to take this.

His lines themselves sound alright, though it could also be that the tenor’s qualities are simply more appreciated when surrounded by less emphatically played instruments, but he’s at least keeping his horn on the rougher side of the equation, trying for some grittiness at times, but even those moments are fleeting and because there’s no clear direction to what he’s playing and no melody to follow so you’re mostly left on the outside looking in.

He soon hands it off to the other sax player, Danny Turner, whose alto is energetic and a little more focused in what it plays, sticking with a clear-melodic concept from start to finish, but even with a few squeals to get you to sit up and take notice you’re not about to leap from your seat to start dancing unless your leg fell asleep and you need an excuse to get the blood flowing again.

There’s not much else on Peach Tree Shuffle to get your attention. No guitar, no vocals, no hand-clapping. The bassist is nodding off in the corner, Bagby’s piano has faded into the wallpaper and you might be inclined to think that the reason Francis isn’t doing anything but riding the cymbal is because he sold the rest of his kit for meal money since it’s highly doubtful Gotham paid him much for this aimless musical exercise.

No, wait a minute… it turns out we can safely say that his drums are still in front of him as he remembers to use them for a final flourish, though even that’s kept well off-mic and is too little and too late to get your heart beating again.

To be fair none of this is badly played and even the arrangement itself, while hardly invigorating, has not a hair out of place. It’s well crafted from a technical standpoint even though it’s poorly conceived from a musical one, at least as it pertains to keeping a rock audience interested.


Fruit Flies
In the end it’s important to remember that these are the kind of non-essential records that make up the bulk of music being released in the singles era. To focus only on the really great sides while ignoring these lesser efforts winds up distorting what it was like to live through it all. The bad, or in this case the bland, are what makes the good and the great stand out all the more.

Peach Tree Shuffle was a record cut in between eras and that it got held over and released in the rock era didn’t do it any favors, though truthfully had it been released the moment they left the studio it’s hard to envision another style of music assertively laying claim to it either.

Though for a musician it can sting your pride knowing your output is being ignored, in this case that might not be the worst thing in the world. At least it’s better than being roundly criticized.


(Visit the Artist page of Panama Francis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)