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DELUXE 3300; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

In rock ‘n’ roll there are no “standings” like professional sports… no voting for MVP awards and things of that nature. Besides rankings are subjective even when trying your best to base them on objective measures.

Even when trying to narrow things down, let’s say trying to pick the artist of a given year, or even a full decade, there are plenty of things to confuse the issue. One of the most glaring is how to determine which records qualify for which year. Is it the one in which it was released, or the year in which it sat on the charts? Or both?

A record from December 1948 doesn’t have much time to make a statistical impact IN 1948, but if you use it for 1949’s rankings that distorts the concept of year with its calendar assisted starting point and finish line.

So you can see the peril in trying to even debate these issues. They’re relatively meaningless anyway… arguments for idle nights at a bar with your friends when those kind of questions seem more pressing than they really are.

The fact of the matter is this, no matter how diligent you try to be about it, no matter how much you think it through, no matter what parameters you establish there’s bound to be something along the way which will trip you up and make it more inconclusive than intended. You can do a reasonably fair job of it maybe, but it’s fraught with inconsistencies and therefore is probably best left alone.

…but then again since it never IS left alone whaddaya say we jump into it here ourselves, shall we?
 

 
Head Of The Class
The subject of this particular debate is a relatively simple one: Who is the Greatest Rock Artist Of The 1940’s?

The question alone is a minefield of problems but for this essay I’m not overly concerned with finding the definitive answer as much as I’m curious about the race itself. Who was positioning themselves to be the front runner, who had an early lead and lost it, who was gaining on the outside coming down the stretch, who was the betting favorite and who was the strongest dark horse candidate? All things you talk about before getting down to try and figure out the precise formula for settling the question.

In other words, we’re back in the beach-side bar with our buddies hashing this out over the third round of Coronas as the sun goes down and the girls head off to make sandcastles because we’re too deep in this debate to be paying attention to them anymore.

We’ll make it up to them later, I promise.
 

 

You’ve Got A Good Point
Let’s start the discussion with the guy most people would probably say offhand was the betting favorite, Wynonie Harris. He has the name recognition along with the first #1 hit with a rock record which is unquestionably the most enduring rock ‘n’ roll hit of the decade (albeit with the song that Roy Brown wrote and recorded first). He’s also the man who established the entire prototype for the rock frontman and who seemed to embody the “spirit” of rock ‘n’ roll better than anyone… living life to its fullest every waking hour. To throw some statistics into the mix he scored seven rock hits in the 1940’s (two hit #1), three others that predated rock which we can’t really count here, and one additional big rock hit still to come that didn’t make those charts until January 1950 but got put out before the Forties drew to a close and so it definitely factors into his 1940’s résumé.

Yet to burst his bubble just a little his drawbacks are that he had more duds released in the rock era than the others and some of his hits were cover records of pretty big and pretty important songs by other rock artists putting a dent in his originality.

Contestant number two is Amos Milburn, surely the most consistent artist we’ve encountered in rock as almost everything he released was a good record, except when it was a GREAT record. He was a prolific songwriter to boot and was the only one of these three to play an instrument and he played it really well. On top of that he was pretty damn versatile in terms of the different styles he tackled which gave him a broader scope than others. If that wasn’t enough you can also hear some big name artists mimicking him to the letter as of late, namely Little Willie Littlefield and Lonnie Lyons.

After a slow start commercially – not getting his first national hit in Billboard until the fall of 1948, he made up for lost time by ripping off ten Top Ten hits in the last year, six of which he wrote himself, and scored three #1’s along the way. If you want to find something to downgrade him for you can say that he didn’t have the dynamic presence of his two competitors, either on record or on stage and as a result while his active recording career actually lasted the longest by almost a full decade, his long term stature wasn’t so lucky, as he’s sort of receded to the background in the years after his heyday.
 

And In This Corner…
Which brings us to Roy Brown and this song we’re reviewing today (admit it, you thought we forgot about it, didn’t you?). His credentials are pretty obvious. Brown of course was the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll itself, as much as anyone could be named such. If you want to argue others had the same idea at roughly the same time, that’s alright (though keep in mind he was singing it on stage in early 1946 and simply didn’t get to record until July of ‘47). But there can be no question that it was HIS debut, Good Rocking Tonight, which launched the rock era as both a stylistic archetype and a distinct cultural movement.

Aside from the whole inventing the rock style itself minor tidbit, his influence once the genre was founded is immense as he sang decidedly secular lyrical themes with a gospel fervor, an unholy alliance which is the cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll. Most of his songs he wrote himself and his vocal ability in delivering them was near the top of the list of all artists, not just in the 1940’s but the entire spectrum of rock history… oh yeah, he just might’ve also had the best backing band for live gigs of this era in The Mighty Mighty Men.

As for hits? He scored 8 in the decade in Billboard, the last of which was this one, Boogie At Midnight, which also not-coincidentally was his last release before the Nineteen-Fifties dawned and why we chose this particular record to delve into the topic to begin with.

What does Brown have in the debit column that brings him back down to earth a little? Well, although all of the artists in question recycled songs to a degree and scored extra hits by doing so, Brown seemed to be attempting it most often. He’d released a shameless – and putrid – sequel to a much better earlier hit and also cut an updated version of his groundbreaking record with new title, new lyrics and a tighter arrangement. Though we liked that one a lot we warned that it was a dangerous precedent to set.

Now he’s back with a similarly titled song called Boogie At Midnight and our hearts stop as we contemplate the ramifications of going back to that same well once too often. If this is what it looks like on its surface then Roy Brown might just have taken himself out of the running for the top rock act of the decade.

Luckily for him – and for us – it’s not what appears to be at first glance, not a sequel or a re-write at all, but rather a manifesto for everything rock ‘n’ roll was building its considerable reputation on.
 
 


 
 

Have Some Natural Kicks
Maybe Roy Brown was a night owl, or an insomniac, perhaps a vampire, or maybe he really was the Devil himself, as anti-rock crusaders would have you believe for introducing this music on the world, and as such he thrived in the bewitching hour as superstition suggests.

Whichever is the case Brown certainly has an affinity for this time between dusk and dawn because this is now the third song that makes explicit reference to twelve o’clock at night and while in previous numbers he’s merely alluded to debauchery that takes place after midnight, this time he’s laying out the details in Technicolor for us to enjoy.

The horns that kick off Boogie At Midnight are high and shrill, far more than we’d recommend for rock ‘n’ roll, but they’re played so fast that it’s almost as if they’re hoping you don’t notice. They don’t stick around long at any rate as Roy jumps into the fray already in fourth gear, offering a perfunctory invitation to yet another party before his mind starts thinking of what will be happening AT that party and he loses all sense of discretion and goes into the X-rated activities to come.

You can’t say that these things haven’t been suggested before in songs – sex, booze and wild antics galore are mandatory requirements of most parties in the rock universe after all – but I can’t remember them being laid out in such vivid detail before.

I mean there’s no actual descriptive explanations given but you’d have to be a blind virgin who never stepped foot outside to not know what he’s talking about when he tells you to grab a bottle, grab some girls and head upstairs when everyone else is dancing. Group sex not your thing? Okay, stay downstairs and get drunk, grind away with a partner of your choice on the dance floor and blow the roof off the joint instead.

All of those activities are expressly suggested by your host, who by the sounds of it is going to be hip deep in the middle of things and in fact by the uncontrollable enthusiasm he’s singing this with – maybe his most exuberant vocal turn to date – he may already have his pants down and have downed half a bottle of Fireball whiskey by the end of the first chorus.
 

Let’s Tear Off The Roof
All of this would be excessive if he were the only one so revved up at this point before the doors even opened to let in the expected overflow crowd, but he’s hardly planning this shindig alone, he’s got the Mighty Mighty Men behind him and it sounds as if they’ve drank the other half of that bottle… and three bottles more!

After that speed demon start by the trumpet and higher range horns which had us slightly concerned this might risk taking us too far back in the past, our fears prove unfounded because the rest of the show belongs to Batman Rankins on tenor who uses this performance as a the cockiest valedictorian speech for the school of rock you’ll find.

Though we’ve certainly complimented Rankins before, saying how his arrival on the scene following the less than qualified backing studio musicians at Brown’s earliest sessions was what vaulted Roy from mere innovator to a full-fledged star, but because Roy himself is such a dynamic presence Rankins has sort of taken a back seat in our reviews. But here, though Brown himself is certainly in top form, Batman matches him every step of the way, honking up a storm, blowing searing hot replies to each line and delivering storming solos that ramp up the excitement even more, if such a thing is possible, all without losing control.

His live performances were reportedly the stuff of legend and even allowing for some hyperbole if they were simply as good as they sound here their reputation was well earned. But if they were even better than this on stage then you’d have to see it to believe it, because they never let up. From the hand-clapped back beat to what sounds like the kind of board stomping (literally I mean) that Motown became known for to bolster the backbeat, Boogie At Midnight is loud as can be and insistent in their attempt to reduce your speakers to splinters.

Everything about this reeks of anarchy, the kind best enjoyed when you’re in your late teens or early twenties and life has yet to impose its stifling responsibilities on you, when consequences for bad decisions pale in comparison to the fun you had in making those bad decisions. It’s a suspended moment in your existence when each day is sunny and bright and stretches on as far as the eye can see… and each night is an endless party filled with possibilities you can only dream of.

In other words, the song is the very embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll.
 


 

Let’s Get Through
If you WERE going to try and rank the artists for their work in the 1940’s then heading into the fall of 1949 Brown might’ve been stuck in third place behind Milburn and Harris. If you factor in influence he’d vault over them for sure, but just based on the records themselves, as good as they were at their best, he had nothing to compete with the absolute best of either of the other two giants.

Now he does.

Though you can say the general idea doesn’t deviate much from his first record and the lyrics, as ribald as they seem, are still pretty basic in what they convey, the spirit shown here is arguably unmatched outside of a few tenor sax instrumentals in rock’s first three years. Since this has a tenor sax equally prominent to virtually any of those and just as deadly in how its played, it can hold its own with almost anything we’ve heard.

For some reason when discussing Roy Brown’s legacy Boogie At Midnight, maybe because the title gets easily confused with the other late night songs of debauchery, winds up being overlooked, lost in the shuffle or thought of as merely a derivative concept of some kind.

It’s not. This is the powder keg that Brown originally envisioned when he saw and heard the reaction to his singing rock ‘n’ roll way back in 1946. It’s just taken him this long to finally toss in the full book of matches and watch it blow the roof off and send any detractors – of him or of rock itself – to kingdom come.

When his career finally is over and we look back this might not wind up being his most enduring record but it’d be hard now to imagine one any better.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Roy Brown for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)