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GOTHAM 214; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

The naming of instrumentals remains one of the more frequent side-topics around these parts, especially since there are so many raunchy saxophone-based rock records without words coming out during the this period that could use an intriguing title to help catch your eye.

We’ve delved into the seamier side of the business with the countless songs named for disc jockeys that some companies felt had substantial payoffs, even if it resulted in the record being played on just that one station as a result.

Likewise there have been looks at the ways in which other companies sought to tip off rock’s target demographic that these records were for them by using traditionally black southern culinary staples as song titles, apparently believing the old saying “A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” also applied to music.

But there’s another tried and true method of piquing the interest of potential male listeners that is more elemental than even a good meal.

That topic is sex.
 

 
What Time Is It?
But wait a minute, this is mid-century America we’re talking about. A society built on upholding moral codes originally conceived by Benedictine monks a few centuries earlier for reasons that are lost to time (and doubtless made just as little sense back then come to think of it).

In fact as we enter the Nineteen Fifties we’re now knee-deep in an era in which an oppressive Production Code controlled what was permissible in motion pictures, banning profanity, nudity, drugs and any and all ridicule of the church. It’s also why “the good guys” always won, crime never paid, married couples slept in separate beds, women were never immoral and men never aggressively lustful… or at least anyone who WAS got their comeuppance in the end.

This mindset definitely extended to music, where listeners were subjected to such reassuring pap as Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby singing Dear Hearts And Gentle People about the idyllic comforts of small town America, which of course considering the times was rigidly homogeneous by forceful edict.

Meanwhile The Andrews Sisters were romantically longing for a man in I Can Dream, Can’t I? in a manner that confirmed their virginity for any listeners who found themselves having inappropriate thoughts about the three girls. Don’t worry though, it wasn’t only the female of the species that the music industry felt compelled to keep pure, for guys too were also left to resort to G-rated fantasies on record as Perry Como wistfully told us about his Dreamer’s Holiday where he kept his distance from the guesting Fontane Sisters, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

Even songs that hinted at some naughtiness in their titles, like Mindy Carson’s All The Bees Are Buzzin’ Round My Honey, wound up being completely misleading when you actually listened to her prattle on about her much sought after guy who – she took pains to ensure us – were merely “keeping steady company”, meaning my guess as to the “honey” she was referring to was a LONG ways off!

But rock ‘n’ roll of course was the one segment of music that wasn’t governed by the strict overbearing standards of a 3rd grade teacher at a Catholic boarding school and so songs like Pussy Cats At Midnight, though unfortunately without lyrics to further our illicit education, shouldered the entire responsibility for making sure that at least certain segments of society weren’t bound by these draconian bans against sinful playing… musically or otherwise.
 

Playing The Odds While Playing The Drums
The odds against Panama Francis becoming a full-fledged headlining star in rock at the time was pretty low. The reason for this is not because he wasn’t good at what he did, arguably he was AS good a drummer talent-wise as rock would ever see, certainly Top Ten or Twenty material all-time at the very least, but rather that the drums were not ever in a position to really get noticed.

Maybe had he stuck exclusively to jazz he’d have stood a better chance, for at least in that field drummers got a bit of name recognition, or at least a few did at times. But Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones and Kenny Clarke aside, the fact of the matter is in MOST musical genres the drummer is hampered by some almost insurmountable issues, namely he doesn’t carry the melody, sits at the back of the stage and is generally obscured from view by the tools of his own trade.

But as rock ‘n’ roll dawned in the late 1940’s there was still a chance that this might be the style that would change that as it took the backbeat to the forefront and in doing so made as much noise as possible. Lucky for us that Panama Francis, though still a jazz musician at heart, had been seduced into trying rock ‘n’ roll.

He – or rather Gotham Records for whom he was recording – seemed to have the right idea when it came to how to position him. Knowing that it was the saxophone that was most responsible for the rock instrumental fever sweeping the nation they paired him up with a powerful up and coming tenorman , Sam “The Man” Taylor, on his first release, Stompin’ With Panama. Even the title seemed designed to promote the man hidden behind his traps.

Unfortunately the music they played was too restrained and didn’t do any of them much good, so months later they tried again, this time aiming a little lower – as in groin high – to draw some curious wandering eyes with the alluringly named Pussy Cats At Midnight.

It’s a title that just SOUNDS dirty… although in a rather elegant way if that’s possible. Like a vaguely European Technicolor film starring David Niven about upper class sexual hijinx where innuendo is the main allure…. let your mind run wild.

But a great title only goes so far in selling a record. What matters more is what’s contained WITHIN that record, and here’s where things start to get misleading.
 
 


 
 

Held In A Sax-ual Thrall
Though Francis gets the artist credit it’s definitely the saxes who take center stage. We’re plenty familiar with the names by now, Danny Turner of Chris Powell and The Five Blue Flames who guested on a Jimmy Preston session for Gotham that summer is on alto here and he’s joined by George Kelly on tenor and right from the start they go at it like sparring partners with a bone to pick.

The back and forth exchange that kicks this off is exactly the type of attention getting gimmick that rock songs thrived on. Here, not content to let it go at one run through they double down on it before anything else occurs, then following a brief melodic turn by Kelly they pick it up for a third time – all in the first thirty seconds!

Obviously that was their one big idea for they return to it multiple times throughout Pussy Cats At Midnight, all while leaving Francis to demurely keep time ticking away on the cymbal and lightly hitting the snare.

All of which makes you wonder if this was merely a session with unspecified aims as to the type of music they’d tackle and even which figure among them would be getting label credit when it came out. They did cut this back in March after all, before much of what put these guys on the map – figuratively speaking again, since few rock fans were hip to who was playing what on other people’s records – and Francis might’ve just been singled out as the lead artist by some highly democratic method such as playing rock, paper, scissors.

Regardless of the circumstances though the results are certainly effective enough to give someone a little bit of credit for the concept alone, even if it never really takes off from where it began. With no guitarist in the studio to give this a much needed third soloing instrument, the responsibility should’ve fallen to pianist Doc Bagby who could’ve pounded out twelve bars in the middle just to break up the sonic palette, or then again even Francis could’ve been given a few flashy turnarounds to earn that headlining credit.

But in the year of the sax instrumental it’s easy to see why they all felt it was best to stick with the horns and while it doesn’t surpass our expectations it lives up to them for the most part – hard charging, repetitive, something to grind to in the dark corners of the club with some girl whose name you’ll forget before you get around to paying your tab.
 

Re-Name That Tune?
Unfortunately for all of the attitude it starts with the tune sort of peters out by the two-thirds mark, like their batteries were running low. More damning than that however – and maybe this is just my continuing fascination with the intriguing title – is the fact it doesn’t quite live up to the suggestiveness inherent in those four words staring out from the record label which hint at things usually conveyed by a moan or a sigh drifting from a window in the moonlight.

Instead we don’t get anything of the sort and while rousing sax battles are always welcome on the scene the type of display they feature here would’ve been better left to a song with a different title… or rather, they should’ve titled this one Four AM Rumble and put that on the B-side to something more atmospherically fitting for this title.

To me Pussy Cats At Midnight should feature a saxophone that’s slow, slinky and smoky sounding. There Panama’s cymbal work would accentuate the mood rather than get drowned out by the rowdy duel Turner and Kelly engage in here.

You could still use both horns, but have them act as if they’re engaging in some sensuous flirting outside a club. One teases, the other feigns indifference but then dutifully follows when the first heads off into the night, their lines wrapping around each other, the alto leading, the tenor falling in behind before the tenor takes over and the alto plays catch up, neither one ever showing too much eagerness but then again neither one letting the other ever get out of sight.

Of course most of the action would be happening in our imaginations as each one of those four words brings to mind a different image for different listeners. You could even combine the first two words in your head, pussy and cats, though why you’d let the cat in for the night before you were done with… well… that’s for each person to decide for themselves I suppose.

Despite the best of intentions it would appear however that none of them – not Panama Francis, not Gotham Records, not the fictitious characters who were starring in that late night fantasy, and for that matter not any us listening to this either – got exactly what they were looking for here.

Not a hit, not a showcase for the drumming skills of the artist and not a record that lives up to its intoxicating title, we’ll all have to be content with simply filing this away as yet another rampaging sax instrumental that defined rock’s earliest years – certainly pretty good in that regard but not nearly astounding enough to make a big dent in our consciousness, and while enough to get our motors running at first it still winds up not quite being able to leave us entirely… fulfilled.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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