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SAVOY 711; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

The goal of most people in a competitive field has always been rather simple – to reach the top of the mountain and be acclaimed as the best at what you do… to succeed in a way that leaves little doubt as to your utter dominance in your profession.

Few ever achieve such heights but it remains the carrot on the stick for anyone who’s set out to prove themselves in an objective manner.

The funny thing about it though is even if you do beat the odds and reach the top there’s only one way to go after you’ve done so and that’s straight down.
 

 

The Cost Of Success
In the July 30th issue of Billboard magazine they tallied the biggest hits to date in all commercial markets, giving them points based on sales and ranking them accordingly. In black music circles, now dubbed “rhythm and blues” by the publication as a catch all term that took into account rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz and gospel, it was Paul Williams’ first record of 1949 The Hucklebuck that was the big winner, getting 2200 points in their mathematical system.

To put his victory in perspective the #2 record, Trouble Blues by cocktail blues stalwart Charles Brown had less than HALF that total (906) and even when adding the 749 points gotten by the #3 record, Amos Milburn’s rock classic Chicken Shack Boogie, which had actually come out in late 1948, you still wouldn’t have matched the overwhelming popularity of Williams’s mega-smash.

In fact, if you threw in the #4 ranked record, Hold Me Baby, another by Milburn, the combined totals of the records ranked 2, 3 and 4 would best the score of The Hucklebuck by a mere 56 points!

In other words, Paul Williams’s record was about as dominant as any record of any era in any style could possibly be leading to the question – what on earth could he do to match it, let alone surpass it?

The answer obviously was “nothing”.

Making this all the more difficult for him to stand out was something else that poll showed. Rock ‘n’ roll as a whole was becoming ever more dominant in black music circles. Rock records owned five of the top seven spots (Stick McGhee and Roy Brown being the other two to go along with Williams and Milburn), seven of the top thirteen (another by Milburn, his third entry, and one from Big Jay McNeely) and eleven in the Top Twenty Five.

The bastard child of the music community was growing up fast and already beginning to run rampant over a large segment of the industry with even more commercial dominance coming into view over the horizon.

For Paul Williams, whose brand of rock ‘n’ roll was more often than not leaning towards the moderate side of the ledger, this presented a growing problem. Whereas The Hucklebuck benefited greatly from being accessible enough for non-rock fans to enjoy, the more excessive the style as a whole became, and the more that style took over the wider marketplace, the less likely Williams would be to keep pace, let alone set trends as he’d done for the past two years.

So it might not be altogether surprising to report that Pop Corn would be the last certified national hit for Paul Williams, showing just how rapid the fall from the top could be and how unforgiving the music scene was in its endless search for new stars, new sounds and new records to stoke the audience’s imagination.
 

Hot Stuff
There can be little doubt that those who enjoyed the milder aspects of Williams’s musical persona were the ones who gravitated towards both The Hucklebuck and Pop Corn, as this latest record is another example of the saxophonist eschewing the wild histrionics of many of his rivals and instead sticking to a grooving melody designed not to rile anybody up.

Based on our well documented past preferences in this realm here on Spontaneous Lunacy you might think this would be a detriment that would be tough to overcome, a conceptual shortcoming that’d explain why Williams was about to be passed by in the sax sweepstakes, even with the seemingly insurmountable head start he’d gotten on everybody in the field.

But no, contrary to what it may seem at times in these reviews it’s never been strictly the easing off of the pressure in instrumentals that have drawn our ire but rather the lack of anything suitable in many of these records to replace the excitement those wilder sides have exhibited.

Case in point, Sonny Thompson’s Long Gone never came close to inciting a riot with Eddie Chamblee’s playing but kept you so locked in with a delectable groove and multi-layered sound palette that you were transfixed. It’s probably not a coincidence that Thompson’s record was the biggest hit of 1948 just as Williams’s The Hucklebuck claimed that honor for 1949. As exhilarating as the more flamboyant sides were they required a certain mindset to properly appreciate whereas something that dialed down the excitement yet still kept you riding the rhythm had a much longer shelf life when it came to repeated listens.

Now to be honest Williams didn’t always achieve that goal in the past when he tried the same tactics. While most of his attempts were well-played and had solid musical components, the often elusive key was in finding a particularly infectious riff that seemed familiar yet fresh, something that was tantalizing to your senses, hinting that there was something around the next turn that would reveal itself and unlock the mysteries that were only now being vaguely suggested.

Pop-Corn may in fact come closest to that feat of all the records Williams had released to date… yes, even that one.

That doesn’t mean it’s his best work though – there’s still something to be said for unleashing the hounds on something more primal as The Twister, perhaps confirming our stylistic biases in this regard – but this record definitely consolidates all of his best instincts when it comes to slipping into the pocket of a mid-tempo jam while shedding virtually all of the extraneous dross he’d often let cling to those earlier efforts like barnacles on the side of a boat.

Or in the terminology of the song’s title, this is a bag without too many unpopped kernels sitting at the bottom in a pool of salty butter waiting to break your teeth if you’re not careful.
 

 

Snack Food
You might think based on the slow wistful opening that features his baritone atop a muted distant backdrop of the rest of the horn section that sounds almost as if they’re crying softly in the night. It’s tremendously evocative even if it’s mere inches away from lapsing into a pop motif if they aren’t careful.

Yet they never do, in part because the melody is so strong that there’s no wandering from the root like so often happens when things get off track. The other reason is they know exactly where this is leading once that intro subsides and Williams takes on a more commanding tone.

The shift lasts only briefly, 12 bars over a half minute or so, but it toughens up the sound just enough, even with the other horns (including the much maligned trumpet out front) being pushed forward in the mix. Yet instead of letting them take this in another direction as you might fear, Williams simply allows them to handle the melodic aspects while he’s free to fill in the blanks, rising up with controlled elation and dropping down with emphatic purpose. The contrast works well, keeping either side from bearing too much of the burden when it comes to holding our attention.

When the others back off and Williams returns to the forefront to take the lead once more just over a minute and a half in, it shifts our focus yet again and reveals the seductiveness of the tune. His playing gradually becomes softer, tender almost, as if he’s caressing the song like an infant, his baritone sax almost sounding like a clarinet at the two minute mark. Any suggestion that Williams wasn’t a gifted musician based on some of his cruder passages and simplistic riffs of past songs won’t hold any water when listening to him coax incredible feeling out of these lines. If a sepia-toned film short of cypress trees blowing in a summer breeze had a soundtrack, then it’d surely be this passage found in Pop Corn.

As a result the whole song lulls you into a dreamy acquiescence, putting you in a hypnotic state of mind that offers no open door from which to escape, not that you’d really want to. There’s not even a more rousing conclusion to be found here, something that has become almost standard operating procedure for these slower meditative rock instrumentals. Instead they escort you off to dreamland and all but the most recalcitrant will go along willingly and quite happily.
 

Sweeping Up
Though smartly conceived and masterfully executed there’s still a sense that Paul Williams was hedging his bets when it came to fully pursuing rock ‘n’ roll. That’s hardly fair for the man who launched the entire rock instrumental craze to begin with and placed the saxophone at the forefront of the larger sound that enveloped vocal records as well as instrumentals, but that lingering doubt is probably to be expected when your musical off-spring so to speak have taken a much more assertive approach over the last two years.

Williams had joined them often enough, particularly on records credited to tenor sax cohort Wild Bill Moore (the same band, even the same sessions, just a different musician being tabbed as the lead) that he didn’t need to apologize for also offering up songs with a more relaxed feel to them, especially when so many of those hit the charts and helped raise rock’s profile in the process.

Yet as will happen throughout history it’s usually the more aggressive sounds that draw lasting attention and acclaim, leaving guys like Williams who plied their trade without the cacophonous explosions to their name fighting for respect.

Pop-Corn probably isn’t going to change anybody’s perception of Williams much. If you liked The Hucklebuck you’re sure to like this, but if you wanted something with more bark AND bite to it you’d be wise to look somewhere else. By 1949 there were plenty of other options in that regard and so with that brand of instrumental madness generally pulling the most interest Williams largely ceded the spotlight to those who were better suited for it after this.

Even though Paul Williams wouldn’t score big again he didn’t vanish completely by any means. His records continued to deliver the same consistent quality as always, the only difference was audiences were getting tougher to please and were always seeking the next new sound. Over time Williams – who never seemed altogether comfortable taking center stage – was content to lurk in the shadows by playing behind others where his steady presence was always greatly appreciated.

Though the public’s acknowledgement of his role in rock’s birth faded with time as his hits got ever more distant in the rear-view mirror, he contributed far more than mere chart appearances could ever properly assess. Williams in many ways was the guiding light for the entire rock movement over its first decade and he’s far too vital a piece to the puzzle to remain merely an unsung hero long forgotten.

But if you wanted a reminder of just how valued he was when all of this was still an untested brand of music with no guarantee of success, this record will be something that will linger in your memory like the smell of popcorn wafting out the door of a theater when the movie ends as time rushes forward and leaves the 1940’s rock scene behind.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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