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SAVOY 702; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

Now THIS is more along the lines of what was expected out of Paul Williams this time around, isn’t it?

Whether you’re somebody who reliably plays the percentages in life, trusting that the slight statistical edge you’re getting in the bargain will be enough to pay off in the long run, or if you’re the cynical type who views such safe bets as intrinsically cowardly, you have to admit that few artists, or more importantly the record companies that employ them, would ever let a chance to capitalize on a monster hit go by without at least offering up some ploy at latching onto it.

And so it is that following Paul Williams’s career defining smash The Hucklebuck, a record that ruled the charts at Number One for more than three months on its way to becoming the biggest instrumental hit in rock history, he returns with a hastily written follow-up to make sure that audiences don’t miss the connection.

Surely this has all of the hallmarks of a cheap, unimaginative and opportunistic grab for your wallet that will leave you feeling thoroughly used if you fall for it…

Right? …Right???
 

 
Wrong.

Oh, don’t let there be any mistaking the INTENT here, which absolutely was to cash in on the success of Williams’s previous record as it was the hottest thing in the country. Record companies had all of the subtlety of a four year old sneaking to the cookie jar and this was no exception.

But even shameless hucksters like Herman Lubinsky, president of Savoy Records, occasionally stumbled their way into something that transcended their shortsighted shallow intent and He Knows How To Hucklebuck is just such a case.
 

Just To Pay His Rent
Let’s get the obvious intent out of the way first, just so we can set up how unlikely this record was to be worth the wax it was issued on.

First there’s the dual nature of the title itself. Naturally this had to have the word “Hucklebuck” featured prominently so that even those somehow completely unaware that it was Paul Williams who was the originator of the song that was on every jukebox and radio the last six months, they’d at least recognize the name of the dance and might be inclined to snatch it up for that reason alone.

After all Jimmy Preston had done the same exact thing with his Hucklebuck Daddy a few months back and had gotten a hit out of that as well and unlike Williams who obviously could lay claim to the term, Preston was a bandwagon jumping interloper if you want to be particularly unforgiving when assessing his aims.

The other noteworthy aspect of the title of Williams’s sequel here is the way they incorporate Williams himself into it, albeit non-directly, by naming it He Knows How To Hucklebuck, which at a glance, especially before hearing the record, indicates that the “He” is none other than Paul Williams himself, thereby reminding one and all that he really DID know how to Hucklebuck since he was the guy who started the music craze of 1949 in the first place.

It’d be pretty hard to come up with any title that was MORE calculating than this.

But like Preston had come up with something that far transcended its manipulative title on Hucklebuck Daddy, giving us a song that only used the dance term as a drawing card before giving us a record that would’ve been just as compelling if it was called “Lindy Hop Daddy” or “Jitterbug Daddy”, so too does Williams with He Knows How To Hucklebuck.

What’s more shocking is that virtually every single aspect of the song you expect to hear is either nowhere to be found or radically changed to make this record, title aside, something completely new and unexpected.
 


 

He’s Got A Reputation That’s Really Tops
The most surprising aspect of this record is that Paul Williams is not the star of it, nor is even the intended focal point of it. That honor goes to Joan Shaw who handles the lead here as the song’s vocalist, taking it well away from the instrumental category that Williams has resided in most of his career.

“Most”, but not all of his career, for as faithful readers recall when starting out Paul Williams had taken this same approach twice on his first two records in the rock idiom when one side of those releases were of the instrumental variety and the flip-sides contained vocals by Alex Thomas.

The reason for that decision then was because nobody was really sure how popular sax instrumentals in this field would be at the time and so to hedge their bets they gave listeners a distinct choice on each single. Only when it was the instrumental sides which took off commercially did they realize that the singer was a superfluous expense that would potentially take focus away from the true star on the sax.

But as we’ve stated many times on this project – not necessarily with these specific circumstances, but just in general – the ability to serve up a diversity of approaches was one of the most important, and often least utilized, roles a B-side could play. By intentionally changing things up on the flip-sides such as pairing a ballad with an uptempo song, giving a different group member a chance to sing lead, or in this case putting a singer out front of someone who normally cut instrumentals, you’d always be working to potentially expand your reach.

The tried and true methods would still be heard on the plug side and that’s where your strongest ideas should remain, but instead of merely giving us more of the same, often with a lesser quality cut, on the B-side you could instead try and branch out more without those untested forays having the responsibility of carrying the record commercially. Should it fail nobody would really care since it wasn’t the song that you were building your hopes on to begin with, but if it managed to succeed then you would’ve just gotten yourself a second commercial and creative avenue to pursue in the future, thereby ensuring the artist would be less likely to grow stale.

For that reason alone the presence of Joan Shaw is entirely welcome here, not to mention the fact it brings us another female to hear in a genre that thus far is overwhelmingly dominated by male voices.

Shaw herself was just 19 which is another important factor in all of this. Rock was shaping up more and more to be the voice of the younger generation and for Paul Williams, a month away from turning 34, his musical ideas were shaped in an earlier era and it couldn’t hurt to have someone more attuned to the dominant rock fan’s perspective to maybe give him a push in that direction. Since The Hucklebuck was a record that crossed generational lines, not to mention even racial lines, he might be in more danger than most rock stars for being seduced into trying to appeal to an older audience if he wasn’t careful and Shaw’s arrival might possibly stave that off. At the very least it couldn’t hurt.

Shaw is hardly lacking in vocal talent either, though ironically it’d be in jazz down the road where she’d earn some lasting notoriety under the name Salena Jones, but from the sound of He Knows How To Hucklebuck jazz was the farthest thing from her mind in 1949.
 


 
 

All Night Long
The record starts off like you’d expect a Paul Williams song to sound were you to be unaware of Shaw’s presence when punching this number on a jukebox. Riffing horns playing at a mid-tempo clip, a grinding refrain by nature, almost coming off like a mildly subdued strip-club fanfare, boosting our hopes after the slightly unrewarding House Rocker on the top side.

It’s when Shaw jumps into the ring that you do a double take as her style isn’t at all what you expect.

She sounds like she was raised in a roadhouse, drawing her voice out on the first word to build excitement by suggesting something vaguely dirty without actually veering anywhere close to lyrical impropriety in the process. Her tone is strong, her attitude is spot on and her delivery seems crafted using the same attributes that the handful of other ladies whose voices have adorned rock records to date.

In that way I suppose you could say it’s a generic approach, but even that’s not quite fair because generic or not there’s genuine urgency and commitment displayed here in abundance by Shaw. Maybe she’s just too inexperienced to realize that this wasn’t calling on her to add much to the well-established prototype but she handles it as if she thinks the fate of the song, of the record company and rock ‘n’ roll itself is riding on her abilities, giving it everything she has without ever trying to do TOO much.

It’s a confident performance that belies her years as Shaw stays within the marked lanes, slowing as she heads into the curves and then steps on the gas coming out of them, handling the car like a veteran driver rather than a novice behind the wheel. The nuances of every line are perfectly shaded, adding character and subtext to even the most mundane lyric.

That of course is where the intent of the song as envisioned by the creators lets things down a bit. The storyline is run-of-the-mill, presenting Shaw as a woman who seems completely satisfied by her man… sexually by the sounds of her enthusiasm when referencing his abilities in bed, but still somewhat cloaked in the euphemisms of dancing to keep it from being X-rated.

As much as we like hearing about that kind of thing in rock records the writers aren’t giving her enough truly salacious lines or double entendres at first to really drive the point home.
 

He Really Knows His Stuff
Williams isn’t forgotten on this by any means. We’ve repeatedly stated how he always seems more at ease when contributing around the edges rather than taking center stage where he tends to pull back too much rather than really cut loose as he does when he’s more a supporting character.

Here, with the pressure off, he lets fly in his solos, dragging this well away from the more middle of the road approach that sunk some of his instrumentals, aesthetically not commercially that is.

Now Williams is in many ways handicapped by his choice of horns. An altoist by trade he switched to baritone to better fulfill producer Teddy Reig’s demand that he “honk”, as was the term for the rock ‘n’ roll sax workouts that were causing such a commotion in the late 1940’s. The baritone, far more than the alto (with apologies to Earl Bostic), was much more suited to this musical command. The baritone’s guttural, almost offensively obscene, lows were a highlight of many a rock track to date, but almost always in support of a tenor, which had the most versatility in the horn section.

Whereas the tenor could rise high to squeal and drop down to honk, the baritone could only honk and usually did so in shorter emphatic bursts that acted as cappers at the end of someone else’s refrains. Think of it like punctuation in a sentence. The exclamation points in a sentence help establish the tone and the mood, but without the words leading up to it there’s not much information beyond that which can be conveyed.

Maybe that’s why Williams, when left as the centerpiece of instrumentals, struggles at times, trying to do what is best left to other horns. On He Knows How To Hucklebuck he succeeds because Shaw’s vocal lines impart the main message, leaving Williams to merely emphasize the raunchy nature of that by adding a few choice licks of his own.

His mid-song solo starts off restrained, but still churning admirably. It’s a strong sound featuring some great playing and as he goes along he dials up the excitement, tossing in a stereotypical ultra-low honk at one point to bring a smile to your face. He’s soon joined by the new tenor player in his band, Billy Mitchell, who works well with him, trading off seamlessly all while keeping this surging forward to give Shaw a platform to launch herself when she returns.

The lyrics now start to improve, their ambiguity become less pronounced, skirting the edge of indecency with a sly grin and showing a grasp of the big picture when it comes to the take-over-the-world spirit rock ‘n’ roll was generating even then, as in the closing lines she declares “I’m gonna lock him up with me, I’m gonna throw away the key. We’re gonna keep hucklebuckin’ ‘til 1993!“.

Maybe the rock audience wasn’t doing the dance called the hucklebuck any longer in 1993 but this wasn’t about dancing to begin with and I’m pretty damn sure those listening to Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam and The Wu-Tang Clan, the artists who defined the rock scene in that year in much the same way as Williams had helped to define 1949, were indeed doing the kind of hucklebucking that Shaw was describing here.
 

The Whole Night Through
The vacillating returns on Paul Williams’s output has been somewhat uncomfortable to report on each time out. His legacy needs to be celebrated because it was he as much as anyone who helped propel rock ‘n’ roll to its first notable heights, yet after that first flurry of releases too often those hits that followed weren’t setting trends at the time nor were they holding up to scrutiny in the years to come when compared to the more exhilarating showman of his era.

Even his enduring smash The Hucklebuck, as good as it is and as addicting as the riff still sounds, was something borrowed from jazz and merely reshaped for rock… and with the more defining rough edges of rock sanded down at that.

So when seeing a title like He Knows How To Hucklebuck coming out on the heels of that you surely couldn’t have expected much more than a warmed over retread of the hit or an unambitious record filled with smug self-aggrandizing references to what preceded it, desperately hoping to remind you that it was he who started the hucklebuck craze.

Yet what you get is something that does neither of those things, giving you something totally different and something we may have been wondering if Williams was up to offering.
 

 

While I wouldn’t call this a better record than the smash instrumental it draws its name and inspiration from, certainly not as memorable nor better positioned to be a hit (though it did chart for a lone week), I probably like it just a little more. There’s something about this that feels grimy… rougher… more authentic in ways that rock still needs to project in order to distance itself from the more established sounds of the day and because of that this winds up being a most welcome release both for rock itself and for Paul Williams.

In the specific context of its release we called the A-side of this, House Rocker, one of the biggest let-downs in rock to date even though it too was a small hit and a modestly decent offering. But because it didn’t live up to the promise of its title, or match the explosiveness of some of the better instrumental records that came before it, there was no way it was going to do more than draw fleeting attention based on Williams’s name recognition.

Which is why it’s nice to state that in the same context He Knows How To Hucklebuck is one of the bigger surprises in rock to date, something totally unexpected in its approach which enthusiastically pulls us back into the shadowy turf that rock ‘n’ roll thrived in. It’s also proof that when it comes to Paul Williams you should never fully count him out.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

(See also the Artist page of Joan Shaw for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)