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DELUXE 3212; MARCH, 1949

 
 

 

At what point in an artist’s career do you KNOW they’re a star?

Is it as soon as you hear their first record which is both exhilarating AND stylistically transformative and wherever you turn everybody else feels the same?

Well sure, when that happens, which is almost never.

The truth of the matter is lots of artists ascend to stardom, meaning widespread popularity, without quite being a STAR, as in a transcendent musical force. But for those who do become stars when was that level actually reached? Is it the first hit, the second, the tenth? Is there a specific level you need to reach and is it the same for everyone? When do the odds for attaining that status go from an outside possibility to a reasonable likelihood and finally becomes an outright guarantee?

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that when it comes to Roy Brown the answer is: With this record.
 

 
I Want To Tell You About…
Now for those prone to quibbling (which I heartily endorse – nothing should ever be simply passively agreed to without some form of healthy debate, even if it’s just you yourself wrestling with the concept in your own mind) I’m sure there will be some dissent.

After all, Brown’s debut, Good Rocking Tonight, launched an entire GENRE of music. He’s the man responsible for rock ‘n’ roll’s very existence. Without him there’s no rock music and thus no life as we know it. But remember, while transformative musically and culturally, that record wasn’t so widespread commercially to leave no doubt that this kid was going to be a star, someone who would significantly impact an entire era by his mere presence on the scene.

So you look back over his reviews and land on ‘Long About Midnight, his first #1 hit, and say that following that startling debut and a few very solid and diverse follow-up records, this was when he made the leap to stardom.

Okay, stardom, yes, STAR no. Not yet anyway. Semantics, but as we like to say here, important ones.

Lots of guys have reached “stardom” to date in rock. Sonny Thompson certainly did, he’s got two #1 hits to prove it, but he was never a STAR. Neither was Hal Singer who also scored a chart topper. But Sonny Til & The Orioles were stars who had a #1 to their credit as were The Ravens who didn’t.

So what are the factors that account for this? Popularity certainly plays a key role, but not the only one. Expectation of future hits is necessary to be considered a star. A response by the music audience that goes beyond merely loving a record or two and instead forges a deeper, more emotionally personal connection. The Orioles definitely had that. Big Jay McNeely is securing that as we speak and yes, he’d become a star himself (at least a regional star) as a result.

Roy Brown, like Amos Milburn, both popular and versatile performers, weren’t quite going to inspire pandemonium like those artists, so they had to do it the harder way, through consistent output that stated their case for them by the mere anticipation for what was coming from them next, knowing that it would be something you’d buy the day it was released because you HAD to have it first.

Milburn was now reaching that level after back to back chart toppers and Roy Brown was about to enter that stratosphere now as well with the release of Rockin’ At Midnight. A retread record of all things, but one which stated in no uncertain terms his qualifications for the position of star… someone who was now defining the era with each new plateau reached.
 

 

So… Have You Heard THIS News?
You wonder what Brown thought when Wynonie Harris had scored a #1 hit with his cover of Good Rockin’ Tonight. Harris’s was the first rock record to reach such heights and in the process HE became a star, though in Wynonie’s mind he was a star since he tossed his blanket over the rails of his crib and broke out of captivity at 8 months old, got his first kiss a week later and became a father for the first time 9 months or so after that… (I’m sure he didn’t… at least I THINK he didn’t).

But what of Brown, who wrote the song, offered it to Harris who turned him down, forcing Roy to cut it himself and then despite seeing immediate response around New Orleans he was unable to get it heard too far outside that region therefore leaving the door open for Harris to reconsider his refusal and come along and promptly steal his thunder in the process.

What if that was Brown’s only chance for stardom, let alone to become a true star in every sense of the word? Sure, Roy’s original version wound up benefitting from Harris’s rendition, climbing onto the charts on its coattails, but all that meant for sure was that Brown was a footnote in the stories of a) Harris, b) the song and c) quite possibly rock itself… unless something he did changed that.

And that’s what happened. His ensuing songs showed skill and versatility and remarkable amount of self-assurance in his artistic direction and over time he was in fact rewarded for it with huge sellers. But he wasn’t quite viewed on Harris’s level yet even though statistically in the rock realm he was equally successful by this point with four hits apiece, each with a #1 hit amongst them.

The difference was in perception. Harris’s personality alone left no doubt he was a star and fans knew with him there was always going to be action galore when he released a new record, put on a show or simply drove down the street for that matter and they were ready and waiting just to be able to witness to it all firsthand.

Brown, while a confident cat by all accounts, couldn’t compete with the sense of megalomaniacal mayhem that Wynonie engendered so he had to get the fans to be committed to his music in a way that all but ensured each record would not just be heard, but be actively sought out on the mere word of its release.

As versatile as he was, far more so than Harris, both as a singer and songwriter, Brown’s BEST idea was his first, the one Wynonie scored with and which Roy only got belated national recognition for. That was the song that had proven to have legs. Its theme, its melody, its attitude were all tailor made for the rock revolution it launched, yet Brown’s original was now a year and a half old and so IT wasn’t going to be exhumed for another listen itself. And if it HAD been re-released the outdated trumpet led arrangement it was saddled with, which even in September 1947 was a bit restrictive, would’ve sunk it.

So Roy Brown did the next best thing. He did something that we here on Spontaneous Lunacy generally frown upon and even vigorously condemn.

He re-wrote it.

Same theme, same melody, same attitude, practically the same story, just told from a slightly later perspective. Whereas Good Rocking Tonight was anticipatory, a preview of what was ABOUT to happen later that night, Rockin’ At Midnight is the story of it as the party is wrapping up, the revelers are dead drunk but before the hangover hits.
 

 
 

There’s Good Rocking At Midnight
So yeah, let’s leave no doubt about it, this is the SAME song, just slightly altered to sell it as something “new”. But what IS new is the arrangement, which shows that Roy had been paying close attention to the changes rock underwent since he first introduced it to the world.

Though trumpets still are present, and even contribute a blaring refrain in the intro, the saxophones are carrying more of the weight this time around, modernizing it right off the bat. Before they even fade we hear that Brown wasn’t too embarrassed to steal the handclapped backbeat from Harris’s version of his song that had given it such a sense of propulsion. After all, Wynonie took both that song AND the B-side to it from Roy, which resulted in Harris’s second rock hit in the spring, so why not take something back in exchange for re-launching Harris’s floundering commercial fortunes? Handclaps are a small price to pay for Wynonie Harris having a much needed second act to his career.

When Roy’s voice enters it too has changed from what we’re used to and frankly what we’re expecting. Rather than show off his dynamics, the impressive range and emotional flair he does so well, Brown is playing it down to a degree, which is an interesting choice but an effective one.

What makes it so is how it embodies the shifting point of view that separates it from its predecessor. The excitement Brown previously displayed was appropriate because in that earlier incarnation he WAS still excited for the possibilities of what might happen that night. But on Rockin’ At Midnight he’s looking back after the party has wrapped up and so showing too much enthusiasm would only let on he was a novice who hadn’t been to one of these shindigs before. Instead he plays it just right, confiding the details with a smile and then, as the reactions he elicits from those who weren’t there and are hearing this all for the first time start to build, so too does his delivery.

The rest of the changes are in simply the particulars of the lyrics. Like any good party – certainly every great party I’ve been to – half the enjoyment is in recounting with your friends the next day all of the juicy stories of what went down the night before. You never witness each and every incident yourself, parties are too big, too free flowing, too chaotic and spread out to catch everything in the moment. In fact if you DID see it all it probably means you weren’t taking part in enough of the fun yourself so the postgame recap is vital to form the bigger picture.

Here Roy does just that for us, telling us about the fates of all of the names we remember from the guest list offered in Good Rocking Tonight. We have cheating girlfriends, tattling rivals, brawls with people wielding bricks, petty theft, and the usual assortment of embarrassing drunken behavior that has been the staple of every party I’ve been a part of since turning 14. There’s nothing revelatory in the details but I can say with some assurance that Roy captured it all pretty accurately.
 

What A Wonderful Time We Had That Night
Bolstering all of this is the musical improvements featured throughout Rockin’ At Midnight, including most notably a gritty yet melodic tenor sax solo which leaves no doubt that Roy was itching to get another chance at this tune.

Obviously he had performed Good Rocking Tonight itself on stage many times since its arrival back in 1947 (and for that matter the year prior to that before he ever laid it down on wax), and in that time I highly doubt he stuck to the same outdated trumpet-break from that record once the rock ground rules became a lot more clear cut in the ensuing months. Thus he and Leroy “Batman” Rankins had surely worked something up that would get the crowd really moving, so this provides them with their chance to show it off to those who haven’t seen him in person yet and it really simmers. It’s a sound that not only was the perfect fit for 1949 but would in fact remain ideal for rock’s sax solos for another decade at least, showing just how elemental that facet of an arrangement really was.

The trumpets DO come back for the coda, but they’re playing in a manner that suggests he first doused the seats of their pants in gasoline and then lit a match to their ass before they started, because this is every bit as rousing as we’ve heard those instruments sound in any rock song to date, a rapid fire back and forth that takes this to another level.

Then, just to ensure that there’s absolutely no question about Roy’s commitment to the music, and his role in its popularization, he starts wailing “We’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock!” like a man possessed until the point is driven home completely.
 

 

No, Rockin’ At Midnight certainly wasn’t the most original thing Roy Brown ever did, but it wasn’t meant to be. What it was meant to do was confirm his credentials by galvanizing the rock listener with a vibrant record that takes all of the components used to date and distills it into something that can be used forever more.

The party he had launched a year and a half earlier was now in full swing and from this point forward his legend was secure. There was no doubt about it, Roy Brown was a star.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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