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DELUXE 3212; MARCH 1949



When Roy Brown burst onto the music scene in late summer of 1947 heralding a new style of music called rock ‘n’ roll the stylistic precedents he set out of the gate essentially boiled down to one crucial component above all the rest that would set it apart from whatever else might try and claim it.

His vocal delivery was out of the church – exuberant, impassioned and unrestrained as the best holy roller gospel preachers could be – while the songs he sang were from the back alleys, whorehouses and seedy night clubs, the types of places the Lord presumably doesn’t frequent.

By grafting the two together, the sacred and the secular, it formed a potent cocktail that hasn’t gotten any less intoxicating in the seven decades since its arrival.

In the months to follow the music took hold and various other traits coalesced to expand rock’s parameters but the basic blueprint Brown laid down remained as its cornerstone – impassioned celebrations of things society doesn’t always want celebrated.


Take Your Place In Satan’s Line
The dominant male vocalists of the 1940’s each had their own specialties – Bing Crosby’s sleepy baritone that never got out of first gear, the tender crooning of a perpetually lovesick Frank Sinatra, Perry Como’s affable everyman and the chesty theatricality of Vaughn Monroe.

In black music circles you had Louis Jordan’s sly delivery that was as much about the subtext as the content while Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole were both crooning in a distinctly non-ethnic style that allowed them to cross over to white audiences who didn’t feel somehow threatened that their songs were coming from black throats.

As different as each of those artists were stylistically, the one thing they had in common was their repression of emotion, or at least the comparative muting of it.

For the average listener to any type of secular music in 1947-1949 the effect of suddenly hearing Brown’s wailing must’ve been alarming, even somewhat disturbing. You just didn’t reveal yourself so nakedly in song at that point. In fact you really didn’t do so in any walk of public life. It was an era of decorum, of maintaining a stiff upper lip. Emotions were meant to be kept under wraps so as not to burden anyone else with them, to hide your weaknesses from the outside world and to conform to the ideal that everything was okay no matter what calamities were going on under the surface.

But that changed when Roy Brown introduced the world to rock n roll. Yet he borrowed that distinct emotional delivery from the one area that HAD permitted it – gospel. The difference though was in WHAT you were singing about.

Here on Judgement Day Blues however, he almost seems to be taking us back to the taproot source of it all, allowing us to envision Roy Brown had he never drank blackberry wine with the devil at midnight while surrounded by scantily clad sexy female demons and decided to become a gospel singer instead… well, maybe a gospel singer who worked both sides of the aisle in church so to speak.

You’re Gonna Have An Awful Time
Right away the presentation grabs your attention with a mournful – yet melodic – trumpet led dirge. Forget about all of my (endless) harping on the trumpet’s inappropriate role in rock’s earliest days, how ill-suited its tones were for conveying the basic rock spirit, because in THIS instance the trumpets are the only instrument that could deliver such a brilliant introduction as this.

They sound grief-stricken, drawing out notes in anguish that makes you sit up, lean forward and wait with baited breath for the resolution which comes in the form of Brown’s wailing admonishment to “All you backsliders” which sets the ethical tone in no uncertain terms.

The rest of the track isn’t going to provide anything as memorable as that intro but after a slightly jaunty piano leads us into the meat of the song the horns return playing a subdued riff that merely holds down the fort for Brown who takes on the role of minister, high school guidance counselor and mother, chiding us for all of our foibles, urging us to repent to save our souls.

This is where Judgment Day Blues deviates from gospel music of the time. The mid-century black gospel sounds were far more closely tied to rock than either side would have you believe.

Brown, as we’ve made clear, borrowed liberally from its vocal passion, yet gospel in turn quickly began to draw heavily from rock’s rhythmic accents, even the gradual introduction of previously off-limits accompaniment over the next decade with the addition of drums to accent the backbeat that was previously established by means of the hands and feet clapping and stomping out the beat. They’d go on to add electric guitars in due time and by the mid-1950’s if you were unfamiliar with the English language to be able to discern what they were singing about you’d often scarcely be able to tell the difference between gospel and rock vocal groups at times.

But the one area where gospel held firm was in the message it imparted – that of the rewards of following the righteous path and the redeeming power of the almighty. Gospel’s declaration was always one of hope and salvation and while they may chastise you at first for your wayward activities that led you to the brink of despair they weren’t going to turn you away at the door of the church or the gates of heaven just because you strayed along the way.

By contrast Brown seems to be a vindictive evangelist, the kind who brow-beats you for your transgressions and refuses to let you off the hook or to offer you comforting reassurance that all will be forgiven in the end.

Oh he SAYS you have to make amends for your counting cards, stealing nips and screwing dames but he seems altogether more satisfied admonishing you than asking for you to repent. This is evident not only in his words themselves but also his tone which oddly enough dispenses with his sacred-meets-secular approach of his more worldly adventures in rock and instead takes on the characteristics of a fire and brimstone preacher damning you to hell for eternity.


Be Ready When The Hatchet Man Comes Around
Though forsaking a gospel vocal approach that may have been expected in a story of this ilk Brown portrays this lecturing moralist with aplomb, offering up some clever and colorful anecdotes along the way, clearly getting into character at every turn. As for the music, while it may fit the theme well enough it doesn’t really elevate the proceedings much, certainly doesn’t give them much to do as they just sort of prance with an admonishing gait behind Brown’s sermonizing.

In spite of the conflicting aims I definitely admire the attempt here. Brown continues to tackle subjects from interesting perspectives and is clearly not afraid to upend his own image by taking on an entirely different persona from song to song.

By the sounds of Judgment Day Blues though it’s likely that his strongest memories of those days spent in the church as a restless kid wasn’t centered around the music he heard there exactly, but rather the images conjured up of roasting in the fires of hell for whatever youthful transgressions he was enjoying at the time and thus he might’ve been trying to distance himself from all association with it before he inadvertently found his way back to it by corrupting those sounds for rock.

As a result this record isn’t so much the sound of someone repenting for any of those misdeeds, but rather the sound of somebody who’d been emotionally scarred by being told by a preacher that he was going to hell and replicating that type of castigation here as a form of spiritual exorcism.


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