No tags :(

Share it




Let’s call this what it is, namely a convergence of opportunity for all involved…

You have the artist, Pete Johnson, the foremost boogie woogie piano player of the past decade who became a first call sessionist for a wide array of singers, who is now once again seeking to make headway with releases under his own name by offering a slightly new variant of his classic work in another – newer – field of music.

You also have an independent record label in Down Beat whose roster of artists is fairly impressive but very small in number and thus are looking pad their release schedule. In doing so they’re hoping perhaps to find a receptive audience with rock fans, yet knowing that with Johnson they also have a chance to pull in their own core constituency of blues and jazz listeners who are at least familiar with his name and reputation.

Lastly there’s those of us seven decades in the future, looking back in hopes of finding a hidden gem or two from a legendary figure who had very few releases under his own name in the rock era yet who was such a vital figure in presaging the style and as a sideman early in its rise before fading ignominiously out of sight.

Probably needless to say the opportunity doesn’t pay off in this instance for any of us, Johnson, Down Beat Records or crate diggers in search of something memorable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hauled out of mothballs to give it the once over in an attempt to find out what they were all thinking along the way.

Tighten Up
When reviewing the top side of this, Skid Row Boogie, a good record that doesn’t aspire to be more than that, one point we raised as to how it might’ve been improved was by possibly adding a third soloing instrument, namely a guitar. But since guitars were still not a common feature in rock music in the late 1940’s the likelihood of that happening seemed too slim to really consider an obvious choice to criticize them for and so we gave the arrangement, which otherwise was very solid, a passing grade without any reservations.

Yet here on the B-side they not only surprise us with a notable change in their approach but in the process show that maybe we shouldn’t have cut them quite as much slack as we did in that regard. The reason is the very first sound you hear on Half Tight Boogie is that of… a guitar!


Okay… rather than re-hash the debate over yesterday’s record let’s focus instead on THIS record and see if the addition of a guitar can improve upon that model and take this to the next level.

We need to start with the fact regardless of the new wrinkle they’ve added there’s still the long-standing issue of how to make piano-based instrumentals interesting enough to compete with everything else out there without reducing the piano to merely a secondary role in the process.

One can easily envision – on paper anyway – letting the sax and guitar play with the melody and then let Johnson emphasize the rhythmic accents in the middle eight before the others return to get you back to the hook. Or perhaps let Johnson lead it off with a pounding intro that gives way to the guitar and sax who take it even further into the stratosphere. Maybe they can even trade off throughout it as future piano pounders did. After all Fats Domino and Little Richard both let Lee Allen’s sax have plenty of room to breathe on their hits, while Jerry Lee Lewis typically yielded to Roland Janes flashy guitar in between The Killer’s two ivory smashing solos.

So the potential here for delivering something that at the very least succeeds in those basic aims is substantial. Despite lacking the guitar on Skid Row Boogie they’d managed to come up with a very tight arrangement, one that traded off between piano and sax well enough, so the outlook for this became even brighter when you add the guitar.


Half Empty
Except as soon as Half Tight Boogie begins you get a curious look on your face because this isn’t an electric guitar at all, but rather an acoustic, which utterly changes the entire feel of the song. Suddenly instead of appearing forward looking it’s leaning backwards and not even towards the style that Johnson himself was most at home in, but rather harkening back to a country blues motif.

You may hesitate on rushing to judgment after only three seconds, but when the next three seconds only confirm your skepticism your hopes sink like a stone.

They’ve failed.

You can shut it off right there, six seconds in, before Johnson’s fingers even touch the keyboard, and proclaim your decision is final. No need to hear another note played for no matter WHAT they do next they’ve already let the opportunity for potential greatness slip from their grasp. This is no bold leap into tomorrow, but a step back into the past.

We of course can’t do that – turn it off I mean – we have to see this through to the end and truthfully we should WANT to hear where they take it from there and if they stick to that anachronistic mood the acoustic guitar laid down or if they jarringly head into a different direction once the other instruments join in. Certainly the tenor sax – played here by the great Maxwell Davis no less! – is not an instrument usually found in country blues songs so something’s gotta give in the presentation.

It’s probably no surprise that it’s the very thing they just introduced – the guitar – which disappears from view as Johnson takes this out of the rural environs it began in and places it in the citified clubs of his own past. A little more modern and upscale than the backwoods guitarist has ever encountered, but still something sitting just behind the times for 1949’s rock audience.

When he gives way to Davis’s sax it takes another left turn and gets closer to our current perspective, both in terms of era and setting, yet even here Davis isn’t really cutting loose. He’s serving up a moderately smoky feel but it’s slightly too laid back for our tastes. His playing is the sound of a mid-evening stint on the bandstand at a classier joint, albeit not one that is too restrictive and caters to those above our status as rock fans, but it’s still something that is designed simply to pass the time until the real show kicks in around midnight when everybody loses their inhibitions and starts to really get down.

Boogie… What Boogie?
At this point it’s almost shaping up to be representative of the path black America itself was taking over the past two decades from the rural south of the 1930’s to the mid-western towns at the turn of the decade to the promise of the west coast cities after the war, improving their standing in the world each stop along the way. Call it a time travelogue if you will, but it’s doubtful that was its intent.

Sure enough when Davis steps aside this is confirmed when Herman “Tiny” Mitchell’s acoustic guitar returns for an unwelcome second act. It’s not played badly by any means, but it’s just completely out of step with the parts we’ve come here to expect and have laid our money down to hear. The abrupt jumps from one sound to another on Half Tight Boogie are too disconcerting to appreciate each instrument for its own qualities. If you think the saxophone has the right idea with its playing then hearing the guitar refute that is not only going to cut your enjoyment short, but will actually lower your perception of the lines Davis just blew preceding it.

On the other hand if you happen to get a kick out of hearing a throwback sound like the acoustic guitar then surely being dragged a dozen years into the future when the saxophone makes its appearance it’s going to break that spell pretty quickly.

Then there’s the piece largely missing from this critique who supposedly was the focus of the record, namely Pete Johnson. After his early featured spot he recedes to the background to the point where you almost forget he was even involved in this. When he finally makes a reappearance two minutes in he’s competing with a repeating massed horn riff and it’s not until nearing the end where he even gets a chance to step out front by which time you’ve lost all interest.


Shut Off The Lights On Your Way Out
Talk about a misleading proposition. Not only is the song completely undeserving of a title like Half Tight Boogie but the musicians with the reputations you were anxious to hear from are reduced to supporting characters and when they do take their featured spots it’s with absolutely no sense of urgency. It’s almost as if they were merely halfheartedly messing around before the real show began later that night.

What makes all of this such a let down is the sense that this was a missed opportunity. If you wanted to try an appeal to a pure blues audience by adding the acoustic guitar then this sure wasn’t the way to do it. A tenor and alto saxophone are completely out of place in that style and even Johnson’s piano doesn’t quite fit, though at least he could’ve altered his approach to something a little more suitable, maybe something along the lines of a Leroy Carr where he was playing fills behind the guitar rather than taking the entire structure of the song off in another direction.

But since this was Pete Johnson’s shot at glory HE was the one who needed to be given the means with which to connect and if that meant booting half the band to the sidewalk and replacing them with those more suited for his goals then that’s what they should’ve done.


(Visit the Artist page of Pete Johnson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)