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SAVOY 680; DECEMBER 1948

 
 

 

A strange thing has happened in the course of writing these reviews and trying to set the record straight when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, to shine a light back on the dark corners of its history and bring long forgotten names and songs back into some semblance of proper recognition.

It’s something I never really expected to happen… wouldn’t have even thought of it being a possibility, so therefore it wasn’t anything I could’ve taken it into account to try and sidestep.

But I find myself almost “rooting” for artists every once in awhile when another record comes up. Hoping that it’s a good one, something to that I can rave about, maybe get others to fall for themselves.

Maybe the reason I didn’t see this coming was because – for the most part – I’m not exactly unaware of the upcoming records when they appear on the horizon. The titles alone are usually enough to jog my memory if I don’t know it by heart already from countless listens. So while the final score I give something may be in doubt until I sit down to write about a record, I have a pretty good idea if the song itself is going to fall on the positive or negative side of the ledger.

But some artists I’m not quite as sure about. Either it was somebody who I was late in discovering myself and therefore haven’t had the same exposure to them leading up to this, or maybe I didn’t have access to enough of their songs due to the frustrations of haphazard releases on various outlets, from digital to even old school CDs, making the tracking down of the songs half the battle. When I do get them I’m hoping it was worth the effort.

In Paul Williams I have a different explanation. Because he was an instrumentalist the song titles don’t really mean much. In fact two of his records for 1948 we wrote about how the records got their names as much we did the music those records contained.

Because of that unless I’ve intentionally listened to a particular song, picking it out by the title to hear it specifically rather than have it pop up unexpectedly on shuffle while I’m too far away to see which song it is, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to get when I press play for the first time as I start to put together my thoughts for the review you’re ultimately going to read.

Most of the time this happens I don’t have a sense of nervous apprehension, but the last few times out with Paul Williams I find that I’m crossing my fingers that it’s something good, not only because it’s more enjoyable to examine a really good record, but because Paul Williams himself seems deserving of far more credit historically than he gets and it’d help matters in that regard if the records he was putting out were consistently better than average.

Sadly, that’s not always been the case.
 

 

Start Walkin’
When we first met Williams way back in October 1947 it was a momentous occasion, as Hastings Street Bounce claimed the honor of being the first rock instrumental record. Particularly noteworthy about it was the fact it contained most of the attributes which would quickly go on to define the style as it emerged and would soon dominate the rock field for the next two years.

It’s gratifying to see somebody herald a new style when there’s absolutely no track record to go on and ultimately have his instincts proven right when that approach catches on. Paul Williams deserves a lot of credit for helping to craft the initial sound of rock as well as for spearheading the popularity of it in these early days – credit he’s largely been denied over the years – and so if anything that I write about his role in shaping history helps in some small way to rectify past injustices, then Spontaneous Lunacy would be a success.

Yet record itself, while a fine example of fairly adventurish sax playing, was quickly surpassed by others just one month later. First Earl Bostic blew up a storm on 845 Stomp, raising the bar extraordinarily high for showy displays on the instrument, then Todd Rhodes, a pianist who employed multiple horns in his group, laid down an ultra-mellow, slightly menacing, take on the instrumental approach with Blues For The Red Boy which brought far more character to the style than what Williams had done. Both of those efforts, while not having the “first” designation to make them as historically notable, were simply better records featuring better performances, so Williams’ glory got a bit tainted.

But then Williams followed up by scoring the first legitimate HIT instrumental when he released Thirty-Five Thirty, thereby establishing the instrumental as a commercial factor as well, which let’s face it, matters a lot in an industry that is as conscious of chasing the dollars as music is. For as soon as Williams showed it had potential to connect with audiences on a wide scale then that encouraged other artists as well as other record companies to turn their attention to this area as well, and that’s what defined the last twelve months of rock ‘n’ roll, as one instrumental after another was released with many of them becoming huge hits.

Yet Williams once again was overshadowed by others in the immediate aftermath of his commercial breakthrough. Sonny Thompson’s Long Gone featuring Eddie Chamblee on sax became the biggest seller of the year, while Bostic scored a big hit along the way too with Temptation, ironically by improving upon the more laid back style Williams had been using. Then by summer Hal Singer raised the bar even higher, as did – in the irony of ironies – Wild Bill Moore, the man who’d played tenor on Williams own records, who now scored a hit of his own with a genre defining record that helped popularize the name of all this noise.

But even though it was Williams who returned the favor by playing baritone on Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock he got shortchanged in the credit department because the record came out under Moore’s name. By this point, despite Williams having wracked up MORE hits than any of them, those hits weren’t quite as big individually as the top sellers from his competition. Even his own best record, The Twister, as good an instrumental as any one put out all year, only scraped the charts for a single week.
 


 

Now as 1948 draws to a close a new wave of sax honkers and screamers are now on the scene fighting for space and there’s one in particular who is lurking right around the corner who will define an even more extreme style of this sound and in the process threaten to leave behind a more modest musician like Williams, someone who was never entirely comfortable honking, squealing and creating pandemonium with his horn to begin with.

So while I’d never grade on a curve and never give someone a break for personal reasons, after a year of up and down scores for Williams, songs that were all well played but not always well-thought out for their purpose, I find myself hoping that the next Paul Williams record will leave a mark, if only to make sure that he’s not dismissed outright by people who care less about historic firsts for their own sake and focus only on how good a record sounds to their ears. Usually that’s my approach too, but in this case if Williams can do both I have to admit that I’d be happy.
 

Stop Sign
As is probably fitting after such a build-up and the hopeful anticipation that went along with it, Walkin’ Around is a disappointment of epic proportions!

While it’s not Williams’s weakest record to date, not even on this record itself, as the better named flip-side Paradise Valley Walk, is veering dangerously close to pure pop, this is still a conceptual flop. It’s almost as if he looked around the rock landscape and decided he couldn’t compete and threw in the towel and is now heading out the back door looking for a less demanding – more sedate (or sedated) audience to play for.

If rock’s sax-led instrumental revolution could be defined in brief terms it would simply be this: Hell-raising anarchy on one hand, deep infectious grooves on the other. Take your pick, exciting or addictive, yet both aesthetically pleasing and commercially successful for the rock audience who come alive after dark. To score all you need to do is elicit the interest of a generation of musical vampires seeking fresh warm blood oozing from their horn players on the bandstand in some crowded steamy club with the rest of the nocturnal zombies on the prowl for action.

In that environment Walkin’ Around would be in dire need of a transfusion just to maintain a pulse. Once again it’s not badly constructed, the intro leads into more of a churning groove interspersed with a few blasts of grittier urgency, yet everything is soft-peddled and as a result it never comes close to taking things far enough to give listeners a jolt, or even a mild shock.

But once again, hopefully for one of the final times here, we have to remind you of the infernal recording ban, as this song was cut in December, 1947, before ANY rock song had charted.

The problem though is it’s NOT December 1947 anymore, it’s December 1948. That’s the market they need to appease and this doesn’t do that. While you can’t rightly say it’s Paul Williams fault the fact of the matter is this record is aimed more at the residents of a retirement community making a mid-day pilgrimage to a lodge club for lunch and maybe a rousing game of checkers.

Rock, by contrast, was the soundtrack for wild youth headed out after dark to get their kicks in nightclubs on the other side of town where any one of a number of outcomes was likely, from fights outside the dancehall doors to borderline sex acts being committed on the dance floor itself. All of which was meant to satisfy a crowd high on booze, weed and the equally powerful exhilaration of nocturnal freedom after a long day under somebody else’s thumb.

By not giving us a proper song for that backdrop this is going to fall short.

Yet it also shows that even at that early date he was aware of what might transpire down the road. This HINTS at that more vibrant scene, yet gives you the impression of watching the action unfold from behind a glass partition, safely away from the inhabitants of that sinful world.

They aren’t entirely disdainful of the participants, they definitely understand their motives and are familiar enough with the societal boundaries which are so restricting for those who exist in a world that’s collectively hostile to them, but these musicians hardly seem ready to encourage listeners to break free of those confines.
 

Yellow Light – Proceed With Caution
As harsh as I’m making it out to be, it’s still not badly played, just badly misjudged.

In fact the intro is damn good, with squawking trumpet of all things (the great King Porter, who co-wrote this, guesting), and riffing sax lines being traded off with passion. That section is entirely appropriate and is what rescues this from utter oblivion. Had they kept that up, or built upon it in some way, even if that meant taking it in another direction, then they’d be on solid ground.

But instead as they settle into the meat of the song they take their foot off the gas entirely and sound as if they suddenly aged twenty years in the process. It becomes a meandering stroll through the park, nothing resonating with any urgency, thereby discarding the flamboyant excitement that was the surest way to immortality.

This is even more strange considering that both Wild Bill Moore and Williams are handling the saxes, but Moore’s tenor is played too high, making it sound like an ineffectual alto, while Williams on baritone doesn’t cut loose with any guttural interjections. Porter returns by the end to let the trumpet take center stage, but not until he repeats the intro for the closing does the song feel like it’s got the right audience in mind, and just barely at that.
 

 

When you take into account when it was recorded, and then see when it was hauled out of mothballs, you don’t want to be so harsh on Williams. None of this was HIS fault after all, he wasn’t a union head shutting down the entire recording industry, he wasn’t the one heading Savoy Records picking which of his cuts would be issued and when. So once again I find myself in the uneasy position of apologist for somebody whose track record hasn’t yet matched his importance and overall skill level.

But of course none of that helps us any when we’re forced to harshly criticize the record we see in front of us, a record where the best that could possibly be said is that, emblematic of its origins, Walkin’ Around is a song for playing early in the evening, before the club even filled up, something you’d hear in the distance as you’d approach the doors… NOT what you’d expect to hear when the place was packed and the action was underway a few hours later.

A prelude in other words. Good enough for that role in rock itself a year ago, but not nearly good enough for the point we find ourselves in the rock world today.

But then again what do I know.

In January Walkin’ Around would become Williams’ fourth national hit in Billboard magazine in the past year, reaching #6 on the Race Charts. As inexplicable as its success might be in retrospect, when it came out it’s plainly obvious he didn’t need anybody’s help – or anybody’s sympathy – after all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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