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GOLD STAR 626; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 
 

 

What’s in a name?

Can a name be the difference between success and failure?

Maybe.

Can it be the difference between being remembered and being forgotten, regardless of success?

Absolutely.

Take the name “rock ‘n’ roll”, a term which carries with it a cultural cachet that remains largely unshakable. Yet many fans of rock over the years have become incredibly provincial when it comes to who they’re willing to accept into the fold and even acknowledge AS rock, as if they had any say in the matter. In a way their actions are essentially trying horde the acclaim that rock as a whole received, reserving it for only those who they find acceptable for the image they personally have attached to it.

To that end we introduce you to Peppermint Harris, though he was called Peppermint Nelson for this release as Nelson was his actual last name. But there we go again with names.

This was someone whose career could fall either in the blues field or in rock as he went back and forth between the two as his muse dictated and as the tastes of audiences changed. But where he’s ultimately slotted by history often says more about those doing the categorizing than it does the music he was making thanks to the enduring parochialism of the terms.

However, the fact that questions about his career placement still even get brought up from time to time in the Twenty-First century is because his own colorful name, that unique moniker he had been given way back in 1948 when he was starting out which gives him a way to stand out and separate him from the long list of otherwise forgotten figures from so long ago.

To learn how all of these names come together you have to go back to the beginning when nobody much cared about what either the music or this artist himself were called simply because so few people knew about either one at the time.

 

 

How Much Lovin’ A Man Needs Everyday
One of the nagging questions about doing this project is where to set the cut-off line between genres.

This is hardly an unimportant question. In fact it’s one of the more vital things that has to be firmly established and once decided it needs to be rigorously defended and reinforced at every turn just so there’s no unnecessary confusion.

The trend towards narrowing the field to keep the classification focused on only the big names and certain styles which enjoy wider demographic appeal (and with it far more self-serving promotion of it under that term which reinforces that view of it being the be-all and end-all of rock) winds up distorting facts and re-writing history, something which has had far-reaching consequences for the music’s historical legacy.

Yet even the most inclusive of historians are stuck with uneasy questions regarding the first few years of the genre when so many people involved making the music weren’t entirely sure of its veracity and thus artists bounced back and forth from one genre to another as the mood struck them, while record companies sought to incorporate musical shadings that would also allow the songs to fit in the more established jazz or blues fields.

Once rock gets its feet under it commercially over this next year or two we won’t see nearly as much blurring of the stylistic boundaries. Jazz sticks to its basic ground rules, blues does as well, and so too will rock ‘n’ roll. They may occasionally overlap in the future but for most records there’s always going to be a clear distinction about which avenue they’re trying to pursue.

But not so in early 1948.

So to try and get the designations right for some of the initial wave of artists we turn to the next most crucial factor in determining one’s allegiance – their future work. Would they revert back to blues or jazz, thereby removing themselves from consideration, or would they venture further into rock and therefore help to make their earlier boundary straddling efforts rock by default?

With Peppermint Harris even THAT method provides no easy answer as his debut, Peppermint Boogie, has strong elements of blues and rock competing with one another, allowing either genre to try and claim it for themselves. From there on in he vacillated between blues and rock for most of his career, almost as if to torment us for eternity. So with him you have no choice but to take it one record at a time knowing that whichever way you lean someone might not be happy.
 

The Only One For Me
I’m sure by now you’ve guessed that this record DOES qualify otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, so we’ll take the time to tell you that the flip side, Houston Blues, does NOT make the grade because it adheres to a different stylistic playbook.

Maybe the easiest, though most transparent, way to explain it is to look at their titles, not that titles alone will always make for the strongest evidence. But in this case it definitely helps because the bluesier record does in fact refer specifically to the blues in its title while the more rockin’ number uses the word “boogie”, which infers the type of wild good time you’re expected to have listening to this kind of music.

But it’s hard to take the kid’s background out of the music completely and in the case of Harrison Nelson, as was his given name, that meant there was going to be some blues in almost everything he did, the only question was how much would it appear from song to song.

Since Nelson was just starting out and since he’d been tutored by blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, one man who had absolutely NO conflict about what genre he preferred, you’d think that Nelson would follow his lead a little more closely, but than again being in his early twenties, a full thirteen years younger than Hopkins, it meant that Nelson was bound to be less devoted to an older and more venerated style.

It was Hopkins though that got him in the door at Gold Star, a Houston label begun in the mid-1940’s as an off-shoot of the Quinn Recording Studios which is miraculously still in business today. They’d recorded pretty much any style of local music and when Bill Quinn saw there was still a need for outlets for the types of music ignored by the major labels he started his own label and had their biggest hit to date with the first Cajun hit of any kind, Jole Blon, in 1945. One reason for their success was that Quinn paid far better than most indie companies did for a session, two hundred bucks it was said when the industry standard might’ve been $40 or $50 tops in most cases, and that enabled them to get a leg up on that fertile region’s best up and coming acts.

But Nelson wasn’t your normal kid looking to become a star. In his mind he already WAS a star because he was performing live to good acclaim and he really didn’t have much interest in recording. He was also well educated, separating him further from most musicians who viewed any interest by a record company as their one and only shot at economic sustenance, whereas Nelson, who had a Bachelor’s Degree, knew he could find more consistent work elsewhere if need be.

So when he went into the studio at the tail end of October 1947, just a month after rock had been unleashed to the world, he – probably more than most – was open to trying anything. Peppermint Boogie would suffice in that regard, giving him both a new name and a career to go with it.
 


 

Never Leave Me
The harsh electric guitar that opens this record unadorned before segueing into a raw boogie pattern definitely gives the impression that this is going to be a blues number. For many that would seem to settle the matter, especially considering that in early 1948 when this came out there was barely any records in the nacent rock field that incorporated a guitar so prominently whereas the blues featured it as its primary instrument.

But three things change this perception. The first is that in the future the guitar would become ever more vital to the rock sound, making this seem oddly prescient. The second aspect that gives this more of a claim to being a rock record is the fact that Peppermint Harris himself would keep returning to the rock field with good results, even as he never gave up on the blues entirely.

But the last factor, and maybe the only one that truly matters for the purposes of defining THIS record, is how Peppermint Boogie starts to take on the characteristics of current rock trends more than the blues in the rest of the arrangement.

Start with the role the piano plays in this. It’s woefully crude at times as Elmore Nixon bumps it up against the musical furniture around the room at almost every turn, something not helped by the rudimentary drumming. Only the bass provides any consistency here, but that piano still is pulling out every trick it can think of which takes it farther and farther away from modern blues with each riff.

Then turn your attention to Nelson’s own guitar which alternates between some practically distorted intensity and more fluid runs, neither of which are the first things pulled from your ordinary bluesman’s bag of tricks in this day and age. It’s not the smoothest of sounds by any means, but it’s got an admirable drive and intensity to it that pushes this otherwise basic song to the limits.

Finally consider the vocals themselves which may be rawer than most of rock’s best singers to date, but is decidedly more robust sounding than the majority of blues acts who were at the top of their game in early 1948. He’s not despondent, as was the main stock in trade for the blues, nor was he reflective or measured in his singing. Rather he’s energetic, even boisterous, as he details the virtues of his girlfriend.

Giving this more credence is that fact that his boasts are well within the realm of reasonable belief, not outlandish hyperbole designed to assert his dominance over the rest of the men within hearing range. He’s merely proud of his catch and enthusiastic about proclaiming it to the world, which are unquestionably rock traits through and through even at this early stage.
 

Hang My Head
In spite of its qualifications for inclusion none of this allows it to surpass even moderate expectations and actually at times it just barely lives up to them. But it’s not the quality of the results that matter in this case as much as it is him making the attempt to set it apart in the first place. Rock needs to carve out other avenues to travel and has already taken great pride in doing so, alternating raunchy sax instrumentals with vocal harmony groups, mixing together mellow balladeers and wailing shouters with equal effectiveness until the whole brew was brimming with diverse flavors and increasing its appeal for an ever wider audience.

That’s what makes Peppermint Boogie a more vital spice to add to the cauldron, even if the potency of it was not quite as good as it could’ve been.

With so much of rock to date focusing on the dominant jazz, gospel and pop elements, the one style lacking in its DNA, the blues, at least got addressed with this record even if the marriage between them was still a little shaky.

Then again this gives the impression that somebody, maybe completely by accident, was attuned to what more was needed to get this music to embed itself in the national consciousness. It was a record named for maximum appeal and then doubled down upon by the company by giving the singer the same name, those actions imbuing it with the kind of attitude that would always be welcome in rock ‘n’ roll.

The best name for that kind of mindset is “confidence” and it’s hardly ironic that confidence is probably rock’s most ubiquitous trait no matter the era, style or sound.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Peppermint Harris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)