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DELUXE 3226; JUNE, 1949



It seems as though it’s been an awfully long time since we’ve run across Roy Brown on these pages, something that may be even more noticeable because as the founder of rock ‘n’ roll Brown is somebody whose presence hardly is at risk for being overlooked.

Yet his release schedule has remained virtually unchanged, even with his label DeLuxe Records now fully under the control of Cincinnati’s King Records after a protracted battle. It wasn’t as if Syd Nathan – King’s tightfisted czar – was about to let the biggest star he snatched in his takeover of DeLuxe sit on the shelf for long when he’s bound and determined to promote his latest acquisition.

In fact, whether he re-released older tunes or whether the public were simply clamoring for more out of him during the impasse a few of Roy Brown’s earlier records made regional charts during the last few months including Good Rocking Tonight, the very first rock record ever released (way back in September 1947) hitting the Top Three in Washington D.C. as April turned to May.

So as the usual three month gap between releases means there must be something else that leads to this impression and that’s when you realize that it has nothing to do with the pace of Brown’s output but rather it’s simply an illusion due to the increased number of artists plying their trade in rock. With more artists joining the ranks all the time there’s more records to review which also means there’s more competition for our interests.

Roy Brown’s success to date – both commercially and aesthetically – had stood out in large part because it was still somewhat rare for a rocker to be hitting with consistency over the first year and a half of the genre’s lifespan. Not so anymore. With each day that passes the music becomes more entrenched and by now, in June 1949, half of the Top 15 records on the charts every week are by rock artists.

The stakes have therefore been raised and for anybody, even Roy Brown, to stay amongst the leaders of the field he’s going to have to step up his game even more.

A Happy Jack
The title of this one – Riding High – gives the impression of an egotistical boast that Brown had a predilection for doing at times. It was also entirely well deserved. Not only was he the first rock artist on the scene, launching the entire genre, but that composition itself became the first chart topper rock ever had, albeit in Wynonie Harris’s cover version.

Brown though kept pace with everybody on the scene, notching his own #1 hit later in 1948 with ‘Long About Midnight, one of four hits he had through that calendar year, and then with his first release in 1949, Rockin’ At Midnight, a song currently residing in the Top Ten, he maintained his hot streak. Not only that but another older record, Miss Fanny Brown, had unexpectedly cracked the charts over the past two months, showing that the public’s appetite for Brown’s work was hardly satiated.

Therefore why shouldn’t he be allowed to brag a little? Though Amos Milburn might have supplanted him as the biggest star in the rock galaxy lately, Roy Brown certainly would fare no worse than being the second pick in a hypothetical draft were such an event to take place. He was a dynamic singer equally capable of connecting with uptempo romps and downhearted laments, as well as an excellent songwriter with a sharp eye for detail and he was backed by a top-notch band led by saxophonist Leroy “Batman” Rankins that was, by all accounts, the tightest and most flamboyant act on the scene.

So when you hear the horns kicking things off in rousing fashion backed by piano and drums conjuring up a scene of uninhibited celebration, then hear Roy’s voice in the distance moaning exuberantly as if merely caught up in the excitement before he breaks out with a seemingly ad-libbed declaration (to himself? To listeners?) urging them to “Sing the song!” you feel as if you’re in for a wild party that won’t soon be forgotten.

But as it picks up steam the song reveals itself to be more flash than substance, featuring somewhat of a recycled lyrical theme (from his weakest single to date no less, Miss Fanny Brown Returns) with a musical body built from the chassis of his earlier Mighty, Mighty Man, although considerably muscled up.

All of which – aside from presenting us with the opportunity to provide plenty of links to his past work – poses a rather interesting question regarding his current direction. Do we give Brown the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to trying to re-work old ideas in a more modern framework, like we did with Rockin’ At Midnight, or do we question his creativity and start to worry about the depth of inspiration?


Gotta Change My Clothes
There’s an old joke about somebody getting food poisoning from a restaurant and then receiving a half off coupon to the place in an attempt to make it up to them and the patron returning because they can’t resist a good deal.

In music we’re usually a little more demanding than that. When we felt we’ve been let down by an artist our skepticism tends to rise and they’ll need to do more to win back our affections the next time around. But the thing is Roy Brown hasn’t let us down often, his track record is pretty damn good and even his one misstep in trying to craft a feel-good sequel to a song that made such a turnaround not only unlikely but utterly implausible, was something we could chalk up to inexperience or record label pressure.

In almost every case when Brown has come up short the real victim hasn’t been us the listener – for even in his weakest moments there’s always some glimmer of skill shining through – but rather he’s shortchanged himself by not trusting his own abilities to craft something more challenging.

That’s the case here as well. Riding High is enjoyable enough to listen to in passing. The music is rousing, the lyrics are serviceable and Brown’s vocal performance is first rate. He sings this with the conviction of a true believer. All of the gospel-esque techniques he’d perverted for the sinful world of rock are present and used to great effect here. Those not quite ad-libbed interjections that set the scene, which he then repeats later on… the drawn out exclamations that lead off so many of the lines… the rapid fire delivery on the bridge… the shouted encouragement during the horn breaks… all of that serves as a blueprint of how to deliver a rock song for maximum impact.

But as much as we want to give ourselves over to his enthusiasm and be carried along by his joyous cries we’ve grown cynical over time when we suspect even a hint of disingenuousness in the song.

Remember how we started this off by saying the stakes have been raised as of late by the sheer number of artists who’ve thrown their hat into the ring and are exploring new techniques and experimenting with a variety of approaches. Well on this it’s almost as if Brown is oblivious to that shift, or is disregarding it with backhanded arrogance, certain that his reputation and the skills he brings to the table – many of which are evident here – will be more than enough to keep him at the top of the pile.

In this case though it can’t quite do that. Riding High plays like a highlight reel clip of past glories rather than a forward looking statement on how he is going to lead the charge into the future with new ideas.

Maybe this is because the plot is decidedly thin and offers no backstory, it just throws us into the scene of a guy whose girl has left for some unspecified reason (the closest he comes to offering any details is saying he didn’t want her “running wild”, presumably with other men – hardly a keeper when assessing her prospects as lifelong partner!) and had a change of heart, leading to Brown’s excitement upon news of her return. But that just makes Roy come off as weak for having his happiness depend totally on the whims of someone else who steps on his heart one minute then picks it off the ground, dusts it off and hands it back to him the next.

The lack of additional details further prevents him from winning us over. Without any context being offered we can’t share in his joy, it’s like hearing the punch-line of a joke without the set-up, everyone may indeed be laughing but you’re damned if you know why.

Instead it’s merely a lot of exclamation points at the end of generic lines meant to convince us to get hyped as well. But all of the bold type exultations in the world can’t have the impact that one reasonable plot twist to fully explain this scenario would deliver. So we’re left wearing party hats and blowing into noisemakers with confetti falling all while scratching our heads and wondering why we’re supposed to be so excited.

Wanna Jump And Shout Tonight
But even with the lack of information we the listener have at our disposal, the band members seem to be fully aware of what’s going on and they do their best to get us in the proper mood and come pretty close to pulling it off, rendering our protests over its lack of depth almost a moot point.

This is where Brown’s band state their case as the best in the business as the high octane arrangement never lets up for a second. It’s is the sound of a New Year’s party down the hall that would send office workers scurrying out of their cubicles to join in the festivities, or a fitting nightcap to a drunken orgy, a scene that you’d envision taking place to celebrate the end of prohibition, the news of Japan’s surrender in World War Two or the overthrow of an unpopular dictator.

Batman Rankins shows why his presence on Brown’s records was so vital each and every time he blows another refrain. When Roy was saddled with inappropriate session musicians the songs were crafted in the right way but didn’t have the firepower to cut loose in the manner that would convey the proper message. Rankins however has no such problems, riffing with gritty passion and yet still maintaining a semblance of melodic sense.

Even the ill-suited trumpet, long the bane of Brown’s best ideas, doesn’t offend too much when it gets the second solo, as by that point the infectious spirit has permeated all of the musicians. It still sounds too jazzy, but the insistent handclapped backbeat and the careening drums behind it at least keep it tethered to rock’s terra firma.

Their interplay with Brown is born out of a year’s worth of stage shows, each component knowing just where to step, when to lay back, how high to jump and how much ground to give so everybody gets their moment to shine. For all of its inspired mayhem nobody loses their way or careens into one another in a moment of over-enthusiastic playing, not even once, which is a testament to their skills and experience in working together.


On My Merry Way
As a record though, a cold piece of wax that must somehow get us to feel and believe in what they’re all laying down, it falls a little short. It sounds better than it really is.

Riding High is – depending on how you look at it – either a fairly well executed recap of Brown’s career to date or a slightly warmed over pastiche meant to hit all the right buttons to try and ensure a response.

What it is, when you get right down to it, is calculated. In spite of it containing all of the elements that were proven winners in the past, and the present for that matter, the audience wasn’t fooled. They might like its individual components well enough but they’ve shown they also expect originality, something Brown was more than capable of delivering when he put his mind to it.

Not surprisingly then they passed on this effort, picking up on the B-side of this release instead of the more showy and more shallow charms of this one.

Artists always run into trouble when underestimating their audiences knowledge, running afoul of their bullshit detector as it were. Riding High has a lot to recommend in it when breaking it down into parts and Roy and the band sell it for all he’s worth, but when it came to the creative end of the equation he was merely going through the motions, content to rest on past laurels instead of trying to push himself. Now, with the field becoming ever more crowded and even more competitive, he can ill afford to go on cruise control.

In rock ‘n’ roll where staying ahead of the curve gets you the most respect Roy Brown let himself fall back ever so slightly and now will be forced to play catch up again. That’s not the worst thing in the world though, everybody needs a kick in the pants to live up to their potential once in awhile.


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