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DELUXE 3304; MAY 1950

 
 

 

It’s his biggest hit record, his second national chart topper and at a time when there wasn’t much attention paid in the public to the artistic merits of rock ‘n’ roll this was a song that actually got a good deal of critical acclaim. There are even many who will steadfastly argue it was his single greatest performance.

Yet because it’s a somber downcast tune rather than a no-holds barred party anthem it’s sort of been lost in the shuffle over time, slightly overlooked for gaudier jewels in his crown. After all when you’re the father of rock ‘n’ roll itself the types of songs you’re probably going to be remembered for aren’t going to be the mournful dirges like this one… no matter how effectively it can rip your heart out.
 

 

Seems I Have No Place To Go
Henry Glover, who produced this track but by in large over the years was a pretty emotionally detached observer to his own work, raved about this song years later calling it a “Very soulful record… tremendous lyric on that… I can’t see why some of the rock groups today didn’t re-do it because it was so great. Some of the lines are fantastic”.

The answer to the rhetorical question he posed is probably pretty simple – Hard Luck Blues is atypical for Roy and for rock to a degree. It’s an emotional evisceration set to music, stark and desolate in its sound with gut-wrenching vocals that are being put on display for public consumption in a way that comes across as utterly heartless.

It’s been called the most direct precursor in both style and sentiment to Elvis Presley’s breakthrough hit Heartbreak Hotel. Like that later song this is so unremittingly bleak… downright morbid in many ways… that it practically requires you to not let the song’s best attributes sink in as you listen because the descent into emotional torment it takes you on is pretty harrowing stuff for a three minute visit in between brighter upbeat songs meant for dancing and screwing.

In other words, though it’s a great record it’s also one that’s difficult to really embrace. Unless you’re a masochist, or are suffering with the same unstable mindset it portrays so vividly, it will always remain a song that’s easier to admire from a distance than to immerse yourself in as a listener.

So for the first time – but probably not last around here – this review tries to take two divergent perspectives into account (and probably fails miserably balancing them out), in an attempt to do this record and its creator justice.
 


 
 

I Might As Well Be Dead
There have of course been plenty of sad songs to become major hits in rock ‘n’ roll… there’s been lots of expressions of grief put to music and no shortage of internal angst to go with it, but most of those have tempered the misery of the lyrics with some musical buoyancy to offset it. Motown was famous for this giving you thematic despair wrapped in effervescent melodies, tempering the sadness by framing it in a way that suggested gladness.

One listen to this and you can see why such tactics were so crucial in selling those records, because when the anguish in the singer’s delivery was matched step for step by an equally tormented musical mood the pressure they created had absolutely no release. Yet somehow Hard Luck Blues became a huge hit anyway, showing maybe the first generation of rock fan had a greater capacity for pain than many of their descendants.

The story itself seems almost ripped from a tabloid – Roy’s mother is dead, his father threw him out, he’s left to fend for himself in a world without any love or protection, not to mention having no prospects for making a better life to overcome his dire circumstances.

Now here it needs to be said that’s there’s more than a little autobiographic truth to all of this, as Roy’s own mother died when he was entering his teens upon which he left home and scuffled around for years trying to become a singer. That he eventually succeeded in real life gives us a happy ending this record doesn’t possess, but if he was writing from experience it makes you wonder what kind hardships he endured on the long road to stardom.

By the sounds of this it wasn’t very pretty.

Even when he briefly turns to religion to ease the burden of his plight it comes across as more of a desperate roll of the dice than any deeply held belief – as he’s merely searching for something… anything… to alleviate his mental suffering as he sinks deeper into despair. This is clearly somebody on the verge of a complete breakdown and it’s Brown’s incredible skill as an actor even more than the lyrics that put this idea across.
 

Rocks Are My Pillow
This performance shouldn’t be all that surprising, for in terms of pure singing ability there’s probably nobody in rock at this point who has better pure voice than Roy Brown and certainly no one who can emote like him and here he pulls out all of the stops – wailing, crying, soaring and moaning until he’s wrung himself dry and you with him.

But it’s one thing to hit the right notes and hold them with a white knuckled grip and it’s quite another to really sell them, and with Brown singing as if his very life was hanging in the balance Hard Luck Blues goes way beyond providing a cathartic release and verges on a public exorcism.

There’s so much feeling involved when he cuts loose that he’s almost ransacking the dictionary approved definition of the terms he’s uttering to dive even deeper into their meanings until he emerges with the still-beating heart of the song clutched in his hands.

Since you can’t possibly find fault with the technical aspects of his singing and nobody could say he doesn’t completely live out every word, your appreciation of the record is invariably left to your own comfort level with someone displaying this kind of naked emotion for your entertainment.

If you can lose your own inhibitions as a listener – and then connect on some level with the feeling of hopelessness that he mines – then you’re putty in his hands. If not… well, then it’s left to the musicians to finish you off by enveloping you in the nightmarish atmosphere until you’re pulled under with Brown.
 

This Road I Gotta Travel
Anyone familiar with the nearly 900 reviews to date on this site knows the precarious position the trumpet has in early rock arrangements. The one vestige from rock’s jazz origins that never could fully conform to rock’s needs, it’s been the bane of a lot of otherwise excellent records… including ironically the very first rock ‘n’ roll record, Roy Brown’s own Good Rocking Tonight.

Essentially the instrument was too brashly demonstrative to fit neatly into this music which tended to rely on rhythmic accompaniment for the bulk of its material. Even while the tenor – and sometimes alto – saxophones were free to improvise in flamboyant exaggerated solos, their thicker coarser tones worked well within that structure, whereas higher pitched trumpets tended to quickly overwhelm the rest of the song.

Yet they CAN be effective still if properly deployed and on Hard Luck Blues Henry Glover, who got his job after rising to prominence as the lead trumpeter in Lucky Millinder’s pre-rock band, perfectly understands the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument and finds a way to not only fit them into the arrangement but to use them to define it.

It helps of course that the one area the trumpet remains suited for in rock is in expressing pain and misery. The trumpet has a naturally mournful sound when played slowly, something Glover emphasizes by keeping it slightly back in the mix while isolating its lines from the rest of the band. The result is an ominous haunting vibe that permeates the record and yet Glover balances it with other instruments that provide the primary accompaniment throughout the song, layering sounds upon sounds, pulling one out of the mix and inserting another so there’s always a different mood being hinted at.

The piano dominates the early going, establishing a fragile path for Roy to traverse with its treble fills before shifting into a slightly deeper quirky melodic hook that acts as a signpost along the way.

Wilbur Harden’s trumpet makes its first appearance here faintly echoing Brown’s vocal lines but it’s kept largely under wraps as the song adds a guitar that provides added tension, the notes remaining ghostly in appearance as if fraught with some unstated peril. Then here comes that trumpet again, almost mocking Roy as he begins to emotionally unravel.

Each line is unique, drawing out some passages, ripping others out by the roots, some come across as smoldering while others go up in flames as if they were doused with gasoline. When the horns all gang up for the middle eight as Brown lets his vocals become impassioned the transformation is seamless both leading into it and after the section is capped off by some galloping drums before it winds back down and resumes its agonizing death march.
 

So Much Trouble
So clearly this is a perfect record, right? Not only does it have a deep meaningful story with some memorable lyrics, a remarkably balanced arrangement where every instrument’s qualities are utilized for maximum effect, topped off by a powerhouse vocal and for good measure it was the biggest rock record in the country for a month.

But while every facet of it is astonishing there’s one thing that can’t be overlooked… the fact that no matter how much you’re awed by the skill of everyone involved it’s a song that you need to completely immerse yourself in to fully appreciate and in the transitory world of rock ‘n’ roll that’s not something most are capable of doing – or even willing to do – on a moment’s notice.

Hard Luck Blues is a jarring record … disconcerting and unsettling in every way. If you’re alone late at night in a dark room with regret and despair swirling around you this could easily send you over the edge, convincing you this was the most emotionally gripping performance in rock’s entire history.

But in a crowded room with people talking and drinking, flirting and dancing, this will invariably lose much of its impact. As great as it is it’s almost TOO powerful to be embraced in most settings, forcing us to keep it at arm’s length to protect ourselves from what it unflinchingly demands of you.

So yes, this is a perfectly executed record without question, one which confirms the brilliance of Roy Brown in so many ways and should be held up as one of his greatest triumphs in a remarkable career.

But no, for our needs it’s not quite perfect because we as listeners just aren’t equipped to handle something this potent very easily.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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