No tags :(

Share it

SAVOY 711; AUGUST, 1949



Having just bid the hit-making part of Paul Williams career a fond farewell on the other side of this single, we now get a chance to do an autopsy of sorts on his musical carcass now that the trips to the Billboard charts are coming to an end and the coroner shoves Williams, his saxophone and his career as a headliner into the morgue.

That’s hardly a proper fate for someone who’s done so much to advance the cause of rock ‘n’ roll both artistically and commercially in its climb from a little regarded start-up genre to a consistent noisemaker on the national scene, but nobody ever said the music business had room for sentiment or compassion.

Besides, it’s not as if Paul Williams was even aware of his declining fortunes in August 1949 when this came out. He was still riding the biggest hit he, or any instrumental artist in rock history for that matter, could ever dream of. So before disappointment and disillusion set in now is probably the ideal time to try and figure out just what changed in the marketplace and why Williams seemed unable to change with it.

Rolling The Dice On A New Sound
The scouting report on Williams has remained the same since we first met him back in October 1947. A former jazz musician without much of a track record to his name Williams signed with Savoy Records, known then primarily as a jazz label which was home to some of the best sax players in the world. Surely he was hoping to be welcomed into their sphere but before he could try to live up to the standard of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Don Byas he was instead steered into appealing to a different music fan altogether.

His target was a lower class, less sophisticated brand of listener who were starting to make their presence known by actively seeking out these cruder records. Savoy producer Teddy Reig, either seeing in Paul Williams a raw lump of clay waiting to be molded into something, or merely sensing he didn’t quite have the musical chops to compete in the increasingly sophisticated jazz realm, urged Williams to switch from alto to baritone and start to HONK!

It was a rude awakening for somebody who aspired to be taken seriously as a classy musician… but it sold.

The sound of these honking saxes appealed to the younger audience who were the driving force of this new style of music soon to be known as rock ‘n’ roll and it was Williams of all people, perhaps not quite an enthusiastically willing participant in it all, who provided them with a cornerstone of the emerging genre.

Right out of the gate Paul Williams had scored rock’s first instrumental national hit with Hastings Street Bounce, and then another and another and another. Eight in all would grace Billboard magazine’s tally of biggest selling and most played records in the black community… even more when you factor in the the regional charts of Cash Box as well as his work playing alongside Wild Bill Moore on a handful of hits that came out under Moore’s name for Savoy, even though Williams was just as prominent on those records.

This popularity reached its zenith when Williams notched the single biggest hit of all in this realm with The Hucklebuck, a record which not only ruled for fourteen weeks at #1 but which also led to it being covered by a host of huge names from across the music universe including even the white pop world, something that had seemed unlikely for rock to ever accomplish just a short time before this.

But that record, while exquisitely played, was typical of the mild approach that Williams seemed to prefer. He’d never really come around on the edict to honk and honk some more and while he did so out of a sense of obligation he rarely seemed to do so because he actually WANTED to.

When he did consent to cutting loose a little more he still was never quite as convincing doing so as those, like Big Jay McNeely or even fellow jazz-man turned rocker Hal Singer, who made their name with the type of torrid displays that Williams tended to avoid.

Such is the case with Free Dice, a record which has the right idea but perhaps has the wrong man in the spotlight.

The Come Out Roll
Unlike on the very effective, if subdued, Pop-Corn, here Williams ventures more into the louder, brasher, more assertive side of the sax instrumental wilderness and attempts to match those who’ve been getting all of the press for beating their horns into submission.

It’s a wise move, not only because it contrasts with what he offered on the flip-side but also just to keep his hand in the game for what is stirring the most passions. The problem though is he’s attempting to do so from the flanks, not the center of the field, as unlike those other musicians he’s not wielding a tenor sax but rather a baritone and an alto.

Further hampering him is the fact that in the past he’s had Moore on his right hand side to deliver the rowdy tenor sax lines these records required while he, Williams, was free to contribute the raunchy lows to give them an even cruder sound.

But Moore has departed for greener pastures and so his chair is filled by someone else. In short order the rest of the stellar backing band he’s employed these last two years will be gone as well. T.J. Fowler on piano has likewise already left for a solo career, thus for this last session cut in December 1948 all that remained from his crack band were bassist Herman Hopkins, drummer Reetham Mallett and trumpeter Phil Guilbeau, musicians he was comfortable with and who’d contributed mightily to his popularity on this shared journey into the unknown.

A month later they too would be replaced, but Free Dice isn’t the worst way to go out, as they lend a solid hand to Williams on song whose arrangement vacillates between past and present without peering too far into the future.

The Hard Way
One of the issues bands with horn sections have had to wrestle with over rock’s first two years is how to modify the standard big band approach to their parts. In that aging style rapidly loosing sway with listeners of all ages, let alone young rock fans who never were attuned to it, the horns would generally play in unison, the higher range being prominently emphasized with their trumpets and altos taking the lead.

By contrast rock would strip that mindset to its jockey shorts, either booting those two instruments off the stage or at the very least relegating them to minor supporting parts. In their place the tenor and baritone with their lower more rough-edged sounds would have their roles greatly expanded, giving rock songs a built-in toughness it needed to meet the more forceful uncompromising ideals of the post-war generation that embraced this music.

The second – and equally important – change rock instituted was in avoiding the massed sound in which all of the horns delivered in tandem that was such a staple of big band jazz. Rock didn’t need, or particularly want, an amalgamated sound like that. Instead rock thrived when just one dominant instrument stepped to the forefront at each turn.

It could be a different instrument at various times within the same song, say a piano to lead things off before yielding to a guitar to add some spice which then steps away for the tenor sax to go wild in the break, but no matter which instrument you were talking about on a given song the fact is rock tended to focus on individuals whereas the older forms of music embraced the collective sound the entire ensemble delivered.

On Free Dice Williams tries straddling that fence with a far-too-communal blaring horn intro that negates much of the rousing enthusiasm it provides by adhering to an outdated musical complexion. Its melody is fine, the riff itself is mercifully concise and there’s even spots for Williams to chip in with some responsorial honks on baritone, but the tone of it comes across as if it were meant for somebody other than us, the rock fan and that’s a tough hole to dig yourself out of if your primary audience for the past 23 months has been the rock fan.

Twenty seconds in when the melody veers left for the first time and the parts flip with Williams leading and the others following, you appreciate the fact that they apparently aren’t going to ease back on the pace and instead keep their foot on the pedal throughout this. But the other horns are still acting like an anchor as you try and get up to speed. Their energy isn’t lagging but it has a high gloss sheen to it that does the song no favors.


Making Your Point
Things improve during the soloing interlude wherein the others drop out and Williams takes over, honking away, keeping things surprisingly focused as he goes back and forth between melodic passages and intermittent points of gaseous emphasis on the lower range of his instrument.

Here he’s backed by the tight rhythm section and new pianist Floyd Taylor who keep things modestly moving forward, the other horns sitting on the sidelines altogether save for a few squeals as Williams pulls out.

Now things definitely improve as tenor saxist Sam Miller and Williams go toe to toe, sparring playfully with increasing speed and recklessness caught up in the moment or just trying to see which one will drop first.

When the melody returns it’s Williams, now on alto, who winds his way around the funkier drumming in a mildly erotic dance between the two. The lead horns repeat their earlier bout of one-upsmanship briefly before the trumpet rejoins the party and Williams drops the alto for the baritone once again as this wraps up rather modestly.

Yet for all of its conceptual shortsightedness to start with the band clearly was aware of what they needed to do in order to make it in the current rock environment and they largely fulfilled that requirement for the entire second half of the record.

But half of a good record doesn’t carry the same weight as it would’ve a year earlier when this would’ve had an easier time not being noticed for the weak intro simply because it wasn’t quite as out of date back then, and would’ve been able to ride the excitement generated down the stretch to a better than average designation thanks to weaker competition.

Free Dice is still more than serviceable in the summer of 1949 and even the most forward thinking rock fan can still appreciate what it does well so as not to feel guilty for depositing a nickel in the jukebox to hear this amidst the more rowdy instrumental records that are pushing things ever further.

But it’s appropriate that of the two sides of this record it’s not THIS side which scored the hit.

In the ever more competitive landscape of rock ‘n’ roll the songs that cling to the ideals of the past, even if only in part, can no longer be allowed to be rewarded for it if the music is to advance. Setting tomorrow’s trends means that you can make no concessions to yesterday even if, as in Paul Williams case, we never would’ve gotten this far along without him.


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