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Certain figures in rock’s history seem to be almost lynchpins of its progress. It’s not always that they’re the most successful artists or the most innovative, but they always seem to be present when things are happening in some way.

Go back and look at your junior high school yearbook and chances are there will be one kid who is seemingly in every group shot. Popular yes, but more ubiquitous than anything. Someone with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Four months into rock ‘n’ roll there’s a lot of things starting to come together stylistically and much of it seems to involve Paul Williams.

Thus far Williams has made three appearances in rock’s early story and he’s delivered some very notable “firsts”. Hastings Street Bounce back in October was the first rock instrumental. Now the A-side to this release, Thirty-Five Thirty was soon to become the first HIT rock instrumental.

But neither was the BEST rock instrumental to date, not by a long shot. Todd Rhodes and Earl Bostic, the former a pianist, the latter perhaps the most technically skilled sax player in rock’s first decade, have both surpassed Williams in what they’ve offered up. That’s not a knock on Williams, being first does count for a lot, but it’s that junior high yearbook example come to life – a lot of it has to do with simply timing.

Williams will continue to be blessed with exquisite timing for much of his career which helps to account for the fact that he’s never been completely forgotten by history. He’s a good musician certainly, let there be no doubt about that, but as we’re starting to see he wasn’t exactly cut out for being a STAR musician, even though for a year or two he became just that.

The last thing I want to do is suggest somebody wasn’t worthy of stardom, but in Paul Williams’s case we have plenty of evidence as to what he REALLY excelled at…

It Ain’t Wrapped In Nothing Fancy
For decades now there’s been a dwindling respect for the notion of a “sideman” in rock ‘n’ roll.

A lot of this is no doubt due to changing circumstances. When rock began there were hardly any self-contained bands. We’ll see a few emerge over the next few months but they’ll remain a relative rarity until the mid-1950’s and really not until the 1960’s will self-contained groups who recorded their own music in the studio start to become the norm in rock. Fans would form a lasting connection to the group members who in some cases would rival the frontman for popularity, thereby further glorifying their role.

But prior to that, and in certain styles even after that, the standard approach was to hire session musicians who made their living backing a wide array of artists. Though arguably it deprived some of the acts of a source of artistic creativity, since the musicians were merely following orders rather than creating their own parts, it was nevertheless an effective method because it enabled every artist to have top-notch professionals behind them who were both technically skilled and very efficient, able to replicate whatever style or sound they were called upon to deliver.

Of course they were also anonymous, their names rarely appearing on the record labels, which means aside from the forty-two dollars which was long the going rate for those services, they received no acclaim for their contributions, as vital as those contributions were. Certainly the public who bought those records never knew it was Maxwell Davis blowing the saxophone on the sides of Amos Milburn and a host of West Coast artists, or that Tom Archia was doing the same back east. Nor did they care presumably.

History hasn’t been much kinder to their legacies, for while there have been some who’ve made mention of the behind the scenes musicians culled from session logs in liner notes and from time to time in a few books on larger musical subjects, generally they’re found merely in the footnotes and with rare exception are they celebrated by anybody outside of a few… umm… lunatics like us.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, a well-meaning abomination that is supposed to be accurately charting rock’s history didn’t even come up with a way to honor rock’s session musicians until 1999 when they introduced the Sideman category and then after only a handful of inductees over the next decade they did away with it altogether, replacing it with a more ambiguous (and more easily manipulated) category called “Musical Excellence”, which of course hasn’t been used to induct ANY sideman since.

So you can see why for guys like Paul Williams it was far more preferable – both then and in terms of his lasting reputation, such as it is – to be a headliner and briefly a star.

Let Me Show You What I Got For You
Just so we don’t begrudge Williams his moments of glory let’s state unequivocally that any one of rock’s pioneers who still retain even a glimmer of recognition in the Twenty-First century is something to celebrate, not denigrate, however they attained that notoriety.

But so far Williams’s moments in the spotlight have been hardly noteworthy other than for their groundbreaking roles in rock’s expansion. This probably shouldn’t have been surprising, for he was by all accounts someone who preferred remaining out of the spotlight, or at least out of the type of spotlight rock was already requesting of his ilk – honking, squealing maniacs on their saxes.

At their session this past fall producer Teddy Reig had urged Williams to use his horn for far more tawdry and obscene purposes than the instrument had been intended but Paul was reluctant to do so, saying, “I had come up in the swing tradition… and here’s this guy telling me to honk!”

He relented – to a degree – even switching from alto to baritone much of the time to better satisfy Reig’s calls for musical profanity, but he was rarely comfortable doing so, especially when he was being asked to carry the song’s entire load on his shoulders.

But though he would prove adaptable to this in the near future, briefly anyway, he showed far less compunction in doing so when he was relegated more to the background, almost as if he could then honk away anonymously. His work behind tenor saxman Wild Bill Moore on Moore’s future singles features some of his most exciting passages, while here on Come With Me Baby we get to see him step into the sideman role for vocalist Alex Thomas and while Williams is still the credited featured artist, the move to the background behind a singer whose voice will naturally command the spotlight on the record seems to agree with Paul’s musical and personal disposition.


As Long As You Keep On Grinding
Speaking of sidemen not being credited on labels, pay no attention to the name Johnny Cox as the vocalist who does receive credit here. There was no such person. As with the B-side of Williams’ last release, Way Late, where the vocalist was credited as “Muddy Water”, both are merely a pseudonym for Alex Thomas, a gospel artist who presumably had no objection to singing about sex with married women in a voice that sounds as if it’s had some experience on the subject.

Now with that last record our reasons for including it at the time was more to show the existing mindset of record labels when it came to their rather lowered commercial expectations for instrumental releases in a non-jazz setting. In fact, I stated then that B-sides in general, unless they showed something notable such as in that case, would be at risk for exclusion here on Spontaneous Lunacy so that we might progress through the years a little more rapidly than we would if every single side of every single release in all of rock was covered.

Obviously I’ve re-thought that policy because here we are reviewing another non-charting long forgotten B-side which threatens to simply reiterate the same points the last review of a Thomas-led Williams release did.

But aside from coming to the conclusion that the late 40’s rock scene was running the risk of being barren enough as it is without excising qualifying songs simply because they might be somewhat repetitive to examine and thus were deserving of a deeper look after all, I’m happy to report that Come With Me Baby allows us to see Williams in a more comfortable role and perhaps that can also help give his reputation a bit of a boost following some mildly subpar performances. It also happens to be a song that’s emblematic of the content rock was starting to feature, something which will start to take hold more and more over the next few months and here’s Williams once again in the right place at the right time to play a peripheral role to yet another stylistic milestone of sorts. It’s uncanny how he’ll keep popping up like that.

Right from the start we’re introduced to Williams sounding relaxed on alto while playing a melodic, almost whimsical passage that is very alluring and sets the stage perfectly for what follows. There’s a nice plucked string bass being played behind him by Hank Ivory that adds to the somewhat mystical atmosphere while T.J. Fowler’s left hand on the piano gives it all a bit more bottom, not trying to stand out but helping ground the song before Thomas’s vocals come in.

Last time out Thomas was serviceable in his role but hardly captivating. The song itself had been pretty basic and while reasonably effective overall it was clearly the weaker of the two sides.

You’d think that since the A-side of THIS release, Thirty-Five Thirty became the hit, and since we weren’t intending to even cover the B-side, that the same would hold true here. Shows what you know… or what we know for that matter… because Come With Me Baby is the better half of the record and Thomas deserves equal credit with Williams for making it so. Last time out he was a bit too rambunctious and let the song get away from him slightly, but here his vocals are self-assured while his role provides a nice mixture of mild horniness with just enough self-confidence to keep it suitably racy without getting too desperate on one hand or too obscene on the other.

Williams adds to this mood by delivering some of his most evocative lines, acting as a responsorial voice that takes on human characteristics that at times will bring a smile to your face. It’s a playful attitude that he displays throughout this, sounding almost relieved that the pressure of having to keep your attention riveted all by himself has been lifted.

Though he’s used sparingly every one of his lines behind Thomas is well-judged, adding considerable character to the overall feel of the record without overwhelming it. When he takes a solo midway through, backed by a distant trumpet and then joined by a tenor, it’s a welcome respite, a melodically enjoyable passage that carries you along in style. It’s certainly not frantic as would soon be expected of anyone calling themselves a rock sax player, but in this case it works all the better for it.

Had they tried inserting a honking attention-grabbing solo here instead it’d have changed the entire mood the record was building, a mood which is unquestionably the song’s best attribute. While subdued in comparison to what was coming out at the same time with someone like Earl Bostic who continually takes his horn over the edge, this performance is just better suited for Williams’s own aesthetics as well as the song it’s affixed to.

A song which is almost surprisingly good, though with the success of the instrumental on the top side it all but ensured that Williams would be asked… forced… to abandon the milder supporting role he was comfortable in and step, however unwillingly, into the spotlight and honk away.

In the end that style is what got him hits and made him famous, but hearing Come With Me Baby we have to wonder if he wished it was this side that connected with the public instead, even if it meant he missed out on some of the acclaim.

Don’t Wear Out
Session musicians aren’t the only ones at risk for being historically overlooked of course, so too are the more mild-mannered rock acts. Consistent, reliable and professional are hardly the attributes one is drawn towards when discussing the greatest rock artists of all-time. Not when there are so many flamboyant, unpredictable and out of control stars who steal the headlines for a briefly spectacular display before flaming out in a wreckage of their own making.

Paul Williams never had to worry about that fate. He stuck to what he did best, had more success with it than most, and left behind a legacy he could be proud of. There may have been few head-turning musical explosions coming out of his horn, but there also weren’t any ugly train wrecks as he veered out of control on record or in his personal life.

He may have needed some gentle urging from the likes of Reig or others who better understood the emerging market in order for him to leave his biggest mark as the music world rapidly changed around him, but once he was pointed in the right direction he was best left to his own devices where he could quietly work off to the side, filling in the cracks as need be and making sure the whole damn rock structure didn’t collapse from all that noise that was shaking its foundation.


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