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RPM 322; APRIL 1951

 
 

 

The choice of which side of an artist’s debut record to promote often comes down to which is the more traditional sound, thus the one that has some sort of track record when it comes to attracting interest.

Not surprisingly for an industry that knows so little about the artistic side of their product sometimes that decision is a poor one.

But here we get to flip those choices on their head, for while this side of Rosco Gordon’s first single is acceptable enough, a song that fits into the standard fare of the day even though it fails to stand out in the process, the other side was where the innovation was found and consequently provided the best introduction to the artist which is why we led off with it even if RPM Records did not.

So now we get to circle back and hear how Gordon might’ve fared if he chose to follow the path already blazed by others rather than head off the reservation altogether.
 

 

Don’t Want Nobody Else
When the Bihari brothers got the tapes from Rosco Gordon’s first session cut for Sam Phillips in Memphis in the winter of 1951, they encountered an artist who possessed a remarkably casual ease in the studio, a singer without an abundance of technical prowess but an alarming amount of self-confidence in how he put across a song.

More than anything though, what they heard was somebody who had his own unique ideas on what a song could be, how they could be arranged and what the effect of these decisions might mean to an audience.

He should know. As unusual as his ideas may seem compared to the dominant records of the day he’d been performing on the radio for two years already at the mighty WDIA in Memphis and was a member in good standing of the loose-knit local group The Beale Streeters who featured fellow RPM artist B.B King along with a host of other local hotshots who in short order would start reeling off hits of their own.

Though Memphis itself gets completely unwarranted credit for its role in rock’s birth, the city – once it did hop on board the already rolling rock train – definitely added new and interesting elements to the formula starting with Rosco Gordon and his ability to play with the standard time measures most songs use.

City Women actually pales in comparison to the innovations on the other side of this single, but while this might be a more traditional composition, Gordon sees to it that there’s still some quirkiness found in this side as well, just in case you were thinking like the Biharis and wanted to find an easily referenced preconceived slot to place him in to save yourself some time.
 

Wanted Me Just For Herself
Starting off with a long trilling piano opening in isolation, the song comes floating down from above like it was dropped from a parachute and not until it hits the ground and Gordon begins singing with a sax, possibly fellow Beale Streeter Billy Duncan, joining in, does this start to take shape.

Once again Gordon is using a slightly atypical vocal delivery, one that sort of stops and starts, lurching forward and then pulling back, holding notes to capture your attention and then easing up to force you to inch closer.

It’s a performance born out of a sense of showmanship… not showing off per say, but rather it’s designed to make you sit up and take notice. Considering the number of clubs in Memphis and the fierce competition to draw crowds by artists of every persuasion, this was a necessity that those who came from less cutthroat surroundings would never have to master.

Whether or not it’s entirely effective on record might be up for debate. Certainly you’re not turning away at any rate, but it’s clear that in a crowded club this would go over much better than when sitting alone in a quiet room by yourself listening to it at whatever volume you prefer, able to start and stop it at will.

Though Gordon’s voice is captivating at every turn, loudly stretching out words at times, almost whispering others, the allure of City Women is found in his performance, not the song itself.

It’s got a pretty basic, largely allegorical, story here if you really want to look for one, but for the most part it’s a few loosely connected lines centered around Gordon’s quest for a woman which takes him from the city to the country, the latter of which proves less of challenge for him and it’s not until his final line that he even delivers the title to wrap it all up.

Because he’s only focusing loosely on a plot the weight of the record falls largely on the arrangement and its execution, a better idea on paper than it turned out once the tapes were running.
 

Gonna Stay Down
The first thirty seconds or so contains all of the suspense, most of the drama and a good deal of the creativity of this record while the remaining two minutes and fifty seconds settles into routine, albeit with some idiosyncratic touches thrown in along the way.

What stands out about this is how sparse it sounds. Presumably it’s the same band on the same day as was featured on Roscoe’s Boogie but whereas that track featured drums, bass, horn and piano all playing vibrant patterns that created something magical when thrown together, here we have parts that are so crude and basic that it seems like an altogether different universe we stepped into.

Not that it isn’t modestly appropriate for the subject. Gordon’s wrestling with an issue that a lot of people down South were going through at the time which is deciding whether to remain in the comfortable environs of a small rural town where things are slower and easier to understand, or to head North to the bustling cities where opportunities abound but the pace seems unrelenting and the bustle of activities seems downright foreign to outsiders.

As a result he’s got to choose one or the other, not just whether to pursue country girls or City Women, but also which type of music to tackle. In both cases he goes with the former, the simplistic variety – no muss, no fuss – and as a result we get very cut and dried parts with no complexity whatsoever. Nothing really moves here, save the sax which gets the majority of the improvisation, answering Gordon at every turn with something new and reasonably interesting.

Everything else though is locked in to a basic pattern that rarely makes itself noticed. Only Gordon’s own piano changes things up slightly. But without more variety the record becomes monotonous and when the sax is left to wander around without building up to anything, as most solos tend to do, the limitations of this approach become apparent.

Unlike the flip side which had a really strong fade, this one just sort of peters out, almost as if he and the band were somehow worn down by the effort, which is kind of humorous considering that nothing they’re playing seems anywhere near as strenuous as what they did on the flip side.
 


 

Don’t Mean No Poor Man No Harm
While there is more than a faint glimmer of talent and originality here, this is a song that may catch your ear for a moment before you lose interest and allow yourself to glance away making it a strange choice for the A-side when the other song was nothing if not captivating from start to finish.

But nobody said record labels were sensible and City Women had the appearance of a more traditional song… even if that kind of song didn’t result in a lot of hits along the way.

This wouldn’t be one either, yet as first efforts go it’s hardly a waste of time. Gordon shows he’s capable of thinking outside the box and is an engaging singer even if he’s hardly a traditional vocalist.

In the end this was almost the definition of a B-side… faintly interesting, competently performed and just different enough to not be forgotten by the time the needle lifted from the groove.

It wasn’t HIS fault that someone plucked it out as the A-side.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Rosco Gordon for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)