What were you doing three years ago?

Do you remember? Was your life all that much different than it is today?

In many cases the answer is no. If you’re an adult, have settled down and hold a steady job, chances are the years tend to blend together and each one is a lot like the ones that came before.

But for those just starting out in the adult world three years can seem like another lifetime ago as you frequently change towns, jobs and relationships multiple times in rapid succession before finding your place in the world.

At the start of 1949 Paul Williams may have already been an adult, on his own and earning a good living in a solid profession, but his world was about to be turned upside down as he was poised to become an absolute star in rock ‘n’ roll with the release of one record that month.

Now, exactly three years later it’s fair to say he’s right back where he started, in roughly the same position as he was in just before that fateful record was issued… only now there’s no big leap imminent around the next bend.


The Big Boom Goes Bust
Rock stardom was never what Paul Williams had in mind of course when signing a contract with Savoy Records back in 1947, as rock was barely out of the womb at the time.

He was a jazz musician from Detroit, content to play in a larger ensemble and get no acclaim from the general public for his work, but happy to be playing the kind of music he loved while getting paid to do so.

When Savoy came calling with the chance to play that music on record with his name on the label – though surely no money in his hand after Herman Lubinsky got through conning him – Williams must’ve thought “Why not?”. It might be good to lead a band, to create his own music, to earn a few plaudits along the way and if nothing else improve his chances to be hired by bigger bands down the road.

Oh how wrong he was!

Don’t misunderstand, he achieved many of those things right away – ample praise along with a succession of hit records, and surely his name had gotten bigger than most of the guys still holding down the third chair in larger jazz ensembles – but to do this he had to give up the music he preferred for a style that threatened to upend civilization itself… or so it must’ve seemed.

Yet when asked to honk away in a manner most unbecoming a serious musician he went along with it and became a star, leading the rock instrumental brigade which helped to establish this upstart genre as the music of tomorrow. When in early 1949 he released The Hucklebuck, oddly enough a milder performance than his usual fare and which was derived directly from a jazz song, he scored the single biggest instrumental hit in history, at least if going by number of weeks spent at #1 (fourteen).

Since then however, though he’s released some good records, he scored just three more national hits, none after the Nineteen Forties came to a close. In fact, with the subsequent demise of the honking sax instrumental on the charts, he’s been struggling to remain relevant, something that Blowin’ The Boogie sure wasn’t going to change.

If anything, this was only going to confirm the suspicion that for all of his importance in advancing rock ‘n’ roll from the very start, Paul Williams still thought of himself as a frustrated jazz musician who was now just looking to get back to more comfortable ground.


Sizzlin’ Or Fizzlin’
We’ve said repeatedly in years gone by how rock was a bastard child of jazz thanks to the training of the musicians responsible for playing it, whether studio sessionists hired to back singers or, like Williams, ex-jazz cats coaxed – or forced – into rocking things up.

But those jazz techniques die hard, especially when you’ve achieved a measure of legitimate success like Williams had and now were given a little more leeway in what you came up with for your singles.

Going by the title Blowin’ The Boogie has very strong rock connotations, but titles in instrumentals are largely just for show… something to draw in the most likely audience. An audience, let it be said, who were sure to be slightly disappointed when hearing the sounds attached to this misleading title.

Oh, Williams DOES blow, and there may be some boogie piano that creeps in, but as far as the horns go some of this is leaning uncomfortably towards jazz with how many horns are playing in unison, the kind of thing that went over well on the bandstands of finer clubs than it did on the chitlin’ circuit.

That’s not to say that this is bad by any means. They play with energy, the riffs are tight and catchy enough to get you moving, the rhythm section never slacks off, but the entire concept comes across as being intended to serve as a gaudier exhibition of the band’s chops and professionalism rather than being the kind of showstopper that the best rock sax instrumentals have been over time.

The first minute is particularly guilty of adhering to a jazz mentality for even when they do deliver compact riffs there’s far too much dross around them to really take it seriously. The second half, which kicks off with Lee Anderson’s piano boogie, improves things considerably as we get Williams’s alto playing a nice solo in its deepest range, but even that is hardly enough to stir the passions of rock fans who are used to much more passion in all of their records these days.

Like it or not, the time when it was left to the rock instrumental to drive audiences into a frenzy are past and like many, Paul Williams hasn’t quite figured out what to do to make up for it and so he starts reverting back to what he was doing before rock hit the scene, but was still savvy enough to connect it to the genre where he remained a drawing card making this record an uneasy alliance.


To be fair you can certainly see why Williams was shying away from the kind of ostentatious display that rock instrumentals had been built on… those records were no longer scoring big on the charts, they were no longer quite capable of making an artist’s reputation AND since most of your income was derived from playing on stage, having a repertoire of one honking workout after another would have far less impact on audiences than being able to mix things up with a variety of tempos, styles and moods.

So when looked at from that perspective Blowin’ The Boogie was ideal for fitting into a two and a half hour set list where it could be used to kick things off to get everybody jumping since its frantic pace and dance rhythms are pretty solid throughout. The drummer is laying down a solid backbeat and Williams gets some time in the spotlight to draw attention to himself and earn some applause from the crowd.

But as a sterile record where you might be the only one listening fully sober at three in the afternoon with nobody to dance with, its appeal was more fleeting. Yes, you can appreciate the musical skill shown, you might admire the construction of the song as it ably highlights different musicians along the way and you may even get some mild visceral enjoyment out of the energetic display they put on, but records like this don’t grab you and compel you to listen, to move, or to lose your mind.

Rock ‘n’ roll itself might be changing when it comes to what types of songs are making the most impact, but those aforementioned qualities never changes no matter the era and thus far Paul Williams hadn’t found a way to adapt to take advantage of that truism and so he was left groping in the dark trying to unlock that door again.

To his credit though he wouldn’t stop trying.


(Visit the Artist page of Paul Williams for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)