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JUBILEE 5015; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

What do you call someone whose career in rock ‘n’ roll spanned most of its first four full decades and during that time helped to define the music of some of its biggest stars ever, from Wynonie Harris to Billy Ward’s Dominoes from Little Richard to Sam Cooke, from Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye, yet who got little or no recognition FOR that work, both at the time or in the years since his death in 1988?

In rock ‘n’ roll you call that sadly typical, as unlike jazz it has rarely celebrated those musicians who don’t command the spotlight.

But in music circles René Hall was a name every bit as revered as those who he helped propel to stardom and though he’ll largely go on to make his reputation based on his many behind the scenes roles as a session guitarist, songwriter and arranger for others, it’s perhaps a form of belated justice that our first meeting with him on these pages comes on a record where Hall himself sits front and center.
 

 

That’s A Switch
It’s getting to be pretty redundant around here to introduce a new major player on the rock scene and tell you that he – or she – came from New Orleans. It might be easier to just assume everyone came from The Crescent City unless we inform you otherwise. The one difference that makes this a little more notable maybe is that while a good many of the names we’ve encountered so far from rock’s hometown were singers, pianists or horn players, René Hall was a guitarist. But like almost everyone else from Louisiana, no matter their specialty, he could play with the best of them.

Born in 1912 Hall was another guy who’d gotten his start in jazz. In fact you could say he’d already enjoyed a full career in that field, having played with the legendary Papa Celestin’s band in his late teens and in 1933 he played on a series of acclaimed records by pianist Joel Robicheaux.

Now, 16 years later, another musical lifetime having passed in the interim, Hall makes his debut in the genre that would define him. Unlike a lot of jazz expatriates who were conflicted about their move into rock once it became the more solvent brand of music, viewing their residency in rock as merely a means of professional survival, Hall seemed to have absolutely no compunction about changing his address.

We think of him as spending his whole career as a rocker because of his long list of credits, and also because unlike a lot of former jazz guys (Tiny Grimes, Panama Francis) who turned to rock but later returned to jazz, Hall did no such thing. He stuck with rock to the end, but it’s interesting to note that he was already 37 years old when he got started which also made him a rarity. Few guys who reach that stage in life are open to trying new experiences, let alone throwing themselves headlong into that new arena, but Hall did without any reservations which may be why his subsequent career was so rewarding. It’s hard to fake conviction after all.

With the need for skilled versatile musicians who weren’t reticent to wade into the rock waters it’s hardly surprising that René Hall found his way to the music, but what is a little odd is where he got that foot in the door… not in New Orleans, not in Los Angeles or Houston where a lot of guys from New Orleans headed for recording opportunities, but rather in New York for Jubilee Records, a label that outside of The Orioles had almost nothing to show for their two years in the business.
 

Stopping Over
Despite living into the late 1980’s historical researchers looking into rock’s past somehow largely missed out on talking to Hall, even if just to ask him about the bigger names he was associated with. We know he’d established himself in New York playing with Earl “Fatha” Hines after the war but we don’t have any firsthand account of how he transitioned into rock ‘n’ roll in 1949, whether that was his intent or just fortuitous circumstances that led to him making the move.

What we do know is that he’d made his first credited appearance on a Jubilee release the month before backing Ali Abdul on two sides that predictably sold little outside of the Abdul family. Billboard magazine actually reviewed them though and gave high marks to the singer but criticized Hall’s small combo backing. Maybe they just needed a reason to give them middling grades and figured nobody would hear them nor have any idea who René Hall was.

They were probably right about that at the time, no matter his pedigree Hall was still an anonymous figure to the public, but it was Abdul who quickly vanished from the scene while Hall got his chance to cut a full four song session of his own which marked the extent of his work with Jubilee.

This is probably where you’d expect us to say that the results were mediocre at best, maybe a little behind the times considering his background, and with no name recognition to draw from, nor much market presence for the company unless The Orioles names adorned the label, the Hall releases came and went without a trace.

You’d be wrong.
 


 

Chitling Switch was an actual certified hit. Not in the more stodgy limited national rankings of Billboard mind you, but rather in the regional Cash Box listings for both New York and Philadelphia, as that publication had a far better read on the younger rock audience’s tastes with their surveys.

That’s why Hall’s short tenure with the label is so odd. You’d think Jerry Blaine would’ve signed him to a longer term deal after his first record scored, not only to keep the company from being a one act show with just The Orioles, as it had been to date and largely would remain for the next year or so, but also because Hall’s group could then be used to back whatever other vocalists Jubilee signed up along the way, giving their records a consistent level of professionalism that would probably be needed to mask whatever deficiencies the next run of novice artists had.

But no, Hall was around for just a brief stay, meaning we’re left to use those four sides to get some sense of his musical mindset when he arrived at the company in late summer 1949, and comparing that to what followed at future stops we can try to see how he refined what he did to keep pace in the ever changing competitive world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Amazingly, he didn’t have change much… he seemed to get the gist of it from the very start.
 

Boiling Point
The dominant instrument of rock’s first few years of course was the tenor saxophone but the guitar was slowly but surely making inroads by the end of the 1940’s. It’d be another half decade before its presence was on par with the sax in rock arrangements and it just so happens it’d be Hall who was among those who was writing those arrangements down the road for many superstars.

Therefore as an early preview of what was to come, he gets a chance to show what the guitar has to offer as the centerpiece of a rock instrumental. Chitling Switch however isn’t merely an advertisement for the instrument or himself as a musician, but rather a well rounded – if somewhat subdued – mood piece fit for the hours when the action has subsided, whether late night or pre-dawn, and the weary revelers are still awake but running on fumes.

Starting off with Edwin Swanton’s lurching piano which sets a confident rhythmic course, Hall comes in over top of that solid foundation thirty seconds in, his guitar’s tone perfectly epitomizing the mood of those who’d recently been wired up on excitement but who now were winding down.

It’s a sleepy, if still moderately twitchy, pace and as he goes along sketching out a melody the sound of his reverberating guitar seems to hold secrets that it wants to tell but is still holding back from revealing completely. As a result it’s a slightly mysterious vibe he gives off which is enchanting even if it doesn’t really lead anyplace.

Buddy Tate’s sax solo which follows continues this mood, sticking to the same lazy groove that hints at something you can’t quite get a firm grip on. Though that may seem like an exercise in frustration for the listener, it keeps you locked in as you hope additional layers might get peeled back as they go along.

Unfortunately the second half of the record eases off this mesmerizing trance-like mood by handing the reins to the other horns. Though they are faithful to the precedents set by the other three lead instruments they can’t help but loosen the song’s hold on your senses, simply because their higher more bleating tone doesn’t carry with it the same aural authority as the piano, guitar and tenor sax. They’re not dynamic enough to suggest a vaguely Dixieland feel, which might’ve worked (and to be fair, might’ve also thrown it all into disarray), nor are they commanding enough to keep your attention riveted.
 

Cleaning Off His Plate
By this point too the structural limitations of the song begin to show. Because it never shifts into a different tempo, even just for a bridge, it becomes more dependent on the instrumentation to keep the momentum going. The larger horn section is the first sign of slippage and the return of Swanton’s piano which follows, playing a far too florid and stately progression, lets the all-important groove slip away without a fight.

With a title like Chitling Switch expectations might be for something with a little more grit and grime to it rather than the slow but steady creep through the shadows they undertake instead. Though Hall’s arranging skills are pretty well showcased for much of this, democratically allowing each of the band to get their moment in the spotlight, he probably needed to be more ruthless in handing out parts… notably his reluctance to give himself a much needed second featured spot.

Had he done that, turning up the heat for a stinging middle eight that quickened the tempo just enough so that it kept you transfixed heading into the latter stages, and then maybe eased it back but brought all the instruments in for a group close this might’ve been something on par with Sonny Thompson’s Long Gone which still stands as the ultimate groove-rock instrumental of the genre’s first three years.

But considering this was Hall’s first time leading a band in a studio he still manages to make quite an impression, both with his playing and his writing/arranging skills. Even his slight missteps in the end had the best of intentions, spreading the responsibilities around rather than hogging the spotlight for himself and even though that’s what we wished he’d done anyway it’s hard to be too critical of someone being magnanimous with his fellow musicians.

That respect for others would pay off down the road of course, as his career evolved and he began overseeing sessions for others where a good rapport with the hired guns and an ability to subjugate himself to the needs of the artist would make him an invaluable asset to the careers of a host of big names.
 

A Full Stomach
Could Hall himself had become a big name by focusing more on his own career as a bandleader rather than largely taking supporting roles after his brief stint with Jubilee?

Well, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t. Chitling Switch was certainly popular enough to get his name established in an era and style where the guitar was still largely a secondary component of the overall rock sound and with some fine tuning and further experimentation there was no reason to think he wouldn’t have found the right formula to score consistently.

What’s most telling about this is how he’s already fully embraced the idiom right out of the box. More than most jazz-reared acts who jumped into rock Hall shows no lingering affection for bygone musical concepts, he’s not only got his finger on the pulse of the current market but in some ways is peering around the corner as well.

But while this is hardly the last we’ll see of him under his own name, his ultimate vindication will indeed take place around the corner when he’ll step back into the shadows where he’ll be the one shining the light on somebody else and doing so for far less acclaim than he was deserving of.

So while it’s still HIS name on the record label, we’ll be more than happy to turn the wattage of that spotlight up a little higher to make sure he finally gets some of his due.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of René Hall for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)