SAVOY 661; DECEMBER, 1947

 
 

 
Rock music was three months old in December 1947, a precious age I’m told. It’s a time when parents are as proud can be over the little tyke and have spent the last few weeks annoying relatives, friends and co-workers with pictures of the baby sleeping, slopping food all over themselves, getting washed after slopping food on themselves, and a bunch of pictures of it looking rather puzzled at you as you snap yet another picture of them. Oh yes, throughout all this picture taking they’re also busy making noise. LOTS of noise. Keep that last point in mind.

Anyway, according to WebMD, the developing characteristics of a three month old include the following:

The baby’s neck strength should be improving.

The baby shows early signs of hand-eye coordination.

The baby’s hands can start to open and shut, come together, briefly grab something and go straight to the mouth.

Yup, baby Rock ‘n’ Roll is DEFINITELY hitting that age, because their records are starting to exhibit all of those attributes with the suddenly steady appearances of sax-led instrumentals, which over the next year or so will make up a huge percentage of releases in the field. These sax workouts are defined by the neck strength of its players, their hand-eye coordination in their virtuosic displays and how rapidly their hands open, shut, grab the keys and keep that sax firmly in the mouth while playing.

There ya go. Scientific evidence that rock music was three months old!
 

Look Out For Number One
First among our bouncing baby sax players was Paul Williams, a vastly under recognized figure in rock history who we met back in October in a dry run on his road to – brief – immortality (is “brief immortality” even possible? Well, in 40’s rock it is) which will pretty much define him for a lifetime and sadly leave him reduced as a mere footnote in the history books as simply the man who made one (still upcoming) monster record and little else.

That’s unfair and quite unfortunate because Williams was a solid, consistent and influential presence on the rock scene for a very long time. He’ll wind up popping up in a variety of guises and roles over the years, but here’s where things began to coalesce for him.

As we saw earlier in his first sides as the featured name on record Williams was a skilled sax player who had made a name for himself with a strong, somewhat flamboyant, stage act which led to a record deal with Savoy out of New Jersey. When asked to replicate that type of display on wax he came up with an adventurish song (Hastings Street Bounce) which also showed his generosity as a bandleader, allowing his fellow musicians share in the glory. Though milder than what would soon follow it was nevertheless pushing the limits of acceptable musical behavior for the time and was a solid enough debut in a style that was soon to become a staple in the rock field.

HERE’S where it became that staple.
 

Thirty-Five Thirty (sometimes referred to as “35-30”, though probably not put on the label due to the fact the numbers could refer to something other than the song title, like say the first two numbers of a woman’s measurements before she slapped him upside the head for revealing them publicly… though it’s actually the address for Joe Von Battle’s Hastings Street record store) was from his second session and would more or less set the tone for the rest of Williams career.

Blowing a mellow, melodic riff, he was already more reliant on finding a groove and sticking in the pocket rather than exhibiting the “color outside the lines” histrionics of the rest of the first wave of sax giants in rock preferred. Those honkers and squealers like Earl Bostic, whose 845 Stomp broke every rule imaginable, and others whom we’ll be meeting in the upcoming months brought the dynamic showmanship to the table that helped define rock’s “look at me” brand of egotism which is still held in high regard to this day.

Williams though never seemed quite as comfortable with that type of ostentatious display as others of his ilk did, though he reportedly had quite a lively stage show and wasn’t above exhibiting the wilder techniques that made the reputations of many a sax star. But whereas even on record the others in this area elbowed each other out of the spotlight in their quest to one up one another with the most guttural honks and ear-piercing squeals imaginable, Williams was perfectly content to share the spotlight and almost seemed to relax his playing while he had the feature role to himself. There were few flashy solos in his repertoire as he seemed more than happy to provide the backing music to the festivities before they heated up, as well leaving you with a warm reminder of the soirée after the pandemonium died down.
 

Pick A Number
Here the baritone opens with a dancing playful riff, sort of exotic but not quite erotic. It’s catchy though and easy to see the horn taking on the pied piper role here, creating something you’ll willingly follow along to see where it leads. The rest of the band joins in sounding a little distant which if intentional shows they had worked this out on paper pretty well before cutting it, riffing nicely before dropping out to let Williams, backed with just a piano now, take the first solo. Again nothing startling but he provides a nice warm sound with some intermittent grit as he reaches low a few times to keep this surging along. The other horns rejoin him in due time and their interplay, though subtle, is key in propelling this forward. By Williams next solo he’s a little more limbered up and stretches out more, eventually being joined by a wailing responsorial tootling by the others.

It never quite reaches any sense of organized mayhem, the entire ensemble keep it pretty much within the confines of the written melody, but in terms of setting a reasonably effective groove this succeeds in that regard if nothing else.

It’s more the type of music you’d expect as the night on the town is getting underway as opposed to reaching its climax, which of course was the stage that many future sax instrumentals would vie to represent. By contrast this is acting more as the backdrop to the gathering of a few sharp dressed single cats going out to stir up some action. They’re sober as of yet, trying not to tip off their underlying excitement at what they might encounter, but their interest is being stirred as they watch the action on the street all around them. As they head out into the cool night air their enthusiasm starts to gradually be revealed by the pace of their walk, the bounce in their step and just their overall demeanor. The stoic cool façade they all started with starts to drop as they head into the first flashy club they come across and within twenty minutes or so, a few drinks under their belt, a dance or two with a sultry partner, and you won’t recognize them anymore.

Williams and company play to that sense of anticipation without offering any judgment on the participants forthcoming activities. The night’s young for the band too, they’re going to be on stage until closing and they’ll keep playing regardless of what they see unfold in front of them. Professionals to the end. He’d leave it to others to provide the more salacious backdrop to the racier scenes that would play out over the next few hours.
 

Number Eight… With A Bullet
Yet he and this song were what ushered in those more outrageous sounds and established the saxophone as a vital weapon in rock’s arsenal of tools. Thirty-Five Thirty was the first of its kind in rock to hit the national charts in Billboard magazine and once they’d broken through with this approach the floodgates opened.

Though it pales in comparison to the excesses that soon followed it’s worth noting that Williams essentially outlasted them all. It was he who had the single biggest hit among them two years later. It was he who was the only performer scheduled to play Alan Freed’s infamous “Moondog Coronation Ball” in March 1952 who actually made it to the stage and played before the overstuffed arena of young rock fans broke into a riot and gave the music some of its first widespread negative headlines and branded it in the minds of many as a dangerous cultural movement. It was he who led the house band at the Apollo Theater for years in the 1950’s, backing virtually every big name in rock who stood on that legendary stage. It was also he who stayed in the business after giving up his horn, opening a talent agency in the late 1960’s, long after many of his contemporaries were out of show biz, embittered and broke. And it was he who lasted on this planet until he was 87 years old in 2002, one of the few remaining witnesses to the music as it was born, grew up and took over the world.
 

 

Your Number’s Up
No, Thirty-Five Thirty isn’t the best sax instrumental we’ll review in these pages. Far from it. Williams himself will surpass this in the near future, as will countless others. But this was first to make a measurable commercial impact and that counts for something. Granted that “something” is worth more historically (objective) than artistically (subjective). So subjectively – as seen in the score below – this doesn’t stand out too much… Nice, pleasant, definitely listenable, but nothing special, an average rock record for the period. But objectively is another matter entirely and there shouldn’t be any doubt as to his or its importance. When charting rock’s early course this is one of the more vital records of its nascent life to this point for what it opened up that so many others took advantage of.

So take all the pictures you want. Maybe what the three month old is doing won’t seem so impressive in a little while once they start crawling, standing, walking and talking (or honking and squealing as the case may be), but they’re only this age once after all and this is where you can plainly see the baby starting to come of age.

Or as WebMD puts it: Your baby is becoming more of a unique human being.

That it was.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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