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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.
 

 
As for Brown himself he certainly wasn’t cast out of the golden city for his sins, sent into purgatory for daring to blur the lines that had seemed set in stone far apart from one another before this. No, not only was Brown’s influence assured with rock’s rise to power, but his own stardom was subsequently achieved – and confirmed again and again – by a succession of bigger selling hits and solidified by a consistent level of artistic quality.

So under normal circumstances you might ask what’s left for us to contemplate other than the usual progression of an artist’s career and further stylistic experiments?

Well, how about a chance to see the clearest sign yet as to his mastery of one of those original building blocks he used. A fleeting opportunity to envision Roy Brown had he never drank blackberry wine with the devil at midnight while surrounded by scantily clad sexy female demons… or if he had, if he then repented the next Sunday and gave himself over to a higher power.

That’s right, we’re talking about dealing with Roy Brown as a gospel singer.
 

 

Take Your Place In Satan’s Line
Well, KINDA like a gospel singer. A very hip gospel singer, let’s say one who worked both sides of the aisle in church so to speak.

Now it’s important to go back to the beginning again to set the scene properly. If you want to read about this in more depth you can go back and check out the review for Good Rocking Tonight (we’ll still be here when you return), or you can simply let the thumbnail version I’ll offer here suffice.

Roy was the son of True Love Brown who played organ in her church which is where her son got his first taste of the limelight by singing gospel under her direction. She died when he was just 13 and a few years later he set out on his own and invents rock ‘n’ roll. …You know, a story not unlike any other orphaned waif from New Orleans.

But it was the lessons learned singing IN church that marked him as something decidedly different in secular music and led directly to that invention which changed the course of civilization.

Go back and listen to the male vocal stars of the day. Bing Crosby’s sleepy baritone that never got out of first gear. Or the tender crooning of a perpetually lovesick Frank Sinatra. How about Perry Como’s affable everyman or the chesty theatricality of Vaughn Monroe. Those were the prototypical male vocal stars of the 1940’s. There were simply no precedents found among them for Brown’s way with a song.

In black music the differences between the path he ultimately took and other hit-makers who proceeded him were equally apparent. Louis Jordan was the biggest star for years with a sly delivery that was as much about the subtext as the content. 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. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson had a unique squeak in his voice that rendered him almost unclassifiable as much as his merger of blues and jazz had done. Even Bull Moose Jackson’s jaunty nasal delivery was designed to be lighthearted and non-threatening, something made even more apparent by his 1947 switch to light ballads.

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. I mean, certainly Sinatra’s inner turmoil was always apparent and he’d wear his emotions on his sleeve when it came to musing about love but not in anywhere near the same way as Roy Brown, who was so anguished (or joyous) at times he’d tear off those sleeves in desperation to convey his inner most thoughts, hopes and fears.

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, including even acting, as Marlon Brando was still three months away from upending the theater in A Streetcar Named Desire before doing the same in film a few years later.

It was an era of decorum, of maintaining a stiff upper lip. The country had been through a depression and war and the nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and fierce determination of the general populace were the defining attributes of America’s steely resolve that got them through both of those harrowing ordeals.

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.

It was simply part of being an adult at the time.
 

When I Face Old Saint Peter…
You can argue that we’ve gone too far in the other direction since then, when nothing is kept hidden from public view, but in music, a medium designed to hit you on multiple levels, the emotions it stirs are vital in establishing its appeal. Of forging a deeper connection to the listener who shares in, or can at least envision, the circumstances that results in such emotions coming to the surface.

But you weren’t getting that, at least not to this extent, in most secular music in the 1940’s until rock came along.

You WERE getting it in gospel however. Though the jubilee style that had been dominant in prior eras had kept with the general approach of pop music in the sense of not showing unrestrained emotion, it still had been far more uninhibited than most music outside of instrumental hot jazz.
 

 
With the advent of the more personalized gospel stars, Mahaliah Jackson, Ernestine Washington, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, R.H. Harris of the Soul Stirrers, the fire-breathing Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds, the rules of vocal decorum came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.

Even so you have to keep in mind that when it came to gospel, though you were selling records to the public it was a very specific segment of the public, those who sought religious salvation through the music itself. The songs and performances in this realm were increasingly based on the revival meeting singing in which audiences frequently were driven to such spiritual ecstacy that they spoke in tongues, threw themselves onto the floor and frequently saw visions, giving themselves over to a higher power to save their souls.

In other words you knew what you were getting into when you put one of those records on.

But not in secular music where you merely expected to be lightly entertained, perhaps sometimes in sentimental songs you might get a throb in your throat from reminiscing about your own sorrows, but for the most part popular music of all types were something provide little more than a pleasant diversion to the drudgery of everyday life.

So for Roy Brown to sing in an emotionally unhinged style that compelled listeners to react in a far more meaningful way was shocking enough outside the walls of a church. But for him to do so while singing about drinking, screwing and other Saturday night activities was potentially scandalous.

But also highly exciting.
 

You’re Gonna Have An Awful Time
I don’t know whether Brown was having remorse over his wicked ways when he cut Judgment Day Blues but I highly doubt it. First off he wasn’t a gospel singer who had crossed over and was wracked with guilt over his turning his back on the Lord for the adoration of sultry vixens brandishing booze and an unlimited supply of hanky panky.

He wasn’t even particularly religious from what I understand, he’d left singing in church almost a decade earlier when still a child, long before that type of spiritual mindset fully takes hold. Most crucially at this point, lest there be any doubt, he was enjoying – and I mean ENJOYING – the perks and benefits of growing stardom as a rocker.

But something prompted him to revisit the setting of his earliest public performances for his latest side, whether it was a fleeting memory that stirred old images long suppressed, or maybe he had a moment of reconsideration over the morality of his chosen profession which quickly passed, but before it did he wrote this song.

Who knows, maybe he just envisioned this as a quirky topical angle to delve into, but what he delivers with Judgment Day Blues is the picture of a rock star repenting for his sins and returning to gospel, yet still strongly influenced by what he would conceivably be leaving behind.

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 (Fort Despondent I suppose), 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 it 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.

In fact by the way he approached this I think it DOES give some insight into his upbringing, though of course this is all just speculation on my part, but considering the facts that we DO know – his time spent in the church ending with his mother’s death when he was just entering his teens, followed by his stint as an amateur boxer and itinerant singer who modeled himself on Bing Crosby’s mellow delivery only to have that upended suddenly when forced to step in for the band member he employed to handle the uptempo numbers upon which Roy instinctively reverted back to the gospel-esque delivery he’d seen, heard and probably used himself way back when – I get the idea that he may have been repressing that personal history for a lot of years.

The reason being is it just seems odd to me that he’d go in the complete opposite direction from the music of his upbringing, 180 degrees in fact to where he was crooning like Crosby, until fate and circumstance abruptly changed his course.

By the sounds of Judgment Day Blues though it’s entirely likely that his strongest memories of those days in the church wasn’t centered around the music after all, 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 it 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.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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