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GOTHAM 225; APRIL 1950



As an artist specializing in instrumentals early in rock’s history whenever you’re in doubt as to what type of record to make, the default move is to get into a groove.

Forget about being complex… don’t bother showing off your chops… and for goodness sake leave your high brow musical pretensions at the door… just lay down a simple steady beat, streamline the changes if not eliminate them altogether and give the saxophone the lead under strict orders to focus on catchy riffs, not whimsical doodling and chances are with that game plan in place you’ll be welcome at any rock party being thrown.


Buy Me Some Peanuts…
Though it’s highly doubtful that Panama Francis and his cohorts would’ve called their efforts on the flip-side, Peach Tree Shuffle, “elaborate” or “complex”, probably scoffing at such notions that it was anything highfalutin, the fact is it’s basic problems were the song had too many layers to it and none of those layers had a very deep rhythm that would elicit a gut reaction from listeners.

The same can’t be said however for The Crackerjack which takes a very simple template and strips down the chassis, leaving nothing but the framework. All the chrome laden accessories are tossed into a pile on the front lawn free for any scavenging kid in the neighborhood to pick through for parts.

What’s left over isn’t going to exactly look very pretty, certainly not to experienced musical mechanics like this bunch, but it’s not appearance they should be after when starting their project, but rather power and reliability, both of which are easily found here from the moment they start the engine.

Francis is laying down a fairly comfortable bottom while also providing a little distraction with the high hat, but like with most of the singles credited to him thus far he’s remaining in the background and handing over the keys to the sax, which in rock ‘n’ roll is like your designated driver.

It’s churning sound with the lower horns and upper registers playing virtually in tandem, leaving just enough air between them to allow them to be distinctive. The piano is doubling up on the rhythm and making sure that it all seeps into your soul… or at least your shoulders… before the soloing starts.

George Kelly doesn’t try for much with his tenor, playing short melodic riffs while largely avoiding anything too ostentatious. He pauses between each one and the next round takes it somewhere slightly different. They’re not completely disconnected from one another, but nor are they closely aligned and building towards anything explosive.

It’s got an accessible sound though, which is what matters most… some might even call it a familiar sound, though HOW familiar is open to interpretation.


There’s No Honey In Crackerjacks
This cut has been compared to Joe Liggins’s immortal 1945 hit The Honeydripper, one of the songs which marked the first steps away from the small combo jazz of the early 1940’s and pointed in the direction of the rock ‘n’ roll still to come later in the decade, but to be honest the resemblance to a casual listener is slight at best.

They’re each products of their era, as Liggins (who actually wrote his tune a few years before ever getting to record it) may have been emphasizing the rhythm in ways that were notable for the early to mid-40’s but were far too lightweight to make any noise in rock five years or more later.

If that song WAS running through the minds of Francis and company the adjustments they made were pretty drastic, ramping up the tempo considerably and beefing up that rhythm to suit the current climate.

The changes don’t stop there though as Liggins’s own piano plays a far greater role in the earlier track, as does the vocal chanting which is the most memorable aspect of that record. While the sax solos by Little Willie Jackson (on Liggins’s record) and George Kelly and Danny Turner on The Crackerjack are somewhat close at times, at least in terms of how they’re broken up, the difference in their tones sets them apart, as does the fact that Jackson was leaning on the melody while Kelly is laying more on the rhythm, all of which means the so-called “connection” is hardly worth mentioning…

BUT since it seems to be the primary thing others have written about I figured I’d add to the needless speculation, compounding the problem free of charge.

Truthfully though, these guys aren’t doing anything worth getting riled up over no matter what their “inspiration” might’ve been. They’re simply making sure the groove doesn’t let up for if it does you’ll quickly realize there’s really not much of a proper song to be found here.

Sticky Caramel Though
Is this a problem? Hardly… well, maybe for selling records you’d like to have something a little bit more memorable, but while they may have stuck this ON a record the real measure of songs like The Crackerjack would be found in clubs where this would be better appreciated. There, if they get you out of your seat and on the floor, or if you’re already on the floor if they keep you from leaving it to get a drink or relieve yourself of the last three drinks, then the song has done its job.

But that rather basic objective also explains why Panama Francis, though certainly capable of providing such musical distractions for those lurking in the night, was never going to be content slumming in rock for his meals.

Drummers may have the means with which to provide some momentary flash in a set on the bandstand, or act as musical defibrillator for your heart on record at times, but essentially they’re the lead mechanic in a band as we alluded to earlier – greasy hands, dirty overalls, hands forever curled around a wrench (or a drumstick), always looking to tinker with an engine.

In jazz they got this opportunity all night long, playing vastly different rhythms and using all of the tools at their disposal. In rock… not so much. They drove the beat, hard and long and without any let-up. Occasionally they’d get to toss in a few showy rolls or bang away like a madman during a break, but it was often boringly repetitive and decidedly unchallenging for someone as skilled as Francis.

Gotham Records must’ve realized this when they signed him to a contract, but were hoping he could – and would – consent to cutting some of the rock instrumental tracks they craved, but even so they had to know he wouldn’t be happy doing it for long which may be why they spaced these releases out so much.

This is among the better ones he’s done maybe but it was hardly anything that was going to get any of them a hit.


In Search Of Some More Nutritious Food
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the future endeavors of David “Panama” Francis were far more varied than the initial by-the-numbers tracks he cut with Gotham in the late 1940’s like The Crackerjack.

Though he’d be glad to keep his hand in rock ‘n’ roll as a means to an end, playing on tracks behind vocalists and laying down some of his cruder ideas for the occasional single, he retreated back to jazz and stuck with that as his primary output more or less for the rest of his career.

That he never disowned his rock associations and continued to dabble in it for decades probably speaks as much to his genial character as his musical interests, but at least with Francis you were always assured that whatever the style he was playing, once he rolled up his sleeves and crawled under the car he was going to do his best to make sure it ran smoothly.


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