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SAVOY 734; MARCH, 1950

 
 

 

You’d be forgiven if when looking at this title you thought it was a direct question being asked by Paul Williams regarding his diminishing stature as one of rock’s leading lights.

After all it was Williams who inaugurated the saxophone-led instrumental craze in rock back in the fall of 1947 and who scored its first hit at the end of that year, then went on to land multiple records on the charts over the next two years peaking with the single biggest hit in terms of length of time at #1 in all of rock as 1949 dawned.

Yet now just a little over a year later Williams’s ascendancy is clearly on the wane which would make it only natural for him to have some hurt feelings that would lead him to question why he wasn’t still on the top of the heap.

Well rest easy Paul, the answer to your query isn’t that you’ve done anything wrong which might have lead rock fans to lose interest in you, but rather you’re almost a victim of your own success. You were in fact so successful in establishing this music and encouraging other musicians to take up its cause themselves that the stage is now gotten so crowded that it’s simply getting harder for you to be noticed amidst all the clamor.
 

 

Standing On The Corner
In a lot of ways the career arc of Paul Williams was decidedly backwards. Those early records may have been exactly what were needed for their time in order to ease the listener into this newfangled rock ‘n’ roll in a way that retained some familiarity to past jazz excursions in order to keep it grounded, but as sensible as that approach may have been for the time the results were sometimes a little underwhelming for what would soon become a far more rambunctious rock aesthetic.

Even that one massive enduring hit, The Hucklebuck with its alluringly captivating hook was somewhat tame compared to the wilder sides being issued at the same time by the next generation of rock sax anarchists like Big Jay McNeely. Yet Williams with his established reputation was the one reaping the benefits.

But by now the audience had caught up to the more adventurish practitioners of the style and were becoming more accustomed to, appreciative of and in fact demanding more from the flamboyant showmen which meant they were getting their sax fix from others even as Paul was in the process of shedding some of his more demure trappings and becoming downright experimental at times.

The records he’d released over the past year had every appearance of a creative peak and yet they were meeting with diminishing commercial returns. Oh he was still popular, but no longer was he on the top of the heap when it came to this brand of music. Perhaps sensing he was fighting an uphill battle when it came to competing with the newer crop of talent if he stuck exclusively with honking, he had instead been taking more risks, such as bringing in female vocalists to give his records a different feel rather than merely having a string of instrumentals one after another on both sides of each release.

Last June it was Joan Shaw who adorned the very good He Knows How To Hucklebuck, turning that rather obvious follow-up to his mega-smash into something far more unique and innovative in the process.

Now it’s Connie Allen who gets called on to lend her charms to What’s Happening, a record which shows Paul Williams might have been best suited all along to providing stellar accompaniment for others who could bring to the table the type of aggressive attitude he himself would rather avoid.
 


 
 

Go! Go! Go!
Looking back it’s hard to fathom why Connie Allen didn’t become at least a reliable mid-level star, someone who’d be a constant presence on the scene for a half dozen years, churning out solid records for a prominent label with a few hits scattered among them.

She had the perfect résumé for the role as she was a singer with a commanding vocal presence who at 23 when this was released had come of age in the cultural maelstrom of rock ‘n’ roll as it rose to power. That was evident in her delivery on the handful of sides she got some attention for – this record as well as a later off-color single fronting another Detroit-based instrumentalist Todd Rhodes a few years down the line.

Why she never got much opportunity to build a career of her own is one of those maddening mysteries for which no explanation would likely prove acceptable, but looking at the chances she DID get in the service of others it’s easy to see why older bandleaders like Williams and Rhodes sought her out… because Connie Allen brought instant legitimacy to their attempts to add some vocal bite to their musical bark.

What’s Happening needs all the help in that area it can get, at least as it opens sounding at least seven or eight years out of date with listless horns, bland piano and no backbeat.

The band tightens up with the arrival of the vocal hook twenty seconds in – “You gotta know what’s happening” that removes the idea that the title is a question – and while it’s definitely getting things on track, especially thanks to the addition of hand claps to create some rhythmic propulsion, they still seem a little unconvinced about their instructions.

But leave it to Allen to show them the way once she adds her own response to their cries with a hearty “Yes, yeah!” and her swaggering sense of self turns the tide as much as any one voice can do in such a limited time frame.

Luckily she’s given more to do than act as a cheerleader for the band as they switch roles once the verses start and the band now picks up her “Yes, yeah” reply to her lines about setting the scene in fairly generic ways, albeit delivered with plenty of sassy confidence that shows even with the larger part to play here she was still being under-utilized.

The lines themselves are – for the most part anyway – sort of cribbed from the rudimentary rock playbook, although in a song like this that’s not attempting to tell a story that’s not the worst thing to be accused of. At the very least they establish a certain perspective that this requires to carry out the main objective of the record which is to hype the band.

She does that quite well on the one truly inventive stanza as she throws Paul’s name into the mix following the first extended solo which is where this record is going to have to now try and match Allen’s vitality.
 


 

If You Girls Want To Try Your Luck, See Mr. Paul And Learn To Hucklebuck!
That first time ‘round they manage to do it… if only barely.

The song is ostensibly about rocking, an adjective used here to describe both the musical and cultural act itself of letting go of yourself and cutting loose. Williams does that well enough at the start of his solo, ripping off some good guttural melodic honks before he eases up in the intensity a little mid-way through before picking it up again. But what this fluctuating passion shows is that even now he’s still not entirely comfortable causing a scene with his horn.

Though usually it’s the tenor, not baritone that he plays, which takes the spotlight in these kind of wild breaks, it’s not outside of his instrument’s capabilities to become rowdier than this allows itself to be. He’s playing the right notes, just not emphasizing them enough at times. Maybe the best way to put it is he’s content to merely grab you by the lapels, not smash the back of your head into the wall to make his point.

Still, the interlude is exciting enough primarily because of Allen who is shouting encouragement in the background, whooping it up with rapturous joy and adding greatly to the sense of anarchy they’re trying to convince you is authentic.

While that first go-round may do enough to give them the benefit of the doubt the same can definitely not be said for the second instrumental break that follows that vocal throwdown about her employer’s skill with his horn. Yet Williams… or Mr. Paul if you prefer… is nowhere to be found on the second instrumental break where the rest of the horns… umm, “horn in” on the proceedings and immediately send this back to 1946.
 

Some Want To Swing, Some Want To Sway
I can’t begin to fathom why Williams, who clearly was trying to establish this as a rousing tough record to off-set some of the mellower instrumental sides from the past, would turn things over to a bunch of guys who sound as if they had strict 9 PM curfews and had promised their mothers they wouldn’t touch anything stronger than buttermilk when they let Paul take them out on the town.

Even with the “Go! Go! Go!” chants they contribute right before their big showcase – and even with Connie screaming for them to “BLOW!!!” which sounds less like a request and more like a demand, their tone here is bleating and their energy lagging. Though there were two tenors on this December session, including the great Freddy Jackson, I don’t hear even one raunchy tenor sax stepping into the forefront. That means the real issue is in the construction of this and the complete lack of understanding of what this solo needed to accomplish in order to pull the song together and make it work.

Even if you wanted to avoid using those tenors for the solo because you felt that well had been gone to far too often in rock to date (a stupid idea, but at least one they could plausibly convince themselves was the case) now would be the time to let Williams try and break the sound barrier with his own horn, at least knock out a few windows by honking like a madman, but instead he either sits this out altogether or more likely switches to alto, his other preferred sax, and promptly gets you the listener to ask of him… just What’s Happening???

I doubt he’s got a good answer, as this peters to a weak and ineffectual close before Allen returns to drag his ass out of the fire with one more biting vocal that at least leaves a far better taste in your mouth than you’d have otherwise.
 


 

Gotta Know What’s Happening Everywhere You Go
These are the records that are hardest to come to a definitive conclusion about, for the emotional let-down when they don’t go for broke is too serious to overlook, yet you can’t diminish the yeoman effort of Allen who is absolutely fantastic. She may not be given much to work with but she wrings out of this material every last drop of sweat it contains.

So maybe the best – and most fair – way to look at What’s Happening is to not think of it as a Paul Williams record at all, even though his initial solo is decent enough in its own right to be modestly appreciated.

If instead we view this as a Connie Allen record we’d allow our praise for her to not be quite as tempered by the lackluster support down the home stretch and while we’d acknowledge it in the score, we’d be starting with a higher grade for her contributions.


 

On the other hand if we focused more on Williams and treated Allen as merely a gaudy accessory then he might face an uphill climb to get this past average.

Because the overall record comes across as well as it does whenever Allen is heard, and since she’s the dominant featured performer no matter what the credits say, we’ll recommend this a little more comfortably than we would otherwise… but should add that next time out it’d be wise to let HER dictate the playing behind her for the sake of all of their ensuing careers.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist pages of Paul Williams and Connie Allen for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)