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For those who are interested in the tangled relationships in music history, not just individual artists working with one another but also the twisted roots of entre genres of music, then this is a review right up your alley.

For anyone else this is one you can probably skip over without much concern (how’s that for truth in advertising?!)

But while the record itself is rather pedestrian it does mark the transitional stage of one of rock’s longer lasting vocal groups… one who also have a notorious legacy for tangled histories in their own right.


Quite A Show
Okay, let’s start with the aforementioned group, the reason we’re covering this record in the first place, The Flames… or The Hollywood Flames as they were later known… or Hollywood Four Flames as they briefly were called… or The Jets… wait, what?

Yeah, that’s just a sample of what will follow in this piece in case you’re having second thoughts about sticking with us for this one.

We first met The Flames in January on Young Girl, a good record for a first outing, but more importantly one which – along with The Robins recent work – marked the shift between the slightly pop-rooted mindset of the few 1940’s rock vocal groups and their 1950’s descendants who fully embraced the more youthful rock elements that would come to be known as classic doo-wop down the road.

That record unfortunately would be their only release until the tail end of 1951 – a span of 22 months in which their only other sighting was… this unassuming record where they were the credited vocalists behind veteran drummer Peppy Prince, someone with some byzantine connections in music history who is now making a one-night stand as a rock artist.

Works All Day, Makes All The Loot He Can
Preston “Peppy” Prince was born in 1909 and had a long and interesting career, primarily as a drummer for bigger name outfits, as well as an occasional a singer along the way.

Though considered only a fair drummer he had an impressive résumé by this point in his career, getting his first big break in the mid-1930’s replacing the soon to be legendary Lionel Hampton in Les Hite’s popular band. In 1945 he began a five year stint with Joe Liggins, one of the most crucial pre-rock transitional artists of the decade – and older brother of rocker Jimmy Liggins.

While he didn’t play on Liggins’ breakthrough hit, The Honeydripper, he was with him for the long run of big sellers that followed including Liggins second biggest hit, which was released just on the heels of THIS song, the smash Pink Champagne which dominated the R&B Charts in late spring and summer.

Prince would leave Liggins by the end of this year, joining up with another huge group of the 1940’s Steve Gibson’s Red Caps before striking out on his own with various bands, some of which tried to move towards rock in small ways.

As a result Sugar Man is sort of a test run in that regard, leading his own band on a different label than he recorded for with Liggins at this time, testing the waters to see if something might come of his own ambitions to headline.

But rather than use an original song to see how this would play out Prince reached back into the Liggins playbook and loosely adapted The Honeydripper for this effort, which means in one fell swoop we get to examine one of the most important pre-rock songs being done by a non-rock act while backed with a rock vocal group, thereby tying together countless loose threads in the music’s already soiled wardrobe.

Starts To Blow
Prince had been stepping out on Liggins sporadically over the past few years, apparently with Joe’s okay, to cut sides under different names for other labels, and as usual he’s got a mix of the familiar – Eddie Davis on bass and Frank Pasley on guitar from Liggins’ crew – along with outsiders Henry Bridges on sax and Jackie Glenn on piano, whom he decided to call The Sugar Men. Whether they were named for the song or vice versa probably doesn’t matter much because this effort was unlikely to change their prospects for a viable career on their own.

The reason for this is because Sugar Man sounds exactly like what it is… an older group adapting an older song with a few newer wrinkles, namely the tenor sax which gets the biggest role in the arrangement, and The Flames who do their best to give the song an identity of its own despite its recognizable origins.

Their first move to distance it from whence it came is to take this at a quicker pace than The Honeydripper, though ironically it sacrifices the subtle power of that song which featured Liggins’ strong left hand on the keys and an older, deeper voiced vocal refrain than the teenaged Flames show here.

What they lose in the translation are only the most effective attributes of that record whose success was centered on the simple rhythmic groove of the piano, almost metronomic in its patterns, and the sexual nature of the title with its phallic connotations.

The saxophone in it was warmer during the main refrain than is shown here but the second solo sounds similar to what Bridges does on this, playing with a wheezing quality that’s not as off-putting as that description suggests. The more overt changes center around Pasley’s guitar taking the piano part while the sax takes on a far more prominent role behind the vocals… or should I say OVER the vocals as The Flames and Bridges are locked in a ongoing struggle for control of the microphone.

Unfortunately The Flames don’t have someone with enough vocal gravity to give their parts the resonance they need, while Davis sounds as if he’s intruding on them by overplaying while they sing, even though he’s still the most captivating thing on this side of the record when he gets to solo.

Steppin’ On Out
After Pasley’s guitar fades at the close of the first half of the record the saxophone dominates upon the song’s return on Part Two, playing with admirable passion before The Flames return and the same problem of whose record this is comes to the forefront.

They never do decide and because there’s little distinction between their tones it makes hearing the lyrics a struggle that’s not worth the effort since the lyrics don’t have the bite you were hoping for even though the subject is ostensibly less about the natural sweetener found on the breakfast table and more about a different kind of sugar.

Finally, as if everyone was getting tired of their ongoing wrestling match between components, Pasley jumps in and takes over center stage with a nice guitar solo which presents a different texture to give our ears a respite from hearing the same pitch for so long.

Prince is relatively low-key during all of this, throwing in a few crackling fills on drums but otherwise sticking to a rudimentary back beat. Essentially this is a malleable enough performance on everybody’s part to not be conspicuous on a rock playlist, yet in no way earning the right to demand its inclusion in this field. It’d also fit just as well in a playlist skewing towards older pre-rock styles that were not quite out of steam fully, as Liggins’ resurgence would soon prove.

But what that tells you is that while Sugar Man would be accepted in both, it wouldn’t come close to defining either one, nor would it be noticeable if you excluded it from both fields which is hardly much of a calling card if you’re Prince who was hoping to make his case for solo stardom.


Now You’ve Heard
It only stands to reason that with the changing times and constantly evolving musical standards there’d be more than a few of the old guard who were updating their sound in halting increments hoping to attract interest in the modern landscape without completely abandoning their more comfortable past.

Had Peppy Prince sang this himself it’d be rightly considered a vestige of the past, even if the rest of the record remained the same. To gain entry into a new field you’d have to show a lot bigger departure from the old school thinking than Sugar Man to justify your inclusion around here.

But by letting an authentic rock vocal group handle those chores he manages to slip in the back door even though they’re hardly using a typical rock vocal approach in this role. If nothing else however we’re glad we get to deliver an update on The Flames so their absence over the next two years is more thoroughly explained.

In a way though we’re also glad that it gives us a chance to bring Joe Liggins into the fold, albeit in a second hand way, for he and artists from that transitory stage, big though they were at the time, have slipped into an historical black hole when it comes to widespread credit.

Then again, listening to this underwhelming record specifically, there’s sure to be many who feel any credit is too much.


(Visit the Artist page of The Flames for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)