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SAVOY 683; JANUARY, 1949

 
 


The change from one year to another doesn’t mean a whole lot at the time. Drunken festivities on New Year’s Eve aside there’s not many differences to be spotted when crossing over from 1948 into 1949.

It’s just another new day is all, the same as August 14th heading into August 15th was last summer. Twenty-four hours. Even if you pass out when the chimes ring out and awake a few days later with a nasty hangover it’s not as if you’re going to look outside and not recognize the world around you anymore. You could emerge after a week in bed, or even come out of hibernation three months later and see that things pretty much have remained the same.

Years are notable mainly in retrospect and then only because they take in the events of the full twelve months as a whole, not just a small slice of that time. We look back on individual years to compartmentalize the entire three hundred and sixty-five day journey and attempt to measure the changes that took place gradually over that period. A few larger events will serve as identifying markers while the day to day ebb and flow of people’s lives are lost in the mist.

But every so often there’s one of those larger events that take place as the calendar turns from one year to the next and even if it’s not fully recognized at the time these moments go on to define the year to come and make for an historical benchmark going forward.

An event like the release of the biggest record of the year, a record which spent a whopping thirty-one weeks in the Top Ten, dominating jukeboxes throughout the winter, spring and summer, and still cracking the most played lists as late as November. In the process the record in question spawned a rash of cover versions across every imaginable genre of music, all of which gave rock ‘n’ roll its most high profile attention to date.

We’re talking of course about The Hucklebuck, maybe the most modest, unassuming rock mega-hit in its entire history… and yet one of its most crucial for confirming rock ‘n’ roll’s growing viability.
 

You Should Know
Paul Williams’s career to date has been vital to rock’s progression, both conceptually and commercially, yet he hasn’t always distinguished himself much by his records, or at least he hasn’t managed to completely stand out with what he’s delivered on wax.

They’ve all been decent ideas, well played, enjoyable enough and with plenty in the way of notable firsts (first rock instrumental in Hastings Street Bounce, first charted rock instrumental with Thirty-Five Thirty), yet aside from his storming workout on The Twister from last spring it’s largely been left to others to define this realm aesthetically.

I’m aware that probably sounds disparaging about his abilities, but it’s not meant to be at all. It’s more an assessment of his persona and why he was someone whose stardom was unlikely, not because he couldn’t play well, but because he seemed to prefer to play well without demanding the spotlight, which as we know in rock ‘n’ roll is where most artists fight to get to – the spotlight!
 


 

If you were writing a character sketch on Paul Williams you’d start by saying he was a true professional, a skilled, versatile player who found himself in a movement that was as much a matter of timing as intent. The saxophone had seen its days in jazz-rooted pop come to an end with the decline of the big bands and in the years to follow within jazz itself the instrument was increasingly becoming the proving grounds for the most harmonically gifted, adventuresome musicians on the planet who are in the process of taking bop, jazz’s indulgent offspring, into galaxies mere mortals fear to tread.

As solid as a musician as he was however Williams was mortal. Reared in jazz, but not single mindedly committed to it, certainly not driven to define it as the likes of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, or in the future John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins, all aspired to do, Williams was the definition of a working musician.

Again, it sounds like a putdown, or backhanded compliment at best, but if all that existed in the world were a handful of virtuosos on one hand and a bunch of talentless hacks on the other, with no steadily proficient players to spread its popularity what would you be left with?

Williams’ gift was that he was willing and able to be artistically malleable, to create what was needed at the time for the market he found himself in. In the late 1940’s that was rock ‘n’ roll and without him we may not have had the instrumental craze that defined 1948 and, spoiler alert, 1949 as well. HE was the one who kicked it off, HE was the one who proved its commercial value, HE was the one who churned out more hits than anyone, both on his own (Waxie Maxie and his latest Walking Around just entering the charts as we speak, adding to his earlier totals from the previous winter and spring) along with beefing up his résumé by playing with Wild Bill Moore on Moore’s hits as well (Bubbles and most notably We’re Gonna Rock).

As legacies go that’s not a bad one to have. But it’s also not one that is guaranteed of being everlasting.

For that he needed a MONSTER hit. A hit so big, so acclaimed, so all-enveloping, that his name would become synonymous with it.

As I’m sure is perfectly obvious by now he got it with this record before us today and upon its arrival he became known forevermore as Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams.

But just how big WAS it?
 


The Big Time For The Big Horn
In February 1956 an episode of The Honeymooners entitled “Young At Heart” had blustery bus-driver Ralph Kramden making a typical fool of himself by trying to act young to satisfy long-suffering wife Alice’s desire to go out and have fun for a change after being inspired by a teenage girl in their building who was raving about her boyfriend and their litany of activities.

Needing help in his endeavor Ralph enlisted his best friend, sewer worker Ed Norton (where ELSE would you go for lessons in culture after all?), to come down to teach him the new dance steps and Norton used the record “The Hucklebuck” as he tried showing Ralph how “be hep”.

Though it wasn’t Paul Williams’ version they played (for copyright reasons perhaps… or because they didn’t want Williams uncouth sounds being heard on network TV… or maybe they used Kay Starr’s take on it just so they could hear lyrics) the song itself had been a hit SEVEN YEARS earlier (!) which gives some idea of the record’s lasting impact. This truly had been the first rock record co-opted by the larger world.

Rock ‘n’ roll music was supposed to be a disposable entity. Something listened to for a brief time, then discarded and forgotten. Seven years is a LONG time to take to be forgotten.

That’s how big it was.
 

When Is The Time?
The tune itself though had its roots even earlier than its January 1949 release date. Because instrumentals have fewer components (lyrics, vocals) you’d think they might be easier to come up with good ones. But without those facets the burden for its potential appeal falls entirely on melody and an instantly memorable hook. Something that was easier said than done.

So looking for inspiration, or perhaps letting the musician’s subconscious wander freely through the garden of musical riffs – if not slipping in the back door and absconding with a melody that wasn’t currently in use – it was quite common to lift sections of songs and create new ones out of the remnants of the old.

Paul Williams did that with The Hucklebuck.

The origins of it was found in a Charlie Parker song entitled Now’s The Time with a veritable all-star team behind him, Miles Davis on trumpet, Max Roche on drums and Dizzy Gillespie on piano of all things! It was a piece Parker returned to time and again over the years.

The famous recording of it (also on Savoy, where Williams now was… under the same producer no less, Teddy Reig) featured Gillespie kicking off the song with a discordant piano intro before Parker came in playing the main riff in a mellow seductive sort of way. Jazz in a basement club with men in shades may be a well-worn stereotype but songs like this is where the stereotype was born.

Though the main riff is warm and inviting the rest – especially Davis’s trumpet – sounds more detached and aloof by design. All brilliantly played, the spacing in particular is superb, each instrument given room to breath (listen to Curly Russell’s plucked bass standing lonely in the corner towards the end) but it’s jazz of an era and style where the audience were set apart from the musicians, silent observers to artists plying their trade.

Now everybody in black music by late ’48 – especially those with jazz credentials – were in awe of Charlie Parker and so naturally songs like this got around. Williams encountered it when he heard it being played in a club by Lucky Millinder’s band (again, for the uninitiated, one of the vital pre-rock transitional bands in black music, breeding ground for a wide array of stars including Wynonie Harris, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bull Moose Jackson, Big John Greer and a host of others).

Millinder hadn’t gotten around to recording it yet but soon would under the title D’Natural Blues. Williams liked the arrangement and so he used that as a starting point but made some adjustments of his own in order to reach the rock constituency he was representing.
 


 
 

I’ll Tell You When
So those are the sources, like a musical viral infection spread from jazz to mainstream black modern music to rock ‘n’ roll. The strain of the virus was potent enough that there was seemingly no immunization from its effects once heard.

The structure of Williams The Hucklebuck at first seems much the same as the others. The piano is playing the same basic choppy intro, but when the horns come in the mood is changed. Already shed from the arrangement are some of the more notable jazz touches in the background – there’s no drummer riding the cymbals as Max Roach had done on Parker’s song. The bass is both more prominent (holding the bottom with steady precision in a simpler more direct approach), and also less showy, there are no standalone moments for it to be noticed, it’s simply there to keep your shoulders grooving in Williams’s take on it.

It’s a fuller sound, yet also a more streamlined sound. The horns play in unison at first, taking the undulating riff much slower with more of an ache to their tone than Parker’s spry alto managed. The result is something lean and sinewy, a record that has a built-in tension to it capped by wonderfully timed snares which release the tension suddenly but completely at the end of the grinding refrain.

Williams’s baritone sax gets a raunchy solo, still relatively slower-paced but with a dirty emphasis that was non-existent in Parker’s piece. The difference in musicians made a huge difference as Parker was playing alto and Williams was on baritone which meant the showcase spot had to be altered, or in this case for Williams, added. The genius though was in retaining Parker’s riff before that with the other horns giving it a deeper backdrop to play off.

The trumpet comes in at the same point it had when Miles Davis took it on Charlie Parker’s recording but it’s got a different feel to it now. Phil Guilbeau is no Miles Davis of course but in this context he works better, first by keeping the lazy sound going a little longer and then by suddenly ratcheting up the flamboyance more crudely. He hits notes that aren’t quite pure but it’s not the notes that matter as much as the urge he’s instilling in the listener to get UP.

To move.

The riff returns sounding more sprightly, a little closer to Parker’s tempo actually now, but the precedent had been set. It’s now playing in your head as much as in your speakers. When a voice chimes in by calling out “Hey! Not now, I’ll tell you when!”, it’s hokey and contrived and yet works brilliantly, perfectly conveying the mood they need.

By no means is it the best rock instrumental to date, not even the best coming from Williams himself. Nor is it – technically speaking anyway – the best version of the basic riff that forms the cornerstone of the song. There’s not a musician on Parker’s record who would be benched in favor of anyone from Williams’s squad. But the mindset they each employ separates these as much, or more, than any individual taking part.

The rock version simply sounds more cohesive, more structured, yet more freewheeling as well. They seem to play with more verve, more spirit, more enthusiasm and more unified focus. It works better as a record, even if the individual components may work better as musical showcases on Parker’s Now’s The Time.

Meanwhile Millinder’s concurrent version (D’ Natural Blues) sounds less like a sultry record and more like a showpiece for a staged production – almost a sing-songy intro with the horns, a blaring crescendo that sounds completely artificial, plenty of other gimmicky touches thrown in, but the main riff survives in spite of it all and turned it into a small hit itself.

But nothing like Williams, as The Hucklebuck was hands down the record of the year in black America largely because black America’s tastes were changing from jazz and more mannered productions that Millinder specialized in to the types of erotic suggestion and deeper grooves that Paul Williams and rock ‘n’ roll offered.

The record was the sound of 1949 precisely because it featured 1949’s sound, if that makes sense. It was modern… current… of the moment.
 

The Dance Sensation Sweeping The Nation
Was it entirely worthy of its mass popularity? No, but most songs that reach such levels rarely are, they merely get caught in a whirlwind of sudden adoration and ride it ever higher. But make no mistake about it, this was certainly a GOOD record. Very good actually, transformative in many ways beyond just merely its sales figures, even if it’s not quite GREAT.

But the thing about all this of course is what happened in the aftermath. The fact that it was The Hucklebuck that became the highest charting record to come out of rock in the 1940’s. The longest tenured instrumental at #1 on the charts ever. The defining record of Williams’s career and if not the defining record musically of the 40’s rock instrumental craze, at least the most ubiquitous.
 

 

I suppose in a way it makes sense that the most popular rock instrumental of the 1940’s wasn’t fully rock, or at least had more evident traces of its forbearers in its musical DNA. That stands to reason. The songs which were rock through and through, the big ones we’ve already met and even more explosive ones we’ll soon be meeting around the corner, were too uncouth for the type of crossover appeal The Hucklebuck enjoyed.

What Williams had done was appeal to the rock fan first, the jazz fan (at least those not as well-versed in bop) second, and lastly pulled in the curious pop fan and by virtue of its sudden notoriety it was covered by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Roy Milton, which meant everybody soon heard it in one version or another. Since Williams was the one who had re-introduced it and had the best take on it as well, he reaped the biggest benefits, as it should be.

What it also did was serve as a broader announcement of rock’s growing importance, but at the same time offering another reminder that, for the time being at least, in order to break through beyond the original audience rock ‘n’ roll still needed to make some concessions.

You can take that as an affront to what we love so much about rock, or you can take it as a sign that the mainstream tastes were a bit more open than they might’ve originally appeared and with a little prodding, a little more exposure and a little bit of good luck and fate, rock’s position in that larger world might grow and in the process may in fact become more popular than anyone dared dream.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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