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RCA 20-5046; NOVEMBER 1952

 
 

 

Conflicts, conflicts, conflicts. Why do we always see conflicts when major labels like RCA try their hand at rock ‘n’ roll?

Here we have an exceptionally talented rock guitarist who is being asked to sing. A good songwriter who is cutting somebody else’s composition. An arranger and producer of note who is not doing either of those things on this session.

All for a label who disdains rock ‘n’ roll because it’s a wild unruly music that can’t be tamed and yet who are making another attempt at capitalizing on it while simultaneously trying to keep it reined in.

With all these conflicts inherent in the record don’t be so surprised that we’re conflicted ourselves when it comes to just how to acknowledge it all.
 

 

If You Want To Have A Party…
The most obvious question we have to ask is… what exactly is RCA’s plan for René Hall, a highly respected session guitarist who sang only if absolutely required and who was far more comfortable working behind others, if he’s unlikely to get them hits?

If it was just to get him on board to oversee their still-shaky rock artist roster as a writer and producer, or at least an arranger and studio bandleader, that’d be perfectly understandable and would even show good foresight by the label.

But they already have Howard Biggs handling those roles and since it was he who wrote Do It Up Right and is sitting in the producer’s chair for the session, it’s doubtful that RCA was planning to toss him out in exchange for the guy he’s literally telling what to do here.

So maybe you suspect they were hoping he might become their version of Les Paul, a guitar whiz who can play flashy licks that can attract younger listeners but still draw adult pop audiences with material a little more suitable for them.

That doesn’t make sense either, for aside from the fact he’d need a professional singer to make that work artistically, the fact that Hall is black and specializes in rock means he isn’t going to pull in any white middle-aged listeners no matter what they do… as another major label, Decca Records, found out when they tried this with him last year.

All of which leaves a more predictable explanation which is that RCA had no contacts or credibility with those figures who could get them young ambitious amateur rock acts seeking to forge their own path – which the company wouldn’t have wanted to, or known how to, deal with anyway – so they turned to a guy like Hall instead. Someone whom they had awareness of from session work and who clearly had his finger on the pulse of rock, and yet because of his malleability for that kind of job it would make it far easier for them to control.

As always when it came to the major labels, they want the rewards for dabbling in rock without making any sort of wholehearted commitment to getting the BEST rock music they could… which is why they were bound to fail.
 

Don’t Start Kissin’ And Then Try And Run
Once again we’re smack dab in the middle of a stylistic conflict as this record opens with a really good guitar riff that is aggressively played with a good buzzing tone and has you hoping that maybe everybody at the RCA studios that day were down the hall at a Perry Como session, or maybe were still cracking up over Spike Jones’ latest novelty sides they’d just laid down and thus unaware that René Hall was even in the building, let alone cutting a track.

If that had happened maybe we’d have reason for optimism, but we know full well that the big-wigs were nervously overseeing his every move because they were worried about the insurance risks of letting a rock act play unsupervised.

As a result as soon as that intro fades and he begins to sing everything starts to go wrong, despite him insisiting that they’ll Do It Up Right.

Oh the bitter irony of it all!

The lyrics are the first problem, for while they can arguably (though barely) pass muster as instructions for an amorous female who may not have the experience, confidence or dedication to pursue Hall in the way he wants, they manage to do so in a way that feels awkward and stilted. They’re just a little too descriptive in a clinical sense while not projecting the right amount of frustrated impatience that he’d be sure to feel when addressing a girl who seemed more of a tease than a serious prospective partner.

The bigger problem though is in just how meekly Hall is delivering those lines, which reduces their effectiveness by half. His projection is too light, his tone is too thin and his attitude is too weak to make this believable or compelling. Guys in the audience who are listening naturally want to project themselves into that role but they’d be embarrassed to come across looking so ineffectual, while girls want to imagine the guy who is telling her this actually has the fortitude to back up what he’s saying.

Hall sounds like a strong wind would blow him over and we can be pretty sure that if any other guy at this party, including those recently graduated from the eighth grade, decided they wanted this girl themselves, would be able to back René down with just a harsh glare.

As a result we’re not surprised that to Do It Up Right and defend himself against these lurking menaces which threaten to expose him for a fraud, Hall resorts to his guitar to provide some protection. His solo is really nice and sounds in some ways like it’s a rockabilly track from four years down the road with a high tone and some quick runs before he veers into some jazz licks to remind you he’s got pedigree.

He manages to circle back and close it out with more a effective approach for rock, both at the tail end of the solo and again in the fade, all of which only makes you wish they focused more on emphasizing that aspect rather than trying to make the whole record palatable for those who’ll never leave their house to go party on a Saturday night with the rest of us anyway.
 


 

If You’re Gonna Do It Up At All
Though compromised by their dual aims, this nevertheless stands as one of RCA’s more genuine attempts thus far at creating an actual rock song rather than fitting a more traditional song with just a few rock touches.

While the lyrical details are a little weak, the story’s theme is solid enough and if they just had somebody who could actually sing in the required manner (how about H-Bomb Ferguson barreling through this like a man possessed)… or even had slightly different flaws, like say Jimmy Liggins… it could’ve worked.

Actually the one who would be best suited for this is Tiny Bradshaw, whose ebullient personality and tireless enthusiasm makes it seems tailor made for. Then again considering he was an older artist who became a legitimate rocker through sheer force of will tells you that guys like Howard Biggs, and RCA’s brain trust in general, were still thinking with old school sensibilities when it came to rock ‘n’ roll.

Instead though they were stuck with René Hall who vocally was just not able to Do It Up Right no matter how sincere his efforts. He was unquestionably the wrong singer for the job and a more astute label would’ve realized this and went with another option.

RCA had few other options though and so they had no choice but to sink or swim with it and naturally it sank.

Where they were NOT stuck however, was in the record’s saving grace, which not coincidentally was Hall’s greatest skill, that of a guitarist who can enliven any song with his playing. Here, knowing his own limitations elsewhere, he manages to give it just enough spark to make it palatable.

We’re still left with a conflict in how to properly assess the total package however, as those aspects are really good while the primary focus remains slightly under par. But since RCA at least made a credible attempt we don’t want to dissuade them from learning from their mistakes and trying to step up their game even more around the bend.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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