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SAVOY 665; APRIL, 1948

 
 

 

Seven decades later, like so many stars from rock’s earliest days, Paul Williams’ name and his role in shaping rock’s course has for the most part been sadly forgotten.

The run of hits he scored at a time when rock ‘n’ roll most needed it to provide commercial validity for the upstart mongrel musical bastard child of a genre has become little more than tiny print that’s faded over time in a dusty book that rarely gets pulled off the library shelf anymore. The influence he exerted over the style’s first full decade or more has been so thoroughly absorbed over the years that few, if any, bother to dig deep enough to uncover its origins. Those who danced to the grooves he laid down so well are no longer dancing… many, if not most, are no longer walking… no longer breathing… their own names and legacies, like Paul Williams, mostly forgotten as well.

It happens to everyone eventually. It happened to them and it’ll happen to you.
 

The Hottest Sound On Wax
When Paul Williams arrived on the scene rock ‘n’ roll was still in its infancy and hardly even a sure bet for long term survival. But in just its second month of existence Williams issued the very first instrumental side on the rock market, Hastings Street Bounce, and it sold well, making territorial charts in the north and indicating there was something stirring in this strange new world which just might wind up leading somewhere big.

His follow-up proved it as Thirty-Five Thirty became the first rock instrumental to reach the national Billboard charts and become a certified hit, firmly establishing both the sound of the sax, and in many ways establishing rock itself, as legitimate contenders for commercial stardom.

As the doors were ripped from their hinges in its wake everyone with a saxophone stampeded through in an effort to become the next “big thing” in a style that was so young it was still teething. Williams meanwhile watched in shock as those around him rapidly caught and began to pass him.

Though he’d introduced it to begin with, Williams didn’t quite define the sound just yet. Influential though they were his records to date merely hinted at what others would quickly take even further. He may have been the trendsetter but the field was now crowded with ambitious sax men – Earl Bostic, John “Badman” Hardee, Johnny Griffin, Maxwell Davis, Louis Barnett, Hal Dismukes, Harold Land, Charlie “Little Jazz” Ferguson, Leroy “Batman” Rankins, Tom Archia, Hal Singer, Eddie Chamblee, even Williams’ sidekick Wild Bill Moore… each one now blowing hot or cold, grooving or scorching, fast or slow, loud or… well, louder… experimenting with technique, approach and style and attempting to claim the spotlight for themselves.

Paul Williams? He’d have to just get in line with the rest of them if he wanted to be part of the revolution… a revolution he merely started but was in no way ensured of remaining in for long unless he kept pace. If not, well, it wouldn’t take seven decades for him to be forgotten, he might be forgotten in seven weeks.

 

 
 
 

The Union Starts To Crack
The first thing that should jump out when studying this record (provided you have the session info) is that The Twister was cut March 2nd, 1948 in Detroit, which puts it in breach of the musician union’s strike set forth at the close of 1947 by union head James Petrillo.

What’s interesting is not only that the strike was violated, but the obvious commercial benefit an artist got BY violating it.

Like everyone else in that laundry list of horn players just named the sides Williams had released to date were recorded in late 1947, but since Williams had launched this craze in October and reaffirmed it in early December (with records that had been cut in early October) those other sax maniacs were playing OFF what he’d already done, what they’d already heard, and making appropriate changes to that formula in an attempt to stand out. Now that they were raising the stakes Williams was at a disadvantage once the recording ban hit because he would be unable to respond to their subsequent upping of the ante.

Common sense would tell you that had he followed the union edict and stopped recording by the time the New Year rang in his next few offerings (also cut in late ’47) would be more of the same from what he’d already offered – decent songs maybe, but somewhat restrained in comparison to what others were laying down. We’ve already seen this was the case with Williams’ last effort, Bouncing With Benson. Maybe some of those from his late ’47 sessions would’ve sold too but they wouldn’t have advanced things much creatively and would pale in comparison to the best of what had come out in the meantime.

This was what made the first few months of ’48 so treacherous for artists. Rock was moving ahead by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by the response it was getting, the number of artists throwing their hats into the ring, and the way these records seemed to work off of one another, almost as if it was a concerted plot to overthrow the standard musical rules of the day. So you HAD to be able to react quickly to any new wrinkle that came along just to keep up. It may have only been four months on the calendar between the initial snowfall in the waning days of 1947 and the first signs of daffodils once that snow melted in the spring of 1948 but in the almanac of musical evolution it was truly another season, one brimming with new ideas, new sounds and new excitement in the marketplace. To somehow be prohibited from seizing on that and giving the growing audience something more to bite into was a major obstacle… if you chose to curtail your recording activity that is.

Luckily rock ‘n’ roll was never much for following rules and so Williams soon became a notable first in another area of rock by slipping into the studio for the first notable illegal session and was promptly rewarded for it.
 


 

Bringing You The Best In Modern Up-To-Date Sounds
Williams stuttering intro to The Twister buzzes with early morning excitement, like bees rousted from their hive to go out and gather pollen to start making honey. Williams and his cohorts (Wild Bill Moore, another pioneering legend in the making, is on the tenor, while Williams holds down the bottom on baritone) weave in and out of one another’s lines in a frenzied dance.

Amazingly the only other horn is trumpeter Phil Guilbeau, but listening to this you’d almost swear they had reinforcements because the arrangement is so full and multi-faceted, with each playing their own line throughout, complimenting each other without stepping on one another in the process. Reetham Mallett’s drums lay down the steady backbeat, buried somewhat in the mix unfortunately, but a vital addition by its presence alone. Since Williams’ sides from ‘47 hadn’t featured more than incidental drumming support this was one of the most obvious benefits of breaking the ban, as they were able to see what a crucial component the prominent drums – or similar backbeat – could be as they studied the growing success of other artists rock releases in the first few months of ’48.

But as strong as the drums are for establishing the propulsive groove, (and containing, however brief, the first notable drum solo on a rock record), it’s still a showcase for the horns and Williams has never sounded more inspired. When he takes a honking solo as Part One fades before the horns come blasting back for Part Two you can imagine the rousing reception something like this had to get in the sweaty dance halls they were playing.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s give and take with its audience was always one of its crucial components in the very conception of the music itself, particularly in the era of endless one-nighters in front of eager, but often hard to please, drunken revelers. That was when so much of the music emerged out of extended jams designed to get people on their feet and keep them moving until they dropped.

Rock ‘n’ roll – certainly at this stage – wasn’t being conceived in the sterile environs of a studio, sketched out on paper and painstakingly constructed to be later unveiled to the world. By and large it was created on the fly – and on the bandstand – and as such the consumer who’d laid down their cover charge and walked into the converted tobacco barn or more permanent hole in the wall nightclub and expected to be thoroughly entertained played a role every bit as important in its creation as any engineer or producer. Their immediate reaction to the music night after night shaped not only what was eventually released on record, but often just as much what was played in the first place.

Musicians honed their material on the road in front of that demanding clientele and by the time they entered a studio to lay down their next few sides they pretty much knew what would sell by the response they’d already gotten with it as it had taken shape over the preceding weeks on the road.
 

The Roar Of The Crowd
Sometimes the galvanizing collective spirit that was so prevalent live can’t properly be captured on wax, but here that doesn’t seem to be a problem as this crackles with electricity throughout. In fact, mid-way through Part Two, as the solos start in earnest with a hint of devilish snake charmer feel woven in the melody, you realize the limitations of the more antiseptic modern confines of headphones, a computer, or a car, which is how most will hear it in in this day and age and how that sterile private environment can’t possibly do it justice.

Rock music is a communal exercise at heart, not an studious analytical one (damn… forget I said that or there goes my gig here), and more than even most records The Twister is meant to be listened to in the company of others – preferably loud and boisterous crowds gathered at the end of a long week, a few bucks in your pocket, out on the town with a couple of drinks under your belt, a little unsteady on your feet as you grind with an appropriate willing and shapely partner on the dance floor, but thankfully no early morning alarm to worry about.

For those on the floor – or on the bandstand – the effect of the music is the same: Sweat flies from your brow, your heart pounds, your breathing is labored, but your energy doesn’t lag. The music is the adrenaline that will keep you going, listener and creator alike. By the time these types of bands really start cutting loose more and playing something like this it’s well past midnight. Freedom beckons. You’re headed into the weekend, finally off work and ready to live it up, while for those on stage performing their work is just beginning. But for the time being the goals of both factions are synonymous and if successful in reaching those goals they’ll share equally in its rewards.

This was one case where they did too. The Twister sold steadily all year, cracking the charts four months later in the midst of the instrumental movement its creator helped propel to glory in the first place. By then rock ‘n’ roll – the musical genre, the lifestyle and the generation it was coming to define – was in full swing and it was already shaping up to be one helluva rousing party.
 


 

But as with all parties, no matter how raucous they were at the time, when morning comes the details start their slow inevitable fade into obscurity.

As the days and weeks and years pass the collective memories of those who were there start to diminish until eventually there’s no one left who can attest to the fact a party even took place at which Paul Williams brought them all to their feet once upon a time when an entire generation long since forgotten were young and vibrant with their whole lives ahead of them and no thought that there’d ever be a need for them to sit down.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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